Valdimar Jóhannsson makes his assured directorial debut with LAMB. This Icelandic folklore-adjacent style story tells of married farmers Maria (Noomi Rapace) and Ingvar (Hilmir Snær Guðnason), who discover a mysterious blessing has been bestowed upon them: a faun-like newborn they name Ada. Their remote livelihood and plot of land allows them the luxury of raising their precious lamb-child in peace and prosperity, at least until threats begin to emerge. Part horror, part touching parental drama, this is an artistic work of genius you won’t soon forget.
At the film’s recent press day, I spoke with the director about what went into making his movie, everything from how he used mood boards and sound design to achieve specific emotional tones to how the actors created their on-screen family.
This very much feels like it’s based on folklore. I’m curious where this story originated and what made you want to tell it?
“I wanted to make a film. I had a draft book where I was collecting paintings and photos to create a mood I wanted to work in. Then I was also doing drawings and Ada came from there. She was almost the first thing that came up. My grandparents were seed farmers so I also knew I wanted to have a couple that were seed farmers. I didn’t know much more.
Then Sjón, who wrote the script with me, is one of my favorite writers. My producers introduced me to Sjón. I met him and showed him this book. What I know from his work is that he uses a lot of mythical stories and Icelandic folktales in his novels. After this meeting, we started meeting once a week. I think it started in 2009.”
I’d imagine there was a lot of thought behind what Ada was going to look like – like a mythical faun – and the pacing at which she’d be revealed since that too is very well thought out.
“Thank you so much. I also think it’s right where we give it up. I’ve also met people who think it’s too long. I think it wouldn’t work if it would be shorter somehow. You can also get the idea that there’s something crazy going on in their minds. I think it’s nice to have it so long.”
Did you use a real toddler actor as a stand in for the movements and for the adult actors to respond?
“We worked with children and lambs and puppets. And then we had an amazing team that put Ada together. For the actors, they felt Ada. They were not playing against some stand or ball. It was real.”
The herd of real sheep in the barn have such expressive faces. How did you get these shots from them? What was it like working with them?
“You just say something funny [laughs]. They were so curious. [To get their attention] You just have to do something that’s interesting [laughs]. Maybe we also used a sheep candy. So when you have it, we had to give it to them after the take.”
A bribery treat.
“What was interesting is, we learn through the film, people they read animals. They always give them human feelings. I think that was good for us because you start doing it with the actors. We didn’t give the actors so much dialogue so you do it with Maria and Ingvar.”
One of the many things I loved about this film is your use of sound design and elongated moments without dialogue. I was curious how you decided on where to best utilize this in order to create atmosphere and story.
“For me, sound is probably 50% of the film. It’s important to create the mood. We spent a lot of time working on sound. Even in the beginning, I thought I would not need score and I was totally sure. But then when we started editing the film, I realized I was wrong. We needed to add at least a little bit of it.
I was very lucky to have worked with Þórarinn Guðnason. He’s the brother of Hildur Guðnadóttir, who did JOKER. He had been working with her and Johan Johansson. But, for the sound, we went to a super nice studio with a big cinema screen and it was so good. When you watch it on a big screen, you start to see so many details. It was so important to put sound to all the small details.”
Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but there are a lot of shots that use windows or doorways – frames within frames. Is there a symbolism to this?
“It could be. In Iceland, in the Summertime, it’s totally bright over the night. For me, it can be super scary when you can see everything. Sometimes it’s more scary than if you don’t see it. I was always looking for a location where you could shoot out of every window. You are so [exposed] – everybody can see you from outside.”
Was finding the right location a challenge?
“Yes. I made a storyboard after the first draft and I knew exactly how the farm should be. I did a lot of drawing of it. I even made it out of clay. I drove around Iceland two times. I was showing farmers photos of my model. But I think this farm didn’t exist. In the end, my brother found this one and I really liked the nature around it. Nobody had lived there for like 20 years. So we could make the home for Maria and Ingvar the way we wanted. It was very nice working there. There was nothing around it and the layout of the farm was also so interesting.”
What was the process casting this? Was there much of a rehearsal period with the actors? Everything felt so lived in, but that’s also a testament to the actors.
“They are amazing actors. We didn’t have time [to rehearse]. Noomi was so busy. She came to Iceland a little bit before we started shooting – maybe a week, or four days, or something. And we just talked about the scenes. It was almost no rehearsals with the actors. I was in a very good relationship with all the actors. We were always talking through the scenes and I think that was good. They also helped me out so much since this is my first feature. They were so helpful. I really appreciate how helpful they were.”
What did you learn about yourself making your directorial debut?
“I learned so many things. You should always be true to yourself and follow your vision. If you get the opportunity to make a film, you have to be true to yourself because you never know if you’ll get another chance.”