Filmmaking is never easy. But when a perfect storm of financial and weather trouble hit Sturla Gunnarsson’s Beowulf and Grendel, the production took on a heroic scale that rivalled the plot of the movie itself. Jón Gustafsson brought it to life in his documentary Wrath of Gods.
Terry Gilliam once attempted to film an adaptation of Don Quixote. It was a notoriously difficult shoot. Lead actor Jean Rochefort suffered an injury that removed him from the production and floods destroyed sets and equipment, among other problems. The film was never finished — though it became the subject of a famous documentary, Lost in La Mancha.
Sturla Gunnarsson may know how Gilliam felt.
The Canadian filmmaker’s ambition to film a movie in his native Iceland was realized in 2004 with the movie Beowulf and Grendel. It was a coproduction between Canada, Iceland and the U.K. The screenplay was written by Andrew Rai Berzins and the international cast included Gerard Butler, Stellan Skarsgård, Ingvar E. Sigurðsson and Sarah Polley.
The plan was to take advantage of southern Iceland’s stunning scenery, principally in Vík in Myrdal, as well as the long hours of sunlight afforded by the northern country’s summer days. But when delays pushed filming back until the fall, and financial difficulties began to dog the production, the experience of filming Beowulf and Grendel took on a life of its own.
Thanks to Icelandic filmmaker Jón Gustafsson, who worked on the movie, that story is being told in his new documentary Wrath of Gods.
“Sturla originally hired me to do three things on Beowulf and Grendel,” says Jón. “To begin with, I was hired to make the electronic press kit — to interview the actors and capture some behind-the-scenes footage. Secondly, to make a website for the film while it was in pre-production and during shooting.
“This was the first time that I know of that a film let the future audience into the world of the film set through the web. We had daily photographs, blogs, video clips and such from the set and started building up an audience base that way. The only problem was that they had hardly any money in the budget for those things, so they also hired me to play one of Beowulf’s warriors.”
The result was that Jón spent most of his time in costume, including chain mail, leather breeches and all. As videographer, he always had a camera with him.
“I just decided to start rolling the camera whenever I could,” he says. “I thought that in a worst-case scenario I would end up with fifty tapes in a storage box and three months in the mountains of Iceland. Things turned out a little bit different.”
The weather was a constant adversary. Winds and rain gusting up to hurricane force assaulted the filming locations, resulting in lost tents, swollen rivers, and damaged vehicles. (The set, King Hrothgar’s mead hall, seems to have been impervious).
Then there was the replica viking ship Íslendingur. While it had been seaworthy enough to cross the Atlantic in the year 2000, when the craft was brought in to shoot, it still needed time in the water for the wood to expand and seal. That was time the already delayed schedule did not allow, and the filmmakers were forced to shoot — during a rare period of calm weather — in a boat that “leaked like a sieve.”
Financing from the company in England was also tight — occasionally Sturla and his company had to wrestle with shortening the production schedule or delaying payment for those working on the film, neither of which eased the already frayed nerves.
None of this makes for your standard movie PR. So when did Jón’s work become a standalone documentary?
“It wasn’t till October 18 that I knew that I actually had a film,” he says. “That was the day of the big storm. I went up the mountain with [producer] Paul Stephens and filmed him and Sturla arguing about whether to shut down or try to film, and then a rock came flying in the wind and smashed the rear window of our vehicle. All I could think was ‘I now have a story.’ We lost eight vehicles that day.”
Jón’s position as a member of the cast and his role as cameraman, documenting the production, allowed him access to many critical moments. A few times, he says, he was asked to turn the camera off.
It wasn’t easy to collect all the material from which his documentary emerged. “Most of the time people like Sturla and Paul Stephens were very upfront and honest with me and, but others were more suspicious,” he says.
“Later in the production it came to a point where I had to force myself to continue filming because if I had stopped, everything that I had done up to that point would have been meaningless. I must confess that there were some horrible things that happened where I said to myself, consciously or unconsciously, ‘I can’t put this on tape.’ Those were moments where people’s dignity was compromised, and some of them were just too horrible for me to want to film them at the time.”
Sturla himself emerges in Wrath of Gods as a surprisingly upbeat driving force, adapting to mounting difficulties and keeping his cool. At one point he grins and says, “We haven’t had an earthquake yet, and there are still no frogs falling from the sky. So this we have to be thankful for.”
Some of the cast and crew muse half-seriously that the production is cursed. The film’s composer, Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson, is a practitioner of ásatrú, and performed a pagan blessing at the outset of filming. Seconds later, Sturla tripped and injured himself.
Gerard Butler (Beowulf) later jokes that Hilmar must have read the wrong spell and pronounced a curse instead; but towards the end of filming, Stellan Skarsgård (Hrothgar) declares, “We have been so lucky, Sturla. Any normal person wouldn’t have a film at all.”
Which is true: unlike Terry Gilliam, Sturla Gunnarsson got to finish his epic. Beowulf and Grendel premièred at the 2005 Toronto International Film Festival, and its success in Canadian theatres in 2006 earned it a US theatrical release.
But the story of how close it came to almost not happening is at the heart of Wrath of Gods, which premiered at the Reykjavík International Film Festival in fall 2006, and recently received its Canadian theatrical premiere at the NSI FilmExchange in Winnipeg in March 2007. (A shorter version was broadcast on CBC Newsworld in November 2006.)
Jón recounts a story Sturla told during the shoot about the ability to persevere. “He learned it when he was a young man on an Icelandic fishing boat during the winter season,” says Jón. “After they had pulled up nets for 10 hours and the last one came up full of coral, they knew that they would have to spend the next 20 hours fixing it.
“The Icelandic fishermen reacted by bursting out laughing. What else where they going to do? Sturla told me in an interview that ‘if you can survive on an Icelandic fishing boat in winter, you certainly can survive a film shoot.’”
For more information, visit www.wrathofgods.com.
Wrath of Gods
- directed, written and produced by Jón Gustafsson
- starring Gerard Butler, Stellan Skarsgård, Sturla Gunnarsson