Local light Sturla Gunnarsson has carved out an unusual career directing wildly different features, like the William Hurt/Molly Parker comedy Rare Birds and Such A Long Journey, the adaptation of Rohinton Mistry's novel. None of his earlier work compares to the logistical nightmares of Beowulf & Grendel, which Gunnarsson shot in his home country of Iceland (he left when he was six) in weather conditions that ranged from bad to really, really bad.
We think of Beowulf as something English majors must read in first year. Were you a fan? I admit that I struggled with it in high school. But I do like its potency. On a personal level, it's the place where my ancestral language and the language I live in come together. My idea was to bring the story back to the campfire.
Was it something you always wanted to direct? I always wanted to direct something in Iceland, not just for the landscape but for the feelings it evoked. When (screenwriter) Andrew Rai Berzins and I were kicking around ideas, the Beowulf story clicked. We moved the story away from that simplistic world view of good and evil, though, to make it more complex. The opposite of what Hollywood does.
Speaking of Hollywood, did you work hard to ensure the film came out before Robert Zemeckis's version? We only became aware of that version when we started on this one, and at the time didn't even know it was motion-capture.
This is no Masterpiece Theatre adaptation. Did the crudeness of the language surprise you? We didn't want to make a "ye olde" film, drenched in sepia. Some of these words are among the oldest in the Norse language. You can trace the word "cunt" back to the 1200s. It's part of the storytelling tradition, very salty and expletive-ridden.
Is it a parable about war? Andrew began writing the script during the war in Kosovo, and the film says something about warrior culture and tribal identity. Right now, of course, the warrior culture is on the rise again. It's fascinating that this is about a soldier who goes overseas to fight a righteous war and discovers he's in the middle of a tribal feud.
How did you get that great craggy performance from Stellan Skarsgå:rd? Stellan totally embraced the weather. He kept saying he couldn't have a preconceived notion about how to play a scene until he came up against the weather. And I think that created spontaneity. He said in this landscape it was impossible to be "too big."
How often did you have to change production schedules because of the weather? There was horizontal rain, hail and sleet pretty much every day. We had 150-kilometre winds and then suddenly sunshine. Some locations we scouted were gone by the time we came to shoot. My favourite moment was seeing a waterfall with the water going up, the wind was so hard.
Do you expect an increase in tourism to Iceland?
Everyone who's seen the film says it's an otherworldly landscape and they can't wait to visit. I guess it all depends on how many people see it.