Gunnarsson’s epic poem
Category: Beowulf & Grendel News | Posted by: admin
Article Date: March 31, 2006 | Publication: Sympatico.ca | Author: Angela Baldassarre
Bringing the first epic poem in the English language to the screen was an ambitious endeavour, so it required a director with a deep passion for the Scandinavian mythological tale to make a picture like “Beowulf & Grendel,” and who better than Icelandic-born Canadian filmmaker Sturla Gunnarsson (“Rare Birds”)?
The oral tale “Beowulf” was put into writing sometime between 700 and 1000 AD, in an English that is impossible to decipher for non-scholars. The film centres on Danish King Hrothgar (Stellan Skarsgard) who kills an evil troll but spares his dimwitted son, Grendel, who takes off with dad’s head. Years later Grendel is back, this time taking revenge on his father’s death by killing many of Hrothgar’s subjects. This prompts the drunken and depressed king to hire Beowulf (Gerard Butler) to track down the killer and get rid of Grendel.
I talked to Sturla Gunnarsson about “Beowulf & Grendel.”
Tell me about your passion for the Beowulf poem.
“On a very personal level, this poem represents the place where my tribal culture and my adopted culture intersect — a Norse saga that lives with integrity in the English language. I grew up on this kind of story and had been toying with the idea of making an Icelandic saga movie, but could never get past the feeling that it would lose its integrity if it were translated to English. And I felt that doing a film in Icelandic would limit the audience (‘The Passion of the Christ’ notwithstanding). So when Andrew (Rai Berzins, the screenwriter) suggested Beowulf it was a big aha moment. Then when I re-read it (having struggled with it in high school), I got very excited. It is such an elemental story and a great ripping yarn. I got very excited both by what it is and what it represents, because it really is the prototype of the hero-myth in our culture and we’re living in a time, with the rise of warrior culture and religious fundamentalisms, when I think it’s important to re-examine that myth.”
How did the idea of turning it into a movie come about?
“I had just finished a film collaboration with Andrew Rai Berzins and it had been painless, which is a rare occurrence in this business, so we were casting about for something else to do together. We tossed around a few ideas that were doable in the Canadian context, but were not inspiring, so I said, ‘to hell with what’s financially possible, what do you really want to do?’ He said ‘Beowulf’ and the penny dropped. At first everyone said we were crazy and they said, ‘this is Canada, we do movies with three people in a room talking,’ but as the script took shape, people began to see the potential and the project started picking up momentum.”
This is a massive tale. How did you decide which part to concentrate on?
“The poem spans 50 years and has countless digressions, so we had to make a big choice. The idea from the start was to focus on the relationship between Beowulf and Grendel and to make Grendel a creature of the natural world, as opposed to being the mythological ‘spawn of Cain’ that he is in the poem. The idea was to take the story back to its sixth century pagan roots. Once you eliminate the dualistic Christian morality in which Grendel is simply an embodiment of evil and Beowulf an embodiment of virtue, it becomes a much more complex and, to me, more interesting tale. The essence of it is our primal fear of the unknown and it speaks to the way we make monsters out of that which we don’t understand.”
How difficult was it finding financing to make this?
“Very difficult. It took several years and the cobbling together of a Canada/Iceland/UK treaty co-production, with multi-source financing in each country. The financing didn’t actually close until after the film was shot, so the production was hanging by a thread every step of the way.”
Was shooting in Iceland always your intention?
“Yes. I was born in Iceland and this landscape has been in my consciousness ever since I can remember. It’s a powerful, primordial landscape and the elements dwarf all human endeavour. When you’re on it, you begin to understand a culture in which the gods are embodiments of natural forces. The minute Andrew suggested Beowulf I booked flights to Iceland for Andrew to soak it up before he began writing the screenplay.”
You have a great cast. How did you manage?
“Beowulf was the biggest challenge. We needed an actor who is unequivocally masculine, who can swing a sword and looks good in chain mail but who can also chart the character’s inner journey, his doubts, his growing awareness that his quest is not entirely righteous but who has no choice but to follow his destiny. The minute I saw Gerard in ‘Lara Croft’ and ‘Timeline’ I knew he was the guy, so I flew to New York where ‘Dear Frankie’ was having its premiere and met with him. He liked the script instantly but his management needed a little more convincing. I think we finally sealed the deal when his agent came to Iceland and we exposed him to some of that notorious Reykjavik nightlife and then took him out to our locations to show him what we were on about. Stellan was always my first choice for Hrothgar — he is a Viking and he is one of the most powerful actors alive — but the terms of our co-production treaty didn’t allow us to cast outside of the co-producing countries, so it took a long time and a lot of jigs and reels before I was even allowed to offer him the part. Once I was able to do that, he read the script, called me, we talked for 10 minutes and he said he was in. Sarah [Polley] loves Iceland and responded very strongly to the script, I think, because Selma represents kind of an evolved, female consciousness and also, as she said ‘because I get to get fucked by a troll.’ Ingvar Eggert Sigurdsson, who plays Grendel is Iceland’s leading man and a very powerful and physical actor. I needed someone who could express Grendel’s full range of emotions, his rage, his pain, his sense of humour, his morality, without a single word of dialogue. I asked him to read the script but didn’t tell him what part I wanted him to look at. He instantly identified with Grendel and from then on it was hard to imagine anybody else in the role.”
What was the most difficult part of making this film?
“Probably the most difficult thing about making the film was working with a financial gun to my head every moment of every day. The 160K winds, flying rocks, horizontal rain and logistical nightmares were are manageable — what was difficult was knowing that we were on the verge of being shut down at any moment because the financing hadn’t closed, and still going out every morning to inspire the troops and lead the charge.”
Now that you’ve dissected the poem, are you still in love with it or has the passion subsided?
“Let’s just say it’s not at my bedside table at the moment, though I will likely return to it sometime in the future.”
What are you working on now?
“I’ve just finished a four-hour Canada/UK mini-series called ‘Above and Beyond’ which will be on CBC in the fall. It’s a WW2 story about the first guys who ever flew the North Atlantic in winter to deliver the planes that turned the tide in the battle of Britain.”
“Beowulf & Grendel” is currently playing in local cinemas.