IFFR 2012 Interview: ÓSKAR THÓR AXELSSON Talks BLACK'S GAME
On Wednesday the 1st of February 2012, the Icelandic crime thriller "Svartur á Leik" aka. "Black's Game" had its world premiere at the International Film Festival Rotterdam, the last of this year's Tiger Award nominees to do so. Which turned out to be some pretty excellent planning on the festival's behalf, but more about that later...
One day after the event I was lucky enough to interview its director Óskar Thór Axelsson. We discussed his approach of the story, the casting, the real-life events on which the book and the movie have been based, some bits about himself...
What we did NOT discuss was the paying public's reception as the numbers weren't in yet. The screening went over very well with the Rotterdam audience and I really liked the film a lot (this is a link to my review), but it wasn't until right after the interview that Óskar and I discovered just how well-liked the movie had been.
AV: Yesterday was the world premiere of your first movie "Black's Game". Earlier this week I spoke with Miike Takashi who has literally made hundreds of movies, and HE was still really nervous at his premiere this year, so how did this strike you?
Óskar Thór Axelsson: Oh, yesterday was a strange experience... It was also the first time I was watching it with other people, so I had my notebook in my hand. I was watching them watching the movie, and trying to enjoy it.
AV: Did you ever test the film in front of an audience?
Óskar Thór Axelsson: Yeah, a bit. We tested two cuts in December for a small audience, with a questionnaire we created and everything, so we were able to make some decisions based on that.
AV: On Wednesday we were the first audience to see the finished version and festival director Rutger Wolfson quipped that the print was still very fresh. When did you get the final cut together? Monday, hahaha...?
Óskar Thór Axelsson: Well... 5 AM on Monday morning I was finishing the sound.
AV: Seriously?! I was joking! (we both laugh)
Óskar Thór Axelsson: Absolutely, that is a fact. And then in the afternoon, we had an appointment in the movie theater, to check with the DCP folks to see if it was OK and everything, and it didn't work. (laughs) Oh no... The file was corrupt. And they tried you know, they even changed the disk... but it still didn't work. So we were wondering "How can we do this?" because reprocessing everything would have taken just too much time and we were leaving for the festival on the morning after. In the end we had to come back in at 12:30 after midnight, after all the other screenings in the movie theater were over, to take a look at it because we had modified the files a little bit. So it wasn't until THEN that we knew we actually had something to screen...
AV: Wow, unbelievable.
Óskar Thór Axelsson: ...so I went to bed at like, 3 AM, 3:30, and was up at 5 again to get to the plane. You can say we were rather late to the game. Thankfully we also were the last Tiger Award Nominee to premiere but still we pushed the envelope a bit much...
AV: Amazing. So at the time most of the other Tiger Award films were screening you weren't even finished yet, technically speaking!
Óskar Thór Axelsson: Yes, definitely.
AV: There are a few other differences between your film and the other Tiger Award nominees. You can only be nominated if it's your first or second movie, so often people start with a small cast, small number of locations, simple story. "Black's Game" must be the most commercially viable Tiger Award nominee I've ever seen. We're talking about a large cast, filmed all over the place, action scenes...
I was really surprised by that. How did you get to make an expensive film like that when it's your first?
Óskar Thór Axelsson: Ehm... (laughs) It actually wasn't expensive.
AV: During the Q&A yesterday you mentioned 900,000 Euro, yet it looks as if it cost easily ten times as much.
Óskar Thór Axelsson: But the Icelandic Krona is really cheap like now so it looks cheaper in Euro than it is. Three years ago it would probably have cost one-and-a-half million Euro. And when you make your first film and apply for funding from the government, from the Icelandic Film Fund, you get slightly less money for your first film but not a lot less. We got 63 million Krona (380,000 Euro) while a film directed by a veteran director would get maybe 75 million Krona (450,000 Euro) so that isn't so much different. But I do think it is easier for someone who has done more movies to get the REST of the money together. Therefore they don't want to give new directors only small amounts of money. We also got the Scandinavian Film Fund involved, Norwegian television got involved, Nordisk, and then there was some equity money also.
It took us a lot of time to get it all together.
AV: How experienced are you as a filmmaker? Have you made many shorts, or documentaries before doing this film?
Óskar Thór Axelsson: I've made a lot of shorts, and I did do commercials ten years ago. Then I went to NYU filmschool, in New York, and I did a lot of cinematography for a lot of movies.... documentaries, things like that. Being a cinematographer has been a great preparation for making my own film, just as great as film school, because you're working with another director. It's a great way to step in the craft. Some directors have an acting background so they approach filmmaking in an entirely different way, and by working closely with them I could study how they work with the other actors on set.
AV: Yesterday after the screening you mentioned you were very much influenced by several films. "Goodfellas" was mentioned, "La Prophete", the "Pusher" trilogy... I thought I spotted a bit of "Lola Rennt" as well...
Óskar Thór Axelsson: Oh absolutely. Love that film! Its use of music... and the director, Tom Tykwer, he wrote the soundtrack himself. "Trainspotting" is another influence. And "City of God"... I think "City of God" has so many similarities to "Goodfellas" stylistically, both were very big influences.
AV: "Black's Game" is very much a "rise-and-fall" movie, but what sets it apart from the others is its location, Iceland. And it's such a unique location because the market for a drug empire is so small...
Óskar Thór Axelsson: It's tiny! (laughs)
AV: These drug lords, no matter how well they organized their crimes they would never get rich enough to own an airplane. It's based on a book called "Black Curse" ...why did you change the title, by the way?
Óskar Thór Axelsson: We didn't. This happened during translation. In Icelandic the title is the same. It means "Black's Move". The book is now also being published in France where it's called "Karma Noir". Actually you cannot say it's based on a book called "Black Curse" because it hasn't been published anywhere under the title "Black Curse" yet. Some European vendor has put the original up on their website under that name or something, I don't know... it's a little weird. I wouldn't be surprised if the book is published in English it will be called "Black's Move" or a completely different title.
AV: They'll call it "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo on Her Back". (we both laugh)
Óskar Thór Axelsson: Yes, sell some more copies that way...
AV: It confused me as I kept waiting for some character named "Black" to pop up and start doing things.
Óskar Thór Axelsson: No, it's a chess phrase, meaning black's turn to move. In Iceland they are used to the title but we wondered what the English name should be. It was one of the executive producers, Chris Briggs who is an English-speaker, who came up with "Black's Game" so we thought "Let's go with that". (we both laugh)
AV: At what point did you choose: "This is going to be my first feature film"? You mentioned yesterday you spent six years on it... is the book that old as well?
Óskar Thór Axelsson: Yes, he published the book in 2004, I read it in 2005 and I started working on it in 2006. It's ah... it's been a pretty long journey. I was working on another screenplay in New York that I was thinking about as: "this could be my first feature", but then I decided that it was going to be too expensive and thought it would make more sense to do this one first. I knew it was going to be easier to get funding for a first feature film in Iceland than it would be in New York. We just happen to have this great funding system and I'm not an American so I decided to go back to Iceland.
AV: Again, it seems so large scale for a first film. It looks as polished as any Hollywood production, and I really liked many people in the large cast, especially several of the villains. I mean, where did you FIND some of these people? Like Damon Younger who played Bruno? He has... I've seldom seen someone with such an aura of total evil surrounding him. (we both laugh)
He's being called "the devil" before you see him. When you DO see him he looks like this weird guy, and you wonder how he is even able to beat the other thug who is twice his size. But later in the movie he takes off his jacket and I thought "Holy Shit!".
Óskar Thór Axelsson: Yes, he has this Bruce Lee thing going for him.
We spent a lot of time on casting. That was also because I had been abroad for such a long time, so when I moved back I wasn't familiar with all the young actors. I wanted to meet many of them, different people, because there are quite a few parts. So we held a lot of auditions, called lots of people back, and even then I would still in the back of mind fit different people for different parts.
But the "Bruno" character, he is probably the first one I cast. Damon Younger was one of the first who came in... and I was really nervous about that part, because he was meant to be so intense, you know? In the book he is almost not human, always just appearing somewhere, with knowledge he can't have... So I was very nervous about trying to fill that part, and then this guy walks in... Damon is an educated actor from England and had been there for ten years, I didn't know anything about him. He showed up, extremely well-prepared, and just nailed it. Like, right away. I went OK, we have this guy, and at the first day of casting! (laughs)
So the part I was most worried about we managed to cast first. And we actually did still try some other actors but in the back of my mind it was... Damon was always the one to beat. And every time I re-read the book, whenever Bruno would appear I would hear this guy's voice. So I'm like OK, it's him. And he's unknown.
AV: But he is a find. I don't think he will be unknown a lot longer.
Óskar Thór Axelsson: Exactly! He has a great potential I think.
AV: He has an onscreen charisma that is incredible. And what surprised me is that he is not the only one. Like... ehm, what's the bald guy's name? The one with the tattoo on his skull, played by Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson?
Óskar Thór Axelsson: Tóti?
AV: Yes, Tóti. He is amazing. Even from the very first second, outside of the police station, when there hasn't been a word spoken...
Óskar Thór Axelsson: A very interesting person... (laughs)
AV: ... the moment Thor Kristjanson's character... when Stebbi says "Hey, don't I know you?" you think his ass is going to be kicked! (we both laugh)
One of the things I like best about the film is that Tóti seems like such a marvelously over-the-top guy... and half an hour into the film he gets topped by someone else who is easily ten times as evil.
Óskar Thór Axelsson: So you were like "If he can beat Tóti up like that...who IS this guy?". That was definitely the idea, to introduce Bruno by having him casually beat up the worst brute you were afraid of up to that point.
AV: Ehm, this is getting to be a weird interview as all I'm doing is telling you how much I liked the film.
Óskar Thór Axelsson: I appreciate it though so please go on. (we both laugh)
AV: About these characters. You had access to the writer's research papers, and yesterday in the Q&A after the screening you said the people in the film were not real but were each based on a selection of existing gangsters. You also told that when you approached the real gangsters who were involved with this story they were pleased to talk to you, and even divulged secrets that you decided to best keep to yourself.
Óskar Thór Axelsson: Oh yes, correct.
AV: But what I wonder is: in a community as small as Iceland's, doesn't everybody just know exactly who these people are?
Óskar Thór Axelsson: Well... yeah. Some of them are known. And lots of people have theories, thinking they know.
AV: Most of the time when you have a rise-and-fall film based on true events, you get a slideshow at the end showing you the people and what happened to them afterwards, especially when the story happend six or twelve years ago...
Óskar Thór Axelsson: Yeah, yeah, true.
AV: ...but in this film there wasn't a slideshow. So I wondered: what happened in real life with the gang?
Óskar Thór Axelsson: They're still around this day, but they are not fully in command anymore, it's more of a mix. You have the Russian / Lithuanian gang but there are also Icelandic groups.
AV: They no longer have the monopoly.
Óskar Thór Axelsson: No, and make no mistake: although the gang still exists everyone from the original group, who got charged at the time, went to jail. One of the guys, when he got out he immediately started again. He lives now in Spain and is behind a lot of imports and stuff. Some of them went straight and have nothing to do with organized crime anymore...
AV: ...some of them went into the film industry...
Óskar Thór Axelsson: (laughs) Exactly! But the situation in Iceland is that these gangs now co-exist. And another big change that has happened, a shift... is that nowadays in Iceland we produce a lot of our own drugs, like amphetamines and weed. Apparently there are some ehm... pretty good factories in Iceland right now.
AV: I can imagine Iceland would have enough places to hide them. Here in The Netherlands we're known for it but we have hardly any space left.
Óskar Thór Axelsson: Right, we have plenty of space though. Do you know how these factories are found by the police?
AV: Here in The Netherlands they check infra-red heat-scans or excessive use of electricity. Isn't that how they do it in Iceland?
Óskar Thór Axelsson: No, it's the water. These places use a lot of water for their production so when the bill gets high the police wonders "what's going on here?". Often these criminals use abandoned industrial facilties so when a lot of water is used there it shows up.
AV: It makes sense though to switch to producing. Your film does a good job in showing how difficult it is to smuggle anything into Iceland. There are not that many possible routes and the police monitors them all. Speaking of which: that is why I wondered what happened to those guys in real life, because they presented themselves as such an obvious target to the police. It must be really hard for a big, secret organisation to keep themselves secret in a country with such a small population where basically everybody knows everybody.
Óskar Thór Axelsson: That is right. And actually, I did shoot scenes showing the outcome for the other characters but in the end I decided we didn't really need it.
AV: Because it's Stebbi you're interested in, basically?
Óskar Thór Axelsson: Exactly. And you don't really know what happened to Bruno. You sort of see him escape, he disappears. And I always wanted it that way, he was the only one we never shot a scene of, of him being arrested. And I also like the girl who calls Stebbi and how he just throws the phone away, not wanting anything to do with them all anymore.
In the book she ends up in a mental ward, shaving her head and going a bit strange.
AV: She turns into Sinaed O' Connor?
Óskar Thór Axelsson: Yes, exactly!
AV: What was the hardest part of getting this film made, looking back at the whole journey? I am impressed with the overall look of the film: polished, and again the fact that you used so many locations. What was the most difficult to do in the end?
Óskar Thór Axelsson: Getting it off the ground, getting to that place where we finally had the funding took a long time. We had to be really really persistent. At one point we had a greenlight from the Film Fund to do the movie, but then the economic collapse of Iceland happened and their own funds got slashed. They had to re-evaluate all projects and to be able to do that they put all the outstanding projects on hold for six months, because nobody would know how much money they would have. Everything was frozen including our movie.
Then, when in the end they discovered that their overall funds had been cut by 35 percent, they said: OK, we're going to have to start all over again, re-evaluating everything, and every movie currently in our portfolio will lose all its funding.
AV: Whoa, ouch!
Óskar Thór Axelsson: So we were like, what are we going to do now? We had to re-apply for funding all over again. Thankfully we had secured additional funding in the meantime so that really helped, we could show the Film Fund that if we got their part of the money we really could make the movie.
Somehow this all took a while and it was a stressfull time you know? We had already been in the casting stage, and almost up till the first day of shooting we were still not safe... And just as we were about to start shooting we heard "OK, do it!" and everything turned out to be fine.
But it was a big risk. We HAD to start shooting, it was getting to be the end of April. The nights then start to get so short, we only had a few hours each night. We had to shoot all of the night shots in the first week, because afterwards there was only a few hours of dusk instead of a night!
AV: And you had a LOT of night shots...
Óskar Thór Axelsson: That was tough. The police raid at night, short as it is, we had to shoot that as four different parts on four different nights because the nights were so short.
AV: Directors always go on about the "Magic Hour", and in Iceland that will last you six hours, but if you want pitch black... (we both laugh)
Óskar Thór Axelsson: We always had to be ready ahead of time, waiting for it to become dark enough and then... start!
AV: When browsing through the production credits people come across the name of Nicolas Winding Refn and think: "Oh, so that's how they got their funding". But you said yesterday it didn't happen like that at all. He only got involved at a later stage?
Óskar Thór Axelsson: Well, it did help us with Nordisk and some trusts, the fact that he was involved. It helped having him aboard.
AV: At what stage was this? Was this a year before shooting, or when you were rewriting the script?
Óskar Thór Axelsson: No, it was a lot closer to shooting. I had changed the script quite a bit about four months before shooting. We were starting to understand how much money we had and it was getting too expensive the way we wanted to do it. So instead of cutting everything a bit down we thought it was better to focus on part of the story. It was more epic before, wider, and we spent a lot more time in the past in the original script. So I decided to focus more on Stebbi and keep the past more basic.
AV: You left out the alien invasion... (we both laugh)
Óskar Thór Axelsson: Yes, got rid of a lot of stuff. So at that time, when we were wondering what to do with the script we had and how to move forward, that was when Nicolas was most involved. That was very helpful.
AV: How close is the final version to the one you had in mind when you started?
Óskar Thór Axelsson: Tough question. I think there are three stages in making a movie. In the earliest stage you are creating what you want and deciding, and next you start shooting the movie. That really is the second creative stage and a lot gets changed right there. Even the style and everything... And then there is the third stage and it's a WHOLE new phase. I mean, editing is for me probably the toughest part in many ways.
AV: I am surprised to hear you say that because this film has so many jump-cuts, split-screens, editing trickery...
Óskar Thór Axelsson: Yeah yeah, but I'm also a little bit impatient. (laughs) I wanted it to take minutes, but with a movie like this we HAD to take a long time to edit it. You need at least... well, we had to edit it for six months. You have to take that much time, you just can't do it faster. You have to try out things and then sleep on it and all that. It just takes a long time to do that. And it wasn't until we had a "locked" picture and I could focus on the sound, that I again started to enjoy myself. Because then the movie comes alive.
So throughout these three creative stages the movie changed quite a bit. But the overal look, the overall sort-of feel, the mood, that is pretty much what I wanted to do. I think we were consistent throughout all these stages with that.
And I was really happy when I was shooting it. "Black's Game" had a 25-day shoot, we had to move to different locations every day. So many locations, so many people... it was logistically very hard. But we had prepared it very well, and because of that it ended up being not that difficult to shoot. We had a really good crew and good people who were organizing the shooting schedule and all that... it ended up just being a good experience this way. We didn't go overtime or anything. I was surprised by that. I was going in, thinking there was a lot of stuff that was going to happen to us during the shoot...
AV: Yesterday was the World Premiere but the film won't be in cinemas in Iceland until March. Are you going to change a couple of things?
Óskar Thór Axelsson: I will polish the sound a little bit. Some of the dialogues need to be a bit easier to hear.
AV: We all just read the subtitles of course so we never noticed.
Óskar Thór Axelsson: We had such a weird schedule to get the film here, we decided to leave it be for now and redo those bits of dialogue in February, get everything else done first.
AV: In the Q&A after the World Premiere, you also mentioned you were really happy with the first half of the film but not sure about the second half yet. Now, one day later, are you more sure? (we both laugh).
Óskar Thór Axelsson: That remark is based on a misunderstanding. About me joking that I was "not being sure about the second part", I meant something else. My motto is to make a movie that I enjoy doing, and the first part of actually making the movie, that I enjoyed doing... and now releasing it is the second part.
AV: Ah, I see!
Óskar Thór Axelsson: Actually the second part of the movie itself is a lot better, in my mind. I always think that when we get to the point where Bruno enters, from then on the film enters another level entirely.
AV: When the dread sets in.
Óskar Thór Axelsson: Exactly, exactly. That's my favorite part.
And that was the end of the interview, but something really cool happened afterwards. When we walked back to the IFFR press center Óskar Thór asked me about the audience rating system, how it worked and when he could expect to see the audience ratings for "Black's Game". I explained that it was a scale of 5 and any mean rating higher than a 4 was really impressive. I also explained he was likely to receive his current rating (they change after each screening) later that day. When we passed the press desk Óskar Thór met up with "Black's Game" lead actor Thor Kristjansson (he plays Stebbi), I said hello and goodbye and they went on their way.
So I remained to talk a bit with the people from the IFFR press center, and at that very moment the new audience ratings got in. After one look at the list I ran at full speed towards Thor and Óskar Thór, and could tell them that they had a whopping high mean rating of 4.4, making "Black's Game" the sixth placed film out of two hundred shown at the festival, and the highest rated Tiger Award Nominee by far. Needless to say they were happy.
In the end "Black's Game" didn't win a Tiger (which is a Jury reward, not an Audience award) but it kept being the highest rated film of all nominees and one hell of a well-received debut.