The day Baltasar Kormákur almost died—well, there have been several of them, but we’ll focus on this one—he was working without a stunt double in the cold Atlantic off of the Icelandic coast. Now, it should be pointed out that Kormákur is a director, not an actor.
He was shooting the sinking of an Icelandic fishing trawler, one of the pivotal scenes in his 2012 film The Deep, about the lone survivor of that traumatic wreck in 1984. As the front of the boat pitched forward, under water, he opened the door to the downstairs dining area as the cameras rolled and was pushed toward the door frame by an immense rush of water.
“I am there swimming, holding on for dear life, trying to push myself away from the door. If not, it would have sucked me into the water rushing down the boat,” he says. “It was a moment where you stop yourself and say, “I’m dead if I don’t get out of here.’ ”
He’s telling this story in the demi-paradise that is the sun-bleached terrace of the Chateau Marmont’s garden restaurant. The Mother’s Day crowd fills the tables this Sunday, replacing the Hollywood power players that normally perch on the wicker chairs. Kormákur sits relaxed on a couch, his plaid button-up showing zero sweat patches. His dusky looks are atypical of the pale complexions of his home country of Iceland, and the alligator boots he’s got on only heighten the impression of, well, a pirate.
A sportsman with passions for sailing and the outdoors, he is less calculated than instinctive in his pursuit of movie-business success, with a swashbuckler’s zest for the spontaneous and authentic. Which is why his films vary—from the slacker dark comedy debut 101 Reykjavík in 2000 to the intricate thriller Jar City, the box-office-topping Contraband, and the moody soul-searching of The Deep. His second major Hollywood feature, 2 Guns, with Mark Wahlberg and Denzel Washington, hit theaters on August 2.
But perhaps his biggest project will be the making of Everest, a chronicle of the tragic events of May 1996, when eight people died in a blizzard while trying to reach the top of Mount Everest. He plans, of course, to shoot on the mountain, as close as he can get to the summit.
THE RED BULLETIN: What is it about putting yourself in extreme situations that attracts you?
BALTASAR KORMAKUR: Because in some way, being a part of it and experiencing it is the way to tell others. If you tell people stories like you experienced it yourself, you are more likely to tell the better story.
So what do you plan to do with Everest?
I kind of want to tell the story of the Everest inside of every person. I think everyone has that inside of them, an event to grasp or something to do, even in risking everything at the same time. I think that is my journey, as well as everyone else’s journey in a different context. For example, I am away from family and home here. What am I doing? Why am I not home with my family? What is this urge or this need to conquer something? I think Everest is a very simple version of this. I think that is why people are so attracted to it. My Everest is this [film].
It goes back to what I was telling you earlier about physicality. You put yourself in the most extreme conditions. And I think in some way you are overcoming a lot of things by doing that. Why do I put myself in danger in the film? Because I need it. I need to feel alive. I need to feel like I did something that day.
You’ve been very careful in your approach to Hollywood. 2 Guns will be only your second major feature here. Is this part of a plan?
It was a fantastic opportunity. But I don’t think of Iceland as a training ground for Hollywood. I am not a strategist. You can only do what comes to you. You can’t say, “I am going to do this and this and this,” and everything will go your way. You have to know when is the moment to say no and when is the moment to say yes. After I did 101 Reykjavík, I was offered The Last House on the Left, the horror movie. But I didn’t want to do that. It might have defined what came after it. That’s the thing: Sometimes you define where you go more by saying no than by saying yes.
So how did the Everest film come to you?
Evan Hayes was a producer I worked with putting Contraband together. He sent me the script. I remember when I read it, I thought that was the whole purpose of the journey. I remember I was in the bathtub in a London apartment and I read it and I was like, “Wow, OK. Now what you have searched for is coming.” It’s feeling like your purpose has been shown. This is really what I want to do. This is why I did Contraband. I am not putting that down, but everyone has their dream and their dream project. This is kind of mine.
Has the idea of Hollywood changed since you began thinking about making it here as a young actor in Iceland?
The thing is that usually the journey to a place is so long and difficult that when you arrive, the idea has changed in your head. When you are there, it isn’t the same obstacle as when you left home.
It doesn’t scare you anymore. It is not the same mountain. Basically, by going up the mountain, the mountain always gets smaller. That is the thing. The journey up the mountain makes the mountain smaller.
You’re of mixed parentage: A father who is from Catalonia, in Spain, and an Icelandic mother. Do you think in terms of identity in your filmmaking? Do you think Hollywood does?
No, I don’t think so. It irritates me a lot in Europe when people talk about American film. They don’t take the whole picture. Yes, some of the worst stuff is done here, but some of the best stuff is done here, too. Hollywood is just an idea. Most of the movies are made somewhere else, and most of the finest film does come from Europe, Russia, or wherever the money comes from. It is a global meeting point.
So what does success here look like?
You become big enough in that environment that they can’t put their finger on you. There are directors like Ang Lee, where you don’t really expect to know what he is going to do next. If you look at Brokeback Mountain and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, is that the same guy? I like that. I think it is fantastic.
Ang Lee is also a foreign filmmaker. Do you think that has something to do with it?
I think Spielberg does that, too. But he has just become such a big name that people stop seeing it like that. You take Catch Me If You Can to E.T. to Lincoln, which is an incredible variety of projects, to Jurassic Park and things like that.
But wouldn’t it be cool if Spielberg were to do a low-budget heroin drama, or another version of Wedding Crashers?
Maybe he will. I ask myself why somebody with that much success does not just do exactly what he wants to do. He is 60-something, and he has made tons of films. But he wants to entertain. Maybe he believes in certain values and that is what he wants to present. I think it is also dangerous when you are running an empire and part of that empire is built on your film’s massive success. You are tying yourself to a certain type of filmmaking. My freedom was to go and do The Deep. I knew it was very successful in Iceland, but I knew it was not going to make any money around the world. I want to keep that freedom.
Are you afraid of being defined?
You can’t define yourself, like “This is who I am, this is only what I do.” Things define you as you go along. I think if you decide what your journey is going to be, then the journey is not worth taking.
It’s like when you go out partying on Dec. 31. Why is New Year’s Eve always the worst night? Because it is planned. Everyone says they are going to have a great time, but they don’t really. Then you go out on a Tuesday, you meet someone and get hammered. You meet a girl and you fall in love. The more you plan it, the less interesting it is going to be. It enables you to break through your own personal barriers, then. That is probably what people are breaking. I think in most people’s minds, it is an impossible achievement to go to the highest mountain in the world.
I think by doing that, you have broken through those barriers that hold you back. Maybe that is why I jump into the sea. I don’t want to be held by the idea that the director should be in the chair.
2 Guns, starring Mark Wahlberg, is out on Aug. 2.
Check out the September 2013 issue of Red Bulletin magazine (on newsstands August 13) for more articles. To read the magazine on your iPad, download the Red Bulletin iPad app. Follow Red Bulletin on Twitter for more.