‘Godland’ Director Says Keeping Production ‘Low-Key and Homemade’ Maintained a ‘Feeling of a Time and Place’

“Godland,” the third feature by 39-year-old Hlynur Pálmason, follows a Danish priest’s raggedy journey through Iceland in the late 1800s. He arms himself with church-building tools and something even more earthshaking: an early wet plate
photographic camera. 

“Godland” is Iceland’s submission for the Best International Feature Film at the 96th Academy Awards. The nation has been nominated just once, in 1991 for Fridrik Thor Fridriksson’s “Children of Nature.”

Pálmason’s movie starts with a title card, which explains that the story was inspired by a box of seven wet plate photographs that were recently discovered on the southeast coast of Iceland. These 130-year-old images are the first-ever photographs from that part of the world.

Turns out, however, the title card was a lie — so TheWrap asked Pálmason about it.

That opening title card is pure fiction. You made the whole thing up?
Yeah, it is. Sorry about that. [Laughs]

What was your thinking behind it?
It helped to trigger the ideas that I was thinking about for the film. I knew that I wanted to tell a story about these two countries, Iceland and Denmark. I was born and raised in Iceland and also raised in Denmark, and it’s quite a history that these two countries have. So I thought about a Danish priest in Iceland, who would also be a photographer in the 19th century. 

How much research did you do into the period?
There were travel books written about this southern part of Iceland, because it surrounds a glacier and it’s drawn travelers for a long time. I also read letters of boatmen from the time. And I dug into the history of the Danish Crown. I wanted to get a feeling of the time and place, but you can become a bit stiff if you do too much research. The characters speak a bit more modern in the film, for example. I didn’t need it to be 100% accurate. 

You made the film in some harsh environments, including scenes where the actors and horses wade through glacial rivers. How did you ensure safe conditions?
Well, there was always full safety protocols and we always had professionals and guides. The cast and crew are all my friends, so it’s kind of like a homemade film. It was a small team, but right for what we have. We were carrying our own lunch every day. I was holding a camera while we traveled. There were no chairs, really, because we had to carry everything. Some of the horses couldn’t travel, so we had to hike there. We were a very close family. We really looked after each other.

With your cinematographer Maria von Hausswolff, you shot the film in the nearly square Academy ratio. Was that to evoke vintage photography? 
It just works so beautifully. Despite being like a square, it’s a large format and you can fit a lot of information into the image. You can get very close to a character’s face or film people walking in the landscape, small in the frame. And then, yes, it’s about the same aspect ratio as the priest is using for his photographs in the film. That is special.

Were the photos in the film actually taken with a wet plate camera?
Yes. For all the priest’s photographs, we made them with the actors and a real wet plate camera. I love the quality of the old photographs of that time, the wet plates and the daguerreotypes. Those are inspiring. They still look beautiful and really crisp and almost magical, with this incredible sense of character. That was one of the things that drew me into the story. I learned photography as a young man and it felt very close to me.

Near the end of the film, in an important scene, we see multiple shots of a dead horse, which has been decaying into the landscape over several years. Was that achieved via visual effects?
No, those were all shot by me, beginning three years prior to principal photography. The horse was my father’s horse that had died, and I filmed the horse’s body for three years, so the effect in the film is almost like time-lapse. We tried to make this film as natural as possible.

It’s all very low-key and homemade. And it was great for me to keep picking up the camera as I was writing and developing the film. It’s stimulating and it triggers ideas. And it is a way to remind myself that I’m a filmmaker.

A version of this story first appeared in the International Feature Film issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine. Read more from the issue here.

Juliette Binoche (Jeff Vespa)

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