A chat with Icelandic filmmaker Marteinn Thorsson

Proud to present my interview with Marteinn Thorssen, an Icelandic filmmaker who’s responsible in part for one of my favourite indie movies ever made, Paranoia 1.0. An extremely talented guy with a lot of projects on the go, and awesome to speak with. Enjoy!
1. Care to speak a bit about your background, what lead you into film making?


I think I always wanted to do something creative. My uncle ran this cinema which was housed in a WWII army barrack in Reykjavik. Mom sold tickets and my grandpa was an usher. Place was called Hafnarbio (The Harbour Cinema). They showed b-movies and light-blue movies. Alakazam the Great had the biggest impact on me. Surreal and weird. That has stayed with me. I was also a bookworm and spent many hours in the local library. I remember owning a super-8mm camera and later I was into stills. In college I started making horror flicks with friends. Those were a great technical exercise but it’s only lately that I feel I’ve been developing my own perspective. I’m a late bloomer.

Paranoia 1.0:

2. How was the writing process; What I spires ypu and Jeff, how did you envision script to screen, and did it eventually end up going how you thought it would?


Jeff and I had both been working in advertising and music videos and decided to create a collaborative entity we called waterfall/fjord. We wanted it to be anti-commercial and just be this experimentation hub for no-budget fun stuff. We did some music videos for an Icelandic band DIP (which was the brainchild of Siggi Baldursson of the Sugarcubes and Johann Johannson who is now scoring films for Denis Villeneuve and won a Golden Globe for Theory of Everything) and we had so much fun doing this we decided to try to write a script and make a feature. We worked on several stories but it wasn’t until we decided to something about the advertising world that a narrative formed which we were happy with. We were both very much into nanotech and sci-fi, Ray Kurzweil, Neal Stephenson and William Gibson. I can’t remember where the plot came from, I think I had written a treatment about a detective who receives an infant’s dismembered foot in his mailbox. I think that’s where the plot started. But the main theme, though, is about loneliness, it’s really a film about Toronto (where we studied and lived at the time) and loneliness. When you start something like this you never know where it will take you. We thought we were going to make a low-budget Canada/Iceland co-production but Télefilm and other funding bodies in Canada didn’t want to have anything to do with it. We got a grant from the Icelandic Film Fund early on but we had no luck in Canada. So it became a US/Iceland/Romanian production in the end. Even when we had managed to finance the film in Hollywood we tried to shoot it as an indie film in Winnipeg but there they wanted to unionize it because we had 2 American producers on the film, so, ironically Canada didn’t want us but the Americans and Romanians and Germans did (the main producer, Chris Sievernich, is a German living in L.A.) and we ended up getting the film into Sundance, main competition. I had no idea at the time what a big deal that was. Anyway, all this affected the way the film eventually came together. What was supposed to be a portrait of a crumbling capitalist society became a portrait of a crumbled communist society just about to emerge as a capitalist entity. Very interesting and Bucharest is an amazing place to shoot in. I hope to go back sometime. I’m actually working on one project which might happen next year. But we had to cut out some of the scenes we wanted as well as some of the effects. In the original script we wanted to show the Farm headquarters as well as Howard’s place where he keeps all the brains he’s been collecting and Adam’s progress as an Internet conscience was explained more. Also, Howard’s intentions were clearer but it was always about loneliness and corporate control and that stayed intact.


3. Casting: you assembled an eclectic cast of cult favourites, did you seek out these people, Udo Kier, Deborah Unger, Bruce Payne etc., or did they find their way to the projects through their agents? I did hear the story about finding Lance Henriksen at the hotel. What was it like working with the cast?


We wrote the script with Udo Kier and Deborah Unger in mind and were very lucky to get them. Udo had made a Danish film (“Besat” or “Possessed” in English) with one of our original producers (Thomas Mai of Zentropa) and he was the one we cast first. We met him at the American Film Market in L.A. and he liked the script. We became friends. I owe him some lamps he bought in Montreal but they got lost in Toronto on their way to Los Angeles. We got to Deborah through our casting director, Carmen Cuba (who is now casting for Steven Soderbergh and the Wachowskis among others). Carmen did most of the casting for us in L.A. At one point we had Gabriel Macht as Simon but he pulled out, we spoke with Gael Garcia Bernal who showed interest and then Adrian Brody signed on to be Simon just after he’d shot The Pianist but then our financing fell through and Brody got an Oscar. Jeremy Sisto was always in the mix though and he stuck with us and he did a fantastic job. I love Jeremy. For The Neighbor part we had Djimon Hounsou at one point but Bruce Payne got on board quite late when we were already in Bucharest. We did find Lance at the Marriot in Bucharest, Jeremy had done a series with him (Lincoln I think), a lot of people were there at the time shooting: Dennis Hopper, Andy Garcia, Gina Gershon, Eva Mendes. It was a busy town, still is, I think.


4. How was the shoot for everyone? How was your experience?


It was a difficult but fantastic experience. This was our first feature and we were used to doing everything ourselves so it was a bit weird having a crew of something like 100 people but the Romanian crew was amazing and I have such good memories of Bucharest. It was also weird to stay for more than 2 months in The Marriot right beside Ceausescu’s mad Palace, The Marriot is such a place of luxury and we were doing this little, low budget movie. Our producer, Chris Sievernich, said: “Enjoy this, it will probably never happen again.” We were lucky to be able to have some of the people from film school to work on the film with us like our editor Dan Sadler, cinematographer Chris Soos, Gio Sampogna who did the making-of, Eggert “Eddi” Ketilsson from Iceland who did the Production Design, Jeff’s dad showed up and helped us and more friends came from Canada, the US and Iceland. It was the first feature for so many and everyone was really excited. We storyboarded everything (although I don’t really like that practice) and were really well prepared, we got everything in the can and more, actually. When we showed the first AD (Chris Landry) our shot list he said we’d never cover it but we did, with 2 directors you can do more if you tag-team it.


5. Some films/actors/filmmakers who have inspired your work and who you really admire?


When I was younger I used to have favorite films and filmmakers but I don’t really today but I admire everyone who is a real artist and they don’t have to be filmmakers. My wife is a novelist and before I met her, I was influenced by her work, it’s amazing. I’m also influenced by music, painting, photography, performance art, literature and kind, interesting people who give me real human experiences. But, yes, in the past, Alakazam the Great influenced me a lot as did Don’t Look Now, Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Brood, Red Desert, Blade Runner, Alien, Brazil and Raiders of the Lost Ark. I love the films of Hayao Miyazaki, David Cronenberg, Trần Anh Hùng, P.T. Anderson, Jonathan Glazier, Terrence Malick, Roy Anderson and others who surprise me and show me something new. When I saw Old Boy, I was giddy with delight. I’m quite fond of 70’s Hollywood. I don’t understand the popularity of some filmmakers and movies though, like Slumdog Millionaire, Argo or Wes Anderson’s work since The Royal Tenenbaums (with the exception of Fantastic Mr. Fox). Some of the new TV is great although it’s not the future of movies. I don’t like to dwell on the past and I love new things and new technologies, I’m glad to be rid of “film” although it smells nice. I hated editing on film, when non-linear came around with AVID, I was the first to sign up and it was a liberating progress and digital cinema is wonderful.


6. Any upcoming projects you are excited for and would like to mention?


I have so many projects in development and none of them might come to fruition, I’m actually shooting two no-budget projects that I might never finish. I think I have to move back into making films in English, preferably genre, because as an Icelandic filmmaker I need to supplement my income by working nights as a concierge in a hotel and that takes time away from my writing and shooting the micro budget stuff. But what might be my next film is a genre film, a supernatural thriller or horror film called UNA, we’re in the financing stages for that, that means we have applied for the big production grant at The Icelandic Film Centre and if we get that grant, we’ll be able to go for the rest of the money. UNA is produced by Gudrun Edda Thorhannesdottir of Duo Productions in Reykjavik. It’s based on a novel by Ottar M. Nordfjord and is about a young woman who’s lost her 5 year old son but his body has not been found a year after his disappearance. She starts suspecting he might still be alive when she becomes haunted by an “outcast”, a shapeshifting monster which may or may not want to do her harm. It’s dark, fun stuff, intense and has roots in Icelandic mythology and violence against women. Needs extensive special effects work which I mostly want to do in camera but it will benefit from CGI enhancement. I’m also working on a TV series based on the novel YOSOY by Gudrun Eva Minervudottir (yes, my wife), I’m developing it with two other writers, Lilja Sigurdardottir and Michael Sillery and we’re aiming it at the US market for now, if HBO/Netflix/AMC/ETC don’t want it then we’ll try the Scandinavia/Nordic version. Yosoy is wonderful and intense stuff, like Carnivále, Twin Peaks and True Detective rolled into one. I have a big budget Hollywood type sci-fi in the works. It’s called PROTOS and is loosely inspired by Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”, it’s a bit like BLADE RUNNER meets APOCALYPSE NOW. I have oodles of micro-budget ideas, one is ERASERHEAD-like horror called DARKNESS KNOWS, another the drama I want to shoot in Reykjavik and Bucharest, GOD’S HEART, I actually have this God trilogy I want to do: GOD’S HEART, THE PATH OF GOD, and TOMORROW, WE BECOME ONE. Another adaptation from my wife’s novel ANGEL DUST. An English language adaptation from a novel by Arni Thorarinsson, WE, a very dramatic love story. There’s a thriller called EXIT I’m working on with writer Ottar Nordfjord and producer Snorri Thorisson. Inspired by true events, it tells the story of two French sisters whose hiking trip around Iceland turns into a nightmare when they hitch a ride with a charming but sinister stranger. I have another English language horror script ready called FROM THE DEEP which I wrote with this wonderful horror writer, Thorsteinn Mar (co-writer of DARKNESS KNOWS) and we have quite a few ideas milling about. So, plenty to work on but an agent and a production company would be nice. And some cash, please. But life is good. I’m trying to be a good husband and father. Life is such an interesting trip, you never know where it will take you.

4 thoughts on “A chat with Icelandic filmmaker Marteinn Thorsson

  1. ” I think I have to move back into making films in English, preferably genre, because as an Icelandic filmmaker I need to supplement my income by working nights as a concierge in a hotel” – this is very honest. Not so many less famous film-makers directly admit what they do for surviving.


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