UMP: We have just had the masterclass and you explained the value of the trial days before shooting. You emphasized how important it is to you, so can you imagine working without this preparation?
Árni Ásgeirsson: It takes years to make a film. First of all, you start with a script that takes around two years. One year is just figuring it out and then actually making it takes another. So, five to seven years is some sort of standard for the execution of a film, sometimes it’s even longer. Once you have the production stage ahead of you, you start preparation – find the locations, do shortlists with your cinematographers and all the endless things that need to be taken into consideration. Then you show the film in the cinema and what the audience is really looking at are the people and interactions between them, because that’s what cinema is all about.
UMP: Yeah, that is the story’s essence.
Árni Ásgeirsson: Yeah, so while it takes five to seven years, not to find two weeks in that period of time to sit down with the actors and figure it out how to give life to these characters – it’s just abstract to me.
UMP: Nevertheless, it happens anyway. There were many cases where the actors complained after the film’s premiere that they didn’t really felt prepared. Sometimes it’s an excuse, but it may also be the case of the lack of this time to work out the characters.
Árni Ásgeirsson: It’s a shame, you know. You put all your heart into it, your soul into the project and you don’t find time to properly prepare yourself as a director and the actors. As I said, it’s shame – from my experience, because it always brings out the best performances – believable, credible and concrete performances. We are all on the same page then, we know what the characters are all about, their relationships, what tone we are looking for in each given scene. The second argument is that it simply saves a huge amount of time, especially knowing how expensive shooting is. You have more time to nourish each scene, because you don’t have to spend the first two hours on how would you like the scenes to look like. You can make more shots, make more takes and go into details with the actors, you just talk about the tiny nuances. That brings out the most credible performances and in the end, it’s going to evoke the emotions in the audience.
UMP: I spoke with some Icelanders who work in the film industry and what I heard mostly is the fact that it is quite difficult to actually direct a movie there. It’s a relatively young and small market. So, what were your experiences when directing Undercurrent, the film shown during Ultima Thule? Did you encounter any similar problems?
Árni Ásgeirsson: Well, it’s true that the industry is young, but still it’s old enough. We already have enough qualified people in every position to be able to make a film that looks like a film (laughs). Made anywhere else, you know. Of course, our main problem – and it’s a problem of every country that makes movies – is the script, the good stories to be portrayed. But hopefully we are getting better with that and the film fund back there is developing the screenwriters’ base. We are putting more and more efforts and time into script making really.
The main headache is script, but I was lucky to have a great cast and great producers, so I didn’t experience any difficulties like that. The only exception would be the fact that we were shooting on the sea, so we struggled with the elements – bad weather, waves. People got seasick and the crew or the actors, they were puking over the ship.
UMP: This had to be a problem…
Árni Ásgeirsson: Yep. Yet, it was an experiment for me, this film. It didn’t have a “classic” beginning, it all started when I went to a theatre. There was a group of friends of mine, an independent artists’ group and they were putting a very small theatre play called Brim, or Undercurrent in English. It all takes place in one room, on a boat and it is obviously about the people on that boat. It was really an off production, with no money, so I went to the theatre and I didn’t know what was I going to see – my friends were just doing a crazy little play, I thought. Afterwards, I was very fascinated by it, so I met with them and I told them that I loved the characters and the story, but also the setting of it, because it was so visual. The rusty boat, the bad weather, the sea, all these elements. And also Iceland really relies on this connection with the sea. It’s been done, this flirting with such topic, but there was never really made a film on a boat. We started meeting up, I asked a friend of mine – Otto Borg – who is a screenwriter, to help me to write this theatre play into a film. And I wanted to work with the same actors too.
UMP: You didn’t want to change the winning strategy?
Árni Ásgeirsson: They came up with the idea, so we all wanted to turn it into a film. We changed the play a lot, so the final feature is more inspired by the previous version than actually an adaptation. So, through a series of session we’ve met with the actors, brainstormed, met again and went back and forth over the year. What’s interesting, when I met the actors on the set, they were already living with these characters for a few years, you know.
UMP: We can say that they had the right vibe for these characters.
Árni Ásgeirsson: Yeah, it’s the same cast and the play became quite popular. That was interesting, I consider it a very nice experiment. So, all in all, the biggest problem we had, was this puking (laughs).
UMP: (laughs) And the weather I guess.
Árni Ásgeirsson: Yeah, that too.
UMP: So, you also mentioned some of the films that you liked, during our previous meeting during the masterclass. We worked on the Revolutionary Road in that workshop, but if you could name films or artists you were looking up to or influenced you?
Árni Ásgeirsson: When I was a kid, those were the times of the VHS.
UMP: Oh, the glorious days of VHS.
Árni Ásgeirsson: Yeah, glorious days of VHS. Around the corner, where I lived, there was this really nice VHS rental and its owner was a real film buff. He was by far the best one in Reyjkjavik, he had all of the films’ history in there. And me – I was just a film buff too, I just liked watching movies. When I turned seventeen or eighteen, I was introduced to the European cinema – Goddard and Truffaut, then Tarkovsky, Kieslowski, who was really popular back then. So, slowly, I got really drawn in by this Eastern European style of filmmaking. There was something very weird about it, that I certainly liked.
UMP: So, the aftermath of this fascination was studying here, in Łódź?
Árni Ásgeirsson: Yes, that’s why I went to Poland, I was really intrigued by some of the Polish films I have seen, some Russian and Czech too. I liked the early Milos Forman works for example. There was something about that Eastern vibe that got me. I didn’t really understand what it was, but just the atmosphere in these films got me really soaked into them.
Then I started looking for a film school and it was not too long after the wall has fallen, when suddenly half of the continent opened up and the world too. For me, it was very exciting, to check out this part of the world. I was never really interested in going to a film school in England or Scandinavia, America. It was also about trying something new for myself – a new culture for example. And basically to understand how these masters got into filmmaking simply.
So, I was very inspired by these guys – Forman, Kieslowski, Polanski, Wajda, Tarkovsky, but of course, also the other masters like Scorsese, Fellini, Goddard, Bertolucci, Coppola. The list is very, very long.
UMP: I can imagine! Regarding the Ultima Thule project, what attracted you to the project? Obviously, it’s the promotional aspect of the Icelandic culture and film, but maybe in your case, there was a sentimental reason attached too?
Árni Ásgeirsson: I use every opportunity to come back to Poland, because I really love this place.
UMP: That’s great to hear. I have seen a lot a of Icelandic films recently, spoke to some artists from there and I was just wondering about one thing. You mentioned being drawn by this Eastern vibe, so do you feel that Polish people are getting interested in the Icelandic culture too? Since many immigrants in Iceland are Polish, maybe there is a special bond that you see too between Poland and Iceland?
Árni Ásgeirsson: Actually, I do. I think, if you take Scandinavia stereotype for example, they are quite introvert people and little bit closed off, you know. It obviously reflexes in the films they make too. This pure Scandinavian depression written all over it. But the Icelanders, since we are on an island, in a middle of nowhere, we are a bit crazier, a bit more disorganized, more spontaneous and more sarcastic about ourselves. And I think Poland, in many ways, is quite similar to us. It’s a little bit chaotic, a little bit crazy…
UMP: And we just love to complain…
Árni Ásgeirsson: And you love the dark humor too. In that sense, Poles and Icelanders get along quite well, we have more things in common than we could think of at first sight.
UMP: To end our conversation – are you currently working a project?
Árni Ásgeirsson: Yes, this time it is an animation, for kids. We are just starting, so it’s gonna be out in two years. And then, I work also on commercials, direct also here in Poland. I’m lucky to come back here several times a year, work a little bit and spend time with my friends. And just enjoy this crazy country.