Recently I had a great opportunity to sit down and have a heart to heart with the director of the 2005 feature "Beowulf and Grendel" which saw a 16 week run in Canada and is now making it's way into select American theaters. The experience was fantastic overall and I would like to share it with you in the hopes that director Sturla Gunnarsson can inspire you to be as excited to see his film as he accomplished with me.
The evening began as I stood outside of the mall theater where a special presentation of "Beowulf and Grendel" would be playing, waiting for Sturla's publicist to call. In the meantime I quietly observed a band of Vikings march through the foodcourt, stop at an ATM and withdraw some spending cash with which to pick up their movie tickets. Was I the only one here who was not going crazy over this movie? And if so...why was I missing out?
Sandra's call came shortly after, and I was given instructions to meet her and Sturla at a restaurant nearby. "Look for the guy in the blue T-shirt and blonde hair" she told me. I guess if you haven't met with many directors such a description can seem a little plain. But sure enough as I approached the table I caught a glimpse of a man in a blue T-shirt and shaggy blonde hair peering back at me and smiling. We exchanged handshakes and I took a seat across from him and in the company of his two publicists. I had never done an interview such as this before, so my instinct was just to play it casual. Sturla would graciously answer all of my questions with very detailed answers as he patiently went through the process of signing several dozen "Beowulf and Grendel" posters to be given to the fans at the screening. "I'm there for you" Sturla told me as I prepared my recorder.
Q: Now the poem (Beowulf) was your inspiration for this movie, but was there anything else that inspired you to make it?
SG: Yeah. I had been wanting to use the landscape. This was where I was born. I had been wanting to do something there for a long time. And I had been looking at the Icelandic sagas and I had been wanting to do a story that was sort of perched on that landscape and dealt with my ancestors. But every time I tried to imagine the saga picture in English they kind of lost something and it didn't seem right.
And then Andrew suggested "Beowulf" and the penny just kind of dropped because it lived with integrity in English. It's actually an old Norse tale. And I had read it when I was a kid in highschool. The main impact it had on me then was I was surprised that the Old English was virtually Icelandic. So I could read the Old English. When I re-read it, what struck me about it was that was like a contemporary thing. About how relevant it felt to the world we are in. It's sort of this tale about people huddled in the darkness scared of what's lurking out there. And that's what sort of crystalized it for me.
Q: I heard your film is based on more realism than mythology. Is that true?
SG: Yeah well the big choice that we made was to put Grendel back in the natural world. In the poem Grendel is a mythological creature and is sort of the embodiment of evil. And Beowulf the embodiment of virtue. And that's how the story was written sometime around 900(AD), but the story takes place more around 500(AD) and it sort of was told around the campfire for hundred of years before it was written by a Christianized Viking who had settled in England.
So our idea was to take it back to the campfire and take it back to the pagan route and once you are in the pagan world you aren't dealing with binary notions of good and evil. And the monsters of the pagan world all kind of emerged somewhere or another from nature. So we tried to find the human face of the epic. It's a more humanistic tale.
Q: What changes did you make to Grendel specifically?
SG: Well in the poem Beowulf fights Grendel the very first night, whereas in our story Grendel is actually adverse to fighting.
Q: So he's more misunderstood than he is evil?
Yes. He's just a big guy from the down in the valley basically. We based him in part on the idea of the Sasquatch or the idea of Humanis-Gigantus. Kinda like people of the same evolutionary-line as us but huge. And that was kind of what we based Grendel on. Much more human-like. There is a novel by John Gardner called "Grendel" that tells the story of Beowulf completely from Grendel's point of view. That Grendel is an entirely different character from our Grendel. But it was sort of that idea of telling a tale that wasn't recorded in the poem.
Q: What was it like working with the cast?
SG: Well it was great. We had a very very challenging shoot. We were suppose to shoot in the summer but we got delayed until the late fall...in Iceland. And it was the stormiest autumn they had had in years. We had 150k winds, we had flying rocks ,and we lost three base camps. It was really intense. With a lesser cast they would have been very unhappy. But Gerry, Stellan and the rest just kind of embraced it.
Q: What was your favorite memory of the shoot?
SG: I'd say just being out there was an adventure. It felt like the crew and the cast were mostly onboard. It felt like we were out there really dancing with the gods and doing stuff that no one in their right mind would do and it was really cool. We shot in places that no one has ever shot before.
Q: So you were born in Iceland and wanted to shoot the film there. Did you already have locations in mind?
SG: Yeah. When Andrew and I decided to do it, I took him over there before he started to write the script. So a lot of the screenplay was written very specifically for that place. And when people read the script they were always struck by what a powerful sense of place it had. The place really spoke to them.
Q: How much of a budget were you able to put into the film?
SG: We had a three country co. production: Iceland, Canada and the United Kingdom and the total budget was around $17 million Canadian dollars which would be around $13-14 Million U.S. dollars.
Q: Where did most of the budget go?
SG: Well Iceland is possibly one of the most expensive countries on Earth. We have to bring in all these people in from everywhere. And a lot of money went to that and a lot of money into production. Research, armor, prosthetics, stunt guys. And before you know it the money is all gone.
Q: I bet the locations were hard to get to.
SG: Yeah they were. I sort of made a choice at a certain point where I really wanted to shoot these places and so at that point we say okay we're going to do this but we can't take all our toys. And so we're going to have a camera and a pick-up truck then we're going to set up a base camp and hike up a glacier to get the shot. So we sort of made this choice to embrace the landscape as a character and go for a real simplicity of shooting style.
Q: So final question. Did you have a lot of fun making this film?
SG: Yeah I had a lot of fond memories. Everyday coming down off the mountain, no matter how difficult it was. And at the end of the day we could look back and say "wow. We did that. We actually did that". So I had a lot of fun. My favorite image was when Stellan SkarsgÃ¥rd had his first day on the shoot and the wind was blowing at about 110 kilometers per hour, and we couldn't stand anywhere because you would get blown off your spot. And the producers and my partners were saying that we have to shut her down because it's too dangerous. And I said "No. I want this scene. I have to get this scene" It was a beautiful day because it was so moody and foggy and sh***y. A perfect day for a scene that was written as a "glorious sunny day" and when we get there it's foggy, you can't see past your nose and the wind is gusting at 106k and I realized it was much better for the scene.
So I'm sort of dancing as fast as I can telling my partners "yayayayayaya" in the meantime telling my department heads to get ready for the shoot and kinda hoping my producers will just go away or give up on trying to shut her down. And Stellan on his first day of shooting staggers out of the mead hall into this storm. He's wearing a night shirt. That's it. Everyone else is wearing like 4 layers of artic gear. And he's wearing a night shirt and boots, and he staggers out in full costume and he says "quit your talkin over there and let's shoot this f*****g scene!". And that was the end of the confrontation. That was a fond memory.
We wrapped up the next few minutes discussing the types of fans that were going crazy over this film much like the ones currently waiting in line with their Viking helmets and chain mail. Sturla handed me a autographed poster and we parted ways as we reached the theater. I chose a seat amongst the Gerard Butler fan-club and quickly found myself enjoying the atmosphere and conversations with those sitting next to me. As the lights went down, a Viking horn sounded from somewhere in the back and the movie began. I won't go into details of the movie in this article. However you can read all about my thoughts in my official review.
As the lights went up, Sturla came down to the front of the theater to do a bit of a Q&A with the audience. Most questions that were brought up I had already asked in one way or another. But I think that the final question that was asked Sturla by an audience member stands as the most brilliant sum-up of their reaction to "Beowulf and Grendel".
Q: "Sturla. We thoroughly enjoyed the film. Can we buy you a beer?