“There is no sex, no drugs, no murder, no plot…well, maybe some plot,” Benedikt Erlingsson said with a bit of a wry smirk in his introduction to his latest film “Woman at War,” though if his goal was to lower expectations about how exciting his follow-up to “Of Horses and Men” is, perhaps he should’ve thought twice about opening it with such a thrilling introduction where indeed the bow and arrow that Halla (Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir) points up towards the heavens isn’t intended to kill anyone, but instead bring down the local power lines in an effort to convince Chinese investors to abandon plans to bring industry into her beloved mountains of Iceland.
A drumroll accompanies Halla as she pulls back the upper limb of the bow, and the camera slyly pulls back to reveal that drummer is on the mountain with her, along with a tuba player and accordionist who follow her around everywhere she goes – a one-woman wrecking crew whose plans nonetheless call for a number of things to work in concert, well aware of the importance of harmony, working as a choir director when she isn’t protecting the environment. In hiding her true identity from the public, becoming a media sensation as a guessing game commences as to who’s responsible for the power outages and by extension leading to questions about overreliance on industry, Halla strives to achieve what Erlingsson actually does with “Woman at War,” creating an enormously entertaining comedy around activism and climate change that is as funny as invigorating as a call to arms.
“You know, Benedict was an activist as a teenager,” Geirharðsdóttir tells me the afternoon after the TIFF premiere of “Woman at War” last fall, just before the writer/director arrives. “He would chain himself to whale boats so they wouldn’t go out fishing whales when he was 17 or 18.”
Erlingsson is no less daring now, presiding over shoots in which he’d haul both baby grand pianos and helicopters up to the mountains along with his actors, and he’s got a positively fearless partner in Geirharðsdóttir, who has the poise and posture of a Nordic goddess and the comic timing of Buster Keaton, all of which is about the only explanation for how something as special as “Woman at War” could be pulled off. With the film now arriving on American shores after a celebrated festival run, the dynamic duo spoke about how they scaled this particular summit together, requiring Geirharðsdóttir to not only play Halla but her twin Asa, and making up for the environmental impact they’ve had after racking up so many travel miles to promote it.
Benedikt Erlingsson: I needed to do another film and [I asked myself] what is worth telling? So I thought I’d better save the world with this film. All films are about saving the world in some sense, saving a small world or a big world, and [I thought] the world needs saving with a smile.
How did Halldora come to mind for the part?
Benedikt Erlingsson: How could she not come to mind? We are childhood friends, but though we have been working in theater since we were children, I made her do auditions.
Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir: He took a long time to decide. Like two or three months before he started shooting, he took another circle on what actors he wanted to do the part, so he challenged himself again. [laughs] Then he asked me to try for the part with others, but I was lucky.
Benedikt Erlingsson: She really earned it. It was not because we were friends. There was no nepotism. Of course, I had a very long journey because of course, you always go over the hill to get the water and there was maybe part of my creative process, part of the way we were writing the script, but then Halladora saved my ass.
Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir: We know each other very well. We’re childhood friends. We worked together in the theater school. We were performers together and [after we] graduated theater school and he was supposed to be a solo performer, but he had me as a musician, and then I was a better actor than a musician, so then it became a duo. We traveled Scandinavia with this and we did this performance for two years and then we worked together a lot in the theaters. I was also had a little part in his first film a little bit, but sometimes when you’re casting, I think it’s hard to cast somebody that stands by your side. You always think you should find something else.
Benedikt Erlingsson: The team that you choose are your life companions for five or seven years or really all your life, so you better choose them well. You better have a good company, and let’s say I’m in very good company.
Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir: Yes, and I’m just very lucky he chose me.
Did you know everything you were in for with this role? I’m seeing all the running and jumping…
Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir: Yeah, I read the script and the first thing I asked for was a trainer. I thought I had to train for the running, so I’d look [like I was in] shape where people could really believe I can run across Iceland. That is what I told the trainer. There were a lot of things I really had to prepare before shooting.
You play twins too. I heard Benedikt was initially thinking of casting twins in the movie – what sold you on having her play both parts?
Benedikt Erlingsson: [laughs] Well, in a way, what really sold me was the energy I needed that Dora has. I needed a goddess and you know the twin thing could be even more interesting with an excellent actress like her doing the twist. Also because we have musicians and singers and so on and this is a fairy tale, the need to be organic in that sense with this type of casting was not right for me. Certainly, I realized that it is part of the fantasy and the playfulness to go all the way.
Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir: And I don’t have a twin sister, so I had to play both of them. [laughs] But for me, it was not a problem to think about it because I have played so many parts through my life, I could play two parts in the same film. It was tempting to try to do some tricks with them, but we agreed just as I would work any character in any film or play, you just create a character [thinking about] what the character wants and I had to trust that this was enough, that I wouldn’t make one walk in a different way or something like this – just place the energy in different places because it’s two different people, even though they have the same DNA. But I did have to really map these scenes and I was very clear about it that I needed other actors – not as a stand-in, but real actors to act with me because I really wanted to deal with the other actor, so we rehearsed the scenes with Benedikt and we really mapped all the movements because we had to be able to do it exactly the same.
Benedikt Erlingsson: Creatively, it was a very interesting process to work with musicians. [The composer] Davíð Þór Jónsson I worked with before and he is a genius, but it’s a challenge to make the score before [filming]. There are a lot of traps. So we were recording and playing as much as possible on set. We used a lot of live takes.
Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir: For him, it was a hell of a job to do all the the music ahead [of time] and calculate everything, do pre-takes to see if the music was long enough or short enough so he didn’t have to cut in the middle of a song because the scene wasn’t exactly how they’d like it to be, but for me, it was great because in the theater, we often have the band offstage so I could work with the rhythm. And I really looked at the band like part of me being in the film. It’s like the band was part of the character.
In general, was there something that helped you figure out who the character was?
Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir: No, I had very easy access to her. Because I worked a lot with UNICEF in Iceland to create awareness about children’s welfare and [I believe] that all artists are responsible for all children in the world, so for me, it is like a bridge over to nature. It comes from the same place inside of you because nature is like a child. It’s something that cannot defend itself, so me as an artist, I have to defend nature because nature doesn’t have a voice and [Halla] also being a classical musician, that tells me she’s like a martial artist because a classical musician works like a martial artist – [they] can really work alone, towards something, practice his scales for eight hours a day.
Was there any significance to this part of Iceland you were shooting in?
Benedikt Erlingsson: For economical and organizing reasons, we shot the film on the highlands around Reykjavik, but it’s just a 20-minute drive [from the city]. It’s an area that’s not so much [visited] by tourists because they go farther and farther away, but we have this active volcano area in Iceland and Reykjavik is part of it, it goes across the country, so really it was shot there and then very close to this famous glacier Eyjafjallajökull.
Benedikt Erlingsson: Well, we have been busy and it’s stopping me from going into the cave with the next project, but it’s a luxury problem. We’re very grateful for it.
Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir: I love it! Because I didn’t join him on the last film, so I’m like okay! I’m going to Hamburg. Yoo-hoo-hoo.
Benedikt Erlingsson: But you were in my first film.
Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir: Yeah, you never invited me to come with you! So this is the first chance I get to be on the 25th floor of hotel rooms and [have] continental breakfasts.
Benedikt Erlingsson: We were business class from Iceland for the first time in our lives [on this trip to Toronto]. Really happy.
Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir: We drank a lot of champagne.
Benedikt Erlingsson: And the [environmental footprint] was enormous.
Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir: So we have to plant a lot of trees when we go back to Iceland. [laughs]
“Woman at War” opens on March 1st in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Royal, the Encino Town Center and the Pasadena Playhouse 7 and in New York at the IFC Center and the Landmark at 57 West. A full schedule of theaters and dates is here.