As 2009 drew to a close, I asked many of Iceland’s leading filmmakers a number of questions about the local film industry as well as their own work. This was for a feature focusing on Icelandic film talent that ran in UK music magazine Clash that you can read online right here.
This time around it’s the turn of Mr. Bjarnfredarson / Shift series director Ragnar Bragason. Both he and the team behind the franchise dominated the recent
Your Dagvaktin / Naeturvaktin / Fangavaktin series has proved to be a remarkable success. What do you think are the reasons behind it, and did you ever envisage the show being as successful as it is?
I think the main reason for its success is the characters and how strongly people relate to them and enjoy their adventures and follies. If you would combine all the three flawed and fragile main characters, each from the different end of the spectrum; the communist Georg, the hopeless wannabe and capitalist Olafur Ragnar and the depressed intellectual Daniel, you would have one typical Icelandic male. The second biggest reason for its success is the three actors who portray them, Jón Gnarr, Pétur Jóhann and Jörundur Ragnarsson. I wouldn’t have made this with any other actors. Nobody had any idea it would transcend generations and become the monster it has in Iceland. In my dreams I had hoped it would be a cult hit.
Naeturvaktin has been picked up for a possible American remake. What input will you have in the development of that?
The company Shine/Reveille who already have had success with American remakes of The Office and Ugly Betty hold the worldwide rights to the ‘Shift’ series. They sold the USA remake option to Fox and a pilot is being made, I’m told. I have no input in the development of that. My interests are in creating something fresh. I did my ‘Shifts’ in Iceland and have no interest in remakes.
The DVD releases of each series all make a point of highlighting that they’re accompanied by English subtitles, and they’re widely available at stores in Reykjavik that tourists might visit. Was it always your intention to attempt to capture an audience beyond Iceland?
At the time of release on DVD there were a large number of foreigners working in Iceland during the economic boost and I fought for the DVD to have English subtitles for that group to enjoy. As with all my film and TV projects I, first and foremost, make them for Icelandic audiences. I’m an Icelandic filmmaker and don’t pretend to be anything but. My projects are microcosmic or specific but as it often turns out, because of that, they seem to become global. As with my last two feature films Children and Parents who sold quite well outside of Iceland despite being dramatic Icelandic black and white work made on a almost no-budget.
The Mr Bjarnfredarson feature length adaptation of the series is already a huge hit in Iceland. Considering that the series hasn’t been broadcast in many other countries, what plans do you have for its international release?
At the moment of this interview we are in discussion with some sales agents for the international distribution of the film. Icelandic films travel and sell very well and are regulars at the big film festivals. So I’m confident Mr. Bjarnfredarson will find audiences outside of Iceland. The film stands alone and independently, people don’t need to have seen the series to understand and enjoy the film.
Various Icelandic bands have found an audience in the UK (Bjork, Sigur Ros, mum, Minus, Emiliana Torrini and various others), but hardly any Icelandic films have been released here despite there being a healthy appreciation of international cinema. What would you say are the reasons for this?
I don’t know. I’m not that familiar with the cinema culture in the UK. Maybe it’s the more ‘feel-good’ or commercial side of international filmmaking that gets releases in the UK. I wouldn’t say that Icelandic films are very feel-good. You tell me, do you get a lot of Scandinavian films? Music has the advantage that it’s easily obtained and less costly to distribute. But maybe the time of the Icelandic film is upon the UK, let’s hope so.
Can Icelandic film offer something new to an international audience? What are the nation’s main strengths and weaknesses in filmmaking?
Strengths are originality in vision and execution. It’s the more specific films that deal with Icelandic culture, people and heritage that gain interest abroad. The weakness is the tendency to make “touristy” type of films in the false believe it will sell. I don’t thing we should make many genre type of films, we should leave it to the Americans, British and French who have mastered it.
Despite Iceland’s recent economic problems, the film industry seems to be flourishing. Why is this? Does such a situation inspire creativity in spite of creating more practical problems?
Very few go into filmmaking to become rich. Especially in a small 300,000 population like Iceland. It has to be an obsession, a deeply rooted need to tell stories. Every filmmaker’s ultimate goal is to create something that really matters and that will open people’s eyes to the world. The artist has obligations to his society, hardship can inspire and in a suffering society the artist becomes more important. In the era of economic bull in Iceland I think a large part of Icelanders were becoming very delusional. But now as the fog has been blown from our eyes we see much clearly. That’s the reason for the large number of films being made in Iceland in the last 14 months, combined with the surge of great new digital technology which saves costs.
The government has recently announced cuts in its financial support of the film industry. Will this kill the Icelandic film industry just as it has the potential to grow into a useful export? What impact will this have upon your own work?
To make a film you need money. Usually if there is no money = no films. The year we reached the goal of being a small industry it all came crashing down. I’m hoping that the government sees the errors of their actions and look to the Irish who had to deal with the same issues, but realised that film is important, both financially and culturally and decided to keep their cuts to a minimum. Here the small and fragile industry was slaughtered. They still have a chance of correcting their mistake and reverse it this year. I personally will continue to make films no matter what. If what it takes is to borrow a camera and work without pay for two years I will do it, I’ve done it before.