Iceland’s Next Generation of Filmmakers Gains New Entrant in Guðmundur Guðmundsson With Debut ‘Heartstone’

‘Heartstone’ offers a fresh take on the classic coming-of-age film.

Gudmundur Arnar Gudmundsson
Courtesy of Gudmundur Arnar Gudmundsson

For years, the coming-of-age film has found sometimes large success, but it is ripe for new interpretation for a new generation of filmmakers and audiences. While it might not have been his primary goal when writing his first feature, Guðmundur Arnar Guðmundsson has given us a fresh take on the sub-genre all the same with “Heartstone.”

Set in an outlying fishing village on the harsh coast of Iceland, “Heartstone” tells the story of two teenage boys who, through shared isolation, have grown dependent on an intimate friendship which helps them survive the perils of adolescence and unstable home lives. Navigating across the sun-flooded months of an Icelandic summer, the two both fear and long for the emotional and physical changes that come with awkward formative years along with budding romantic feelings that neither knows exactly how to process. Things become difficult for the pair as it becomes clear they are not experiencing these changes in at all the same way.

While the film’s young cast may be the focus of the film, Sturla Brandth Grøvlen’s cinematography is crucial in informing the audience of how impactful a role nature plays in the lives of the teens. With this year’s success of “Heartstone” Grøvlen continues his hot streak following a multi-laurelled 2015, where he received numerous awards for both “Victoria” which cleaned up at Berlin in 2015 and “Rams,” a fest favorite nearly everywhere it went last year.

“Heartstone” was co-produced by Join Motion Pictures from Iceland and Denmark-based SF Studios and has enjoyed a successful run of festival appearances including awards at the Chicago (best feature), Warsaw (director), and Venice (a Queer Lion) Festivals, among many others.

Berlin-based Films Boutique, a company which specializes in original films from established directors – think last year’s Oscar-nominated “Embrace of the Serpent” – and edgier debuts from young auteurs, makes for a natural fit as a sales agents

A graduate of the Icelandic Art Academy, Guðmundsson received accolades for shorts such as “Whale Valley” and “Ártún.” He was selected for the Cannes Festival’s Cinefondation, a Paris residency program where he wrote “Heartstone.”

“Guðmundur is a real talent. He manages to combine the breathtaking beauty and harshness of wild Iceland with the tenderness and youthful energy of the characters,” said Louis Balsan, at Films Boutique.

One of a number of up-and-coming Icelandic filmmakers, Guðmundsson and a group of like-minded young or young-ish countrymen such as Rúnar Rúnarsson (“Sparrows,” 2015), Grímur Hákonarson (“Rams,” 2015), Dagur Kári (“Virgin Mountain,” 2015), and Hlynur Pálmason (“Winter Brothers,” 2017) are poised to bring Iceland into a new age of cinema.

You have said that in your younger years you had wished that you could show adults around you what your world was really like and that this movie was a way of doing that for you. As an adult how did you go about recalling your  childhood and finding that teenage voice once again?

When I got the idea to write the story, I had forgotten a lot about my teenage years. I started writing and tried to reconnect to them and all of a sudden everything came back. I remembered about my wanting to show grown-ups how my world was which I had forgotten as well. When I was writing, it felt like I had four or six kids in my room with me, standing behind my back, making sure I would write things like they would. For me, the characters are inspired by my sisters and friends and myself and our village, and slowly they became their own characters. My focus when I am writing is to stay as true to them as I can, always do exactly what it feels like they would do. At one point, you start to feel more like a servant than a story teller. It doesn’t feel like I am a master of this world but that I am a channel. Maybe it’s weird but that’s the truth.

Heartstone” has been described as a coming of age film. What do you think that you bring that is new to this populated sub-genre?

Some of my favorite films are coming of age films from the 1970s and ‘80s. That was the height of coming of age film in cinema. I always felt like there is a lack of these films, especially where it isn’t just about coming of age but about characters and family and relationships more than just growing up as a teenager. I don’t think so much about what I bring because I am just bringing a story. When I let people read it and I tell them about the story I can feel their interest. Now after we finished the film the feedback we have been getting has been great, so in that way I can feel like okay, people connect. I don’t think so much about the genre being populated or not because it’s about the story and the characters that I feel driven to tell. I hear this a lot about coming of age films being so popular, but when I think about any genre of film they are all very populated, even art-house films are populated because we are making a lot of films now. You can’t really think much about it, you have to think about what you are interested in doing and then do that.

Your film has a wonderful cast of young talent. How did you find them and were there any difficulties in working with such a young troupe of actors?

We were afraid we wouldn’t find so many kids in Iceland that we thought could handle this challenge, but we had an open casting and we got a thousand kids to come. To my surprise, we found more kids that were really talented than we could actually use. It wasn’t a problem to find the kids but it was a long process. We did a 10-month workshop with them so we were casting them thinking that they would grow up a bit during the process and hit the age we wanted when we would shoot. I could see my main character turning from a kid into a teenager during the process.

As for difficulties? I have always done my short films with kids so I am more used to directing kids than adults. For me, you have to have a lot of discipline with kids, you have to be very clear what is allowed and what is not allowed and make sure they take the work very seriously. You become a little like a strict parent, but at the same time I encourage them to be spontaneous and have fun and try to make sure that they understand that as long as they are doing the right thing. You are entering their life at a fragile age so you have to be careful helping them grow and find themselves.

The setting of the film is central and the Icelandic backdrops impose themselves on a number of important scenes. Is the story you tell in the film something that you think is dependent on it’s geography and isolation or can it translate beyond the shores of Iceland?

I think it could translate into whatever small community where nature is very much a part. It has to have a small isolated community and nature that affects the people living there. You can find that all around the world. I was in Israel and I went to a very small town there in the desert and we were screening the film and people were telling me how much they related to the film, like this could be their town. Here in a mountain village of Marrakech, I found the same. Small towns in most places are mostly the same. They have all this freedom to do whatever they want, but while becoming teenagers it starts to isolate them and all this free time becomes a limit.

Iceland has been producing high-caliber directors and films for some time now but do you feel that between the success last year of Rúnar Rúnarsson’s “Sparrows” and the positive attention that your film is receiving this year, that you are perhaps part of a new generation of Icelandic cinema that is ready to make its mark internationally?

I think so. We are actually all friends; me, Rúnar, Grímur, Dagur Kári , and Hylnur. I get very inspired watching their stuff. It’s really nice how well we are all doing now. I think, hopefully, this will continue. When I was 19 there was very little happening in Icelandic cinema and not much had been happening for many years. Now it seems like a very positive time.

One of the most striking aspects of “Heartstone” is it’s cinematography, which is no surprise seeing as you teamed up with Sturla Brandth Grøvlen, who has taken home a mantel full of awards over the past two years for his work on ‘Victoria’ and ‘Hrutar.’ How did you two get hooked up and what did he bring to the film? 

We hooked up when Sturla was still in film school and basically we decided to do “Heartstone” together before his success so I was very happy after all his success he was still ready to do the film. Also money, I was like we have to pay you very little. He is an amazing talent. He is an honest, genuine soul. He is willing to push himself all the way, and for me the visual part was very important. We would push each other to the limits all the time and enjoy it all the while. He brought so much energy. We had worked together before on short films and I have never had as good a collaboration with anyone.

This film is your first feature but certainly not your first work with a pen or behind the camera. Can you tell us about anything we can look out for from you in the near future?

I started writing features but did the short films to prove to myself that I could direct. I am working on a new script now and a collaboration with William Morris in America so there are possibilities there. I have a lot of stuff that I want to do. I am working on another youth-based film that I am very excited about. It feels like a risk and I really like that.