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Interview with Sturla Gunnarson

Category: Beowulf & Grendel News
Article Date: December 18, 2004 | Publication: OCE Travel | Author: Seán Ó Cearrúlláin

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An age old Anglo-Saxon tale that emerges from Old Norse in the Dark ages. A creature of pure evil. A King Scorned and broken. A man possessing the Strength of 30 and who knows no bounds. A legend destined for fame!

Stellan Skarsgård, Gerard Butler, Ingvar Sigurdsson, an Icelandic Setting and plenty of Viking

This is the question one must ask when daunting on the latest Skarsgård epic to come
to your screens in 2005!

Beowulf and Grendel is an age old tale set in the dark ages of Denmark and Geatland, or better known as Götaland today in Sweden. The
fact that a Scotsman would play a man from
Gothland, or Götaland in Swedish, and a guy
from Gothland would play a Danish King whose savious is the Scotsman in the guise of a
Gothlandman is, no wait, where was I now…
Scotsman? Gothlandman? Dane? Ah feck…
this is confusing, let’s stickt to the script so! Right, here’s the craic! Way back in the dark ages, at a time when Christianity was making its way into Scandinavia there emerged the legend of Beowulf. It’s not really part of Scandinavian literature or history, Anglo-Saxon literature it is. The tale of a Danish King scorned for his troublesome past, yet a good King to his people he is. The Epic “Beowulf and Grendel” is based on the Anglo-Saxon poem written in the 1100’s
by a German monk or Minnesingers at a time
when he was removed by culture, mother-tongue
and timeline from the actual story.

900 years later this epic Scandinavian tale is
to be brought to our big screens all over the
world to make this story known. Icelander Sturla Gunnarsson is throwing his best efforts into bringing Andrew Rai Berzins’ screen adaptation of this fantastic tale to our cinemas. Berzins originally wrote a story on the subject and an academic pissed an Anglo-Saxon colleague off, suggesting that Gredenl is a Sasquatch (Yeti) and the story ought to be made into a movie, with Arnie [Schwarzenegger] in the role as the Geat,
or Goth.

The tale was at best a Chinese whisper passed
down orally much in the same line as the Táin
would have been, until ca. 1100 when it was
written down. The original manuscript can
actually be seen in a museum in London today
as it survived many disasters including Robert de Bruce’s castle being tragically burnt down and the fire of London. The burn marks are clearly visible on the manuscript and what a wonderful artefact It is.

Many have tried their hand at this piece,
including acclaimed Poet Séamus Heaney whose
go at it wasn’t half bad but he too embellishes the essence of the character and plot, as all good poets do.

It might be more well known in Britain where
the poem has been preserved and honoured down
through the centuries, but for us Irish it still ought to be an interesting insight into Norse Mythology if anything. Berzins is quoted as saying he is not doing the poem but rather his own story, “If the Poet rolls over in his grave, I’m trusting it will just be to get a better view of the screen!”, A. R. Berzins.

Basically this tale is about good and evil, again, yet the tale is also of prowess and strength of mind and body. Grendel is an evil being said to have the looks of a troll and torments the Danish people and King Hrothgar (“Roth-gar”), played by Skarsgård, and Beowulf, played by Butler, is the man who kills him. The story goes that Hrothgar rewards his people with many riches
for building an enormous Meadhall known as
Heorot (Here-ott) and there is joy and plenty of partying in the hall until Grendel comes along and begins to kill and rule at night. Many men try to kill the beast, none succeed.

For twelve years the beast rages, for 12 years
the people of Denmark suffer. A man in Geatland hears of Hrothgar’s plight and decides to help.

This man is Beowulf, a boaster, but a boaster
whose deeds can be backed up by fact. Beowulf
comes to the aid of the Danish King and
ultimately kills the beast, with his bare hands the poem states.

The film is a little different, the whole poem
is said to have taken place all in one day. The Screen adaptation is a little more drawn out, plus it has embellishments too. There are fi ctious characters in the fi lm that don’t appear in the poem, yet they add essence to the fi lm and give it a reality that wouldn’t exist without them. Plenty of women, although only one exists in the poem, widowed by Grendel appear in the fi lm to make it
more realistic. In the poem the plight of Hrothgar is based upon oppression undeserved, in the film it isn’t so. Nor is Beowulf so keen on killing the beast when hears of this. The fi lm and the poem have consequential differences that are needed to give life to the story.

With a star studded cast and fantastic Iceland
as the landscape for this epic we begin our
journey with Hrothgar chasing down the young
Grendel with his Father, Hrothgar and his men
corner Grendel’s father and a battle ensues. The outcome is to change the Danish King’s fate and thus seal it. Skarsgård is somewhat cast as an heroic fi gure who slew the monster.

Iceland and Not Denmark was chosen as the
location due to Sturla Gunnarsson who was born
in Iceland but lives in Canada. Gunnarsson says that the natural beauty and geographical makeup of Iceland is so much more powerful than the fl at and tree-lined Danish landscape. He also feels that this film will do much for the cause of the Icelandic film industry.

The Entire epic was filmed on location in
Iceland despite the tale taking place in Denmark, kind of wierd, but then the Norse tales are more vivid today in Iceland than the rest of Scandinavia, so it might have been
a good move. “Iceland, The Home of Sagas”.

Gerard Butler had to wade out into water that
was just above freezing point. He states that
it’s the most degrading thought that your penis shrinks to half its limp size because of the cold. Struggling with the natural
environment is giving the film good effect.

There is a character in the film called Brendan, yes he is based on the Irish monk who travelled in his Currach bringing Christianity
all over the place. He is played by Brit,
Eddie Marsan. Nice with a Celtic element in there, considering how the Irish Celts grasped Christianity!

Gunnarsson has stated that a rough estimate
on the film’s budget has landed at CA$16 Million so far. The release date is uncertain as yet, but the film will be finished by May of 2005, so June would be the apprpriate
release month!

Antoher Icelander involved in the film in a big way is Ingvar Sigurdsson who plays Grendel as an adult in the movie. For Ingvar the opportunity was irresistible. Ingvar has stared in fi lms such as “No Scuh Thing”, “K19” about the Russian Nuclear Submarine disaster off the coast of America (based on a true story), Second Nature with Alec Bladwin and the amazing Cold Light from earlier this year.

The British cast is fantastic; Eddie Marsan as
Brendan the priest who is Irish, Tony Curran as Hondschio and Gerard Butler as Beowulf himself.

We can’t forget Mark Lewis, nor Rory McCann
or Martin Delaney! From Canada we have the
fantastic Sarah Polly and then comes the man
himself, the real Geat, or Götalänning – Stellan Skarsgård.

We have the privilege of talking with Stellan
and Gerard about the film and of course we got
some comments from Gunnarsson as well as
Sigurdsson to make for a fantastic

Geatland was its own country in the time
the movie is set, as was Svealand and
Norrland the three provinces of modern
day Sweden. Geatland changed to Götaland over time and Stellan Skarsgård was born and raised here!

Berzins is quoted as saying he is not doing the poem, he is doing his own story! I spoke to Sturlan Gunnarsson in Canada and it went like this; They had just wrapped fi ve days previously in a cave in the south of Iceland. Sturla was in the cutting room in Canada when I called. He went out back as I heard him
say to someone, those two shots are too close together.

He steps out and we have a chat. First it was pertinent to establish how much the fi lm is based on the poem.

- The Film is a loose interpretation of the poem and although it is not entirely made from it, the spirit of the poem is there and the events are all there. There must have been some reason for choosing this film and Iceland as the location for it and here is what
Sturla had to say.

- I have always wanted to do a film in Iceland and for this one it was particularly apt. The elements are just so powerful and we were looking for a good location, Iceland is known as the Home of the Sagas in Scandinavia and even though the story is set in Denmark there was somewhat of a ‘Poetic Reality’ to doing it in Iceland.

What’s wrong with Denmark you might wonder?

- Well, Denmark is very fl at and tree-lined! Iceland is fantastic in the sense that it has high mountains, glaciers and just the sheer elements with storms and natural obstacles to overcome.

Does the Character Brendan have any relationship to the Irish Brendan who travelled around in his currach bringing Christianity to the world?

- Brendan is the Celt in the film, the Celt bringing Christianity to the region, which was just being settled at the time. You have to remember that this is pre-Viking era, so it is predominantly Norse Mercenaries who fought in the Roman Empire. The Brendan in our film is based on the Irish Brendan, yes, but not the
same one, it is a different timeline.

So there is some element of Christianity to the film then?

- You know, somewhere round a camp fi re in the 6th century this story was told, and then 400 years later it was written down by a Christian Monk who told it from a Christian Perspective. So the essence of the thing is basically good against evil.

Are there any kind of special effects in the film?

- This film is completely CG-free. It is fi lmed entirely on location in Iceland and incorporates all the elements. Ingvar created the troll together with Nick Dudman, he’s the guy behind a lot of the Harry Potter movies. Ingvar had a lot of control over the character
Grendel and he ultimately developed him. He’s this 7½ foot monster played by a man who isn’t 7½ foot tall, but looks it! It’s good old fashion fi lm making! It seems that the main point behind the fi lm is to create something believable from a poem based on Myth!

When asked if he felt Stellan Skarsgård would infl uence the fi lm’s success here’s what Gunnarsson had to say;

- Well you know, Stellan is just so awesome. He arrived out there in the middle of things when we had just begun setting up and there were winds up 130km an hour, storms and freezing weather. He was out shooting half naked battling the elements in his
Nightshirt. He’s just such a powerful force.

Seems like Skarsgård would know something of the story, was the real ‘Goth’ amused at playing the Danish King receiving the Goth – Butler -?

- Yeah, he was amused actually, he laughed a little at it and thought it was great.

And what of Gerard Butler, how does he compliment Stellan in the film?

- Gerry is fantastic, just simply fantastic. They are both very powerful actors and give a tremendous amount to the fi lm. He is playing the young hero, Beowulf the Hero, so Gerry fi ts that part very well indeed.

And Sturla Gunnarsson’s Expectations for the story’s impact in America?

- I’m hoping it has immense theatrical impact in the States and does really well. It’s a Dimaonds in the Mud Production!

Seán Ó Cearrúlláin

Copyright 2004 - Seán Ó Cearrúlláin


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