Baltasar Kormákur: “Adrift, Hollywood and the importance of connecting with reality”

The director talks about the film industry and his latest movie with Sam Claflin and Shailene Woodley

Baltasar‡ Kormákur on the set of Adrift.

LONDON – He’s one of the most prominent European filmmakers working today, and to mark the release of his latest film, Adrift – starring Shailene Woodley and Sam Claflin, we had the pleasure of interviewing Icelandic auteur Baltasar Kormákur in London. He discusses with us why he doesn’t want to be a servant to Hollywood, the future of the Icelandic film industry, and why Logan is his favourite superhero movie of all time. He also comments on rumours that Hugh Jackman is set to take on the lead in his next movie, The Good Spy.

Kormakur, Woodley and Claflin attend the premiere of Adrift in L.A.

How involved was the real Tami Oldham in the making of this movie? Was she on set at all?
Yeah she was, she was involved in the script process initially, we were in contact with her to acquire the rights to her novel and then she was very helpful. When I came on board I created a contact with her and I had conversations on Skype with her and she came down to the set and was there for there for two weeks. She was may involved then I had ever had anyone else before, but it was very helpful, even to the extent that I would send her messages to check things and get my head around it. It was very helpful.

There’s always a pressure when making a movie, but that must be amplified when you know that the person you’re making a movie about, is going to sit down and watch it?
I would rather call it a responsibility than a pressure. I was very clear that I don’t make obituaries, but I do want to respect the people and the story, because the film is what people perceive to be the truth. At the same time, you have to dramatise it because it has to play as a film, but the integrity of the film has to come from her story. That’s the most important thing for me, I’m not doing anything that didn’t exist, I draw things and put them in the shape of the film, but even the most outlandish things in the film are drawn from the book.

The real Tami Oldham.

Obviously it’s based on a true, so the story is out there and people can discover it of their own accord. As a result I’ve noticed other journalists write about the real story, does that frustrate you? Because I had no idea how the story would end and benefited as a result.
Yeah, that’s how it should be. There’s a certain responsibility, the writers are there to serve the viewer and protect them from the “surprise” which is a big element of the film. If you’re there to make the experience richer, then of course we should protect that. But you know, people are different and you can’t control all that. When people saw the trailer they said I ‘Hollywoodised’ it, which is not the case. It is deeply drawn from her experience.

You seem to be drawn to the study of the human condition in the face of adversity. Adrift, Everest and The Deep, it’s exploring how we cope in very abnormal situations. What do you think it is about that theme that appeals to you as a storyteller?
What I like about it, is that we dress ourselves up in society to be this and that. You’re a journalist, I’m a director and we play those roles. But if we go together into the woods, it’s just me and you without those roles, and you dress down to the bare essentials of what you are. It’s sort of existentialistic and I guess I like that. I’ve travelled in Iceland around the Highlands on my horses, and my two best friends are a carpenter and someone who sells shoes, and I love to get away from all the bullshit with them. When things get tough, you’re just you, you don’t have any assistants, you don’t have any of your clout or whatever it is. In Everest, the women became incredibly strong and the muscly men just fall apart. That’s what I love about it, it just goes beyond what we pretend to be and becomes who we are.

Sam Claflin and Shailene Woodley in Adrift.

The sea always seems to play a big role too. It’s a very unpredictable force, is that part of its appeal?

Not just Adrift and The Deep, but your film The Sea and Contraband, to some extent. Contraband is a very different animal, that and 2 Guns were made to show that I can do big films in the box office, so I could then do some films I can personally invest more in, which led into Everest which is more like my Icelandic catalogue. I like lightness and fun too, humour and playfulness is fine, I have that part to me as well. But as for the sea, well I’m a Pisces and I grew up living by the sea with a garden that went down to the ocean. I was a competitive sailor since I was 10 and every summer I would be on the water, so I guess it’s just one of those things of nature that you’re strongly drawn to. I like travelling on the sea, I take ferries rather than flights when I can. That’s the interesting part about us as human beings, there is this part of nature that appeals to us. Why do I want to go out on my own with my horses up to the Highlands for 14 hours a day in a volcanic environment to spend my summer vacation? There’s this need of being connected to that, and I guess the sea is like a mountain, it draws you in and reels you in and then slaps you in the face when you think you’ve got it all right. I think the ocean is a bit like that, it’s soothing and it’s dangerous and it’s just everything, you know.

Kormákur and Mark Wahlberg on the set of 2 Guns.

Now you’ve made this Hollywood movies, can you see yourself returning to Iceland to make films across the rest of your career? To make them simultaneously?
No, not really. It’s tricky when you come from one of the smallest countries in the world, with one of the lowest populations. So one hand it’s your language and your background, but it’s also very limiting in how how you you can reach the world with you’re doing. I would like to combine it all in one, get beyond the language barriers and just make my films, wherever they have to be. And they are the same if they are Icelandic or in English, I don’t see it as me doing one here and one there, although that is what I have been doing a little bit – one for them, one for me. But I just want to make something I care for, and I don’t care what language they are in or where I shoot them. You’d call Everest a Hollywood movie but it’s actually English, shot in Nepal and Italy and Pinewood, with an Icelandic director and an international cast. It’s mostly because it was distributed by Universal, and that’s my dream anyway, that I don’t have to worry about the distribution, and some big companies can take care of that and sell it to everyone and lets everyone who wants to see it, see it. I would sell my Icelandic film to Universal any time. But I want to have it in one, I don’t need to be splitting. So I’m therefore opening a studio in Reykjavik to be able to do things there that can hopefully play on the world stage.

Baltasar Kormaku on the set of Everest.

Are you hoping that will really help the Icelandic film industry?
Of course, yeah. My movies alone won’t support that, so yea, that’s the idea. You can come to Iceland and have the facilities. People like to shoot because of the nature there, a few Hollywood projects have been shot there, so now given the opportunity, the local projects can be done in a more professional environment.

Hopefully the film industry will become as big as the football team…
It already is! Everything is happening together. I don’t think the football team is only because of football, its a mentality. Music has been doing really well in Iceland as well. It’s a mental state, we’re progressive in some ways and we now believe in ourselves. That’s one of the things i’ve been outspoken about, I don’t want to serve Hollywood in Iceland, I want to co-produce with them. I want to get our stories, and our people to work in bigger films, and that’s what I’ve been doing. The editor of Deadpool 2, for example, he’s Icelandic and he started off in my films – from Jar City to Contraband and now he’s getting big opportunities. That’s where I like to come in. Yes, let’s get them together, but let’s sit at the same table, we’re not going to be your servants.

Iceland national football team.

So what challenges derive from shooting at sea? It must be a difficult experience at times?
Yes,. It’s probably the hardest position to out yourself in, because equipment and the ocean doesn’t really go well together. It’s also gruelling to be on the water, but that’s partly why I want to do it, I want to have the actors draw from that experience and work from that experience. When you put mother nature as one of your main characters in your film, let them have that chance instead of creating it on a computer. I like to create a baseline and everything I can shoot, whether it’s a mountain movie or a sea movie, I like to shoot in the real location as much as I can. I don’t want to put anyone in harm’s way, so if I have to enhance it then I do that afterwards and work from the baseline I’ve created. This works both for the look of the film and also the performances, because the actors have now gone through that and drawn from that, they’re not going to change their performances now they’e on a stage. One of things I’ve criticised about Hollywood, is when you start losing that connection with reality, like when the hair is too nice on the actor, the teeth are too white. It’s every detail, the costumes don’t have any dirt on them, it takes you away from reality, and in the end you have something that has no connection to your life or reality. I watch these films and wonder where it all went wrong. Has nobody got a connection to the real world? I think by creating a baseline you have that. For example, the only superhero movie that I really like is Logan because it has some grit. I don’t mind that they have big incredible powers, I just don’t like all the theatrical costumes.

Shailene Woodley and Baltasar Korm‡kur on the set of Adrift.

You’ve mentioned this sense of ambition being shown in Iceland – and that’s something that has spread across Scandinavia. Big, grand projects are being made. Where do you think that ambition ad that mentality derives from in that particular region?
I can only speak for myself, and what’s happening around me, but there is a lot of ambition. Back in the day, if I would’ve told people that I was going to do what I’m doing now, they’d have put me in an insane asylum. I’ve worked with Denzel Washington, you know nobody has ever done that in countries like this. Once that is released, that kind of energy, or like having small Icelandic films being played around the world, one director after the other, it just releases a sort of energy that has been held back for a very long time. Even though you may not be that old, it’s in your DNA. It’s like when the Russians were making films in the communist era, they had so much pressure that they actually made the films more interesting because they had to find a way through it.

The same can be said of Iran too with Jafar Panahi…
Yep, and they find a way. I think it’s the friction, it makes things interesting. And our friction is that we don’t have anything, and we have to figure out, and we still want to do it, and I guess that’s where it comes from. Why am I fucking creating a studio in Iceland? It’s probably the worst business idea ever, you know. But that friction, the need to prove that we can do it, things can come out of that.

The Iranian filmaker Jafar Panahi.

You’ve assembled a great leading duo in this movie. A quick word on Sam Claflin – I think he’s almost a victim of his own good looks. He’s grown up in an industry and almost got boxed as being a romantic lead, but there’s grit and subtlety to him.
Yeah, definitely a subtlety. He’s a true gentleman and he’s really generous in his performance towards Shailene. This is her movie and it’s from her perspective and I therefore didn’t want anyone chewing away the scenery in the corner trying to steal the movie, and that’s actually a very generous performance that he allows that to happen. There’s something very gentle about him too. There’s a link in the movie where she says that he’s ‘sensitive like a woman’ and I think it takes a lot of masculinity to allow yourself be as sensitive as a woman and still be a man. There’s something I love about that and I think that Sam is so well-placed in himself. He’s not trying to prove anything, he doesn’t make the acting harder than it is, he just does it and he’s sincere about it, but not making it more than it is.

Woodley in Adrift.

And as for Shailene, was it a difficult role to cast? Because you have to find someone who is very resourceful and yet very beguiling. That mixture of someone who you would believe would be courageous enough to travel the world on her own and yet at the same time, effectively be a romantic lead too.
Yeah it’s tricky, but weirdly, she was mentioned to me by the writers because they knew her and instantly I knew it had to be her. We went through all the others, but I knew if we could get her it would be perfect. She’s a West Coast girl and there’s a West Coast energy from places like San Francisco, San Diego, I’m not talking about Hollywood, I’m talking about these free-spirited, nature-loving, outgoing characters which is a special breed. It’s such a subtle thing, and she embodies all of that. It’s also important because I was making a film about a lone woman being the hero, which is rare enough, especially when pitting a woman against nature, there’s almost none of that in film history, and I didn’t want it to be about how she looked in a bikini, but what kind of character is she? Even though Shailene is a gorgeous woman, it’s not that kind of movie, she doesn’t play her sexuality as a card, and that’s what makes her so appealing to women also, that it’s none of that. She’s just a full-on character and that’s what you should take away from the movie.

Did the two get quite seasick at all?
Yes. The first day was awful, they were all throwing up. From there everyone learnt to protect themselves and work with it. It had to happen, but then we could make a movie.

What has Tami’s feedback been?
I read an interview with her, and the only thing that has angered her is that some critics have said things weren’t truthful or real, because she thinks the film is so truthful and real to her experience, and that angered her. So I guess that’s a good thing.

Claflin and Woodley.

Was it quite nerve-wracking waiting to hear here response? I guess in some ways she’s the most important critic.
Yeah she is in some ways. But at the same time I don’t want to put it on her to have to love it. It’s great if she loves it, that’s what it is, but I don’t want to make her feel like she has to be out there fighting for the movie. But if she chooses to, which she has, it’s great.

The Good Spy is next up – there’s a lot of talk about Hugh Jackman getting involved. Is that looking likely at this stage?
It’s looking like it might happen, but there’s a couple things also which haven’t been leaked, like this one was, for some reason, which I am very excited about. But Hugh is definitely one of them, his interest is real, but there are still a lot of hurdles to get through before the movie is made. But it’s great, it’s very exciting and it’s something different to what I’ve been making recently. I’ve chosen not to look at myself too much in the third person, and what kind of films that I make, I just make films that inspire me. And let the others write down what it all amounts to.

Hugh Jackman in Logan.

You should tell Hugh your favourite superhero movie is Logan, that might help secure the deal.
Yes! I was so pleasantly surprised by that film. We had already been speaking though, I didn’t say that as a playing card at all. He’s good, but the girl is also fantastic. I was blown away because I didn’t expect it. It’s a different level of movie-making in that genre.

If you did get Hugh, he’d join a list of actors that consists of the likes of Denzel, Josh Brolin, Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Wahlberg. You’re working with the very best that there is – but who is it you haven’t worked with yet that you would most love to collaborate with?
There are many actors I would love to work with. I’ve been a fan of Cate Blanchett for a long time and we were about to make a project together but unfortunately it didn’t go forward, which had nothing to do with our relationship, which is great, it was just a financing thing. Christian Bale and Tom Hardy too, Benedict Cumberbatch, there’s a lot of people. I only want to do it for the right role though. What I want to do is work with people on even terms, whoever you are. I work with Icelandic actors in the same way I work with Denzel Washington, it doesn’t matter. Just do the work, we don’t have to be friends, let’s just meet in the work. If that can happen for the right role, it’s great. But having someone for the wrong reasons? That’s horrible.

  • Here you can watch Adrift trailer:

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