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‘Rams’ Director Grímur Hákonarson on Icelandic Pastoral Life and Casting the Right Sheep

'Rams' Director Grímur Hákonarson on Icelandic Pastoral Life and Casting the Right Sheep

Rough tenderness forged from a life of silent hard work and self-imposed isolation is the defining quality of Grímur Hákonarson’s
characters and the trials they endure in “Rams,” a story about brotherly love gone awry set in the vast Icelandic countryside mostly populated by highly-regarded sheep. As is often the case with Scandinavian cinema, the film’s
narrative is enhanced by its clever and precise use of dark and dry humor.
However, Hákonarson’s rural portrayal of a relationship in need of mending is
grounded on compelling human interpersonal afflictions, which serves as a
sensible vehicle for the comedy to be delivered.  

During a local competition between sheep farmers, Gummi, a levelheaded
man who enjoys the pleasures of solitude, notices that his brother Kiddi’s most
precious ram shows signs of a scrapie, a deadly and infectious disease that can kill
entire flocks. Though the simplest way to ensure the safety of everyone’s sheep
would be to talk to his brother, Gummi is aware this is not a viable path
because, despite living on the same property they entire lives, they haven’t
spoken in several decades. The looming possibility of losing their shared livelihood
will widen the emotional gap between the two, one that can only be resolved if
they join forces against the mortal virus and the authorities. Authentically Icelandic in content and execution, “Rams” was Iceland’s official entry in the Best Foreign Language Film category at the 88th Academy Awards.

In our recent conversation with the Cannes-winning Icelandic filmmakers, Hákonarson discussed the relationship between the location and the film’s visual approach, his homelands deeply ingrained love for sheep, the emerging local film industry, and the casting process to find the right four-legged stars for “Rams.”

Carlos Aguilar: Tell
me about the importance of sheep in Icelandic culture. Why do you think Icelandic people
relate to these animals in such endearing fashion? They seem to not only be part of the pastoral lifestyle but of their interpersonal relationships.

Grímur Hákonarson: When
the first settlers came to Iceland, the Vikings who came from
Norway, they brought the sheep with them. Sheep were the main livelihood throughout
the centuries. They used the wool for clothing and the meat and milk to feed
themselves. It was their main livelihood. We didn’t have so many cows. People ate
or use every part of the sheep except the anus. The anus was the only part
people didn’t utilize. It stayed that way until the 20th century. Older
people lived in farms until the 19th century and then it totally
changed. Now older people live in the cities. There is this historical and
cultural connection between Icelandic people and sheep. The farmers take the
sheep to the highlands in the spring, then they have a competition, they hang around drinking and singing songs about sheep, so there is definitely a
culture around sheep. But there also seems to be some kind of unexplained spiritual
connection between farmers and their sheep. Many farmers say they relate
in a stronger emotional way to sheep than to cows. Numerous farmers have told me this. I
know farmers that have lost their sheep because of scrapie, and even though
they had horses and cows, it was somehow much more difficult for them to get
over losing their sheep. 

CA: What was the motivation for using a story of two estrange brothers to tackle this singular aspect about Icelandic culture? Was any part of the premise based on actual events or stories you heard from people who made a living as sheep farmers?

Grímur Hákonarson: The
film is based on a true story that my father told me years ago about two
brothers who lived on the same land next to each other for 40 years and didn’t
speak. I thought that story was interesting. I think it’s very Icelandic and it
describes us a bit as a nation being an island and being isolated. People tend to
be very independent and nationalistic. I also thought these idea could be a tragicomedy. The basic idea of these brothers is funny and sad at the same time. It’s sad
that they don’t speak, but it’s also unique situation. I though that was interesting,
and on the other hand I also wanted to make a film about this relationship with sheep, so I combined these two ideas.

CA: Both brothers seem to very territorial and they use concrete, not always well-intentioned, acts rather than using language to express their feelings. 

Grímur Hákonarson: The
reason they don’t speak to each other, of course, is because they don’t need to
speak to each other. They act more than they talk. They rather speak to the
sheep and they become very close with them. That’s also the reason there is not a lot of dialogue in the movie. It’s told mainly through images and through
actions. The story I’m telling affected the filmmaking process in a way because it creates a unique kind of atmosphere. I was trying to capture life in this part of the
world, which is kind of slow and relaxed. People live alongside sheep. The
visual style of the film is also a bit slow-paced. This visual style is also
trying to capture this way of living and its atmosphere.

CA: Did you based these two brothers on real life characters in the story your father told you, were they the result of different traits from people you know, or were they entirely fictitious? Once you have brought them to life on paper, how challenging was it to match them with the right actors?

Grímur Hákonarson: I
had some prototypes to base them on. The real life characters died in the 90s because it’s an
old story. I never met them, but I had some prototypes based on a pair of
brothers I know. These brothers were living together and they were good
friends, but they were very different characters. One of them was an introverts
and the other was more of an extrovert. One was an alcoholic and the other was
more feminine and cleaned and took care of things. I used these guys as
prototypes for the characters, and when I selected the actors I knew the actor a little bit and I knew they shared some personality elements with the
characters. In a way they were typed-cast both mentally and physically, Sigurður Sigurjónsson who plays Gummi is a small guy, and Theodór Júlíusson, who plays Kiddi, looks more
macho and is bigger. They were physically and mentally perfect for the roles. I
think that’s a good thing when you are picking an actor. It’s important that the actor has
experienced something similar or knows something about the inner emotions of
the character.

CA: Loneliness comes across as an underlying theme in “Rams.” These brothers who live so close to each other are still very lonely by choice. Is this concept something that you decisively considered when creating the characters?

Grímur Hákonarson:
Of course, that makes it really tragic. They actually need to talk to each
other but they are so stubborn that they never call a mediator or psychiatrist.
The dog is the only link between them. 
Of course there is loneliness. Gummi, the main character, I think he is
an introvert and he enjoys his life a lot. He enjoys his life, he is not
unhappy. He is quite satisfied with his life, but his older brother is not and
that’s because of this division of the land. He is unhappy. The idea was that the
older brother Kiddi had had some
girlfriends or wives before, but they got sick of him and moved out. Gummi,
on the hand, was kind of this
puritan who had never had any sex in his life. This loneliness is one of the
reasons we shot on CinemaScope with anamorphic lenses. Also, the framing, which is
kind of wide and static, was trying to capture this loneliness. They live lonely
lives.

CA: In terms of the visual style and your decisions regarding the film’s cinematography, how did the landscape and the nature of the story influenced these choices? 

Grímur Hákonarson: The
characters are living very close to nature and they spend a lot of time on the
field with the sheep, so we wanted to capture the landscape and the nature
around them and to connect them to it. That’s why we shot it using anamorphic lenses. I think
10 years ago we probably would have shot it on 35mm or 16mm because it’s that
kind of film. It’s about these old farmers stuck in the past and it takes place
in nature, so we tried to imitate this film look with the anamorphic lenses. The
look of the film it’s a bit like a Western, if it had cows perhaps they would
look like cowboys. We might have been a bit inspired by a movie like “There
Will Be Blood.” There are some shots and scenes in “Rams” that were shot very
similarly to those in “There Will Be Blood.” It’s an Icelandic Western with sheep and
guns.

CA: I’m curious to know how was the casting process and working dynamic with the sheep.  They are the stars of the film. Were they difficult to work with in a film like ths in which they play a very integral part? How did you know which sheep were the right ones to appear on camera?

Grímur Hákonarson: The
most important thing was to find the right sheep. We had to select the right
sheep and we did sheep casting. We saw a lot of sheep because the sheep that
were living on the farm were too afraid of people. They would just ran away
from you. We then found these sheep that looked really pretty because they are a
good breed, but they were also very calm and they ere used to people. The
reason for that is that their owners treat them as pets. They talk to them and pet them
like if they were dogs. Those sheep were not afraid of humans. Then we hired a
professional sheep farmer to train them and to be with us on set. We rehearsed
all the sheep scenes before shooting them, like when Gummi bathes the ram. We
said, “OK lets bathe this ram,” and we found out that we needed five people to
hold the ram in the bathtub but we couldn’t have all of them in the shot. When
we filmed I told the actor, “ OK Sigurður they are going to hold the ram but
then they are going to run away and you just have to do it yourself and we’ll see what
happens.” I said, “Action,” and the guys ran away and the actor was alone trying
to hold the ram – it was interesting.

Thomas Vinterberg, who made “Far from the Madding Crowd,“ said that it was a disaster to work
with sheep and that it was very difficult, but I have a different opinion about
that. We usually didn’t have to shoot many takes with the sheep. Usually we did
less than five takes in the scenes involving sheep. The sheep were very professional.
Some of the actors went to 12 or 15 takes, but the sheep usually didn’t. They
were one-take sheep.

CA: When the disease, scrapie, threatens the farmers way of life in the film a lot of them contemplate leaving it all behind and moving away. Would you say this this way of living is slowly
dying not only because of occurrences like this but also because it’s being overpowered by modern farming practices?

Grímur Hákonarson: Today
there are not many sheep farmers like these brothers who live only from their sheep. It’s becoming more like a hobby today. It’s lees of a business. It’s
difficult to make a living from sheep farming. There are not so many farmers
like the brothers in the film who can only live from that. They have a
tough life. They are quite poor. They can’t afford much. Sheep farming in
Iceland has been declining and it’s struggling. It’s always going to be there
and it’s always going to be a part of our culture, but it’s becoming more and
more difficult to live from it. The brothers in the film are a bit like the
last Mohicans. They are the last remains of this old farming society. This
disease, scrapie, has caused a lot of harm in Iceland. Sheep are becoming less
abundant. About 30 years ago, in the 1980s, there were three times more sheep
in Iceland.

CA: Scandinavian humor is clearly idiosyncratic and definitely dry, but you managed to blend the comedy elicited from
the characters’ circumstance with the emotional poignancy of the story rather organically. How did merging these two tonal elements come about when crafting the film?

Grímur Hákonarson: The
basic idea about these brothers living so close together but not speaking to
each other is a good premise for black comedy. It has a tragicomic element.
That’s why humor is a naturally underlying element throughout the whole film because
the basic idea is a bit humorous itself. Then there are some scenes that are very
funny of course, and those are supposed to make you laugh. I don’t like to make
films that are too serious or too heavy. I try to pick stories that have a
little bit of lightness in them and in “Rams,” maybe, I managed to master this
balance. Some people cry in “Rams” and it can get really emotional. It has a
strong message, but it’s also entertaining. I’m inspired by filmmakers like Aki Kaurismäki, known for his Finnish dark comedies, Bent Hamer in Norway, or Swedish
director Roy Andersson. I’m inspired by these Scandinavian directors. My humor
is pretty dry and people who know me see Grímur’s humor in the film. If I
wasn’t a humorous person I would make different films.

CA: Despite the overall comedic tone of the film, the ending is particularly moving and shows a tenderness we hadn’t fully seen before in the film. Why did you feel this was the correct way to conclude this tale about two brothers whose broken relationship gets a second chance thanks to the sheep?

Grímur Hákonarson: I
think the ending is symbolic. It’s  about these two brothers and their relationship. It’ a very
powerful ending and it’s also an open ending. It makes people think and it
stays with people. I’m really happy with it. It’s also a kind of risky ending,
many people who read the screenplay warned me, “Grímur, you really think it should
end like this? You don’t want to explain it a bit more?” But I went for this ending. When I was shooting, making the ending work was one of the most difficult things.
It was worth the risk.

CA: Do you have any
brothers? If so, is anything in “Rams” specifically related to your personal relationship with your brothers or siblings and what did they think of that being depiction in the film?

Grímur Hákonarson: Yes
I have a brother. We were just Skyping recently. He’s seen the film and I think
he never though it was about him because we have a good relationship. There is
nothing in my family like in the film. My family is quite peaceful, so the
story of the brothers is not connected to me personally. What’s connected to me personally
is that my mother passed away when I was writing the script. The film is
dedicated to her. She grew up on a sheep farm, so I feel like “Rams” is a bit a
film about my ancestors, my family, and where we come from.

CA: Considering the acclaim and attention “Rams” received abroad, how as the reaction to the
film in Iceland? Was it embrace by your compatriots? 

Grímur Hákonarson: It
was good. We decided to go straight to cinemas after Cannes to use the
attention we got there. We won the Un Certain Regard Prize, it
was a big prize for the Icelandic film industry. It’s maybe the biggest prize an Icelandic film has won, so of course it was a big thing. Iceland is a
small country. People were really proud of it. I think about 10% of the nation’s
population saw the film. 

CA: How difficult, financially and logistically, is it to
make films in Iceland? It appears that in recent years there has been an explosion of talent that has made a mark in the international festival scenes. What makes these new Icelandic voices distinct from the rest of the world?

Grímur Hákonarson:  It’s a small industry. The Icelandic
Film Fund is not very big, so we depend on doing co-productions and getting
money from abroad. Icelandic films are cheaper to make than those in the rest of
Scandinavia – like three times cheaper. “Rams” was made for 1 million Euros,
mostly made up of Icelandic money. We got maybe 15% of the money from the
Danish Film Fund. We don’t make so many movies so we have to be practical and
we have to make contemporary simple stories. We can’t really make an expensive
sci-fi film or large period movies in Icelandic. Maybe it’s a bit sad that we haven’t.
I think it would be nice to do a costume drama set in the 30s, but it’s not
possible to do that in Iceland.

What connect these new directors from Iceland like me, Dagur Kári, Rúnar Rúnarsson, or Benedikt Erlingsson, is that we are
making contemporary, humanistic, and simple stories. We are not trying to hunt
Hollywood. We are not trying to make blockbusters. Maybe because we don’t have
so much money we have to make simple stories and we make films taken from
Icelandic reality. Maybe that’s the right recipe for our films. Maybe that’s
the reason they are special. Maybe that’s the reason people want to see them.

“Rams” is currently playing in LA at the Laemmle Royal and in NYC at the Film Forum and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas

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