As Kristen Wiig once sang during a Björk impression on SNL, “Welcome Iceland, there is no sunlight. You are on fire, a demon taaakes your faaaaace…”
Which is to say, there is an uncanny quality to the landscape of Iceland that makes anything shot there feel slightly otherworldly. It’s a setting that naturally lends itself to horror and fantasy. With Lamb, A24’s new movie from director Valdimar Jóhannsson, co-written by author and Björk collaborator Sjón, it’s a little hard to tell where the otherworldliness of the setting ends and the otherwordliness of the story begins.
Lamb, winner of the “prize of originality” at Cannes, is a movie that exists in a kind of middle realm, between folklore and reality. Trying to describe Lamb without spoiling it is a bit like trying to make sense of an ancient proverb, where you can tell that it’s an expression of a recognizable human feeling, it’s just been filtered through so many different languages, time periods, and realms that you now have to squint to understand.
Attempting to divine exactly what the hell kind of movie you’re watching is a big part of Lamb‘s appeal, perhaps the appeal. This quality, however, creates something of a marketing conundrum. Experiencing art is best done with no expectations; selling art necessitates creating them.
A24’s trailer for Lamb amplifies some of the film’s most unsettling qualities, creating something that’s arguably art in its own right. It also seems to advertise a horror movie, which Lamb is decidedly not, frequently unsettling though it may be. It’s more just charmingly “off,” in some ineffable way.
Speaking to star Noomi Rapace (who was born in Sweden and raised partly in Iceland) and Icelandic director Valdimar Jóhannsson was a similar experience. I had many questions, about the many animal stars of Lamb, the logistics of trying to film them, about what it was like delivering live lambs on camera, etc. But best laid plans often had a way of devolving, into Rapace helping Jóhannsson translate some arcane observation into English, or them both attempting to recount a famous Icelandic ghost story. Which turned out to be probably far more enjoyable than it would’ve been if they’d both been able to speak perfect English or tell the story perfectly lucidly.
There’s a vague spookiness to the way Scandinavian and Nordic people describe the world, even when their English is nearly indistinguishable from a native English-as-a-first-language speaker, as Noomi Rapace’s is (she even played a Brit in Prometheus). Like when she says of a pregnant sheep, “You can see that their pain is approaching.”
It was the ideal conversational companion to Lamb. Sometimes it’s the groping to articulate a feeling that can’t quite be articulated, the space between feeling and conveying, that resonates as much as the sentiment itself.
So did you get to deliver a real lamb for this?
NOOMI RAPACE: Several. That’s on my CV now. If you ever need a baby lamb delivered, just call me.
How did that come about?
RAPACE: I was shooting a movie in New Orleans, so I didn’t have any time at all to practice. I landed in Iceland on Sunday and on Monday my hands were inside of a mother sheep, pulling out a lamb. But I did, I watched a farmer do it twice before, and then he was standing next to the camera if something would go wrong. But to be honest, I had just had to jump in. I grew up on a farm, so I was used to physical work and it’s like, you can’t really be emotional. You just need to switch on your practical mind and just do it, you know?
Was there a consultant whose job it was to figure out when the sheep were about to give birth for you?
RAPACE (to Jóhannsson): We had the farmer, right? He kind of, I remember him going and touching the belly of the sheep and saying when she was ready
VALDIMAR JÓHANNSSON: You can see it easily, based on how they behave.
RAPACE: They start moving around in a strange way. You can see that their pain is approaching.
But, logistically, did you have the environment all lit and staged ready for the birth to happen?
RAPACE: It was natural light. The cameraman was ready, and I was waiting in my trailer for the knock. And then it’s like “Okay, a lamb is coming” and just running down to the barn and like jumping in and there he was. And you know, it was crazy, seeing this little creature coming out and opening his eyes for the first time and standing up and breathing, it was so magical and scary at the same time. Life is so powerful and fragile.
JÓHANNSSON: And that was the reason why we were shooting in two [separate chunks]. I think, because when we came in, I think it were only like 10 sheeps who could give birth in that area. Because the sheep cannot travel around Iceland because of the restrictions.
So Noomi, you were raised both in Sweden and Iceland. And Valdimar, were you raised all in Iceland?
When Swedish and Icelandic people make jokes about each other, what are the things that they joke about?
RAPACE: We like each other! I mean, it’s more Icelandic people and Danish people that have some issues. And Swedes and Norwegians have some. I have this Norwegian movie coming out next week or something, two weeks, called The Trip, and we were just at Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas and I had both movies there. I got that question, about Icelandic and Swedish people, but we’re good, we like each other. I mean, I’m both. But Swedes and Norwegians, we have a way more complex relationship. Would you agree with me?
JÓHANNSSON: Yeah, I think that is right.
What’s the Denmark/Iceland conflict?
RAPACE: We can trace it back to the times of the Vikings, right? My grandmother, she told me that you had to learn Danish in school. You had to have second language.
JÓHANNSSON: You learned Danish. Even now. So, there there’s a little bit…
RAPACE: You were adapted against your will.
So the animals are obviously important characters in the movie. Were they cooperative as actors?
JÓHANNSSON: Yes. It took so much time doing every scene when we were working with the animals, but it worked. The actors have to wait and luckily Noomi’s a very patient person.
RAPACE: It was so hard for me. Honestly, there were days when I was like “does this end, this waiting game?” Mostly for the cat. The cat was the worst. The cat was the total diva on set. They didn’t want to play when you want them to play. And then as soon as we said cut, he did exactly what we want him to do. I was like, “what is wrong with you, Carlos? We were waiting half an hour.” Long waiting game always for the lambs to fall asleep, all the space in the house. And then finally the lamb was asleep and they handed over the lamb to me and we were like, (whispering) “camera, action.” And then the lamb immediately woke up and was like “baaaaahhh.” Everyone out, starting again.
Were there different trainers for each animal group?
JÓHANNSSON: We had two and we also had a lot of farmers. And sometimes we also brought in some people if it was needed.
The trailer for the movie, it’s really cool, but it sort of looks like a horror movie. Do you have feelings about how the movie is marketed and how they should try to sell it?
JÓHANNSSON: I really like the trailer. I think it’s very interesting. And I think they know what they’re doing. But, it also depends on, because now we have been meeting a lot of the audience, some people feel it’s like a horror film, but others think it’s just an action film. I say they can choose.
RAPACE: What did you think?
The only movie that it reminded me of was Border, the Swedish movie, which I loved. I don’t know how you describe that genre. Do you have any thoughts on how you would describe that?
RAPACE: Let me just say that, Vince, ’cause I was asked to do Border and I couldn’t do Border because I was trapped in another contract. Then one of the producers on Border is also producer on Lamb. So when I couldn’t do Border, he came to me with Lamb. So, maybe we are creating our own genre, starting with Border.
JÓHANNSSON: Border for me, I would not say it’s a horror film.
It’s like… a folkloric realism kind of thing.
RAPACE: Yes, and also very matter of fact. You’re not adding any extra weight, you’re not making it spooky or weird. It’s very in daylight, it’s right here. It’s one little obstacle, that one [supernatural] thing that is true. But others still like, they’re doing coffee and they eat mac and cheese.
This movie, it’s hard to sell without spoiling. Do you have any thoughts on what you tell people what this movie is about to keep from ruining any secrets?
RAPACE: It’s a love story. It’s a story about healing and motherhood and that you would do anything to… if you lose the one thing you can’t lose — a child, for me — it would be… I have a son and I can’t even go there, you know? If he would be taken away from me, I don’t know what I would turn into. I think that desperation and need to find something to hold onto, you’re allowed to do anything.
So what was the place where the filming was done? Was it all in the same place?
RAPACE: Yeah. In a valley up in the north part of Iceland.
What is that place like?
RAPACE: (to Jóhannsson) You grew up there, right? I mean close by.
JÓHANNSSON: Yeah, close by. Probably like one and a half-hour away. What was so nice about it was there’s nothing almost around, a few farms, but you could shoot like 360 degrees and you can see out of every window from the farm and it had been a farm for like 20 years. So we could just make it the home that we wanted to for Maria and Ingvar. It was a perfect location.
RAPACE: But it was a lot of energies there. It was like a very old tale. Do you remember the neighbor’s farm? My grandmother told me there was, with the guy who forced his bride to marry him. It was a lot of stories around there, like old myths and stuff.
JÓHANNSSON: Yeah, yeah, it’s a very famous, probably the most famous ghost story in Iceland.
So what was the ghost story?
RAPACE: It’s a man who wants to marry a girl, but she didn’t want to marry him, right? And then…
JÓHANNSSON: Oh, no, he’s going to pick her up…
RAPACE: On his horse. Yeah.
JÓHANNSSON: And then on the way, when he’s picking her up, he is going over a frozen river and the…
RAPACE: Oh yeah! And the ice breaks, and then he drowns.
JÓHANNSSON: And then he comes to pick her up, and when they’re going away from the farm, his hat…
RAPACE: He doesn’t have the back of his head.
So did you have the setting in mind for the movie first or the story?
JÓHANNSSON: Probably the setting, because I made like a sketchbook with a lot of photos and paintings and drawings. I knew that I wanted to make a film with sheep farmers. It’s just also how the location somehow should be.
RAPACE: You work very much from a visual. You have an image, you have a photograph, you have a painting, and then that kind of guides you. Other directors I work with kind of maybe starts with a psychological construction.
I mean, it works. You don’t need too many words in this movie to make it work. Is that helpful for you, as an actor, to not have the burden of memorizing a lot of lines for a movie?
RAPACE: I don’t mind memorizing. I’m quite fast with that. But it was, on most of the films I’ve done, I feel like they’re too heavy on dialogue. We don’t need it. You’re kind of feeding the audience with information by talking instead of doing, and it was so liberating working with Valdimar. It’s like, you know, we don’t need to say much. And funny enough, Vince, Valdimar thinks it’s too much dialogue in that. The next one he’s doing, it’s going to have less dialogue. So, but no, then you start to embrace and welcome other ways of communicating. If you do a scene where there’s a lot of talking, you know, they’re going to cut between that line, to that line, to that line. People can be in it like 70%. But if it’s not dialogue, you need your whole body. Like the way I lift this cup will tell the story. If I’m slow, if I’m shaking, you will read into every little detail in my body language.
JÓHANNSSON: I always imagine that it’s probably more difficult for the actors that way, not to talk. Because you have to tell me something just with a hand gesture.
SPOILERS REVEALED BELOW THIS LINE, CONSIDER YOURSELVES WARNED
When you have a half-human, half-animal character you naturally wonder, like, how did that come about kind of a thing.
JÓHANNSSON: Yeah. Well, you know, at least the farmer was inside when it was happening. [presumably, when the creature was born]
RAPACE: I mean, like that Christmas scene in the beginning, I think Maria feels that there’s a dangerous energy, something approaching. She’s standing looking out of the window, she knows that something is there and she shakes it off and they have dinner. They have the Christmas dinner, but that’s when that shape gets I guess maybe raped or something.
JÓHANNSSON: Could be.
RAPACE: Could be. I mean, they are very stressed and it’s not a lovemaking act for sure.