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Icelandic Helmer Dagur Kari Chats About ‘Virgin Mountain’

Icelandic helmer Dagur Kari,  who last directed “The Good Heart” with Paul Dano, is returning to Icelandic filmmaking with “Virgin Mountain,” a character study about a late bloomer which will world premiere in the Berlinale’s Gala section. Sold by Bac Films and produced by Baltasar Kormakur’s shingle RVK Studios and Mikkel Jersen, “Virgin Mountain” stars newcomer Gunnar Jonsson as an overweight, lonely forty-something man whose life is shaken up and ultimately transformed by a woman. “Virgin Mountain” marks Kari’s fourth film. The helmer broke though with his first film “Noi The Albino” a festivals’ darling, he followed up with “Dark Horse” which won Goteborg’s Dragon Award for best film in 2005 and then made his English-language debut with “The Good Heart.” Variety caught up with Kari to chat about “Virgin Mountain” in the run-up to Berlin.

Having scored three prizes at 2015’s Tribeca – best narrative feature, actor (Gunnar Jonsson) and screenplay (Kari) –  in August, “Virgin Mountain” played at Haugesund Norwegian Intl. Film Fest. and Mar del Plata in October.

“Virgin Mountain” centers on the coming of age of a middle-aged character who struggles to fit in because of his physical condition — a theme which seems to be reminiscent of your feature debut “Noi The Albino” and to some extent “Dark Horse.” Why are you attracted to characters who are considered outsiders?

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It is not really a conscious choice on my behalf to portray outsiders. I´m just interested in creating the best possible characters, and the ones who are slightly off, misplaced or those who are more likely to cast off interesting situations, than the ones who fit in. That is my main focus: The character and the situation. But the term outsider has never really been in my mind, until journalists started pointing it out.

“Virgin Mountain” is more an intense and a radical character-study than a romantic comedy even though it boasts somewhat a high concept – it could be pitched as an Icelandic “40-year-old Virgin.” However, you chose not to give into the narrative clichés of romantic comedies and stick to reality as much as possible. Why did you take that route?

Once you have the “boy meets girl” element in a film, the story tends to go on autopilot. It gets deeply foreseeable, and I deliberately tried to do an interesting twist on the cliché. I also felt that Fúsi, the main character, needed a different kind of closure. I wanted the ending to be really small and really big at the same time. We realize that what for us is a completely mundane action, is a groundbreaking step for Fúsi.

What makes “Virgin Mountain” a universal movie that people around the world can relate to?

Well, it´s an inspirational story about a man taking a significant step into the rest of his life. This is something that most people can relate to, I hope. Furthermore, I think that we have all felt the guilt of having misjudged someone. There is a seed of bad conscience in the Christian part of the world which is rooted in that feeling. When editing the movie, I was playing it in reverse at some point, and discovered that the name of the main character, Fúsi, is “Jesu” when played backwards. That is not the case when you spell it backwards, of course. But phonetically it is. A nice coincidence.

How did you come across Gunnar Jonsson? Did you write the script with him in mind?

Gunnar Jónsson was a side-kick in a satire TV program in Iceland some 15 years ago. That was when I first saw him, and it was kind of love at first sight. I immediately sensed that he was natural and I started developing a desire to see him play a dramatic main role. So the script was written for him. He is the movie, and it would not have been made without him. His talent is enormous and the presence on screen is unique, in my opinion. Even though he is not educated as an actor, he is unbelievably professional and precise. I want to use him in all my movies from now on.

How was your collaboration with Batlasar Kormakur? What was his creative input? 

Baltasar is a very talented and insightful director and an experienced producer as well. He was a resourceful partner throughout the process, and gave me full artistic freedom. Him and producer Agnes Johansen were very supportive and understanding of my process.

How was it to return to Iceland after making your English-language debut with “The Good Heart”?

It was a good experience. It is a nice feeling to make a film with a small intimate crew, where every member is a friend. To shoot with a big crew in the US sometimes felt like a military operation. That can give you a nice adrenaline rush, but all in all, I prefer to make films with a small crew, where everybody feels like they are a part of a creative process.

Did you like the experience of making a film in another language and working with these actors on “The Good Heart”? What did you learn from that experience and is this something that you’d like to get back into? 

I really like working in other languages, and I enjoy studying the nuances of how people speak. Somehow I feel more free when writing dialogue in other languages than icelandic. For me there is a certain awe associated with writing in icelandic, where writing in other languages is more free. Like playing an instrument. But regardless of where I am in the world, each film is a huge learning process. Almost like taking an education. I would definitely like to continue working in many different places.

What are you working on now? 

Right now I have a position at The National Filmschool of Denmark, as the head of the director´s program. That is a full time job, so I don´t have much time for my own writing. But strangely enough I´ve never in my life had so many ideas for new projects; both films and tv-series. I´m not exactly sure which project I will sink my teeth into first, but I can´t wait.

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