INTERVIEW Baltasar Kormakur

'It's not a whodunnit. It's more of a why-did-he-do-it?'

Baltasar Kormakur first came to international prominence as the writer, director, producer and star of the acclaimed 101 Reykjavik. However, for his latest film, the impressive noir-esque Jar City (Myrin),  Baltasar stayed behind the camera and found inspiration from an Icelandic bestseller. Neil Davey caught up with the (slightly reclusive) director for a rare chat...

It’s taken a couple of years for Jar City to reach the international stage. Is it strange to be talking about a film so long after the event?
You have to wind back and get into it, and remember – but you also get a wider perspective, which is good. You go a little bit away from it, and see it from a distance. I’ve not watched it for a while but I remember it, it’s there. It has a little shelf in my brain.

What was it about the Arnaldur Indridason’s novel Myrin that made you want to adapt it for the screen?
What I loved was that it was the first time I’d read a novel that had a thriller premise that could work in Iceland. Most of the time thrillers don’t fit Iceland, which is weird because geographically it’s such a film noir country, it has all the elements. But the lack of crime, doesn’t make it a good environment for a thriller. But rolling it into the genetic database issue… that had been such a controversy in Iceland and still is. This company had a deal with the government to get access to everybody’s medical data. Then the company floated and sank like a stone so a lot of people lost money. The company’s still going though and doing great things, like finding cures for diseases, so there are two sides to it. On the one hand, you have to love what they’re doing but they also have all this information on people which is scary. Now you also have science which means you can work out your grandmother’s secrets genetically. Some of the truth can be left alone. Truth is overrated!

As well as the genetics issue, you also have the fascinating parallel of the investigating policeman and his relationship with his daughter.
Yes, it’s more about the characters, it’s more of a drama. Everyone knows about DNA and fingerprints, so we don’t have to show that, that’s in the background, and we can stay more on the characters.

Story lies in character, it doesn’t lie in technology. It’s more about how the technology affects people, how somebody’s secret can come out. This structure of the storylines, how they come together *SPOILER ALERT!* that is different to the novel. I wanted to push that a little bit, to push the limits of the genre. I don’t want to give too much away, but I’ve never seen it done this way, where you assume the stories are happening simultaneously but actually they’re taking place at different times. You’re watching the policeman search for the murderer, but you’re also watching the build up to the murder, how the murderer became a murderer.  Then they fall into together and in this case, you suddenly figure out that the timeline is different. You see the window, the picture… and then figure out the corpse at the beginning is now talking! That’s part of the riddle. You might figure out that the guy is the murderer but what you don’t know is that he hasn’t committed the murder yet.

In the novel, he’s searching for someone and then, in the third act, there’s a chase, and the whole story of what happened in flashback. For me though it was just as important to see how that happened, how can I accept him as a murderer? You root for the murderer and maybe you’d have done the same. It’s not a psychopath who unwinds and he’s crazy… it’s not a whodunnit, it’s more of a why-did-he-do-it? What happens to make you a killer?

How is the Icelandic film industry?
It’s small and vibrant. We have maybe five films a year but with a population of 300,000 that’s not too bad and some make it to the international scene. This one will also go all over the world, it’s going to the United States, it opens in France at the same time… I’ve had a film, 101 Reykjavik, that’s done that before, but I wasn’t sure about this one travelling, because it’s a genre piece. But it wasn’t shot in a commercial way and maybe that’s what gives it the opportunity to travel?

The films that travel don’t always have a domestic audience, because they’re more art house, but Jar City was a huge success in Iceland, it’s the biggest box office hit of all time. It’s bigger than Titanic. Which says a lot about how twisted the nation is...

• Jar City is out now on general release. What do you mean you haven't  read our review yet?

Neil Davey is a freelance writer who specialises in things you can do sitting down, such as travelling, eating, drinking, watching films, interviewing famous people and playing video games. (And catching the occasional salmon.) Neil is the author of two Bluffer's Guides (Chocolate, and Food, both of which make lovely presents, ahem), and, along with Stuart O'Connor, is a co-founder of Screenjabber. Neil also writes / has written for The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, Square Mile, Delicious Magazine, Sainsbury's Magazine, Foodism, Escapism, Hello! and Square Meal.

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