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A lesson in survival

Category: Beowulf & Grendel News
Article Date: September 29, 2005 | Publication: FFWD - Calgard News and Entertainment | Author: JASON ANDERSON
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You think reading Beowulf is tough, try making the movie
PREVIEW
BEOWULF AND GRENDEL
STARRING Gerard Butler, Sarah Polley and Stellan Skarsgård.
DIRECTED BY Sturla Gunnarsson
Sunday, October 2
Jack Singer Concert Hall (Epcor Centre)

A lot can go wrong when you’re making a movie. A whole lot more can go wrong when that movie is an adaptation of an epic Old English poem about a bunch of butch Vikings and one angry troll, shot on location in Iceland.

Understandably, Sarah Polley had some reservations about starring in a movie like that. As she says in a recent interview, "The worry with this was always: this will either be amazing… or absolutely awful. But it’s one of those movies where you take the risk because the result could be so exciting."

If not flat-out amazing, then Beowulf and Grendel still counts as an entertaining and admirably berserk cinematic achievement. It’s also an unlikely triumph over very daunting circumstances, ranging from the hurricanes that destroyed vehicles and base camps, to the precarious financing cobbled together from three countries (Canada, Iceland and the U.K.), to the plain fact that they were making a Viking movie, a genre only slightly less ridiculous than Mexican wrestling films. Working with a cast that includes Gerard Butler as Beowulf, Stellan Skarsgard as the King of the Danes, Icelandic actor Ingvar Eggert Sigurosson as Grendel, and Polley as Selma, the witchy lass who comes between the hero and the monster, director Sturla Gunnarsson and writer Andrew Rai Berzins successfully impose their own take on the ancient Norse tale of a legendary warrior’s fight with a big hairy creature who’s crushed the heads of too many Danes.

Gunnarsson, a native of Iceland who forged a career in Canada with films like Such a Long Journey, had wanted to work in his homeland for many years. "That landscape has been in my head since I can remember – it’s this very elemental, potent place," he says. "I explored some of the old Icelandic sagas, but they didn’t live naturally in English and I didn’t want to make a film in Icelandic."

There were several things that drew him and Berzins to Beowulf, known to bleary-eyed students as the seminal piece of literature in the English language (Seamus Heaney’s recent translation also revived popular interest in the work). "One was that it was such a great yarn – it’s a campfire tale," he says. "Also, it’s the story that defines the hero myth as we know it. Right now we’re reverting to a kind of tribalism. I thought it was relevant to take a look at the hero myth from a modern perspective. And just on a personal level, it’s where my adopted culture and the one I was born into merge. This tale swims out of Norse oral culture, swims across the Atlantic and finds its (way) onto a piece of sheepskin in the north of England."

Wisely skipping the poem’s boring bits, the filmmakers invest the story with the right amount of self-awareness and an abundance of humour. When the mead is flowing, Beowulf and his pals are like any blokes on a bender. "They’re like a bunch of bikers," says Gunnarsson. "They like to drink, they like to get laid. They show up, get welcomed like heroes, they’re supposed to kill the troll and get laid and go home and have great songs sung to them. Instead, they’re stuck there and the troll’s making fun of them and they have nothing to do. It drives them crazy. Fortunately, they have widows to distract them."

That lusty, beery humour is part of what attracted Butler – who makes for a charming and appropriately macho Beowulf – to the script. "There was a richness of humour and character," he says. "And the style of writing expressed something very powerful and muscular yet rich and in some ways beautiful. It was such an unusual script."

The realization of said script was hardly easy. After spending several years getting financing together, an international crew decamped to the south coast of Iceland just in time to experience the worst weather in the region in six decades. "This shoot was a total nightmare from beginning to end," says Polley with typical candour. "It was the most insane scenario I’ve been in since The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. That was crazier, but this was getting up there. We were shooting in hurricanes and it was completely disorganized – it was really a lesson in survival. I felt like I’d gone to some sort of Outward Bound boot camp to learn how to be a woman in the wilds in the sixth century," she says. "I’m not a method actor, but it worked that way – it felt like I was scrounging for my existence!"

Butler readily concurs. "It has been a battle for all of us, but nobody more so than Sturla," he says. "I watched him go through so much. This movie really wore him down, but he was a trooper. He so believed in the story and I can’t tell you how inspiring that is. I gave everything to this because I had to. If you were in any way going to bitch about the conditions you were working under, then it just wasn’t gonna happen. We would’ve lost vital scenes."

Gunnarsson admits it was nearly impossible to get the film in the can. "But on another level," he says, "it really did take on a life of its own." When asked how he managed to weather the production, the director passes on this sage piece of Viking wisdom: "Defeat is not an option. You have no control over your destiny, but you have control over how you fight the battle."

Although he and his actors seem pleased to have won their match against the odds and the elements, Polley does fess up to having another motive for participating. "I’ll tell you why I did the movie – I get to get fucked by a troll."

 


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