family drama

RAMS – Sheep Are Man’s Best Friends in this Riveting Oscar Contender from Iceland. CANNES 2015 INTERVIEW

Rams_film_posterRams is a 2015 Icelandic drama film directed by Grímur Hákonarson. It premiered in the Un Certain Regard section at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival where it won the top prize and is Iceland’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 88th Academy Awards.

Rams is currently screening in LA as part of AVI FEST World Cinema Programme.

The following interview with director Grímur Hákonarson was part of a round table discussion at Cannes Film Festival 2015.

Knight: A few words about you as a filmmaker.

Hakonarson: I consider myself a Scandinavian filmmaker. I relate to directors like Roy Andersson and Aki Kaurismäki and Bent Hamer.

Your film brings to mind the Hungarian canine thriller “White God” that was last year’s winner. How difficult was it to work with animals, in this case sheep?


Icelandic filmmaker Grímur Hákonarson

Hakonarson: Sheep are special animals, especially in Iceland where they kept us alive for thousands of years. It was important to find the right sheep that looked good in the picture and were also mentally-stable and relaxed, not afraid of cameras…And I think we picked the right ones, we found them on a farm whose owner, a woman, is very close to her sheep, she talks to them. We had this really complicated snowstorm scene, 40 people shouting, very loud, a lot of noise, and the sheep were supposed to walk through the whole thing. I was really afraid, it was just one take but they did it perfectly.

Rams still

What inspired this story and how closely linked are you to the world of the story?

Hakonarson: My grandparents and my parents grew up on a farm and when I was a kid I grew up on a farm too so I’m familiar with this environment. I know a lot of farmers, I made some documentaries about farmers. I live in Reykjavik but I still spend a lot of time in the countryside.

There are many stories of brothers who don’t speak to each other but share the same land. Many Icelanders are independent, they don’t trust things that come from abroad without being necessarily racist. So I think these characters reflect a little bit that part of Iceland and the older generations …

Was it difficult to make the transition from documentaries to feature films?

Hakonarson: When I’m making a documentary I have a small crew, me and a DOP usually. Rams is a low-budget film if you compare it to other independent films in Europe but compared to documentaries it’s a big crew, you have to communicate with a lot of people, more pressure. Everything costs money, if you don’t make the day you lose money.

How did the writing process go and how did you manage to balance so well the drama with the undercurrents of humour?

Hakonarson: All my short films are dramas in essence but there’s always this dry or black humour. It comes naturally to me, even when I try to write a drama script it becomes funny somehow naturally. It’s in my character I think, I have a sense of humour and that shows in my films. But sometimes it’s a fine balance because you can’t be too funny. I was really careful when making the film because I made that mistake before, to make a film that people didn’t know what it was, they didn’t know what they were watching. Should they laugh or should they cry?

But that’s a great thing!

Hakonarson: Yes I think it’s a good thing too. I like films that have some humour. But I like to tell a serious story with a strong dramatic line, humanistic stories. And if you also manage to make people laugh, it’s great!

You constructed a very interesting, very “Icelandic”story based on a story device that is quite frequently used in Hollywood cinema: the idea of two opponents or enemies that are brought together by a common goal. Are you aware of this screenwriting device?

No, I’m not so conscious about these techniques or devices screenwriters use.

You’re not reading those screenwriting books…

No, definitely not. I mean you go to film school and you learn all the rules, you read these books, you probably internalise them. But a story is a story, it’s always the same build-up, it comes naturally. I’m conscious about that when I’m making a film, but if nothing happens in a film in the first 15 minutes it’s not good. To make a film about a guy reading a newspaper for an hour is not going to be good!

rams still 2What was your approach to character in this film?

Hakonarson: Gummi is the main character and the story is told from his point of view. But you can’t say that Kiddi is a supporting actor, he’s a main character as well in a way. It’s just that the audience only gets to know him more at the end. So I see Gummi as the main character and Kiddi as a second main character.

You’re very laconic in your storytelling, you don’t go into the characters’ back story too much…

Hakonarson: No. Although I did write a back-story for the characters. But in the film there’s just a hint, in one scene they talk about the land. That’s what started the conflict but the important thing is that they are very different, one brother is alcoholic, mentally-unstable and the other one is a perfectionist. The editing process was the most difficult part I think. We had only two months so we’d probably qualify for a world record in editing. We did the editing in a small village in Eastern Iceland, working 10-12 hours a day.

Rams team

Actor Sigurdur Sigurjonsson, director Grimur Hakonarson, cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grovlen and actor Theodor Juliusson

How about the location, where in Iceland did you shoot the film?

Hakonarson: Location was not one of the most practical because it’s far away from Reykjavik, it’s in North Iceland. But I chose it because of the farms, they were perfectly located in a nice landscape, very isolated from civilisation, very close to the mountains and the sheep farming community. We rented a guesthouse that’s only open in the summer and we made it our base. There are only 50 people living in that community and many of them were hired as assistants. Someone took care of the dogs, another one of the sheep, someone else was like a strung man. Some of the farmers even acted in the film, the guy with the white beard, he’s an amateur actor. So we tried to get the community involved in the film. And it was also important for me to do that in order to make the film more authentic, to use real people who are farmers.

Is it true that the farming communities are slowly dying in Iceland?

Yes, sheep farming is in a bit of crisis today, the communities that lived off it used to be much bigger, in the 80s there was 3 times more sheep in Iceland. So characters like the ones in my film are slowly disappearing. And you hear all sorts of stories, there is a farmer in Iceland who is trying to get permission to be buried with his sheep on his land, he’s trying to get some lawyers to help him with that.

That’s another film, right there! What inspired you to become a filmmaker?

I grew up in Reykjavik and I started out as an actor, when I was a kid I was acting at the National Theatre. Then the VHS revolution came in 1992, I bought a camera and started to make films, I was 14 when I made my first short film. Then I stopped and went to study philosophy for 1 year.

What made you abandon film and take up philosophy?

I was afraid that filmmaking would be too difficult as a career, that i won’t be able to make a living from that. Not that you can make a living from philosophy! But there’s a lot of competition in film and I was a bit scared of going into it.

Did you find philosophy useful as a filmmaker?

Not at all, I found out that it wasn’t my thing, I’m trying to avoid all that BS! Sometimes you watch films about “real people” made in a realistic vein and you get the impression from the dialogue that the filmmaker has read a lot of books! I try to avoid that.

Could you name some films that really impressed you?

Kitchen Stories by Bent Hamer, a Norwegian film. The Straight Story by David Lynch. Also Nói the Albino, an Icelandic film by Dagur Kári. When someone asks me what is my favourite film or director, I never give the same answer. My film is different from Nói the Albino though, this one was thought as a comedy for Iceland, it didn’t travel a lot, it went to a few festivals but it was very well-received in Iceland. This film is more like my short films, but the film I wanted to make was a more personal film.

What are your future plans? Do you see yourself like Kormákur, going to America or Europe and making international productions or would you rather make films at home?

I don’t see myself making films abroad at the moment, maybe in Europe or Denmark. I’d prefer to make films in Iceland, even with little money. Sometimes you have to wait for a long time to get funding. And that would be the main reason for going to make films abroad, economic factors.


Has Your Mum Upset You Again? Interview with Romanian Actor BOGDAN DUMITRACHE About THE CHILD’S POSE

The Child's Pose

Last chance to catch this utterly engrossing family drama from Romanian director CALIN PETER NETZER, winner of the Golden Bear Award at last year’s Berlinale, THE CHILD’S POSE is showing at BFI Southbank tonight.

An ambiguous study of obsessive maternal love with a riveting performance by LUMINITA GHEORGHIU (4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS AND 2 DAYS, THE DEATH OF MR. LAZARESCU, BEYOND THE HILLS) as a steely, well-off Bucharest architect determined to keep her 30-something deadbeat son, BOGDAN DUMITRACHE, out of jail after his reckless driving kills a child. How far will she go to convince the police, eyewitnesses and even the victim’s family of her son’s innocence? Offering a spendid blend of psychological realism and social commentary, Netzer’s third feature is a caustic look at the moral turpitude of the Romanian nouveaux riches.

Romanian Director CALIN PETER NETZER

Romanian Director CALIN PETER NETZER

Below is an extract from an interview with Romanian actor BOGDAN DUMITRACHE taken on December 1, 2013 at Curzon Soho as part of the ROMANIAN FILM FESTIVAL IN LONDON.

(This interview has been translated from Romanian and edited for clarity and relevance)

Dana: How did you prepare for the two amazing roles you played this year, the troubled Barbu in The Child’s Pose, a film that won the 2013 Golden Bear Award, and Paul, the anxious young director in Corneliu Porumboiu’s new film When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism. And which role did you enjoy playing more?

Bogdan: I enjoyed playing both roles. And I like both directors, although they are completely different. Whereas Netzer is a rather dogmatic and perfectionist filmmaker, who has a fixed script from the beginning that you can’t adapt or fiddle with, the text is not to be modified, nothing is to be changed, you need to come fully prepared on the day of the shooting[…], Corneliu didn’t work like that, his script was a pretext, a starting point from which we built the characters and the story together.

Bogdan Dumitrache

Romanian actor Bogdan Dumitrache

Dana: How did you find your role in  The Child’s Pose? I found it very shocking.

Bogdan: Yes it was shocking even for me and seen from the outside the role is most definitely shocking. I played a “paralysed”, blocked character in this film. This inner paralysis comes from a very simple sentence: when you can’t make any plans for your future because you don’t know what it will look like, maybe you’ll be in jail and you won’t have any kind of future, in that moment you succumb to an emotional and mental blockage in which you deny everything and you are practically a vegetable. Without too many thoughts. So from this point of view the role was not too difficult to play, the character was ultimately simple to understand: he was either blocked or in denial, and in both cases his frustration would be so overwhelming that he would start to behave aggressively.

Dana: The relationship with the mother is extremely dysfunctional.

Bogdan: Yes, it is a relationship that borders on the pathological.

Dana: And the mother is a very pathological being!Hence probably the son’s shocking behaviour. Were there discussions around the character, how was this character introduced to you?

Bogdan: I was lucky because Netzer did the casting for all the roles except my role. He approached me one evening at the GOPO Awards, he came to me directly and said: “This character is you, you’re playing Barbu.” Then we met up and discussed the script, the character…

Dana: Were you surprised by this character?What was your first reaction?

Bogdan: Naturally the first reaction was one of surprise: “She is his mother after all, how can he do and say all those things to her?Has he no sympathy, no remorse, nothing whatsoever?”. And Netzer said: “No, he hasn’t”. So I went: “Okay, let’s see where his feelings come from…”. And I had a very long time to prepare. Because I have a casting agency in Bucharest and I helped Netzer with the casting, I basically got to learn all the roles by heart.

Dana: Do you know anything about the writing of the script?

Bogdan: Netzer wrote the script together with Razvan Radulescu and the script is to a certain extent autobiographical, they both have pretty tense relationships with their parents, so that was the source of inspiration. We had many discussions in which they tried to explain the logic of this character, as much as they could, then I just used my imagination. My advantage was that I had eight months to prepare, so when we started rehearsals I knew the character inside out, and all the other characters. And Luminita is an excellent actor, you can play very well alongside her. And gradually I got to understand, to a certain extent, what happens there.

Dana: Would an incestuous reading of their relationship be correct?

Bogdan: Yes, of course, the film opens this problematic although it doesn’t develop it further. There is the scene with the glove where things are bordering on incestuous. Roughly speaking, it is a great mistake to wish for your children to become what you yourself failed to be. And when a parent does this, after living an unfulfilled life…

Dana: Is this the true reason why though?

Bogdan: It’s probably connected to the fact that the parents are estranged from one another, they are not sharing the same bed anymore, their relationship is completely dysfunctional and Barbu is what keeps the family together artificially. They both project on Barbu what they wished to be, or what they wished their relationship to be. And this ruins Barbu’s life.

Dana: There is also a disturbing element of dependancy on his mother…

Bogdan: Indeed, when things go beyond the limits of what is normal, Barbu doesn’t know how to stop himself, he can’t separate himself from his mother, despite everything he says and does. He swears at her, calls her names, make a huge scandal, but he is not capable to get himself out of it , to say “Stop”.

Gold For the Bold: Director ANTHONY CHEN on Honest Filmmaking and Winning the First Camera d’Or for Singapore

ilo-ilo poster 2

An intimate family drama, ILO ILO is the debut feature of director ANTHONY CHEN  and the first Singaporean feature film to win a major award at the CANNES FILM FESTIVAL (Camera d’Or, 2013). Since the standing ovation in Cannes, this charming film won as many hearts as prizes, among which the much-coveted Sutherland Award for the most original and imaginative feature debut at the LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2013.

Set during the beginning of the Asian financial crisis in 1997, ILO ILO tells the tale of a Filipino maid who comes to Singapore in search of a better life and her impact on the family whose 10-year old troublesome son she’s looking after.

This interview was taken on October 11, 2013 at Filmmakers Afternoon Teas, Mayfair Hotel, as part of LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2013.

Dana: This is your first feature film, please tell me about the experience of making a feature film for the first time? Did it help to make a lot of shorts before?

Anthony: Yes I did a lot of shorts before, I made 9 shorts before making this feature film. I spent three years making this film, I wrote and directed the film, I did most of the producing as well. I do feel that there is a huge learning curve, it is a huge step up from making shorts, I can say right now that I know how to make a good short film because I made so many now and I know the format very well but even though I made my first feature and yes, it was quite successful, I’m not sure if I can say I know how to make another feature film.

Dana: I find that hard to believe.

Anthony: I find that hard to believe myself! But it is that hard. I do feel that making features will not get easier, it will only get harder and tougher…

Dana: Is it because with every film you’re raising the bar a little bit?

Anthony: I think it’s because with each film, it just gives you more confidence to make the next film but you’re not remaking the path of the last film. With each film you get more ambitious, with each film you deal with a different subject matter, you work with a different cast and crew, you will have a new set of challenges[…]. It doesn’t get easier, you’re always figuring it out, you’re going into new unchartered waters all the time. I hope the second one won’t be so painful but filmmaking is always painful…

Dana: But you certainly enjoy making films, don’t you?

Anthony: I do enjoy making films but I think a lot of filmmakers get a lot of satisfaction from the pain that they go through when making a film…

Anthony's camera d'or

Director ANTHONY CHEN – definitely not resting on his laurels despite what the photo might suggest

Dana: Is filmmaking a masochistic activity?

Anthony: I think so, yes. Filmmakers love pain. I can’t understand why anyone would want to make films, it’s such a massive struggle, financially you usually start off very very poor, you always have to go around and ask for stuff,  the process itself drains you, it drains your heart, your mind. Even when I was making shorts, I would make one and get through a lot of hardship to get it finished and I would say “Okay, this might be the last one” but a few months later I’m itching again for that pain, to go through that hell again. And of course filmmaking is an obsession, with my shorts and my features I’m usually obsessed with a certain character, a certain location, or certain theme. And this obsession just drives you into that frame of mind, obsession drives filmmakers…

Dana: Did you expect to have such a huge success with this film?

Anthony: No…I think I’m quite astounded and I’m very grateful for the whole journey I made with this film. The film was made with very pure intentions. I just wanted to make a very honest and very sincere film. That was it. I wasn’t making it to get into festivals, to win awards. It wasn’t a packaged product either, I wasn’t aiming for the box-office or anything like that. Getting into Cannes was huge for me, and the fact that the film won the Camera d’Or, that it’s doing well at the box-office in Singapore and France, all that has importance but I didn’t set out to achieve all that.

Dana: And this is when it happens, probably, when the intentions are innocent.

Anthony: I think so yes, which is why I think honesty is very important. And I hope I will preserve the same honesty and integrity going from film to film, because it’s very hard. You see a lot of big filmmakers that you admire and you sometimes wonder why they are making what they are making, why they made such great films and all of a sudden, they have all this money, all this budget, but […] a lot of their work becomes more like luster, it gets compromised.

Dana: If you were to go back and shoot the film again, would you make any changes?

Anthony: I wouldn’t. Because this films is sitting comfortably with me right now but perhaps in six months or one year I might start going: “I need to change this, or that…”. But I think the film sits quite comfortably with me now, not because of what people say but because I don’t like to judge all my previous work, I think every piece of film, be it a short or a feature, represents a stage of your growth, your maturity and you wouldn’t be able to move forward if you haven’t got that part of your history. So it’s not about “Oh I wish I could erase that film from my cinematography, or I wish I didn’t make that film”. Because that film led to the next film…

Dana: And talking about the next film, do you have something lined up already?

Anthony: I wish I knew. Like I said filmmaking is an obsession, and I’m looking for the next obsession. I hope it comes sooner rather than later. I spent three years making my first feature, hopefully it won’t be another three years, I don’t know what it will be but it will most probably be an English-language film.

Dana: For how long have you lived in the UK?

Anthony: Four or five years, I’m actually based in London. I went to the National Film and Television School in Beaconsfield, I did a two-year masters degree in film directing. So the fact that the film screens at the London Film Festival is personally quite special for me, London is like my second home so it’s a bit like a home-coming.

Dana: And do you think you are as astutely aware of the nuances in the society and class-system here as you are of the culture in which you grew up?

Anthony: It’s interesting, I made a graduation film at the film school, a short film called Lighthouse, and that was a real challenge for me because that was the first full-on English language, very British film that I made with a full English cast. And I think that went quite well, I now want to see if I can make a feature film here. At the same time, one of my heroes […] is Ang Lee, and what I appreciate about him is that he can go in and out of different periods, different cultures, different eras, but there is always the same respect and humility for the human condition, for his characters. And I believe that is the power of cinema, it’s one of the mediums that cuts across and transcends language, it transcends cultures. If you’re honest about looking at people, looking at humanity, language and culture become a lesser problem, because we are obviously connected in the same way, by the same humanity.

Dana: How did the screenwriting process go? As far as dialogue is concerned, did you try to keep it to a minimum?

Anthony:  It was interesting because I refuse for my actors to change any single word.

Dana: That’s surprising as the film has a certain fluidity to it, was there no improvisation?

Anthony: No, a lot of people thought that the film was improvised. But no…In the editing I did cut down some of the scenes when they got too long and two or three scenes were dropped in the cutting room but apart from that I refuse to let them change a single word, a single line, I was so dogmatic about it.

Ilo_Ilo_shower scene

Famous Filipino actress Angeli Bayani playing the character of the maid in ILO ILO

Dana: And why is that?

Anthony: Because when I write there is a certain flow, a certain nuance and a certain rhythm that I felt work. And I don’t want to change that.

Dana: And I suppose the actors felt it worked as well.

Anthony: Not really! Which is why when it doesn’t work I have to do multiple takes to get it to flow.

Dana: Did you have any disagreements on the set concerning certain scenes?

Anthony: No, we didn’t have fights on the set.

Dana: Did you know the actors before you cast them?

Anthony: Apart from one of the lead actors in the film who was in one of my short films, I didn’t work with the rest of them. The lead in the film, the 10-year old boy, was cast out of a long casting process, we spent 10 months going to 20 schools, we saw thousands of children before we locked him down. Out of the 8,000 children, I shortlisted 150 of them and then I did six months of workshops, every weekend, before I locked him down…

boy in ILO ILO

Koh Jia Ler, the 10-year old star of ILO ILO

Dana: What was the quality you were looking for in your child lead, you were obviously looking for something very specific?

Anthony: I think in most films, especially Hollywood films, most filmmakers would easily go for the prettiest kid, the cutest kid. But I wanted something that was real, that was raw. For me there was something about his face, there’s a fragility, there’s a vulnerability that I found was very interesting. There is something that isn’t quite right about him, but what is it, you don’t know. And that worked for me in this film. He was very good material for me to work with as a director.