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Icelandic Drama ‘The County’ Scores Sales, Celebrates Its Rural Roots

“When you fall at the beginning of the journey, it will be a good journey,” says genial producer Grímar Jónsson of Netop Films, quoting an old Icelandic proverb. He’s referring to the emergency tooth extraction required by ace Estonian DP Mart Taniel (“November”) on the first day of the shoot of “The County,” the much-anticipated new film from “Rams” helmer Grímur Hákonarson. Luckily, the main shooting location of the Iceland/Denmark/Germany/France co-production was just two hours from Reykjavik and Jónsson’s helpful dentist.

Like “Rams,” “The County” probes a deeply rooted rural culture that is closely connected to the Icelandic national spirit. The story centers on Inga (Arndís Hrönn Egilsdóttir), a middle-aged widow who must learn to be self-sufficient after the accidental death of her dairy farmer husband. She starts a new life on her own terms and rises up against the corruption and injustice in her community.

Jan Naszewski’s Warsaw-based New Europe Film Sales has launched presales, and closed several deals ahead of the Cannes festival, including Curzon in U.K./Ireland, Palace in Australia/New Zealand, Xenix in Switzerland, Imagine in Benelux, Vertigo in Hungary, Strada in Greece and Scanbox in Scandinavia. Haut et Court will release the film in France and Sena in Iceland. Delivery is expected in mid-2019.

The main location for the 34-day shoot is west Iceland’s Budardalur valley. The production completely took over Rjomabuid Erpsstadir, a working dairy farm, as well as the farmer’s cottage and dairy shop. Thanks to the reputation of “Rams” (the top Un Certain Regard prize-winner in Cannes 2015), the community is totally behind the shoot. According to Jónsson, the locals contribute crucial expertise. Many are members of the crew, operating the high-tech machinery that is now part of modern farming. Jónsson says, “They read the script, they know all the details. It wouldn’t be possible to do it without them.”

Indeed,one member of the farmstead even scored a leading role, with the script rewritten especially for him. When Spraekur, a lively Icelandic sheepdog, forged a special bond with the leading actress, helmer-writer Hákonarson replaced the character’s cat with a canine.

The locals also donated their bright, airy community center to the shoot. It serves as home to the production office as well as the spot where cast and crew gather for their catered meals. I arrive on set in time for a tasty buffet lunch of lamb stew, salad and carrot cake. Jónsson has brought his collection of vinyl from Reykjavik and a Leonard Cohen album is playing.

More than half of the crew eating at the long linoleum tables are female, as is the line producer. A majority wear woolly Icelandic sweaters as welcome protection against the chill of this late winter day in early March. Jónsson explains that they have changed the shooting schedule to start with interior scenes because they are waiting for a predicted snowfall to coat the surrounding hillside. He says with a laugh, “Weather is often a producer’s worst nightmare.”

At the farmer’s cottage, production designer Bjarni Massi Sigurbjornsson and art director Stigur Steinthórsson, both “Rams” veterans, add some final touches to the kitchen and dining room for upcoming scenes. Jónsson notes that the designers’ friendship with the farmer and his neighbors have helped to stretch their budget even further. He cites the example of a shotgun that needed a specific kind of hard-to-find shell. When word spread of what they were looking for, at least a dozen farmers brought in their stock.

In the milk barn, the placid Icelandic cows wait patiently in line to enter the automated milking machine. When they exit, they receive a treat. Jónsson explains that rhythms and sounds of the milking will be reflected in the film’s score by Atli Örvarsson.

As the shoot concludes on April 16, right on schedule, I ask Jónsson what difference having a budget twice the size of “Rams” made.  He replies, “It gave us more time and creative freedom. And better coffee.”

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