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In Iceland, Freeze Frame Takes on New Meaning

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I thought we had this posted, but didn't find it from 'back in the day' so...

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NY Times

November 4, 2004

In Iceland, Freeze Frame Takes on New Meaning


REYKJAVIK, Iceland - Icelanders love movies. They go to them, on average, more than any other people in the world, edging out Americans (second place) and Australians (third), film industry data indicate. This means about 5.4 visits a year for each of the country's 290,000 inhabitants. And at about $11.50 a ticket, this is no idle passing of the dark winter months. This is passion.

But not any movie will do, as was evident one recent Saturday night when Kolbrun Klara, 14, and two of her friends the same age went to see "Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid." They were too young to get in, they were told. (Iceland's ratings system required them to be at least 16.) Yet even though there were other films at the theater, including two from Iceland, the idea of seeing a homegrown movie was so unappealing that the girls opted for rides home with Kolbrun's mother and a night in front of the television.

"Lame," Kolbrun said of Icelandic films, mouthing the word for emphasis so slowly that she could have been mistaken for a dramatic American teenager. Her friend Porbjorg Aota, taking a brief break from text messaging what seemed to be a novella, explained that teenagers did not go to Icelandic films, thank you very much.

"They're mostly for older people," she said, resuming her typing.

Such opinions could soon change, as the government here undertakes a large-scale campaign to draw foreign filmmakers to Iceland to blur the line between what is an American film and what is an Icelandic one. The hope is that these filmmakers will bring revenue into a country that has struggled to diversify beyond fishing, and that the American and European crews will bring their expertise. The theory is that these skills will be passed along to local filmmakers, the production values of Icelandic films will be raised, and maybe teenagers won't wrinkle their noses so much.

In addition to offering cheap labor and varied vistas, Iceland, like other countries before it, is tempting filmmakers with financial incentives. A rebate program, which pays foreign filmmakers 12 percent of a movie's production costs in Iceland, has already given more than $ 1.2 million this year - not much in Hollywood, but twice the amount Iceland distributed in all of 2003.

"My feeling is that we are getting bigger and bigger," said Einar Tomasson, project manager for the Invest in Iceland Agency, which handles the rebate program.

And he may be right: in what is believed to be a first, a movie that finished filming in October used Iceland not for its volcanoes and glaciers but as a stand-in for the United States, specifically Minnesota, a place that arguably has worse weather than Iceland.

As Hannes Heimisson, the consul general for Iceland in New York, said recently in a monotone that was either unintentional or an example of the deadpan humor found in so many Icelandic films: "Iceland is hot."

So could Reykjavik be the next Toronto?

Sigurjon Sighvatsson was sitting on a barstool underneath a mounted caribou head and a watchful picture of a grinning Elvis. While silent, a jukebox in the corner was so primed with country music that it had not just one Billy Ray Cyrus tune on it, but two. But this was no honky-tonk; it wasn't even a bar.

Instead, Mr. Sighvatsson, a producer of "A Little Trip to Heaven," a thriller starring Julia Stiles and Forest Whitaker, was on a soundstage in what was once a soap factory in Gardabaer, a Reykjavik suburb. Mr. Sighvatsson said that even as an Icelander, he had thought long and hard about having his country stand in for the United States. "It worked well, but there was definitely a period of adjustment," said Mr. Sighvatsson, who lives in Los Angeles, where he is also the Icelandic consul general.

Ultimately, the decision came down to money. "In the beginning we were thinking about shooting the entire film in America, but by the time we got around to making the picture, they changed the tax structure here," he said, referring to the rebate program.

Besides the bar and other sets on the soundstage, exterior shots were set up around the country to substitute for various parts of Minnesota. The filmmakers turned one sleepy street into commercialized Americana with signs advertising everything from a bookstore to a strip club. They shot at a bus station on a moment's notice, something that would have been next to impossible in the United States. The filming was a success, members of the cast and crew said, but there was one actor whose presence on camera was often unwelcome.

"The weather," Mr. Sighvatsson said, raising his hands and showing a resignation to fate that can only be found in someone who has lived by the sea. "We had a rule: if the actors get blown to the ground, we are not filming."

They were not without company. Earlier in October, an Icelandic-Canadian-British production of "Beowulf & Grendel," an adaptation of the epic poem, experienced a day of hurricane-force winds on top of a mountain near Vik, a coastal town in the Southeast. While the cast remained at the base of the mountain, winds at the top gusted to 90 miles an hour, resulting in enough swirling dust to give the set the appearance of a Martian landscape. Flying rocks shattered the back window of an S.U.V. carrying a producer, a camerman and a reporter - moments after another vehicle up the mountain slid off the road. Filming for the day was canceled, much to the distaste of Sturla Gunnarsson, the film's Icelandic director.

"I love filming here," Mr. Gunnarsson said, barely noticing two producers trying fervently to talk him into coming off the mountain. "We can survey locations and then go back to shoot them, and the location is not there any more."

Mr. Gunnarsson was referring to shooting scenes on the shifting worlds of glaciers, locations that have proved to the liking of big Hollywood productions as well, including "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider," the James Bond film "Die Another Day" and the next installment in the Batman series, "Batman Begins." Unfortunately for Iceland, though, some say, glaciers alone have interested American filmmakers, much to the detriment of the rest of the country.

"They come and they use the glaciers, but they never show Reykjavik or anything around here," said Snofridur Halldorsdottir, a teenager in the capital. "It's not like we live in snow houses."

For Laufey Gudjonsdottir, the director of the Icelandic Film Center, a government program that supports Icelandic films, the relationship between Iceland and the rest of the world has been unique in the film industry, even trying at times, largely because Iceland got into the game so late.

"We can say, in reality, film production in Iceland didn't begin until 25 years ago," she said. "The first years were really tough for the producers and directors. Some had some formal training from abroad, but we didn't have any film education here in the country, nor do we even have it yet."

It's an education that Mr. Sighvatsson says the young Icelandic filmmakers are finally getting, with all the foreign film crews going to this island. "I think it's great to get the foreign films here because it's good for them to see professionals work," he said, speaking as a foreign producer before switching into the voice of a proud Icelander.

"But for us to do it on our own, we need to make them on our own," he said. "This is how Canada has evolved. And look at Canada 10 years ago - it's like Iceland is now."


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