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Grendel? Hah! Try battling the wind

Category: Beowulf & Grendel News
Article Date: March 9, 2006 | Publication: The Vancouver Province | Author: Glen Schaefer

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Director Sturla Gunnarsson has travelled all over the world making movies since he grew up in Vancouver, but he'd never experienced anything like the conditions he faced while making the medieval epic Beowulf and Grendel on a primal stretch of Iceland's coastline.

The production, starring Gerard Butler as the heroic warrior Beowulf, was beset by near-lethal winds during filming.

"It was a big adventure for sure," says Gunnarsson. "We shot in the fall of 2004, the stormiest fall they'd had in 60 years -- it's just ocean all the way down to Antarctica. All those weather systems would move up and pressure systems would come down off Greenland and just fight it out over where we were."

One day they lost eight SUVs to the wind, some with windows smashed by wind-borne rocks and a couple simply blown off the road.

"Sometimes we'd have three or four grips holding a camera down because it was blowing so hard."

The movie also stars Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgard as the half-mad Danish King Hrothgar and Sarah Polley as a witch named Selma. The anonymous epic poem, told orally for centuries before being written down around 800 A.D., describes the warrior Beowulf's clash with the troll Grendel (Icelandic star Ingvar Sigurosson).

The Toronto-based Gunnarsson, who had previously worked in India (1998's Such a Long Journey) and Costa Rica (100 Days in the Jungle), says the harsh, volcano-scarred lcelandic coast was like another character in the movie.

"I don't think you could create that look," he says. "It created a kind of spontaneity in the performances, it puts them in the context of this pagan world where the gods are manifestations of the elements."

He recalls Skarsgard's first day on the set. "The scene where the king comes out to meet Beowulf was his first scene. I was off to the side arguing with the producers, who wanted to pull the plug. They said it was too dangerous, too windy, it was gusting around 130k that day."

Finally Skarsgard, wearing nothing but a medieval nightshirt, came out of the King's rough-hewn hall and told them to roll the cameras.

"We're all wearing five layers of clothing, he says let's shoot this thing. It's a very Lear-like performance. Stellan said in that environment there's no such thing as a performance that's too big.

"That's who these guys were, you start to understand a fatalism in that culture. Your fate isn't in your hands, the greatest virtue is to die in battle. You don't sit around and carp about the weather."

The re-telling by Gunnarsson and screenwriter Andrew Berzins humanizes the mythic clash between virtuous hero and evil monster. Told that it resembles Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven in tone, Gunnarsson beams.

"Our whole sense of it was, if you're going to tell a tale like this, the first step was to take Grendel out of the mythological and put him in the natural world."

The movie's Beowulf is a reluctant warrior who questions the rightness of his quest, and then tries to downplay the fireside retellings of hs exploits. Butler had to get down and dirty to play Beowulf.

"The first day we were shooting, Gerard spent the better part of the day in the ocean and the muck," the director recalls. "I thought, 'Aw jeez, he's going to quit.' But he was a real gamer, he was into it."

Copyright 2006 The Vancouver Province, a division of CanWest MediaWorks Publication Inc.
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