INTERVIEW: Cold Fever; Baltasar Kormakur Ushers in Icelandic New Wave with "101 Reykjavik"
by Anthony Kaufman/indieWIRE
(indieWIRE/ 07.25.01) -- How many filmmakers does it take to make a new wave? For France, in the '60s, it probably took at least five or six. For a bigger nation like the U.S., in the '70s, it may have taken twice that. But for Iceland, a country of over 270,000 people, perhaps it just takes one or two. Along with Fridrik Thor Fridriksson ("Cold Fever," "Children of Nature"), a new Icelandic director has emerged from the international festival circuit with a fresh, intelligent film that combines flamenco, relationship comedy and the icy tundra of both interior and external landscapes.
Baltasar Kormakur, formerly known as an actor in his native country, has managed a charming debut with "101 Reykjavik," eschewing Miramax foreign film sentimentality in favor of a sharp-witted viewpoint and an original plotline: a young man has an affair with his mother's Spanish girlfriend. It certainly helps "101 Reykjavik" that the fish-out-of-water lesbian is played by Victoria Abril, the alluring star of Pedro Almodovar films such as "Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down," and "Kika." indieWIRE's Anthony Kaufman spoke recently with Kormakur about casting Abril, international financing, and foreign films that pander to the American public.
"101 Reykjavik" opens in New York on Wednesday at the Film Forum and on August 24 at the Nuart in Los Angeles.
indieWIRE: Is there a lot of movement in Iceland's film industry right now?
Baltasar Kormakur: There is. The government doubled the funding system in the last two years, so it put a lot of energy into it. That's really important, especially when you come from such a small place, where the market is only 200,000 people. It's also just the atmosphere right now. My film has been going around the world, and doing well, so that gives hope.
iW: What were the steps in financing this movie?
Kormakur: The financing started with the Icelandic Film Fund, which gives you 25% of the budget. Then we tried to get the Nordic Film Fund, which we didn't get. And we had this French producer called Liberator and then Zentropa came in, and then we got Eurimages involved, and then we had to come up with the rest of the money from our own pockets -- more than 50% of the budget came from our own pockets. As I've been working for a while in the theater industry, and I had some credibility with the banks, I took out some bank loans that I'm still trying to pay.
iW: With Victoria Abril in the movie, I wondered if you received any Spanish financing?
Kormakur: No, I did not. But Victoria lives in France now, so it actually helped in France more than in Spain.
iW: Was it always your intention to have her in the movie?
Kormakur: Not in the very beginning, because the screenplay is adapted from an idea in a novel and she doesn't exist as a Spanish woman. But it was always my intention to have a foreigner; to have this small society and you have someone come from abroad and break it up. After I got the idea to have Victoria Abril -- I've been a fan of hers for a long time -- I insisted on that for a good part of a year. I just had to stalk her. I sent her the script and she read the first lines of the script which takes place in an airplane where someone says, "Welcome to Iceland, it's 3 o'clock and it's --15 degrees Celsius outside, have a pleasant stay." And she thought, I'm not shooting a film in --15 degrees Celsius, but then at the Berlin Film Festival, the head of the Film Fund met her and pressed her to read the entire script. And she did, and came back to us and said she was interested.
iW: Much of the film is in the English language and normally, one attributes that to market consideration, but in your film, it makes sense within the story.
Kormakur: Any casting could be considered a market decision. If you cast a known actor, it's always going to be a question of whether he's known or is he known because he's good. And I think Victoria is known because she is good. If I was really conscious of the market, I would have shot the whole film in English, and it wouldn't have cost me very much to do that -- and have an English version and an Icelandic version. But I didn't want to do that, because I thought it would take the exotic element out of the film. And of course, the logical way of speaking to a Spanish person in Iceland is in English.
iW: What do you think about many of the films we've seen that have come from the region that focus on the beautiful, icy, almost surreal landscapes of the region? So much of your film is about interiors.
Kormakur: For me, landscape in a film is fine if it has a special meaning. It's the same as sex, if it's only for exploitation, then it's not interesting; if it's necessary for the story, then it's fine. In this case, nature is almost the protagonist's enemy. He is not interested in nature; he's definitely an interior character. I'm sick of Icelandic films that have endless beautiful landscapes. If you come from abroad, you might want to see these glaciers and volcanoes, but when you live there, it's not such a big part of your life.
iW: I've read that you consider yourself more a European director than an Icelandic director?
Kormakur: I describe myself as Europudding or Eurotrash, because I am Catalan-Italian-French Icelandic. What I mean is that I don't necessarily identify myself with the Icelandic filmmakers as opposed to Almodovar or someone else. It's globalization. It pisses me off that big multicultural cities want to see romantic images of Iceland, old food and old clothes, and we fall into that pit of giving them that. For example, many foreign films that have big distribution in America reflect an idea that Americans have of Europe. Like "Belle Epoque," which isn't Spain. At least, "Chocolat" was made by Americans. People want to see romanticized versions of something that they have an idea about; they don't really want to see what we want to say and that makes me mad.
iW: You mentioned Almodovar. Is he a filmmaker that you admire?
Kormakur: Not particularly. It might look like that, because I used Victoria Abril and the film has this sexual angle inside of it, but I think the characters are different. I like his films; I just identify more with Emir Kusturica. And one of my favorite American films is Ang Lee's "The Ice Storm," and I like Steven Soderbergh very much, because his characters are very much alive. I don't want to end up like a director who only aims to repeat for the audience what he has already created for himself. I like directors who take chances and try different things.
iW: What does your next project look like?
Kormakur: My next project is due to be shot in November called "The Sea," which takes place in a fishing village in the eastern part of Iceland. There, you have the most incredible landscapes and the ugliest houses you've ever seen put together. The only people working in the village are Polish and Asian people, because the Icelandic youth are too posh to work with the fish. You'd probably think of a fishing village in a romantic way, but this is going to be very different. And it's about a family falling apart. It resembles "Festen" [by Thomas Vinterberg], but it was written from a play long before that. Then I'm doing a film called "A Little Trip to Heaven" that I wrote with an LA-based company called Palomar Pictures ["The Weight of Water"]. It's going to be a higher budget, which is probably going to be because of cast; everything that goes over 10 million dollars is usually just for the cast.
iW: So you really launched your career with "101 Reykjavik"?
Kormakur: Yes, you could say that.
iW: So are you nervous about what's ahead?
Kormakur: No, not really. I'm going to do this Icelandic film and I really feel that coming out of my bones, ready to do that, and hopefully that will be the case when I shoot the other one. I'm not afraid of the future: a big flop isn't the worse thing that could happen.