Writer/director Fridrik Thor Fridriksson is almost single-handedly responsible for Iceland’s impressive movie boom of the 1990s and early 2000s. His breakthrough feature Children of Nature, about an elderly couple who flee from a Reykjavik nursing home to take a road trip to rural southern Iceland, was the only locally produced film of 1991 but went on to become the first Icelandic movie ever nominated for an Oscar. (For my money, Children of Nature ranks alongside of Leo McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow and Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story as the cinema’s most powerful statement about the predicament of the elderly.) Fridriksson sunk the profits he received from the film’s various international distribution deals into buying more production equipment and established the Icelandic Film Corporation, which produced dozens of distinctive films in the following years.
The following interview, in which we discussed the prolific filmmaker’s formidable career as well as several tantalizing projects he is currently working on, occurred in a Reykjavik coffee shop last August. Anyone familiar with Fridriksson’s work should recognize his trademark deadpan sense of humor: more than any other director I’ve met, he seems like a character out of one of his own movies (when my wife remarked that she liked his purple shirt, he replied without missing a beat that it was a gift from the pope). For more of my thoughts on Fridriksson’s films see my Cinematic Iceland Photo Tour post.
MGS: I read that before you started making films you were involved in film exhibition. How did that come about?
FTF: Yeah, you know, (in the 1970s) we had like three colleges here in Reykjavik, so we had a film society and I was running the society for many years. And then I wanted to expand it, so I got an old theater . . .
Waitress walks over and sets down coffee.
MGS: Thank you.
Waitress: You’re welcome.
MGS: And you programmed that theater?
FTF: I programmed that theater and it was very, very well received. I managed to get the (Icelandic) University involved as well. We had more than 2,000 members so we could get almost every film we wanted to see. It was before the video revolution so we got most of the films on 35 or 16 (millimeter). And 16 was more common because of the transport cost. Yeah, so I was running that for many years before I started to make films.
MGS: And the attendance was good?
FTF: Yeah, absolutely marvelous. We were quite well off because we were able to buy a 16mm camera and a small editing table. So we offered our members (the chance) to make some short films.
MGS: So you were doing both at the same time, programming and making films?
FTF: Yeah. I was also running a gallery on the next corner. It was right here in the center of Reykjavik. So it was really handy.
MGS: Wow, that sounds like an exciting time.
FTF: Yeah, yeah (chuckles), when you’re 20, 20-something . . . And then I ended it in ’78 or ’77 because then I was asked by the government to establish the Reykjavik Film Festival. We only had the budget for one or two guests.
MGS: Who was the first guest?
FTF: Wim Wenders.
MGS: That’s a good first guest to have!
FTF: Yeah, because at that time there was hardly any filmmaking in Iceland. So he encouraged people to . . . I mean, politicians he met, because he met everybody, the President and everyone. So he encouraged people, politicians especially, to establish a film fund and to support the filmmakers. And then people started to roll.
MGS: The earliest of your films I’ve seen is Rock in Reykjavik (1982), which I just watched on YouTube without subtitles. I was riveted by the whole thing even without subtitles because the musical performances were so great. I understand you made that for television. Were you commissioned to make that or did you initiate the project?
FTF: No, I didn’t get any grants to make the film. And it became like a political thing because they (state-run television) wanted to cut three minutes out of the film. It was a terrible experience. We lost a lot of money because I suspected that I would get support from the Icelandic Film Fund that was already established. But I didn’t get any support until my first feature White Whales (1987). So I made like six documentaries before that without any incentives.
MGS: So Rock in Reykjavik you made independently and then after you were done you sold it to television?
FTF: Yeah but they cut it, with the censorship, so it was . . . I disliked it a lot at that time. But I also made a film that was like a sketch for Children of Nature (1991): it was 35 minutes, a documentary. Even the President of Iceland wrote a film critique, very positive, about that one. (chuckles)
MGS: Wow. So if Rock in Reykjavik was your concept from the beginning, were you a fan of the bands in the film?
FTF: Yeah, some of them. You know, we had made (another) project with one of the groups, Theyr. And then I was old friends with Bubbi Morthens who was probably the most popular rock star at that time. So then I just was scouting for groups and I saw Bjork when she was performing with her group Tappi Tikarrass. And I was fascinated (chuckles), absolutely fascinated. I couldn’t believe my eyes and ears when I saw her. I remember it just like it happened yesterday.
Bjork (aged 14) in Rock in Reykjavik
MGS: Did you have a premonition that she was going to be a big star when you first saw her?
FTF: No, I thought many . . . at that time I thought Theyr, this group, would be world famous, and they became world famous for a while. I mean, world famous in Italy, Japan, and, you know, (for) people who were interested in the punk rock at that time. You see, you have to imagine it’s before video, so it was difficult for them to go through. And also, Iceland was not well known. It was like making rock and roll in Afghanistan or something (chuckles). It came out of the blue. But I was also trying to tell the story of rock and roll music that was through the American NATO base here in Iceland . . .
MGS: Which is also a big part of Devil’s Island (1996).
FTF: Yeah, yeah. So I wanted to tell the history. And then some of the bands were really good bands but they were doing so much with synths. They were very . . . what shall I say? They were very clean-cut boys. Good music but I had to cut them out.
MGS: You liked it more raw? (laughs)
FTF: No, I liked more, like, people who have something to say, you know?
MGS: There’s one band in that film — it seems like they’re just kids. A kid with a mohawk is the lead singer and he destroys his guitar with an axe. It’s one of the most punk rock things I’ve ever seen. Who were they?
FTF: Just people coming from split homes. They stayed at this bus station that I was filming. They had a terrible life. The lead singer passed away after he was sober for many years. Nice boys but they went through all this shit like what people go through — you know, in America, it’s more crack but here they were sniffing gas, gasoline, to get high. It was a very tough time for those kids. I could have made just a documentary about this group ’cause they were very fascinating guys, you know? (The name of the band is Sjalfsfroun – MGS)
MGS: Absolutely. One kid is being interviewed and he’s smoking a cigarette. Even today that was strange to see. (laughs)
FTF: Yeah, yeah. And that was the funny thing, that censorship here wanted to cut that out.
MGS: Of course!
FTF: (laughs) And then the journalism — the headline of my newspaper: “Why Are you Cutting It Out of the Film?” There were very few films being made in Iceland at that time. So people were afraid, I think, of me as a person because I was on the left wing and I think they were afraid I would do more political stuff. Because Iceland has been very corrupt even though on the surface everything is fine.
MGS: Right. They thought you were dangerous.
FTF: I guess so. Or film was a dangerous medium. Because young people were flocking to see it — about 25,000 people — and we were thrown out of cinemas when we had 800 (admissions) a day. So there were many people against me at that time. And also after I made this film Cowboys of the North (1984). They felt I was making fun of Icelandic culture.
MGS: And that was another documentary?
FTF: Yeah, that was another documentary. It went to cinemas and did very well.
MGS: Let’s talk about your fiction features. I think my favorite is Cold Fever (1995). I read that you were a fan of Japanese cinema and I was wondering if that was your inspiration to make a film about a Japanese businessman visiting Iceland.
FTF: No, we had invited Jim Jarmusch to come here with Mystery Train (for the Reykjavik Film Festival in 1989). He couldn’t come so he offered us the producer Jim Stark and he came. He saw my first film White Whales. He said he liked it and he wanted to work with me. He said “Can you come up with some ideas for this Japanese boy in Mystery Train (Masatoshi Nagase) because he’s eager to work again with me?” So I went to Japan to scout, you know? And in the beginning I wanted to make a film connected with whaling because Jim Stark hated people who were whalers (laughs). So I went to Japan and I was concentrating on whaling stories and selling whale meat and things like that — the same issues as today because now we are whaling again. We were not whaling in ’89. But anyway, it ended up that there was an accident here in the Highlands of Iceland: two Japanese scientists drowned. So seven years later — that was ’84 — seven years later, in ’91, people from Japan came and were performing the same ceremonies you see in the film. So I said, “Now I have an idea for a film.”
MGS: Oh, yeah, that’s perfect.
FTF: Yeah, so me and Jim wrote the script together.
MGS: I see. So he brought you the actor and then you came up with the concept?
MGS: But I think the film still reflects your love of Japanese cinema because you cast the great director Seijun Suzuki as the protagonist’s grandfather.
FTF: Suzuki, yeah!
MGS: I don’t think he had done much acting before. How did you approach him about acting in your film?
FTF: Masatoshi Nagase knew him and I asked him to. He was extremely nice, you know, and it was beautiful. It’s one of my favorite moments in my career.
Seijun Suzuki and Masatoshi Nagase in Cold Fever.
MGS: It seems like a lot of your films have an ambivalent attitude towards American culture. You know, we were talking about the influence of rock and roll earlier. Devil’s Island and also Movie Days (1994) . . .
FTF: Yeah, my childhood . . .
MGS: I think those films express a love of American rock and roll of the 1950s and also classic Hollywood films. But at the same time I also feel like you’re being critical of American imperialism . . .
FTF: Yes, of course.
MGS: Is it safe to say you have a love/hate relationship with American culture?
FTF: I would say it’s love but (laughs) . . . but I have been misunderstood. Because I think it was the actor Elliot Gould or someone . . . Movie Days and Devil’s Island were both Oscar entries from Iceland — when the people came out, they said “Fridrik’s turned into an anti-American . . .” (laughs) But it’s mainly love because, you know, if you are under imperial threat like Iceland was — because when I was growing up there was only one T.V. station from the NATO base, without subtitles, of course, and the only radio station young people listened to also came from the NATO base — so, of course, it was something that woke us up, but we had to protect our culture, our cultural heritage. And so it was very important, so that’s why it’s pure love. (laughs) If someone put a gun on you and said “You have to beware of where you’re heading,” you’re just grateful for the guy who has the gun. (laughs)
MGS: (laughing) That’s a good analogy. That’s a very good analogy.
FTF: I have been joking a lot about Hollywood cinema but there are people who take me too seriously. We were taking the Marshall Plan (the American program that provided economic support to Europe in the aftermath of WWII – MGS) and part of that was to have one cinema for each major (Hollywood) studio. So we got hardly any European films here but we were really well educated in literature and our literary heritage from the Icelandic Sagas. It is very strong in your heart and mind. So you can’t really compete that with American films. Like I put it in Mamma Gogo (2011), my last feature film, it (Hollywood) is just like fast food. When you watch an American film you are just killing time — on an airplane or something. I love those films but I’m always waiting to see them on an airplane — instead of going to the cinema — when I’m flying to Japan or Korea. But I like it, you know? I have nothing against it.
MGS: Well, fortunately, there’s a lot of good independent American cinema.
FTF: Yes, yes, yes. But I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about Hollywood. Because, when you’re Oscar nominated like I was for Children of Nature, all the agencies are after you. But I was not interested in working in a hamburger joint, making fast food. Because they are so good at it, also. I am not good at it. I know my skills.
MGS: Good for you.
FTF: You know, it was money, but I would probably have made one or two films and been sent back home. Because with White Whales I got over this, what shall I say, shoot-out and things like that? Have you seen that film?
MGS: I’ve not seen that one.
FTF: Because there’s a lot of fast cuts, shoot outs . . .
MGS: You got it all out of your system early on. (laughs)
FTF: It’s just like a kid, you know, “I want this toy.” (laughs) And then you get bored with it.
FTF: But, of course, you know, Coen brothers and many people have made those films so beautifully.
MGS: My wife and I were at the Lebowski Bar last night (laughs). You were just talking about Icelandic culture and the Icelandic Sagas being so prominent in your life, it seems to me that you are a very Icelandic director — even more so than a lot of other directors whose work I’ve seen who are from here. You make films about Icelandic history and Icelandic identity: Devil’s Island and Movie Days, for example, are very much about Iceland in the 1950s but even in a more contemporary film like Angels of the Universe (2000) it seems like the protagonist, Paul, is meant to represent Iceland in a way. He was born on the day that Iceland joined NATO and there’s a hilarious line where he says that growing up he felt like the Communists were protesting his birthday. Do you consciously explore what it means to be Icelandic in your films?
FTF: Yeah, of course. I have made films abroad but I feel I’m not . . . let’s put it like, “I’m not sure what I’m doing when I’m doing films here.” (laughs) So that probably makes me more Icelandic than some directors that can easily do international cinema. But also the films I have made here are much more popular. Like, for example, when you show your films in Iran or China, you feel they have similar humor. That’s so great. Because Angels of the Universe when it was screened in Bremen, it was a big distribution company in Germany, and people were just silent. They were not laughing. And here (in Iceland), people were laughing their heads off. And in China people were laughing their heads off. And Iran also, in Tehran. And so I said “You never know really what is going to travel between countries.” Of course, you can do local humor here but if you make your characters human and, of course, you have to be in love with your characters and have empathy and all these words that can describe what a filmmaker should do with a character . . . you have to respect your characters. That seems to be the best way to make a film travel.
MGS: Because if you respect them then other people will too?
FTF: Yeah, if they have a similar human touch.
MGS: Are you a fan of Ozu?
FTF: Ozu? Yes, yes, yes.
MGS: His films didn’t really play in America until the 1970s because it was felt that they were “too Japanese.” But when you watch his movies today they seem so universal because they’re about family and everybody can relate to that.
FTF: Yeah, that’s true.
MGS: I want to ask you about The Boss of It All (2006), the Lars Von Trier film that you acted in.
FTF: I was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for the Danish Oscar.
MGS: Oh really? Your performance was my favorite part of that film. It was hilarious. I didn’t know you were nominated for an award. In the movie your character is always angry and yelling. But, talking to you now, I can see you’re a mild-mannered person. Was that hard for you or . . .
MGS: It came naturally?
FTF: I’m a soccer player! I still play soccer.
MGS: Did you play today?
MGS: When you told me you were playing this morning I thought you meant you had to watch a soccer match. (laughs)
FTF: No, no, no. I play three times a week. Always outdoors, even minus 20, all the guys show up. That’s beautiful. It doesn’t matter how the weather is because the pitch is always heated up. So it’s always nice.
MGS: So you yell a lot while you’re playing? (laughs)
FTF: Yeah, well, I can easily put myself in that situation.
MGS: Had you ever acted or played a role that prominent in a film before?
FTF: No, no, no.
MGS: Did being directed by Lars Von Trier change the way you think about directing actors yourself?
FTF: No. He used very similar methods I use: just follow his instincts, you know, when he’s hiring actors. Like the boy in the autistic film (A Mother’s Courage, 2009), he was looking for a job. And he typed (on a “letterboard” specifically designed for autistic people) “Maybe I could become a film director.” And I said to his parents “Why?” “Because I heard that Fridrik is not communicating with his actors.” (laughs)
MGS: Oh my God, that’s hilarious. Did Lars give you a lot of freedom then to do what you wanted?
FTF: No, you only had two chances for each shot, then he asked the computer to change the angle. (Von Trier shot the movie with a cinematographic process called “Automavision,” in which the compositions were determined at random by a computer – MGS) So sometimes your face was just half . . . (Fridriksson holds his hand in front of his face to indicate an awkward, fragmented composition) So there was no camera movement. He asked the computer, “Okay, 8mm or 25mm?”
MGS: For the lens?
FTF: Yeah. (chuckles) So it was quiet, quiet, quiet, quiet (on the set).
Fridrik Thor Fridriksson (right) with Jens Albinus and Peter Gantlzer in The Boss of It All.
MGS: What are you working on now?
FTF: One film is granted already. I’m not producing — usually I produce my films — but it’s a lesbian love story. I wanted to do something completely different. And then I’m working on a film based on a book called Black Cliffs. Hemingway was very fond of this author, Gunnar Gunnarson. He passed away a long time ago. He was actually a guy that was supposed to get the Nobel Prize but I think, in his life, he was not a Nazi but he met Adolf Hitler . . .
FTF: It’s just like I would go to (North) Korea now and meet Kim Jong-un. (laughs) Then I would never get an Oscar.
MGS: That’s true.
FTF: But the book sold many, many copies in the States. All his books are very popular in the States.
MGS: So is that going to be a period piece?
FTF: Yes. It’s a murder case that took place in Westfjords. It’s the most beautiful spot on earth where this tragic story took place. Then I’m doing a documentary about a painter who passed away. You can buy his books at the gallery around the corner. His name was Georg Gudni. He was a friend. And that’s a feature. Then on the 28th I have the premiere of a film I produced for a first-time director. So I’m going to produce first-time directors again.
MGS: So you’re making two fiction features and one documentary?
MGS: Which one are you going to do next?
FTF: I think it’s the documentary — this summer. And then I’m going for the lesbian love story. It’s called Staying Alive.
MGS: A good title.
FTF: Yes. That was my title. Then Black Cliffs. Black Cliffs is a period piece, which takes place in 1803 so it’s a very, very expensive story. So I might wait with that and maybe make three films from the same period.
MGS: A trilogy?
FTF: Yeah, well, I will not direct them all. I will only direct probably this (first) one. But I have an option on two other books.
MGS: It sounds like you’ll be very busy for the next few years.
FTF: No, no. I’ve produced maybe 60 features in my life. So I like a lot to help first-time directors because we have a terrible landscape to work in here because nobody wants to support first-time directors.
MGS: I know the film industry here was hurt by the economic crisis . . .
MGS: But that was about five years ago. Has the situation changed at all?
FTF: Yeah, it’s better now. They started by cutting down the Film Fund heavily. Because they were a leftist government and most of the filmmakers are leftists so . . . (laughs) but then they corrected it. For example, me and many people were hammering them because all this tourism now is because of us. And now more and more American films are made in the country . . .
MGS: I think it’s great that you’ve done so much to build up the industry here . . .
FTF: No, I was just the lucky one. I was the first to be (Oscar) nominated and that’s just pure coincidence. So I just bought cameras and stuff so I could participate. Now it’s so easy to make a film. (laughs) I mean much easier than with film. Just to go through raw stock and cameras and lights and trucks. It was a heavy task.
MGS: Well, best of luck to you in the future with all of your films. I look forward to seeing them.
This interview first appeared in La Furia Umana.