Writer/director Grímur Hákonarson Talks New Film ‘Rams’

Rams is a touching and earnest film from Icelandic writer/director Grímur Hákonarson.

It tells the story of two estranged sheep farmer brothers living next to each other on the same property, but who haven’t spoken to each other in forty years. When a deadly and devastating disease threatens to wipe out their herd, they must find a way to put aside their differences to save their flock.

On Wednesday, January 27th, the New York Times Film Club held a special screening of Rams, followed by a Q & A session with the director and the New York Times‘s Mekado Murphy.

Mekado Murphy: So, I just wanted to ask a few questions about the movie first. I wanted to ask a little bit about the initial idea for the movie and where the initial idea came from.

Grímur Hákonarson: It’s based on a true story, a story my father told me. There were the two brothers living in the north of Iceland, and they fell in love with the same girl when they were young. And she didn’t want them, and they kind of blamed each other for it because they both thought they had a good chance. And they had no siblings, so they had to live on the same land. They built two farms next to each other, and there were no windows on the walls between the two houses. Also they built a fence, a quite high fence between the two farms like in Rams. In the true story the brothers didn’t reconcile in the film, so it was a quite sad story. Yeah, I thought that story was interesting and maybe described our national character a little bit. There a lot of people that are a bit stubborn, and the stubborn sheep farmer is a classic character in our literature. Rams is not the first time someone is writing or making a film about this concept.

Murphy: Did you have experience yourself on a farm?

Hákonarson: Yes. When I was a kid, I spent some time on my grandfather’s farm, and I met some passionate farmers. Like there was one farmer who always ate the same meat soup all week. He cooked the soup in a big pot, and he kept soup in buckets inside his fridge like Gummi [in the film] does. There’s all kinds of details in the film that I experienced. Like the scene where Gummi is cutting his toenails with big scissors. That’s something I saw my grandfather do when I was a kid: sitting sort of naked in the living room and cutting his toenails. So yeah. It’s pretty much based on my experience and real people, real characters from the culture of Iceland.

Murphy: There’s some pretty interesting tractor action in the movie. Was that something that the actors had to learn how to do?

Hákonarson: Yeah. In Iceland, we don’t have money to pay stunt people and stand-ins. So, we let the actors drive the vehicles and do most of the things, even though they technically don’t have to. And the good thing is that Sigurður Sigurjónsson who played Gummi, he was working on a farm when he was a teenager, so he knew how to drive a tractor. So he had a good experience of this sort of agricultural work. And I think that helps to make him believable as a farmer. And also, he has a dog, and he used to talk to his dog, and basically it’s like to same thing as talking to a sheep. So that was very helpful. And then this tractor scene when he drops his brother in front of the hospital, that’s a real story also. In the real version, there were two brothers who were drunk, and one sort of died in the snow, so his brother took him in the [tractor’s] shovel, and he took him to the next town. He left him not in front of the hospital, he left him there, and he woke up and didn’t know where he was.

Murphy: So the style of this movie, it tends to have very long takes. It has a little bit of a contemplative style. I’m curious about your inspiration in terms of filmmakers and what inspired the style of this movie.

Hákonarson: My main sort of artistic goal was to make film look very real. And a part of that was the many scenes shot in single shots. I’m not cutting. I’m not trying to cut too much. I’m letting the scene play naturally. There’s many scenes in Rams shot in single shots. It has always been my directing style. It’s a slow pace, a lot of wide shots, emphasizing on the space on the characters, emphasizing on the space, on the loneliness. Living alone with the sheep. Everything, what it comes to — the set design, the costumes, the acting — is very low key. I want the film to feel as real as possible.

Murphy: I wanted to ask about working with the sheep in the movie. Was that a difficult thing to do? Were you concerned about it when you started?

Hákonarson: Yeah, I can tell you, I had some nightmares before starting to film about working with the sheep. There’s a lot of complicated sheep scenes in the film. And some people when they read the script, they told me, “Well you can forget about this. You’re not gonna make a snow storm with sheep. Forget about it.” But we actually spent more time on casting the sheep than casting the actors. Because in Iceland, all the actors are on the same webpage. But the sheep, we really had to find them, we had to look for them. We visited several farms and most of the sheep just ran away from us. Then we found these super calm sheep. They’re used to staying at home, they’re used to being around people. And that’s very important, because when you’re filming, there’s a lot of people, a lot of equipment, a lot of stress, and that was basically the key. I also had a sheep expert — a professional farmer. Most farmers are sheep experts. I had him with me throughout the whole process, and he would tell me if the sheep looked like a superior sheep or a good looking sheep. And today, after making this film, when I’m driving around Iceland and I see some sheep, I have opinions. I’m looking at the back muscles.

There was one trick we used quite a lot in the film. We let this sheep farmer drag one sheep in front of the group. Because they are group animals, the group followed. And then we painted the farmer out in post-production. This was a trick we used quite often. But, you know I had a really good experience working with the sheep. And actually, I had the feeling as we were shooting along, they — well, they didn’t know they were acting in a film — but they kind of got into the routine, you know? They came to the set in the morning and met the same people. So they got used to some kind of routine.

Murphy: I have one more question for you about scrapie, which is a disease referenced in this movie. Had you ever experienced a situation in which there were sheep infected with scrapie, where something like this happened where the entire stock had to be killed?

Hákonarson: Yes, it actually happened to my aunt. The sheep were infected by scrapie, and they had to cut the whole stock. And I experienced this kind of emotional shock at the trauma they had to go through. And it was one of my intentions with making this movie, to show people behind the scenes what’s going on, because it has been done before. That was one of my intentions. In Iceland, this is the biggest threat to the sheep farmer, and this has caused a lot of damage in Iceland. I read somewhere that sixty percent of sheep farmers who have this disease in sheep, they quit or they change jobs to move away. So this is a part of the reason why sheep farming in Iceland is struggling.

From the audience: You juxtapose in the movie the younger people, they come from the south, veterinarians. It’s sort of a sad ending. You see death and the sheep on surviving. Is this sort of a suggestion of your view that the past, like your grandfather, it’s a world that’s disappearing? The small farms, the family farmers, it’s all gone or going to go?

Hákonarson: Yeah, in a way. It’s almost like the ultimate farming society in Iceland which is under a threat. Iceland is getting more modernized, and it’s difficult to live from sheep farming today. Most sheep farmers are doing something on the side, like a tourist business, something like that. I think it’s a happy ending [in the film] for me, because the brothers reconcile. They get together in the end. So you don’t know what happens after that. You don’t know what happens. But I think the message is quite clear: it’s about the importance of communication and human relationships in difficult times. And this is for me, even though this sheep farming country is dying out, this is a happy ending.

From the audience: Can you tell us something about your two lead actors and what their backgrounds are?

Hákonarson: Yeah. They’re professional actors. Many people think they’re real farmers, but they’re professional actors. And like most Icelandic actors, they work in the theatre because we don’t produce so many movies. They’re quite experienced, they’re quite well know. The main actor,  Sigurður Sigurjónsson, he’s a famous comedian in Iceland. He’s has these comedy shows on television. And for them, you know, doing Rams was a big opportunity. They were dedicated. They were studying in some scenes. When I was working with the actors, I was focused more on practical rehearsals rather than rehearsing the dialogue. I let them read books about sheep farming, they talked to farmers, they were learning how to talk to the animals. We spent some time on the location, and they were getting used to this farming atmosphere. In this kind of life everything is sort of relaxed and slow. And that was one of my goals, to create this moment as well. Everything’s kind of relaxed and slow. There’s not a lot of dialogue in the movie. There’s a lot of silence, and it took a little time, it took a little effort, because they were used to the stage. It took time to find the right sort of balance in the acting, because it’s a quite realistic and low key film.

The screening was presented by Reyka Vodka. An after-party followed at The Late Late. The film hits theaters Feb. 3. Read our review here:

Film Review: ‘Rams’

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