Hlynur Pálmason’s working methods push against traditional notions of filmmaking in almost every regard. He lives in a remote Icelandic village with his family. He prioritizes time in his writing, sharing new drafts with his collaborators over the course of many years. He lensed the beautiful time-lapse photography in his latest feature, Godland, himself with a film camera that he kept in his car. His films are shot chronologically and the edit is a slow process that only involves watching the film a few times. This is all in service of cultivating an environment where ideas and threads can emerge naturally, something Pálmason recognizes can only occur with time.
Godland reunites actors Elliott Crosset Hove and Ingvar Sigurðsson who previously starred in Pálmason’s 2014 student short “A Painter.” From there they traded turns as his starring men, first Hove in 2017’s Winter Brothers and then Sigurðsson in 2019’s A White, White Day. In Godland, Crosset Hove is Lucas, a naïve Danish priest sent to Iceland to build and run a church in the late 19th century. Sigurðsson is Ragnar, the group’s Icelandic guide who helps them traverse a dangerous landscape. The tension between the two is palpable from the start, simmering throughout the film’s runtime for reasons identifiable and others more deep-seated and primal.
Lensed on 35mm using the academy ratio, frequent collaborator Maria von Hausswolff captures the harshness and beauty of Iceland in equal measure. In a Herzogian landscape that threatens to swallow anyone up who displays the smallest sign of weakness, Godland shows that the threats of nature and other men are distractions from the true threat of pride.
I spoke to Pálmason and Crosset Hove about their unique working methods and how time and freedom to explore is paramount to everything they do.
The Film Stage: Between Godland and Winter Brothers, Elliott has portrayed two maladjusted characters. They’re able to interact in society, they have jobs, but there’s this clear disconnect with the people and the places that they are in.
Hlynur Pálmason: The characters are often these blends of people I know, but the big part of them are huge enigmas for me. I’m not sure where the characters come from. They sort of just emerge. When you’re exploring something you’re interested in, things begin to emerge and you just follow it. I don’t know if Elliott agrees, but I felt with him and also Ragnar, that they grew into the characters. In the beginning, I felt like I knew very little. When I was talking to Ingvar and Elliott, I didn’t know if I could even help them that much. But then I felt them grow into the characters. Because we were working on the film for a long time, we grew into our roles.
Elliott Crosset Hove: It was really cool to hear you talking about the maladjustment of both characters. I’ve never really made that connection, myself, but that’s completely true. In Winter Brothers, Emil is actually aware of it. And Lucas in Godland neglects it, he won’t accept it. He pretends to be well-adjusted. He pretends to be in charge. He pretends to be on top of things. The character consists of many different things, but one of them is absolutely this arrogance that prevents him from accepting that he’s on foreign soil and he should be humble and listen and get help when he needs it.
I am quite full of doubt. Before I can show anything to anyone in front of a camera, I need to have done many thoughts and written many things down and double-checked things again and again and again. I can’t accept that my first impression was good enough, so I do the same thing 50 times and then if the result is the same—if I keep writing the same words to describe the character—I might be onto something. I can’t explain why or how, but the way Hlynur makes movies is the exact way I dream of acting, where you don’t really do anything and at the same time you’re doing everything. To do that you must know a lot about your character, so you can throw it away, and focus on being present, about being in this nature that we were in. I loved every second of the preparation, and I loved every second of the shoot, even though it was also very tough. But it had to be.
We had the privilege of shooting chronologically—that’s just a dream come true. To shoot two months in a row chronologically, when does that happen to you as an actor? At least in Denmark, it’s not that often. So I also felt a big responsibility to be prepared, and you never really know if you are. You just do a lot of things and hope that’s enough. And then you close your eyes and hope everything is there.
With Lucas, you don’t present this robust spiritual life. We don’t see him praying every day. We don’t see him lead the village or teach the Bible. You don’t see these things that people might expect in this type of movie. There’s a bit of a contrast between Ragnar, who we see meditate in the morning—he seems to have a more practiced inner spiritual life.
Pálmason: All of these scenes were probably in there very early on. I had a big problem on the first and second draft. I felt they were really stiff and uninteresting. I tried to peel away as much of those kinds of scenes as I could out of the film. When I started thinking about the photographs that he took, and when I started to think about the people he photographed and the situations, when I began almost getting lost within the characters and the story, it felt more natural—the rhythm of the film. I didn’t need to explain everything and it didn’t have to be so religiously heavy in dialogue or things like this. It gave the film a more natural feel and also was much more stimulating for me to work on. It’s always about getting lost in the film.
When I came out of film school, I really tried to figure out: How can I create a daily life where I can explore things, where I can shoot something every week and look at the material and react to the material and use it in my films? That is how I work now. The process of filming a horse rotting for two years or filming the priest laying dead in the landscape for two years—that colors the script. That’s what I really love, when I’m developing and exploring things like this. The material surprises me so much, and I react to it. That’s the form of the script. So very early on, it is like you said, but then when I go deeper, all of these things disappear.
When you’re writing over a long period of time, how do you keep an excitement for what you’re working on? And Elliott, how did you maintain fresh eyes when you’re reading eight drafts over the course of years?
Pálmason: I really love making things, whether it is a film or a video installation or building a table—just creating things. It works for me to work parallel on a couple of projects, because I found that I like having time with each project, not starting it up and then finishing it. I love thinking about it and writing something and then rewriting it and working on something else, and then coming back to it. Something happens to the project. It grows in a different way. That’s something that I really find stimulating right now. And that’s how I’m working on the next couple of projects. Some of them are very much connected to some of my other films, with the seasons and in time passing. Cinema is this medium of time, and it really fits the medium. When you have a camera in your car, and you’re filming a little bit every week, you’re waiting and you’re contemplating and you’re reacting. If you shoot something that you watch, you react to that material, and then you rewrite something or it triggers a new scene or a new direction. That’s what makes me productive—that process.
Crosset Hove: For me, it was Christmas Eve every time I got a new script. Throughout the years, I was also working on other projects. So you are not just preparing for one thing over seven years, because then I would probably have gone mad. It was Christmas, reading it each time, getting a bit further in, getting a deeper understanding every time, getting more and more. For me, it was a lovely process that felt natural in the sense that it was Hlynur that I’m working with, and he also enjoys and values the process and does not need to rush anything.
I see myself as a slow starter acting-wise. Some people have the ability: “The story is about this, your character is this. Go. Action.” I can’t do that. So the more information I can get, and the more time I can have to prepare, the better. If every project could be like that, I would love it. That’s also the cool thing about this, because every project can’t be like this, and therefore, it’s extra special!
Hlynur, you live in a town of 2,000 people. One seems to hear that more with novelists or painters. But I’m told filmmaking is all about networking and meetings. Where did that decision come about? Was there pressure to live in a cultural capital at some point?
Pálmason: I felt this very strong feeling when I was around 17 that I needed to go away, and every teenager should have that feeling of wanting to see the world. I definitely had to leave then, or I would have killed someone. And then after living in Reykjavík and in Denmark for many years, and having children and everything, my wife and I had this strong urge to go back to our roots and also give our children a chance to experience the freedom of living here. We live outside a very small town, like you said. There’s a lot of freedom and nature and good people and nice places to bring your children up. It’s also just a place where I like working, where I feel productive. I have a lot of time.
With how it ends for Lucas, I was thinking a lot about this idea of moral rot. Lucas enters this town, and his moral failings hold this real potential to infect Carl’s family and the town. And so it’s nipped in the bud with this shocking act of violence. It’s this almost Old Testament idea of preserving the community.
Pálmason: I grew up liking things that are open for interpretation. You can settle on this thing or you can settle on that, and it doesn’t mean you’re wrong. I feel that very much about the ending of the film, because the ending of the film was a very peculiar process for me also. I started filming Lucas’s body lying in the landscape two years before we started principal photography, while I was writing it. So I had this very strong feeling of him dying. I didn’t know how it happened, I didn’t know if it was Carl, I didn’t know if he fell off his horse. I was driving up there, filming, revisiting the location, trying to figure it out. Suddenly, in my mind, the girl Ida arrives a year or some months after. It’s part of the mysterious process of things emerging. When you dig down into something, things emerge, and you begin to see things and you begin to hear things, and that’s what draws me to the medium. It’s exactly scenes like this that get me excited, because there’s so many possibilities, and I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen. It’s like when there’s an underground river, you can almost feel it under you. But you don’t know exactly what’s going to happen, but you know it’s there. Every day, you’re going a little bit closer to it. But for me personally, the ending of the film is very much connected to what Ida says in the film. This is something that I figured out while making it, quite late into the process. I love the idea of the exploration, not knowing, asking questions, but not really getting answers—that’s life. You’re exploring and trying to figure it out. But you don’t get good answers.
Crosset Hove: For me, in a way, it’s very simple. He did not manage to accept that in order to survive, in order to live here, he had to adapt to the circumstances, to the way of living, to the way of thinking. For me, it’s about that. The beautiful thing is that I really like that everyone can read it in their own way. What you got out, I think it’s beautiful. It’s lovely. It becomes one’s own. I really think that the film can do that. I don’t think that the film is really telling us what to think or feel, or hitting us in the head with a certain moral, and that enables us to make our own.
Pálmason: It’s without statement, hopefully.
Are you a filmmaker where what you shoot is what ends up in the final edit? Or is the edit also an exploration? Did Godland shift or evolve once you got to the edit?
Pálmason: With the last three features, what we film is very true to the script, and what we edit is very true to the film and to the script. The editing process is about finding the rhythm and this takes a long time. I always work with the same editor, Julius Krebs Damsbo. He comes here to Iceland, and stays with me for half a year. And we work every day. It happens very gradually. I don’t know if I can explain it any better. But for example, we only watched it three times before we finished the edit. So we start in the beginning and we work our way through the film and it probably takes two months. And then we watch it. And then we start over again, and then we do another, and then we watch it. We do this three or four times, and the film is there. It’s very much about rhythm. It’s very much about a musicality in the film. We never talk about how long it is. We never talk about what we understand and don’t understand, or information or anything like that. It’s much more like what kind of music you like, or what kind of feeling you have—it’s much closer to that.
Test screenings would never function in our world. We work very closely with the same producers so it’s never a dialogue about “We have to change it. I don’t understand something.” They know us so well that we don’t talk like that anymore. It’s always about making the film better. It’s so simple. They ask, “What do you need to make the film ready?” “What do you need to make it ready for the sound?”
It’s always nice to hear stories about producers who have faith in the creators to work in their own unique way. In the U.S., you expect producers to say, “That’s great, and I really wish we could do it that way, but you’re going to need to do it this way.”
Pálmason: It’s a long way from this studio idea we have about how you make films. It’s also quite far away from even the mainstream here in Iceland or Denmark. But we’re not trying to be difficult. We’re trying to be as inviting as we can. I really mean that. But saying that, we have to allow the film to be whatever it wants. If it’s a little bit weird or a little violent or a little bit funny or a little bit whatever, we just have to go with it. We really don’t think about a preconceived market. We don’t think about a preconceived audience. We think about individuals—people all around the world watching it. Like Elliott said, people will have different ideas of what it is and have different experiences.
Godland is now playing at IFC Center in NYC and will expand.