Film Review: A Man Called Ove

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The Highs and Lows of Swedish Life: Heartwarming tale of friendships healing powers.

Hannes Holm’s adaptation of Fredrik Backman’s bestselling novel is guaranteed to bring tears to the eyes. One of Sweden’s most successful films, A Man Called Ove is the nation’s entry for the Oscars. It is a touching story of a grumpy old man who is unable to come to terms with grief.

Ove (Rolf Lassgård) is made redundant after 43 years service at the local rail network. The loss of a job so soon after his wife’s death pushes Ove to the brink. Determined to rejoin his wife he decides to end his life.

An intricate study of grief and resentment, the film is perhaps the closest Sweden has come to producing a home-grown equivalent of It’s A Wonderful Life. Director Hannes Holm’s tragi-comedic exploration of loss and acceptance is a celebration of the power of friendship.

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A tightly constructed script uses flashback sequences to let the audience see the tragic events that turned Ove into a curmudgeonly old man at war with the world. Unashamedly sentimental, the film is underscored by a strain of morbid Scandinavian humour. Poignant and moving, it shows how Sweden has changed over the last half century and makes a positive contribution to the ongoing debate about immigration.

Rolf Lassgård delivers a career-defining performance as the crotchety senior citizen who is tired of life. The film gives him an opportunity to flex his comedic muscles while displaying an intense sensitivity beneath, In lesser hands Ove might have come across as mawkish or a grotesque parody. Lassgård’s complex and layered performance grabs from the opening frame. He will have you laughing and crying throughout the film.

Bahar Pars rises to the challenge of playing opposite Lassgård. As pushy neighbour Parvenah she is effectively playing Clarence to Ove’s George Bailey. She creates a three-dimensional character which never descends into stereotype.

Possibly the most emotional cinema-going experience you will have this year. Take plenty of tissues.

A Man Called Ove is screening at the Nordic-Baltic Film Festival.

Film Review: The Fencer

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Dead Swordsmen’s Society: Estonian teacher seizes the day in an inspiring historical drama.

Loosely based on a true story, The Fencer is director Klaus Haro’s fifth film to be submitted to the Oscars and the first to make the shortlist.

In 1952 former champion fencer Endel Nelis (Mart Avandi) is fleeing from the secret police. Hiding out in the remote Estonian town of Haapsalu he has been advised to keep a low profile. The country has been under Soviet rule since the end of World War II. Stalin’s regime is ruthlessly hunting down people who were conscripted by the Nazi occupying forces.

Finding work as a teacher despite feeling uncomfortable being in the company of children, he plans to keep his head down and throw himself into his new job. Endel soon learns the under-resourced school is sharing its limited supply of gym equipment with a local military academy.

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Pupils and teacher bond and learn from each other when Endel starts an after-school club. Teaching the children how to fence he gives a class of mostly orphans something to believe in.

An antagonistic head teacher (Hendrik Toompere Sr) is committed to the revolution and highly critical of Endel’s decision to start a sports club. When parents oppose the head teacher’s attempts to stop fencing being taught he starts digging into the teacher’s past and reports his findings to the authorities.

The real Endel Nelis founded a fencing school that survives to this day. His story has, until now, been largely unknown outside of the fencing community. Screenwriter Anna Heinämaa was visiting friends in Haapsalu, Estonia, where the story takes place, when she learnt about Endel’s sacrifices and his ongoing legacy. Speaking with Endel’s daughter and other people who knew him the writer developed the script while studying for Salford University’s Masters degree in Film Screenwriting.

The Fencer is a powerful drama about a paranoid time. A story of how one man was prepared to risk imprisonment so that his class could have a momentary glimpse of hope. This richly rewarding recreation of an era when a disagreement might lead to a spell in a gulag is brought to life by graceful cinematography and restrained performances.

The Fencer is screening at the Nordic-Baltic Film Festival.

Film Review: The Homecoming

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An author of self-help books is in denial about his own problems.

Bestselling author Gunnar ((Hilmar Jónsson) is tired of writing self-help books. Contractually committed to producing another three titles he suggests the publisher repackage earlier books. Success has paid for homes in the city and countryside. Despite the rewards, he is prepared to walk away from a highly profitable career.

Famed for advising people how to reach inner peace, his own life is fracturing. Gestur’s marriage is in trouble and long-forgotten secrets are about to turn his world upside down.

Best known for his performances in Jar City, The Lava Field, Trapped, and Fortitude, writer-director Björn Hlynur Haraldsson is one of the co-founders of Icelandic theatre company Vesturport. Based on his stageplay, The Homecoming is Björn Hlynur’s cinematic directorial debut.

An unpredictable tragi-comedy, it’s treatment of genuinely dark subject matter may unsettle some viewers. On the surface this may appear to be a credulity-stretching Nordic farce but peel back the layers and be rewarded with a humorous take on the dangers of living in a small and interconnected society.

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Gestur’s son has returned from holiday with a new girlfriend. A decades-old secret is about to be exposed as the father is confronted with the daughter he abandoned 25 years ago. The writer of countless self-help books has no idea how to cope with this crisis. Already showing signs of mid-life malaise, Gestur’s behaviour alarms his wife and son as he tries to sabotage the relationship without revealing his youthful infidelity.

While Nordic Noir has crossed over into the mainstream, Icelandic comedies are largely unknown in the UK. The Night Shift and Rams have found an appreciative audience but a wider cycle of darkly humorous films and TV series confronting taboos has yet to be released here.

Will The Homecoming be the film to crossover and introduce Icelandic gallows humour (or gálgahúmor as it’s known in Iceland) to a wider marketplace? In an increasingly anodyne age, the fact that The Homecoming even exists is remarkable.

Undoubtedly an acquired taste, the film confronts  some weighty subject matter head-on and will make you laugh at the darker side of life.

The Homecoming is screening at the Nordic-Baltic Film Festival.

Film Review: Mellow Mud

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Childhood’s End: Tragic circumstances force a young girl to fight for what’s left of her family.

Renars Vimba’s feature-length directorial debut is an emotionally resonant account of one person’s struggles against the disintegration of everything she knows.

In rural Latvia ,a young girl and her brother have endured a traumatic childhood. Following the death of their father, they have had to cope with being abandoned by their mother. Living with an acidic grandmother they endure a life with no comforts and precious little affection. The alternative to a harsh existence in a run-down farmhouse with a toxic grandparent is being sent to an orphanage.

When her grandmother unexpectedly dies Raya (Elīna Vaska) is forced to become protector for her younger brother, Robis (Andžejs Jānis Lilientāls). Several months away from her eighteenth birthday Raya is not legally entitled to be appointed guardian of her sibling. To prevent the pair being taken into care she buries her grandmother in a neighbouring field. Surviving by fraudulently claiming the deceased’s pension, she hopes to fool social services into thinking her grandmother is still alive.

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More than a coming-of-age drama, Mellow Mud highlights the collateral damage caused by economic migration. Noting a trend in Latvian cinema to focus on people who have chosen to leave the country, writer-director Renars Vimba has woven a brutal but life-affirming story about what happens to the people left behind.

Raya and Robis’ mother has fled to London tempted by the lure of higher wages and better living conditions. Meanwhile, back in Latvia two children have spent years anxiously waiting for a postcard or letter inviting them to live in a land of supposed opportunity

Harbouring hope that if she can track down her mother Raya will be able to persuade the absentee parent to return to Latvia and take control of the family, the teenager resolves to enter an English language competition. The prospect of winning a trip to London appears to offer a potential solution to her immediate problems. After persistent persuading, Raya’s teacher agrees to submit her as the school’s candidate.

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Amid the emotional turmoil of having to grow up far too soon, Raya experiences the first flowerings of love as she falls for her teacher. Already adept at concealing secrets she now has to hide their illicit relationship.

A frank examination of disillusionment and isolation, Mellow Mud offers an insight into the harsh reality of growing up in a Latvian rural community. Shot from a teenager’s point-of-view the film is non-judgemental and brutally realistic.

Mellow Mud offers proof that Latvian filmmakers are using their experiences, hopes, and dreams to create a sincere form of cinema that pays homage to the French New Wave while striking out as a distinct form in its own right. A poignant film, this account of a teenager confronting adversity will linger in your memory.

Mellow Mud is screening at the Nordic-Baltic Film Festival.

Film Review: In The Blood

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Smells Like Surgical Spirit: Group of medical students learn that every choice has consequences.

Having established himself as one of Scandinavia’s most prolific screenwriters Rasmus Heisterberg makes his debut as a director with an existential drama about friendship and the loss of innocence.

For a group of medical students, summer is a time without worries or repercussions. The age of responsibility has yet to dawn and as they prepare for one final year of study four young men party hard and chase girls without considering what worries tomorrow might bring.

Best-known to UK audiences for his screenplays for King’s Game, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, A Royal Affair, and Northwest, Rasmus Heisterberg’s long-standing collaboration with director Nikolaj Arcel has been rewarded with a Silver Bear for best screening at the Berlin Film Festival and an Oscar nomination. In Denmark, films based on screenplays he has written or co-written have sold 4.3 million tickets at the box office.

Rasmus Heisterberg is set to collaborate once again with Nikolaj Arcel on RFK a biographical drama about Robert F. Kennedy starring Matt Damon.

His directorial debut is a meditative paean for a transitional age. Focusing on a group of friends who enjoy one last hedonistic summer before they are forced to accept the responsibilities of adulthood, In the Blood is a melancholic portrait of discovery and transformation.

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Simon and his best friend Knud have enjoyed a seemingly never-ending succession of wild parties and outrageous pranks while studying for their exams. Cracks begin to appear in the friendship when Knud (Elliott Crosset Hove) and two other housemates decide to put their shared house on the market. Simon (Kristoffer Bech) is not ready to bid farewell to a hard drinking lifestyle free of consequences.

Plans to spend a semester in South America are thrown into turmoil when Knud realises he still has feelings for his estranged girlfriend. The longstanding friendship seems destined to fall apart because Simon is happy to spend his time stealing surgical spirit to entertain people at parties while evading the oncoming storm of adulthood. As the pair diverge Simon plunges headfirst on a path of self-destruction.

A youth movie not made for an exclusively young audience. In The Blood‘s sketch of alienation and self-actualisation will remind viewers of those long forgotten days when adulthood was a terrifying event on a fast-approaching horizon. Relive those last summers with this elegy for a more innocent time.

In the Blood is screening at the Nordic-Baltic Film Festival.

Film Review: Mother

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Baltic Rhapsody: Darkly comedic whodunit.

Elsa is forced to become a full-time carer for her son Lauri when he is left comatose after a robbery. Trapped in a loveless marriage, she dreams of escaping from her life of drudgery and finding self-fulfillment far away from the house that is rapidly becoming her prison.

Inspired by an Irish radio drama, Kadri Kousaar’s third feature film is a wry black comedy filled with eccentric characters. The thin veneer of respectability is peeled away from a backwater town when the police investigate the shooting of Elsa’s son. In a small community where everyone seems to known everyone, someone knows the shooter’s identity. Secrets hidden behind closed doors may be exposed as the police try to solve the puzzle of who attempted to rob Elsa’s’s son at gunpoint.

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One by one, a cast of offbeat characters visit the bedside of Elsa’s comatose son and confess their thwarted dreams and concealed secrets. An unblinking Lauri (Siim Maaten) hears his friends and neighbours expose their inner torments and will never be able to pass on the information. Will the shooter take advantage of Lauri’s comatose state and confess knowing the police will never learn of their guilt?

Compared by critics to the Cohen brothers’ Fargo, Mother is Estonia’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 2017 Oscars. A sardonic, playful, and claustrophobic mystery which offers hints that Baltic Noir might be on the verge of a breakthrough moment. Exploring possible consequences of self-deception, sacrifice, and selfishness, the deceptively subtle approach taken by the script works on multiple levels as it dissects a mother and son’s relationship.

In her first feature film role, Tiina Malberg demonstrates an ability to mix tragedy with comedy. Her performance is remarkable as she plays a mother crushed by feelings of disillusionment and forced to provide around-the-clock care for a son.

Largely confined to Elsa’s house, the film has a deliberate oppressive texture. It aims to be both domestic and idiosyncratic while weaving a disturbing account of a town where despite appearances to the contrary nobody can be trusted. Like all good whodunnits. everyone is a suspect and viewers will keep guessing throughout the film.

Mother is an ideal introduction to Estonian cinema. A dark comedy with an unexpected bite.

Mother is screening at the Nordic-Baltic Film Festival.

CASE: Pétur Jónsson Interviewed

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Composer of the score for intense Icelandic drama Case talks about his working methods, commitment to storytelling, and what makes a great scene.

Pétur Jónsson’s soundtrack for Case is a haunting and absorbing recording underpinning a harrowing screen drama. Contemplative and moody cues unfurl and follow the gradual reveal of the series.
Standing alone from the show, a soundtrack album released by Anthemico Records is a satisfyingly dramatic listen filled with dark ambience and chillingly effective flits from melancholy to brooding tension. The subtle and potent soundscape paints a mood picture that matches the series’ tone and works on its own as an arresting album.
Composer Pétur Jónsson studied filmmaking in Italy and returned to Iceland where he set up his own production company and directed hundreds of commercials. He has studied music since the age of 10 and was playing professionally in bands at 17. Returning to his creative roots, he set up the music production company Medialux and now composes music for TV series, film trailers, and commercials.
Pétur Jónsson’s recording studio is situated in the old fish-packing district of Reykjavik. An impressive array of vintage guitars hang on the wall and a ZX Spectrum sits on top of a valve amplifier. A remarkable selection of cutting-edge studio technology that would make audio nerds tremble with excitement is housed in the studio. From his studio window, Pétur is able to gaze upon the beauty of Reykjavik’s coastline.
In this hub of sonic creativity Pétur talked about writing the soundtrack for Case, contributions composers make to the art of storytelling, and how he has reminded the industry of a long-forgotten approach to scoring drama.

*Spoiler warning*

Normally composers are employed quite late in the production process. From a producer’s perspective, music is usually an afterthought. With you, it was the reverse. You were one of the first to be engaged in this production? You composed your score before a single scene had been shot. Is this how you always work?

‘I haven’t been doing soundtracks for a very long time because I was a filmmaker. This comes from me being a filmmaker as well, I think that music should be an integral part of the storytelling of the weave of the series from the beginning. I wasn’t the first one to do it here because Ólafur Arnalds had done it before with Baldvin on Life in a Fishbowl. I saw an interview with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross because of their Oscar-winning soundtrack for The Social Network. They described their method of working. They would get a script and compose lots and lots of music and hand it over to the production. At the end of the day when they finished everything, they had already composed maybe 70 or 80 per-cent of the soundtrack. This helps everyone during the process. I know as a filmmaker that working on the music that you are going to be using, instead of using temp music and then giving it to a composer… We have this problem in soundtracking which is that the demo of the temp music that the director or the producer start really loving and you have to do a version of that to make the edit work. That’s not always what you in mind for that scene or it doesn’t relate properly to the sound world you had imagined for the score. I know this because I’ve been doing advertising music for so long. Usually what happens there is somebody comes in, “we want the feeling of this song but it can’t be that song”, so you have to compose something. It’s a tiresome approach. We’re emotion builders. That’s what we do. The emotion if you read it from the script correctly and of course I worked with closely Baldvin right at the start… The story is that he comes to me and says “I have this great script and I want you to write music for the series.” I hadn’t been doing a lot of soundtrack work but we had talked about it. I was going to move into it. What we wound up doing is I composed a five-minute piece that contained lots of emotions that I knew were going to be relevant to what we were going to be doing in the series. A five-minute thing that included a lot of stuff that we would later use for a presentation for the producers. He would make a mood board with images and how he would shoot it and then they would play the music to it and everybody was just sold on that mood. We got a green light to start work.’

‘For me, the philosophical or work side of this is very important. Everybody pays lip service to how important music is to film but when it comes to having the time to doing it properly or the budget, and so on, it’s usually, like you say, an afterthought. You’re rushed because everything else is running late so you have limited time to give to the series. I just felt that this was the wrong way, at least for me, to work and apart from wanting to be one of the guys helping out telling the story. Music is a great part of the storytelling in any good film.’

‘It played out really well because what happened is Baldvin would have cues that he would let the actors listen to on set before they were shooting the scene. They were setting the mood for what it is going to be and then they shoot that scene. They edit the scene on the music. Everything just fits. It saves a lot of trouble. I would compose scenes for the main characters. I have a distinguished theme for every one of them and then I mix them together. We played a little game as well, if you see the lawyer he has a very specific sound. He has a deep piano. That is his thing. We would incorporate that in scenes where you didn’t know who did it. We would plant it there, of course, more for ourselves than the listener. I doubt there are many people who would react to it. As part of the storytelling, you could think OK it might be him. It’s just one subliminal thing that might make you think he did something that he maybe didn’t do. We played a lot with these things. There is a structure of how we spot the whole thing, that it’s not just to spot the scene but also to play a little bit with this. This is another thing that I got inspired to do after I saw my friend Ólafur Arnalds do that on Broadchurch, the first series. We’re a little bit like this, if you see someone doing a smart thing you want to do it yourself.’

‘Instead of being stressful and demanding, before I went on vacation on that year when they shooting I had composed what wound up to be around eighty per cent of the soundtrack in big themes. Of course, it means there’s a lot of work spotting the episodes because you really have to make everything fit. We wrote new music to some cues. I was getting dailies and edited scenes every day. There were a couple of scenes where I looked at them and said OK, we have to do a specific cue for that and I would just write it and send it. They would have the time while shooting to say OK, this is a perfect fit or could we do a little more like this and so on. We could bounce these things between us while shooting and editing. The editor, who used to work with me when I was doing filmmaking, and the mixing engineer were all good friends so there’s an understanding there and a certain trust. I would actually send the editor stems of the music so he would have percussion on a separate track and so on. If a cue was too big or he didn’t need the percussion he would just mute that and I would get that back and if I agreed to it I would say that’s a good call. He had the liberty to play with the tracks. They loved editing on the score. It was very unusual for them as well. I suspect that anyone involved, including the production because they never had to wait a single moment for a cue or for music, it made total sense to everybody involved.’

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Might it be fair to say that with regards that your working methods on Case, you were painting with sound?

‘Yeah, it’s fair. We like to think of ourselves when we do soundtracks that we are just part of the story, part of painting the whole picture. A great scene is where everything really comes together and it becomes bigger than the sum of its parts. Working with Baldvin was great because when we work together there is no ego involved. It’s just two guys sitting down trying to make of the stuff we have in front of us. There were no fights. Actually, it was very nice. The spotting sessions were just like, “Oh that’s great, you did that” and so on and not because he didn’t know what he wanted. He knows exactly when he doesn’t like the thing and he will tell you. That’s exactly how it should work.’

The Icelandic film community is very small. Because everyone knows every everyone you’ve already got a strong relationship when the production process starts. You are already familiar with each person’s working methods, creative strengths and passions. Baldvin knew what you would bring to the project and you knew what he would bring to the project. As I said previously, music traditionally is an afterthought. Because you were brought in so early do you think that makes you a co-author along with the actors, director, writers and other creative professionals?

‘I don’t know if it feels like that. It goes to the storytelling thing. Author or not.., I haven’t thought of it exactly that way but I understand the question. At least you become a part of setting the mood and telling the story. I would hazard to say a rather important part of it and I think everybody agrees on that. We know when it’s not good, we know when it doesn’t fit, we see scenes that don’t work because of the music and some pass you by because they never made an emotional impact. I think, in a way, I’m one of the guys telling you the story, absolutely. I don’t know if that makes me an author. Part of the storytelling weave I would actually say, absolutely.’

It’s an emotional story. Your soundtrack enhances the emotion. It’s a contemplative, melancholy score. You don’t go into melodrama. You know when not to play a note.

‘This is very important thing for me, personally. If I give you a little background. Ten years ago I was directing commercials. I had my own film production company. I really, really felt that I wanted to go back into music so I started doing what I knew I could do which was making music for commercials because I knew everybody there so I just called them and said listen I’m not directing to be doing commercials for you anymore, I’m going to be doing music. The main objective was always long-term was always to make soundtracks because that’s what I’ve always had a huge passion for.’

‘I have the utmost respect for composers who have exactly that ability to not stuff music everywhere, especially where it’s not needed. We had a plan for the series that we would gradually increase the amount and volume of music as we went along. If you see a series that’s not really well done you’ll notice that people tend to just cram music in everywhere to tell people how they should be feeling. I really want to avoid that. I want to enhance the feel of the scene without telling you that now should suspect that this guy did something. That’s not what I consider… I can name you a great example and I don’t know how much this has been noticed but one of the first things I noticed when watching Breaking Bad was how extremely good they were at not having music where it wasn’t needed. You see two guys in the middle of the desert go out of their car and there is this huge scenery in front of them and the first thing you think is enter the big cue but it isn’t there and they start talking and it’s interesting and nobody is telling you what to feel about what they are saying so you have to get more involved, There is is nothing helping you along telling you how to feel. I don’t think that’s what we should be doing. We should be enhancing the mood of the scenes. This is very much my philosophy when it comes to scoring. Baldvin is good with that as well. This I knew because I was there when they were doing the soundtrack for Life in a Fishbowl. There’s a very emotional scene there which Ólafur wrote a great great cue to. It was absolutely beautiful and they both decided that the scene was better without it, that it was stronger and people would get more involved. It was completely the right decision. It’s killing your darlings, it’s throwing away stuff. There were scenes here where I had written music that I liked but the scene would actually be stronger without it and the whole thing of obviously working with the mixing engineer I just told him, “listen when we start there are all these people bringing bad news. Your daughter’s dead and so on. We don’t want the music to be noticed. It’s going to be there but we don’t want it to be noticed. It’s just a small minimal, almost subliminal thing. As we go on we’re going to write bigger cues we’re going to have louder cues and so on.” This worked. Baldvin has a very good sense of when music is needed and when it is not. We were actually in agreement when we threw away cues that I had written cues for certain scenes. There was no fight. This scene lives better without music or we would say, “the cue fits there but when you mix it, mix it so you almost can’t hear it and keep it there.”’

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You are prepared to sacrifice a piece of music if the work is enhanced…

‘Absolutely, absolutely. I think that’s the important thing. Having been in filmmaking myself for all these years, because, I bring that culture to the table as well, how we do something at the end of the day doesn’t matter. It’s always the final product that we release. So if we all work wholeheartedly at doing our best to make that product as good as we possibly can with all the limitations that people obviously have that’s the big goal. This also comes down to what I said before about ego, you should never bring it. You don’t bring that to the table. If you take a creative fight because you disagree with somebody bring good arguments for why you think it’s going to be better with the cue in because it’s going to make the scene better. If that’s not your argument you don’t have one. It’s all about the final product and the emotional impact it’s going to have on the audience.’

Did your time as a filmmaker give you a discipline that you now employ as a musician? Filmmaking is very expensive. Now you are aware of not wasting studio time..

‘Yes and No. What it gave to me and the culture I bring from there is that I used to edit a lot which is always helpful. So I know what’s going to please the editor and what’s going to make the edit work for him he’s going to need his rises in music. He’s going to need his endings and his fade outs so I know exactly what he needs to make the scene work. This is helpful when it comes to the money side and to the practical things of making stuff on a budget which this obviously was, it was not a big budget project, I just didn’t care. I took this on. This was my first drama series that I scored and I just wanted to do a good job. So if I spend more time, which I definitely did, because I don’t like rushing these things, there are days you sit in your studio and just nothing comes and that’s something we all have to face. We can do the technical stuff then and it’s great it’s a great time when you’re not feeling creative with nothing comes to you to sit down and do the technical things or spotting things and you know making stems and all that is perfect. No problem, but the actual writing comes to you and then you have to be ready and throw away whatever you’re doing, finish that to a place where happy that you left the emotion there and you can come back to it when you’re feeling a little bit more technical again. So I think having the time was the big luxury for me and I wouldn’t have done it any other way. If you look at great collaborations between composers and filmmakers, you will find that many of them have this luxury. You’ll find that Hans Zimmer works with Nolan for two years on a film and they work like this together. Another great duo that I admire, especially after having seen Arrival, is Jóhann Jóhannsson and Denis Villeneuve which I think are doing something really, really great together. I think it comes from this, there’s the luxury of writing bad cues which we’re all going to do. Doesn’t matter how good we think we are, we’re always going to do something that’s not good enough. To be able to have the luxury of writing and composing when you feel like it is something special and I think that it pays off. It really does. It was a strange process also because when I was doing the most dramatic stuff, like I told you earlier, I was working in the summer. Sun is out, people are having ice cream and there I am doing the most difficult of the cues. In the middle of everything, I was doing commercials as well, you know cues, because I can never stop completely. So I would go from a really dramatic cue to a happy jingle for an ad and that’s more difficult than it sounds like because I remember one Friday I came home I was just completely emotionally drained and I didn’t understand why. Then I started thinking about the week before where I’ve been doing all this stuff and I saw that I’ve been switching moods more abruptly than a normal person should be because that’s what it means getting involved. If you’re telling the story you have to.’

‘I did a lot of research on making some of the cues and how to make some of the stuff really uncomfortable and there’s this thing a producer said to me when I was eighteen and he said if you want to feel  the right beat for a song walk around the control room and step into the song. So I was walking around here trying to find BPMS that were uncomfortable, that I couldn’t step in. I would work with synthesisers and other instruments to find stuff discordant stuff that would make me feel uncomfortable and it worked so much that once I was finishing off one of the cues I found myself gritting my teeth while I’m mixing because there was an intensity there. I was just like, listen you have to calm down, you wrote this, back off and relax. There are very disturbing scenes in the series and I just wanted to make the music be as disturbing as what you see.’

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It’s disturbing. There’s restraint. The soundtrack is more internal. Walking down here listening to the album again I noticed that it works as a self-contained mood picture. Even without the story I was still experiencing the drama.

‘Well the thing is that all these layers of uncomfortable stuff they are really low and they are layers. I like working with layers and layers of stuff. On top of what I like doing, and I find that I like this in many other composers as well, you find a simple enough repetitive melody,  nothing you have to focus on. It’s just there and when it starts repeating you don’t have to give it any attention because it becomes familiar to you. You have the traditional arrangement with it but underneath there are layers upon layers of more or less disturbing stuff so you can listen to the cue and you can say it’s a pleasant melody is it but there’s something there that evokes or provokes emotion. These layers are where I put a lot of work in. If they are too high or too prominent then you fall into the trap of telling people how they should be feeling so they are on a level that you can barely hear them. Almost subliminal but they are certainly there, for example, I would take two notes on the synthesizer and I would just sign wave basically and I would pitch them away from each other and back again but they would never me. Now this for normal person that listens to music is extremely uncomfortable and you want things to align and to sound right but they never do. But then I would mix that really low but it’s there if I take it away everything becomes very plain.’

When people see the series and hear your soundtrack they’ll be surprised at how many instruments you are playing on it. It’s a very layered recording.

‘There’s lots of stuff going on. This is how I like to work and it’s not everybody’s way and it fit here. The thing I did directly after was a comedy series and that was a difficult switch of gears. I just did completely the opposite. I went really simple. No layers, just in your face. It inherits, in a way, the story which in Case is complicated. It’s multi-layered and I feel that the music should be that as well. It just felt right. Sometimes I philosophize about these things but sometimes I just sit down and do them because they feel right. There’s that aspect as well. Sometimes it’s easier to speak about them after you’ve done them but sometimes when you’re in the middle of things you just do them because they feel right.’

You mentioned going straight on to a comedy series and I noticed on the flight the onboard entertainment system was screening Ligeglad, a comedy series with your name in the credits. How easy or hard is it to suddenly switch gears and find a different voice to bring alive another show?

‘I’ll be completely honest with you, it was very difficult but not because of the mood change but because comedy is so hard to score. I think it’s probably one of the hardest things I’ve taken on. Not saying that it it’s easy to do the whole thing but it comes quite naturally. Solving score for a comedy is so difficult. Difficult because it has everything to do with the comedy timing of the thing. You have to just be on the spot with what’s happening and you can’t fake your way around it. You just have to be there. It just has to work. In a drama if a cue doesn’t work, isn’t great, it still sort of slides by but in comedy it’s a disaster and you are better off without anything.’

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Case is your first drama commission. Will we being seeing your name on more credits?

‘Yeah absolutely, there are already two series that are as good as confirmed. This has been quite a journey because from a young age I was doing music. From when I was ten I was studying music. I was playing bands professionally when I was seventeen and what happened is I went to see a film that changed my life and that film was Le Grande Bleu. Apart from just loving the score, I really wanted to become a filmmaker. I was already doing photography and so on. So I just knew this is the way to go. So I went and did the whole thing, went to film school in Italy came back and immediately started working on commercials which is where I wound up more by accident than anything else. It took me a while to figure out that what I actually liked and was the culmination of everything that I knew and wanted to do would be in soundtrack. This is sort of a revelation that came to me maybe five years ago that this is what I wanted to go but I didn’t want to do it unless I was working with right people and working on the right project. I said no to a couple of quite decent commissions because the scripts didn’t feel right to me, I’m fairly critical of that, or if the people weren’t somebody I could see myself having a beautiful working relationship with it because it’s kind of a marriage when you do these things. You really have to get along. I like to work with people that I like on a personal level. I tend to not work with people even if they’re creative geniuses if I can’t find a resonance, if I can’t find some common ground. This is Baldvin’s way of working as well. He really likes to use the same people. He wants to have relationships that are not too complex and not too difficult because it’s enough like he did that year he was doing his episode of Trapped. he was helming nine episodes of this on the back of the film, and preparing another one. You don’t want to have to work with difficult people in these very delicate and intimate moments that are putting music to edits and the whole editing process and everything. These are like open wounds when you’re doing this. To get somebody in walking in and criticizing stuff you haven’t finished doing that is not the final result. It’s not that we can’t hear stuff said about our.., I worked in advertising for twenty years, I’ve heard everything. I have a very strong shell but it’s an intimate process so you want it to be pleasant. You want to be with people that understand and respect you. I think it’s about both professional and personal respect. So this for me has always been very important especially when you take on a big project like this that’s very time-consuming. I just want to feel that I’m in sync with you people, not just another job where you get paid and you do the stuff that the client wants to do. I actually get more money for doing that in commercials and so when I pick these projects I go for this. This is important to me, the story that we have to tell, the people that are telling you. That’s that’s what I pick them for.’

You are quite fortune that you were able to get that working relationship. You wouldn’t get it if you were a musician for hire in Hollywood. As the Icelandic filmmaking community opens up more to the rest of the world, this is happening, right now, might it be harder to find directors with whom you can bond on a personal and creative level?

‘No, I don’t think so. Firstly, I don’t have a lot of problem bonding with people. I’m quite open and easy going. I find that very many of us have more things in common than you would suspect. Of course, different characters and all that but that’s not the thing, the thing is to focus on the quality of the stuff. You can feel if a person has a passion for a thing or if he’s doing it because he’s getting paid. I’d every day work with a guy who was a passion for it. That’s when you have that motivation. Even if it then doesn’t work because lots of creative work you start with the greatest intentions of all the passion in the world and the final product is perfect, isn’t great. I’m fine with that. I think in the filmmaking process, a film or a TV series is never going to get any better than its weakest link. There is no better way to describe that than with that old cliche. So it has to do with the people who are driven to find and weed out the weakest links and to work getting the best from everybody. Baldvin on set and as well as in post-production he’s all about making people comfortable so they can enhance and great things to his work which I find also having worked in his profession to be the right mindset for me. It doesn’t work for everybody. You will always find that somebody who walks in a set and wants people to be afraid of him because he’s the boss or controls. It doesn’t make sense to me because it’s always a collaboration. You are never going to do a TV series by yourself so get along with the people that you working with. Have the people skills to read people, you know what they want and what you can do and also what you can add to them to the thing. I find that when people have really strong ideas about they want what they want from actors and music they don’t allow happy accidents. Happy accidents are the best part of filmmaking. They are so undervalued. If you draw everything up, tell the composer exactly how you want to cue, give him a reference this is how to sound like and the editor is going to work on this cue by Hans Zimmer so you have to do that kind of thing there is no space for people to shine on the final product. Baldvin is a very smart young man and knows that if he gets people to do this the one who is going to look good is him. This is very important. He’s going to get the credit for people doing something unexpected that makes all of all of a sudden makes his stuff a lot better. This is the way to go as well, to be able to experiment which takes time and effort and focus and say no that didn’t work let’s try something else and he’s really up for it. I’ll name you an example, we didn’t know what we were going to do about a theme song because there is no intro opening so I come back from a very difficult funeral, quite distraught actually, I sit down and I write a piece of music and it’s really, really sad because that’s how I was feeling and I get this idea that OK what if instead of going out with a bang like all these series  and do the classical thing, we would actually write a funeral song for Lara because at the end of the day the whole thing about the series starts with her death. I wrote that song or finished producing it. Got Sigríður to sing it as well and I just proposed it. Said “does it feel right to you?” He was just like, “that’s great.” What he didn’t tell me was that he would actually write it into the script. Here’s another thing, the girl who sings an acapella version of that in Lara’s funeral, that would have never happened if we weren’t doing the score before the shooting. It would have never happened. So instead of that being an afterthought he integrated into the story.’

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Watching the series and listening to the soundtrack I wondered if that end theme had deliberately been composed to be used in that episode. You’ve just explained that it was happy accident.

‘Absolutely. I just felt that it would actually be something a little bit different from the standard way you know you end on a happy or exciting note, quite rhythmic and the end titles and so on. People stand up go to the toilet or whatever. Instead, I wanted to do something really, really beautiful that would just be a funeral Psalm for Lara. I didn’t know if they were going to buy it at all as a thing. Took him one listen to say “this is great, this is the end song, great, that’s it.”’

The series is now on Netflix in the US and several other territories. It’s coming to the UK in 2017. When articles start appearing in newspapers and magazines and people find learn about your working methods do you anticipate that you may influence other European shows? They may start working this way.

‘Oh, I hope so. It’s not an original idea but I really would like to preach this as much as possible. If music is that important as the producer will obviously that say it is then why not give the respect of being part of the storytelling. I think is very important and I preach this to everybody. If you have the luxury of being able to hire a composer from day one that can actually bring his attention to your work at that stage because that wasn’t a given either. On the projects that I’m working on now this is my demand. Bring me in from the beginning because I think I can do a better job. It’s not like I’m charging extra for it. It’s just a way of me being able to do this both with other work so I don’t sit down in a hat with a quill and start writing music for three weeks and then come and panic and do the string sessions. I do this as we move along. The fact that it’s right for me doesn’t mean it’s right for everybody. Some of the greatest composers you could ever think of they don’t work like this. They come in and they write the score to an edit and then they go on record that score and out comes a beautiful score that works. It’s not right for everybody but the possibility of it being right I think is quite big. I learned from my years in filmmaking to have a huge respect for the editing process where it all comes to life and where it all starts working or not working. Giving those people real stuff to work with.., If you would propose to an editor we’re going to do a fight scene but just use fight material from other films and make it all work and then we’ll just insert the right material he would tell you you’re crazy but basically you’re asking an editor to do that with music. Use somebody else’s music, use somebody else’s mood instead of having to something that’s bespoke for the scene he’s working. I think there’s a huge difference.’

The way you are working is the way TV used to work. The industry has just forgotten. When drama was live the soundtrack was composed before the rehearsals started. Actors would rehearse to it and they’d learn the scene timings by the score. You are bringing that back.

‘I’d be happy to bring that back. Just to be honest, as this was my first drama series. I didn’t have full confidence so time would help me. I would actually sit down and make a cue and make it work and I would feel OK this can be done. What happens is well for the production side, they get cues sent in and they have the luxury then of saying we don’t like the direction this is taking. Doing it in the last minutes of post-production when you’re on a deadline and delivering, I know too many examples of producers saying “it’s too late to fix it. We have to ship it like this.” Why should they have to? They don’t have to is the answer. They can hire the composer early on. They can feel the direction of the thing all the time while they’re editing. They can make adjustments to mood and  everything and that’s quite an important thing. I think it’s just like you said, it became this way of working and this is how it’s done and this is how we tell new producers stuff is done but does it have to be like that? I don’t think so.’

Composers I know have given me horror stories of producers telling them that here is your dubbing day, you’ve X amount of hours and that’s all the time you’ve got.

‘Your three-hour union session.’

By re-introducing this working method you’ve maintained the integrity of the project. You’ve been able to make adjustments where needed. So what is your proudest moments with regards composing the soundtrack for Case?

‘Ah, good question. I don’t know really. There are scenes that I felt I was really happy about seeing together with my music. I think one of the cues that I like the most is the bathtub cue. There’s a young girl in the bathtub. I did something I’ve never done before , slowing down and pitch- bending an upright piano which is not usually the thing you do. That scene just popped up on the server and I read it and I just felt that as a standalone thing it just worked and then was a part of the whole thing it worked really well for me. Other than that it’s just, to be honest. it’s work for us until we get other people’s reaction on what we do. There are ,of course, always moments where you feel that OK, this felt right and then there are, of course, the more nagging moments where you feel I should have done this differently or should have less of that and less of the other. That’s never going to stop. That’s what we every creative person takes with them. If you look at something you did four years ago the first thing  you can say is that I should have done this differently which is a curse and a blessing because it moves us on our way to being better at what we do. There are times when you can sit down and say OK this was good. This actually works.’

Thanks to Pétur Jónsson, Medialux Music Productions, and Anthemico Records.

Pétur Jónsson’s soundtrack is available to buy from Amazon.

Here’s a selection of tracks from the soundtrack: