Icelandic Director on Herding Sheep, Growing Beards

The first Icelandic film to be selected for Cannes’ Un Certain Regard in a decade, the poignant dramedy “Rams” is set in a remote valley where two brothers who haven’t spoken in 40 years must come together to save their sheep. It is the second narrative feature written and directed by Grimur Hakonarson, an experienced documentarian.

What inspired you to create this story? 

“Rams” is based on my acquaintance with rural people and rural culture in general. Both of my parents were raised in the countryside, and I was sent there to live and work most summers until I reached the age of 17. Most farmers I know have a stronger connection to sheep than to other domestic animals. This is partly because of the culture surrounding sheep, a culture very deeply rooted and closely connected to the Icelandic national spirit, and the pivotal role sheep have played in rural survival down the centuries.

Talk about the sheep in your film.

The sheep were great to work with, even easier than the actors. A local farmer from Bardardalur, Magnus Skarphedinsson, was our sheep trainer. He did a great job. I put the emphasis on getting the main actors into a farmer’s state of mind. They got acquainted with sheep farming through academic research as well as personal experience. We had “sheep rehearsal period” for several days, where we only rehearsed scenes with sheep. I found out in pre-production that sheep temperament varies greatly between farms. On one farm, where the farmer focused more on his horses, the sheep ran away from us when we tried approaching them. Then we went to a farm where the farmer treats her sheep with affection. The rams there came over and gave us a nudge if they wanted a scratch behind the ears. That’s where we found our cast of sheep.

Sigurdur Sigurjonsson and Theodor Juliusson (“Volcano”), the two leading actors that play the bachelor farmers, have a surprising number of nude scenes. 

They actually wanted to do more nudity; I was the one holding back. Theodor was my top choice for the role of Kiddi, but I had some other ideas for Gummi at the beginning. Then I saw Siggi at the Icelandic academy awards, and he had grown some hair and beard and he reminded me of a farmer. I thought Siggi would be a good fit for the role of Gummi, and he is very different type than Theodor. They don’t look alike, but when they grew beards they became more convincing as brothers.

There certainly is some impressive facial hair in the film.

Siggi started to grow a beard half a year before the shooting. He also tried to grow toenails but that was more difficult and annoying for him. Siggi still has some beard because he is playing an 18th century outlaw in the national theater. I am happy that he will have some beard in Cannes.

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