Written for Rue Morgue.
It took CHILD EATER writer and director Erlingur Óttar Thoroddsen less than a year to switch gears completely.
The Icelandic director’s second feature film, RIFT (RÖKKUR) is a road trip away from the visceral terror of his first, being called everything from “minimalist horror” to a “gay thriller.” It’s a dense and tension-riddled affair centered around the crumbling relationship of its main characters, and it’s messing with heads as it makes its way along the international festival circuit.
The film begins with Gunnar (Björn Stefánsson) receiving a distressing phone call from his ex-boyfriend Einar (Sigurour Pór Óskarsson). Concerned that Einar might harm hemself, Gunnar drives to a remote cabin where Einar has holed up, and the two men must confront not only their fractured relationship but a threatening presence outside.
Thoroddsen speaks with RUE MORGUE about his influences, the psychology of breakups and leaving an audience hanging in this exclusive interview.
A lot of the press surrounding RIFT refers to the film as “LGBT horror.” How do you feel about that label?
When I was writing RIFT, I was definitely very aware of the fact that there weren’t a lot of Icelandic LGBT-centric films, and almost no Icelandic movies where a gay narrative was at the forefront. This was something I really wanted to address, so it was definitely on my mind during both the writing and filming of the movie. So personally, I don’t mind the labels at all. As a gay filmmaker myself, my ears automatically perk up when I hear a film has some gay themes, especially if it’s a thriller or a horror movie. And I don’t think I’m the only one, either. Even though there’s been a lot of progress in getting LGBT stories out there to our screens, there’s still a huge demand for more. As for those labels pigeonholing the film, or somehow minimizing its audience—I’m not very concerned with that either. It is a small film and the dialogue is in Icelandic, and it’s not really a clearcut narrative, so it’s already mostly going to appeal to an audience outside the mainstream. An LGBT horror film/gay thriller is not something you see every day, so hopefully that will also work to our advantage to entice an audience outside the queer community.
You’ve pointed to Ingmar Bergman’s PERSONA and Andrew Haigh’s WEEKEND as references, and some elements have been called “Hitchcockian.” How do you think those influences play out in RIFT?
PERSONA and WEEKEND were the two films that were on my mind during the whole process of making RIFT. That’s kind of funny in retrospect because, even though they very loosely share a framework of “Two characters interacting in one specific setting,” those movies couldn’t be further apart stylistically. PERSONA is very formalistic and stylized, whereas WEEKEND has a relaxed, almost improvisational feel to it. But I was very interested in seeing if I could merge those two aspects—using my visuals in a very formalistic way, but letting my actors be free to roam around within that formal space, if that makes any sense. There are definitely other parts of RIFT that are more directly inspired by those films. The long monologues from PERSONA empowered me to try something similar, and obviously the dreamy/mystery aspect. As for Hitchcock, I don’t believe I was necessarily thinking of him specifically, even though I probably was by association. I’m a huge Brian De Palma fan, and I think I had a lot more of De Palma on my mind when staging some of the scarier sequences. But I can totally see where some elements would feel Hitchcockian; the film is about a character trying to piece together what is going on, so it does play into that classical mystery-thriller formula, even if it eventually kind of leaves it behind.
CHILD EATER had more explicit horror elements, while RIFT is focused more on tension and psychological terror. Was that a conscious change on your part?
Yes, for sure, in a way. CHILD EATER was adapted from a short I made, so I had been living in that world for a very long time, and wanted to do something completely different for my next project. I didn’t want to stray too far away from horror, but I wanted to present it in a different way. So like you say, RIFT is more about tension and suspense than visceral horror. But I love that stuff too, and I’ll probably go back to it soon enough! I’d actually love to do something somewhere in between what CHILDEATER and RIFT are.
The limited cast and spacious setting make it easy to get into Gunnar and Einar’s heads. Was isolating the characters essential to the film?
Yes, and it came about pretty organically. When I wrote the film, I knew I wanted to make something very low-budget, with a small crew and few actors, and limited locations. And I was already thinking a lot about PERSONA and WEEKEND by that time, so it made perfect sense to me to take two characters who have broken up with each other and put them into a secluded cabin the middle of nowhere. So the isolation was on the one hand a necessity of the production, but also a necessity for the story I wanted to tell. When you have those two people together in that situation, how are they going to interact with each other? What issues are going to come up? That’s a fun writing challenge for any screenwriter: How can you sustain a story with only two people in one location for the duration of the whole film? It’s not easy to do, but I very much enjoyed the challenge. I think if you have done your character homework, you will have plenty of things to work with, even within those limitations.
The deconstruction of a dead relationship feels very personal. Is it fair to say there’s a bit of your own life and experiences in RIFT?
The short answer is yes. I had just gone through a breakup when I decided to write RIFT, but I would say that I was drawing more from an emotional well, rather than actual moments I had with my ex. It was more of a “What should I have said?”, “What would he have done?” type of thing. We never went head-to-head in an abandoned cabin! But even aside from the relationship aspect, a lot of other elements are drawn from my own life or from my family’s lives. The big, dilapidated apartment building that ends up playing a large role is actually the place my mother grew up in. The idea of “Leemoy”—the imaginary friend—is based on my uncle’s imaginary friend. Einar talks about getting lost in a field when he was a kid, which is something that happened to me, but in a different area, etc., etc. The area we shot in has a lot of ties to my family, so those personal stories and memories just automatically came to the surface as I was writing. They all just fit in perfectly with the setting.
Thank you very much! Yes, I think shooting in Iceland, specifically in the area called Hellissandur during the end of winter, gives the film a particular look. During that time of year, the sun never fully rises, so the quality of light is very special and hard to describe. There were only two people on the camera crew—DP John Wakayama Carey and gaffer Adam Uyemura—and they are geniuses. They used a lot of natural light, and even when they didn’t, we had so little equipment that they were creating amazing lighting schemes while working with almost nothing. I’m still stunned by how much they were able to achieve, given our resources.
You filmed on location in Iceland over the course of 15 days. Was there a sense of urgency during production, and if so, what effect did that have on the movie?
The surprising thing is that the set was very relaxed for the most part. I think we ran into some timing issues in the first couple of days, but after that we were just cruising. That’s not to say it was an easy shoot. We had a lot of pages to pull off every day, often with quite complicated setups. We were working outside night and day, which was very hard. Even when it doesn’t look freezing cold in the film, believe me, it was! Just the wind chill alone would cause the actors not to feel their lips anymore, so they didn’t know if their lines were coming out of their mouths the right way! What saved our asses was the fact that we had a very rigid schedule that we stuck to, and every scene was carefully mapped out in terms of shots and blocking. Obviously, things would change once we started shooting, like they always do, but we were still very loyal to the plan. When you only have 15 days to shoot 100 pages, you have to be intensely prepared for everything. Everyone brought their A-game.
We don’t see many films like RIFT coming out of Iceland. Why do you think that is?
The simple answer is that we don’t see a lot of films coming out of Iceland in general. The filmmakers working in Iceland all have their unique styles and stories they want to tell. Most of those tend not to fall into genre categories, which I think is a shame because Iceland is a very spooky country. And as for queer representation, I think that’s because most of the filmmakers in Iceland are straight men and aren’t really thinking about those issues most of the time. Which is fine, but it would be great to see more diversity in characters, stories, genres, etc. I believe this is all changing, though—but when you have a country where maybe four or five features are made every year, change happens slowly.
Breaking Glass Studios will be bringing RIFT to North American audiences. How did that come about?
Working with Breaking Glass has been one of the coolest things to come out of this. When I was writing the movie, I didn’t think for a second we’d get proper U.S. distribution, just because it was such a weird movie. But Breaking Glass expressed interest in it right after we had our world premiere at the Göteborg International Film Festival. We have a great sales agent who connected us and Breaking Glass was immediately super-excited about acquiring the film, and I’m a big fan of their output. So it worked fantastically, and I’m excited about getting RIFT out there later this year. I think it’s something people haven’t seen yet.
RIFT is something of a slow burn; it’s minimalistic and invites viewers to draw their own conclusions. Do you worry about some audiences not “getting it”?
Oh yeah, constantly! The film was always supposed to leave you hanging a bit, but now that it is out in the world and not just living on my hard drive, I am a lot more conscious of how an audience reacts to the film, and what they take away from it. But that’s also the best part about it. A lot of the time, it comes down to taste. I’m a big fan of films that have unresolved central mysteries, like PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK or even films like MULHOLLAND DR. and DON’T LOOK NOW. I feel like when those films are done well, they stay with you for a long time, because you keep trying to fit the puzzle pieces together, but they don’t necessarily fit the way you want them to. Not everyone likes that type of movie, though. I wanted the point of view in RIFT to constantly be Gunnar’s, so we only know as much as he knows, and we have to draw the same conclusions that he does—and he might not be drawing the “right” conclusions. The other thing I wanted to emulate was the fact that when you are going through a breakup, your feelings are all over the place and nothing really makes sense. You are not thinking logically all the time. So I was trying to kind of get away from concrete logic in RIFT, and more interested in emotional truth. It’s like that [Robert] Bresson quote of wanting an audience to feel a movie rather than understand it. That being said, we did make an effort to edit the film in a way that gives you enough to draw your own conclusions. I feel like we at least create a train of thought that hopefully leads you to where we want you to end up. We definitely tested the film a few times and had long conversations with those audiences afterward, until we felt confident that everyone was “getting it” in a way we felt comfortable with. But for that type of film to work, the audience has to meet you halfway, and I can only hope that I did my job well enough for them to do that!
RIFT is set to open in North America from Breaking Glass Pictures around Halloween. follow the film’s Facebook page for updates.