There’s no doubt about it — Sturla Gunnarsson is one of Canada’s most seasoned, critically acclaimed directors. He has won a number of prestigious awards, and recently took on a challenge he had been hoping to do for years: bring the legend of Beowulf to the big screen.
“Beowulf works in the sense that it diverges cultures,” Gunnarsson says. “It [is a story that] reflects our most basic primal fears. These primal fears are great motivators of human beings, and they are still relevant today.”
Two weeks ago, Gunnarsson’s film Beowulf & Grendel hit screens across North America. The film offers viewers a more humanistic impression of this legendary hero vs. monster fable.
“We were going for a human dimension to the epic, and how it’s bound by the laws of nature,” Gunnarsson says. “We also did try to make it more contemporary, just show how [society] can make a monster.”
Gunnarsson explains that, although the film has a humanized contemporization to it, this was not done to reflect current events.
“It is not an allegory by any means of current events, like the war in Iraq,” Gunnarsson says. “But if you look at [Beowulf], [contemporary] parallels can be made. We wanted [a] modern sensibility to resonate.”
As well, Gunnarsson wanted to make the film seem as realistic as possible. One way he did this was by filming the movie in Iceland, its original setting, and Gunnarsson’s native homeland.
“I’ve always had [the Icelandic] landscape in the back of my consciousness, ever since I can remember,” Gunnarsson says. “It is very alive; it forms around you.
“It became a character within the film. The effects [of the landscape] can be seen throughout the film. No amount of preparation can prepare an actor for its effects and this can change the behaviour of [the actors]. It makes the film more alive and ever-changing.”
However, the landscape was only Gunnarsson’s first step in creating a sense of realism. Unlike the majority of mythic/fantasy films in Hollywood today, Beowulf & Grendel does not include Computer Generated Images (CGI).
“Filming without [CGI] actually began accidentally,” Gunnarsson admits. “We had a fraction of the size of a normal Hollywood film’s budget, so we decided to aim for a minimal amount of CGI.
“Then as we started working on it, it took on a life of its own. It became a challenge: we said, ‘Hey, let’s see if we can do this without any CGI at all.’”
While Gunnarsson insists he’s “not a purist” and has “no problems using CGI when it is needed and appropriate,” he is extremely satisfied with the decision to make Beowulf & Grendel a completely analogue film.
“It took [the story] out of the realm of the supernatural. It helped to reflect that more brutal and real feel we were going for.
“[CGI] can be frustrating, as it can make the acting uninteresting,” Gunnarsson adds. “When they are playing opposite nothing but dots on a wall, and not playing against a real actor, or in a real environment, [the film] can lose the complexity.”
Gunnarssson also believes CGI can affect the way an audience reacts to a film.
“The audience responds differently emotionally,” Gunnarsson says. “They know it’s not of the natural world. For example, when you see an orc run across a plain, the CGI can look good, but instinctively you know it’s not real, and this changes your emotional reaction.”
Without CGI to rely on, Gunnarsson says the film’s cast was especially important.
“Casting the lead is always the biggest challenge,” Gunnarsson says. “We wanted someone who was unambiguously masculine. Someone who looked good with a sword and in chain mail, but also someone who could act, and could show the complexity of the character.
“A lot of people can look good in chain mail, but can’t act, and there are lots of good actors who look... well, wimpy in chain mail.”
Because choosing the lead was especially important, Gunnarsson went the extra mile — literally — to get the actor he wanted. To enlist Gerard Butler for the role of Beowulf, Gunnarsson went to the United States to seek him out in person.
“I went after him,” Gunnarsson admits. “I saw him in Lara Croft and Timeline — both movies that wouldn’t normally appeal to me — but his charisma and presence just jumped off the screen and I knew I wanted to work with him.”
The film also features Canadian actress Sarah Polley and Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgard as King Hrothgar.
“[For the King] I always had Stellan in mind. He is a norseman, and is one of the most powerful actors around, no question.
“The beauty of working on a joint British/Iceland/Canadian production is that it creates a huge talent pool,” Gunnarsson adds.
Although Gunnarsson is “quite drawn to the idea of doing sagas” similar to Beowulf, he is not sure he would attempt to put them into film. Instead, Gunnarsson hopes to film something a bit more modern in his current home, Toronto.
“Surprisingly, I have never filmed here in Toronto,” Gunnarsson says. “I’d really like to do a contemporary Toronto story, and I am definitely looking into that.”