Baltasar Kormakur has had one strange career. After starting out as an actor in his native Iceland in the mid-1990s, he soon added directing to his dossier. He began with small Icelandic-language slacker films like “101 Reykjavik,” segued to slightly bigger (but still pretty small) thrillers like “The Sea” and “Jar City” and eventually made the jump to English-language Hollywood flicks like the recent action hit “Contraband,” a remake of an Icelandic movie Kormakur starred in.
These days, Kormakur covers a surprising range. The 46-year-old recently finished shooting “2 Guns,” an action-thriller piece with Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg--at the same time that he has an Icelandic-language adventure called “The Deep,” about the unlikely survivor of a 1984 boat accident off Iceland's Westman Islands. The Icelandic-language movie is picking up strong notice on the festival rounds and has landed on the Oscar foreign-language shortlist ahead of its release later this year. (He took his life into his hands making it.)
Kormakur is also probably the only man who lives a North Pole-like existence (a small town in Northern Iceland, anyway) and still get regular work in Hollywood.
We caught up with Kormakur by phone from Iceland soon after “The Deep” landed on the shortlist to talk about the evolving nature of foreign-language cinema, the pitfalls of CG filmmaking and, of course, Vikings.
Movies Now: After taking a beating for years, the foreign-language Oscar rules have been pretty significantly adjusted. Do you think the category is in better shape now?
Baltasar Kormakur: I think it’s a lot easier to say it’s gotten better when you’re on the list. [Laughs.] I do think it’s a more healthy mix than what the festivals sometimes offer. I’ve seen films from Cannes that are good and I’ve seen films that are unwatchable.
MN: And the festival award winners?
BK: People think when a film wins a festival that makes it good. I’ve been on juries and unless there’s a strong head of the jury, the movie that wins is the one in the middle that nobody loves but everybody’s OK to see winning. Movies in the foreign-language Oscar category, I think, are more interesting. They’re also more interesting in general than what’s winning best picture.
MN: Why do you think that is?
BK: The problem is that for best picture the Academy says it’s nominating for the world, but usually at least nine out of the 10 are English-language movies, and that doesn’t represent the best movie making in the world.
MN: How would you change that?
BK: I’m not sure there’s a way to change it. It has to do with business models for how Hollywood is run. To have a chance for best picture you have to spend a certain amount of money. And the companies that release the films don’t want to spend the kind of money you need to get attention from the Academy.
MN: And at the root of that problem is that the box office for non-English movies in this country seems to get smaller every year.
BK: It does, but I don’t think it has to. Those kinds of films have way more appeal and chance to play than the business believes--if they’re supported as much as an American film is supported. You can see all these cases: "Crouching Tiger," "Pan’s Labyrinth" even "Inglourious Basterds." When the studio system believes in the movies and pushes them with the same energy and the same amount of money these films can play really strong. If the Swedish "Dragon Tattoo" was given the same push as the Fincher movie I really do think it would have done the same business.
MN: How does all this play into the career of a director who can move between languages like yourself? Does it make you want to get closer to or move farther from Hollywood?
BK: I still want to do both. I have a project called "Independent People" that’s based on an Icelandic novel. There’s been a lot of interest to make the movie in English, but I don’t want to because I think it needs to be made in Iceland. It won a Nobel Prize in the 1950s, and it’s about how we became a nation, and it needs to be in Icelandic. But what I really want to do is work within the system to change it. I have loads of projects in Icelandic, and I want to see if I can sneak them in and get support from them on the studio.
MN: Which ones are you most optimistic about pulling off?
BK: I have a Viking movie I wrote 10 years ago but decided to wait because I couldn’t create it on an Icelandic budget. It’s an exciting tale, but it needs a studio budget to create a Viking world — the ships, the houses. It’s like "Apolcalypto"—you’ll see [indigenous people] in a different way.
MN: You're also attached to the Everest movie--the one about the 1996 disaster that Jon Krakauer wrote about in "Into Thin Air"--that Working Title has been trying to make for years. What’s the status on that?
BK: I think there’s a good chance that can happen in 2013. Actors see "The Deep," and they’re interested in participating in "Everest." They’re excited that I want to shoot it as much as possible on a real location.
MN: As in Nepal?
BK: A mountain is not really going to work. But we talked about shooting on an Icelandic glacier to make it as authentic as possible. And even though you can’t shoot for three months on Everest itself, we will go to Nepal with a limited crew and the actors and do some of the stuff up there.
MN: That’s becoming one of all your hallmarks, shooting as naturally as possible. "The Deep" is shot in the real world. There’s no water tank, no special effects. You had an actor swimming in choppy waters during the movie and even had to rescue him yourself at one point. It’s almost a kind of extreme filmmaking.
BK: I have to go by what moves me. CGI doesn’t move me. I can be fascinated by a beautiful cartoon, but it doesn’t move me emotionally. "Life of Pi" is a fantastic use of CGI and 3-D, but you know you’re never there; you know the tiger is never there. "300" was a very popular movie for people who want to be in that computer-game world. But the excitement of film for me is going to a world I couldn’t go to any other way. And the only way to go is to actually travel there. It’s not to do it on a computer.
Follow me on Twitter at http://twitter.com/ZeitchikLAT