Published in the 2014 August-September issue of Iceland Review & Atlantica – IR 04.14. Words by Eygló Svala Arnardóttir.
Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir sits down with young filmmaker Baldvin Z (born 1978) and asks him ten questions about his latest work, critically-acclaimed contemporary drama Life in a Fish Bowl (Vonarstræti; 2014), his road to success and what lies ahead.
1. Life in a Fishbowl has been praised by critics and the public alike; one critic calling it “the best film in Icelandic film history.” It’s already the highest-earning film in Icelandic movie theaters this year, beating The Hobbit and Wolf of Wall Street. Did this reaction surprise you?
Not at all [tries to keep a straight face, then laughs]. Yes, of course. When you’ve worked on a project this long, nine years, you become one with it. Before the final editing, we had no feeling for the film anymore, so we ran test screenings with people from the street, from the film industry and bankers—all kinds of people—to sample their first reaction. People stood up and applauded. One ‘OutvasionViking’ sang and danced. So we knew it wasn’t terrible but this is much more than we could have hoped for.
2. What surprised you the most?
I felt it was right, in a character-driven movie like this, to show the human aspect. ‘Who wants to watch a mother and daugh-ter eating spaghetti?’ I thought, yet found it important that people would believe that it was authentic. I was pleasantly surprised that viewers mentioned exactly that, how normal the story felt. People were longing for a film like this, a contemporary story.
3. In the film the stories of a young, single mother taking desperate measures to make ends meet, an alcoholic author with a tragic past and an up-and-coming banker in the boom years before the 2008 economic collapse are intertwined. Where did these stories come from?
Originally, nine years ago, I had the idea ofmaking a film about Móri, the drunk who lost his child. A few years later the story of the single mother, which is based on a story from my family, came to me. Then in 2010, Biggi [co-writer Birgir Örn Steingrímsson of the band Maus] approached me with the banker. I had originally considered a lawyer. A friend of his had insider information about what went down in the banking world. That’s what seemed the most surreal to me—I might as well have directed a space movie—I never could have made this up. Bankers have said that we nailed it: the lingo, the atmosphere, the characters.
4. The actors have been praised for their effortless interpretation, and the writers for how multifaceted the characters are. What is the key to good characterization?
Our procedure is that, over a long period, we make notes when we hear interesting stories and let them ‘marinate.’ We were fortunate in that the producers gave us, to a certain extent, liberty to take our time for preparation, working with the actors on deepening the characters. We never rehearsed but rather met to improvise and get to know the characters; we wanted to know everything about them. When we reached the point where the actors felt more confident about their characters than I did—like when Steini [Þorsteinn Bachmann] commented: ‘Móri would never say that’—I knew it was time to let them loose.
5. In the film, viewers start rooting for the underdogs, while the person who has it all loses his feathers. Is the film’s moral that nothing is what it seems?
Exactly. I made a point of not showing the characters in the right light the first time we meet them. Don’t judge a book by its cover; that’s a theme in the film.
6. Given all the praise the film has been receiving in Iceland, I’m sure overseas audiences are getting anxious. When will it be screened abroad?
We’ve sent it to a big autumn film festival, Toronto, and will send it to Sundance if that doesn’t work out. I’m hopeful aboutToronto because Jitters (Órói; 2010) was screened there. Distribution contracts for public screening have been made in Scandinavia and in Canada.
7. You’re now shooting a documentary about Reynir sterki (1939-1982), a legendary Icelandic strongman, set to premiere in 2015. How did that happen?
You know, Reynir sterki is probably the reason I wanted to become a filmmaker. I’ve had his story stuck in my head since I was a kid. He had this incredible strength—I looked at him as a kind of superhero—and when I learned more about his life, which was filled with tears, I wanted to tell his story even more.
8. Are you working on other projects at the moment?
Biggi and I are writing a screenplay for a feature film with the working title The Contalgin Children. Contalgin is morphine, a heroin-related drug. Originally, we called it The Lost Girls after the teenage girls regularly reported missing in the news. We’re working with some of them. The condition is that they remain sober and two have found a purpose in life through the project. A diary written by a girl called Kristín Gerður, who died in 2001, sparked the idea for the film. She experienced the Icelandic underworld in the 1990s. Then Jóhannes Kr. Kristjánsson [a reporter, whose 17-year-old daughter Sissa died of an overdose of prescription drugs in 2010] joined the project. The film will be dedicated to her and Kristín. They were cousins and friends.
9. Your films are dramatic, if not without humor. Is that your thing or can we expect you to release a comedy at some point?
I’m drawn to drama. There’s so much sunshine in my life, so I guess I seek the darkness there [smiles]. But you never know, I might feel compelled to make a comedy after this.
10. Do you dream about Hollywood?
I have a dream, but not necessarily about Hollywood. I dream about making films always on my own terms, also elsewhere than in Iceland. But I don’t want to struggle. For now, I’m going to enjoy living and working here and if it happens, it happens.
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