As part of an early look at next year’s Oscars, Prize Fighter – in an ongoing series – is highlighting several of the directors and official entries submitted by a whopping 71 countries competing for the Academy Award for best foreign language film.
Iceland’s official 2013 foreign film Oscar entry The Deep, directed by Baltasar Kormákur, opens with a view of a boat submerged in the dark, deep, green ocean.
It’s an eerie, almost calm shot, and foreshadows the rest of the film, about an absolutely tragic real-life incident in Iceland in 1984, when a fishing boat capsized off the coast leaving only one survivor, played in the movie by large, curly-haired Ólafur Darri Ólafsson.
Kormákur, who directed Mark Wahlberg in this year’s Hollywood action-thriller Contraband, and in the upcoming Two Guns, is a master at showcasing Iceland’s cold, white, and quiet Westman Islands. The ocean, through his lens, is an isolated hell: Mother Nature spread wide, wet, and endless. There are also references to the 1973 volcano eruption that spewed lava and ash across the area, another violent blip of nature, forcing island residents to evacuate to the capital city, Reykjavík. Near Greenland, northwest of mainland Europe, Iceland – with its small population – has mainly been known to outsiders through the music of natives Bjork and Sigur Ros.
“In my country, 80 percent of people live by the sea. It’s a very dear story to Icelandic people. It happened in 1984, when I was 18 years old,” Kormákur says. “We’ve had shipwrecks and lost men for years. It’s the thing people are most afraid of in Iceland, losing men to sea. This story was appealing because you could deal with the shipwreck, but also give people a little hope, so it doesn’t just end with people dying in the sea.”
The movie moves at a methodic, realistic pace, from bar fights before the fishing trip to a sailor watching a small television set on the boat. The boat’s creaking, quick nighttime sink into the water is visually brilliant, with its six inhabitants praying, shivering, swimming, and drowning, save one, who fights to stay alive.
The black sky and the water merge together. Seagulls squawk. The movie’s a definitive story of unlikely survival, but also is about the difficulties of what comes after: loss, media attention, scrutiny, guilt, recovery, life.
“I didn’t want to Hollywood-ize it too much. I wanted to not make a documentary, but be poetic. Nature and man, when you’re alone at sea,” says Kormákur. “Even the more poetic moments are actually based partly on the truth. This was very important to me. We didn’t want it to be ‘emotional porno,’ how we call it in our country: fictionalizing, making it over-the-top. There’s always a bigger power out there. It’s humbling. You’re constantly reminded of that in Iceland. There was the bank collapse in 2008, and that was a huge thing. We kind of lost ourselves, our heroes.”
To capture the movie’s hyper realistic shipwreck and sea scenes, with Ólafsson’s head barely bobbing and skimming above the water, Kormákur actually filmed where the wreck happened.
He used green screen and CGI to clean up some shots, but stuck to filming the shoot as rigorously physical as how powerful the waves crash on screen. You almost feel half frozen yourself watching the ocean-to-land struggle of Ólafsson, a hunched over quiet moose of a man in the film.
“I had to tie the actor to myself and swim with him, to keep him in the frame. I used to swim a lot. That wasn’t the hardest part,” said Kormákur. “The actor was in the ocean for three or four weeks. We were thrown against cliffs. I wanted it to feel authentic and real, and feel connected to the real guy. He did not want to be a part of the film, and he didn’t try to stop it in any way. Like in the movie, he’s very shy. … I was actually in the boat when the boat went down, since we don’t have stunt guys in Iceland. I didn’t want to put actors who weren’t up for it in danger. That was a magnificent moment. It was all worth it to me. I would never bungee jump, but I would go to the most dangerous place while shooting a film. I get my thrill in work. In the boat, you realize where your limits are.”
So what are the chances of a dark, bleak Icelandic movie making it through the Oscar ranks, alongside 70 other official foreign film entries, to snag a coveted nomination?
Kormákur also works in Hollywood, but he doesn’t subscribe to competitive hype, he says, though he’s absolutely passionate about The Deep and helping other Icelandic films. He runs a TV and movie company in Iceland, and he’s also a huge fan of lighter Hollywood fare, “movies that don’t take themselves so seriously,” he said.
“It’s more a team sport, filmmaking, in my country. The actors are important on the screen, but it’s more about ideas,” Kormákur says. “For me, I’m just fighting for the film. I just want to look at it as a healthy competition. The Oscars are one of the biggest venues for foreign films to get attention. I run a film company in Iceland, and produce Icelandic films for directors. When I come to Hollywood, you’re suddenly dealing with a $50 million budget, and it’s a whole different thing. I would do whatever it takes to help this Icelandic film. It helps, financially, to do Hollywood films. The more I do over here, [the more] I can put into the industry in Iceland. You have a different hat on, but it’s the same head.”
Kormákur says working with Mark Wahlberg is no different to making his films in Iceland. The Fighter’s star may be a serious tough guy on screen, wielding guns and fists, but in person he’s somewhat a softie.
“He’s the easiest kind of star you can work with,” says Kormákur. “He approached me about doing Two Guns. He also called me when I was in Toronto with The Deep, and asked me, ‘How did it go?’ There’s more money in Hollywood, but they’re my friends too. You can’t be totally ignorant about American culture and making American movies. Having an outsider perspective is very helpful. In Hollywood, we are making films for the world.”
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