DJUPAVIK — About a century ago, farmers from the remote region of Arneshreppur didn't know the value of money. In general, bartering was still the only source of survival in this northwestern region, largely cut off from the rest of the island nation. Then, in 1934, a herring factory was opened in the small village of Djupavik.
Eventually more than 300 more people settled in the area over the subsequent ten years, before the fish became scarce, and the factory's inevitable closing in 1954 that sank the fjord region back into despair.
Djupavik then became a kind of ghost town, until one family saw some potential in these few shacks built at the foot of a gigantic waterfall. Eva Sigurbjörnsdottir and her husband Petur first bought back an abandoned house that had been the property of the state, with plans to convert into a friendly hotel. Later, they would buy the abandoned factory, an extraordinary, almost insane structure that had included a storage room of herring oil with a capacity of 2,000 tons that would one day host a concert by the popular Icelandic rock band Sigur Ros.
It is beautiful, cold, intense, fascinating, but also rather strange — not the first choice for your honeymoon. But like other places in Iceland, a prime choice for Hollywood location scouts. Star Wars: Rogue One, Captain America, Prometheus, Oblivion, Interstellar, Thor, Transformers, Fast and Furious and Game of Thrones share one thing in common: All were shot in Iceland.
Zack Snyder is a 51-year-old Hollywood director, willing to spare nothing to find the phantasmagorical settings that help drive the success of his blockbusters. For the current superhero release, Justice League, one of the most expensive films ever, with an estimated budget of $300 million, Snyder had identified six sites. His Icelandic scouts recommended Djupavik. Intrigued, the filmmaker decided to visit the small village. A helicopter ride, a few glances down on land and he announced: "Cancel everything else, we will not move from here."
Our visit starts with Magnus Karl Petursson, Eva's son, who now runs Hotel Djupavik. His autumn 2016 bookings had been easy enough to manage: The crew had booked a full year in advance. Six weeks spread over September and October: All 14 rooms of the hotel occupied, mattresses laid out everywhere in the building — and a village completely transfigured by 120 caravans on the beach nearby.
Magnus is a little concerned about the idea of saying too much, bound by duty of confidentiality. But this fantastic storyteller has trouble containing himself and reveals some tasty details and anecdotes. "The director thought our volcanic stones were magnificent. He wanted to carry some on the beach, before giving up because of their weight. So, he asked his set designers to make some fake ones." Just rocks "of cinema", much like the icebergs on the edge of the beach. Or the brand new red house right next to the hotel. Unrecognizable in the film because it's artificially constructed to make the whole setting appear rusty and colder.
Cancel everything else, we will not move from here.
There is also a perfect boat, it too full of rust. The one that hosted the workers in the middle of the last century, the one which Batman and Aquaman stand before, engaged in a full discussion. A scene that would have had to take place elsewhere, according to Magnus: "Zack Snyder had found the ideal place to film the scene, but the stairs were too narrow. He got them built wider. Before changing his mind, once it was ready …"
End of story? No, since as a result of the shooting, the production had insisted on the destruction of the new stairs for replacement by the former, while Magnus wanted to keep them to avoid a potential lawsuit, according to the army of lawyers who look carefully at each clause. Everything was settled "Hollywood-style": The new staircase had been disassembled, the former reassembled, photos were taken to prove that everything had been repaired.
Other than that, tales of the actors? Well, there was Ben Affleck as Batman, who had to mount a horse at the top of the waterfall overlooking the village. Problem: He is 6 feet 4 inches tall and the Icelandic horses are the smallest in the world. The producers went in the search of the largest equine in the country, to no avail. Solution: finding a shorter stunt double for Affleck.
Magnus speaks of "the coolest" time of his life to describe these intense weeks, the warehouse transformed into a giant bar with karaoke, billiards, foosball table and sound system after the days of work; the last day of shooting and the final "cut" yelled by Zack Snyder, greeted with screams of joy and the beer fete that followed.
He won't say how much money he earned from this unforgettable experience, but recalled a friend telling him: "It's Hollywood, you can ask for at least ten times more than usual."
For Einar Hansen Tomasson, chief for the promotion of cinema production in Iceland, business is booming. "My job is to be proactive, facilitate contacts, introduce people to each other. My first year, in 2004, I didn't know anyone in Los Angeles and I used to awkwardly introduce myself, like: "Hello, I am Icelandic." Today, I make a call the day before I arrive and now it is rather like: "Hi guys, I'm in town.""
Things first kicked off in 2006, with Flags Of Our Fathers, directed by Clint Eastwood. A shooting with thousands of extras, a huge project for Iceland. Top producers, especially from the U.S., then realized that they could make movies amid the uniquely breathtaking natural environment. "Yes, of course, with all these landscapes that we cannot find elsewhere," Tomasson said. "Nature does the work for us."
When Iceland's currency collapsed with the economic crisis in 2008, the financial conditions made the country even more interesting for foreign producers. Now, the Icelandic State also reimburses up to 25% of the production costs incurred on site.
"Today, Iceland has been put on the map for several reasons," continues Tomasson." Our production companies are doing a great job with a very hard-working staff. In Europe, working time in the film industry is ten hours per day over five days. I even think that it is eight hours in France. In Iceland, it is twelve hours daily, six days a week. It is a country of fishermen: When we see a fish, we catch it."
The region I hail from in eastern France is a Lutheran Protestant enclave in a predominantly Catholic country. But the churches in my neck of the woods are considerably more subdued than Reykjavik's Lutheran Hallgrímskirkja in Iceland.
See more slides from My Grand-Père's World here.
Tuesday's edition of Icelandic daily Fréttablaðið features the national soccer team celebrating their historic win over England in the European Championship: "Iceland 2 - 1 England, where will this end?" Monday night's victory sends Iceland to the quarterfinals, where they'll face host nation France.
The Icelandic victory against one of the iconic football teams continues the Cinderalla Story for the tiny nation appearing for the first time in a major international tournament. Their players include a part-time filmmaker and itinerant farmers. The country's population is just a bit over 300,000 people and some say that almost 10% of the nation is currently in France following the team.
The quarterfinals are now set for later this week: Portugal-Poland, Wales-Belgium, Germany-Italy and Iceland-France. The finals are scheduled for July 10th in Paris.
Wednesday's front page of Icelandic-language daily Fréttablaðið shows Iceland's embattled Prime Minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson being asked questions by journalists in Reykjavik's Althing, the national parliament, as the future of the ruling coalition is uncertain in the wake of the Panama Papers scandal.
Gunnlaugsson had apparently resigned yesterday amid the uproar of the Panama Papers revelations of offshore accounts, but followed that up by saying his decision had nothing to do with the leak, and that actually he was just stepping aside for an unspecified amount of time. The leaked documents revealed that Gunnlaugsson's wife owned an offshore company with substantial claims on Iceland's crashed banks.
According to Fréttablaðið, nearly 70% of Icelandic citizens also want Minister of Finance and Economic Affairs and leader of the Icelandic Independence Party Bjarni Benediktsson to resign.
The Nordic country's annual sheep transfer is a generations-old tradition that has returned to fashion since the financial crisis, a chance to discover the Jökulgil River canyon and its surreal landscapes.
SOUTHERN ICELAND — With one eye on the sky and the other on the river, seven people on horseback — four men and three women — set off early in the morning. After a few hundred meters on stony plains, they find themselves knee-deep in water. The Jökulgil River gets this high only at the end of summer, when the Torfajökull glacier has had time to melt from the (relative) heat. This time, its level has risen again because of the same persistent rain that hammered the roof of the refuge all night long. Barely an hour after our departure, a pickup truck and its trailer are stuck in a sandbank, requiring a rope to pull them back up to the bank.
It should be said that this isn't really a road, or even a path. It's the bed of a winding river that becomes progressively narrower between strange, multicolored hills. To reach the depths of the Jökulgil valley, one of Iceland"s best-preserved secrets, a robust four-by-four vehicle is required to cross the torrential streams.
And, most importantly, it's necessary to do this on the one day of the year where the valley is open to vehicles: It's known as the Réttir, the country's traditional sheep roundup, or transhumance.
On this autumn Saturday, whose timing is determined by an ancient lunar calendar, the region's farmers, shepherds, volunteers and a handful of nature enthusiasts step into the canyon in single file. The weather is biting cold and generally accompanied with wind and rain.
King of the mountain
Heading the annual pilgrimage is Kristinn Gudnason, the region's most famous farmer who's nicknamed "king of the mountain." It reflects the universal respect for this man, who knows the local climate, animals and people better than anyone. Gudnason made his first Réttir at 14, the minimum age, and hasn't missed a single one since. The 2015 edition was his 52nd. Thirty years ago, he was chosen to be the guide. He forms the groups, between young and experienced shepherds, good hikers and skilled horse riders, men and women. He designates the summits and small valleys towards which they will conduct their research. He never raises his voice, but each one of his gestures is an order.
Réttir is a secular tradition. In early July, all of Iceland's farmers release their young sheep on the upland pastures. They retrieve them two months later, as winter approaches. Or sometimes even later. Two years ago, a severe storm blew over the region a few days before Réttir. The mountains were white with snow, and finding the sheep in these remote areas was complicated. "In 2007, we lost hundreds of animals in the snow like this," Gudnason says. It's a painful memory, a reminder that nature is the only master of these latitudes.
Located in Iceland's southern mountains, in a region shaped by volcanic activity, the Jökulgil River flows in an ocher, red, yellow and even blue-tinted mineral world. Some bright-green moss can also be seen. In the distance, hot springs release their white smoke. During a brief sunny spell, the Torfajökull's ancient ice sparkles. Those on horseback look tiny at the foot of the huge cliffs, which almost seem to belong to a fantasy comic.
In mid-morning, the convoy stops for a coffee break. A strange 1953 orange ambulance serves as a mobile canteen. At the wheel is Olgeir and his eternal woolly hat. More than a senior participant, Olgeir is an institution. This year, he wore a jacket over his woolly sweater full of holes, proof that the weather is really bad. As a result, the number of curious people here to discover this forbidden valley is more moderate after having grown for a few years. Good.
Blond and vivacious, like a sort of princess among ogres, Dora Kristinsdottir is the daughter of the "king of the mountain." She has 130 sheep grazing in these hills. She leaps between the gorges, passes over streams, gathers the animals without showing a single sign of weariness. She doesn't seem to mind the raindrops falling around her eyes. She knows all too well the country's motto, "If you don't like the weather, wait for five minutes."
She's carried by the moment. "I love this day, for its spirit of solidarity and friendship," she says. "But you just need to climb a hill and you feel alone, lost in the surrounding vastness. We need to stay close to this rough nature. It's our culture."
Memories around the campfire
This Réttir has gathered some 20 of the region's farmers. But there are also professional shepherds who are paid 120 euros for the six days ("just enough to buy a pair of hiking boots," says Siggi, a professional saddler and Réttir regular). There are also about 60 volunteers. Some take a week off work to be part of the adventure. "It's a rare opportunity to see these landscapes, but also a kind of duty and a pride to perpetuate these traditions," explains Maja, a talkative German who moved to Iceland out of love for the country and for a man.
And what a man! Actually, he's more like a mountain. The type that could almost hold a sheep in his hand while picking his teeth with a stake. His smile would scare children away, but he truly has a heart of gold.
At the twilight of an exhausting day of trekking, these bon vivants take over a refuge in the mountain. They share lamb ribs, a few potatoes, stories, memories and beer. The youngest keep their eyes out for a hypothetical aurora borealis in the hot springs. And it's like this across the entire country, where about 150 of these seasonal migrations happen in the uplands. "I'd rather cancel the Christmas holidays than miss Réttir," says Thordur, who just rolled out a blanket across his bed. "There's no place where I feel more at home than in these mountains."
Dora recalls 2008, "when Iceland lost its mind, when our economy was shaky, and we never saw so many volunteers." She says Réttir is a tradition that grounds people, gives them a sense of meaning. "Here, everyone is equal in the face of weariness, rain or snow." She heard her father recount the times when shepherds slept under tents. Only horses could go into the Jökulgil.
"Our family has been living here for five centuries," explains Gudnason. "We've been doing this transhumance for 10 generations. "The region used to have the reputation of being haunted. And people thought it sheltered outlaws." He smiles a little, then pauses for more impact. "Which was the case, of course."
The next day, the convoy travels 30 kilometers to pick up the animals in the neighboring valleys. And so forth until the next Thursday, when 4,000 to 5,000 sheep will be given back to their owners. Children, as meticulous as they are happy, love to be part of the sorting. They fearlessly grab hold of the animals by the horns to lead them to the pen that corresponds to their farm. The closing day of this Réttir takes place at the Afangagil farm, at the foot of Hekla volcano, which Gudnason has seen erupt five times. But no, he says, he's never thought of moving somewhere else.
In this year’s edition of the Eurovison Song Contest, Iceland will be represented by the 22-year-old singer and actress María Ólafsdóttir. In 2009, María played the role of Louisa von Trapp in an adaptation of “The Sound of Music”, one of her favorite plays.
She will perform “Unbroken”, a song about — we think so at least — repairing one’s broken heart.
Iceland’s history in the contest is frankly quite boring, so that’s it, really. But good thing you can always read our sharp analyses and unrivaled reviews of the previous contestants here.
Does it make you want to visit that country? 3/10
Was there enough glitter? 4.5/10
Ok to quit your day job? 1.25/10
OVERALL AVERAGE: 2.92/10
REYKJAVIK — “Welcome to the Bloody Gate ...” The solemn announcement is made by Asthor Agustsson, a local tour guide who could easily pass for a Viking warrior.
The ten tourists with Agustsson appear awestruck, walking along a path that traverses two abrupt cliffs, covered in snow, with a large frozen lake in the distance. Located between the American and Eurasian tectonic plates, Iceland natural park of Thingvellir is considered as a national treasure by its inhabitants not only for beauty, but as the site where the first Icelandic Parliament met in 930.
More recently, it was also the setting for scenes of the American TV blockbuster Game of Thrones. The fifth season of the HBO production began this week, broadcast in 170 countries. “In the previous season, Sansa and Lord Baelish, then Arya and "The Hound," go through the Bloody Gate to arrive in the Vale,” Agustsson explains to his group, made up mostly of fans. “Nobody sees the trick on screen, but the rest of the path was filmed in Northern Ireland.” To create the imaginary cities of King’s Landing, Yunkai, or the water gardens of Dorne, the producers also shot the scenes in Scotland, Croatia, Spain, Morocco and Malta.
Filmed across Europe, Game of Thrones is the perfect theater to view the war raging among numerous countries to try and attract top movies and TV show shootings, especially American ones. “The competition is fierce,” admits Olivier-René Veillon, Director General of the Film Commission for the region Ile-de-France.
“To win, we have to be the best on many levels,” adds Einar Hansen Tomasson, from Film in Iceland, the agency in charge of promoting Iceland to foreign studios. It's working here, as the island has welcomed cast and crew of movie blockbusters Interstellar (by Christopher Nolan), Noah (by Darren Aronofsky) and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (by Ben Stiller).
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The Bloody Gate — Photo: HBO/Wikimedia Commons
United Kingdom is the favorite
The globalization of Hollywood sets is not a new phenomenon. “Since the 1970s, other countries started to enter the competition,” says Franck Priot, from Film France, the agency that represents France to international producers. Canada alone has welcomed some one-quarter of the American film and TV productions over the past ten years.
In Europe, the United Kingdom is currently the leader, with more than one billion euros spent every year, according to the British Film Institute. “In France, the system was built to support national production, in the UK it is mainly conceived to attract foreign shootings,” explains Priot, taking as an example the seventh Star Wars movie, shot in 2014 in the Pinewood studios, in Buckinghamshire.
London has been rolling out the red carpet for American producers: 25% of what they spend in Britain is paid back to them thanks to special tax breaks, which include the stars’ salaries.
France is coming late to the the competition, having establishing a special tax rate in 2009 that allows for a 20% write-off of what producers spend in France, up to 20 million euros. Beginning in 2016, it will rise to 30%, and up to 30 million euros, though the stars’ salaries are not included.
“We are finally going to start playing in the big leagues, even if we still have many things to improve,” says Priot. France has recently hosted the set of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 2 and The Cosmopolitans, a TV show produced by Amazon.
But the fiscal factor is not all that matters. “Studios and producers always go where there are fiscal advantages, providing that the artistic quality is not compromised,” explains Lawrence Turman, the American producer of The Thing, Running Scared or The River Wild. Apart from the screenplay and the cast, this quality depends largely on the choice of locations and scenery. And in this area, European countries have plenty to offer.
Back in his office in Reykjavik, Arni Bjorn Helgason unrolls a map of Iceland on the table. With a pen, he points out the places where the movie Interstellar was shot with the help of his production company, Sagafilm. “Instead of going to Argentina or Great Britain, Christopher Nolan shot the scenes of the ice planet here, in the south, and the ones of the water planet here, just a few kilometers away,” he proudly explains.
This illustrates the major advantage of the island: the variety of scenery, that can easily be mistaken for other parts of the world. The scenes supposed to be set in the Himalayas in Batman Begins, in Greenland in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty or in Japan in Flags of our Fathers, by Clint Eastwood, have all been shot in Iceland.
France offers up its culture and history: the Louvre, Versailles, Notre-Dame; while Canada counts on its forests and towns that look a lot like those in the United States. In the Baltic region and central Europe, there are notable historical city centers where some streets or churches look a lot like … Paris. But cheaper. Several scenes from La Vie en Rose, a biopic of French singer Edith Piaf, were shot in Prague.
But the American studios also want to be sure that in the country of filming they will find qualified workers: technicians, location managers, cameramen, prop masters, extras — but also, and most importantly, specialists of the post-production. In this area, France is one step ahead with its 110,000 temporary show business workers in the Parisian region alone. But the employment laws are less flexible than London’s. This is a flaw when the shooting only needs to be for a few days.
Lower labor costs
Labor in central Europe costs 30% to 40% less than in other European countries, but don't always have the qualified staff, so the American producers have to weight the pros and cons depending on the need of the project.
For the bidding countries, the stakes are much bigger than just star-sightings and glitter. “The economic consequences can be huge,” says Hansen Tomasson. Big American productions can spend up to 450,000 euros ($500,000) a day. The Interstellar shooting brought more than five million euros to the economy of Iceland, a country with just 320,000 inhabitants. In Canada, the sector created 400,000 jobs over the past ten years.
And then, there is tourism. In Northern Ireland and in Iceland, Game of Thrones triggered an incredible boom in visitors dedicated to the popular show. According to the Northern Ireland Screen Agency, this activity has already brought 77 million euros ($82 million) to the country.
“Since 2013, we've organized tours in the winter to the places where the show was filmed,” says Sólveig Kolbrún Pálsdóttir, chief of projects for Iceland Travel. “Before, tourists used to come to Iceland in the summer: the show opened a whole new market.”