Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurdsson's Icelandic film, Under the Tree, is a mordant comedy of manners.
Taken out of context, there's something inherently absurdist about suburban mores. Twist them into a pitch-black comedy, however, and you have a new take on the theatre of the absurd. Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurdsson's Icelandic film, Under the Tree, is a mordant comedy of manners that begins with a regular neighborly dispute over a tree and somehow escalates into Armageddon.
Steinþór Hróar Steinþórsson stars as Atli, a bumbling husband who is thrown out of his house after his wife catches him watching a sex tape recorded with his previous girlfriend. Edda Björgvinsdóttir, a famous Icelandic comedian, is Inga, Atli's tormented mother who has not been able to recover from the loss of Atli's brother, ostensibly to suicide. Sigurdsson fills out of the rest of the ensemble with unlikeable characters that suggest the director's bleak view of humankind can only be matched by his penchant for black comedy. At one point, when things have gone so far south that only shreds of humanity are visible in each character, someone yells, "Has everyone lost their damn minds?!" It's a perfect microcosm of the movie.
No Film School caught up with Sigurdsson prior to the premiere of Under the Tree— which was selected as a foreign-language film contender at last year’s Oscars—to discuss the director's comprehensive rehearsal process, the painstaking lengths he went to in order to include the film's leafy-green set piece, directing comedic actors in dramatic roles, and more.
No Film School: What intrigued you about dark comedy as a genre?
Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurdsson: It's just something that comes naturally; something I'm drawn to. I think there's something entertaining about it. It's often not trying to be straightforward comedy. It can be a little bit more dry and sarcastic.
NFS: At some point in the film, the dark comedy morphs into tragedy. How did you think about combining those two tonal approaches?
Sigurdsson: Well I think, for me, it's story. And whether we define it as a comedy or a tragedy or even a thriller, I think it's all of these things. Like life, it can be very funny and very sad at the same time. And I wanted this film to be an unexpected journey in a way. It's something I like myself in films—to be taken on a journey which I cannot really foresee. This film is also part family drama, and it certainly has a tragic ending. It's about normal, respectable people who lose control and lose dignity.
"It was definitely one of the hardest technical solutions that we had to figure out, and nobody had seemed to do that before, so we had to invent the wheel."
NFS: This is the second film I've seen about a neighborly dispute in Iceland. I also saw Rams. Is this a cultural phenomenon?
Sigurdsson: Well, regarding Under the Tree, we have a lot of famous cases that are neighborly conflicts that revolve around trees. So it's partly inspired by true stories, although the story is fictional. It has some reference to real incidents.
In Iceland, we don't have a lot of trees, so people who have big and beautiful trees tend to get emotionally attached to them. And at the same time, the summers are very short and the sun doesn't come out as much, so if you don't get the sun hitting your garden you're going to do everything you can to make sure you do.
NFS: And regarding the tree, I read somewhere that you actually CGI'd it.
Sigurdsson: Yeah! It was a very tough location to find because it had to have a tree and a garden, and then be aesthetically pleasing in an architectural way. So we found the houses and the perfect layout of the gardens, but the location didn't have the tree. So we ended up putting an ad in the paper for if somebody was thinking about cutting their maple tree. I said we would come and do it.
We ended up finding a nice, beautiful tree in a different location, cutting it down, and filming it from all possible angles. Then, we cut the crown off and we moved the trunk to the location. So, in all the close-ups, we have the trunk in there, but for all the wide shots, we had to add the crown back in post. It was definitely one of the hardest technical solutions that we had to figure out, and nobody had seemed to do that before, so we kind of had to invent the wheel, in a way.
"I think if you're more in a fabricated fantasy world, then you get away with stuff."
NFS: A lot of directors say that some of the hardest of VFX shots are the ones that you would never guess are actually VFX.
Sigurdsson: Yeah, definitely. And especially if you're working in a naturalistic, realistic tone, then it's not forgiving at all. It has to be perfect. I think if you're more in a fabricated fantasy world, then you get away with stuff.
NFS: These are very specific characters. They're very idiosyncratic, and I'm sure you spent a lot of time developing them in the writing process. How did you work with the actors to bring them to life within this over-the-top, pitch-black comedic tone?
Sigurdsson: I really like working with actors, and it's something that I put a lot of emphasis on in the prep. I decided to cast actors who would have really strong, natural comedic elements.
So for instance, the actress who played the mother is a legendary comedian in Iceland. She's never done anything like this—a dramatic role—before. The same goes for the actor who plays the son—he's also a comedian. So that was new to them. I cast them because I knew there was this comedic element in the script that I really wanted to come through naturally without having to push for it.
The way I like to work with them is we sit around the table in the beginning and we try out things for a week. And then we spend the last week of rehearsals just before we start shooting we going to the actual locations where the scenes are shot. We do rehearsals there. I know the actors find it very valuable to have time to spend inside the locations before you have the whole circus coming in with the lights and the crew.
Sigurdsson: Often actors are just walking into the set on the day, and they don't have any connection to the place. If you [rehearse on location], the actors really get to explore and connect to the space. I think it's really important, especially if a location is supposed to be an actor's childhood home, for example.
It's also important to have time to explore the scenes without having the pressure of having the camera around. That way, you can get much more out of the space when you're actually shooting, because you've made some of these creative decisions beforehand and you can focus on getting the best performance. This is something I've done in other films and I've found it a very important part of the process.
NFS: How much time do you actually spend in rehearsal?
Sigurdsson: I would say around two weeks. You don't want to overdo it, also, because you don't want to tire the actors of the material.
"People are used to doing things differently in their own country so there are certain compromises."
NFS: You had a very international crew with this: Iceland, Denmark, Poland, and Germany. That must've been complicated having to navigate so many different people from different backgrounds on the crew.
Sigurdsson: Yeah, it complicates things to a certain extent, but it also, you get different influences. You get the best people from these countries to come and work on the film. So I think it's a strength.
But certainly, there are some cultural issues—people are used to doing things differently in their own country so there are certain compromises. But in the end, I think it worked really well and gave this Icelandic film a bit of a different flavor.
NFS: Were there any more bureaucratic challenges when it came to financing the film and organizing the four-way co-production?
Sigurdsson: Because of the co-production, you need to have creative elements from all of these countries. For instance, we had the DOP Monica Lenczewska coming from Poland. The whole camera crew—the lighting department, the grips—they were all Polish. The Polish, of course, have a really great tradition of cinematography. So, I think it was a privilege.
We also ended up with a really good post-production company in Denmark who finally resolved the issue with the tree which had been a headache in the prep.
NFS: Can you talk a little bit about how you and Monica conceived of the cinematography? It was very stylized and washed out, giving an interesting dimension to the story itself.
Sigurdsson: There is a certain coolness in the relationship between the characters that we wanted to express through the color palette. Also in terms of approach in cinematography, the story is two layers—it's the neighborly conflict and then Atli's story with the custody battle. We approached Atli's story with a more handheld, sensitive camera, while the neighborhood is shot in anamorphic lenses—more settled, somehow, and peaceful and less aggressive. Gradually, that also switches to the handheld camera as the conflict escalates.
NFS: One of your previous films, Either Way, was remade in America by David Gordon Green as Prince Avalanche. I find that interesting, as an American, to see so many international films be remade domestically. How did you feel about that?
Sigurdsson: Of course, I knew the works of David Gordon Green when he approached us, so I thought it was really interesting to see what he would do with the material. I had already done my film out of the script, so I was quite excited to see how he would do it.
It's something that happens all the time in the theater world—remakes after remakes of productions. To some extent, the remake has a lower-class stamp on it in the film world. But I think, "Why not?" It's interesting to see stories taken in a different context, in a different language.
NFS: Was anything a major challenge about this film besides the VFX on the tree, which you hadn't encountered in a previous film?
Sigurdsson: Yeah, the last scene, which I don't want spoil. [Editor's Note: Things turn very ugly.]
I had never done anything like that before. And I don't know if I will ever do anything like that again. That was certainly a challenge to get that scene together and make it work in a naturalistic way. That was definitely new to me.
NFS: Did you go to film school?
Sigurdsson: Yeah, I did. I studied here in New York, at Columbia University.
NFS: What was your experience like, and how did it form your trajectory as a director?
Sigurdsson: I had a really good experience. It was a program that suited me very well. It gave me a lot of tools and helped me understand how I could conceive the things I wanted to do. I think it's a privilege to spend four years and try out different stuff and figure out who you are and what you want to make. It definitely helped me as a director and a writer.