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Beowulf & Grendel

Category: Beowulf & Grendel News
Article Date: August 29, 2005 | Publication: Playbackmag.Com | Author: James Careless

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Toronto International Film Festival 2005

Director: Sturla Gunnarsson
Writer: Andrew Rai Berzins
Producers: Paul Stephens, Eric Jordan, Sturla Gunnarsson (Canada); Michael Cowan, Jason Piette (U.K.); Anna Maria Karlsdottir, Fridrik Thor Fridriksson (Iceland)
Cast: Gerard Butler, Stellan Skarsgård, Sarah Polley, Ingvar Eggert Sigurdsson

As hero stories go, the epic Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf is the granddaddy of them all, with its original manuscript today under lock and key in the British Library in London. Written around AD1000 after generations of oral recounting, Beowulf tells the story of a great Norse warrior from around the 6th century who slays the monster Grendel that has been terrorizing the neighboring kingdom of Daneland.

According to the online translation/adaptation written by Dr. David Breeden (, the original Grendel is an archetypical baddie begging to be hero-smacked. Breeden translates the description of Grendel as "the foe of God, who had long troubled the spirits of men with his crimes." However, as adapted by writer Andrew Rai Berzins (Cowboys and Indians: The J.J. Harper Story) and versatile veteran director Sturla Gunnarsson (100 Days in the Jungle), the monster's blackness fades into moral grayness, while the shining whiteness of Beowulf's quest dims to the same ambiguous tone.

"Our Beowulf is a warrior who goes overseas on what he thinks is a righteous quest," Gunnarsson tells Playback. But once he meets Grendel - not a mythic monster, but a flesh-and-blood troll seeking vengeance for a wrong committed by Beowulf's friend, King Hrothgar - the hero's moral certainty starts to crumble. "In the end, Beowulf finds himself in the middle of a tribal war where nothing is what it seems."

This decision to align the Beowulf epic with modern sensibilities - including undertones of the U.S. War on Iraq - is central to the plot of Beowulf & Grendel. "We didn't want to make a museum piece or a literal illustration of the original poem," Gunnarsson says. "We wanted the film to be meaningful to the times we live in."

Beowulf & Grendel stands to benefit from audience fascination with ancient warriors on the heels of the Lord of the Rings films, and from the rising stardom of lead actor Gerard Butler, who enjoyed international attention for his performance in the film version of The Phantom of the Opera. It is out of the gate well ahead of Robert Zemeckis' announced Beowulf, which will be computer animated.

March 2001: Gunnarsson and Berzins set up the Beowulf & Grendel project at Alliance Atlantis, "which developed it with the intention of producing it," Gunnarsson says.

June 2001: Gunnarsson brings Berzins to Iceland (the director's birthplace) to introduce him to the landscape and culture of the film before the latter sets out to write the first-draft screenplay.

A coproduction partnership is subsequently formed with Fridrik Thor Fridriksson at the Icelandic Film Corporation.

November 2001: Berzins completes a first draft of the script, which is met with enthusiasm and sets the film in motion. The production is budgeted at $15 million, and Alliance Atlantis begins looking for partners. The strategy is to make the film as a Canada/Iceland/U.K. treaty coproduction.

2002: When Alliance Atlantis begins its protracted retreat from Canadian production, Gunnarsson and Berzins reacquire rights to the screenplay. Gunnarsson travels to London to meet with potential U.K. coproducers. Several are interested; they end up dealing with Sarah Radclyffe (Ratcatcher).

December 2002: Paul Stephens and Eric Jordan of The FilmWorks, which collaborated previously with Gunnarsson on the feature Such a Long Journey, offer to come on board as Canadian producers. Stephens and Jordan negotiate an agreement with Gunnarsson and Berzins.

March 2003: Michael Mosca of Equinoxe Films agrees to distribute the film. Arclight Films will handle foreign sales.

August 2003: Telefilm Canada agrees to invest. The Movie Network and The Harold Greenberg Fund are also contributors. At this point, Icelandic and U.K. funding remains uncommitted.

September 2003: Nick Dudman (the Harry Potter films, Batman Begins) agrees to design prosthetics for the film. Conceptual work on the troll Grendel begins.

October 2003: Radclyffe's funding evaporates after the Department for Culture, Media and Sport revises U.K. copro rules. Spice Factory steps in as the U.K. coproducer.

January 2004: Gunnarsson and Stephens travel to Iceland to meet with the minister of industry regarding the country's portion of financing.
February 2004: The Icelandic Film Centre and Icelandic Innovation Fund agree to invest in the film.

March 2004: Casting director Pam Dixon (The Company) agrees to cast the film.

April 2004: Gunnarsson meets with Butler at the Tribeca Film Festival, where the actor's Dear Frankie is screening. "We hit it off and he liked the script," says Gunnarsson. "He became our Beowulf."

May 2004: Stellan Skarsgård (King Arthur) and Sarah Polley sign on. Skarsgård will play King Hrothgar, while Polley will take on the role of Selma. The Canada/Iceland/U.K. crew is assembled. Gunnarsson travels to Iceland to begin prepping for a summer shoot. Winnipeg-born director of photography Jan Kiesser, who lensed Gunnarsson's Rare Birds, will be behind the camera.

September 2004: Hurdles in closing financing delay shooting, but $17 million is finally raised. The first day of principal photography finally begins on the south coast of Iceland. The Arctic winter is approaching and light is diminishing by six minutes each day.

December 2004: Shooting in Iceland wraps up after cast and crew have endured "the stormiest autumn in 60 years," Gunnarsson says. "We lost four base camps - they just blew away. One day we lost eight vehicles to wind - just blown off the road or had their windows blown out by flying rocks. We had wind gusting at 160 kilometers. By the last day of production, we were down to five-and-a-half hours of daylight." Just before Christmas, Gunnarsson returns to Toronto to work with editor Jeff Warren at Tattersall Picture & Sound.

April 2005: Editing wraps. Composer Hilmar 'rn Hilmarsson (In the Cut) begins to compose the score.

June 2005: The score is recorded in London and Reykjavik. The music and audio is mixed at Casablanca Magnetic North in Toronto.

July 2005: TIFF programmers select Beowulf & Grendel as a special presentation at the fest. "We haven't actually seen a film print from the [digital intermediate] yet," Gunnarsson said at press time. "I expect that the print will probably still be wet from the lab when we screen it!"

Following its Sept. 14 world premiere at TIFF, the film is slated for a Canadian release in March 2006.


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