by GREG KING
REYKJAVIK CALLING: THE ICEMAN COMETH
A special season of Icelandic films screening at ACMI from July 5-July 23, featuring the works of two of Iceland’s most distinctive and contemporary filmmakers – Fridrik Thor Fridriksson and Baltasar Kormakur.
In the best tradition of the road movie, this quirky and decidedly off beat low budget comedy from Iceland takes audiences off the beaten track and well and truly into uncharted territory. Set amidst the desolate frozen wastelands of Iceland, this multi-cultural odyssey forms the final chapter of Fridrick Thor Fridricksson’s ambitious Icelandic trilogy exploring death and superstition, important elements of traditional Scandinavian mythology.
The film begins when workaholic Japanese businessman Atsushi Hirata (popular Japanese actor Masatoshi Nagase) reluctantly forgoes his Hawaiian holiday and travels to Iceland to conduct a symbolic commemorative ritual for his parents, who died in an accident seven years earlier. As Atsushi travels across this inhospitable frozen wasteland in a clapped out Citroen, he is eventually seduced by the warmth, friendliness and openness of the country’s eccentric but nonetheless oddly endearing inhabitants.
The colourful people he encounters on this magical mystery tour include a woman who travels the world photographing funeral services, Icelandic cowboys, a wise old Icelandic grandfather who becomes his spiritual guide for the final leg of his journey, and a grungy Bonnie and Clyde like pair of American hitchhikers (played by Fisher Stevens and Lily Taylor). This is a journey of self discovery for Atsushi, who becomes more understanding of Iceland’s mysterious exotic culture, and slowly sheds his own rigid formality and innate xenophobia.
The film looks at the myriad wonders of this strange land essentially from an outsider’s perspective. Producer/director Fridricksson and American writer Jim Stark perfectly capture Atsushi’s sense of alienation and bewilderment, and they temper the offbeat material with an underlying edge of allegory and droll humour.
Cold Fever has a certain roughness that seems fitting, but solid technical contributions from some of Iceland’s finest filmmakers add quality. Ari Kristinson’s evocative cinematography indelibly captures the harsh beauty of the snow covered vistas, and brings to life this exotic and hauntingly beautiful country. A superb soundtrack featuring popular Icelandic bands adds some local colour and atmosphere, complementing the strikingly original look of the film.
Fridricksson’s film has an engaging, eccentric style and sly wit that slowly sneaks up on audiences, gradually disarming them in much the same fashion that the harsh wintry landscapes and endearing characters of Iceland eventually work their magic on Atsushi.
INTERVIEW WITH DIRECTOR FRIDRICK THOR FRIDRICKSSON.
Fridrick Thor Fridricksson is undoubtedly the most prolific and successful producer and director working in the Icelandic film industry.
“My films are the only ones that have got any distribution outside of Iceland,” he elaborates. A long time film fan, Fridricksson began making his own films at a young age. he once made a documentary called Rock In Reykjavik (which is screening as part of the ACMI season), that featured popular singer Bjork when she was only 14, and he has featured a number of local bands in his 1996 film Cold Fever.
An indefatigable supported of the local industry he personally invests more money in other director’s films than even the Icelandic government, and he has even established his own state of the art production facilities in Reykjavik. Fridricksson has also been involved in running the Reykjavik Film Festival since 1978. As well as directing his own highly acclaimed movies, he also produces approximately six films a year, “almost every film that is made in Iceland,” he says without a hint of derision. “it’s kind of a struggle,” he admits. “I put more money into their films than the government, for example. I’m trying to help others as much as I can. It’s very hard to raise money, but I think it will change.”
Because the government is not supporting the country’s film makers, giving them only a meagre $1 million per year to spend on film production, the cinema going public are doing their bit for Icelandic films by willingly paying double price at the b ox office for local films like Cold Fever. “Cold Fever is doing really well,” Fridricksson continues. “And even though the government didn’t put any money into it they are gaining a lot out of it – the airlines get more tourists, so everyone is gaining a lot out of it. And the fishing industry is going down, so they have to invent something else, like the tourist industry, otherwise people will leave the country.”
After being nominated for an Oscar in 1992 for his film Children Of Nature, Fridricksson received many inducements to direct films in Hollywood but refused the temptation because he describes himself as a hands-on editor who likes to retain creative control of his work. “I don’t see any reason for working there if I don’t get the final cut,” he says. “I prefer to make my smaller films and have the final cut. I can usually finance a film for around $1 million. It’s enough for my simple stories.”
Typical of these simple stories is Cold Fever, a multi-cultural odyssey set largely in the vast frozen wasteland of Iceland. The quirky and decidedly off beat film actually concludes Fridricksson’s wonderful trilogy that includes his Oscar nominated Children Of Nature and Movie Day.
“All the films were dealing with death in one way or another,” he explains further. “I was interested in different aspects of death. Because in modern society noone is allowed to think about death, you know. Even though death is the only fact in life it’s kept away from people. It’s interesting to se how some people react against death, how people take to it. Old people accept it.”
Cold Fever is a black comedy which essentially deals with a clash of cultures, and its genesis came about when Fridricksson met American producer Jim Stark at the Reykjavik Film Festgival in 1989 while he was there to present Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train, which he had produced. Stark had seen Fridricksson’s first film White Waves and liked it a lot, and took the opportunity to discuss the prospect of making a movie together. However, individual commitments and lack of the right script kept the project from eventuating for quite some time. “We were not in a hurry to make this film,” Fridricksson muses. “It took us six years. These kinds of ideas are not in fashion so you keep them, and they just seem to get better and better.”
Fridricksson slowly developed an idea that was originally inspired by a story he heard about a Japanese family who had come to Iceland and were looking for someone to fly them into the middle of nowhere. A pilot, who was a friend of Fridricksson, flew the family to a remote location where two members of the family had drowned seven years earlier. According to Japanese superstition the surviving family members were supposed to return to the spot where the accident took place seven years later to perform a specific ritual enabling them to meet the spirits of their relatives before they moved onto another world. Fridricksson’s friend filmed the ceremony and showed the footage to him at a later stage.
“I became very interested by that story so I filmed this story around it,” he elaborates. “So, the film was always meant to deal with some kind of Japanese culture against western, Icelandic culture.” The film follows workaholic Japanese businessman Atsushi Hirata (popular Japanese actor Masatoshi Nagase) reluctantly forgoes his Hawaiian holiday and travels to Iceland to conduct a symbolic commemorative ritual for his parents. In the best tradition of the road movie, this quirky and decidedly off beat low budget comedy from Iceland takes audiences off the beaten track and well and truly into uncharted territory.
Fridricksson spent two weeks in Japan shooting the early scenes, using a primarily Japanese crew. Although he initially thought he might have trouble gaining permission to film inside Japan, which is not known as a haven for low budget film making, Fridricksson found that having Japan’s most popular star involved in the project opened a few doors for him. The director also jokes: “If you are an innocent person from Iceland you can go on and on, getting people to do miracles every day.”
According to Fridricksson Nagase is so popular in his native country that, while they were shooting on location on the streets of Tokyo, girls were actually fainting and trying to touch him.
Fridricksson recently finished his latest film The Devil’s Island (which is also screening in this special season), which derives its title from a popular nickname for Iceland, and is heavily involved in postproduction work in order to have the film ready for its permiere at the Venice Film Festival.
(This interview was originally printed in BEAT magazine issue #514 in August 1996)