Learn from Valdimar Jóhannsson and His Surrealist Horror 'Lamb'

'Lamb'Credit: A24
The director of A24's most recent folk horror film shares his insight from the production.

A24 has been churning out unique and high-quality horror films from auteurs like Ari Aster and Oz Perkins for several years, so you can bet that the trailer for Valdimar Jóhannsson's Icelandic film Lamb caught my attention quickly.

The film follows a grieving couple, Maria () and Ingvar (Hilmir Snær Guðnason), who discover a fantastic half-lamb, half-human child during lambing season on their farm. They decide to raise the girl, Ada, as their own, but soon contend with forces of nature who want her back.

It's a complicated, beautiful film about parenting and grief, and features some beautiful rural landscapes and some of the eeriest shots of livestock ever captured.

Jóhannsson was kind enough to speak with No Film School via Zoom ahead of the film's release. Take a look at his advice to young directors, his insight on working with animals and children, and more.

Editor's note: this interview has been edited for length and clarity.

No Film School: So I know you're exploring a lot in this film: grief, and humans versus nature, and parenthood. Did you always envision this story being in the realm of surrealism and folk horror?

Jóhannsson: Yeah. Surrealism. Yeah, I think that, and we also worked with some elements from Icelandic folk tales.

NFS: I read how in your initial drafts, Ada was bigger as a character, but you went through a process of paring her down and taking out a lot of those scenes. Can you talk about that decision, and that process, and why you did that?

Jóhannsson: At one point, she was even talking. But we somehow found that she is not the main character in the story, but she is very important to the story. But somehow, it was—we thought she was much more interesting when we took out more of the scenes with her, and that you would just have to do the same that you do with animals. You just have to read their feelings or what they're thinking about, and you have to do it also with Ada.

NFS: Was it a difficult process to go through and edit yourself that way?

Jóhannsson: No. We just thought that, at least for us, it [made] the story, the script stronger.

'Lamb'Credit: A24
NFS: Some writers get very precious about an early draft, and they feel like it's done, and then they feel like they shouldn't touch it.

Jóhannsson: Oh, we talked about it so much because we spent so much time working on this. We knew the story so well that it—and we didn't change anything, except we had talked about it for a very long time.

NFS: I also saw that you pitched this to Noomi [Rapace] as a project with a lookbook that affected her very deeply. You hear so many stories about filmmakers using lookbooks or proofs of concept to get a project off the ground or attract their actors. What advice would you have to put together a really strong lookbook?

Jóhannsson: That is probably one of the most important elements for me. Before we started writing the script, I almost just came up with a mood, because the story was not there, but I knew what kind of mood I wanted to have. And sometimes we even wrote some scenes around some image or some painting. For us, it was so important that it had to be very visual. That is also part of the reason why we wanted to have as little dialogue as possible, because it's a visual media.

'Lamb'Credit: A24
NFS: That early part of the film is so silent and beautiful. I do feel like it really gets you in the right place, emotionally, to experience the rest of the story. Those visuals in that amazing landscape, it was so beautiful.

Jóhannsson: Thank you. And I am also a fan of slow cinema, and so—both of us, me and [co-writer] Sjón.

NFS: I also read that you did those scenes with Ada with both a child stand-in and then a real lamb. So I would love to just hear more about that process, because I feel like it would be so difficult to pull off.

Jóhannsson: Yeah. It took a lot of time, and my actors were so patient because all the scenes that we have, we have to do it with puppets, then we have to do it with children, and then real lambs. So it took a lot of time, and the actors had to do their scenes so often. I think we were lucky that—because somehow, it worked, but it was—yeah, it took so much time. That was basically what was—not a problem, but that was what everybody had to somehow offset.

NFS: Yeah, I think I read Noomi say somewhere else that the animals were number one on the call sheet.

Jóhannsson: Yeah. Because we have to work around the children and the animals, because they have to somehow feel secure, and then it's a better chance that you will get what you need to.

NFS: So I guess the advice would be, on working with animals is just to be patient.

Jóhannsson:  Yeah.

'Lamb'Credit: A24
NFS: I know that you have previous experience working in film and TV in various positions, and that you've done short films before. Was there any adjustment that you had to make, as a director coming from your short films into your first feature?

Jóhannsson: No, I don't think so. What is so good, and I think it was so good for me that I have been working in so many films, that it's almost like a school, because you are always in a different set and never doing the same [job], and you see so many different ways [of] doing things. Because I've been in almost every department in a crew, so that was also good because the crew, I know them so well. And I've worked with, I think—for example, in Lamb, I think I've worked with almost everybody that [crewed] from Iceland. And that gave me so much. Both they're my friends, and I really know what everybody is doing and can do, and how much time it takes. So yeah, we were extremely happy with our crew because they were always hanging out, and every department were helping each other. Yeah, so everybody was doing some extra things, you know?

NFS: What advice would you give to someone developing their first feature?

Jóhannsson: Just don't give up. It takes time, at least for me. I think—it was nice that we did not give up, because there were a lot of things that came up that you sometimes thought that you should just quit, because you get a lot of "nos" through this journey. But if you believe in it, and if you think it is something special, then you should definitely just go after it.

'Lamb'Credit: A24
NFS: Yeah, because you did spend a lot of time developing this film, correct? Several years?

Jóhannsson: Yeah. I think we—I don't know. At least 10 years, you know?

NFS: Yeah. I'm really excited for people to see this movie.

Jóhannsson: Thank you so much.     

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