Iceland faces a boom in tourism, thanks to the film in­dus­try

Iceland, an open air Hol­ly­wood stu­dio


Crys­tal clear ice caves, glacial lakes, spew­ing vol­ca­noes, and crash­ing wa­ter­falls framed by dark lava col­umns— Iceland’s breath­tak­ing land­scapes have be­come a mag­net for Hol­ly­wood moviemak­ers look­ing to con­jure up oth­er­worldly scenery.

In southern Iceland, the mas­sive Al­man­nagja gorge stretches as far as the eye can see. Its spec­tac­u­lar set­ting was cho­sen as the lo­ca­tion for an epic bat­tle scene in Game of Thrones be­tween the char­ac­ters Bri­enne of Tarth and the Hound.

“The di­ver­sity is so big that you can create al­most any kind of land­scape,” says Lei­fur Dagfinns­son, pres­i­dent of the Ice­landic pro­duc­tion com­pany Truenorth, which holds 90 per­cent of the mar­ket. “You can shoot Iceland for Iceland or you can have Iceland dou­ble for other places like the Hi­malayas, the Mon­go­lian tun­dra, Siberia, or Green­land,” he says.

Lo­cated in the North At­lantic, Iceland’s moon­like land­scape has served as a film­set for many sci­ence fic­tion films por­tray­ing other plan­ets, Dagfinns­son, says. From TV se­ries such as Black Mir­ror to block­busters in­clud­ing In­ter­stel­lar, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Star Wars, James Bond movies, and Fast and Fu­ri­ous, the list of films shot in Iceland in re­cent years is long.

“Sur­real land­scapes”

The coun­try’s un­in­hab­ited land­scapes of­fer moviemak­ers the op­por­tu­nity to film ev­ery­thing from dra­matic action-filled scenes to apoc­a­lyp­tic scenery and fu­tur­is­tic worlds.

Film­maker Dar­ren Aronof­sky chose Iceland as a film lo­ca­tion for his bi­b­li­cal block­buster movie Noah in 2014, star­ring Rus­sell Crowe. “The land­scapes are sur­real—prac­ti­cally of an­other world,” Aronof­sky’s pro­duc­ing part­ner Scott Franklin told the Los Angeles

Times at the time. The sky can look as though it’s on fire in the mid­dle of win­ter, or teem­ing with roar­ing clouds trailed by black smoke. These aren’t caused by a vol­canic erup­tion or a storm, but py­rotech­nic ex­plo­sions and swarms of he­li­copters from the movie sets. And at the foot of a water­fall or on a beach of sil­very peb­bles, one might even en­counter a strange sword-car­ry­ing sol­dier on horse­back re­turn­ing from bat­tle.

Post-fi­nan­cial cri­sis

Iceland’s eco­nomic col­lapse in 2008 has made it an in­ex­pen­sive coun­try in which to work and it boasts strong in­fra­struc­ture with easy ac­cess to shoot­ing lo­ca­tions, ac­cord­ing to Kristinn Thor­dar­son, pres­i­dent of the As­so­ci­a­tion of Ice­landic Film Pro­duc­ers (SIK).

The econ­omy is once again grow­ing, thanks to a boom­ing tourism in­dus­try and a thriv­ing fish­ing sec­tor, but a dark cloud looms over its ris­ing cur­rency, the krona, which the heav­ily ex­port-re­liant coun­try has re­peat­edly tried to tame.

As an in­cen­tive to film in Iceland, a tax re­bate was in­creased this year from 20 to 25 per­cent of the over­all bud­get of pro­duc­ing a movie in the coun­try, and Thor­dar­son said he hopes it will be boosted to 30 per­cent within four years, just be­hind Ire­land’s 32 per­cent.

In the land of ice and fire, 2016 was a peak year for tele­vi­sion and movie pro­duc­tions, with turnover for lo­cal com­pa­nies of 20 bil­lion kro­nur (€173

mil­lion, $189 mil­lion). But Thor­dar­son wants to take it even fur­ther. “If we build a stu­dio here and if the film­mak­ers use the stu­dio... [then] they would do more in Iceland than just film lo­ca­tions,” he said.

Film­ing is strictly reg­u­lated, es­pe­cially in the coun­try’s more than 100 pro­tected ar­eas, from na­ture re­serves to na­tional parks, where a li­cense from the Ice­landic En­vi­ron­ment Agency is re­quired. Shoot­ing per­mits have been ris­ing sharply since 2013 and “the con­di­tions for ob­tain­ing [them] re­main very strict,” says Adal­b­jorg Gut­torms­dot­tir, who leads a team that man­ages li­cense ap­pli­ca­tions. Dis­rupt­ing the coun­try’s flora and fauna is strictly for­bid­den, and even turn­ing over a stone with­out put­ting it back in place is out of the ques­tion.

Cinema tourism

The Al­man­nagja fault is now a pop­u­lar des­ti­na­tion for tourists and Game of Thrones fans. Eddy Marks made a one-day re­turn trip to fol­low a tour of the HBO hit se­ries, af­ter vis­it­ing other sets in Croatia’s Dubrovnik and Malta. “It’s nice to see... some­thing on TV and then you come to see it in real life. It’s a dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ence,” says the Cal­i­for­nian af­ter tak­ing a selfie in front of the Langjokull glacier framed by snow.

Here, the Eurasian and North Amer­i­can tec­tonic plates di­vide, creating a deep canyon. And it is at this spot, in the heart of the Thingvel­lir na­tional park, now listed as a UNESCO World Her­itage Site, that the world’s old­est par­lia­ment was cre­ated, in 930.

Marks is among 20 other tourists who came to the na­tional park to see a ter­ri­tory in Game of Thrones called Beyond the Wall. “The weather was dif­fer­ent in some of the TV scenes,” Glenn Mc­Gre­gor, a Cana­dian re­tiree, says with a chuckle, as heavy rain falls.

Iceland’s un­pre­dictable weather is known for tor­ment­ing film crews. “Many days were lost be­cause of this,” re­calls Theodore Hans­son, 35, a long-haired, bearded Game of Thrones tour guide. A me­dieval his­tory stu­dent at the Univer­sity of Reyk­javik, he also ap­peared as an ex­tra in sea­sons two, three, and four of Game of Thrones as well as the most re­cent sev­enth sea­son.

But the bad weather also has its ad­van­tages. “[It] cre­ates an even more re­al­is­tic and more beau­ti­ful sce­nario,” says Lei­fur Dagfinns­son. “Some­times it is a plus.” •

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