Oskar Thor Axelsson, whose first feature, Icelandic crime thriller Black’s Game, is still in post, has been signed by WME.
He is already talking to WME about his next script, an English-language, Charlie Kaufman-esque time travel story that would be set in Reykjavik, Australia and New York. He also plans to direct that himself. Axelsson tells Screen he also has his eye on adapting an American crime genre book, based on a true story.
Meanwhile, Axelsson’s debut feature Black’s Game is already creating a sales stir for TrustNordisk, which based on a promo has closed deals with eOne for the UK and Frenetic Films for Switzerland. Nordisk has Scandinavian rights.
“It’s really about how the Icelandic underworld changed from small and innocent in the ‘80s and ‘90s into what we have today which is harder and more connected internationally. It’s like coming of age for organised crime,” Axelsson says of his debut feature. The characters are fictional but based on true crime events.
“It’s somehow a genre that hasn’t been done much here before,” says Axelsson of Iceland. “If it has it was plot driven. But this is more of a gritty crime story, and that’s kind of new here. We wanted to make more of a City of God or Goodfellas style film and we tried really hard to make it work emotionally. We totally try to go under [the lead character’s] skin, we made stylistic choices to get inside his head.”
The film’s producers, Skuli Fr. Malmquist and Thor S. Sigurjonsson of Zik Zak also have another recent hit under their belts — Runar Runarsson’s Volcano, the Cannes Directors Fortnight selection that is now Iceland’s submission for the Oscar race. Black’s Game is a co-production with Arnar Knutsson’s Filmus Productions and The Icelandic Film Centre helped back the film.
The cast features Thorvaldur David Kristjansson, Johannes Haukur Johannesson, Egill Einarsson, and Maria Birta Bjarnadottir.
The film shot for five weeks starting in May in Reykjavik and is set for a late January launch in Iceland (via Zik Zak). The $1.2m budgeted film was shot on the Arri Alexa by cinematographer Bergsteinn Björgúlfsson.
Axelsson graduated from NYU’s Tisch film school and spent a total of eight years in New York before returning to Iceland two years ago to get Black’s Game off the ground.
Zik Zak had previously worked on Axelsson’s short film Misty Mountain and thought he was the right person to bring Stefan Mani’s 2004 book Svartur á leik to the big screen. “Thor and I had a great belief that he was the right person to write it, and he also proved to be the right person to direct it too. He has really proven himself,” Malmquist told Screen.
He continued: “A big quality of Oskar is that the has been an amateur filmmaker since he was about 12. he was someone who had edited, shot, produced before, who knew all sides of it.”
Axelsson has shot award-winning shorts with Sasie Sealy and Cedar Rapids writer Phil Johnston, and he said past work as a DoP was “was the biggest benefit” in making the transition to directing a feature.
WME also reps Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn, who came on board at the early stages of Black’s Game as an executive producer (as did Hostel producer Chris Briggs.) Refn has previously worked with Zik Zak’s Sigurjonsson on Valhalla Rising and Bronson.
“Having their input was really helpful for us,” says Axelsson. “They supported the Icelandic angle, and that was great.”
Producer Malmquist and director Axelsson also had high praise for the Iceland-born lead actor in Black’s Game, Thor Kirstianssen, who just graduated from Julliard and moved to Los Angeles (he has signed with Untitled). Says Axelsson: “He’s charismatic and he has unbelievable range.”