Fans of cult TV series The Night Shift received an early Christmas present when director and co-writer Ragnar Bragason made a surprise appearance at the literary festival Iceland Noir.
One of the most prolific directors currently working in his home country’s film industry. Recipient of thirty two awards from The Icelandic Film and Television Academy. During the course of his fifteen year career he has worked in film, television, and theatre. His most recent movie Metalhead premièred at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Generously agreeing to spend a Saturday afternoon having lunch with fans, he fielded questions about The Night Shift with warmth and good humour. After the meal was over and our fellow diners drifted away to catch a panel in the main hall he spoke to Euro But Not Trash about the series, his early career, and future projects.
In this first part he speaks of starting in the industry and early influences.
Born in Reykjavik, Ragnar grew up in the fishing village Súðavik. His first experience of cinema was watching films in a tiny hall on Saturday mornings. Decades later a touring festival would screen his film Metalhead in the very same makeshift cinema that had ignited a lifelong passion for the moving image and set him on the path to directing the most successful Icelandic film in history.
“I started making shorts in college with friends. I never went to formal film school. I just started making music videos for local bands and some TV shows. Did some pilots that the TV stations bought. Documentary stuff. It wasn’t until 1999 that I did my first feature film called Fiasco. Trial and error. One thing led to another.” he says.
Iceland’s population is smaller than most UK cities making it easier for an aspiring filmmaker to recruit volunteers willing to join the crew or be extras.
“One of the positive things about living in Iceland is that almost everything is within reach so if you want to do something you can get to people to help you to do it. We don’t have that kind of big regulation and rule thing.”
Iceland’s home-grown film and TV industry may be small but it has had several notable successes on the international arena including Jar City and Noi the Albino. In recent years the country has provided locations for Game of Thrones, Interstellar, and Thor: The Dark World.
When Ragnar began his career opportunities for exporting Icelandic films and TV series to English speaking territories were limited. Aside from festival screenings, the marketplace had yet to take notice of the routinely high quality product coming out of Nordic territories. We asked him how difficult it was to get a meeting with network executives.
“For a young filmmaker it’s quite easy to get a meeting with the programme managers at TV stations. When I started, all my first stuff was shown on Channel 2 which was the new station. The first privately owned station. National broadcasting was kind of a dinosaur in those days.”
In comparison to the UK and USA, television is a relatively young medium in Iceland. The first state owned station commenced transmissions in 1966 and had a monopoly of the airwaves up to 1986 when a privately owned network was granted a broadcast licence.
This new station was producing programmes for a younger audience. It was the natural home for Ragnor’s music videos and documentaries.
“In those days they screened it as a filler between programmes. So if you made a video it usually got screened on national TV. It was good to get the exposure. Fairly quickly people know your name, who you are, and what you’ve done.”
“We don’t have this structure you have in the UK where you have to work your way up. We don’t have that in Iceland. I’ve never from day one in ’94, done anything else besides directing or writing. I’ve never worked on a production as something else. I just started making my stuff and kept on doing it. Most people do it that way. Of course there are exceptions but if you decide to become a director you just become one, Everything is within reach. If you have a minimum amount of talent and some determination you can make stuff.”
“Most of my friends that are directors or writers, a lot of them went to film school which is the proper way to do things. That’s what you do, you go away and study abroad. We didn’t have film school in Iceland then. We don’t have a proper university degree film school today, we just have this college based thing.”
We asked Ragnor if not attending film school was beneficial to his career. Did he feel he had found a cinematic voice that might otherwise have been quashed by exposure to rules laid down by lecturers?
“Some people have strong enough vision of things and can withstand the pressure of film school and things imposed. My film school was one VHS rental store in downtown Reykjavik. They had obscure and international stuff. I went there everyday for a few years and got VHS tapes to watch.”
“I saw the early works of John Cassavetes. That had a had a huge impact on me. I think my biggest influence is Mike Leigh. When I saw Naked I got everything I could find that he had made. He was, for me, really intriguing because he was focusing on normal people in normal everyday life.”
In the next part of this interview Ragnor talks about creating cult smash The Night Shift, revealing how the series was cast and pitched to the network.
The Night Shift can be ordered from Shop Icelandic: