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EXCLUSIVE: Icelandic filmmaker Baltasar Kormakur has never been one to shy away from a challenge, be it the harrowing water shoot of his Oscar shortlisted The Deep, mounting 2015’s Everest under insane weather conditions, or heading back to the sea for the 2018 survival tale Adrift. In a moment where the entire industry is tentatively figuring how to bring production back to life after the coronavirus shutdown, Kormakur is among the first to dive back in. He’s already back at work filming Netflix’s eight-part supernatural volcano drama, Katla, which Kormakur’s RVK Studios is producing. While Iceland is still under lockdown, Kormakur with Netflix’s support devised measures including frequent testing — to resume at his own studio near Reykjavik.
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Katla went into production prior to COVID-19 reaching Scandinavia, and Kormakur was able to get in a few weeks’ work before the forced shutdown. He returned to set about three weeks ago and will shoot into July. With social distancing and a reduced crew, the director/writer/producer (and sometime actor) tells us he believes people “are probably more safe on that set than anywhere else.”
Here’s how he did it and why he hopes Iceland can be a good example for the rest of the world.
DEADLINE: How is the coronavirus curve in Iceland?
BALTASAR KORMAKUR: It started pretty fast and the numbers went up early on because a lot of people go to skiing resorts during the school break in February and brought a lot of it in, and they were testing more than most other nations. It was very trackable; it was all coming from the skiing resorts so the numbers went up faster than all the Scandinavian nations in the beginning. But then they plateaued way earlier. Sadly, there were like 10 times more [cases] in Denmark, which was lower in the beginning. People were like “Why is Iceland so much worse than other places?” But then everything skyrocketed in the other Scandinavia nations. What is great about Iceland is that there is one border, you can only come in through the airport — unless you’re swimming — so therefore it’s more controllable and traceable. In the beginning, they said not more than 50 people allowed together, and then they went down to 20 people and social distancing, and closing the swimming pools and the gyms and the restaurants. We are still there, not allowed to be more than 20 people together and two-meter distancing, which is more like a guideline than a rule. My understanding is the 4th of May they are going to ease up to 50 people again.
DEADLINE: You’ve braved the elements to get your projects made before. How does the challenge of facing off against the unseen coronavirus compare to those situations?
KORMAKUR: It is in some way very similar. When I was making Everest, I remember saying, let’s bow our head to the mountain and accept what it gives you. You can’t fight nature, you have to respect it and work with it, unafraid. And the same goes with the ocean in Adrift and The Deep. And now with the virus.
DEADLINE: After the initial lockdown, when and how did you decide to go back to shooting?
KORMAKUR: It was done in a safe way. I honestly believe that you are probably more safe on that set than anywhere else. I live with four children so we vary from six to eight at home and you can’t keep them in the house. I think that because of the quarantine and the measures we did on set, it actually became a very safe spot.
DEADLINE: What measures did you put in place and what’s the advantage of being able to shoot in your own studio?
KORMAKUR: It definitely helped us. We opened a really big studio a couple of years back and it’s probably one of the biggest in Europe at 45,200 square feet. It’s in an isolated area and it’s in very good shape, let’s put it that way. So, we could control very easily, or actually very clearly, the amount of people in the space. I came up with kind of a color-coded spacing system so that people wearing the same colors know which group they are and they are only allowed in certain spaces. There will never be more than 20 people with the same color. This way, we could segregate the studio down to four main spaces and we minimized the crew and try to keep the two-meter distance.
DEADLINE: Were all cast and crew tested?
KORMAKUR: We tested every single person and that’s also very helpful because the DNA company, deCode Genetics, has been helping the government and they are a private company so we could get them to test our crew. Every morning, we check temperatures on everyone. Everything is sanitized regularly, there are security guards on set at all times. I built this plan in tandem with Netflix and Icelandic health company and they were very trusting and graceful to let me actually try this and see, while this is easing up, whether this could be done. Because the whole world cannot be on lockdown at the same time. There are going to be different times when things change.
DEADLINE: Has anyone tested positive? How have you handled that?
KORMAKUR: It’s been going really well. We’ve caught cases which wouldn’t have been caught. And they didn’t get onto the set so there has been no transmission on set. I better knock on wood now (laughs). But these people would have been walking around and wouldn’t have known, because they didn’t have any symptoms. We quarantined a few people, but they could work from home. If a person was caught with a fever, they got tested for the virus, but it never got onto the set.
DEADLINE: On set, when you have two or more actors in a scene, are they having to stay two meters apart? What about any scenes with intimacy? What are the logistics?
KORMAKUR: That’s most of the time quite easy because we didn’t choose scenes that have intimacy in them, we kept that out. But at the same time, the two-meter thing, it’s not like you can’t come a little closer as long as you don’t stay there for long. So we’ve done that. But they’ve all been tested, so it’s very unlikely they are carrying it and as the situation is in the country — it’s less than 135 people with it and new cases are one or two a day — it’s not like we are at a high risk. We do all this and the make-up artist is wearing a mask and gloves and they are tested regularly. It’s done very carefully.
DEADLINE: Was there reticence on anyone’s part to go back to work?
KORMAKUR: No, there was actually a lot of will. We were the last one down because we shot longer than most. Most people wanted to continue, and there was a lot of disappointment that we had to stop. But we had to stop, because people were nervous. Netflix was cautious about it. We stopped and we did a small day, like a second unit day in the meantime, with 20 people in the whole. We made it clear that if someone wouldn’t want to come back we wouldn’t hold it against them. We have a system where there is a person in the crew everyone can talk to, without giving their name, so if there were any issues they could speak without being put in the position of being nervous about not getting work or becoming an enemy of the people. They can actually express themselves without any consequences.
But generally the crew are healthy people; most of them are between 25 and 45 who are working on our sets, so not really people who are at high risk.
DEADLINE: Did people have to travel from abroad to get to you?
KORMAKUR: We had people travel to Iceland before the shooting and they have stayed here during this period, so they don’t have to quarantine. That worked in our favor because we have a Swedish actress.
DEADLINE: Do the cast and crew have to sign any kind of waiver that indemnifies the production?
KORMAKUR: They had to sign a waiver that they would follow the quarantine rules. Not that they are not responsible, it’s more like they have to not break the guidelines that we set. If they do, they can be let go. At the outset, people are responsible for not showing reckless behavior.
DEADLINE: OK, but if they were to fall ill?
KORMAKUR: There have not been any cases of people getting sick. We have supported the people who have [tested positive] without symptoms, they have been paid and quarantined for two weeks and then they come back to work. But no one has gotten sick. We have had medical people and doctors on standby to give the best of care to those who might need it. These are workers who could have been laid off; Netflix has been fantastic when it comes to that. They have been really, really supportive. They’ve gone the extra mile in supporting the crew and production financially. The COVID tracking team were notified and looked over our plan and were impressed and satisfied with everything we were doing.
DEADLINE: Your storyline requires a lot of outside shooting…
KORMAKUR: Yes, we have kept ourselves in the studio and stages that are really controllable, but after May 4 it’s basically opened up in a way that it won’t be a problem anymore to go outside, because you can have 50 people in a group. So we will start shooting outdoors after that.
DEADLINE: Are they traveling back to their homes at the end of the day or did you set a base camp?
KORMAKUR: We haven’t gone to the measures of locking them down. The government is talking about the possibility of bringing crews from abroad to Iceland, giving them 24-hour quarantine and testing them and even they can stay in a hotel and not be around other people and do some shooting here. So there are talks and the head doctor (advising the government) has been saying that can be done, they are positive towards this. There has been no negative feedback to my knowledge.
I think most people really want to figure out a way where we can keep working and doing our things in a safe way. So the damage that has been done already will be minimized. That’s where we are on this in Iceland: how can we safely move on and start getting things turning again, without risking the second wave.
DEADLINE: So you see Iceland as a good example of handling the crisis
KORMAKUR: I think Iceland is in general a good example of how we have dealt with this. It’s a small place, so things are controllable, but also the way the country has been scanning. It’s not the politicians who are leading the way, it’s actually the scientists. They have been speaking to the people, not the politicians. Funnily enough, I was asked way back before all of this why is it going so well in Iceland and New Zealand and I said probably because they are run by women. I think other countries like Germany and Denmark and others are doing quite well because in many of these countries they have the egos behind the scientists, not in front of them, you know, not the egos of the politicians. It’s been handled here in Iceland well and controlled. We never went into a problem where the hospitals couldn’t really deal with the situation. We’re not going to lose control tomorrow or the day after.
But I also believe because we manage to shoot with 20 people kind of in lockdown, if ever it gets worse we can still probably go back to that. I will probably keep more caution, not only easing up after the 4th of May but keep what we are doing as long as there is the possibility.
DEADLINE: So you haven’t found it overly challenging to work with a reduced team?
KORMAKUR: No. We’ve been shooting the same amount. Actually, it’s challenging to get into it and how you’re going to do it, but in the end I think we’re doing great and having normal days apart from a little bit of rules that we have to work with. It’s kind of nice not to have too many people (laughs).
DEADLINE: You started, stopped, started again. How is the show coming along in general?
KORMAKUR: I’m so happy. I love it, it’s really exciting and we have loads of other stuff coming up so there’s a lot going on in the studio. It’s exciting times. You’re probably not allowed to say this, but sometimes these problems, you can come out of them well. We did that in the financial crisis, and in 2010 we had the volcano going off — you remember that? So we were absolutely fucked, we thought we were done. The money collapsed in 2008 and we stopped the world in 2010 and then things have never gone better after that. That started the tourist boom. Sometimes it depends on how you come out of it.
DEADLINE: It’s nice to hear somebody being optimistic these days…
KORMAKUR: Yeah, I’ll play that part.
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