Interview with Grímur Hákonarson
Director of "Rams"
Festival de Cannes 2015 - Un Certain Regard
Name: Niels Putman
In Grímur Hákonarson’s Rams, the Icelandic scenery features a home for a humanistic story to take place. Two shepherd-brothers are living next door, but haven’t spoken to one another for 40 years. They share just one thing: their undying love for sheep. We spoke with the director of this well-loved Un Certain Regard-entry.
Hitchcock once said that actors are like cattle. Who were better, the sheep or the real actors?
Definitely the sheep. (laughs) It was really important to find the right sheep though, the ones that first of all would look good, because people should have the feeling that they are a special breed that has to survive. Then also, we had to find sheep that were mentally stable enough to do the job; they had to be relaxed around a lot of people.
What is it about this relationship between Island and animals? Do you think it’s because the winters are so long that people just need company?
A lot of Icelanders do live alone; they don’t talk to a lot of people and still have that human need to socialize. Many farmers I know tell me that the sheep especially are important to them. Sheep are like pets, they are very connected to the Icelandic nation: they kept us alive for thousands of years.
Is sheep farming still important nowadays?
It is kind of dying down, it’s having a big crisis today. In the 80s there were three times more sheep in Iceland. These characters, like the brothers in the film, are getting rare. You still find them though. There’s this one farmer in Iceland who is trying to get permission to burry him on his land, together with his sheep when he dies. He’s very serious about it.
Did you easily find a good location to shoot, then?
To make it more authentic, it was good for us to use people that actually lived where we shot the movie. We used them, not only as actors, but also to guard the sheep or to feature as a stuntman.
Obviously, the title is referring to the brothers too. Is it something typically for Icelandic people to fight with each other?
Of course, conflict in families is everywhere, but is indeed very common in Iceland. There are many stories of brothers for instance who don’t speak to one another even though being on the same land. Many Icelanders are independent; they also tend to be a bit stubborn. I think these brothers are reflecting a big part of Iceland.
Is this a part that you know well?
I’m a city boy, because I live in Reykjavík, but I go to the country a lot. My parents grew up on a farm and I was a kid that was working on a farm because both my grandparents were farmers. I know a lot about them. Also, I made some documentaries about farmers. I used some ideas from them to create the characters for Rams.
Is it an easy jump for you, to go from documentary to fiction film?
When I’m making a documentary it’s usually a small crew: it might just be me and a DOP. Rams is a low-budget feature film, especially if you compare it to feature films in Europe. But compared to documentary, it’s way bigger. There’s a big crew, so you have to communicate with a lot of people. There’s more pressure, since everything is about money. If you don’t make the day, you lose a lot of money. That’s the biggest difference, for me.
You did very well in balancing drama with humour, how did the writing process go?
In my short films, there has always been this kind of dry or black humour, even though they are always dramas in essence. When I try to write a drama script, it becomes natural for me to write comedy with it. I think it’s in my character to have humour in everything and somehow my character is reflected in the film. Sometimes it’s difficult to find the right balance though. I was really careful when making the film because I made the mistake before: people didn’t know what they were watching. Should they laugh, should they cry? I think I found the right balance in this one.
Do you think the humour in the film reflects the Scandinavian kind of humour?
I would consider myself as a typical Scandinavian filmmaker with black humour, yes. I kind of relate to directors like Roy Anderson and Bent Hamer.
You will always have to come back to family – do you think that’s true? Does it apply to most people?
I definitely think that’s true. If I speak for myself, I don’t have any conflicts with family members, but if I do, it usually takes less time than forty years. (laughs) But this is a universal story, everyone can relates to it, which might be the reason why people like the film. I met someone during my time in Cannes, who hadn’t spoken to his brother in five years. I told him to give Rams to his brother – as a Christmas present.