Andri Snær Magnason’s documentary Dreamland (2009) continues to conquer screens across the world, likely counting as the most widely seen Icelandic film in history.
However, the director with the most awards and distinctions garnered while still in film school will remain the young Icelandic filmmaker Rúnar Rúnarsson.
Rúnarsson grew up in the township of Seltjarnarnes, on the peninsula west of Reykjavík famous for the Grótta lighthouse at its tip.
He began taking an interest in film when still a teenager but his career didn’t begin to take off until his late twenties when he entered film school in Copenhagen.
The three short films in his Crossroads Trilogy, comprising barely more than an hour in total runtime, have established him as one of the most original young directors in contemporary world cinema. Síðasti bærinn (The Last Farm), a story about an old man facing his final days on the farm, was nominated for an Academy Award (2005). Smáfuglar (Two Small Birds), a coming of age story about a teenage boy, was in the running for the Palm d’Or at Cannes in 2008. Another coming of age story, Anna – his graduation project for the Danish National Film School – won the Best Nordic Short Film award at the Nordisk Panorama Film Festival last year.
Rúnarsson’s film style is characterized by a delicacy of touch and a tenderness towards his characters reminiscent of the French cinema. It is applied nonetheless with Scandinavian directness to the most serious – even disturbing – subject matter.
I met Rúnar Rúnarsson at the Regnboginn Cinema on Hvervisgata in Reykjavík and found him to be every bit as modest and discreet, but keenly intelligent, as his films. I arranged to continue our conversation later in a phone interview speaking with him via Skype from my computer in Reykjavík to his computer in Copenhagen, where he now lives.
How did you become a filmmaker? Did you always want to make films since you were young?
I made my first film when I was 17. Before that I had been into sports and other kinds of activities. I had been trying out writing, taking pictures, painting, all sorts of things. I was also in some groups and deejaying, but it was when I made my first film that all those different elements came together and I felt at home because I finally had a form to express myself.
I notice that you have credits in many different roles: as director, writer, producer, cinematographer, and even script supervisor. Do you like to have as much control over as many areas of your films as possible?
Yeah, I am a recovering control freak. It takes time to find the people that you fully link with, to establish cooperation, and slowly learn each other’s strengths and weaknesses. But yeah, I like to be on top of things.
Charlie Chaplin, for example, wrote, directed, starred in and even wrote the music for his own films. Is it your goal to be like that?
No, I’m more a control freak in that I waste a lot of energy checking out things that other people are doing instead of just trusting that they are doing exactly what we had talked about. I’m a writer-director, an author, so I write my own stuff and I direct my own stuff. But I don’t want to star in my own films, nor compose music. I do sit in the editing room a lot, though, and in the mix, because it’s a big part in the creation of a film, all of those steps, and I love every step in the making of my films.
You have won a surprising number of awards considering that you were still in film school when you won most of them. How is it that you decided to go to film school so relatively late?
I had applied once before to the national film school in Denmark, but they didn’t want me at that time. Relatively late? Well, I had only tried two years prior to that. In my perspective you have to have a certain “baggage” with you when you enter a film school, because they have a line that you are supposed to follow. The younger you are, and the less mature, the less you have figured out what nourishes you, what way you want to tell your stories, and the more you are going to be sculpted into that mould they have for everybody.
With the type of films that you make, you seem to be an exquisite miniaturist. And you’re in good company there, if you think of Vermeer in painting, or Chopin in music. Do you actually prefer the short film as the ideal format for your films?
No, not at all. It’s just that for the last four years I have been in school. I have been working on some features, but it’s just now that I have enough name recognition and time free to go for the feature. If we compare it to literature, then the short film is like a poem or a short story, and as an author you can write novels and poems and short stories at the same time, and that’s what I intend to do in the future.
Is there anything particularly Icelandic, or even anything particularly Scandinavian, in the way you make films?
That’s maybe for some other people to judge, but yeah I am Icelandic, and even though I have travelled a lot, what I have experienced in life and my perspective of things is because of where I was raised and what nourished me as a child. Even though I’m doing it in a different country, it’s Icelandic in one sense or the other, because that’s what I am.
There seem to be an awful lot of films made either in Iceland or by Icelanders, for such a small country. Is filmmaking a natural form of expression for Icelanders, do you think?
I think story-telling is a natural form for expression for Icelanders. Icelanders don’t tell you how they feel directly, they tell you a story about how they feel. A close friend doesn’t sit down and talk about how depressed he is. He tells you a story, an anecdote that relates to how depressed he is.
And what do you think of the Dogme 95 approach to filmmaking, with its strict rules about using handheld cameras, no music track, etc.? Can you see yourself making a film in that style or is it too severe for you?
The Dogme rules were aimed at bringing out the essence of the story and having low costs of production. It was a great marketing scam at the same time as it was focusing on the essence of film, i.e., a good story. But at the time they felt it was important for Denmark to focus on that because they were getting too carried away doing period films that were costing a lot of money – beautifully shot, but there was no essence. So they wanted to focus back on the story again.
But from my perspective, you can narrate a film in three ways. There are three formats that are happening at the same time. There is the story itself, the visuals, and the audio. And to deliver a story with all three working gently together at the same time, then you have to use the full palette of resources that you have as a director. Those few films that can do that, they really inspire me.
Your most recent films have dealt with adolescence and the emotional lives of teenagers. Why is that an attractive subject for you?
Generally the stories that attract me are about people at a crossroads in their lives, forced to make a decision about where to go, where to head. They are about those transition periods in life: a child becoming a teenager, or a teenager becoming a man, or an old man standing in front of death and looking back on life. I like this element of time and transition. I was a teenager myself, so I want to tell stories about things that I know about.
Will you be returning to Iceland, or are you now a Denmark-based filmmaker?
Well, I want the Danes to accept me as a Danish director, as well, because that just makes my life easier here. But I will make Icelandic films, Danish films and wherever I can make films.
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Rúnar Rúnarsson will be shooting his first feature film, entitled Eldfjall (Volcano), this fall. He describes it as “the coming of age story of a 67-year-old man, a love story about how three generations deal with the past, present and future.”