I’m a bit difficult to be around. I think it helps me as a director to be stubborn because I really fight for my vision and I never steer away from that.
Grímur Hákonarson’s Rams is a scenic humanist drama set in a remote Icelandic farming valley. Gummi (Sigurður Sigurjónsson) and Kiddi (Theodór Júlíusson) are aging brothers, both bachelor sheep farmers, who haven’t spoken to one another in four decades despite living on neighboring farms. The estranged men instead communicate through letters shuttled to and fro via Kiddi’s sheepdog—except on one occasion when a shotgun is deemed a more appropriate method. Women and children are wholly absent in their lives, but they take infinite pride in breeding sheep from the same ancient pedigree, annually rivaling in a valley-wide competition for best ram. On one unfortuante day, Kiddi’s flock shows signs of scrapie and all local farmers are forced to slaughter their herd in order to eradicate the incurable and highly contagious virus. It’s a devastating blow, but the order hits Kiddi and Gummi particularly hard. The battle over pride, a 40-year-old grudge, gives way to reconciliation as desperate times call for desperate measures to save their sheep.
Nearly a year has passed since Rams deservedly took home the top prize at Cannes in the Un Certain Regard sidebar, and Hákonarson has several projects in the pipeline. Little Moscow, a documentary he’s been working on for the past two years, studies a real Icelandic village that was once a bastion of socialism and how the village has changed since the 1930s. The Icelandic filmmaker is also busy penning his third narrative feature tentatively titled The County, a self-described “rural lesbian movie concerning women and cows,” slated to shoot in late 2017.
Rams opens in New York City on February 3rd with a national rollout to follow.
Let’s get a little background on you first, Grímur. What was life like growing up in Iceland?
Both my parents grew up on farms and, when I was a kid, I spent a lot of time on my grandfather’s farm. I’m very familiar with the sheep herding culture, and Rams is pretty much inspired by my personal life experiences. I’ve been told that I was a really creative kid. I was always coming up with stories, I was already taking acting classes when I was 8, and I made my first short film when I was 14. So it was always a big part of my life. Filmmaking is not only a job to me, it takes up a big part of my life. It’s part of my identity, a stereotype that so many filmmakers often talk about.
I love the anecdote about your grandfather clipping his toenails with these giant shears, which you included in the movie. Are there other details like that you can share?
[Laughs] That’s something I saw my grandfather do when I was a kid. There’s also the scene with Gummi cooking meat soup. I know a farmer in Iceland who makes meat soup in this big pot and keeps it in the fridge, basically living off on that for the rest of the week. The tractor scene where Gummi dumps his brother off in front of the hospital, that’s taken from a real story as well.
So was it your decision to take those acting classes when you were 8 years old?
I think my parents were trying to find something for me to do, although I was playing football at the time. One of my teachers in my elementary school told my father that I was always acting for the other kids, putting together these small theater plays in class. Then he got this idea in his head that I should take acting classes to try and develop that skill, you know? My parents weren’t involved in the arts themselves, but my father was always very much into theater and film.
Were you watching the kinds of films that your parents were watching growing up?
No, not so much. [Laughs] I was watching Police Academy, and kid’s movies. I wasn’t watching arthouse films or [Andrei] Tarkovsky—that came later, just by going to the cinema. My father took me to the theater to watch Hamlet when I was 9. It was bit heavy watching that at 9, you know?
How did you get your hands on your first camera? I believe it was the Super-VHS.
I got confirmed to enter the church and when you get confirmed, you get presents. I got some money and I used that to buy a video camera, the Super-VHS. It was at a time when VHS ruled the world, so I’m from the VHS generation. I felt good with the camera, and the reason I was behind the camera was because I was the only one in my group of friends who knew how to use it.
As you mentioned earlier, you worked on a lot of farms in your teenage years. Did you enjoy the experience at the time? Do you have mostly fond memories looking back on it?
Yeah. Some of them were cow farms and some of them were sheep farms. But I mainly stayed on my grandfather’s farm. My mother believed that I would become a more independent individual if she sent me out to work on different farms. One summer, I worked on a farm where I didn’t know anyone. Going into a new environment and starting from scratch like that, it’s actually a quite common method in Iceland. Parents send their kids to work on farms every summer to at least show them another way of life because they believe it’s good to at least try it and to see it.
Would you be open to living like that for the rest of your life, on a remote farm with sheep?
As I get older, the idea of moving to the countryside, somewhere rural, is becoming more realistic in my mind. I like being alone—I’m a loner—so I have something in common with the brothers.
I wasn’t aware of scrapie prior to watching Rams. When farmers are forced to slaughter their sheep herd like that, it’s like pulling the plug. You’ve seen it happen firsthand, right?
It’s a big trauma. This is more difficult for people who live alone with their sheep. For people that are married and with families, it’s easier because they have that support system. Gummi and Kiddi live alone, and even though they’re neighboring brothers, they’re estranged. Scrapie is perhaps the biggest threat in their lives. It’s been around in Iceland since the end of the nineteenth century. It has caused a lot of damage and it’s one of the big reasons why sheep farming is in such decline.
Is the scrapie outbreak quite a common occurrence?
It comes up regularly. Last time it came up was last June. In the ’80s and ’90s, the government tried to eliminate the disease and they killed sheep in very big areas. It was a large-scale slaughter. They tried to eliminate the disease and managed to stop it in certain areas, but it’s still coming up.
You devised backstories for Gummi and Kiddi so your actors could immerse themselves in their characters. It’s obviously not critical for us to know what they’ve been quarreling about for four decades, but is there an explicit reason you’re maybe open to sharing with us now?
Of course, the backstory explains everything. I maybe explained it a little bit more in the script, but in the editing process, we thought what we had was enough. We wanted people to think about why Gummi and Kiddi weren’t speaking to each other. They’re very different from one another. Kiddi, the older brother, is difficult. He’s not a stable person. We gave little hints as to what might’ve happened: it’s about land inheritance and how their parents didn’t trust Kiddi with the land. Generally, this is my directing style. I don’t like to feed the audience too many definite answers.
And this came out of a famous story in Iceland?
I wouldn’t say “famous,” but it’s something that happened in North Iceland. There were two brothers who didn’t speak to each other for 40 years. They were in love with the same girl and fighting over her, but she didn’t want them and they blamed each other for it. I thought the story was very interesting and a bit special because, they’re isolated and living next each other, but still don’t speak for 40 years. It’s quite a unique situation. I also felt that the story had elements of both comedy and drama. It’s a sad story, but it also gives you a lot of opportunities for funny moments.
Do you know if those brothers ever reconciled?
In the real story, they never reconciled. It has quite a sad ending. Many people think my film has a sad ending, but I think it’s a happy ending. Maybe we shouldn’t talk about the ending right now.
Going four decades without speaking to your brother can seem excessive. In past interviews, you attributed this stubbornness to the Icelandic people. Are you a very stubborn person?
Yeah. Definitely. I’m a bit difficult to be around. I think it helps me as a director to be stubborn because I really fight for my vision and I never steer away from that. But I’m still cooperative and people have told me it’s nice to work with me. For a director, I think it’s good to be stubborn to a certain point. I’m a young guy, but I’m a history buff, I like the past a lot, and I’m a bit of an old fashioned guy, generally speaking. I have difficulty using my cellphone. I’m not good with computers. I like to read The New York Times, on printed paper. So I’m a little like that. [Laughs]
I was going to say, it’s so incredibly difficult to get a movie off the ground and it can take years and years to just secure financing. Stubbornness is a friend in situations like this.
I wrote this for three years. My first feature didn’t do so well, so when I got a second chance to make a movie, I really wanted to put in the work and the time. It was crucial that Rams did well because you don’t get more chances. That’s why I needed to spend more time on it. And I’m a perfectionist. I can develop stories forever. I think Rams is a crucial film in my career.
From what I understand, you had quite a pleasant experience working with cooperative sheep on this film. But did you have concerns leading up to the shoot that it might actually be very difficult? It’s one of those unknowable things until you’re actually doing it.
Animals can be unpredictable, but we were very lucky with the sheep we had. They were very relaxed and enjoyed being around people, for the most part. We also had a professional wrangler, a farmer from the area. We somehow managed to pull off the complicated scenes. I had nightmares about all the sheep before we started shooting. I spoke to some directors who were quite pessimistic about it. They thought it would be a disaster to have sheep walk through a snowstorm, for example. Sometimes it took a while, you know? Other times, it didn’t take much time at all to make the sheep do what we needed. Sometimes they would run away and we had to go find them. [Laughs] There’s one scene where we had to get 200 sheep into a barn to get slaughtered in the film and they just didn’t want to go inside in the middle of summer. We had 30 people on set trying to chase them in. The sheep ran down some lights and it was a big disaster that one.
This is something that I didn’t think about while watching the movie, but you not only had to find docile sheep, but photogenic ones. Did that come as a challenge?
We did sheep casting because we needed the sheep to look like they were of a special breed. In the film, the brothers’ breed are supposed to be the best in the country—the best stock. I had a farmer with me during the casting to advise me and I would ask him, “Do they look like a special stock?”
Rams is a classic example of the “write what you know” film. It was born out of something you’re very familiar with. Are you open to writing something quite distant from your reality?
Not yet. But if I decide to write a film in English, I might try to make a story that’s set in the U.S. That would be a new chapter in my career, making a film in a different country. I’m from Iceland and all my friends are there, and it’s easy for me to tell stories back home. It will probably be a different thing to film in English somewhere else. There were a lot of doors opening up around the world after the win at Cannes. It’s just a matter of which doors I want to unlock. Rams changed a lot of things for me. I’m getting a lot of offers, so everything’s a success. It’s been a big change, not only for me but also for the producer [Grímar Jónsson] and the cinematographer [Sturla Brandth Grøvlen], who’s been winning prizes and now highly sought after in Europe.