After it won the “Un Certain Regard” section at Cannes last year, “Rams,” the latest film from Icelandic director Grímur Hákonarsson, made a stop at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.
The story features two sheep farming brothers who haven’t spoken to each other in 40 years, yet live as neighbors in an isolated Iceland valley. When a tragic disease infects their flocks, each of them has different ways of dealing with the affliction, and it forces them to confront their relationship.
We caught up Hákonarsson to discuss the inspiration behind the film, the difficulty in working with animals and his thoughts on how American audiences have embraced his story.
The first thing I noticed about this film was the deep connection the community has to sheep. How would you describe the relationship between these farmers and their animals?
There seems to be a special, closer connection between farmers and their sheep, than maybe farmers to cows. I think the sheep are more of a heartbeat for farmers. They tend to see them as pets. People don’t do sheep farming to earn money, they do it for pleasure, for a hobby. [It’s] like dogs. The sheep tend to be treated like that. But sheep are also deeply rooted in our culture and history and there’s a lot of culture around the sheep – ram competitions, things like that.
Was that connection the genesis of “Rams?” What inspired this kind of story?
Yeah, I had different intentions with the film – to tell a story about the relationship between farmers and sheep, but then it’s also a story about brothers who haven’t spoken for years. I thought these stories had some similar elements. For example, people who live alone with sheep get closer to the sheep. So I thought it made sense for the main characters to live alone. So I kind of combined those two stories.
Where did you find these sheep? I’ve heard the casting process was quite rigorous.
Yeah, it was much more difficult to cast the sheep than the actors. We had to look really hard for them. It was extremely important that they were cooperating. It was also important that they look photogenic on film, that they were beautiful because they were supposed to be a special breed. You had to understand why the brothers wanted to save them. I think the key factor was that they were super calm and relaxed, so it was easy to direct them.
How difficult is it to film sheep? Was there any hesitation to direct a movie with animals?
I have worked with cows and dogs, and it’s pretty unpredictable when you’re directing animals. But if you have good people with you in the crew, you can always find a way to finish the scenes. I had some nightmares about all these animal scenes. I heard some stories about directing animals and how difficult it was. There were some directors who read the script and they had some big concerns about all these complicated scenes. They were pessimistic. They were asking me “How are you going to do this? Are you crazy? How are you going to let the sheep walk through a snowstorm?” But somehow we always found a way. I think we were really lucky in this project.
For that snowstorm scene near the end, did you have to wait to find one? How did you end up filming that?
The snowstorm was kind of divided into two parts and the first part we tried to film in a real snowstorm and we managed to get that done. The reason I did that was I thought that it would help the made-up snowstorm. The second part we had wind machines and fake snow, but we also painted more snow in post-production. We spent a lot of time and money on visual effects.
What is it like to make a film in Iceland? Was it easy to finance and get off the ground?
“Rams” is a relatively cheap film. It’s made for one million euros; most of the money is from the Icelandic Film Fund. The films are funded by the state and Icelandic films have to rely on getting money from Scandinavia, from all the countries. Before I made “Rams,” I was not a big name, so we got rejected from a lot of film funds in Europe and Scandinavia. So we had to make it really cheap. What we did was we tried to prioritize for the ratio outcome of the film. We were saving money on the production, but we trying to spend money on the initial outcome – the camera, the lenses.
So did you have a place in mind already for the film’s location?
I just found it by a coincidence. I was just driving around the country and trying to find a location and the reason I chose this farm is that they’re already close – it was almost like they were one piece – the two farms. There’s a lot of story in the location and there’s a fence between the two farms so it had this kind of dramatic opportunity. After I found this location I re-wrote the script and got a lot of ideas from the location. It was also important to find a farm that was already isolated and had a beautiful landscape.
What interested you in exploring these two brothers – there’s a lot of anger between them, but you also manage to add humor into the relationship.
Yeah, that’s in all my movies, there’s humor in all my movies. The basic idea is that it’s based like a tragi-comedy – the brothers who haven’t spoken in 40 years, but they live in the middle of nowhere next to each other is quite sad but funny at the same time. When I’m picking ideas I don’t want the stories to be too happy. I want them to have this kind of comic and dramatic element.
The heaviness and central conflict of the film is the disease called scrapie, which attacks an animal’s nervous system. How much has Iceland had issues with it?
I know some people who experienced this, who had to kill their sheep because of scrapie. I experienced how much of a big shock it is, and how it affected the people psychologically. I have that experience. But also, my father was working for the Agricultural Ministry, and he was working in these cold cases when it came up. So he taught me a lot about this when the sheep in big areas are killed. So I have some personal insight, but I also had the practical insight.
Did you hear stories of farmers refusing to kill their flock?
Yes, that’s all based on real stories. Usually, when scrapie comes up in an area and many sheep have to be killed, usually there’s some resistance and there are some people who want to save their sheep. We had stories of people hiding the sheep. We had stories of people threatening to kill themselves if the government takes the sheep. But these stories have never been told before. That’s something I wanted to do. People don’t know what’s going on there, what’s happening behind the scenes. People read in the newspapers about “some scrapie came up here,” but they don’t really know what’s going on.
So, this premiered at Cannes and now lands at Sundance. What was your experience like in Park City, and the reception from an American audience?
I have a feeling they laughed more. Americans seem to find the film funnier than people in Europe. I’ve been showing it all over the U.S. in Telluride, Palm Springs, and it got a really good reaction in the states. I think the Americans relate a little more to the characters and humor. They also relate a lot to the [sheep] dogs – they’re asking me what happened to the dogs. That’s been my experience.
Before we go, I have to ask if you got attached to any sheep during shooting? Was it hard to say goodbye?
No, I didn’t do that. But there were two lambs that were born during shooting…when the Ram was having sex with the sheep [during a scene]. And my plan next summer is to go and see them.
So you’ll always have their conception on film…
Yeah, yeah, yeah! It’s historical. It was documented.