Icelandic Director Baltasar Kormákur Is Spending Quarantine Thinking About Volcanoes

The 101 Reykjavík and Everest filmmaker sees the coronavirus as another force of planet Earth: “It’s intelligent. That’s the scariest thing. It has a way of surviving.” Photo: Baltasar Breki Samper

Things are calm in Iceland right now. Only 20 people maximum are allowed to come together. Gyms and swimming pools have been closed. No music, no entertainment. Cinemas closed a few days ago. Restaurants are not closed, but people just have to keep a distance. The situation is slowly escalating, but it’s not like New York or anything like that; it seems that our health system is in good shape and able to take care of it. Hospitals are not overflowing. I think they’ve managed to flatten the curve pretty well. We’re a small community; it’s easy to get a message out to everyone, so the reaction was quick. We’re an island, and we have one border. A lot of this was coming from skiing resorts in Europe. The problem is we all travel, so there was a lot of virus coming early on, but they could trace and control most of it.

When the first numbers were coming out here, we were higher than all the Scandinavian nations, and everyone was asking why that was. But I think it’s because we were actually tracking them and testing them — finding the possible people and putting them in quarantine. They were ahead of the curve. More than 50 percent of people with the coronavirus are already in quarantine. Now, in a matter of weeks, in Scandinavia, other countries are tenfold or even one-hundredfold our numbers, while we have stayed steady.

Also, in Iceland, we’re used to volcano eruptions and terrible weather, so people tend to be calm in these kinds of situations. We’ve seen some bad days. After the financial crash of 2008, the country was really down in the dirt. And then in 2010, we had the big volcano explosion from Eyjafjallajökull, which put the world at a standstill, and we thought, Now, we’re done. Not only are we in the worst financial mess in the world, we also have a volcano stopping everything, and there are only bad things about us in the news. But then, after that, a tourism madness happened, and things started really swinging in Iceland. No one could foresee that.

I have been watching some things, but I was shooting until [a couple of Fridays ago], so I haven’t had too much time. I watched Tiger King on Netflix last night. I just got stuck in that quite trashy show. I also rewatched Come and See, by Elem Klimov, which is my all-time favorite movie. I’ve also rewatched The Favourite, and Border from last year, and Cold War. And Reconstruction, the Danish film. You know, I’m checking out older films rather than new ones. Such as Solaris, by Tarkovsky. When I need inspiration, I go and check out the stuff that I liked in the past.

In the film industry, I think we’re all a little bit shell-shocked. I think several weeks ago, nobody really knew what was going to happen. In my case, I was supposed to go on a location scout in Puerto Rico for a movie with Mark Wahlberg, and that’s postponed until I don’t know when. Hopefully the project will stay on course. I was shooting a TV show that I created for Netflix, Katla, a sort of psychological volcano sci-fi. We’d shot four days when we got shut down. It’s in a studio that I built, so it’s affecting me on all fronts. We have continued to do some work, sticking to the no-more-than-20-people rule. I work on sets with the art department. Now, I get more time to prep. I can work more on the screenplay. I think a lot of people are trying to use the time to their benefit. Let’s put things in order on the shelves. And maybe also look inwards and sort things out. It’s pointless to bitch about it, because at the end of the day, our struggles are so little compared to others.

I also have quite a big family, so there are actually more dangers inside my house than outside it! I have four kids. And they all have boyfriends and girlfriends, who also have families, so I feel like I’m probably bound to get it at some point. I’m physically strong and I don’t have any underlying conditions, but my father is going through a cancer treatment, so I stay away from him. He’s quarantined himself.

Things like volcano eruptions and viruses are reminders that we do live on a place called planet Earth that is so much bigger than ourselves. Sometimes we tend to forget that, or we think viruses and things are from the past, that we can control them. But all of these things come back — whether it’s a volcano eruption or a virus. The Earth is telling us something. Nature is telling us something.

I’ve made a lot of movies about survival outside. In a real way, whether you’re stuck outside or inside, it’s not so different. Because the danger is coming at you. Even if you close yourself in, it’s coming at you. When I was making Everest, I wasn’t just making a film about survival, it actually was a survival — making the film was probably the biggest survival ordeal that I’ve gone through, because it all just comes at you: avalanches, the cold, and everything. Somebody asked me then, “How do you deal with it?” I said, “I just bow my head to the mountain and take what it gives me.” And recently, one of our doctors here said, “The virus dictates it, not us. We have to work with what the virus gives us. We try everything to survive it and to do the right thing, but we can’t control it.” So, we just have to get through it and bow our head to it. It’s a force. It’s intelligent. That’s the scariest thing. It has a way of surviving. It changes its form and its shape, and it seems to have a mission.

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In Quarantine, an Icelandic Director Thinks About Volcanoes