Baltasar Kormákur on The Deep
Since making his transition from actor to writer/director in 2000 with the raucous comedy 101 Reykjavik, Baltasar Kormákur has rapidly established himself as one of the most gifted and versatile European filmmakers. The Icelandic multi-hyphenate has moved with seeming ease from grand family dramas (The Sea) to gritty police procedurals (Jar City) and poignant comedies (White Night Wedding), while also turning out English-language indie thrillers such as 2005’s A Little Trip to Heaven (starring Forest Whitaker, Julia Stiles and Jeremy Renner) and the 2010’s Inhale, with Diane Kruger, Dermot Mulroney and Sam Shepard.
Though Kormákur had arguably the biggest film of his career this year with Contraband – the Mark Wahlberg thriller based on 2008’s Reykjavík-Rotterdam, which Kormákur both produced and starred in – he has not abandoned his native cinema in order to focus solely on the lure of Hollywood. At this fall’s Toronto International Film Festival, Kormákur debuted his eighth feature as a director, The Deep, based on the real-life story of Gulli (the excellently understated Ólafur Darri Ólafsson), a fisherman who defied science by surviving after his boat was sunk far out at sea, swimming for hours on end through Arctic waters before reaching land. The Deep is a remarkable film which tells in a vivid and intimate way a story that seems almost impossible to put on film. The shipwreck and scenes of Gulli swimming are visually stunning, but this film goes way beyond the empty spectacle of a movie like The Perfect Storm, both in its handling of those sequences and in the way it focuses on the repercussions of his miraculous survival on Gulli’s life.
Selected by Iceland as its official selection for this year’s Academy Awards, The Deep was recently picked up by Focus World for distribution and will be rolled out in Spring 2013. Filmmaker recently spoke with Kormákur about the unique challenges of making a shipwreck movie on a small budget.
Filmmaker: What were the challenges of making a film about a shipwreck on a small budget? Did you do it in a tank?
Kormákur: I looked at a couple of tanks in Alicante and other places, and I learned on those trips that it doesn’t look anything like the ocean to me. So, if you’re going to manage this, you gotta do a lot of CGI work with the water. And one of the hardest things in CGI is water. And then, you need a budget like Life of Pi, or Kon Tiki, which was like $16 million. I had $3 million to make this one. And also 80 percent of my country live by the sea, so it was like, “OK, if this is going to make any sense to people, we actually just have to shoot it in the ocean.” So we did that and we spent a month in the ocean. It’s all shot in big waves in the ocean and to the extent that I actually was swimming with the actor to hold him in the frame with a rope while I was backstroking and he was swimming forward. I was just controlling, holding him in in the frame because the camera had to be on a platform in the ocean, and then somebody had to be throwing water on the lens because it salted up the lens the whole time. So I mean, because there was no booth to look to, and people just [Laughs] are not that stupid as you would think, and you’re in the moving ocean. So, you can’t have any tracks. You can’t roll with the actors. So, I had to start rolling. We also had underwater shooting in the ocean. We did go to a pool to do some close-ups underwater, but that’s about it. But, a lot of the shoots below are shot in the ocean like, under him. And that beaching in this crazy way, we just did it. We actually did it for three days. We don’t have a lot of stunt people in Iceland. It was basically, where the guy based in reality, and it was like, the waves are as they are always. I had rescue people with me. One of the rescue guys was supposed to stunt the scene and basically said, “We’re not going to do it. This is just ridiculous.” And I’m the producer of the film. I’m saying, “I’ve already taken five hours to get here and every one of the cameras and all of us up here. I’m losing a day.” So, I, in my desperation just said, “Okay, I’m going.” And I swam to there, got thrown up against the cliffs and then crawled out onto the beach and said, “Okay, it’s safe.” What I figured basically is that rescue people, they don’t really love to put people in danger. They actually like to save them.
Filmmaker: Those shots of Gulli when he’s being thrown up against the cliffs are amazing.
Kormákur: We did it for three days and we tried to get every possible dangerous shot. And there’s some great footage of us standing there, just totally out of control. But the d.p. also put himself into quite [a lot of danger] —we even swam with the camera, me and the d.p. I went with him to hold him so we could control it so we wouldn’t be thrown against a rock or something. We swam to make a POV, you know? [Laughs] And then we put down the ship. I actually bought a ship which didn’t have a quota anymore. It didn’t have a fishing license, so you can get a boat like that cheap. And we sank it. I stunted in that scene myself because I didn’t want to put actors that weren’t up for it into it, or we didn’t have enough stunt people. And just that experience, when the water came in and you’re just hanging onto something… I don’t bungee jump or I’m not one to jump out of an airplane, but there’s some need to experience a little bit of what your story is about. I have that urge to find it and find it physically and real to me. I think I get my kicks out of that.
Filmmaker: When you went into the casting process, did you know this is what you were going to be putting your actor through, that it was going to be somebody who was going to be so physically committed to the role that they would be doing all this stuff?
Kormákur: Yeah, because I didn’t cast it until I decided to shoot it in the ocean. But here’s the thing. I always knew [Ólafur Darri] Ólafsson. I worked with him. He’s been with me on other films. He’s done theater with me and I knew that he was the right guy, but he was kind of too obvious to me because he looked just like the guy. I kind of resented it, but the guy is just standing there next to me, one of the best actors of the country and he basically looks exactly like the real guy, and that’s rare. So, he was like, waiting to be cast and waiting for me to talk to him and I never did. I was thinking about other guys and checking out these upcoming guys that have that kind of body. And then he started to ask me for a minute and said, “I really, really want to do this. I really want to be considered for this role.” And that was perfect because I said, “Well, if you’re ready to be in the sea for a month and being thrown against rocks and walk barefoot on lava, then the role is yours.” [Laughs] So then he said, “Yeah, I’ll do it.”
Kormákur: And, of course, when somebody wants something that bad, they’re ready to put themselves through a lot more. But on the other hand, cut to three months later and him in the ocean, he kind of forgot that. [Laughs] But, we got through it together. I mean, he is a very courageous and kind of a great guy. He’s not shy of that. He broke down after like, two days on those cliffs and started crying and just said, “I can’t do it. I’m getting so scared. I can’t do it.” And it was scary to me because I had to push him. I didn’t have the sequence yet. I wasn’t afraid that I was going to kill him. I kind of knew what I was doing, having been through it myself a couple of times—you know, I even went into the sea. I showed him, went into the place, waited for seven waves to come in. I did it for him two or three times so he could see. When I pushed him to do this, I got scared because I realized that I was responsible for him. He was doing something that he thought he couldn’t control anymore, he couldn’t do anymore. I had pushed him to do it. So, suddenly I was like, “Goddamn it. If something happens here, I am totally responsible.”
Filmmaker: In the U.S., even with a smaller cast, it seems like nobody would ever insure this movie. How did that aspect work with you?
Kormákur: I’m the producer. We don’t have insurance, so nobody tries to insure that, —there’s no bonding or insurance. I mean, there’s danger, but at the same time it is beneficial—you know, we don’t have unions. We don’t have those things. If you want to swim in the sea, you can swim in the sea, you know? I mean, we have insurance for work accidents and stuff like that. I don’t know how that went down because I had people to take care of that. I just almost didn’t want to know about it. I feel like in some way, [insurance] is not really about caring about the people, it’s caring about your own wallet, —it is more about being liable than making sure you’re secure. I actually think I probably put myself through more to make sure he was secure in the situation by being with him, for example, putting myself in there instead of just making sure that I wouldn’t be liable for an accident, you know?
Filmmaker: Just listening to you talk about the stuff that you were doing, some stunt work and being in the sea with the d.p., I realize this is very much Herzog territory. You’re an actor too, but as a director, have you put yourself and also your actors in such extreme situations before?
Kormákur: I don’t think—no, not such extreme a situation. I think this is the most extreme I’ve done. I always have the tendency of you know, wanting to push. It’s almost like existentialistic. I was 21 when I saw Elem Klimov’s film Come and See and it’s printed in my brain. I know every shot just as he’s going through the mud and feeling what was the end of humanity, when you’re a real animal when you’re a human being, which would be my understanding of existentialism? And I think that there is a certain need of that, the rawness of being a human being; when you’re in the cold sea alone, you’re pretty much down to that. Are you a seal or are you a man? And, I just love that. It’s just something about that, maybe being from that country that you’re constantly in the water and the nature is constantly a big part of you. So, I will in some way try to, even in the movies I’m doing over here, in some way try to incorporate that. And, the next film I’m doing after this one is Everest, about the ’96 Rob Hall and Beck Weathers and Doug Hansen ascent — the biggest accident on Everest. And that’s going to be probably as extreme.
Filmmaker: And how do you plan to shoot that?
Kormákur: Well, on Everest as much as possible and then on a glacier in Iceland.
Filmmaker: What kind of scale will the film be?
Kormákur: That’s a big movie. That’s a studio size movie. I guess we’ll have to [get some] insurance. [Laughs] And I’m talking to an actor who actually is known for—I’ll leave it there because he hasn’t been [confirmed]—he’s put himself through hell. He saw The Deep and I think that’s the only reason he wanted to do it with me. You know, I think he was attracted to the misery. [Laughs]