Interview with ‘Trapped’ director Baltasar Kormákur

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The Icelandic filmmaker behind Trapped and Everest exposes us to the cinematic elements.

We were mesmerised by the engaging characters, the mystery, and the treacherous landscape of Iceland irradiated with beauty. Trapped aired earlier this year on BBC Four but has travelled beyond the UK to international acclaim, making the show a phenomenal success on a global scale. Let’s give a hand to the man that helmed the hit series: writer, creator, director, and storm chaser Baltasar Kormákur.

Kormákur has been awarded as Director of the Year at Iceland’s own Edda Awards 2013, the Nordic Honorary Dragon Award at Göteborg Film Festival 2014, and International Filmmaker of the Year at CinemaCon 2015 – all after being recognised with the prestigious Discovery Award at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) in the year 2000 for his debut film 101 Reykjavík.

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Today, Kormákur is spearheading the new RVK Studios’ Media Village, running BlueEyes Productions, and the Icelandic VFX company Framestore. “I always have too much on my plate but then you get into something new and focus on that.” The cornucopia of cinematic projects on his schedule include a new Viking movie from Working Title and Universal, and the sci-fi series Eve, with Ridley Scott as a producer. Teaming up with fellow Trapped director Börkur Sigthorsson. Kormákur will also be producing drugs thriller Mules (filmed in Iceland, Denmark, and Sweden), and The Mayor which is a comic satire based on the real-life comedian Jon Gnarr who became mayor of Reykjavik.

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Having collaborated with star Ólafur Darri Ólafsson in theatre, film, and television, Ólafsson shared with us the admiration he has working with Kormákur: “I love working with Baltasar; he is completely fascinating. There are many reasons but first and foremost he just does not compromise on quality. He immerses himself completely into what he does…” We wanted to know more about their on-screen partnership from Kormákur himself: “Over the years Ólafur has grown immensely. He was in my first film 101 Reykjavík in which we play friends. He has a natural, warm, and effortless charm that doesn’t come from an obvious point. I wanted him for the role of Andri and there was no one else in my mind, but the TV station supporting the production wanted a more conventional lead actor. I wanted him to be almost like the landscape; a mountain, a big, burly man! The landscape in Iceland is very contrasting and I wanted the character to be like this as well. There aren’t many people who can carry a 10-epsiode series, you know? He is one of the few that can.”

Find out more from Ólafur Darri Ólafsson in our interview with the actor here.

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The character of Chief of Police Andri Ólafsson is fascinating in that his emotions and behaviour tend to go against type to present a very different version of the masculine hero. “I like that about it. I think there are so many clichés about these Nordic Noir cops so we wanted to create a very different character; a warm father. Andri is struggling with fatherhood in a very difficult situation. He’s not a drinker or a heavy smoker like many Nordic Noir policemen tend to be. We wanted to find a modern tone for a man in that position. A lot of Scandi crime shows have a female detective as the lead to give it a fresh take. I admire that and think it’s brilliant – but I wanted to approach it from a different angle, otherwise I would be doing the same.”

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As well as challenging classic and modern conventions of the Nordic crime genre, the character of Andri is a very personal interpretation. “In some way, I think the character of Andri comes from somewhere inside; there is a personality that you partly build from yourself and from the people you know. The character is trapped in the village as well as his personal life. He has moved to this place to be with his wife and he is stuck there in a weird way. It is something I did myself too! My wife wanted to move to our farm in the North of Iceland – which is only 60km from where we filmed Trapped. I moved to where her family is to make her happy, whilst travelling for my career and endeavouring to make it work. As I say; part of it comes from within. We’re still married, though! But I liked the idea of the complications in the show and that Andri was stuck living with his in-laws. It’s a very real situation for me. That’s what happens; people think they can fix their problems by moving but the problems follow them.”

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The inspiration to create the series with a contemporary protagonist has been building up since 2006, with one of the director’s earlier crime thrillers featuring Trapped co-stars Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson and Björn Hlynur Haraldsson. “I made a film called Jar City which was received well in the UK and stars Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson (Andri’s colleague Ásgeir, who also appears in Everest). He is a fantastic actor. It is based on the Nordic Noir novels by Arnaldur Indriðason and we were thinking about adapting the books into a TV series for a while. However, Indriðason wasn’t really keen on the idea because he wanted his novels to be adapted into films rather than a TV show. At some point, I thought – I’m going to make my own TV series. I came up with the idea of being trapped in a village where the weather plays a big part of the story itself and becomes a ticking clock.”

Explore the Icelandic landscape and the beguiling locations of Trapped here.

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“The idea for Trapped was mine initially, then Sigurjón Kjartansson collaborated on the script and we threw ideas around, back and forth. He comes from a small place called Ísafjörður, which is on the West coast of Iceland, so he knows about smaller village life. Then we brought on British writer Clive Bradley to work with us. Overall, it’s a collaboration really. Even before we made the series, I wanted it to be successful. I wanted people to refer to Trapped as the ‘Icelandic Nordic Noir’, alongside its Scandinavian relatives like The Killing and The Bridge. However, it would always be called ‘the Icelandic show’. I think it is specific enough to stand out on its own merit.”

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Ahead of the BBC Four air date for Trapped, British audiences were given an international impression of what to expect from the director’s extreme environmental themes, with Everest released in UK cinemas in September 2015. “I have been working with Working Title Films for some time and when the opportunity to direct Everest came up I couldn’t resist it! [LAUGHS] If you put something in front of me like that – the big mountain and the worst weather that could ever happen – how can I resist this? I knew it was going to be difficult as hell but, like in the story, being a filmmaker is about going on a journey. You don’t want to necessarily foresee or calculate too much. If something attracts you, it’s risky, and it’s interesting – you should go for it. I was very successful with my first film 101 Reykjavík on an Icelandic scale, which was a global hit but I didn’t want to make another black comedy. I wanted to make something different. The journey drives me – not just the end result of every film. I see it as an arc. But, of course, you want to get the best version of everything you do.”

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If we look at Trapped, Everest, and The Deep,– special effects are used to enhance a lot of the extreme weather, locations, and physical action involved. Yet, most of what the viewer sees actually happens without CGI. “I try to push it as far as I can without harming anyone – I’ve gotten very close to it! At the same time, people should be on the line. It should be risky and actors shouldn’t be laid-back or lazy. I think people really feel it when you film like that; they feel that they are risking something and putting all their effort into it both physically and mentally. I think the audience respects that too. In Trapped, we drove to the hardest location in Iceland to shoot where the worst weather is. Then we have to augment it with visual effects, but we are still freezing our butts off! The same was with Everest as well. I don’t think anyone has pushed it that far. We filmed on location by the North Atlantic Ocean for a month when most people might choose to film scenes in a tank. I also like to be there with my actors as well. I put myself on the line; I swim with them and do whatever I need to do. This is to create more of a relationship – we’re in this together. I’m not telling them what to do from far away in my cosy chair. Although, I can only do it like this until I am 70-years-old! [LAUGHS] Then I think I will have to stop!”

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Kormákur has worked with a regular pool of actors on many of his projects. It would seem that the director is rarely out of his comfort zone and really in his element on location, which new cast and production teams are amenable to. “Most people respond to this kind of relationship. I love working with people who have done a great job on my previous films. I trust them and have brought them along to my bigger productions to help open up doors for them, such as Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson from Jar City, Trapped, and Everest, as well as my editor Elísabet Ronaldsdóttir. Yes, it is great to work with them if they are available but I don’t want it to become stilted. In Iceland, you know everyone and you want to give everyone a chance. I don’t want to be part of a little Icelandic Mafia. I run one of the biggest production companies and I have a lot of responsibility, as well as producing in the theatre. Every time I make a movie in Iceland I open up the casting. It sounds better on paper that you are very good to your friends but this limits the opportunity for other people to step forward. I try to balance working with the same people I like while offering others the same chance.”

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Icelandic based shows are also becoming more prominent with Fortitude and even the new season of Game of Thrones has been announced that it will be filmed in Iceland. “Traveling abroad and gaining the trust and respect has given me incredible opportunities back home. Ultimately, I didn’t want to move to Hollywood; I wanted to use this opportunity to come back to Iceland and make something more meaningful to me. The Iceland film industry can be so much more than what it is and was. This means we don’t have to support productions from Iceland, shot in Icelandic, or specifically about the Icelandic culture – we can open it up to different things for a bigger industry. It’s the same with the UK – it has Star Wars as part of its British film heritage. I want to build the country’s film industry to make it a more sustainable business in Iceland. I also want to produce smaller, independent, and art-house films. Trapped is opening up a lot of prospects in television in Iceland which has never travelled internationally before. This is not me bragging – it’s reality. I think Trapped has now generated more viewers abroad than with all Icelandic TV shows combined since it began in the 1960s.”

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Recently, Kormákur has been fundamental in the curation of the RVK Studios Media Village which will raise the status of the Icelandic film and TV industry even more, as well as nurturing upcoming talents and independent productions on the horizon. “I wouldn’t have been able to do this without the support of the big television stations – it all hangs together. Now, I am building this Media Village and there is a lot of interest in the film school, plus the music industry wants to be involved. I take a lot of pride in being the person that has pushed this initiative forward. I do believe it can be a successful business but, at the end of the day, it is very meaningful to me. More meaningful than being in LA, sat in a bar drinking tequila, and waiting for a call from someone I don’t know! Iceland is a very small country with a very small population, so I think there will be a lot more coming. We are just getting the freedom to become a bigger player in the industry.”

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Currently in the middle of the festival circuit, Kormákur is heading to Cannes and the Toronto International Film Festival. At TIFF 2016, Kormákur will be showcasing his new film The Oath and joins fellow Nordic filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg for The Commune. Both features have been selected to appear in the Special Presentation section. In the past, Trapped previewed at TIFF 2015 and the Toronto-based film festival also premiered The Deep, which was subsequently celebrated for receiving Iceland’s first Oscar nomination. “I was at TIFF for The Deep and 101 Reykjavik won the Discovery Award in the year 2000 so it all started there. I have a big place in my heart for Toronto. It’s a great story really! I was almost bankrupt and my producers were telling me I had to admit it to myself. Even Lars von Trier went bankrupt but I was assured that “I would be OK and get back on my horse, it’ll take me 20 years but I would be fine!” [LAUGHS] That was a month before Toronto. Then I won the Discovery Award, the film sold all over the world, and it saved my ass! [LAUGHS] So I have a very high opinion of TIFF – it’s always been good to me!”

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The Oath notably marks Kormákur’s return to acting after 15 years, when he chose to remain behind the camera. “This is the first film that I’ve acted since 101 Reykjavik. I haven’t decided to appear in any of my films since then. It’s interesting because I hated starring in my first film at the time and I said I would never do it again because I didn’t like my performance at all. I stank! [LAUGHS] After stepping into the actor’s shoes I felt that I needed to go back to the drawing board. Although, I enjoyed returning to acting as you understand your actors better when you have the experience of how to act yourself.”

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After graduating as an actor from Iceland’s National Academy of Fine Arts and later being signed by the National Theatre of Iceland, Kormákur pursued his passion for directing instead. “From the theatre, I felt that I needed more creativity in what I was doing. With no offence intended to any actors – I didn’t like the submissive feeling. It was like waiting to be asked to dance. I wanted to be the one to decide that I wanted to dance; to ask someone to dance and take the lead. In general, that was the feeling I had. I wanted to step up and decide which stories I wanted to tell. When I shot my first film I knew. A lot of kids run around with an 8mm camera and know they’re going to be a filmmaker when they grow up, like Steven Spielberg. If I told people I wanted a career in Hollywood as a child in Iceland in the 70s and 80s – they would have locked me up for being mad! There was no history of it happening at that time, you know? Whereas, I became an actor and then a director. I can clearly remember the moment it occurred to me: I was lying underneath a crane with a camera, shooting 101 Reykjavik and realised, yeah, this is what I was meant to do! That feeling emerged and I didn’t want to be anywhere else. I’m going to do this for a while. I wasn’t looking for it; I found it.”

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From the classic use of spectacle gimmicks on-screen to advances in technology and 3D, we wondered how the director felt about technology and SFX as a means to enhance the cinema-going experience. “I am a big supporter of evolution. I am not nostalgic and I don’t think that if you film using a 16mm camera it is better than how we film now. I love the digital technique. This doesn’t mean I don’t like the film grain – it is the technique of the time when it happened originally. A film made in 2016 that looks like it has been shot in the 70s will always be from a 2016 perspective. I don’t want to recreate things backwards. I think there is a future ahead of us that is more interesting than what is behind us. Part of this is because you don’t know what it is! It’s like if Hollywood studios wanted to keep films in black and white in the 40s – it’s not going to work.”

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Everest has been screened in both 2D and 3D versions in the cinema, which arguably matches the level of quality programming we have seen dedicated to television series such as Trapped. “With Everest, I wouldn’t want to do it without a 3D presentation. People enjoyed watching it in 2D but 3D audiences want an immersive experience that the film can deliver. It’s really hard to show the height in 2D cinema with the mountains and the depth. If you take a picture from the top of a mountain it is flat! 3D helped a lot to give the shape of the mountain and the landscape. The first time I visited Base Camp my reaction was “Wow!” Looking at the Himalayas – I’ve never felt anything like that. If I can give people a little bit of that then I will be happy.”

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We couldn’t speak with the award-winning filmmaker without finding out if there will be a second season of Trapped added to his slate, as rumoured. “We are writing it. I’ve said if I am happy enough with the scripts and if we can get the financing then I will make it. I can’t announce anything yet but we are writing away so it’s exciting.”

Words and interview by Antony Smith

Trapped: The Complete Series One is available to buy on DVD and Blu-ray through Nordic Noir & Beyond. Order your copy from the Amazon store here.