Warm and candid, Baltasar Kormakur, who is Iceland’s top film director and producer, is attending Goteborg fest to receive the inaugural Nordic Honorary Dragon Award and give a masterclass. While taking a quick break from shooting “Everest,” the helmer chatted with Variety about his work philosophy, his balancing act between Iceland and Hollywood, and various projects, including “Vikings” and “On the Job.”
Repped by WME and attorney Peter Nelson, Kormakur’s credits include “The Deep,” the previous Icelandic candidate for the foreign-language Oscar, and “Two Guns” with Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg.
While leading a prolific career in the U.S., Kormakur is also, via his outfit RVK Studios, a leading force within the Icelandic film biz, producing ambitious local movies and TV series, such as real-life survival tale “The Deep” and the skein project “Vatnajokull.”
Variety: You have an interesting background, you’ve done acting, directing, producing plays, TV series and movies. What drives you?
Baltasar Kormakur: I come from a country where, to get things done, you have to do them yourself. That’s the way I started. I started as an actor, then became a theater director. I loved acting but didn’t feel as confident as I needed to be, so I started directing theater then I played in some movies, and then I felt the need to do my own stuff. There’s a proverb in Iceland saying “A naked woman is a fast learner to make her own clothes” — she’s making clothes so that she won’t stay naked anymore. Out of necessity you learn these things, then you become skilled in them, and you keep doing them. I became a producer to make my own films, now I produce other films for young directors, I have relationships, I created a company. It builds on. I didn’t decide to do everything, but once you learn how to do it…
So you’re not really a control freak?
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I’m not. That is what makes me be able to do things. It’s important to delegate and trust people when you work with them. I don’t think I’m a control freak. I do like to work. It’s a pleasure to do it. Sometimes it’s a bit heavy on my family, but it’s a lifestyle. I’ve always looked at filmmaking as a lifestyle. There is no decision of when you go to work. It’s a way of life, you’re thinking about scripts, you see things and think ‘that could be interesting’… I don’t think about my work as “today i’ll work on this, this and that,” it just comes to me.
Maybe that’s why it’s been so natural to work in Hollywood, where you have to collaborate with lots of people at every stage. What brought you there? Did you always want to work in Hollywood or did people come up to you?
It’s similar to the other things I explained to you. People talk about Hollywood as a myth, but in reality, when you make Icelandic movies and you want to get them distributed in the U.S., you’re not really working with Hollywood. The movies I’ve been making, the first one I made, I made it with Working Title but it was financed through Universal, so it became a Hollywood production. I don’t mind Hollywood at all, I think they make some of the best movies in the world. Some of them are shit, some are the best in the world, they have the whole range. When you come from a country of 300,000 people, not only are your resources limited, your reach to audiences is limited as well. There’s a bit difference between working in country of 70 million people like France, where you can make a living out of your filmmaking and have access to a huge audience pool, and working in a country of 300,000 people like Iceland. It can’t be compared…
I’m the first Icelandic director who started working on U.S. movies. There are others behind me now, but it’s like when Bjork opened the door for Icelandic musicians to work abroad. We’re such a closed-off country but Bjork broke the spell. And I’m glad it was a woman who did it. She showed us we could break this barrier. She became an icon in Iceland. I’m not comparing myself in any way to her. But having someone in front of you when you’re growing up who’s done that makes it easier mentally to think about following the same path. I go to film schools and talk to kids and I don’t feel the barriers anymore. At the same time I’ve been very conscious of never forgetting where I come from, which is why I’ve launched production companies in Iceland to make more local films. One of them is Dagur Kari’s “Fusi.”
ELSA: I wrote about that movie when I was at Les Arcs Film Festival. It’s being sold by Bac Films. So you’re based in Iceland and still work with the same team of people?
A lot of them, yeah. I might be shooting with other people, but even on a movie like “Everest” which I’m working on now, I’m going to do the entire post-production in Iceland. When we talk about Hollywood it’s important to keep in mind that I haven’t moved there. I actually write and work on my movies in the northest place in iceland. Nowadays, you don’t need to move to Hollywood and leave everything behind to make it. You can get the resources you need to work from wherever. I’m based in North of Iceland, in a little town where 200 people live.
What are the projects you’re co-producing with American partners?
I’m working on some ambitious projects, like “Everest.” It’s a drama based on a real story. I’m trying to make it authentic, there’s a lot of Australians and New-Zealanders. That’s kind of my aim. I can also have fun making thrillers or a comedy thrillers. It’s almost like when you train to play the piano, you’re training your muscles as well. Not every movie has to be the most precious one. When I worked in theater, I could enjoy making a comedy and then making a Shakespeare adaptation. And when I did “Contraband” and “2 Guns,” I enjoyed the experiences as well, although it’s not what I’d hope to be recognized for.
I also have a Viking movie project. It’s a very ambitious project for me to do. I can tell you, I think it was early 2000, I wrote an adaptation of one of our most famous Viking sagas, “Vikingur.” I started working on it around the time “Lord of the Rings” came out but I wasn’t happy where it was heading — I thought I couldn’t recreate the world of the Vikings because of budget reasons. Most films about Vikings don’t represent the realities of them because there’s no resources to make it. I had a grant but I gave it back. I said I’d make the film in 10 years, when I’ll have gained the respect and position to do it the way it should be done. Hopefully I’m getting there now. I can make a film about vikings with the scale I envisioned. That’s kind of the vikings’ attitude: They go out, steal resources, and bring them home. Same here: I go to hollywood to raid them and make my movie in Iceland!
What language will it shoot in?
It will shoot in English. For me the language is not the biggest issue. The world is so big, it’s not like you’re making a movie about a French worker, it’s a world from way back, we don’t really know their language, the stories are written 300 years after they happened, in a language we don’t understand as well. I don’t want the language issue to stop the film. I know Mel Gibson has been making his own languages in “Apocalypto” and “The Passion of the Christ,” but it’s bullshit at the end of the day. What the actors were speaking was probably nowhere close to what it was in the past. Those are dead languages.
Right now you’re doing “Everest”? How is it going?
It’s fantastic. I was coming from Kathmandu all the way to the Everest, we walked with the actors. It was a really hard but beautiful shoot. I remember thinking how lucky I was, getting paid to be there. It was wonderful. The cast is blown away by it. Now I’m in Italy. We’re starting to shooting here the day after tomorrow.
How is it working with such as great cast, including Jake Gyllenhall, Josh Brolin, Jason Clarke, Emily Watson? I hear a lot that American actors are exceptionally committed. Do you think it’s true?
I think good actors are good wherever they’re from. Maybe there’s more commitment on this higher level, because there’s so much risk. I think we have great actors in Europe. I’ve never seen that kind of commitment there, though, that artistic, mental, and physical commitment. On the other hand, American actors can be prima donnas and difficult to deal with. Which I understand, when you’re on a high level. And we all want is a life as good as possible, a house as good as we can afford, a car as good as we can afford. Then it becomes about the trailer and the hotel you live in. You don’t want to live a shitty life. I understand it. I don’t always agree with it. But I see where it comes from.
But on “Everest” where you’re working under such extreme conditions your cast members can’t really be prima donnas, can they?
Yeah, we can’t afford that, we stayed on shitty hotels in the mountains with one electric blanket. The actors had to do everything like they were in film school again. Yesterday I walked from 9 am to 3am just to scout, because we couldn’t get helicopters. It’s not too far away from “The Deep,” but bigger, shooting in more countries, it’s kind of the same mentality, where I was swimming in the ocean for a month to make that film. And it’ll be realistic as possible. Of course, i’d love to shoot at the Summit of “Everest,” but then I might come back without half of my cast. So we’re also shooting in a studio. We do as we can, we have to use film technique. It’s like using hair extensions instead of a wig. In hair extensions some is real.
So you’ll be re-teaming with Universal Pictures on “On The Job”?
It’s a very interesting project that was brought to me. XWZ Films was involved in ‘The Raid,’ and they had this project, this story about real crime in the Philippines, where prisoners had been let out to kill people. They brougt me this idea and I really liked it, and I started developing it. But then they told me there was a Philippines movie being made at the same time and that movie was selected at Cannes last year and it played in Directors’ Fortnight. Because of all that, we had to buy the remake rights, to clear all rights. But it’s not really a remake. I already made my own version. (Universal made the deal to finance/distribute “On The Job” with Kormakur; XYZ and Scott Stuber are also producing “On The Job” with Kormakur at Universal)
What’s happening now in Iceland? Are you worried about budget cuts for the film industry. Some American filmmakers, including Clint Eastwood, Terrence Malick and Darren Aronofsky, have signed a petition against the Icelandic government’s proposed 40% cuts on the Icelandic Film Fund.
It’s worrying. The government promises to make things better. Iceland’s very unstable lately. And the situation is very unfair to the film industry. We’ve been doing really well, we always have some movies getting some prizes, like “Of Horses and Men” (which repped Iceland in the Oscar’s foreign-language race). We have these movies, but it just doesn’t seem like the government realizes how much hard work is behind, and that worries me. But I don’t want to be whining, I’d rather look towards the future, try to convince them of how important and great this could be in Iceland to preserve the budget allocated to film funding. I’m quite involved. I went to meet every minister of the government to convince them.