When the coronavirus pandemic arrived in Iceland last year, shutting down production on Netflix’s eight-part supernatural volcano drama “Katla,” veteran filmmaker Baltasar Kormákur was quick to rise to the challenge.
With the support of the streaming giant, Kormákur came up with measures that would allow the production to get up and running again, introducing frequent testing and devising a color-coded system to control the flow of cast and crew on set.
Since then, there’s been no looking back for Kormákur and his RVK Studios, which produced the series. “I never worked more than the year of the pandemic,” he tells Variety. “We never stopped shooting.”
It’s the latest indication that the Nordic nation known for its dramatic, other-worldly landscapes remains a hot spot for international productions, lured by highly skilled, English-speaking crews, top-notch infrastructure, and a 25% cash rebate on qualifying spend that has been praised for its speed and efficiency.
Iceland’s entry into Oscar’s international feature race, “Lamb,” used the country’s dramatic mountains and landscapes to great effect in its story of a farm couple and their half-human, half-lamb child interfere with primal nature. The landscape of the film not only took in the mountains but also sweeping plains, rocky rivers and lots of sheep. The film also used the midnight sun and the changing light of the seasons to give it a an almost super-natural look. “It was basically copying what was already there, so we wouldn’t fight what the nature was giving us. We would just augment it,” says “Lamb” DP Eli Arenson.
“I think it’s totally unique,” says DP Martin Ruhe, who recalls being “blown away by the beauty” of the island nation while lensing George Clooney’s sci-fi feature “The Midnight Sky.” “It’s a very graphic landscape. You could imagine shooting Westerns. You could imagine…a futuristic landscape,” he says. “It sometimes feels like you’re on a different planet because it’s so alien to anything I know.”
Production on the Netflix drama, which Clooney starred in and directed, offered plenty of hair-raising moments. “We filmed close to crevasses. We filmed in a snowstorm,” says Ruhe. “It’s a dangerous environment you’re moving in.” The veteran cinematographer credits Truenorth, one of Iceland’s leading production services companies, for facilitating a frictionless shoot in spite of the countless challenges. “They always were really firm — always looking to make things possible, but at the same time keep everybody safe.”
While Iceland is known for its extreme weather and landscapes, Truenorth’s Thor Kjartansson says those famously dramatic backdrops — seen in the likes of HBO’s “Game of Thrones” and “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” — only scratch the surface of what the country offers.
“Now even Reykjavik and small villages around the island have gotten interest from some productions,” he says, pointing to the example of Netflix’s “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga,” which filmed scenes in the picturesque fishing hamlet of Husavik. “It’s not always just the landscape.”
A compact island of just 350,000 inhabitants, Iceland is easy to navigate, and a film-friendly government has given the industry a boost; during the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic, foreign cast and crew were issued special permits that enabled them to work through what Kjartansson described as a “modified quarantine.”
The government also made a campaign promise to raise the cash rebate during the run-up to recent elections, with industry insiders expecting the administration to soon deliver. “It’s not just wishful thinking. I think it’s realistic,” says Kormákur. “Whether it goes to 30% or 35% is the question.”
Capacity is now the biggest challenge, with Kormákur noting that his Reyjkavik Studios “has been full since I built it” in 2016. Recent productions to occupy the complex include the Netflix survival drama “Against the Ice,” starring Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Joe Cole, and “Luther,” the movie adaptation of the popular BBC series starring and executive produced by Idris Elba.
Construction is now underway on GN Studios, an ultra-modern movie village being built just 10 minutes from the center of Reykjavik. One 34,400-square-foot sound stage is already operational, with two more — totaling an additional 34,400 square feet — slated to be up and running by mid-2022.
Kormákur expects that additional space to be a boon for what’s already shaping up to be a busy year. “I would be very surprised if it wouldn’t be overbooked,” he says. “And if the politicians live up to the promises, it’s going to explode.”