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Trolling for film dollars: Co-operation between three countries the key to green light for Beowulf production

Category: Beowulf & Grendel News
Article Date: May 30, 2004 | Publication: The Vancouver Province (British Columbia) | Author: Glen Schaefer

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A team of Canadian filmmakers is off to Iceland this summer to slay a medieval monster, as director Sturla Gunnarsson heads up an adaptation of the epic poem Beowulf.

"We're making it," says Gunnarsson, who grew up in Vancouver and has filmed a handful of his movies here. Big news for Gunnarsson was signing up-and-coming Scottish hunk Gerard Butler to play the medieval poem's monster-slaying hero. "We've been looking for the right guy for a long time."

The $16-million Beowulf & Grendel is a co-production between Canada, Iceland and Britain, which means that Gunnarsson, Toronto writer Andrew Berzins (Scorn) and Vancouver cinematographer Jan Kiesser will be collaborating with an Icelandic crew and production designer, the British prosthetic makeup designer who worked on the Harry Potter movies and a mostly British cast.

"I'm up and down like a yo-yo -- we're living in three time zones," says Gunnarsson from his Toronto base. "Britain starts five hours ahead of us, and L.A. doesn't close until 9 p.m. our time. We're dealing with casting out of L.A., prosthetic work out of England, putting the financing together -- it's very intense right now.

"Also it's taken a long time to put this together. For Canada it's a big film. I've got very strong support in Iceland, creative and infrastructure-wise. The challenge is putting together a team of film-makers from three different countries, and finding the right language, the right working method for us to make the film."

Gunnarsson, who last worked in Vancouver on the CBC true-murder story Scorn, has a knack for finding stories that take him far from home -- Central America for the kidnap drama 100 Days in the Jungle, India for the acclaimed adaptation of Rohinton Mistry's novel Such a Long Journey and Newfoundland for the romantic comedy Rare Birds.

Now it's the eastern fiords of Iceland for 10 weeks starting in July. "It's a very primordial place -- there's a volcano and a glacier, black sands and the north Atlantic. Very primitive and beautiful," says Gunnarsson. "A landscape that's never been seen before on film, quite spectacular. We're building a sixth-century Viking village in this mountain pass."

"You have something that you can't find in North America or Europe," says Kiesser. "Trying to capture that and put the characters in that environment, making that part of the tapestry of the story -- that's what stimulates me about this work."

Kiesser is just finishing work in Vancouver on the musical parody Reefer Madness. He worked with Gunnarsson on Rare Birds and Such a Long Journey.

Gunnarsson has been working for years to get Berzins' adaptation of the poem on film. The story of Beowulf, a sixth-century Scandinavian hero who slays a monster for a Danish king, was written in England sometime around the year 1000. The poem inspired The Lord of the Rings author J.R.R. Tolkien and is the basic framework for every western or Samurai epic you could name.

Signing Butler, who starred last year opposite Angelina Jolie in Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life and will be seen this December in the title role in the movie version of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera, gave Beowulf the push it needed, says Gunnarsson. Director and actor met in New York this spring during the Tribeca Film Festival.

"It's been a long haul finding somebody who can be heroic and who can also act, who can bring complexity to a character -- there's not a lot of guys like that out there," Gunnarsson says. "We spent a couple of hours talking about the film, realized that we saw the story the same way. For me, it was finding somebody whom I could believe in chain mail, swinging a sword and projecting that kind of epic character."

In the original poem, Beowulf slays Grendel, a troll who terrorizes the Danish king Hrothgar. "In our interpretation we have a more complex hero who's aware that he's seen as the greatest warrior of his day and is a bit weary of it," says Gunnarsson. "The troll is not really a monster at all, he's humanized in our story. He's 71/2-feet tall and 350 pounds, fast as lightning and he likes to tear guys' heads off and bowl with them. But he has human emotions and a legitimate beef with Hrothgar. The hero sets out on a noble quest and becomes more and more unsure of how noble and righteous the quest really is."

The timing for such a period story would seem to be good, as movie swordplay is on the upswing.

"Gladiator really broke the ice for this kind of story, stories that were, until recently, not considered accessible to a mass audience," says Gunnarsson.

The movie will be finished post-production in April and Gunnarsson is hoping it will debut at next May's Cannes film festival.

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