On Friday 20th October, the Cambridge Film Festival screened Iceland’s new major horror film: RIFT (Rökkur). In a frozen remote wasteland, a pair of ex-lovers are haunted by something sinister as they stay in the remote cabin and reflect on their past, but not everything as is it first appears. Following on from the success of his first feature length film, THE CHILD EATER, and various shorts, Erlingur Thoroddsen has created an elegant and haunting thriller that keeps the audience hanging onto every moment. He sits down with us after the screening to take questions from the audience.
Erlingur Thoroddsen: So the film has not been in released in Iceland just yet, the premiere is next week. But it’s been shown at a variety of wonderful festivals around the world including the Göteborg International Film Festival and Outfest. The award included the soundtrack for the film, which was composed by Einar Tryggvason who has worked with me on multiple films before. This meant he had a lot of freedom on the film. I gave him some ideas of what I wanted, but about 80% of it was original from him just composing and trying things out. That was a big aspect of the film, having minimal cast and crew and working with people I know which meant it ran smoothly.
CFF: Many critics have compared RIFT to the works of M.R. James, although you’re not familiar with his work. What were your actual influences?
ET: My influences behind RIFT were films like DON’T LOOK NOW, PERSONA and THE WEEKEND. I used different elements of them to reflect how I wanted my piece to go. It’s the whole naturalistic side of it, I wanted it to flow. I had wanted it to take place in winter, but when it came to shooting there had been a lot of rain and the snow had melted away, and it didn’t start snowing again until we had left. But it turned in our favour – gives it a different kind of flavour. I was quite stressed about it at first but I am happy now about how it turned out. It was shot in 16 days, it was a tight shift but felt right and we didn’t need lots of fancy effects. I wanted the place to speak for itself.
CFF: Did you base any of it on Icelandic folklore or stories?
ET: I wouldn’t say so, or at least not strictly Icelandic. Being one of the barren countries that has a lot of tales and warnings of things like hitchhikers and bad things happen, that’s where some of it came from. It’s the mystery behind the lone traveller, and the vast unknown. It does happen a lot here with tourists, and the common theme of that in the film and it happening in the country is similar. It’s definitely a superstition or wariness.
CFF: In a lot of the scenes, the house is quite open including the windows and curtains, is that a normal thing in Iceland?
ET: [chuckles] Well yes, fairly. Many people sleep with the windows and curtains open, so it just seemed normal to include it in the film. That makes it more sinister, I guess. It’s like you hear banging on windows and doors in the night and you immediately think, “what do they want?” It’s a very remote house on an empty road. But it’s quite familiar to me.
CFF: Did anything in the film happen to you?
ET: Yes, some of it. I used my own stories of the place. So in the distance of the film you can see the peninsula of one of the island’s volcanoes. It’s a family location, the abandoned building used in the film used to be lived in by my family before it became derelict obviously! We needed a remote location and it just all made sense really, felt appropriate. So I have vague memories of being lost as a child, it was an older friend I think who left me there as a joke, and I had to wait for my mother to come and rescue me. You do pray people would come and look for you. And I was always so creeped out by the idea of an invisible friend talking to you and playing with you.
CFF: How do you think the film comes across to an international audience?
ET: [laughs] I don’t know, you’d have to tell me that! I mean I hope it does well of course. The translation is different though. “Rökkur” translates closer to “twilight”, the balance of light and dark in the film, but it’s obvious why I didn’t call it that! But it is dusk-like in a sense still. Maybe it might play better at home, I don’t know until next week really.
CFF: So finally, how did the casting process come about?
ET: I had just come out of a relationship and lost a big job, basically at the same time. So I was forced to move back. I’ve been living in New York, I had gone to school in New York and I was forced to go back to Iceland to live with my parents for a few months. And I was feeling very, very sorry for myself, I was quite depressed. I then had this moment, where I knew I had to make something out of this, pull myself out or just sit here.
CFF: It’s just like song writing, really? You need it to pull through.
ET: Yes exactly! All the best songs are like that, the heartbreak songs. So I thought what if I make a movie to get myself out of this. I was trying to think what could I do with two actors and one location? This is how the thought process started. If it’s two people, what if I do it about a break up? It kind of became my therapy session, all the things I had on my mind I just needed to get down on paper, and make it into a story. I was trying to think, if I had people do this with me, they need to be friends – people I can convince to do this for free! I didn’t have any money to do anything. I started to talk to friends who were actors, and they were just not interested and didn’t want to do this favour for two weeks of our lives for free! They gave suggestions of people they knew, so I started to look into theatre. I found these two pre-accomplished theatre actors, and I didn’t know them personally but I knew of them and who they were. Through the connections I had, I sent them the script and asked if they wanted to work on this and are you interested. They had both been typecast in these weird roles in theatre, so the guy who plays Gunnar usually plays a rough guy or drug dealer – a scary type. And the guy who plays Einar has to play the 12 year old, like the boy in a show! So they were both searching roles to remove themselves from these typecasts. When they read the script, they hadn’t been offered anything like this before so it just felt right to them. I was lucky to get them at the time!
Photographs copyright Dave Riley 2017