Writer-director Benedikt Erlingsson’s startling “Of Horses and Men” was Iceland’s official 2014 Oscar submission.
Erlungsson’s wry dramedy, set in an isolated smallholder community in rural Iceland, is the most original first film by an actor (“The Boss Of It All’) turned director since George Clooney’s bold “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.”
Erlingsson’s harsh comedy is a rich mix of lusty wit, bone-dry humor, and rural dispatch. Passionate but without a scrap of sentimentality, it’s a horse story like no other, a paean to Iceland’s pure strain of horses. These famous pony-sized horses, developed from ponies brought to Iceland by Scandinavian settlers in the 9th and 10th centuries figure in Iceland’s earliest records. The hardy double-coated breed, bred to carry the Vikings, is used for farm work, leisure, showing, and racing. They are the only breed allowed in Iceland; exported animals are not allowed to return. The Icelandic displays two gaits in addition to the typical walk, trot, and canter/gallop commonly to other breeds: the four-beat ground-covering tölt, known for its explosive acceleration and speed, and the high stepping skeið, flugskeið or “flying pace”. Some horses are able to reach up to 30 miles per hour. Not all Icelandic horses can perform this gait; animals that perform both the tölt and the flying pace are considered the best of the breed. (From a review for Cinema Without Borders by Robin Menken)
Bijan Tehrani: My first question is, how did you come up with the story of this film?
Benedikt Erlingsson: Well, we could say that this film was beamed to me! In Star Trek, you beam people between planets and, in a way, it is an old idea and I guess the inspiration has come from my own experience. I am just a city child and when I was twelve years old, I was sent to the country to work on a farm. There, I just met these people in this community and I became very fascinated by the horse and the relationship. The horses are like family members and, in a way maybe this film was a shock for me and it was a therapeutic process to heal myself of this experience. The film has grown and taken many shapes, but it was inspired by my experience.
BT: What is interesting is that this is a story that is close to your heart, it is not a made up story. It is a personal experience and it touches the audience regardless of their background. You have given such character to the horses, they almost have the same essence as the human characters in the film; how did you manage to do that?
BE: Well, the horses are characters and they do have personalities. The horse is an animal that is similar to man in many senses; they are social animals and they are loving animals. They need love and they are very unique. I don’t think I have created them, I have just released them and shown them—so I guess you can say it is about casting, in a way (laughter): I casted the right horses. They are all so different, so the casting was a very important task. It took me more time to find the right horses than it did to find the right actors. I had ideas for the character of the horse and the color of the horse: they needed to have the right temperament and I needed to show them on screen. Human beings are more interested in human beings, and horses are interested in other horses. So you can direct a horse and you can have a camera, but behind the camera there needs to be another horse that he has a relationship with. You can use the other horse to help direct the horse that is on camera. My editor wanted to focus on the face of the humans, but to put the focus on the face of the horse and get the reaction of the horses was the mission because they are sensitive and they do have emotions. When you live in the country, you start to notice the reactions of the horse, and I just wanted to show that.
BT: How did you go about casting the film?
BE: The main actor is a friend of mine and a very good performer. I need to have a high status actor with charisma, and with the main actress I needed someone that was Queen-like—someone that had the same charisma and was a high status woman in a way. I auditioned a lot of them, but I had to choose the best Queen, so I chose my wife! All of the other actors are professional actors in Iceland, and also horsemen. I did not want to question their ability in horsemanship, so we just got people that had some experiences with horses, which is not hard to find in Iceland because in Iceland, to have horses is not uncommon among actors. It is the common man’s sport, as you don’t have to be an aristocrat to have a horse.
BT: In the world that we are living in now, there is still a realm that is beyond computers and cell phones: it is almost unbelievable that people can still live in nature like that, and we can see that in the film. Is that community still alive in the way that we see it in the film?
BE: Yes, this is very realistic in a way. Nowadays everyone rides with a helmet, but back in the day no one wore helmets, so I made this film based in that period. People in Iceland in the country side still live life in a fairly simple manner. There is a documentary called “Herd in Iceland” that deals with horses there, and it really proved that this is real.
BT: How did you come up with the visual style of the film?
BE: I wanted to create a poem of pictures, and when you are dealing with animals’ relationship with man, or man as an animal, it heightens everything. In a way, I realized I had to make top loafs out of it—it had to outstanding pictures, and of course the beautiful landscape helped me greatly. There is also a concept in the color painting that I wanted to do: what we call American cultivating. I wanted to be more realistic about the colors. It is like in the 80’s or 90s when Kodak had the phrase “Golden Moments’, and in our film they have a hint of yellow.
BT: I felt like this film was like watching John Ford films again! I was surprised that your film was not nominated for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.
BE: We are a small nation with limited money, and our film fund is very small. You have to have massive power if you are going to make it ahead in the foreign film market. The Oscars are like American Football, but it is understandable that it did not get nominated in that sense.