Foreign Contenders: Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson Confronts Neighborly Conflicts with Under the Tree

Not unlike an alchemist, Icelandic Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson has mastered the improbable formula to produce amalgamations of universality with specificity. His relatable confections transcend homegrown appeal and become notable enough not only for distribution abroad, but have even been reimagined with American nuances.

Sigurðsson’s first feature, 2011’s Either Way, was adapted and remade by eclectic director David Gordon Green as the Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch-starring Prince Avalanche. Sharing the borderless qualities of that project, his most recent film, Under the Tree, could also take advantage of the human propensity for retaliation and vengeance.

A tree in a suburban family’s backyard physically represents the central dispute, but that’s simply the excuse for darker sentiments to emerge. Inga (Edda Björgvinsdóttir), the stone-faced matriarch, is willing to go to disturbing lengths in order to defend the tree, which cast a shadow over their neighbors’ home. To her, what’s at stake is not only the plant’s survival, but her sovereignty. Her husband, Baldvin (Sigurður Sigurjónsson, whom you might recall from Rams), supports her vicious attacks on the couple next door: a middle-aged man living with a younger, fitness-obsessed woman—but he is not aware of what she is capable of doing. Meanwhile, Inga and Baldvin’s son, Atli (Steinþór Hróar Steinþórsson) is trying to handle a marital separation caused by his deviant sexual behavior. As the family’s territorial clash collide with Atli’s marital woes, the consequences spread far beyond the tree’s branches reach.

Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson visited Los Angeles during awards season and sat down with MovieMaker to talk about the incidents that sparked his interest in neighborly conflicts, hiring comedians in bittersweet roles, and viewing his work in another context and language.

Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Was personal inspiration part of the inception of the film, or are there elements that come directly from reality? Did you have terrible neighbors yourself?

Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurdsson (HGS): We have a lot of famous cases like this in Iceland: famous neighborly conflicts over trees, and they really spiral out of control and end up in court, and cats disappear. Very normal, respectable people start acting in a crazy way, and I think it has something to do with the fact that the home is a very sacred place, and if somebody else is trying to tell you how your home should be, that really strikes a nerve in people that can bring out aggression and violence. That was the beginning, and what drew me to this material. Although it’s not a true story or anything, that was the inspiration. 

MM: Your previous films have been about people in very small towns. Tell me about bringing your stories to the city in Under the Tree, with characters and people in the periphery.

HGS: It was fun and challenging at the same time. I really wanted to do something a little bit different—take a step forward and challenge myself—maybe do a bit more of a plot driven movie. It was fun and challenging at the same time. It seemed like a natural progression from my previous work. You can find a lot of similarities in tone, although this film is a little bit darker. It felt right to me, to go down this path.

MM: How important is location in your films, and how did you find, in this particular film, the picture-perfect neighborhood? Houses are perfectly arranged and everyone seems to be normal—not wealthy—but comfortably middle class.

Courtesy of Netop Films

HGS: It’s very important, and especially for this film, it’s really the world of the story. It really sets the tone. It’s a place where violence and aggression is very far away. This is the world I wanted to set up, so the way it turns out is kind of unexpected. It’s a little bit like the beginning of Blue Velvet, where you have this beautiful, perfect suburbia, and then you have this darkness boiling underneath. 

MM: Did you deliberately scout to find these particular homes with the qualities required to tell the story, such as the backyards and the tree?

HGS: Yeah, it was a really tough location for me to find. I scouted all over Reykjavik and neighboring towns as well, until I found these houses that were actually made by an architect I like a lot from the 60s. They are painted in this kind of signature blue. It was a very difficult location, because it had to work aesthetically and also practically. You had to have these two back yards next to each, that should be intimate in a way, where you have this problem of the shadow.

Finally, when we found this location, which was working from all aspects, it didn’t have the tree, so we actually had to find the tree somewhere else, cut it and move it to a big open space, and we shot it from all possible angles. Then we cut the crown off the tree, and moved the trunk to the location, and then we had to add the crown again in the post-production. It doesn’t seem like a big VFX technical thing, but it was really a challenge to make that work. The tree is one of the main characters in the film! The tree itself had to be special in a way.

MM: I wanted to ask you about Edda Björgvinsdóttir. She steals every scene that she’s in. I understand she’s a renowned performer in Iceland; was she your first choice, and how did you come to cast her?

HGS: She is a very talented comedian in Iceland. She’s known for completely different things than this, so this is her first big dramatic role in a film—which I think she does fantastically. It was actually an idea from one of the producers, and I hadn’t thought about her. She had that depth of the tragedy, but at the same time she had this sarcastic tone that was very important for this character. My approach in the casting was casting actors who have natural comedic qualities, because the story, in the end is a tragedy, and I didn’t want it to move in more melodramatic ways. I wanted actors who had the comedy in them, so I would never have to push for it—it would come naturally. 

MM: Steinþór Hróar Steinþórsson portrays a difficult character to like because at times he embodies the worst of male entitlement—he doesn’t even really understand what he’s done.

HGS: He is also a well-known comedian, and this is his first time doing a serious dramatic role. Again, it was an idea from someone else, and he turned out to be fantastic in the audition. His comedic quality made Atli a little bit dangerous. You don’t know what’s going to happen, and he might just explode. I was extremely happy with all of the actors, but these two were really good. Icelandic audiences have been very interested to see them doing this, because they’re known for completely different things.

Courtesy of Netop Films

MM: Is there room for improvisation in a film like this, which seems to have such calibrated and specific tone? What was your process like in terms of building rapport between the actors and constructing these family relationships?

HGS: We don’t really improvise, but there’s a lot of space for ideas. I like to sit and read and talk about the script a lot, so all of the actors and I are on the same page—to create an environment where all ideas are welcome. Then it’s my call to deduce what works for the film and what doesn’t.

Another thing I like to do is to spend at least a week before shooting on location with the actors, where we rehearse a couple of scenes. The DP is often present for these rehearsals as well. The actors have often told me that they appreciate this very much, because often they’re walking into a set with the whole circus there, and they’ve never been in that location before, and it’s supposed to have been their home for 30 years or something. So they really value having this time without the whole crew in there—to feel and experience it. It also helps me a lot too, just to be there and to make a lot of the big decisions before the whole crew comes in. Because then, there’s just so much going on. Filmmaking is all about preparing, and you get more out of your days if you have the opportunity to make decisions beforehand.

MM: Your film, Either Way, was remade in the US as Prince Avalanche. Was it a shock to see your story in another language being told with other actors in an American setting?

HGS: Of course. I said to someone that when I went to the premiere at Sundance for Prince Avalanche it was a little bit like seeing an ex-girlfriend with a new boyfriend. That was the first time I saw it, and the entire time I was comparing, “Is it really like that?” I thought David [Gordon Green] was very faithful to the original story. I saw it a second time, and then I really appreciated it, because I sort of knew what I was getting into.

MM: You said Under the Tree is a film that could work anywhere in the world. In that sense, what makes it specifically Icelandic?

HGS: There’s something about the tree thing. In Europe, the Spanish have a little bit difficulty understanding it, because they want to be in the shade. It’s so hot there. But in Iceland, we want the sun, because it’s not as hot. There are things like that, and there’s something in the characters that’s specifically Icelandic. Maybe in the humor, but it’s hard for me to say. I think it’s very local, but it’s a story that you can set in many places.

MM: How difficult is it to finance films in Iceland?

HGS: It’s always hard with film, but luckily we have a film fund where we can get government support, and we co-produce with other European countries. It works. We’d like the fund to be bigger to make a little bit more, but if you have a good script, and you’re determined about the movie, it will be made eventually. It’s always tricky with financing in film, wherever you are.

MM: Many of the Icelandic films that reach international festivals often deal with pastoral narratives with vast landscapes. Have people been surprised or particularly interested in Under the Tree because it’s an Icelandic film about middle class families rather than the countryside?

HGS: Icelandic cinema has been famous for the landscapes and that approach, and often that’s been more interesting to foreign audiences than the Icelandic ones. Because of that, Under the Tree has been very much appreciated by Icelandic audiences. They get to see something that’s closer to their everyday life. MM

Under the Tree is Iceland’s Oscar Entry for Best Foreign Language Film, courtesy of Netop Films.

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