It started with a dream. Not as in a longtime ambition, but as in a nocturnal vision. Gudmundur Arnar Gudmundsson's debut feature "Heartstone" is a very personal story about two boys coming of age in a small Icelandic fishing village, much like the one Gudmundsson partly grew up in.
"While I was looking for a story to write, I had a dream about a friend of mine who took his own life when he was 16. He was from the village, and in the dream he was showing me around. He gave me a map of the village, and then we went off playing together. It was a positive dream. I hadn't dreamt of him since he died. When I woke up I thought, 'I have to write about this village and my time there,'" the director recalls.
"I lost my friend at a young age and somehow it felt like this was a way to show others what he had to give."
"Heartstone" follows two teenage best friends, Thor and Christian, whose relationship changes as one tries to win the heart of a girl while the other discovers new feelings toward his best friend. Even though some of it is inspired by Gudmundsson's village and his friends, the plot is in no way autobiographical.
A Learning Process
"The characters are inspired by my family and my own life growing up there. How it was taboo to be emotional as a young boy, and how me and my best friends would keep our [platonic] affection private. But what happens to the characters – the story itself – is fiction," Gudmundsson adds.
Of course, the dream was only the first spark, and the film took many years of dedicated work to come to fruition. Gudmundsson wrote the first draft of the script several years ago and then was told that for financiers to let him direct it, he'd need to do short films first. He directed two successful shorts, 2013's "Whale Valley," which won a special mention in Cannes, and 2014's "Artun," which also collected quite a few prizes.
Because he was coming from a fine arts background, he found making the shorts was a huge learning experience. "It helped a lot, much more than I would have imagined. I was quite cocky before. I was sure I could do it. When I did the shorts, I learned how little I actually knew and how important it is to follow your vision and dive into your fear."
Gudmundsson's first pass at the "Heartstone" script was nearly 200 pages, so he let that sit while he made the shorts and then went back to cut it down.
"I was reopening a script that I had always pictured as my first film. I rediscovered it," he says. He made some changes but stayed true to his original ideas of what the film would concentrate on. "There is the friendship and love these two boys have for each other, and another element is the relationships the main characters have with their families. They had to come together for the story to feel alive."
Finding the Right Village
"Heartstone"'s production set up in Borgafjordur Eystri, a remote village in east Iceland with about 100 inhabitants, for a 42-day shoot. It's not the village the director grew up in, but evokes his childhood memories.
"My own has changed a lot, so I was searching for a place that would have the same rawness that I had growing up. Because of tourism in Iceland, some villages have repainted houses and made a lot of improvements. It took me a while to find the right village. This one is a little outside that tourist circle."
Heartstone Photo: Roxana Reiss
Borgafjordur Eystri heavily influenced the film, both in terms of its vistas and its inhabitants. "The locals were great," Gudmundsson says. "We were the first film to shoot there. They were positive and really helped out. We managed to show much more because of their assistance."
The village looks stunning on screen, and much of the action is set outside during the Icelandic summer. "The nice thing about this village is that it's so beautiful it almost didn't matter where we were shooting, it was eye-dropping everywhere," he adds.
Being in a remote area also helped for cast and crew to bond. "You're exposed to nothing else for many months, there are no distractions and there wasn't even a fast Internet connection," he adds.
Commitment is Key
The bonding time was especially important with a young cast – which were only chosen after more than 1,000 kids were seen in a long casting process.
Gudmundsson had learned from his short films that to cast children that are committed is just as important as typecasting for the roles. "We had many months workshop with all of those kids," he says. "That was to figure out how much pressure they could take, and have this repetition to see if they got too bored. We wanted to see if they were committed enough, because we knew once we started shooting it would be very tough."
For Baldur Einarsson, who plays the tougher boy, Thor, the director initially found that he was "sweet and gentle and caring, but he didn't have that anger that I was looking for in Thor. But he had this spontaneity and imagination. I was talking to his mother who said that when he is playing sports, he actually does have this anger inside that he doesn't show anyone. So my job was to tap into that and encourage him to show us that side. There are scenes in this film where he's literally hanging on a cliff and I don't think many kids would have done something like that. He was really up for it and loved the challenge."
Blær Hinriksson, who plays the more introspective Christian, was more similar to the role. "He has this gentle mature kindness," the director recalls. He also became "super confident" through the workshop process.
Mood of Experimentation
Another key collaborator who helped put the young cast at ease was Copenhagen-based DoP Sturla Brandth Grøvlen, known for his work on Icelandic hit "Rams" and the groundbreaking one-take "Victoria," who had previously worked with the director on his short "Artun."
"We combined ourselves so closely it's hard for me to know who influenced who. We were more like strings on the same instrument," says Gudmundsson . "I was pushing him and he was pushing me, we tried to create this positive mood of experimentation, not being afraid to try stuff. I was the one wanting to be safe in the beginning but we got into this more loose way of shooting. That served the kids a lot."
Heartstone Photo: Roxana Reiss
Instead of the young actors being told to shoot a scene an exact way in front of the camera, they got freedom to move around, and the camera followed them. The result is a very intimate film in which the audience is drawn into their world. "It was a dance between the kids and me and Sturla," he says.
The actors didn't improvise dialogue but they were allowed to start the scene themselves and guide it physically. "If that fit well we'd accept, if it wasn't working, we'd have suggestions. But if they had an impulse they could do it."
Reykjavik-born Gudmundsson earned a fine arts degree from the Icelandic Art Academy, and when he wanted to move into film he knew he'd need more training.
"I figured out that I had to know how to write," he explains. The first step was studying screenwriting at the MEDIA-backed North by Northwest programme in Copenhagen.
"I think Danes are quite open culturally to other countries and to other talents. I like working with them," says Gudmundsson. "We have quite a few Icelandic directors who have learned a lot from Danish film and the film industry there, including me."
Studying in Denmark had a lasting impact on him. "I benefitted a lot from the short film culture they have in Denmark. It's on a high level," he says, noting that both his shorts were made with the Danish Film Institute's Film Workshop.
He later developed "Heartstone" at Cannes Cinefondation's Residence programme in Paris.
He "loved" the experience of the Residence, he says, sharing a flat in central Paris with other international directors. The time there was also good as he revisited his script, and "opened it up," taking it at a slow pace in revising and rewriting. "Nobody knew how much I was working. I could stare at my feet a lot," he says with a laugh. "I enjoyed that time, it was important not to push it too quickly, I could take it slowly."
Between his festival travels, Gudmundsson splits his time between Denmark and Iceland, planning to make his next film in Denmark. "It's also about young kids but it takes place in urban surroundings. It's more brutal both mentally and psychically. It's about how a friendship can be very good and tender and very unhealthy at the same time."
And once again, the film is visiting him at night. "It's haunting my dreams a lot."
More about the film
"Heartstone" is produced by Lise Orheim Stender and Jesper Morthorst for SF Studios Production, in co-production with Join Motion Pictures of Iceland. The film has been backed by the Danish Film Institute and the Icelandic Film Centre. Berlin-based Films Boutique handles sales.
The film world premieres in Venice Days held during the Venice Film Festival (31 August – 10 September) followed by its North American premiere in Toronto Film Festival's Discovery programme (8-18 September).
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