NIFFF 2008 - Gunnar B. Gudmundsson Talks Astropia/Dorks & Damsels
If in an alternate universe, Edgar Wright had a brother living in Iceland making his own Spaced feature on the fanboy culture, then Astrópía (Dorks & Damsels) is at that film and Gunnar B. Gudmundsson is that brother (no they are not really related). Astrópía is a rush of fantasy cinema that is drawn to parallel the current world of fanboys. It's a refreshing and highly entertaining comedic spin through all things fanboy that is dare say the most charming film in theaters this year. You don't have to know a single thing about it to enjoy it as Gudmundsson carefully layers the film whereby novices and more intimately familiar audiences can follow along. He also wonderfully realizes the real world of the characters and shows us in full detail their fantasy worlds. If ever there were a perfect film for Comic-Con audiences, this is it. Astrópía makes certain to poke fun at everything while also highlighting its thrills and excitement without ever seeming condescending. In any other hands this film certainly would have been plagued with too broad or simplistic takes showing how nerdy everyone is that reads comics, LARPs, watches cult videos and more. Gudmundsson and the Astrópía screenwriters have demystified this culture, which is a very diverse and passionate one and has now made walking into a comic book store feel cooler than a Reservoir Dogs movie opening. This indie low budget gem is by far one of my favorites for 2008.
I recently interviewed Gunnar B. Gudmundsson to go over Astrópía in more detail and learn about its making. Interview follows after the link bump.
With his latest feature Astrópía (Dorks & Damsels), Gunnar B. Gudmundsson takes a refreshing and highly entertaining comedic spin on the world of fanboys. The films main character Hildur is a stunning glamor girl who leads a fairly normal life dating larger the larger than life hustler Jolli, who unknown to her is a no good thug. We see her day dream to escape her surroundings with fantasy sequences and follow along with her the mishaps of Jolli. It takes one life changing event to come crashing in and turn her world upside down which culminates with Jolli getting sent to the slammer. Hildur now on her own must crash with her best friend Björt and her son Snorri. She has no plans to stay long and is eager to find a job to get herself back on her feet. By chance she takes Snorri to his favorite place in the world, the comic book store Astrópía. Immediately when she enters the store with Snorri, everyone inside is taken back as if this glamorous girl has completely gotten lost. Hildur doesn't seem to have any idea of what to make of everything in the store but needing a job decides to apply there. She is promptly hired and this sets off the rest of the film. How will the customers of the store react to her? How will she be able to provide customer service? Better yet how will her new found friends be able to protect her from the villainous Jolli?
Blake: What is the back story of how Astrópía came about for you?
Gunnar Björn Guðmundsson: I made a short film, Caramels, in 2003 and after the films success I was approached by the producers of Astropia, by then another director had been working and had to go to work on another film but he had been working with the writers for two years. When I read the script I instantly fell in love with it, but there were too many voices telling this story. In these previous two years, all possible advisors had given their opinion on the script. It was both the best and the worst script I had ever read. So I asked the writers to bring me their first draft they. In this draft I heard their voice and then they spent the next three years rewriting and restructuring it. I think they did an excellent job.
Blake: The term fanboy is often used to generalize those into fantasy games, cult comics, anime and more. What is this culture like in Iceland and how familiar were you with it before making this film?
Gunnar Björn Guðmundsson: There is only one great comic store in Iceland, Nexus. The store Astrópía is based on that store. Screenwriter Otto Geir Borg worked there for couple of years. The culture is mainly around that store.
I was not very familiar with that culture and I had very little experience in role-playing. I had played it couple of times but nothing more than that. Previous to making the film, I had never visited Nexus. The first time I visited it, everybody there knew I was going to direct the film, so I got the grand tour.
Blake: The setup of the film is quite genius - you establish Hildur does have a pre-existing fantasy side to her illustrated with her day dreams and the onscreen comic book pages that seem to illustrate key turning points for her character. Both of these serve as motifs that are reinforced throughout the movie and are a great touch. If we aren't shown either then the transformative tale of Hildur loses a lot, so I'm curious about your use of both in this film.
Gunnar Björn Guðmundsson: We had to show that Hildur had this fantasy side to her, so everybody would believe that she would and could go into the imagination of role-playing. It was also important to show that everybody has this roleplaying/fantasy side to them, everybody is daydreaming when they read books, watch movies or play computer games.
We framed the film with these illustrations and gave it a comic book feeling. We wanted it to be like you are reading comic book when you watch the film. This was our main idea.
Blake: I think how Hildur winds up at Astrópía is perfectly realized. How tricky was it to craft how Hildur winds up at the Astrópía store? Was there much change to the script? Initially the film starts out as offbeat romantic tale between two unlikely people in Hildur and Jolli. We aren't quite sure if the film will just follow their contrast, crazy dynamics and pursuits or where it will connect back to the Astrópía store and its storyline.
Gunnar Björn Guðmundsson: Yes, it was rather tricky, but we always knew it was going to be the first plot point in the film. Taking Hildur from this self-centered glamour girl to entering this castle of the nerds was the main problem.
We decided to use Snorri, who is the son of Björt and her childhood friend to make this happen. It was more likely for a young boy to be familiar with the store. So after he helps Hildur with small household job, she promises him to buy him a gift. He takes her to Astrópía, and from there she finds out that they are looking for an employee.
Blake: Classical comedy has always consisted of the fish out of water tale where someone of a completely different contrasting type is put into an environment they immediately clash with and completely fail to immediately understand. A highly attractive female into any aspect of anime, cult comic books or fantasy games seems to be something of an oddity.
Gunnar Björn Guðmundsson: One day when one of the screenwriters of the film Otto Geir Borg was working at Nexus and a beautiful supermodel walked into the store and into the world of the nerds and as Otto remembers it time stood still for very long. The reason for this convenient incident was that next door to Nexus was a modeling agency and this supermodel opened the wrong door. It is familiar theme in fantasy films. Otto talked to his friend and co-writer Johann Ævar Grímsson and told him this idea for a film: what would happen if a supermodel would walk in to their world? They then started working with that idea.
Blake: I thought there was a good balance between entertaining the novice audience who knew nothing of this world we see in the film and the advanced audience who already was immersed in it in their real life. How tough was that balancing the film to be universally understood, while also playing great reverence and playful fun to those who are more intimately familiar with the culture?
Gunnar Björn Guðmundsson: It was always very clear that we were going to introduce this world to the audience through the eyes of Hildur. This game sounds hard and weird the first time you hear about it, so the main characters guide Hildur and the audience into the game.
In the case of the advanced audience we tried to have everything as close to the real thing as we could so they could also relate to it. The screenwriters know this world very well and that is the main reason for it. They mixed me into this world and I mixed them into the world of filmmaking, so we found the right balance I think. Every time they went too far I could tell them that Hildur and the majority of the audience would be lost, but there still is a lot of references and quotes through out the film. I did a lot of research; watching films, reading comic books, playing Role-play and watching Youtube.
Blake: In the Matrix films the real life actors had to take fight training to prepare themselves for their roles. In this film was there something similar done as a crash course or training to immerse lead actress Ragnhildur Steinunn Jónsdóttir or other actors/actresses into this world of all things fanboy?
Gunnar Björn Guðmundsson: We had role-play teachers from the store Nexus. They taught all the main actors everything about the game. It was very important for the actors to know everything about it because the characters were advanced players. None of the players had played role-play before so it was new to them. We knew also that the film was going to have big interest in the culture so we were trying to have it right... but there are a couple of little mistakes in the film.
Blake: As a follow up this would lead to the question if the real life Ragnhildur Steinunn Jónsdóttir got caught up in any of the fantasy games, anime or anything else as a result of her role her?
Gunnar Björn Guðmundsson: No, Ragnhildur Steinunn is not playing these days I think, but a couple of actors started a RPG group and it started from the training for Astrópía. And now, they play once a week I think.
Blake: Working with this often pointed and satirical material on the fanboy culture, how tough was it too balance between poking fun at without coming off as being mean spirited?
Gunnar Björn Guðmundsson: The screen writers are very familiar with this culture and we were going to make a funny film. If we were going too far they could let us know. But actually we never thought about it, the idea was to make a funny film and never to make fun at this culture.
Blake: I would love to hear you talk about the blending between the real world and fantasy world of the characters in the film. In most films we only see one world or the other and always as completely disconnected, but here you also show the in-between of how they parallel and merge into each other. This really added an extra dimension to the film and substantial charm!
Gunnar Björn Guðmundsson: Well it was very enjoyable working in two worlds and making them different but similar. Working with the actors creating this dual characters, first we had to make the nerd and then make the hero. We made the hero out of the nerd by how the nerd was going to imagine himself as an hero. That was a lot of fun.
Blake: You realize real-life LARP to the more universal themes of fantasy cinema in Astropia. Yes we do see it in a slightly goofy lense that some might readily associate with it, but also subjectively you marry it with fantasy cinema which creates a supporting layer of familiarity throughout for audiences.
Additionally, there is a lot of focus and attention given to the films color scheme, cinematography, special effects and production design to blend it into solidly supporting the fantasy narrative throughout. I was curious to hear you talk about crafting the film as a sort of breathing comic book that we are taken through and what the biggest challenges you faced in doing so.
Gunnar Björn Guðmundsson: The greatest challenge making this film was the lack of money; we were doing a fantasy film, so it was going to be very difficult because the Lord Of The Rings had recently been in the theatres. So we knew that everybody would compare our film to LOTR, because both films were in the same world, but we had no money for that challenge. We were making a comedy so we were going to show this world in a funny way and the idea was to show these nerds being nerds in this fantasy world and becoming heroes and fighting monsters and rescuing princesses, but it had to look real and had to be a interesting world so people would believe it. Overall, we were going more for Monty Python's Holy Grail than LOTR. So most of the FX was in front of the camera and we had very little CGI except for some arrows and some corrections. The main FX was in front of the camera like the biggest effect when the walls fall. The first time the characters play the game, we built the set and moved it to the mountain and the set had hinges and actually fell. The background was a real landscape with little extra smoke and sparks from the FX department. That was much cheaper and took shorter time doing it as when it was shot it was in the can so no post work wasn't really needed.
For the two worlds it was clear that we wanted it to be different, but both with the same tone. For example with the color scheme, I wanted it to be colorful, but we had this rule that there would be no red in the real world, but the fantasy world would have a lot of it. The real world is also desaturated and fantasy exaggerated. In the fantasy world we focused on handheld camera work, keeping it snappy, light shot on HD, and heavy long takes, crane, track and steady cam on super 35mm. The music used here was a big score orchestra versus light pop music. Everything had to be thought of two times. It was very challenging, but lot of fun and everybody loved it! It was like making two films instead of one... or like making two films with the money of one.
Blake: How fun were the fantasy sequences for you to shoot as well as for the actors themselves to perform?
Overall did you shoot the fantasy scenes throughout the film interspersed or try to do them all in one time frame?
Gunnar Björn Guðmundsson: It was a lot of fun shooting the fantasy scenes and at the same time, it was very difficult because we did not have much time to do it. We shot all the fantasy scenes in 5 days and we had one extra day for all the running in the landscape. It was a lot of fun and a very challenging, slow process compared to the real world scenes. First, we shot all the real world scenes and then we changed all the gear and the extra team came aboard for the fantasy world. We looked forward to the shooting this five days of fantasy world. When we finally started shooting the fantasy scenes everything was much heavier and slower. We were shooting at night and we had organized very well for it. Everything was storyboarded and the whole shooting schedule was very detailed. I wished that we had more time to shoot the fantasy world, like two more weeks, but we did not have it, so it was down to preparing and making the best of the days. So lot of fun but little time to enjoy it.
Blake: How long was the entire shoot?
Gunnar Björn Guðmundsson: The shoot was 25 days. We prepared very well, I storyboarded the whole film all at once, and right after that I met with the DP and then we talked about it and shot photos of every shot in the film on location and the sets with stand in actors. So every scene was preplanned. I had the actors for rehearsals for one month.
Blake: How much of the Astrópía store scenes are as written versus improv?
Gunnar Björn Guðmundsson: All of the scenes were written, and almost no improv. I used improv in the rehearsals but almost no improv shooting with the exception of couple of lines. All the credit goes to the screenwriters.
Blake: Being ripe for material were there additional scenes that were cut out from this setting and if so what were they?
Gunnar Björn Guðmundsson: There was a lot of scenes that were cut out of the film and they can be found on the DVD. There are even more scenes that I cut out because of storytelling and pace from the screenplay that were very good scenes.
Blake: The video rental scene with young Snorri has to be one of the most hilarious scenes I've seen in films this year. Please talk about this wonderful scene!
Gunnar Björn Guðmundsson: Thank you for that, but the credit goes to the screenwriters again. Otto Geir wrote it and Floki´s (Sverrir Þór Sverrisson) character is based on him, so it came rather easy for him. And the final touch was from Sverrir, he added the question, “Cujo! Don’t you like dog films?,” that is one of the very few lines that came while shooting it.
Blake: The scene also talks about the innocence of enjoying a film in our youth versus as we get older and become even more hyper critical, which creates a paradox from a film holding up between our youth lensing of the film versus our viewing of it as adults. What are your own thoughts on this bridge between innocent enjoyment of cinema to the more hyper critical lensing we have of cinema as we get older?
Gunnar Björn Guðmundsson: I think that it is true that lot of the magic goes away when you realize how films are made and often films you loved in your childhood age very badly because you know how the effects are done and all that. So I have to say that I agree partly with Floki (or Otto Geir). The magic goes away, but you start to enjoy films on a different level instead.
Blake: What would you say was the turning point for Hildur in the film? Throughout we see it foreshadowed that she is caught in a rut in her life and in need of a new beginning. What do you think it ultimately is that turns her gaze from Jolli to Dagur as well as to step away from the Jolli chapter in her life?
Gunnar Björn Guðmundsson: There is two turning points in Hildurs journey. First, it is when she starts working in Astrópía and starts to enjoy it and finds that she is important for something else other than her good looks.
And the second turning point is right after the first role-play session. Something happens inside Hildur, something also happens between her and Dagur, but she is very faithful to Jolli, so that was not possible, yet. But the breaking point for her was when Jolli, accused her of being unfaithful to him and showed her the photos of Hildur and Dagur taken by Steini, Jolli´s assistant. Then she broke the necklace and then her crush for Dagur started.
Blake: With the advent of this newer YouTube generation, do you see much of a shift in films trying to explore more and more ways to allow audiences to feel more participatory with them?
Gunnar Björn Guðmundsson: Well, I think the magic of cinema is when is the lights go out in the theater and people become participants, so I do not think that has changed much. Maybe the commercial part of films has changed more with all the merchandise. But in general it is still the same magic and will always be.
Blake: Any memorable stories while making Astrópía?
Gunnar Björn Guðmundsson: The most memorable story must be when we were premiering the film; I missed the premiere because my girlfriend was giving birth to our daughter. It was double premier for me - my first child and my first film. My daughter was actually born on the same minute as the film started: August 22nd, 2007 at 20:21, which is a time I'll always remember.
Blake: Upcoming projects and any details you can share on?
Gunnar Björn Guðmundsson: I am working on the film Hullabaloo (Gauragangur) which is an adaptation from Ólafur Haukur Símonarson´s best-selling novel for teenagers of all ages. The script is written by me and Otto Geir Borg (Astrópía). We are now financing it and hopefully we will be shooting next year. The story Hullabaloo (Gauragangur) is about Orm Odinsson; poet; wannabe lover, brother and rebel, who has the ego the size of a continent and the heart to match. We follow him during his tumultuous last year of high school, where the boy becomes a man.