Tokyo 2013: OF HORSES AND MEN Director Benedict Erlingsson On Divorcing Theatre and Marrying Film

Benedict Erlingsson has been a successful stage director, author and actor for years in his native Iceland, Lars von Trier fans may even recognize him from 2006's The Boss of It All. His debut feature film, Of Horses and Men follows the people of a remote farming region through the eyes of the horses they live and work with. It's a confident debut from a clearly very experienced artist. Black humor is intertwined with scenes of courtship, rivalry's and survival in its episodic narrative. Erlingsson picked up the Best Director award for his efforts at the Tokyo Film Festival where I managed to catch up with him.


The black comedy which runs throughout the film works so well, do you come from a comedy background?

Well we (in Iceland) can be very dry but there is humor, there's an English word for it, understatement. I myself worked as a comedian in theater, I made my own shows, I performed. I'm very known in Iceland as a performer, as a story teller, and I made a TV show for some years that was very successful and is still alive in Iceland. Of course we were also influenced by Monty Python, it all boils down to Monty Python.

Are you a fan of Japanese cinema?

Yes, of course. I am a great admirer of both Kurosawa and Ozu and in this film I was thinking it became a codeword between me and the cinematographer - 'Ozu' - because the Icelandic horse is not big so the perspective has to be low and we have to find the center of the horse to make him powerful in the frame. When we were filming horses I sometimes had to remind the photographer of this so I just said 'Ozu' and he understood immediately.

What made you want to go into films?

I am an educated actor and performer and then I became more a director in theater, I've been directing a lot and I want to divorce theater and marry films so this is my first step.
It's both a personal reason and then a very practical one. The practical point is we are just three hundred thousand people in Iceland and I want a broader audience. To make a theater production and to make it good is sometimes an incredible amount of work and after all this work you have nothing except memories and a program so you feel with theater even when it succeeds and you are happy it is like fireworks, one second in the sky and then it's dark again. In that sense film has a little longer time and something that I can hold onto, maybe it's a selfish choice that I want to make something that lasts forever.

Did you have any difficulties moving from the stage to the screen?

There were not so many difficulties, for a theater person to go into film it's very common. All our great filmmakers have some background in theater, if you take just the English world, from Chaplin to Orson Welles they have done something in theater, Mike Leigh is a good example now, so its a very narrow stepping stone. Also you are working with the same elements so I think that if you have a great director in theater making good stuff, and I mean good stuff because in theater, like film, 9 out of 10 are rubbish, but if you have a director who is making good stuff he can be a very good film director. They are working with story and drama and people. The technical things you can learn in 5 hours.

Did you grow up in this kind of small farming community we see in the film?

This film was like therapy for me, I'm working with a culture shock because I come from downtown Reykjavik and when I was thirteen or twelve I was sent, as is custom in Iceland, to the country to work there on a farm. I wanted this very much because I really liked horses. On the other side of Iceland on the mountains, on a very high level there was a very isolated farm and I was sent there. It was a great experience for me, I went there for four summers and I got my first horse, and in a way many of the story's and the characters are a way of trying to deal with the culture shock of meeting that world.

In the film we see neighbors spying on each other via binoculars, was there a lot of this in the community?

Everybody is following everybody, in a community as small as this, you get interested, you know, if the curtain moves in the neighbors window, if they are home or not. Ten years ago there was only one telephone line so you could listen to the telephone call of your neighbors so that was another level.

The lead actor, Invar E. Sigurdson had a very striking presence, do you know him well, have you worked with him in the theater?

As a matter of fact we have just done a premier together, we worked together in 2012 in the national theater and when this film had a local premier in Iceland we were working in a play. He is very much a friend. Ingvar has an earthy charisma, he is better in theater, I think what he gives in film is just 70% of what he gives in theater. And the main actress is my wife so I choose well!

Is the rest of the cast from theater? Have you worked with them all before?

Yes, but we are a small community in Iceland so I knew them all. Of the Icelandic actor flora I tried to focus on the ones who had some kind of horsemanship, that was very important for me. You can fake it maybe but I didn't want to do that. It was important for me the touch of the thing was real.

If this film is successful do you think you will move outside of Iceland to work?

No, no, why would I do that!? As this film proves you can be local but think global, people in Tokyo understand this film. I don't have to move away from my home, no, I haven't thought about it in that sense. I have a Danish wife, I have been living in Denmark and she controls this. If she wants to move then we move. She is the main character in this film and she decides in the end, the women decide, well in Iceland they do.

Is it still a common thing in Iceland that adolescents go away to work and gain that experience of working and living with horses?

Yes, it's not as common as it once was but the horse culture is very common you don't need to be rich, to be an aristocrat to have a horse, it's an everyman sport and in Reykjavik you have the greatest concentration of horses in Europe. We have a special breed of horses and if you export a horse it can never come back. This is our heritage from the viking time, when the first settlers came with their horses. The viking culture is not very changeable and we lost the viking culture of ships, we did not become sailors, but we kept the connection to the horse and it's the same way we interact with horses now as we did then. The thing about horses in Iceland is it's about traveling in the countryside, in the wilderness, like the people in the film are doing.

With the horses, was there a casting process like with the human actors?

Yes, the mare was very important for me because she had to be very beautiful, she has to have the 'five walks', the fifth walk is called the flying pace, and that's the gold in the horse, it's why everyone is watching, because they know he will take this flying pace. So there was a casting yes and also the right stallion had to have the right character.

I think the stallion is one of the finest comedic actors I've ever seen, the faces he pulled were hilarious!

Yes, he had to have the right character and be young and have a good temperament he had not to be to well tamed, be respectless in a way, so he will mount the mare.

Was that a difficult scene to shoot (A scene in which a stallion breaks free and mounts a white mare, embarrassingly for the rider)?

Yeah, we worried about it a lot. This has happened a lot in Iceland, or at least there are stories like this. In fact, this is an old anecdote in Iceland, a guy who is humiliated like this. Its an old story that I heard in the country when I was working there. This was difficult because we had five cameras but we thought we had just one chance at shooting it, but afterwards he (the stallion) wanted to do it again so they did again, the horse actors, just for their own pleasure!

It nearly happened to me once, I was on a mare and the stallions were after me!

I had to calculate the shooting of this scene with the period of the mare, so she controlled it when she was on the right period we shot it.

Was the episode with the Spanish guy from a story you heard (an episode where a young Spanish man is stuck overnight on a snowy mountain - think Han Solo and the tauntaun!)?

Yes, that's also a story I heard. My friend's grandfather did this, it saved his life. This is actually a well known story from all over Northern Europe, Scandinavia and Iceland. Sometimes they kill an an oxen and put a child inside it during a snowstorm, but of course the most famous reference is Star Wars.

Where are you taking the film next?

Next is the Lubeck festival in Germany, it will be the opening film and then to Gothenburg and the film has been nominated for the Oscar for Iceland. We don't know what that means but hopefully it will fly, it all depends on Tokyo. Its on the edge because it's the first time the film is in the official selection of a festival like this but really now it's in with the big boys.
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