Horsing around

Benedikt Erlingsson on touring Of Horses And Men, his plans for the future and killing the movie star.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

"That's the model of the film - telling stories of the countryside, from the valley, our society"
Nearing the end of a whirlwind tour for his film Of Horses and Men - which goes on release in the UK on June 13 - I caught up with Benedikt Erlingsson in New York during his participation in the 43rd New Directors/New Films.

We discussed his Woody Allen moment in Central Park, how where Tom Cruise went in Oblivion, the snow followed, Orson Welles, and the influence theatre should have on filmmakers. He also praised the efforts by singers Björk and Patti Smith in raising awareness for the protection of the Icelandic Highlands at the benefit screening of Darren Aronofsky's Noah in Reykjavík last week.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Let's pick up where you left off with Eye For Film. Amber Wilkinson spoke with you about the film last year (read that interview here).

Benedikt Erlingsson: I think it was my first international interview.

AKT: How has the film changed for you since then?

BE: I stopped watching it. I only see the first five minutes because of the sound. The last time i watched it with an audience was in Palm Springs.

AKT: Is the reaction different across the globe?

BE: Yes, I think so. It's very beautiful to witness it. I remember the warm reaction in Spain [at the San Sebastian Film Festival], Basque country, where they really were into the humour and the local situation, everybody following each other. And then in Tokyo there was a totally different concentration, they were watching with open mouths. The times when everybody was laughing in Spain, there was total silence. Of course, they liked it but in another way.

AKT: And here in New York at the Film Society of Lincoln Center?

Benedikt Erlingsson on Of Horses and Men:
Benedikt Erlingsson on Of Horses and Men: "It can be funny, you can exaggerate, help it, dramatise it, but it has to be truthful." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
BE: I haven't seen it with the public yet. In Palm Springs people walked out, four or five people in every performance. It was too shocking for them. Not here in New York.

AKT: Not a lot shocks us in New York, that's true. The film has an episodic structure and reflects the oral tradition. And yet, your film does not go into the realm of ancient legends, no animals transform into humans or vice versa. Were you ever tempted to go into the mythical?

BE: No, that was never part of this vision. Mr Friðrik Þór Friðriksson [the producer] suggested at one time I should let the horse talk. It was, of course, a joke, but the horse has been placed on the altar as a god. Men believe in the horse like some mythical figure or a force. This is not part of that storytelling type. I like this kind of storytelling - to tell short stories. It's the same when we meet in a group of people and entertain each other. In essence we are telling short stories to each other, similar themes, similar people. That's the model of the film - telling stories of the countryside, from the valley, our society.

AKT: An oral tradition that is contemporary and still very much alive in Iceland?

BE: Yes, and when you have an oral tradition you have to be really believable in some sense. You have to make them realistic.

AKT: The definition of a legend - told as truth.

BE: As truth, that's the essence. In our story telling we do that. It can be funny, you can exaggerate, help it, dramatise it, but it has to be truthful.

AKT: Three big movie productions were recently filming in Iceland. Oblivion with Tom Cruise directed by Joseph Kosinski, Ben Stiller's Secret Life Of Walter Mitty, and Darren Aronofsky's Noah. Do any of them capture something of the 'true' Iceland in your opinion?

BE: They were all shot the same summer that I was shooting, 2012. It was a disaster for me. They had taken all the most professional crews. And Mr Tom Cruise had ordered all the artificial snow in the country. So I could not get any snow! I needed some extra snow. I was left with potato powder.

AKT: There is a tale - How Tom Cruise Stole My Snow.

BE: To be honest, I have not seen any of those films.

AKT: With your theatre background, how is your work for the stage similar to this film?

"Mr Tom Cruise had ordered all the artificial snow in the country... I was left with potato powder."
BE: In the theatre, I have worked as an actor and director. And I have done my own performance story telling, like Dario Fo or even stand-up artists. Filmmaking is closest to that kind of work where you make your own stuff and you melt it and work on it and make an essence of situations. You can say my theatre background has been a long film school. I think films should look at theatre. It's a pity how isolated those two areas are. There are prejudices against theatre in the film culture. In theatre there is much more freedom to experiment with expression. Film is really stuck in a cliche and has been for a long time in terms of narrative form.

AKT: It's the question of money and risk-taking versus repetition.

BE: Yes, because the producers are so afraid and mainstream films are so expensive. In how to tell a story, theatre is more vibrant. Film has influenced theatre, too. The cutting and editing strategy of film has really influenced playwrights and directors. Many filmmakers had a background in theatre. Orson Welles is a good example.

AKT: What are you working on now? Film or theatre?

BE: I am planning a new film. I am working on it just in my head, in my hotel room between interviews. I had a great artistic day with myself in New York. I went to Central Park and I felt like I was walking into a Woody Allen movie.

AKT: New York can give you that sense of entering a film scenario unexpectedly when you turn a corner. Will your new project take place in Iceland?

BE: I think so. I want to make universal films in Iceland. I hope one day I can make a mainstream film in Icelandic. Break the English monopoly for mainstream film. Mr Mel Gibson was a good example by making a film in a dead language. That was for us small nations with small languages a great example. Everything is possible.

AKT: You have relatively little spoken language in Of Horses and Men. Was that the reason?

BE: I'm not directly thinking of the international appeal, it might be an extra good that comes out of it. It's just the style, the story didn't need it because it's an animal story. The language is like animal sounds. A lot of dialogue we don't even have subtitled because we don't want people to understand word for word. It's to listen to language as sounds.

AKT: Speaking of sounds. Were you still in Iceland last week on March 18 for the big concert Let's Protect the Park with Björk and Patti Smith for the premiere of Noah?

BE: To protect our Highlands. No, I was already on my way here. I was in London at that time. It was a great thing that Darren [Aronofsky] and Björk did. We are really fighting for our Highlands. It's a cultural value fight in essence.

AKT: I am going to push some more about your next project.

BE: At one point I said my next film will be called Of Woman and Woman. Because I have three daughters and I am very inspired by the Bechdel test. It's the test to see if a film has two women with names that are talking to each other about something else than a man. There's not many films that pass this test. I pass this test in this film. There are two women in my film talking about the testicles of a horse.

AKT: Can you tell me a bit more?

BE: This has been a cliché answer - Woman to Woman. And maybe the next answer - because the producers will be very unhappy to read that - is that I want to do science fiction. That would be a problem for them because it costs money.

AKT: And Tom Cruise could be in it and bring his snow?

BE: No, if we talk about the future, I think we should make a new dogma in Scandinavia, to start a European vision. We should kill the movie star. I think people are getting bored of the movie stars. We should focus on narrative and stories and use actors more like fireworks, just one time. We could maybe educate our public to accept that. It's always the producers who need the movie stars because they are afraid and they think the movie star gives them a guarantee. That's why we have to kill the movie star.

AKT: And you are very good at killing off your stars. Your star mare, for example.

BE: I'm always killing my stars.

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