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‘Lamb’ Director Valdimar Johannsson on Shared Technology Making Global Stories More Accessible

Lamb International Features Shortlist
Courtesy of A24/Everett Collection

In a new series, Variety catches up with the directors of the films shortlisted for the International Feature Film Oscar to discuss their road to the awards, what they’ve learned so far, and what’s taken them off guard.

Valdimar Jóhannsson’s feature debut “Lamb” was acquired by A24 ahead of its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Prize of Originality. Starring Noomi Rapace, Hilmir Snær Guðnason and Björn Hlynur Haraldsson, the supernatural drama follows a childless couple in rural Iceland who make an alarming discovery in their sheep barn. After defying the will of nature in an attempt to heal their pain, they soon face dark consequences.

What does it mean to you to be shortlisted for the best international feature Oscar? 

It is a great honor, and it means a lot to me. I am in the company of many great filmmakers and just being on the short list makes me and my team very proud.

What’s been the most challenging aspect of your campaign thus far? 

The whole journey of “Lamb,” since premiering in Cannes in July 2021, has been very challenging. I think I might have trained a lot in moving out of my comfort zone and speaking publicly in English since then. We have a great international sales company, New Europe Film Sales, and great distributors: A24 in the U.S., Jokers in France, Koch in Germany, Gutek in Poland, and more all over the world. I feel that I am in good hands, and all these companies have handled the campaign truly professionally and made my life easier.

Although you are shortlisted in international feature category, the best picture category has been devoid of non-English language features. “Parasite” (2019) was the first winner in history. Do you feel international voices are siloed in media and film criticism? 

I think this is changing slowly but surely, and I think in general that the language of cinema and images is an international language that filmmakers express themselves in.

Are there ways to improve this process when it comes to awards season? 

I am a newcomer to this process so I do not think that I should advise on improving it.

When trying to get consumer audiences to watch an international feature, there seems to be a focus on the length of a movie, but when something like “Avengers: Endgame” gets a three-hour runtime, Marvel fans are ecstatic and say they could go longer if they wanted to. Is that fair? 

My favorite film, “Satantangó” by Bela Tarr, is seven and a half hours, and I would have liked for it to be even longer. If Marvel fans feel that way about their films, that is ok. But I guess it is all about marketing and serving people what they are used to. But, then again, we can think about it like food: “foreign” food has become increasingly popular in the last decades so “foreign” films might follow that trend.

The Academy has favored European countries, with Italy and France winning triple the number of times than a country like Japan. How can we encourage more diversity from all countries globally?

I think that we are globally getting closer to each other. With shared technology and media, we have better access to cultures that have not been accessible to us before. We are seeing that we’re all telling the same stories from different cultures, climates and heritages.

You are representing your country to an American awards body (although there are voters who are international). How do you feel about being that representative? 

Again, I feel honored, but I feel that we all connect to the same feelings and stories. We are all dealing with the same material, whether the movie is set on a tropical beach or on a glacier.

As your country’s representative film, is there any government grant/fund you can access for the campaign? 

Yes, we have had support from the Icelandic Film Fund and Business Iceland.

How did you direct the lambs in “Lamb”? 

We worked with the farmer who owned the sheep and lambs, then we had two great animal wranglers and a great cinematographer. And then I am a lamb whisperer myself.

How did you manage to blend the visual effects into the story so that the focus remains on the characters? 

I did that in collaboration with my incredible actors Noomi Rapace, Hilmir Snær Guðnason and Björn Hlynur Haraldsson, my entire crew, lambs, children, puppeteers, VFX supervisors, and producers. We always had the focus on the story. While shooting, we all sort of blended into the illusionary world of our characters and the story. Then of course, later, the great team of VFX artists married it all together.

Oscar nominations will be unveiled on Feb. 8.