Deep thought – an interview with Baltasar Kormákur

It’s not every day I get to speak to someone who has the same passion for personal stories and discussing humanity in media that I do. Recently, I had that chance when I spoke to director Baltasar Kormákur about his latest film, The Deep.

Baltazar.I open by being honest – it’s a nice change to see a film that features real human beings, as opposed to generic, obviously fictional characters who barely balk at the sort of odds that would break normal people. Kormákur is receptive, and I ask him if there’s anything particular that drew him to the story, guessing at it being the human angle. He says meeting the man who inspired the story was the starting point.

“I was about twenty, twenty-two, in a bar. It lived with me, it was pretty strong, so when I became a filmmaker it was something to tackle. But I was never ready. First of all, it’s a task from the production side that’s full of challenges – the ocean, sinking a boat and all that – and also finding a way to not only tell the story but find the moment when the story is needed.”

It’s clear from the offset that this story means something to him, and it obviously meant something to the people of Iceland. The real individual, one Guðlaugur Friðþórsson, found himself stranded at sea, the only survivor of a sunken fishing boat. He spent six hours in the ocean, and then walked across a volcanic plain in order to make it home. To him it was survival. To others, a medical miracle.

It’s not surprising then that this is a story that Kormákur sees as true heroism, but the timing of the film’s production holds personal meaning for him. “After the collapse of the Icelandic economy I felt that this is the story to tell, now. It’s a metaphor for the collapse we went through.”

He runs me through some Icelandic dialogue and explains that Iceland dubbed its economy “the sailing boat.” It was a fitting moniker. “This time,” says Kormákur, “[the economy] didn’t just go sideways, it went under. It was that and who we are and where we come from, you know? In 2007 we’d lost our way – sailors became bankers who were buying megastores in London. [The people from Stórhöfði, the island in the story] called it the second coming of the Vikings.”

He laughs, and explains that after the finger-pointing that goes hand-in-hand with the collapse of any economy, “some quality [of Iceland] was lost.” So why The Deep? “Our stories don’t really have heroes,” he says. “They have anti-heroes, most of the time. But this is the closest I could get away with telling a heroic tale, because it’s a guy who doesn’t want to be a hero.”

I tell him that there’s an old mindset that claims that the best leaders are always those who have no desire to lead. He agrees. “[The film] was a reflection of what I was thinking, and it was the right time. It was well-attended in Iceland, but all they know about it is that it’s a guy who spent six hours in the ocean. How’re you going to sell that to young people?”

How indeed? But then again, I tell him, I loved that it wasn’t The Perfect Storm, a big-budget, CGI-laden film which, while captivating at the time, now seems far less genuine than The Deep. He expresses warm sentiment towards Mark Wahlberg, a friend of his who starred in the film, but says that with a realistic film like The Deep, the stakes were different. “I wasn’t going to disrespect the memory of those men by making emotional porn out of it.”

So what about The Perfect Storm? “I’ve never seen people run down to the bay, waving to sailors when they go out to fish lobster? It just doesn’t happen that way. They’re sitting in their cold cars and they’re smoking a cigarette… it’s too real for me to do stuff like [The Perfect Storm].”

There’s something I’ve got to ask him, something that to me takes this film above and beyond even the most realistic of disaster cinema. It is reported that during the filming of his films, he goes the extra mile. First, pulling a stuntman out of a sinking car while shooting The Sea, and now in The Deep, jumping into the ocean himself, tied to talented lead actor Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, and swimming against the current to keep Ólafsson in shot. I tell him I can’t imagine Michael Bay leaping into the cold ocean for the best shot (though I could be wrong).

“I think if someone’s ready to go through that ordeal, the director should be ready to do that with them,” he responds. “I’ll say to them ‘I’ll do it first, and if it’s okay, you do it too.’ Also, the need to tell a story is the need to experience a story, and it’s not a macho thing of me wanting to show off – I want to feel it, and by feeling it I can possibly do a better job of telling it. I don’t like to sit in a warm chair somewhere, it’s not in me. I’d rather be out there with them and pull it off together.”

The rope and the sea, however, was a specific issue for him, but also one that exacerbated what he calls a director’s desperation. ‘Get me a rope,’ I said, because it wasn’t working. Then I decided to jump in and hold him. It wasn’t that the grip wasn’t strong enough, it was that he wasn’t desperate enough, as the director, to keep the actor [in frame] and get the shot.” Kormákur, however, did, and the result is The Deep – mandatory viewing for anyone who cares about good story, heroism, and sacrifices – both in front of and behind the camera.

The Deep is released in UK cinemas on Friday 12 July, 2013.

Read our review of the film here.

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