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The Deep – Baltasar Kormakur interview (exclusive)

The Deep

Interview by Rob Carnevale

BALTASAR Kormakur talks about some of the reasons why he wanted to make The Deep, the true story of an Icelandic fisherman who was able to survive near-impossible odds after becoming capsized at sea.

He also talks about the film’s relationship with the collapse of his country’s economy and why he likes to take risks and adopt a guerilla style of filmmaking whenever possible, including when working with Mark Wahlberg and Denzel Washington.

Q. I gather you met the fisherman in question when you were 20? How was that?
Baltasar Kormakur: That’s right. I think I was around 20 or 22. I went into a local pub and there he was, so I bought him a drink and squeezed the story out of him. It was great to get to understand his character. I’d heard the story about how he survived and all of that but that meeting enabled me to get more of a feeling of him. And that was very different to how he is now. People change. Thirty years later he’s not the same man. So, I remember I did a lot of digging about the story at that time. The best information came from the closest time to when it happened, when he was more open and not burnt by the celebrity surrounding him or any regret about how he handled it. He was totally himself – naive and open. It was also when he was the most raw.

Q. Did you know then that you wanted to make a film about him?
Baltasar Kormakur: I didn’t even really know at that time that I was going to be a filmmaker. Although I guess somewhere deep down maybe… perhaps I wouldn’t have gone after the story if it wasn’t for some reason. I think subconsciously I may have been thinking about it.

Q. So, how soon after you did become a filmmaker did the idea of making this into a film come about?
Baltasar Kormakur: Well, it just started growing in me. It wasn’t like ‘I have to make this film as my first or second film’. But I always wanted to at some point. I was just waiting for the tight moment. And the collapse of Iceland’s economy struck me as a good time to tell it… to use it as a metaphor for the collapse of our country.

Q. Can you explain a little bit more how this metaphor works, in your opinion?
Baltasar Kormakur: Well, first of all when we talk about the Icelandic economy we often refer to it as the national sailboat and how well it is sailing depends on how good the economy is doing. Our whole economy is based on the ocean. So, we still use that word. We talk about the national sailboat going sideways when things aren’t going so well – but at that time it [the economy] went under. So, I thought the shipwreck was a good metaphor for that disaster. Also, it was a good example of how people dealt with who we were after that collapse. After the 2007 bubble, fisherman had become bankers and so on – nobody remembered what their fathers and grandfathers did, or what the economy was based on. Yet one of the biggest heroes in Icelandic history became a hero even though he didn’t want to be one.

So, again, I thought let’s look at this story and reconnect with who we are and look at how he dealt with his troubles in the end. That was a very important part of the film to me – how he deals with being a survivor. So, his aftermath became a part of the metaphor. After the collapse, people in Iceland were normally running around like headless chickens blaming each other instead of rowing the boat again. But nobody died in that collapse. But everyone lost their way, just as this fisherman did. So, I felt it was the right time to reflect on that story and to tell it.

Q. You’ve worked with your leading man, Olafur Darri Olafsson, before. But would you say this was the role that challenged him the most?
Baltasar Kormakur: Absolutely… in every way. But he did a fantastic job. In some ways, it’s very easy to get a performance when you’re out there swimming in dangerous seas. There’s no time for bullshitting or over-thinking things when you’re afloat in the ice cold North Atlantic Ocean. You just go and do it and it gets down to basics. You don’t have to deal with things like ‘what is my motivation’? The answer to that is simple: staying alive and it becomes immediately apparent when you’re in the elements.

Q. It sounds very guerrilla…
Baltasar Kormakur: Yes, in most films I do I end up adopting a guerrilla-style approach.

Q. Even when tackling blockbusters such as Contraband and 2 Guns? Which do you prefer making – or do you like shooting independents as much as larger scale films?
Baltasar Kormakur: I like both because every time I make a film it becomes kind of guerrilla anyway. I’ll push Mark [Wahlberg] or Denzel [Washington] just as much as I’ll push Olafur. In 2 Guns, I hang them by their feet to get something out of them. But I think that one of the reasons I went back home to do this film is because I need to tell stories from Iceland as well. But at the same time, I wouldn’t only want to do that because we are only a small country and I want my films to be seen by wider audiences as well. Not every film I make in Iceland has the same global potential as The Deep.

Q. Talking of 2 Guns, you’ve worked with Mark Wahlberg before, of course, on Contraband. But how was working with Denzel? I gather you showcase a side to him that few people have seen before?
Baltasar Kormakur: That was my guerrilla on 2 Guns [laughs]. I was getting something from him that he’s not done before. And it’s risky because you’re also risking that people want to see him that way – that they don’t just want to see what they’ve come to expect from him. In one way, we’re all like children in that we want to be told the same story over and over and see the same performance from someone. But that’s what we’ve tried to do – to push a little bit. It’s going to be interesting to see how audiences respond to it.

Q. A sequel has already been mentioned apparently, following the positive feedback from test audiences. Would that interest you?
Baltasar Kormakur: [Smiles] It depends on so many things – the script, the terms, etc. I would love to get back into working with them. But I think it’s too early to start talking about that at this stage. Let’s see how it plays with audiences first.

Q. How open to being pushed was Denzel?
Baltasar Kormakur: I wouldn’t say he was completely open. But then it’s no fun to push something that doesn’t have any weight. It’s not pushing – it just rolls in front of you. So, having to push a little bit creates the friction that’s needed to make it interesting. So, I kept pushing a little bit and there were even times when I might have had to pull it back a little bit. But if it’s too easy, then there’s something missing. I always like it when dramatic actors explore that [comedic] side of them.

Q. How is your Everest film coming along?
Baltasar Kormakur: We’re planning to start shooting in October. So things are coming together. It’s not been officially green-lit yet. But we’re working towards it.

Q. How guerrilla will you go on that?
Baltasar Kormakur: Oh very guerrilla. It’s going to be a big movie. And I’ll be shooting on mountains – probably more than one mountain.

Q. What would you say your most dangerously exhilarating moments were on the set of The Deep?
Baltasar Kormakur: There were two moments that especially spring to mind. I mean, there were a number throughout the shoot. But the first one was when the boat was beginning to sink and the sea comes rushing inside. Do you remember that moment? Well, I was in the boat and it was a pretty intense experience. I actually felt: “OK, I’ve pushed myself to the limit here!” Trying to control the boat in the ocean, when it was on its side was pretty tough. But the other moment was shooting against the cliff as Gulli is trying to make it onto land. We were again pushing it to the limit and getting thrown up against the cliff. I tested it myself first to see if it was safe, which it wasn’t [laughs], but we still did it. I remember at one point it looked as though Olafur looked like he might be struggling and giving up. He couldn’t get to the point he needed to reach and I had to swim and get him and pull him back into the safety of the boat. So, that was pretty intense.

Read our review of The Deep

The Deep opens in UK cinemas on Friday, July 12, 2013