Icelandic filmmaker Baltasar Kormákur.
Icelandic filmmaker Baltasar Kormákur.
"The Deep"
"The Deep"

Iceland's shortlisted Oscar entry "The Deep" (spring 2013) is based on the true story of the sole survivor of a downed fishing boat. Baltasar Kormakur is a member of a growing band of truly international filmmakers who make films at home as well as Hollywood. Producer-star Mark Wahlberg starred in "Contraband," Kormakur's remake of his own "Reykjavik-Rotterdam," took a shine to the rugged Iceland actor-director, and went on to make another film with him, the upcoming $80-million actioner "Two Guns," co-starring Denzel Washington. Wahlberg is also producing an HBO pilot with him, "The Missionary."

In a year that brought us "Life of Pi" and "The Impossible," it's striking that Kormakur opted to shoot his survival tale on real water. He and his cameraman bobbed in the Atlantic waves off Iceland in order to make believable the plight of his lonely swimmer, talking to birds and himself for hours on the dark open sea. Kormakur couldn't find anything that mimicked the actual character of the waves and the undertow.  He says that Icelanders, especially, would have picked out green-screen tanks and CG water in an instant. He shot for two months in summer, but with winter exteriors, editing and post production, the film took two years to complete.

In our conversation below, along with ex-Universal co-chairman and executive producer David Linde of Lava Bear Films, Kormakur tells how he did his own stunts and literally went down with the ship.

Before the Icelandic premiere, the filmmaker screened "The Deep" for the relatives of the fishermen who died in the boat – only his protagonist survived. He was relieved and gratified when the surviving family members said that the movie was cathartic and gave them closure. The story is well-known in Iceland, where the film became a huge hit.

In the works: Kormakur has optioned Haldor Laxness' Nobel prize-winning book "Independent People," which is beloved by Icelanders. He's based at Universal for the moment, and is developing an authentic Viking seafaring adventure. 

Anne Thompson: Balthasar, you started as an actor in the theater and then you got into films. How many feature films have you made in Iceland?

Balthasar Kormakur: This is my fifth Icelandic film in the Icelandic language.

AT: Was “Contraband” your first English-language film?

BK: “Contraband” was my first studio film; I had done two smaller English-language films, one in Iceland called “A Little Trip to Heaven” and another independent film called “Inhale.”

AT: This is based on a true story set in 1984. Were you a teenager when this happened?

BK: Yes, I was 18 years-old and it had a great impact on me.  First of all, there are shipwrecks every year in my country. The history of Iceland is filled with terrible accidents and people losing men to sea. And we've never been able to tackle this on a film. First of all, it's really hard to make a film where everyone drowns. Well, they did in "Titanic," but then you have to make up a love story and there aren't many love stories on Icelandic finishing boats. [Laughs]

So that's not going to get anyone into the cinema. But this [survival] is almost like a miracle, and gave people hope.  But at the same time that it is a miracle that someone survives an accident, they can tell you what were the conditions, so it reflects on how dangerous this job is.

I also want to take this a little bit back, because my country in 2008, collapsed.  All three banks in Iceland went bankrupt, so it was a shipwreck for the whole nation.  It went sideways.  After that, it was like how can I deal with that on film?  I did not want to go and make a film about a greedy banker who goes bankrupt.  I wasn't interested; I wanted to tell a story that would be a metaphor of the nation and also try to connect something that I thought we had lost.  We had lost our own identity, our image of ourselves.  It started with megalomania, everyone thought they were financial geniuses and bought themselves a private jet and then after the downfall it was minority complex: then we thought the crisis of the world was Iceland's fault.  

AT: The doc "Inside Job" started with the fall of Iceland, the most dramatic fall of any of the countries.

BK: Then starting, mirroring yourself in people's opinion of you, and thinking what does the world think of us?  We have a terrible image out there now and I thought it was wrong, you can't do that in that circumstances.  In a state of shock, when you lose everything, you actually have to look at who you are and yourself and find it out and not be worried about whatever people think of you. By telling a story that is so fundamentally Icelandic about something so basic and a hero that doesn't want to be a hero maybe it brings us back a little self-esteem.

AT:  You've worked with your star Ólafur Darri Ólafssonon on several films.

BK: I've worked with him on several films and also in theater; he's a fantastic theater actor. He's big. He has a big voice. He's like Gerard Depardieu in Iceland now. People actually are starting to see beyond his physical appearance and he can play a lot.

AT: The movie was a big hit in Iceland yeah?

BK: Yes, it was a very risky project, telling people that you're going to make a film about a man swimming in the ocean for six hours are not necessarily going to get the teenagers running to the cinema.  But is the box office hit of the country.  It's going to be in the top five if not the top of this year.  That tells me that they want to see something that they can relate to.

AT: You actually did something they did not do in “Life of Pi,” “Titanic,” or “The Impossible” - you filmed these people and yourself in this incredibly cold water.  How could you do this?

BK: Because the other way was impossible, let's put it that way, because I don't have hundreds of millions of dollars to put visual effects.  Anyone who's worked in that field knows that the hardest achievement is to create water. It’s one of the most difficult things to create. And I have $3 million and that is a high budget in my country.  

So another part of it is 80% of my country lives by the sea, watches the North Atlantic every day. And, with all due respect, “Titanic” looks like it's sinking in a pond. It is the truth; the sea is not moving.  And there are limitations of course, I could not have shot that movie in the North Atlantic ocean, I'm not saying that. But I wanted to be as authentic and real as possible, so we just swam for a month.

AT: So how did you do it? You created a camera rig?

BK: What did was I had no idea what I was doing, basically. [Laughs] And there is a reason why people don't do this, why they do this in a tank.  So I decided to put the actor in as much waves and ocean as possible and got a rig a working platform, but it was almost impossible to keep him in the frame.  He was bobbing in and out and he was swimming and then he was too close or too far or gone by and I need to have him have the monologue with the bird and all that and after trying this for a while, I thought we are going to have to figure this out.  So I asked for a rope and tied it around the leg of actor and got a big monitor on a rig and I just jumped into the ocean and backstroke and held him in frame, watching him on the monitor trying to keep in the frame and he just kept on swimming and we had this wonderful human dolly.

AT: So you did it in the summer then.