Shep­herd’s de­light

How Grí­mur Hákonar­son’s sheep-filled film Rams got best in show at Cannes

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FRONT PAGE -

Gen­er­ally speak­ing, a com­edy con­nois­seur just knows from the pitch: Will Fer­rell and Sacha Baron Co­hen are Nas­car ri­vals; Katharine Hep­burn and Cary Grant have a leop­ard; Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe and Jane Rus­sell are hus­band-hun­ters.

On pa­per, Rams – a film about two el­derly Ice­landic sheep-farm­ing brothers – doesn’t quite have the same whim­si­cal piz­zazz. And yet, Grí­mur Hákonar­son’s new movie, the win­ner of Un Cer­tain Re­gard sec­tion at last year’s Cannes Film Fes­ti­val, is a gen­uine, if un­likely crowd­pleaser.

“It’s not a con­ven­tional film,” says the Ice­landic film-maker. “But from that very first screen­ing, the re­views are good and peo­ple have re­ally liked it.”

Hákonar­son is some­thing of a Cannes vet­eran. A grad­u­ate of Prague Film School, the di­rec­tor was first in­vited to the Croisette with his 2005 short, Slavek the Shit.

His de­but fea­ture film Sum­mer­land (2010) played with lo­cal leg­ends about ghosts and elves and took home gongs from Austin Fan­tas­tic Fest and Ice­land’s own Edda Awards.

Rams is con­sid­er­ably more earth­bound in sub­ject and sen­si­bil­ity. In­deed, the writer-di­rec­tor spent more than three years on the screen­play.

“Be­cause my first fea­ture was not so suc­cess­ful and I wanted to make this film as good as pos­si­ble I didn’t set any dead­line,” says Hákonar­son. “It was just up to me. It is a per­sonal film be­cause of my back­ground. My par­ents both grew up on farms, and as a child I spent a lot of time on my grand­fa­ther’s farm. We shot the film in north­ern Ice­land nearby.

“So I’m do­ing this film for my grand­fa­ther and my grand­mother and an­ces­tors. Most peo­ple live in cities. This is a way to make peo­ple un­der­stand why some­one would choose to live like this.”

Rams is the story of two el­derly brothers who, de­spite liv­ing next door to one an­other, have not spo­ken in more than 40 years, save for oc­ca­sional notes car­ried be­tween their houses by a sheep­dog. An out­break of scrapie, a fa­tal de­gen­er­a­tive dis­ease that af­fects the ner­vous sys­tem of sheep, threat­ens to ag­gra­vate the long-run­ning feud.

Un­less, of course, the brothers can fi­nally pull to­gether in or­der to save their rar­efied stock from lo­cal au­thor­i­ties.

“The main story of the two brothers is based on a real story,” says the di­rec­tor. “I found the story in­ter­est­ing. And it says a lit­tle bit about the na­tional char­ac­ter of many Ice­landers. They are very stub­born and in­de­pen­dent.

“I also know peo­ple who have had to cull their sheep be­cause of scrapie. So I have some idea of the emo­tional shock that it is. If you’re liv­ing alone with the sheep and you don’t have any fam­ily, the sheep be­comes like your fam­ily. They be­come your best friends. So I wanted to write about this strong con­nec­tion with an­i­mals.”

This un­likely sound­ing com­edy comes re­plete with an un­likely high-speed chase. In a trac­tor. In a bliz­zard. Suf­fice to say, it wasn’t the eas­i­est shoot.

“The win­ter part of the shoot was dif­fi­cult,” says Hákonar­son. “We were some­times film­ing in tem­per­a­tures of mi­nus 15. We had very lit­tle light. In Ice­land in Jan­uary you can have maybe four-and-a-half hours of light. Some­times the crew had to run.

“We had to make a deal with the crew. We wouldn’t eat for five hours and then we’d get a proper meal and get to re­lax a bit. But when it’s not nine-to-five and you can’t just go home ev­ery day, you so­cialise and stay in good spir­its.”

The heav­ily-bearded brothers are es­sayed by theatre veter­ans Theodór Júlíus­son and Sig­urður Sig­ur­jóns­son as film ac­tors were, by the film-maker’s reck­on­ing, “too pretty”. Smaller roles are oc­cu­pied by real-life farm­ers for pur­poses of au­then­tic­ity. But what about cast­ing the tit­u­lar ovis?

“We ac­tu­ally spent a lot of time try­ing to cast the right sheep,” says the di­rec­tor. “Usu­ally sheep are shy of peo­ple and they run away. The sheep we used were home sheep: they stay at home so they’re used to peo­ple.

“They’re sup­posed to be an un­usual breed. They had to look noble and well built. So I had some farm­ers help­ing me. We took a long time to cast them.

“I had night­mares be­fore film­ing. But it was much eas­ier to di­rect them than I ex­pected. I some­times thought they knew they were act­ing. I’d call ac­tion and they’d do ex­actly what I ex­pected and wanted them to do.”

If you’re liv­ing alone with the sheep and you don’t have any fam­ily, the sheep be­comes like your fam­ily. They be­come your best friends

Have you not herd?

Di­rec­tor Grí­mur Hákonar­son with one of his key cast mem­bers

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