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Under the most unexpected of circumstances, two brothers are forced to end their 40-year estrangement in the Icelandic dramedy Rams, the sophomore feature of writer/director Grímur Hákonarson.

A co-production with Denmark, Norway and Poland, Rams (also known as Hrútar) is set in a secluded valley in Iceland, where estranged brothers Kiddi (Theodór Júlíusson) and Gummi (Sigurður Sigurjónsson) live quiet lives as sheep farmers, communicating with one another only through letters sent from a messenger dog. But when a lethal disease known as scrapie starts to infect the land’s sheep, the brothers, in spite of their clashing egos, are forced to work together to save their flock.

Along with being the recipient of the Un Certain Regard award at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, the R-rated film was also chosen as Iceland’s Foreign Language submission for the 88th Academy Awards. Although it didn’t end up achieving the record of being the first Icelandic film to be nominated since 1991’s Children of Nature, Rams still earned over 15 international festival awards, making the film’s helmer, Hákonarson, a talent to watch.

Ahead of the film’s North American theatrical release, I spoke to Hákonarson about the inspiration behind the story, filming with animals and nature, and the current state of Icelandic cinema.

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On the origin of Rams:

The inspiration behind Rams was a true story that Hákonarson’s father told him about two Icelandic brothers competing for the love of the same woman. Although she never felt the same way about either man, the quest for her love was enough to split the siblings, who blamed each other for their shortcomings. Like Kiddi and Gummi, both brothers had a falling out but continued to live on the same land and never spoke to each other for 40 years.

“It’s kind of sad; it’s kind of a bit funny at the same time,” he said about the story’s inherently tragicomic nature. “It has a possibility of lots of comic situations.” He was also drawn to the characters in the story, whose independence and pride he connected to. “It reflects in a way the national character of many Icelanders,” he said. “That’s my opinion. Many Icelanders are a bit like the brothers.”

On working with animals:

As the film’s title suggests, audiences can expect plenty of sheep — and a dog — to populate the film. Working with the sheep was surprisingly easier than the dog for Hákonarson, who hired a dog trainer and a sheep trainer. “The dog needed much more training because the dog had to do very difficult things like delivering letters in his mouth,” he recalled. “The key with the sheep was to find super calm sheep who are used to being around people. I had a professional farmer with me who was helping me with those sheep scenes, and we somehow always managed to get what we wanted. In some cases it took longer times, but sometimes they did it quite easily.”

On the cinematography:

To capture the beauty of Iceland’s farmland, Hákonarson teamed up with Norwegian-born cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen, who recently received acclaim for his sublime work on Sebastian Schipper’s Victoria, the Berlin-set one-take thriller — and a major contrast to Hákonarson’s more quiet and patient film.

“My style has always been wide shots, static shots, slow tracking,” he explained. “He [Sturla] brought a lot of ideas into the film, and the general style, the general cinematography style, is something which comes from me. That was also a challenge for Sturla because he was not used to that kind of style. It was a good experience for him to try that.”

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On filming the snowstorm:

Arguably the most riveting scenes are towards the end film: Kiddi and Gummi, in a desperate attempt to save their animals, lead their dog and sheep through a snowstorm. To pull off that stunt, Hákonarson relied on wind machines to create the storm and a farmer to guide the sheep and the actors. “We painted the farmer out in post-production,” he said. “This is possible with digital technology that you can let some people stand inside the picture, and then you can erase them, take them out in a computer.”

On the current state of Icelandic cinema:

According to Hákonarson, there are two types of films made in Iceland: “There are films who go abroad, are successful in festivals, and win prizes, but there are also commercial films that are mainly made for Icelandic audiences like detective stories, thrillers, and other movies.”

And this past year has been a bright one for those classified in the former: Rams, Sparrows, and Virgin Mountain received international acclaim. But none of those aforementioned titles are sole Icelandic productions, and financing remains a constant challenge.

“It’s only 320,000 people living in Iceland, and there’s not too much money,” he said. “It’s also like there’s limitations. We can’t make high budget films — period films or expensive sci-fi movies. When we are writing the script, we have to think about practical things, and Rams is a very practical film.”

Hákonarson, however, remains optimistic about the future. “When I was young, when I was going to film school, there was no proper film school,” he said. “This is changing, and I think the government has to support the film industry. They have to put more money into the film industry, because there’s a lot of talent, a lot of new directors coming.”

On upcoming projects:

Hákonarson has two upcoming projects. The first, under the working title of The County, is similar in tone and setting to Rams, but will be led by a woman and have cows instead of sheep. “The County is a film I could see do similar things like Rams,” he predicted. “It will travel a lot and go to festivals. Hopefully it will come out next year.”

The FAMU graduate will also return to his filmmaking roots for Little Moscow, a documentary he’s currently editing about a Communist fishing village in the east of Iceland. Unlike The County, however, Hákonarson has doubts about its global appeal. “I’m not sure that film is gonna appeal so much to people outside of Iceland.”

Rams is now playing in Los Angeles and New York.

(All photos are courtesy of Cohen Media Group.)