Under the tree

Source: Venice Film Festival

‘Under The Tree’

Icelandic director Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurdsson (Paris Of The North, Either Way) takes a darker direction with his new film Under The Tree, which will world premiere in Venice Orizzonti. 

Grímar Jónsson (Rams) produces for Iceland’s Netop Films (Rams) along with Sindri Páll Kjartansson and Þórir Snær Sigurjónsson, with co-producers Poland’s Madants, Denmark’s Profile and Germany’s One Two Films. Backing also comes from the Eurimages, Nordisk TV & Film Fond, The Icelandic Film Centre, Danish Film Institute, Polish Film Institute and ZDF/ARTE. New Europe handles international sales, with Bac striking a deal for French rights and Scanbox for Scandinavia. Sena releases in Iceland.

The story is about a man who is accused of adultery by his ex-fiancée and forced to move in with his parents. While he fights for custody of his daughter, he is gradually sucked into a dispute between his parents and their neighbours regarding a beautiful tree that casts a shadow on the neighbour’s yard.

The cast includes two popular local comedians taking on against-type dramatic roles – Steindi Jr and Edda Björgvinsdóttir – alongside Rams’ Sigurdur Sigurjónsson, Either Way’s Thorsteinn Bachmann and actress/singer Selma Björnsdóttir.

Screen spoke to Sigurdsson recently in Reykjavik.

Hafsteinn gunnar sigurdsson 2

Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurdsson

Does this film feel different than your other films?

Yes, that was the idea to move on a little bit and go forward and try different things. I was doing quite minimal character-driven drama comedies, and I wanted to move away from that a little bit. This film has that as well, but it has another layer which is more thriller, even plot-driven in a way.

Where did the initial idea for the script come from?

It was Huldar Breidfjörd’s idea 10 years ago. These neighbourly disputes are quite well known here in Iceland – there is one famous case of a dispute over a tree, similar to this. I guess this has a special meaning to Icelanders, trees are not that common so if you have one, people get very emotionally attached to it. At the same time we don’t have much sun in the summer, you want to make sure you get it hitting your garden. This is an impossible conflict in a way (laughs). 

Huldar wrote the first draft of the script and then I took it from there. For me this story is about war, you could easily read it as two ethnic groups or religious groups, and it made me start thinking, how do wars start? It could take place anywhere, from Alabama or Denmark. 

Are these characters supposed be lovable?

I care for these people and I feel for them and I want the audience to do the same.

For me it was important that it wasn’t black and white. They are not really making the right decisions. That’s also what interested me in this neighborly dispute, it’s not that easy to say who’s in the right. It’s usually respectable people like you and me who lose control and dignity and start hating in a terrible way. There’s an absurdist element seeing these ‘normal’ people going to that place.

Why was it important to also have some moments of humour in this film?

It’s important to bring that dynamic to the tone of the film. It is a heavy family drama, or even a tragedy, but for me it’s important to also have the funny aspects although it’s certainly not a straightforward comedy. Life is funny and sad often at the same time. It can bring a bigger emotional journey to the audience, you go with them through these different emotions. You experience the sad things in a fuller way if you’ve been able to laugh a few minutes earlier.

How do you prepare your actors?

I like to work a lot with the actors, I like to rehearse a lot, that’s something I’ve always done on my films, I also like to have a week or so at the locations rehearsing before we start shooting.

So often actors are walking into a set and they have never been there before and it’s supposed to be their childhood home or something. A lot of actors have told me it’s really helpful to just be in the place.

How did you find the house that’s the main setting?

It’s in an old suburb or Reykjavik. It’s by an architect who I like a lot [Sigvaldi Thordarson]. He did a lot of work in the ‘60s: minimal, pure, straight lines. Also, a lot of houses in Iceland are white, and this house was his signature, beautiful blue. When DoP Monika Lenczewska came on board and saw the blue of the house, she fell in love. Practically and in terms of the specific location, it worked very well. And the people were so nice to let us use their homes, I owe them a lot.

How did you ‘cast’ the tree, this tree doesn’t exist with this house, right?

There was no tree at this house. I really wanted to use a maple tree but we didn’t just want to cut down a 50-year-old tree. We came to the conclusion that we could put an ad in the paper, announcing that we’re shooting this film, so if anyone is thinking of cutting down their maple tree then we would happily do it for them.

People who were thinking about cutting down their tree, and realized that it’s going to be in the film, it will have eternal life! They gave us the tree. We cut it and we moved it to a big open space, we filmed it against a blue screen, from all possible angles, then we cut the crown off the tree, and we moved the trunk to the garden of the house where we were shooting. We shot just with the trunk. In post we put the crown back on. That was a big and difficult thing, but it has a realism to it. We did the post in Copenhagen with a company called The Gentleman Broncos, they did a great job.

Did anything feel different with this third feature?

I had more time and more money and it’s quite different from my previous work. I was working with a much more international crew, it was bigger and heavier in many ways, but when it comes down to it, it’s about people to me. Characters who I care for and want to tell the story of. The core of it is the same.

What’s next for you?

I’m writing a TV series for RUV [Iceland’s leading broadcaster] about a fallen national hero, a former captain of Icelandic handball team. He’s in his 50s and burned all his bridges, he’s a womanizer, and then he has to take on the female team of his old club, he thinks it’s below his standards. It’s kind of a story of his way back. Hopefully we will shoot that in 2018.