You have to take chances
Katla director Baltasar Kormákur on filming in the Icelandic weather, the future, and natural power
On June 17th, Iceland's National Day, Netflix premiered a new series called Katla. It is the first Icelandic language production by Netflix, set during a catastrophic eruption of the titular, and a very real, volcano. In the series, the eruption has covered the nearby township of Vík in ash and dislocated most of the local population. Those who have stayed begin to observe some strange phenomena, not quite of this world.
We caught up with Baltasar Kormákur, the creator of the show, who after a successful career as an actor throughout the nineties, emerged this century as one of Iceland’s leading film directors and producers with titles such as 101 Reykjavík, Jar City, Everest, and the ongoing series Trapped.
You’re in South Africa now shooting your next film Beast. How does the predictable weather there compare to filming in Iceland?
Well, for one you can actually make plans here! The weather is predictable and steady; it’s beautiful and very warm. There is almost no rescheduling because of weather, whereas in Iceland you are working with all types of weather: rain, snow, sun, wind … often all on the same day. You can have snow in summer and sunny in winter. So, there are issues and you’re constantly rescheduling or making last-minute changes. But it makes you very mobile as a filmmaker. I think it’s a good experience to have.
You seem quite adamant about living in Iceland and not relocating to Los Angeles or elsewhere where you’re closer to the business. Why is that?
I am as Icelandic as the Icelandic sweater. Though I may look different than most people there, my heart is Icelandic and I couldn’t imagine being elsewhere. I’ll be spending almost a year in South Africa–and I love it–but I can't not be part of Iceland. I have children there and animals that I care for a lot. I can’t uproot myself. I am grateful for having the opportunity to work in Nepal, Fiji, South Africa, Panama, America … all these places I’ve shot in around the world. But even when it comes to working, I enjoy Iceland the best. I feel like I can give the most authentic version of myself when shooting there.
My mission has been to open up an international film base in Iceland
In the last decade, Icelandic films have seen major critical acclaim and won awards, and then we’ve made very popular TV series such as Trapped. It seems like Katla will continue this streak. How do you see the future of the Icelandic film industry?
My mission has been to open up an international film base in Iceland. Not a service company for the big Hollywood studios but to be able to produce movies on a larger scale. For example, Katla is as Icelandic as can be. It’s about Icelandic folklore and Icelandic volcanoes and right now it’s number five on Netflix worldwide. Every person working on Katla is Icelandic apart from two actors who are Swedish. That opens endless doors and possibilities for Icelandic talents. I didn’t even think this would’ve been possible a few years ago–that a major studio would come in and fully finance an Icelandic product.
Also, hopefully, we’ll grow in diversity. We’ll have all sorts of genres. In my opinion, maybe one of the downfalls of Icelandic cinema is that it’s a bit monotonous. There’s a lot of the same stuff. I think if we’re going to stay in business, we have to do a lot of different things. We have to make art house films and films that the public wants to see: children’s films and adventure and horror and sci-fi … anything under the sun, really. Also just to keep the Icelandic audiences interested. It’s fantastic with a show like Katla–which is quite an out-there concept–that all sorts of people in Iceland seem to be watching it. I even got an e-mail from someone working in a nursing home saying the old-timers were so excited that they didn’t show up for their afternoon coffee because they didn’t want to stop watching.
Why do you think Netflix was willing to take this risk?
I think they liked the concept. And they wanted to do something with me and my company. I’ve been pitching the idea since 2010 or 2011 and there was a lot of interest. J.J. Abrams’ company was interested, but they wanted to make it in English, I wanted to make it in Icelandic. And then Netflix came along. It’s not a prime-time TV show that you program at a regular TV station. It’s much more niche. It’s definitely the most original idea I’ve worked on. So, the reception has been great and simply the fact that we got it made.
As you were getting Katla ready, the eruption in Fagradalsfjall began. How did that feel? Do you think art can teach us anything about how to handle a disaster?
I was hoping it would be Katla! No, but seriously, I don’t really look it at that way. I’m interested in observing people and their reactions to different situations. Maybe there is something to learn from that; some will react this way to danger while others might do the wrong thing. But I’m not a preacher in any way. Filmmakers who are preachers don’t interest me. Art should be for its own sake, not for political ends or propaganda.
When you live in a country like Iceland, surrounded by volcanoes and bad weather, it reminds you on a daily basis that you are on nature’s terms.
Katla touches on themes such as man’s smallness against nature. Do you think that’s more true in Iceland than elsewhere?
Absolutely. When I was doing Everest people would ask me how I’d prepared and I said: “By walking to school every day.” To a kid, in a snowstorm, that felt like climbing Mount Everest. When you live in a country like Iceland, surrounded by volcanoes and bad weather, it reminds you on a daily basis that you are on nature’s terms. I remember when Eyjafjallajökull blew [in 2010] and people were irritated about not being able to travel … it reminded me that a lot of people are not in touch with nature. We are not in control and, yes, maybe we might have to reschedule our flight. It’s funny when people lose sight of that.
Guðrún Eyfjörð aka GDRN stars in Katla. She is a popular singer in Iceland but has no acting experience. How did you end up casting her?
My daughter knows her and had mentioned her. I didn’t know her music back then, but she came for an audition and simply blew me away. I thought she was great. Of course, we had to train her a bit, make her ready for it, but in my opinion, we couldn’t have cast anyone better for the role. In this job, you have to take chances. You can’t just always go for the same. I never questioned that choice, and, now with the reception she is getting, it seems people agree. Especially in the later episodes, you’ll see some things done brilliantly by her. I think she’ll be around both as an actress and a singer for a while.
Can you share a good story from the set where 66°North saved the day?
66°North is actually saving the day here in Africa! The nights are pretty cold so I’m wearing 66°North from top to toe. I thought when I was packing: “Will I really need the 66 now?” See, I’ve been wearing those clothes on set for 15 or 20 years so I figured I’d take it with me just in case. And in the end, I’ve been wearing 66 more than anything over here. When we were shooting in Nepal, it was a real lifesaver having those clothes. I remember, there was this little boy that we met way high up when we were scouting for Everest. He was walking alone on the slopes, this young boy who ended up working for us actually. Anyway, we became good friends and in the end, I gave him my 66°North clothes. I figured that was the best gift I could give him. So he’s probably there in the Himalayas somewhere right now, not cold at all!