New Directors/New Films Interview: Benedikt Erlingsson (Writer/Direcor: ‘Of Horses & Men’)

Of Horses & Men‘, the debut feature by celebrated stage director Benedikt Erlingsson announces the arrival of an innovative new cinematic voice. Set almost exclusively outdoors amid stunning Icelandic landscapes, the film features in equal parts a cast of exquisite short-legged Icelandic horses and human characters—including the terrific Ingvar E. Sigurdsson and Charlotte Bøving as meant-for-each-other but put-upon lovers—illuminating with great inventive flair the relationship between man and beast. Several narrative strands defined by the way each character relates to their horse recount a variety of situations according to the particulars of the seasons, resulting in a surprising and sometimes humorous symbiosis between horses, humans, and nature.

Anticipating the New Directors/New Films screenings of ‘Of Horses & Men‘ we sat down with the film’s Director Benedikt Erlingsson to discuss the nature of production in Iceland, the unique characteristics of the Icelandic horse, the countries rich cultural history and much more.  ‘Of Horses & Men‘ screens on Monday, March 24, 2014 at 6:30pm at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater.

Find More Information & Tickets to ‘Of Horses & Men’ As Part of the 2014 New Directors/New Films LineupHERE

How did the idea for ‘Of Horses & Men’ originate?
It is like a pregnancy in that it is a very personal film.  As a teenager I had to work in the countryside.  This is a custom in Iceland.  I was from downtown Reykjavik and ended up on a farm in the Northeastern part of the country.  I was there for 4 summers.  After that, I became very impacted by this culture, people and lifestyle and I have been interested in horses ever since.  You can say making this film is a healing process for me.  I am healing my culture shock.

We are a little Atlantic island, settled in 800 AD as one of the first societies of the region.  The people who settled there were boat people.  They came from Norway, Ireland, Scotland and they came with horses.  We deforested Iceland, at the time, and lost the ability to make ships but we kept this knowledge of horses and horse culture.  The horse became our ship.  This has survived until today.  I have been very fascinated by this perspective.

Of_Horses_And_MenWhat are the unique characteristic of the Icelandic horse?
Horses have not been imported to Iceland in over 1000 years so they are very pure.  The horse works for the man half of the year and is wild the other half. Socially and Mentally they are very strong as a result of this treatment.

Then, they have 5 gaits, which is rare.

We are very proud and believe in the horse.  The horse has been worshipped in Iceland as some kind of a god.  When we decided to be Christian, we made a law forbidding the eating of horse meat.  If one chose to be heathen and eat it it was alright as long as it was done in secret.  This was the compromise and is still so today.  We love our horses but sometimes we also have to eat them. This film is about people, but also about the coexistence of these two animals.

As a director what was your approach to filming the Icelandic landscape?
In a way, the landscape is overused. This is the curse of Icelandic filmmaking.  When I did my first short film, about people meeting on a mountain, I wanted it to be in rain and fog.  I did not want to show landscape but rather rely on narrative.  In that sense it will come out of itself.  Here, I wanted to make an essence picture but, at the same time,  I am not going to move the crew for a “perfect” landscape shot.  Everything is very local, where we shoot everything in the area logistically.  That being said, the landscape is there.  It is god’s gift and has great meaning.  It becomes poetic.

Of_Horses_And_MenAt a physical levels, what are the difficulties filming in Iceland?
We shot this film over 25 days and were very lucky with the weather.  We could not have had a day extra on the production because then came a huge blizzard.  At the same time in Iceland, there was filming on ‘Oblivion‘, as well as ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty‘ and Darren Aronofsky’s ‘Noah‘.  These productions took all the professional crews.  I could not even get snow because ‘Oblivion‘ ordered all of it.  We had less than 1% of those films budgets, so this was particularly difficult filming in Iceland over the Summer of 2012.

The area I chose was a dry area.  I knew there would not be too much rain and clouds, but the light and weather does constantly change.  In a way what happened was something of a miracle.  We got nearly all the right weather at the right time.  We got rain when we needed rain; we got wind and snow when we needed it.  I did think we got a bit too much sun (laughs).  To work in Iceland you have to have a good connection with the spirits.

What is the funding model like in Iceland?  Is it unique in comparison to other European models?
It is very similar as other Nordic countries.  We do 5-7 feature films per year and a lot of documentaries.  None of this would be possible without the Icelandic Film Fund.  By the way, I think you should have a Film Fund in New York.  It basically works like, if they (Film Fund) like the manuscript they can promise 60% of the budget.  Then we tried to find a Co-Producer in other countries who also applies to their film funds, or other comparable funds.  Then you have private financing.

With my film we got no support outside of the Icelandic Film Fund.  The rest was private financing.  It was a group very near to me; my neighbor, nephew, father and friends with means.  It was a group funded film within a local community.

This film is character driven but not from a singular protagonist.  As a writer, how did you develop this aspect of the film’s narrative construction?
I am fascinated by the mosaic picture.  You can refer to Pasolini films, Robert Altman’s ‘Short Cuts’ or PT Anderson’s ‘Magnolia‘. The essence of it, though, comes from my heritage and Icelandic sagas.  This is a film inspired by the older culture.  When we sit together we entertain each other with stories.  There are stories that a sometimes true, which have been told again and again taking a shape of their own over time.  The Icelandic sagas are also from this older culture, shaped in the same way.  The stories in this film are stories I have heard combined with some of my own fantasy.  When you tell many stories with the same theme, I believe the public gets more distance.  They can see the bigger picture or a different perspective.  The audience may start to look and ask questions: Why are we telling these stories together?  The danger with the Aristotelic 3 act narrative is that it is hypnotizing towards a singular experience.

Of_Horses_And_MenBeing both the writer and director of this film, what is your approach to filming your own words?  Do you find it as being an absolute?
In the theater I work with improvisation.  This film was not done that way.  It is much more tyrannical in that way.  There is a lot of effort in the writing and I wanted to stay within the script.  In the script, every sentence is one shot so in a way I had cut the film within the manuscript.  In the hustle of the shooting period an actor could come up and ask why we were doing things in a certain way and asking to change or test something new.  If I did this too often I would not have the concentration on why I had written it the way I had as there was a reason things were written the way they were.  In that sense I was a very boring director on-set.  If I thought it was a valid suggestion we may shoot two variances and see which worked.  I think every film has its own style in that sense but this way was important to me for this film.

The cast is very diverse in the sense it does not feature native Icelanders exclusively.  How is this representative of the Icelandic population as a whole?
The film is a trip into the multi-nationalism that exists in Iceland.  I believe Icelanders are all the people who love Iceland and not just those from there.  600,000 tourists come to Iceland every summer so you can say they are part of the culture, like the horses.

In every country there is nationalism.  This proudness of your culture has the potential to become very dangerous if it goes over a certain line.  With this film, I am commenting on that as well.  The real heroes of the film are foreigners.  Iceland is full of Scandinavian girls who work with horses and, in a strange way, they are fascinated by them.  They are like nuns in the sense that nuns are married to Jesus Christ.  These girls are married to the horse.  They even marry many farmers to be close to the animals.

Of course, we have a Latino character who is also a hero.  He is the poetic, Renaissance man.

Does the practical reality of distribution ever play into your mind when on-set or during the creation and development process?
I am a populist.  I come from theater and want people to see my plays.  I do not want to make a critical darling where no public shows up. That has happened and I hate it when it does.  In a way, I am not satisfied if things are not public successes.  This is not very artistic.  I work as a storyteller so I want my audience to experience the stories.  I want to touch them.  I also get a percentage of ticket sales which is important because I have mouths to feed.  In this sense I am very primitive.

That being said, I have to be in love with the subject as each film takes on a lifespan averaging 7 years.  I have to be the only marketing group.  The first criteria is that I have to like it.  When you have written the piece you then try to sell it where you make the distribution arguments.  When you have the money then you execute and go back to the basics.  You go from spiritual to material then back to spiritual.

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