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