Jason Wood: How did you arrive at the title of the film and what more can you see about how you imagined the central character?
Dagur Kári: Well, it obviously refers to Nói the Albino, but in Iceland it also rhymes so it has a very pleasing sound to it that I liked. I had the image in my head of a young boy who was totally different to everyone else, both in terms of personality and appearance and I was for many years, actually from when I was seventeen, collecting different ideas around this character.
It took you some time to finally bring him to the screen.
Yes, but at the time when I first begun to imagine him I did not know that I would become a film-maker. I initially considered turning him into a comic or a short story. Then I went to film school and by the time I finished I had amassed lots of material, so it was not very difficult to structure it into a script.
You went to film school in Denmark. Was it always your intention to return to Denmark for your first film?
Yes, but I would also add that it is not really a must for me to work in Iceland. In fact, I have always imagined that I would work more abroad than in Iceland. But it was very important for me to make my first film in Iceland…It’s important for me to reflect where I come from.
Does the film express an Icelandic identity or do you feel it to be more universal?
Well, the intention was not to be typically Icelandic and I have a very vague identity in terms of nationality, so for me it was much more important to create a cinematic universe that only exists within this film. It takes place in Iceland but it is not for me a realistic account of how life in Iceland is.
You’ve travelled quite extensively and worked for a while here in London. Has this helped shaped how you approach establishing Nói’s universe?
The advantage of being away from your home country is that you see things with the eyes of a guest. For me this is very useful, it becomes easier for me to see things separately and not purely within the context of the history of the country…In fact I find it much easier to work when I am a guest away from my home country.
I think that contributes to the unique look of the film. Where did filming take place, and how easy was it to find this location?
I chose a location where I had never previously been and was not attached to in any way. It was almost like putting your finger on a map and saying ‘let’s go there’. But having said that I was also aware that I was filming in the part of the country where it was most likely to snow, something on which we were dependent. Geographically, we filmed in the North West part of Iceland. If you think of Iceland as a flat rat, then where we were was the head.
Were the cold conditions in which you worked tough?
It was very difficult with the cold and the snow, and in a way we were extremely lucky because we didn’t prepare enough. We went into production very quickly so the pre-production time was short. That winter in Iceland was also unique because there had not been any snow so we decided to take a gamble, to just go there and shoot and if there’s no snow then we’ll just have to wait for a year. It started snowing the day we arrived and did so for the duration of the exterior shots. Then that was it; there was no more snow that winter.
You make the most of natural resources, the rainbow and the icicles at which Nói shoots.
Yes, he was supposed to shoot at something else but we travelled by this amazing place everyday and then one day noticed these icicles. We also had some very happy incidents this way, incidents that occurred largely by happenstance between myself, Tómas and cinematographer Rasmus Videbaek. The fly crawling is a good example of this, as is the rainbow you mention. These are the moments I personally like the most in the film. I wished I’d had a week of doing these kind of things but we had only one day.
Were you at film school with Videbaek?
That’s right. Rasmus and I worked together in film school and he shot my graduation film. The same with editor Daniel Dencik. That’s one of the most important things about film school. Being under the same roof as these people for four years you develop an important working relationship that can carry on as a professional. We have a mutual understanding.
There is also a timeless quality to the film. It’s difficult to date, especially in the colours and fabrics of the interiors.
I did want it to have a timeless quality. I deliberately avoided things such as mobile phones and computers as these can pin you to a very precise moment in time. Also, some of the props are timeless icons, such as the view master. In fact it could have been yesterday but it has a buffer zone that I find was very good for this film. I did not want it to be a concrete time or place.
The film has a strong biblical and metaphorical element but avoids dictating how one should respond to the images. You avoid striving too hard to be enigmatic.
This is one of the most important things – to have the film open enough so that you can more or less make your own movie within the movie. There are all kinds of hints that you can pick up or leave behind and put together according to your personality or what kind of mood you are in when you see the film. I like this idea. I don’t like to tell people what they should conclude, what they should look at or how they should feel. I want them to make their own version.
Nói’s underground retreat, which ultimately saves his life, is also the one place where he seems able to be at peace with himself.
He doesn’t feel comfortable any other place in this community. He actually has to go under the surface of the earth in order to feel at peace or comfortable. Of course this particular place has function in the end.
The film is filled with idiosyncratic interludes: the aforementioned French teacher making mayonnaise; Nói’s spilling of the cauldron of blood; the firing of the rifle to wake Nói from slumber. How did you arrive at these moments?
Well, the history of this film as I explained is quite long, and so the film and such moments are almost a greatest hits of ideas. I’ve had ten years to prepare for it, unlike say a second film where your back catalogue of ideas have all been used up in your first film. I don’t care so much about plot but I like this idea of a film that is a collection of ideas. This is how I work.
I begin by collecting ideas which then form so many documents in my computer. From this I try to find a pattern and put these ideas into some kind of order. In the end there is a story but you let the ideas guide you instead of letting the story guide the ideas. I am fascinated by the idea of taking every scene as a film and making every scene as good as you want the film to be. I hate to shoot a scene where a guy walks out the door and takes a bus just to show that he takes the bus because this frame can never have the potential of becoming a great scene. I try to treat every scene as it were the only scene.
To return to the actors, you use a mixture of personal colleagues and professionals. What do you like about this balance?
I go after the right personalities and the right characters and care less about their training background. I can see that in theatre it might be important to have training, I see theatre as being more like classical music. You cannot just sit down at the piano and play Rachmaninov. But popular music, well nobody cares if Keith Richards has a diploma or not. With films I think it is similar, it is the personality that counts, not the training. Non-trained actors tend to bring to films an unawareness of what they are doing. They are not too self-aware of how they look in front of the camera.
I was also impressed by the actor who portrayed Nói’s father. He had a dishevelled quality that reminded me of Serge Gainsbourg.
Thröstur Leó Gunnarsson is a professional actor. I tend to like actors who hate being actors as it brings some kind of truthfulness and energy. Gunnarsson is one of these. He is originally from a fishing town and studied acting. He acts for two years and gets fed up with it and goes to sea for two years and then he’ll get fed up with being a sailor and go back to acting. He is never comfortable for too long. Most of the actors in the film have this element. The fortune teller is a carpenter and the head master is an architect. I think it can be dangerous to be an actor and to only love to act.
Nói’s father has perhaps the most telling line of dialogue: ‘Unwanted children don’t let you know they’re coming’. This line hints at the sense of sadness and melancholy that permeates the whole film.
I didn’t approach it in this way but for this film it was important that nobody was 100% content.
Paradoxically, the film is also very funny.
I wanted there to be a balance between the comedy and the tragedy. People assume that the goal was to make a tragedy that was incidentally also funny but in fact it was the other way around. I start from humour and my scripts read very funny but somewhere along the line this undercurrent of tragedy pours in. I like this; it makes it a more dynamic film somehow.
The music is very important on this film. It was composed by yourself and your friend, Orri, with whom you have a band, Slowblow.
Music for me is very important in my life and is probably the thing I enjoy to do the most.
You enjoy it more than film-making?
Yes, I suppose so. We have this band together and for us it is like a holiday to meet up and compose music. We are very conscious about not letting anything ruin the pleasure of it so we are not that interested in making a career out of it. My profession is film-making but my therapy is making music.
You have released albums though?
DK: Yes, two albums and now the soundtrack. For the film we wanted the music to be in contrast with the story. We wanted it to be very warm and so took some Hawaiian music to support the theme of their being another world, better world.
In the production notes you claim that film for you is a profession and that talking about films, film-makers and influences is not something you tend to do. You cite The Simpsons as an influence.
As with music, the influences are so many and they can be both obvious and misguiding. If you ask me today what is my biggest influence I would say Seinfield. The Simpsons, that was a year ago! Now it’s Seinfield.
Has the success of your film outside Iceland surprised you?
It’s a very big surprise. I consider myself very lucky to have made this film as my first movie. I could not see any commercial appeal to it whatsoever. The whole process was long, exhausting and difficult at times. The people who saw the film in the editing room were not blown away so my expectations were pretty low. The first time I saw the film with an audience at Angers I was amazed. It really took off from there and was sold to most of the world. This has been a very pleasant surprise for me.
What experiences will you take into your next project and what particular creative aspects did you enjoy the most?
Well the good thing about film-making is that every stage is totally different from the next. Writing a script you are totally on your own and there are no limitations. Then comes shooting which is like going to war. Then there’s the editing where you have the possibility of re-writing the film. In many ways, editing is the most relaxing stage. You have this concrete material that you cannot change. You can structure it, however. It’s like the musical process.