Icelandic-Canadian film director Sturla Gunnarsson visited the University of Victoria as a Beck Trust Lecturer on January 14 and 15, 2010.
On Friday morning, Sturla gave a lecture entitled “Beowulf and Grendel: The Director’s Take.” He addressed questions such as – where did the idea of the film come from? What were its goals?
What influences shaped the project? What were the difficulties of the filming?
How was it received? And, looking back five years later, how does he judge the film? After screening the film the night previous, Sturla focused on showing clips from Wrath of Gods, which documents the making of Beowulf and Grendel, including the many challenges which arose during the film’s production. Financing was complex, shooting was delayed into Iceland’s autumn and winter, the Viking ship was cumbersome and leaky, windstorms destroyed several base camps, stunt riders engaged in drunken antics in the surf, and a volcano erupted.
Through these clips, Sturla built up a sense of the Icelandic landscape as one of the most powerful influences on the project. The feel of Iceland is a major influence on Sturla’s creative process, while the Scandinavian look of the landscape, though not precisely that of Sweden and Denmark, generates a powerful visual analogue for the elements at play in the poem Beowulf – earth, fire, water, ice, wind, and stone.
Tribalism was another influence on the film. The project was developed during the resurgence of tribalism in the world, including conflict in Sarajevo and Iraq. Beowulf arrives at Heorot with a job to do: to kill the monster. In the course of his quest, he comes to realize that Grendel is not a monster, but an equally sentient being with language, kin, a code of honour, and feelings. This is why, said Sturla, the film is called Beowulf and Grendel; their relationship emerges as one which is reciprocal, though tragic.
Analogue filming techniques were maintained throughout the making of the film. Thus, Sturla explained, images received by the brain while watching the film remain tangible, obeying the laws of nature. He feels that the film’s reception was positive due in part to this “feel” of realism, a realism achieved through the Icelandic landscape and nondigital special effects.
By using stunt coordinators and prosthetics technicians and avoiding digital special effects, the actors used their bodies and voices to tell thestory, “let[ting] the actor act within his skin.” Sturla also described how the actors’ performances were affected by the landscape and weather, which was intensely stormy throughout shooting. This natural look and feel combined with the challenging weather conditions drew the actors – and the crew – into a level of performative intensity which could not have been otherwise achieved.
Looking back, Sturla reflected on the place Beowulf and Grendel holds in his own work and the work of filmmakers in Canada. He stated that the poem spoke to him as an immigrant, while the script became a metaphor for kinship and the power of language and story.
Sturla encouraged Canadian students entering film studies to open their horizons, be adventurous, and above all, unshakeably confident, focused, and good listeners. He encouraged writers to “get on a plane,” to encounter and build into their writing sense-memories of the places they write about.
In addition to answering questions at the end of his lecture, Sturla read his project proposal, commented on the complexities of international film funding, and affirmed that the film is intended to show that “life is complicated, and morality ambiguous.”
The lecture concluded with an enthusiastic round of applause for Sturla, and several members of the audience gathered around afterwards for further questions and conversation.
The Beck Trust lectures are coordinated by the Beck Trustees, Dr. John Tucker and Dr. W.D. Valgardson, and Trish Baer, a PhD in Icelandic studies at the University of Victoria. To hear a recording of Sturla Gunnarsson’s lecture, visit the Beck Trust website at: