I met director Julius Kemp in a Soho basement bar during his visit to work on getting a UK distribution deal ahead of the release of his new film Reykjavik Whale Watching Massacre.
Kemp studied filmmaking in Surrey in the early nineties and has worked on a large catalogue of films as a director (Veggfóður: Erótísk ástarsaga / Wallpaper: An Erotic Love Story), producer (Strákarnir okkar / Eleven Men Out) and editor (Fridrik Thor Fridriksson’s Oscar nominated Börn náttúrunnar / Children of Nature).
Following our interview, Kemp showed me a selection of scenes from Reykjavik Whale Watching Massacre. My impression was of a stylish horror film eclectic in style; there are moments of nervy, pseudo-documentary psychological horror, lashings of dark humour and enough splatter to satisfy gorehounds the world over. Our laughter at a scene in which a young woman spurts a river of arterial blood certainly raised a few quizzical eyebrows among the other pub customers.
Conceived by Danish writer Torsten Hvas and Icelandic writer Sjon, Reykjavik Whale Watching Massacre is out now in Iceland with international release dates to follow. The accompanying film stills are by Bjarni Grímsson.
Here are some of the highlights of our conversation:
So has Reykjavik Whale Watching Massacre turned out like Wolfcreek on water? Or Deliverance at sea like the trailer suggested? Or more like The Blair Witch Project? Are they the sort of films you’d compare it to?
When we started we decided, the tagline was Texas Chain Saw Massacre meets The Evil Dead. Now, I’m not sure! The link to Texas Chain Saw Massacre was of course Gunnar Hansen (the original Leatherface) who’s acting in our movie and the link to Evil Dead is the humour. It’s much more realistic and sophisticated. It’s more moody. It’s not just people running around and screaming. It’s a long time since I’ve seen Blair Witch Project, but I hope it’s basically Texas Chain Saw Massacre meets Mulholland Drive because I like the mood there.
Has there been much in the way of Icelandic horror before?
No, never. It’s the first one.
That puts a responsibility on your shoulders to start with a good pedigree.
That’s ok. I think we managed.
The film’s tagline, title and poster are reminiscent of the eighties horror type genre where you’d have memorable titles, really cool visuals on the posters and snappy taglines. Is that something you set out to achieve? Or did come as a by product of the film’s natural style?
The film’s not meant to look like the seventies or eighties or anything like that. We’re not doing Grindstone movies. The look of the film is totally up to date and was shot like a documentary. It’s supposed to be realistic, like something that could happen in real life. It’s definitely not a studio movie. But Reykjavik Whale Watching Massacre was shot in forty days.
These whale watching tours are popular with tourists, but does your average Icelandic person go on them?
Yeah, I’ve done it twice, lots of people do them. It’s like going to the zoo.
Your whale watching is better than our zoos – most of the animals just sit around looking depressed. Anyhow, how did you enlist Gunnar and cast the foreign actors?
We knew about Gunnar because he’s Icelandic. We basically sent him the script and asked him to do it. He has his own website www.gunnarhansen.com. Nae Yuki, the Japanese actress, I saw in David Lynch’s Inland Empire. We had to get a lot of the cast from the UK because we have UK co-producers to qualify for the tax returns and so on. So I came here for casting and found three people. One of them, Aymen Hamdouchi who plays Jean Francois, is in Paul Greengrass’ next movie Green Zone.
What can you tell us about the film’s music?
It’s by Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson. He’s done lots of Icelandic films. He’s an interesting guy because he’s the head of the Pagan Society in Iceland. Every weekend we couldn’t work because he went to some sacred place in Iceland to marry pagan couples.
He’s a pagan priest? What sort of music does he play?
You know Sigur Ros? It’s like that but more melodramatic and without drums.
I read that the budget for the film is about 250,000,000 Kronur (approximately £1.2 million). Is that about accurate?
Yes it is.
That seems quite a substantial budget for any indie film. With the problems with the Icelandic economy in the last year or two, how did you find the task of raising the funding?
Basically we’ve been trying to finance it for the past three years. We decided to start shooting last August and we knew that we were missing 20%. Our last film [Astropia] did really well at the box office, so for the first time we were even and didn’t owe anyone anything. We knew that if we were going to go with this film that we’d be in big debt. Me and my partner just decided to do it, like, “yeah, why not?” So we decided to do it even though we knew it was going to be very expensive; it takes place on an ocean in the middle of the night in the cold weather.
Two things happened. First of all, we finished shooting a week before the Icelandic banking system collapsed, which was pure luck because if we hadn’t started shooting we wouldn’t have been able to finish the film. The first three weeks after the collapse we couldn’t get any currencies. I had ten people from outside of Iceland and it would’ve been difficult to explain to them why we couldn’t pay them.
You’d have had to go into hiding.
Yeah. If we had postponed for a year… for us to do it today is impossible because of the devaluation of the currency. It wouldn’t have been possible to shoot this movie this August.
How will that effect film production in Iceland in the coming years?
If the currency devalues, then the grants and investments we receive from abroad will be more valuable to us. And sales abroad are worth more too. It’s like the fishing industry, which is very happy as they effectively get double for their catches.
So if this film is successful internationally, you’ll obviously get a decent return on it because of the value of currency exchange. But with your next film, would you be relying on local talent? Or would you still have enough money to bring people in from abroad?
It depends if this film is a success outside of Iceland. We have a good script – an English script – so it’s going to be much easier to get foreign investors. That’s going to help a lot because prices in Iceland haven’t changed, they’re very similar. So if you’re making something you can sell abroad you’d do well.
I’m guessing you really need this to be a hit outside of Iceland to recoup your budget? Or can you rely on local interest?
No, Iceland will never be able to recoup. But that’s the plan. Most of it is in English and the plan is to sell it abroad. We did it before with Eleven Men Out, the gay soccer film. We sold it to twenty countries. It was in Icelandic, but the income from international sales was far higher than it was locally. As this one is in English, I’m positive that it’ll do very well.
Do you have any specific strategies to reach an international audience? In the UK, very few Icelandic films have received a theatrical release.
The good news is that we’ve got offers from UK distributors and more distributors are seeing it before I head home. I’ve been in the business for fifteen years and made ten films, all of them at a profit. But I’ve never sold or even had an offer from the UK before.
I’ve always thought that each Icelandic film seems very individualistic, but would you say that’s due to each filmmaker and each creative component in the filmmaking chain having different influences from their studies abroad?
Until two or three years ago there was no film school in Iceland, so you’d have to go abroad. People would go to Denmark, Sweden, Germany, France, England, the US, Poland and the Czech Republic. They were the main countries although maybe one or two went to Russia. The people who went to the US never came back, but the people who went to Europe returned to Iceland and that’s why we have some many different styles.
Twenty people from my school went to LA. Not all to do film, some just to party. Fifteen years later four of them are still there and are doing very well – running the biggest shows on TV like CSI or are leading figures in big companies.
You weren’t tempted to stay abroad yourself?
When I came to study here in 1992 there was no film business here. The UK was making maybe two or three films a year. And in Iceland we were making the same so there was no point.
That ludicrous considering that the UK’s population is two-hundred times bigger.
They weren’t even making cheap audiences for a small audience. But soon after I left the lottery funding came in and helped fund a lot of business. The film industry been picking up since then and is now really big.