Feast for the Eyes: Land Ho! Co-Director Aaron Katz Dishes on Iceland

Food is a rich cultural signifier and storytelling device, both ripe for fetishization and so familiar that we often overlook its cinematic affect.

In Feast for the Eyes, we seek to chart the gastronomic iconography of the screen, move forward from simple fantasies of edibility, and ponder instead the depths of narrative, character and theme that a simple pastry can encode between its buttery layers. From Chocolat to Chef (see this menu explication from Roy Choi himself), from Tarantino to Miyazaki, from Land Ho! to The Trip to, well, The Trip to Italy… you’ll never watch a dinner table scene in the same way again.

This week, guest-blogger Aaron Katz dishes on his latest feature Land Ho! (which he directed alongside Martha Stephens). The film follows a dynamic duo of retirees on an Icelandic road trip  punctuated by some exotically Scandinavian dinners… and, of course, good old-fashioned Jiffy Pop.


Under normal circumstances I love food. In fact, I am eating a delicious sandwich as I write these lines. But things are different when I’m shooting a movie. Food becomes mere sustenance, turning to ashes in my mouth as I worry about how we’re going to deal with the latest crisis. Therefore it is only in retrospect that I can look back at the onscreen food in Land Ho!, an Icelandic road trip comedy that I co-directed with Martha Stephens, and appreciate it. With that in mind, what I want to do here is reexamine some of our featured food and why we chose it.

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I should start by mentioning that we had no food specialist in the art department. We wanted our food to look good, and that meant we worked with restaurants to provide the food seen onscreen. I should also give a brief sketch of the main characters in Land Ho! so that we can consider how their personalities might interact with their food choices. Mitch, played by Earl Lynn Nelson, is a deep-voiced, party-starting, recently retired surgeon from New Orleans. Colin, played by Paul Eenhoorn, is an introspective Australian looking to be shaken out of his post-retirement doldrums.

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Though we do see the guys prepare soup in Kentucky prior to leaving on their trip, the first time we see food in Iceland is in a scene that takes place in a Reykjavík hotel restaurant. We shot late at night so the actual kitchen was closed. Many restaurants in Iceland aren’t open all that late and we were initially concerned about finding something that felt right for the scene. Then we remembered Sæmundur í Sparifötunum (the outstanding restaurant component of a downtown Reykjavík hostel), which some of us had visited on off days. We wanted contrasting dishes because in the scene the characters switch meals, one regretting their order for health reasons and the other longing for meat and potatoes.

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The next scene that features eating is one that’s a bit sad for me. As the guys walk along the edge of a lake they eat baguette sandwiches. The sandwiches are insignificant to the scene, but we were really hoping to use sandwiches from a local chain called Hlölla bátar. Martha, the producers, and I started eating these frequently about a week into preproduction and, though some people grew tired of them, they remained high in my esteem. Their pillowy-on-the-inside-crispy-on-the-outside bread, bubbly melted cheese, a delicious special sauce, and the use of hot corn made these sandwiches something special. Unfortunately, it wasn’t meant to be. This scene was shot very early in the morning, when fresh Hlölla bátar sandwiches would not be readily available, so our prop master procured sandwiches from a local gas station—ones which Earl Lynn and Paul declared barely fit to eat. I know this doesn’t really matter for the scene, but it reminds me how important it is to me to populate my movies with little things that I love. Of course I look back proudly at the big things in my movies, but often, when watching one years later, it’s little things that I look on most fondly.

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A key scene in Land Ho! revolves around a dinner attended not only by Mitch and Colin, but also by Mitch’s much younger second cousin and her friend. We wanted to find the most forward-thinking restaurant in town to shoot this scene, something that would make Mitch and Colin feel out of their element. We found Dill very early on in the search and it turned out to be exactly what we were hoping for. We asked the chef for dishes with a very modern presentation. We also wanted at least one of the courses to be made in a visually interesting way so that we could use the preparation of the dish as a way to frame the scene. A final requirement for the courses was that they be light enough that the actors could eat them many times without feeling sick. Hay-baked beets presented atop a rock served all of these purposes. And they were so appealing visually that crew members couldn’t help sneaking bites of half-eaten plates before our prop master whisked them away after each take.

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Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention a camping scene from the end of the movie in which Mitch reveals to Colin that he has brought Jiffy Pop with him all the way from the States. I think this scene reflects the fact that no matter how much you might be enjoying your surroundings, it’s hard to resist something familiar. Especially if it pops while you shake it over a fire.

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I keep thinking about all the food that’s not in the movie. There’s no lobster or hot dogs or licorice—all things of culinary note in Iceland. Our movie captures only a tiny portion of Iceland’s food culture, yet, with the exception of those damn sandwiches, I think it captures a glimpse of the country’s best. MM

All photos courtesy of Aaron Katz. Land Ho! opened in theaters July 11, 2014.

 

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