After dragging a crew and A-list cast to the highest place on Earth (ok, almost, they didn’t quite reach the summit) for last year’s big-scale survival epic Everest, Baltasar Kormakur appears to have turned things down a notch, returning to his native Iceland for his next feature, The Oath.
But while the psychological thriller – having it world premiere in Toronto Saturday as a special presentation – may seem a world away from the snow-covered Himalayas, Kormakur has upped the pressure by producing and also directing himself in the lead role, going back to his acting roots for the first time in almost a decade and playing a father who tries to pull his daughter away from a world of drugs and petty crime.
Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter from Iceland, where Kormakur is at the forefront of a thriving film and TV industry, the multi-hyphenate discusses turning down the big studio franchises that were offered to him post Everest descent, how raising teenage girls has made his beard go grey, the upcoming U.S. remake of his hit TV series Trapped and how he’d love to direct the new Dances With Wolves.
Last time we spoke you’d just finished Everest. The Oath seems like a wholly different film.
Yeah, it’s very different. Maybe that’s the reason why I chose to do it. After I did my first film, 101 Reykjavik, they called me “Almodovar on Ice.” That’s when I did a drama called The Sea, and they wanted to call me the “Icelandic Bergman.” And when I did The Deep and Everest, I was the new survival filmmaker. They’re constantly trying to find a way to put a stamp on you, and I want to avoid that at any cost. I don’t like to be calculated when it comes to choosing projects, I’d rather just go by my heart, if something interests me. And that’s what happened with The Oath. it was a project that was brought to me at the early stages of development and I was like, dammit, this is one of the best stories I’ve read in a while. So I thought maybe I should go home and throw myself fully into it. I’d been kind of avoiding the big studio stuff that was being thrown at me, some of these huge, huge franchises, and I decided to stay at home and get in touch with myself, with the people I knew and get on the ground in front of and behind the camera.
So was The Oath a sort of homecoming?
Yeah, it was. I work a lot from here. But to come back and do a film… And also I haven’t been acting for quite a while. I originally started as an actor. I did star in my first film, 101 Reykjavik. At the time I was one of the best-known screen actors in Iceland and financiers wanted me to be in the film as the lead. I didn’t want to do it, so took a smaller role and I absolutely hated my performance! I loathed being on both sides of the camera, I thought it was horribly vain. So I stayed away from it, even in Everest and other films there were always suggestions that I play some of the smaller characters. And I never wanted to, I never felt that this was what I wanted to do.
What made you change your mind for this?
I felt this was the right time to do it. Actually, partly because it’s so much from the perspective of this character, it’s not like I’m playing something totally opposite. The whole film goes through the perspective of this man. So it is my perspective, as a director and this character.
You’re playing the lead. Was it hard work juggling this and directing?
It’s hard work, sure, but I did have a lot of good people around me. You surround yourself with brilliant people, and people who are ready to tell the truth and challenge you when you’re not on it. Also, in this case, I’m a father of five. I’ve brought up two teenage girls, which is the main reason for my grey beard now. It’s not filming in Everest, it’s teenage girls; they’re way harder than any film I’ve come across. The tricks you learn to control people on set do not work for teenage girls. It’s not like the role is about me, but in many ways… it’s a successful man who has character issues, which I certainly do… it’s like one big psychiatry class. But I loved doing it. It was the absolute opposite of 101, where I hated my performance and wasn’t interested in it. In this case, it was the right time, the right moment. And I just enjoyed the whole process intensely.
And this time you didn’t have to deal with marauding yaks or avalanches?
Actually no. There were some minor stunts I had to do myself, but apart from that it was good. We could go with a latte on set and actually have a reasonable conversation without freezing our butts off.
Your TV show Trapped has gone down enormously well around the world. Was this unexpected?
It should be if I wasn’t so arrogant and such a megalomaniac. But I believed it was possible at the beginning, because I said I wanted to make a show that takes Icelandic TV to the world, that represented the Icelandic Scandi noir. We’ve never had that before. We put a lot into it and I’m immensely proud. We had 6 million viewers in France. It came second after some new French show on a Monday night. We had up to 1.5 million in England, and of course they don’t dub it there. At the same time, I think we had more U.K. viewers than Fortitude [Sky’s “Arctic noir,” shot in Iceland]. And there are dealings going on with a U.S. remake. They even wanted to remake Trapped in Russia, but I wasn’t into that because it didn’t make financial sense. But we’ve sold it to Japan and Mongolia and Australia. Even America has bought the original version for a really good price.
Anything you can tell us about the remake?
I can’t really talk about the remake yet. I’ve signed a deal with a production company, but it hasn’t been put out to the media, I just don’t want to overstep that.
And are you planning a second season?
We’re working on the script. I kind of said we don’t want to announce it until we’re happy with the script. I don’t want to make it just to make it, it has to be good enough. We have a great pilot script, but there are a couple of places where the first hasn’t opened yet. Germany, which is a big part of the production financing, they haven’t yet screened it. That’s coming in the autumn. So we want to screen that before we announce a second season.
Any other films lined up? You’re planning your big Vikingr project soon, right?
There are three projects competing for a slot. I’m doing the Vikingr movie with Working Title and Universal, hopefully in a year’s time, and I wanted to make a smaller movie in-between. I opened up a slot for early next year or late this. So there were some projects that were brought to me, but it’s in a very sensitive place.
Did you get a lot of big offers after Everest?
Yes, lots of visual effects-heavy stuff. Some crazy stuff that I wasn’t interested in. There was some really interesting stuff that came my way, but the tendency of the business is that if you’ve done something that shows you can work in certain conditions, they want to secure you for a similar job – underwater films, shark films, earthquakes – all kinds of stuff. For me, it wasn’t really about the mountain, it was also something about the story and the tragedy and the reality of it. So instead I went home and made a film about myself!
So if another Everest came your way, would you be tempted?
No, not at all. I’m done with Everest. Maybe K2, but not Everest! If someone had a great script for a Western… I’d really love to make a great, modern Western, the new Dances With Wolves. So if that’s out there, I’d love to make a film like that. Vikingr is kind of that. But there’s something about cowboys and Indians… and not in the way it has been done. I’d like to do a new approach to it.
So if you’ve been badged “Almodovar on Ice,” the “Icelandic Bergman” and the “survival filmmaker” before, how will you be labeled after The Oath?
A f––ing egomaniac!
See an exclusive clip from The Oath below: