Let’s be real; most supposed documentaries about the making of a film are little more than an advertisement for the film in question. There have been the exceptions of course, but the majority have been more along the lines of infomercials than anything else.
Think about any of the “making of” featurettes that are included as part of nine out ten DVD packages these days, and what, if any, information they, actually give out about the process of making the movie. Oh sure, they’ll tell you all about how ingenious the special effects were, and you can count on a couple of “on set” interviews with actors in costume and makeup talking about how great everybody is, but what have you actually learnt about the story behind making the movie?
If you’re actually going to document the making of a movie, you can’t just pop onto the set for a day or two and do a few set pieces with actors and crew – you need to be able to stick your camera into every nook and cranny of the filmmaking process. Yet even all the access in the world won’t give you an interesting movie without there being a story beyond filming the filming. Having sat for hours on end waiting to appear on camera for two minutes, I know from personal experience how boring modern movie-making can be.
When film maker Jon Gustafsson was cast by Sturla Gunnarsson to play an anonymous member of Beowulf’s team of soldiers in the Canadian/Icelandic/British production of Beowulf & Grendel, he brought his camera along to make a record of the events. However, I seriously doubt he could have known in advance that he would have ended up with Wrath Of Gods.
Knowing that shooting was going to be entirely on location in Iceland, he would have known that he would have spectacular vistas to use as backdrops for whatever footage he took. But there is no way he could have known that making Beowulf & Grendel would turn into a quest so fraught with difficulties and dangers that it would demand its cast and crew have the fortitude of Norse heroes to complete the picture.
Director Sturla Gunnarsson’s original idea was to take advantage of the extended daylight hours of an Icelandic summer to ensure as short as shooting schedule as possible. But almost from the moment they arrived in Iceland things were thrown into chaos. The production manager who had drawn up their initial budget had never worked in Iceland, and had badly underestimated the costs involved with working in the most expensive country in Europe. Compounding the problem was that the Icelandic kroner decided to shoot through the roof and rose 20% in value against the dollar. The movie was over budget without a frame of film being shot, and without its financing in place.
Without money they couldn’t begin shooting, each day they delayed shooting they went more over budget, the more over budget they went the harder it became to convince the people putting up the money to sign the contracts guaranteeing the financing for the film, and without the guarantees there was no money to begin shooting. It came so close to the wire that there was one week where if the money didn’t come through, they wouldn’t be able to pay the crew and they would lose the movie.
Yet even when the money came through it only meant they had a new set of problems to deal with. It delayed the start of shooting until the end of August and they were into autumn, losing six minutes of daylight every day. That may not sound like much, but over a proposed forty-five day shoot it meant that by the final week they would have four hours less daylight each day to work with.
Shooting in the fall also meant that instead of balmy summer conditions they would be dealing with the unpredictable weather of the high arctic as winter approached. You can plan for rain, and cold to a certain extent, you can even make contingencies in case of snow; but what do you do about winds of over 150 kilometres an hour? One morning in the first week of shooting the cast and crew woke up to find that their entire base camp had blown away.
You can’t plan for the fact that Iceland would experience its worst fall weather in sixty years. There’s nothing you can do but shoot when you’re able to, and if it gets too dangerous, hunker down and ride it out as best you can. Of course the more delays that occurred because of weather, the more you increased the risk of the weather worsening as you got closer to winter. Each day of lost shooting to the weather also cost money, and made an already precarious financial situation worse.
The British investors were refusing to release all the money at once, making every week a potential cash flow crisis where the possibility existed that the crew wouldn’t get paid. So, on top of having to deal with horrific weather conditions, forcing them to try and film with winds blowing so hard that rain was falling horizontally, people never knew whether or not they would be paid that week.
What’s truly remarkable about Wrath Of God is we are privy to all of the details of the financial problems as they occur on set. Gustafsson’s camera is everywhere, seeing and recording everything — from the devastation of the base camp, crew members getting stuck in mud up to their ankles, discussions about whether or not it’s safe to continue shooting one day because the winds are still over a hundred kilometres per hour, and the threat of half the crew leaving because they haven’t been paid.
Yet there were only two times that he was asked to stop filming – once at the very beginning when it was touch and go whether they would even make the film and they didn’t want the investors to know what horrible shape they were in (according to the director, Sturla, the movie business is all about lying), and in the last week of filming when the crew hadn’t been paid and a producer gathered everybody together, cast and crew, to explain the situation. But even then, another producer took Gustafsson aside, and on camera, told him exactly what was going on.
Reading this, you must be wondering how in hell did Beowulf & Grendel ever get made? Well Sarah Polley said it was “sheer demented ambition” on the part of the filmmakers, but they couldn’t have done it alone. To persevere in spite of those conditions and make a film as remarkable as Beowulf & Grendel meant that all those involved had to be infected with that same dementia. Looking at the faces of the men and the women involved in the project you see anger, frustration, but most of all, the kind of fierce exhilaration that only comes from the knowledge that you’re involved in something incredible.
The day before principle shooting started, Sturla Gunnasson called upon the film’s composer, Hilmar Om Hilmarsson, to lead a ritual guaranteeing the success of the film. For aside from being a skilled musician Hilmar is also the head of the old Norse religion in Iceland. Halfway through the filming, considering what they were going through, people began wondering whether or not he had called down a curse upon the film instead of a blessing. When the winds devastated the camp site, Sturla merely smiled, and with a gleam in his eye, shrugged his shoulders and said, “Odin had a party last night and broke up the house”
If the cast and crew hadn’t been believers in the Gods of Iceland before they started making this film, they probably are now. But it’s interesting to think that while they were beset by the wrath of the Gods during the making of the movie, the result is one of the most powerful enactment of Beowulf that you are bound to see anywhere and anytime. As the Wrath Of Gods shows, when you appeal to the Gods for success you have to be careful what you ask for – they may give you what you want, but you’re sure going to have to work to achieve it.
Wrath Of Gods is the story of the quest undertaken by a group of men and women to create the movie Beowulf & Grendel. Not only does director Jon Gustafsson manage to reveal details about filmmaking that very few people outside the business would ever see, he captured the spirit of fierce determination and pride that defined the effort that making this movie required.
In addition to the feature presentation, the DVD includes bonus material (no, not a making of featurette). Of special note is an hour long interview with the star of Beowulf & Grendel, Gerard Butler. It was recorded after a day’s shooting at 2:45 in the morning, with him still in makeup and costume. You can tell he’s physically exhausted, but there’s a light in his eyes that speaks volumes about what the movie means to him. It’s a truly remarkable interview, and belays any doubts you might have about the commitment of all who were involved with the movie.