It’s completely coincidental that “Hail Caesar” and “Rams” are opening on the same weekend in America, but if one didn’t know better and walked into the theater of the latter, it might be hard to tell which is actually the Coen Brothers’ latest. A dark comedy set in the vast hinderlands of Iceland, “Rams” tells the story of two brothers – Gummi (Sigurður Sigurjónsson) and Kiddi (Theodór Júlíusson) – who have maintained a 40-year vow of silence towards one another, despite living in neighboring farms in the countryside. That feud, however, threatens to come to an end when a case of Scrapie, a degenerative disease for goats, is suspected in Kiddi’s flock, leading the local veterinarians to call for the slaughter of all goats in the region for fear of an outbreak and a two-year moratorium on breeding them, which would destroy the farming community.
A détente doesn’t come easily, however, and in the hands of writer/director Grímur Hákornason, who used to spend his summers working on farms as a teen, it finds a poignance in the absurd situation, not to mention many laughs as Gummi and Kiddi’s discovery of a common cause leads them to put aside their differences, somewhat. “Rams” may be just Hákornason’s second film, but it shows a command and a meticulous eye that was no doubt part of why he earned a prestigious Un Certain Regard prize at Cannes for directing last year. For such a simple fable, the childish behavior of the brothers is handled with incredible sophistication, drawing out the crisis that will bring them together just long enough to see how the bond they’ve created with their animals has given them all the family they need for so many years, which is effortlessly portrayed by Sigurjónsson and Júlíusson after months of rehearsing with the rams and shampooing them for days on end.
When Hákornason was in Los Angeles for AFI Fest last year, he shared how he was inspired by the location to tell this story and his responsibility to it, given how little known goat farmers are even in Iceland, as well as how his narrative work is shaped by his work in documentary and keeping “Rams” feeling constantly new in spite of a limited location.
Was this actually familiar territory for you?
“Rams” is based on a true story that my father told me about these sheep farmers and I have some relation to the countryside – my parents grew up on the farm and when I was a kid I was staying at my grandfather’s farm, he was a sheep farmer. When I was trying to find the location [for the film], it was important that it was a sheep farming community, but also isolated, so I found Budaralur, this valley in the north of Iceland which is famous for always producing the best rams – they win all these ram competitions – but this location is also the last farm in the valley, like a 50 minutes’ drive to the next farm. This valley is in the north of Iceland and it gets really cold. There’s a lot of snow in the winter and sometimes the farmers get stuck and can’t go out for weeks. It’s a tough life, especially in the winter. So I choose the location because it was perfect for the story – you can see the conflict a bit in the environment with a fence dividing the land, and also the distance between the houses is possible for [the brothers] to be watching it all.
What’s remarkable is that for such an isolated environment, I don’t think you repeated a single shot twice – how did you go about constructing shots for this?
It was actually quite fun to figure out how to because we tried not to use the same angles — if we had the same angle, at least we had a longer or tighter lens. We shot the film in a house that wasn’t so big, so it was limited, but you have to think practically and find solutions. For example, you’re not able to tear down the walls because there were actually people who own this farm — maybe we could paint them, but we couldn’t really take them down. But when you’re making film like this, it’s a bit dangerous because it can start repeating itself and becomes a bit monotonous. We really put a lot of work into the storyboards and as the story evolves, we start to focus a bit more on the paranoia of losing the sheep and the authorities coming and taking the sheep, so the shots become a bit more tight. Also the pace and the editing becomes faster, so there’s more action.
Is it true you gave your actors the script a year-and-a-half ahead of time?
Yeah, because it took quite a while to finance the film, so I started meeting the main actors. It was really good just to get to know them and we did a lot of intellectual preparations — I let them watch movies and read books and [gave them] a lot of backstory for the characters. We went to visit farmers to talk about sheep farming and this Scrapie disease and we talked to people who have to slaughter the sheep because of the Scrapie. Two weeks before shooting, we had a rehearsal period and I divided it into two parts. There was one week of rehearsing the actual scenes with dialogue, and one week spent on location [where] I took them to the valley and they stayed with the sheep, learning how to talk to them and touch their muscles, to drive a tractor, and also just to inhale the rural atmosphere. It was also important that they grew a beard because they [the actors] have some similarities as characters, but they actually don’t look like brothers without it. With a beard, they look more like brothers.
You’ve also said you actually cast sheep specifically. What was that process like?
It was quite easy to cast the actors [because[ there are not so many of this age who can play a role like that, but casting the sheep was more difficult because we had to find sheep with the right frame of mind and they had to look beautiful because they’re supposed to be a prestigious breed. On the farm where we shot the film, they were too afraid of people, so we went to a lot of farms and in the end, we found these sheep who are really used to humans, really relaxed, and the reason was because the farmers are always talking to them, treating them like pets. Usually, sheep run away from you, but these sheep would come to you, even if you’re a stranger approaching them. Those are the main sheep we cast, then we hired one farmer who was training the sheep.
Many directors complain about working with animals, but I have a quite good experience of that. There was one incidence — we were taking the sheep inside like a sheep house in the middle of the summer for one scene, and the sheep they didn’t want to go inside — they wanted to stay in the field — so there were 200 sheep and all the crew were trying to chase them into the house. The sheep revolted and they ran all over the place and it was like two or three hours to get them together again.
You’ve made documentaries before this, was there any influence on your narrative work?
Yeah, my shooting style is kind of wide, static shots and slow-pan, which I wouldn’t say is a documentary style, but people may feel like, from the first minute [of the film], that they’re watching real farmers, not actors. So this sense of realism may be from the documentaries – I also made a documentary about farmers and I have this experience from my childhood about farming – and the aim of the visual work is to make it feel realistic. The slow-paced editing, the single shots and the shooting style is all trying to capture this rural atmosphere because life is slow there. People who are living alone with the sheep don’t really have to move quickly. The one of the thing I probably told the actors most when I was directing was, “Go slower.”
You’ve said you also wanted to portray the farmers with dignity because you’ve seen them shown in a negative light elsewhere. How did that shape this?
Yeah, sometimes when a filmmaker or an artist who grows up in the city and doesn’t have any experience of the rural life, they create a story or film about this culture and they may have an obscure image of it. I hadn’t seen any kind of good, honest film about the rural life in Iceland for a very long time. I saw some documentaries, but I thought it was time to make that kind of film and I wanted to be the one to make it. It’s a very nice thing that many people who are living in Reykjavik have seen the movie and they understand better what sheep farming is about and what these people are doing. They’re not just like people living on social benefits, like a burden on society. And for the rest of the world, there’s no film or book been written about this Scrapie, [like] Mad Cow [disease], so people don’t know anything about what’s going on there and what it is like for a farmer who lives alone with the sheep, to have to slaughter all them and wait for two years [to restock them], so these were things I wanted to bring out to the world.
What’s it been like to take the film out into the world?
It’s been a big roller coaster ride of course for all of it because we never expected this reaction. We maybe expected the film to go to some festivals, but we didn’t expect to get into Cannes and win an award. Since then, I’ve been traveling a lot – I have been living in Iceland for eight years and I haven’t been to Iceland now since July. I’ve been traveling constantly, and of course, it’s great that the film appeals to so many people. You can never expect how the film’s going to go. We were just trying to make an honest film about this sheep farmer and the relationship between two brothers, and we may have thought, okay, it’s going to be an art movie or be a festival-friendly film, but we did not expect it to be so commercially successful. If you make a good film, then people will see it. It doesn’t matter what the subject is.
“Rams” is now open in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Royal and in New York at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and Film Forum. It will expand throughout the country in the coming weeks. A full list of theaters and dates is here.