Baltasar Kormakur on The Oath

As his Film4-backed Icelandic thriller The Oath premieres in Toronto, director/writer/actor Baltasar Kormakur speaks with editor Michael Leader about making films in Hollywood, returning to Iceland, and the danger of tyranny.

After making a series of films in Hollywood – Contraband, 2 Guns and Everest being three of them – you’re now back in Iceland for The Oath. What brought you back?

It’s where I grew up. It’s where I feel most true. It’s the landscape, it’s the weather – it’s who I am. When you live on an island that’s full of volcanoes… We’re living on a planet that’s alive. We are constantly reminded of that. And I need to make films in other places, but it seems like I’m drawn back – the more opportunities I get, the more I want to come back. Maybe it’s Stockholm Syndrome!

Your first film as director, 101 Reykjavik, was a very spirited portrayal of Icelandic nightlife and drug culture – now, 16 years later, The Oath takes a darker look at that lifestyle. In that time, has Iceland changed, or have you changed?

I’ve changed probably more than Iceland. It’s not that I want to be a moraliser, saying that kids shouldn’t have fun, but it’s different. Iceland didn’t used to have this culture of criminals, at all. And they weren’t celebrated in the media they way they are now. You cannot turn a blind eye because you have a nice house, and you live in a nice neighbourhood. These problems occur in every home.

But I try in the film not to take sides. It’s almost the anti-American movie. If you take all these movies where fathers go and save their kids, and bring them home still a virgin – like Taken or something – if you think that’s what you can do, and you go into that criminal world, this might be the outcome. There’s only one shot fired, and the consequences of that one shot are so great. 2 Guns is the opposite of that. You can shoot and shoot and you never see the consequences of it. I’m interested in the consequences of violence.

But at the same time, it’s a thriller. It’s about a man who’s built up the perfect life. He’s a heart surgeon, he has a beautiful wife, he has a beautiful home. But there are still some cracks, if you look deeply into it.

The character you play in the film, Finnur, tries to assert control over every aspect of his life. Power over his patients as a surgeon, power over his family, even power over his body with his intense exercise routine. You are the director, producer, co-writer and star of The Oath – is that theme of control relevant to you off-screen as well as on?

Yes, I might be directing with some big stars in America, and you’re like God and people do what you tell them, but then you come home and you can’t control your kids. You can’t control your private life.

As a producer, director, writer, owner of the company – and I built this all up – the danger of tyranny and that behaviour is everywhere. So what you have to do is let go of control. Part of that is to let the projects come to you, and not to force your style on it. I’ve heard directors talk about themselves in the third person, and it’s weird. The film will ask for what it needs – it doesn’t mean you don’t do the homework, but don’t over-prepare yourself.

It’s as simple as listening to your cast and crew. As soon as you listen to somebody, they’ll be empowered to tell you something again. And to be able to do that, you’ll need to have a lot of self esteem, so you can listen to people but then go and make your own decisions.

What did you learn from going to America and making films there? And what was the appeal?

When I did it I didn’t have a plan. I wanted to break out of Iceland, I was suffocating a little bit. I wanted a bigger market. Better financing, and stuff like that. And then you do two films like that – Contraband and 2 Guns – and then you start asking ‘what is the purpose of this? Is it only money?’

And that’s when I did Everest, which is a much more serious movie, and challenging on many levels, technical levels. And then I was offered a lot of franchises – $250 million movies. And I thought… How many steaks can you eat? It doesn’t really make that much sense to continue on a path that, yes, may make you a lot of money, but it’s not necessarily the life you were seeking. So I go home and make The Oath which is far more personal.

I’m the first Icelandic guy to have done this – so there is no path. Most of the Scandinavians before, they went there and came right back home after one or two films because they flopped. There are a lot of stories like that. On those terms, I’ve been successful – I’ve had box office hits, and each one has been bigger than the others – but where’s that going to lead me?

So what I did was, I went to Hollywood, brought some Hollywood money back, I built a studio in Iceland, and I’m now bringing Iceland to the world.