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Monster’s POV matters to Beowulf director

Category: Beowulf & Grendel News
Article Date: March 9, 2006 | Publication: Georgia Straight | Author: mark harris

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Sturla Gunnarsson drew on his Icelandic roots, Vancouver film studies, and a pagan ritual or two to reimagine an ancient epic into Beowulf & Grendel.

Sturla Gunnarsson drew on his Icelandic roots, Vancouver film studies, and a pagan ritual or two to reimagine an ancient epic into Beowulf & Grendel.

Globetrotting director Sturla Gunnarsson has two distinct, and creatively complementary, identities: Canadian and Icelandic. Both are very much present in his latest international coproduction, Beowulf & Grendel, a modern reimagining of the ancient Anglo Saxon epic that was shot amid the volcanic crags and icy bays of the filmmaker’s ancestral point of origin.

“I am Icelandic,” Gunnarsson told the Georgia Straight at one point during a recent telephone interview, which is certainly no lie since he was born in Reykjavík in 1951. Then, a little later on, he seamlessly added: “I grew up in Vancouver; it’s my hometown. I moved here when I was seven, went to Magee, then studied literature at UBC. I entered the film program the first year that it was offered.”

Success came early to this Icelandic immigrant, who directed his first episode of The Beachcombers at the tender age of 21. His 1979 student film A Day Much Like the Others got shown in many cities and gave him the opportunity to make After the Axe, one of the first documentary studies of middle-aged, middle-class redundancy, a sophomore effort good enough to be nominated for an Academy Award in 1982.

Since then, he has made movies all over the world, often under difficult circumstances. While shooting his 1991 feature Diplomatic Immunity, for instance, a critical drama about murderous Central American repression, the director recalled that “this was a really tough shoot because we spent 100 days in the Costa Rican jungle during the rainy season near the Panamanian border, and I got really sick with hepatitis and lost 45 pounds. It really knocked me out, and it took three or four years before I got back to full strength.”

Of course, shooting Such a Long Journey in Bombay wasn’t a cup of chai either (although, Gunnarsson reminisced, “The Times of India published an article that marvelled that a foreigner could make a movie like this that wasn’t the least bit ‘exotic’ ”), and neither was Gerrie & Louise (an Emmy Award–winning show about a radical journalist who married an anti–ANC government hit man around the time the South African Truth Commission was organizing its first tentative inquests).

Compared to these difficulties, making Beowulf & Grendel would seem to be a bowl of mead.

Indeed, at times it might have been too much of one.

“Hilmar Hilmarsson,” Gunnarsson said with a chuckle, “the guy who composed the score, is the high priest of the pagan religion over there. Before the production started, he gave us a pagan blessing, which is known as a bloat, then he built a fire and spoke to the elements, and everyone ate a lot of food and got drunk and laid, which is sort of the essence of the pagan religion.”

As for the filmmakers’ approach to the story, the title itself proclaims its revisionism. When asked if he had read John Gardner’s novel Grendel, a narrative that retells the famous story from the monster’s point of view, Gunnarsson acknowledged that he had.

“I’d read the book, but screenwriter Andrew Rai Berzins had not and refused to do so until after he’d finished the screenplay. Even so, from the very beginning we both agreed that the story should be told from both Grendel and Beowulf’s point of view.”

What’s more, according to the director, “Ingvar Sigurosson, who we eventually cast as Grendel, was standing in line in a Reykjavík bookstore behind an American actor who pulled a copy of the Gardner book out of his backpack and said, ‘If you want to play Grendel, then you’ve got to read this.’ ”

The director just laughed when asked if the rumours that star Gerard Butler’s popularity was so immense it had actually impeded the speed of the production.

“Everywhere we showed the film, people showed up in droves to see him,” he conceded, “even in Korea. And he certainly looked tired in the morning. But I’m not aware that this slowed down production. We were in a very remote place, after all.”

As for the unprecedented sexiness of Sarah Polley’s performance, Gunnarsson elaborated: “She really liked the character and felt that never before had she had the chance to explore her carnal side on-screen. Basically, she’s playing a character who lives by her cunt—which is a North-root word by the way; you won’t find any Romance-language words anywhere in the dialogue—and she kind of embraced that.”

As for his own cinematic cosmopolitanism, the filmmaker attributes this to “his Viking blood”.

“After college,” he reminisced, “I travelled for four years. I said to myself, ‘I could do this for the rest of my life, if I could just find a way to express myself.’ That’s why I think I gravitated towards film. It allows me to explore the magic of different worlds.’ ”


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