Thirty Minutes with Baltasar Kormákur
Baltasar Kormákur is hardly your conventional filmmaker. The Iceland native's first film, 101 Reykjavik, focuses on a listless young man who has an affair with his mother's live-in lover. Even stranger, the mother's lover is a woman. Stranger still, the film is a comedy.
Kormákur's second film, The Sea, while also examining unusual and strained family dynamics, is a darker and much more ambitious effort. The film's protagonist is Thordur, a King Lear-type patriarch of an Icelandic fishing company. He gathers his offspring to tell them how he will distribute his company and his fortune. Thordur's favorite son is a roguish cad who wants nothing to do with the family business. His other son desperately wants the business, but is a pathetic weakling. Thordur's oldest daughter is angry at the world. Further complicating matters is Thordur's daughter from his second marriage, who still lives with her parents and lusts after one of her half-brothers. They each harbor their own grievances and resentments, which come to a head as family secrets are revealed. The Sea abounds with beautiful but stark shots of the Icelandic countryside, which Kormákur uses as a reflection of the family's problems.
Unlike 101 Reykjavik, The Sea will have U.S. distribution. A few weeks ago Kormákur visited the Washington area -- part of a whirlwind American tour to promote his film. I was lucky enough to spend a half hour with him as we discussed filmmaking, family and culture.
Adam Spector - Both your debut feature, 101 Reykjavik, and The Sea examine warped, dysfunctional and even somewhat incestuous family relationships. What attracts you to these stories?
Baltasar Kormákur - It's just when you can dig into people's lives . . . they can be very interesting and if you go all the way you find all kinds of things. In the cases where I've been working on families it's not that I'm especially attracted to that side of them. But there's something that . . . when you have a deep secret it changes your surface and I'm just interested in going beneath the surface and finding the secrets. It's not really incestuous in 101 Reykjavik because that's a more complicated situation.
AS - Well maybe that's too strong a term but it's certainly unusual that you had a mother and son involved with the same woman. Not the usual dynamic.
BK - Not the usual dynamic. That was based on a romantic comedy in a way. In The Sea the incestuous thing lies in the past, how they surface in this way, in a way saying that if you were born in a lie your whole existence is corrupted and I think that people are responsible for not telling the truth. Because it might corrupt a person's whole life by not having the truth about their existence. I think that's what happens in this case. I think she (the half-sister) pretty much knows . . . the situation. By not living in the truth though, but in the lie, that's what it creates. It creates a symbiosis of emotions and you don't know where to place them. I think that's pretty common also, people that when they're discovering their emotions they don't know exactly where to place them. What is love? What is a brother and sister? You're developing all the time and you're learning about these things. A lot of people have problems stopping in one relationship and starting in another one and not having a clear line. That's pretty common. So in this case she's corrupted because it's all lies and dirt around so she cannot create a clear path for her feelings. That's why I think she ends up being in love with the wrong person. Maybe it's a different kind of lie that's misunderstood from her side. She can't understand her feelings.
AS - Certainly what you said earlier about the lies catching up with you would also apply to many other characters in the film, especially the father. He seems to be, in his own way, trying to make amends for his mistakes. But the feedback he gets from his family is that it's too late.
BK - I guess often when we're finishing our lives we'd like to be considered good, to be considered to have only done good things. But that isn't always true. So I think he is trying to justify his actions, justify them for himself. In some cases everyone can (justify their actions) . . . he says you don't know what it's like to be in this situation. That's right. But that really doesn't explain for us being a kid, being in that situation the kid is put into . . . But then again, everyone has their own truths and that's why it's very complicated and there's a lot of layers in it because there's no one truth, there's only an aspect of truth which is everyone's aspect. Even a murderer who kills someone, the morning after he wakes up . . . just to be able to survive yourself you start justifying yourself and justifying your actions.
AS - Right. There is a line in The Talented Mr. Ripley: "No one thinks of themselves as a bad person."
BK - Exactly. And that is what I think. I mean I know some people, some members of the audience have problems connecting with the characters because they say there's no one good. But I haven't yet met anyone who was only good in my life. People have a combination of both. So I don't want to just give the audience a simple solution. I didn't want an escape route through one character. They have to deal with the family. If your brother's good or bad he's still your brother. They (the audience) need to deal with each and every character. If I didn't do that I would simplify going through the film. I think if some people reject the film in that sense they can go see Maid in Manhattan. But I think that in a way it's a cliche that you have to give one character to sympathize with so they can watch the film. That is the same problem we have that we need to justify ourselves all the time. We never have to deal with ourselves because we can place ourselves with the good person and never have to look at our own actions. The best comment I heard about the film was from two lawyers who said after the film they were so confused, so torn apart that they went to a restaurant and spoke about their own families for two hours. And I thought "OK, the film has a purpose." Because for me I have two kids and it's pretty scary . . . They're going to hunt you down if you don't treat them well. They're going to become monsters if you don't care for them and that is what these people, the kids of the father are doing to their own children. Because they are so focused on their own mess that they are incapable of helping their own children become better than they are. So we pass the fear on. So by telling the story I hope I can get people to think about it. . . how we treat each other, how we talk to each other.
AS - Following that, you do have characters who, if you just look at them superficially, do some pretty despicable things. But they all seem human and real. Was that a challenge? How were you able to do that?
BK - I care for the characters. I love each of them. I don't want to expose the characters in a negative way. I think their actions are driven by despair and that they don't become unsympathetic. . . . Some people even said that how I speak about my country means I don't love it. I guess that would be like saying that you don't love America if you acknowledge that there's poverty in America and other problems. That doesn't mean you don't love America. I love my country so much I want to dig deep into it and look. I think that is loving in a way, to be willing to deal with it . . .
AS - Sticking with the family for a while: The family is often our strongest support system. But your film also shows some of the severe damage families can cause to each other. What do you think your film says about family?
BK - I think it was like what I was telling you about my country. I love my family . . . That doesn't mean I haven't had my problems . . . but I think that is something that everyone has to live with. The lucky ones, they have families. At the same time it's the most difficult task that's put on us. We can leave lovers but we can't leave our family. The same with our brothers and sisters. We can choose not to live with them, but they will always be our brother and sister . . . It's a task that's put on you, you don't choose it and you have to live with it . . .That's why I think that families have interesting, intense relationships. It pushes you out and pulls you in . . . I've heard that a dysfunctional family is a family with more than one member. The other interesting thing about families is that we can be raw. We lose that mask that we carry around to the world. You can be a nuclear scientist, but when your mother is talking to you, your mother is talking to you. Your mother is still treating you like you're ten years old . . . I try to be a mature man . . . but when I go home to eat dinner I become like a kid with my sisters because I fall into the same pattern I've fallen into all my years . . . so it's kind of like peeling the skin off ourselves. You really show the true side of yourself, at least one of them. Your family has known you through all your stupidities. You cannot put up a wall.
AS - I would like to switch gears for a second and talk about the making of the film. The Icelandic scenery, especially that of the fishing village, plays such a big part of The Sea, So I was initially surprised to hear that the story was originally a stage play. What were some of the challenges and opportunities you faced in adapting the story for film?
BK - The main thing is that we weren't adapting. That was the key to it. We decided to tear it apart and make a screenplay using some of the characters and some of the situations from the play and not try to adapt the play to the film. So I got the playwright, Olafur Haukur Símonarson, with me and we rebuilt the whole thing. We remade the surroundings. The fire sequence is not in the play . . . There are some characters (in the film) that do not exist in the play. Often I feel in film there's a lack of good characters, because films are more driven through action and through plot than (in) theater. So I think that's what we can bring to films from the theater, more characters and stories told through characters, like Chekhov does. He puts a lot of characters and the story comes through relationships, through situations and I love that. I think I'm more interested in that kind of filmmaking, at least at the moment, than plot-driven or action-driven films. Some big directors come from theater . . . Sam Mendes . . . Stephen Daldry . . . they bring the characters. American Beauty (directed by Mendes) is a character study.
AS - It's interesting that you just mentioned American Beauty. If one were to say that there's an American film that deals with some of the same themes that The Sea does, many people might say American Beauty. Has anyone mentioned that film to you as you have traveled with your film?
BK - No, people talk about The Celebration.
AS - The Dogma 95 film.
BK - Yes, but I was really affected by other films. One was a Russian film called Piece for a Sound Playing Piano, based on a Chekhov play. And there is another film by Ang Lee and I think it's one of the best films I've seen, called The Ice Storm.
AS - Also where the weather conditions outside mirror what's going on inside.
BK - I really think about that film when I'm talking about character-driven films. Films where people deal with being human beings. By the way that film may have had the same problem (with audiences) as my film because it wasn't a (financial) success. The film dealt with flawed people.
AS - Right, the film dealt with people very closed off from each other.
BK - And there was no one really only good. It was pretty complicated relationships. Even the girl who was the prodigy of the film was sleeping with the boy. They had people having affairs and even the people who weren't are just so isolated from everyone . . . Like my film, there's no one person to identify with.
AS - The actors were completely convincing as family members. How did you achieve this chemistry? Did you have much rehearsal time? Did you have your cast do acting exercises?
BK - Yes I did that. We spent three weeks in rehearsal. Not doing the scenes, but talking about the relationships between the people and the stories.
AS - Backstories?
BK - Backstories, just stories that I created about them. Just to give them more layers to have inside of them. I didn't want to play out the scenes because it is only to have motivation . . . for the emotions. If they have everything built inside of them that contains the actions when they are on the set. An action is a layer that you put on the emotions and usually I use it for showing something else than what they are saying.
AS - So it's more about the actors getting in touch with their characters.
BK - Yes, what it does with the characters and them. If I'm sitting here and I'm very cool and everything and then I hit the glass and the glass would spill. That would explore another layer of my feeling. I might be very nervous although I have a cool surface. You can use actions to expose things the characters don't want to show you. Because the character you are playing with might want to show you one layer and he exposes another layer to what he does mistakenly. Because you always have a situation where there are two characters coming into a room. This is the most simple situation. They have a will, both of them. They have a will that will clash. They don't have the same will and then they come out with something different. What comes out of the scene is not what they expected.
AS - What you get from the conflict.
BK - Conflict because they have different wills.
AS - Going back to the outdoor elements, how difficult were some of the outdoor scenes, especially the fire scene. I didn't seem like something that would be easy to shoot. Did that take a long time? Were you at the mercy of the elements? Was weather a problem?
BK - Yeah, it was very different in the fire sequence. It was very difficult to shoot because at one point it caught fire, the building in reality, and it burned down.
AS - Before you were ready for it to burn down.
BK - Well it wasn't supposed to burn down. Special effects and stuff like that. We put fire stuff on the building but suddenly it caught fire and it went like this (snaps fingers). We kept rolling the camera, so it was pretty wild out there when we were shooting. We edited everything together so it was a mixture of real shots and what we made.
AS - The Sea is a very dramatic film but also includes some hilarious moments of black comedy. Did you struggle to combine these elements or did you find that they naturally flowed from each other?
BK - For me even in the most desperate situations there is humor. I'm not a fan of films that have no humor in them, that portray drama with such seriousness that they don't give the audience a little bit of laughs. None of the humor in the film is at the cost of the characters or making them not believable. It's just the situation, the details. I think with the heavy drama it gives audiences a little bit of relief. I don't take myself that seriously that I can't give people a little bit of laughter. I think it's a way to help people a lot to go through this in some ways. I hate it personally when novels don't have any humor. All the best novels in the world, the best literature, are full of humor. In Iceland, for example, there is a big tradition of literature. These are full of humor in very dramatic stories.
AS - So, in your own way, you're following in that tradition.
BK - I'm just drawn to it. I'm not trying to write in that path. It's just something that comes out of you in a particular way.
AS - Let's stick with the cultural issue. In addition to the story and the family, the film touches on the changing of the Icelandic culture. Some would argue that worldwide culture has become too Americanized. I'm thinking about the teenager in the film who doesn't want the more native Icelandic foods. He wants a hamburger. Do you feel that Icelandic culture has become too Americanized?
BK - I think that we are aware of that sometimes. When McDonalds came to Iceland and I don't think that company works in Iceland, it totally flopped. At a certain point we were more Americanized than we are now because we had the base from the American Navy and there was television that people could get from the base. I think it's a good balance now. I mean there are a lot of good things that come from America. It's not like America is the evil empire that's imposing everything on people. There is a lot of good. I think Coca-Cola is pretty good. But I like to play with it. I think it's pretty funny also that in a small village like this there is this big billboard of Coca-Cola and the wall is falling apart. The contrast of the glamor and the real life, and it's a nice contrast. I'm not on a mission against globalization, but I just want people to be aware of what it brings. I'm not a preacher. That's why you don't see a simple message in my film - that we should all stay like we were at the beginning of the last century - that's not my point. I'm just portraying changing life, different views. Every character has a different view of what is happening in the village, the economics. That is typical. You go back to Chekhov, there is not one theme that is more right than others. Each character presents life and then it's up to us to choose what we want.
AS - Many Americans have had little exposure to Iceland, either in real life or though film. Is there anything particular about Iceland that you would like people to draw from your film?
BK - No, it's just a beautiful country with crazy people and they are welcome. It's impossible to be a serious artist or serious filmmaker and be an ambassador for your country. It's a task I cannot take on. I do my things and people can relate to whatever they want out of it. They can say I paint a negative picture of Iceland. That's fine with me. Whatever they want. I'm the ambassador of my own art. I don't like these kind of films that are presenting countries in a glossy way . . . I think everyone knows, for example, that America is not like a Hollywood film, there are other layers here.
AS - I hope (people realize that).
BK - So that is not the only side of Iceland, that's one side of it. It's extremely popular in my country so I guess people could relate to it.
AS - That was my next question. How has the reaction to the film in Iceland differed from the reaction in other parts of the world where you've shown it?
BK - The reaction in Iceland is pretty much the same as the reaction abroad. People have really strong feelings towards it, either on the positive side or on the negative side. People got angry; they also got enlightened. Finally we have a film about our own life and reality with strong characters. People are overwhelmingly interested in the film. I guess it's like spiced food. Some people love Mexican spiced food; others can't eat it. I mean, if you take the spices out than you have a Hollywood film. When you start making Mexican food for everyone the first thing you take out is the spices.
AS - I've heard directors say that they would rather have someone have a strong negative reaction to their film than no reaction at all. Do you feel that way?
BK - Definitely. I think the worst thing for a filmmaker who takes themselves seriously is too have people walk out of the film and have nothing to say. I mean how often do you feel that way? Way too often you see a film and there's nothing to talk about. I mean it might be good work, you can't really criticize it, it's just . . . there's nothing to talk about. It didn't touch one cell in your brain.
AS - Just from attending your question-and-answer session in Toronto (at the Toronto International Film Festival), it's clear that your film prompts discussion. It prompts dialogue. So in that measure, do you consider your film successful?
BK -- I think apart from having all this exposure all over the world and having this release which we're having now in America, which is the first time. That's a great success on its own. And if people come to see it as well, that will be great. But the worst thing would be making something that people didn't care about. That would be the worst part. I'm not expecting people to come running because there's an Icelandic film in the cinema, but hopefully there are people that are interested . . . You know nobody has said this film is boring. I think people should be arrested for making boring films. But even though it's a drama and it's bitter no one has said to me that it's a boring film. People laugh, people can get angry. They can say "I don't like these people," but nobody says "I'm bored." So I can promise you a 100 minute ride that won't be boring.
AS - What's next? Do you have any other projects lined up?
BK - Yeah, I have two projects I'm working on at the moment. One is called A Little Trip to Heaven. It is a psychological thriller. It will be shot in English, but it's not like it's a commercial film. It's not a big step away from what I have been doing. I'm continuing with the same stuff. It's written by me, the script. And then I have The Icelandic Saga, the epic story of the beginning of the country that I've been trying to put together. I've been writing the script. It's very dear to me and to my nation.
AS - I hope we'll be seeing those in the future. Thank you very much.
BK - You're welcome.