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Thursday, March 27, 2014

Words of Wisdom from Benedikt Erlingsson, Director of OF HORSES AND MEN

A still from OF HORSES AND MEN
Words of Wisdom From 

By Joshua Handler

Director Benedikt Erlingsson's feature film directorial debut, Of Horses and Men, is a darkly comedic film full of love, death, violence, and comedy.  I reviewed it this week.  Erlingsson has been a stage director for the past ten years and also an actor in many films including Lars von Trier's The Boss of It All.  Of Horse and Men has won awards all over the world and was Iceland's official selection to the 2013 Academy Awards.  The film tells interconnecting stories about the animal in every human and the human in every animal.  Of Horses and Men recently showed at New Directors/New Films and I sat down with Erlingsson to discuss the film.

Erlingsson, like his film, has a dry sense of humor.  He's confident, but humble and down to earth, also like his film.  "I'm a storyteller.  The last 10 years I've been directing in theater," he says.  "This has been...kind of a long film school for me.  When I become big, I want to be a film driector.  I think I'm coming of age now."

This wasn't just Erlingsson's first film - it was his editor's too.  "[David Alexander Corso] was...putting the film together.  It was his first film.  We were sitting there together for eight months.  And I think it was a beautiful cooperation.  [H]e said something to me that was very precious.  [I was insecure and started thinking] 'maybe I should prolong this [sequence].'  And then [David] start[ed] doing it.  And I said, 'What are you doing?'  'I'm doing what you are thinking.'  'But I am not sure.'  'We have to follow your impulses.'  And it was so freeing that he wanted to follow my impulses.  So then...I followed his impulses [and] he followed my impulses.  We supported each other's impulses...and it was like for us."

Erlingsson describes his directorial style on Horses as "tyrannical."  "This film is very much like that.  It's a [screenplay] that I've been working on for a long time...and then everybody has to obey me.  But that's not always like this in the creative process."  Benedikt directs in this way because he thinks very much like a painter and tells "dramatical stories without any text."  By doing this, "you...get into a very deep condition of concentration...and then you try to put that on paper.  And then you have to trust that.  When somebody comes to me on the set, and says, 'Hey why is he [a character] in pants?  Can we not change this?'...I have no idea why he is in pants, but I know there is a good reason there, I just can't remember it...  So then the [script] is the [tyrant], is the king, is the god...well I don't understand it now, but it was written by the great author...and we have to obey him...and then in the editing room I understand it again..."

Erlingsson's roots as an actor have heavily informed his directing.  "I come through the acting," he says. "As a director I'm an actor first.  And in a way I became [a] better actor when I started directing.  I was a problematic actor with my own ideas and attitude against the director - they were always stupid.  When I started directing, I understood something new about my role as an actor, that I was producing material, and I have [produce it]...honorably and with sincerity and humbleness.  I had to humbly produce.  [Theatre acting] is more building the house with the director, but with film, the actor is just producing material, he's just producing stones for somebody else to build the house."

In Erlingsson's short film, "The Nail" and in Of Horses and Men, there isn't a large amount of dialogue.  Much of this is due to Erlingsson's background as a stage director.  "[Movement is] stronger.  In the theater, I learned that words, so if somebody is saying something on the right side of the stage and somebody moves on the left side, the focus of the audience goes to the movement.  [Miming] gives more space to the audience.  I create a universe inside of you, you try to fill it up, but if I tell words, it becomes a little bit smaller.  That's the beauty with film and theater - that is the extra thing that they have."

Despite his dark sense of humor and self-described tyrannical direction, Erlingsson has a humane side and a deep respect for the animals that so often get killed in Of Horses and Men.  "I think of these two animals that are co-oexisting together there on this island in this world.  I think the human beings are the more dangerous ones, and in a way, you can learn a lot about the old slave societies while watching the relationship between man and horse because though it's very lovely...'we love our horses, they are our family, we adopt the horses' and so can sell...a horse that you don't like...In other families...they are not so much into this family horse thing.  They just buy good horses and [if] it's not good enough, they sell it...while other families are taking care.  [A]t the same time, they the horse also.  I think in the slave societies [it] happens like this, 'I love my old slave, she brought me up, and I would like [her] to bring my children up, but her youngest daughter I will sell away...I don't like her.'  There's a paradox in the love and the brutality."

On the joys of unenjoyable art: "The most fantastic thing in the learning process...if you are a film director or a theater director, is the bad stuff.  When you are forced to sit there for two hours in a bad theater get stuff to get ideas.  It's a very creative spot sitting in the middle of a group of 200, 500 people and we are doomed to sit here together...and then you have to go to a happy place...and that's [a] very educating and fertile situation."

And some final thoughts on his screenplay and the stories he likes to tell: "The essence of this [screenplay] is like from the oral culture.  It's like stories that you tell each other, and they take form.  When I make a mosaic picture of this, I think the shock of it [catches] attention.  I love films...where you don't know where they are headed. It's like, 'What? You killed the main character?  What happens now?'  And I think the ears and up.  You go out of the clichĂ©.  We are so unconsciously bored of the three-act, classical dramaturgy of films...[I]n a sense this helps me...[put the audience] into the third dimension.  It's like Berthold Brecht...he wanted to distance [the audience] to make them think.  Film is so good to hypnotize us, suck us in...we totally forget ourselves into the psychology of this character and then we come out full of popcorn and Coca-Cola and we feel clarified...because somebody has gone through changes...we don't have to change...somebody has met obstacles in his life...and we feel catharsis, full of sugar and salt.  But this effect is like to press us to say, 'What is this?  Why are we doing this?'  And I love this kind of storytelling.  Life is dangerous and people are dying...[E]ven accidents in drama, dramatic things, when we make a story about it, we tend to make it comical.  If something terrible happens to me on the beach - I go to swim...and I lose my swimming suit and so I have to run naked onto the beach and everybody laugh[s] at me - this is a drama for me...but when I tell this story, it is a...funny that's human beings and in that sense, when we talk about death and's my kind of storytelling - we...put a smile on in a way."

Of Horses and Men played New Directors/New Films this week and currently does not have a U.S. distributor.

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