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Category: Beowulf & Grendel News
Article Date: March 10, 2006 | Publication: The Globe and Mail | Author: MICHAEL POSNER

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Making a film in Iceland in October was no picnic for Sturla Gunnarsson and his cast and crew, MICHAEL POSNER writes

Director Sturla Gunnarsson has seen his share of tough feature-film shoots, from Diplomatic Immunity (1991), part of which was shot amid nightmarish bureaucratic snafus in Mexico, to Such a Long Journey (1998), part of which was shot in neighbourhoods of Bombay that even local police avoided.

But take for take, nothing remotely equals what he, his cast and crew experienced while shooting Beowulf & Grendel two years ago in a remote corner of his native Iceland.

With the wind howling at 120 kilometres an hour, volcanoes erupting, the ocean churning three-metre waves and daylight fading fast, "the elements became like an unwritten character," Gunnarsson said last fall at the Toronto International Film Festival, where his film was accorded a special presentation. "So it didn't make any difference how you prepared the scene, you were forced to improvise."

Gunnarsson's assistant director, Wendy Ord, weighed barely more than 100 pounds. "Several times, she was lifted up by wind and blown away," he recalls. "We lost four base camps -- just blown away. We'd find bits and pieces of them weeks later."

Doubling the population of Vik, a small town about 2 hours outside the capital, Reykjavik, the production team huddled up in a Spartan boarding house. "There were two or three days when we couldn't go out at all."

Thankfully, he says, his lead actors -- Gerard Butler as the hero Beowulf, Ingvar Siggurdson as the ethical monster Grendel, and Stellan Skarsgard as King Hrothgar -- "started to embrace it."

The "it" in question is one of the oldest Anglo-Saxon poems on record, an ancient saga first written down more than 1,000 years ago, although its essential tale is considered much older. Gunnarsson says it's the prototype of the modern-day western, where the hero rides into town to slay the villain who is threatening the community. Only in this case, the villain isn't quite as villainous as he might be.

What's most compelling about his cinematic version -- beautifully enhanced by Hilmar Orn Hilmarsson's haunting score -- is that Gunnarsson has managed to preserve its epic sweep without resorting to the now almost ritual use of computer-graphic enhancements.

"We wanted it to look entirely authentic," he says, "because these were harsh north lands. It wasn't Athens. It wasn't hugely populated. And when you travel out into the landscape, you don't know what you're going to meet, because it's uncharted. So why not a troll?"

Sarah Polley, who plays the witch Selma, says she was not initially drawn to the Beowulf project. "I think it's impossible for us to go to movies about Vikings and not laugh our heads off," she says, but ultimately decided that Gunnarsson's take was the right one. "It has a sense of humour and a modern perspective."

She says the shoot itself was "a complete disaster" from beginning to end. "I don't think anybody has ever shot a film outside in Iceland in October."

Gerard Butler (Dear Frankie, The Phantom of the Opera) says there were days when he didn't think he could last another minute, "and we still had another 12 hours to shoot. But this is how these guys lived, get in those boats and row for days." He considers the finished film "a meditation on good and evil."

For Gunnarsson, 55, the Beowulf legend was not just another film project. "I've been wanting to make a film on that landscape ever since I can remember," the Canadian director says. "It's where I was born, I still speak the language, and it's just been in my head."

With screenwriter Andrew Rai Berzins, he decided to tackle it. "People thought we were crazy," he recalls " 'This is Canada,' they said. 'We do good domestic drama -- three people in a room talking.' "

But gradually, he says, people began to see the possibilities, abetted in part by the success of The Lord of the Rings, a film trilogy that "really swims out of the same gene pool." Indeed, Rings author J.R.R. Tolkien not only translated Beowulf into English, he spoke Icelandic.

The final budget, his biggest to date, was about $17-million, although as Gunnarsson noted, "It's an international project [with Canadian, Icelandic and British funding], so nobody really knows. It's big for Canada, big for Iceland, but in world terms, it's really just an entry-level budget."

In Reykjavik, he says, he is welcomed as a native son. "It's a remarkable place," says Gunnarsson, who has plans to direct two further instalments of the Beowulf myth. "Less than 300,000 people in all of Iceland and they're producing five or six quality features every year. Do the math on what that would be in Canada. But they come out of the storytelling tradition. And storytelling is not a frill. They wouldn't have survived without their stories. Because otherwise, where are you? On a rock in the middle of the Atlantic."


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