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Categories: Interviews

The Nordic Talents winner and NFTS grad talks about his work, his influences, and his love for relationship dramas.

Me - Sverre photo

Thordur Palsson is an Icelandic writer-director who boasts an impressive collection of short film work, the most recent of which being his NFTS graduation film, Brothers. Following a pivotal day in the life of two young brothers (Scott Chambers and Kerr Logan) living in a derelict seaside village, the short is heartfelt and affecting, a bold statement of intent from one of our most promising up-and-coming directors. 

A 2012 directing and producing graduate of the Icelandic Film School, Thordur began his MA in directing at the NFTS in 2013, graduating in 2015. Over the course of his career, he’s made a variety of moving shorts, each of which are founded on intricate characterizations and probing studies of human relationships. 

Thordur recently won the prestigious Scandinavian pitch competition Nordic Talents, co-organized by Nordisk Film & TV Fond and the National Film School of Denmark. The program provides funding to filmmakers with unique pitches, with Thordur’s Stuck in Dundalk winning the top prize. The script for said film, which follows an alcoholic father stuck in a fishing village while looking for the murderer of his daughter, is now in development. 

I spoke to Thordur about the themes tying together his work and the artists that have most inspired him. We started off talking about Brothers, a project on which he collaborated with writer Matthew Jankes and producer Emilie Jouffroy.


How did you come up with the concept for “Brothers”?

So basically me, Emily and Matthew were spitballing ideas on where we wanted to take the film…I’ve always been interested in the dynamic [of] relationships. The boy in Brothers is trying to get away from this small town, [and] his brother is basically dragging him down. I wanted that kind of relationship, with one character being totally content with life, and the other always striving for something more. One of them has a job, the other one doesn’t. And I wanted to have that in every scene, that kind of conflict between them. 

Is much of “Brothers” based on your own experiences, or is it all imagination?

I think, at least from my point of view, we all write what you know. Even when you write a film that happens in a space station, the relationships between the people on the space stations [are based on] what we’ve been through in life. I think I myself in the short films I’ve done now, all of these stories have elements of things I’ve been through myself. 

What’s your approach to directing?

I like to do the most work before we actually arrive on set. Obviously, if things are starting to get stale, I might ask one actor to do one thing and not tell the other one, to just see, but mostly I like to have a lot of conversations with my actors. But actors do generally prepare a lot, they do go through it, and I think that most of the time I spend with them is just to get to know them, and I think it all goes down to that trust. I think if we spend enough time together and they know I’m not just some guy that’s gonna betray them, they know they can trust me.

But that’s just with the actors. Obviously there’s a whole lot of different things you can go into. My thinking is is that the directors work with the actors. If you look at the set, there’s a person for everything on set, but there’s not a person to work with the actors. So if you’re trying to work with the actors, you can at least get a good performance. I think that’s the key thing, and that’s the thing that I try to focus most of my time on. 


Were there any major problems that you faced on set?

[Laughs]. Not so sure. Basically I chose all the hardest locations to shoot in, for sound. The arcade, you can imagine how hard it was shooting in an arcade. We shot on a beach, you can imagine how hard it was to shoot on the beach.

Where was that beach?

Most of it was shot in Jaywick in Essex. I knew I wanted a location that could be a third character in a way. If you have a character…my protagonist, he wanted to get away, he wanted to leave this town. And I’ve sometimes seen films where I don’t know why they wanna get out of this town. I’m watching feature films and there’s nothing wrong with the location. So I kind of wanted to have the Beauty and the Beast, in a certain way.

So I chose the location for that. And we just put the work into it, and we found this brilliant location. You pan your head to the left, and it has this beautiful ocean and this beach, and you pan your head to the right and you have these beautiful bungalows. Because they are beautiful. They’re very filmy. They have a lot of texture. It’s lived-in. Those are the words I choose to call those. And that’s another reason why we chose to shoot on film. We shot on 35mm.

Was it expensive?

Yeah, it’s always more expensive to shoot on film. It’s the film, it’s the processing, it’s getting the crew in that’s worked on film before. Because a lot of young crews have never worked on film before. So my cinematographer, Jannicke [Mikkelsen] really had to crew up the right way for that, and it was a huge learning curve. 

When I was in the NFTS, my first film was shot on 16mm, my second film there was shot on an Alexa, and my third film was on 35. And all of them had their own problems. Obviously the Arri Alexa didn’t have as many problems, but we still had problems. I had huge problems when I started on 16 with the film, and I again had some problems with the film with Brothers

So I guess it always has to come down to – what is it gonna add to it, why do I need to shoot on it? We wanted that kind of texture film gives you, and just that kind of dustiness, the lived-in-ness, and I think even though it was quite hard to shoot on film, in the end, looking at it now, I can look back on it and say “no, it looks alright.” 


Looking back at all those films, do you see any recurring themes?

Well someone just told me that I’ve basically done all the relationships now that you can. I didn’t know that. My first Icelandic short film [A Hard World / Hardur Heimur], that I got into the NFTS with, is about a surrogate father and a boy. So a young boy looking for a father figure. Then I did a relationship between a woman and a man [Goodbye Heart]; actually, it was a male prostitute and a suicidal woman, so again, big conflict…And then I did a film about a father and son [Never Comes the Day]. And now I did Brothers

What I’m really interested in is relationship connections. How do they connect? Do they not connect? You know, people that should connect very easily, a father-son relationship – why are there problems? He’s your son, he’s your father, it should be beautiful. And then breaking that down and actually looking at how can I put the past in the present. How can I have little things that have happened in the past – why is this character angry at this character? In Brothers, why is the younger brother fed up with the older brother? So I think that’s what’s interests me, relationships.

But also, if possible, don’t make it boring. You can do relationship films, and they can be dead boring. So how can you make it visually, how can you put a little bit of excitement in it? And that’s what I wanted, in a couple of sequences in Brothers, just to wake you up a bit. When the tries to kick at his brother at the beginning, I want you to wake up a bit. Because just like the boy, ok, this is what this film is gonna be about. 

Don’t make it boring.”

What inspires you to make this kind of relationship drama?

It’s very hard [to say]. Obviously it’s very different from Brothers, but I’ve always been a big Alexander Payne fan, and…also David O. Russell, I’ve been watching them a lot. Trying to figure out a way to not make it a boring drama about life problems. I like the way Alexander Payne can see the humor in a very, very sad, dramatic situation. You know, like, this is the worst day of this character’s life, but I can’t help but laugh. And Sideways, About Schmidt, Descendants – the man fucking lost his wife, but he’s running down the road in his flip-flops! 

So that’s the kind of things I’m looking at. And David O. Russell, I mean, with Silver Linings Playbook, it’s a romantic comedy, but it’s not, it’s also about a man struggling with mental illness. But that’s not the thing that hits you in the face. It’s the funny situations. 


So that’s kinda what I’m looking at, is how can you put these very dramatic, sad characters in very different, funny situations. Very real characters – very real. They paint them up to be very real in the beginning, and then put a little sprinkle of “ooh, that’s kind of funny” and then you go off from that and [add] as much humor as you wanna put in, because you believe him as a character now. I will go with him. You’ve made this promise to me that he is real, but there’s also gonna be some humor. 

So that’s what I’ve been looking at now for my feature. Obviously very different from Brothers, but, you know, still, you’re putting people in extraordinary circumstances, like the older brother, something happened the day before. Not everybody’s been through that, finding your loved one on the kitchen floor beaten up. And then he goes off on a tangent, and basically Brothers is the worst day of this young boy’s life. What else could go wrong?

This is the worst day of this character’s life, but I can’t help but laugh.”

What important lessons did you learn at NFTS?

Obviously the thing that they want you to do is keep your identity, in the things you’re interested in. But they also want you to experiment. You can basically have an opportunity to do three short films, and then you have small things, courses within the school that you do, like we had to write a script with no dialogue in three locations, only one roll of film, stuff like that. And figuring out – how can I make a short film out of this?

I’d never really learned how to break down a script, so these are really fundamentals. Like going through the beats, how to prepare for a shoot, with notes, what are the things I want from the scene. What are the key points in the scene? Again, it all goes down to you know you’re not gonna have as much time as you want. Do you know exactly what this scene is about? Do you know what this scene is about when the actor is struggling? These kind of things; again, it’s what you take from it. 

I think the fundamentals were things I was quite happy with. And the teachers we had always had time for you, and always were willing to [help], even eating their lunch while they were helping you break down a script, before a shoot. I’m not so sure how many schools have those kinds of teachers. And that was very different, being in an environment where you know you’re in good hands. 

And learning how to talk through images, not dialogue. All of these things sound very basic, but these are the things they kind of hammer into you. And obviously they give you huge amounts of time to work on your scripts. 

Do you have any favorite films from 2015?

This is crazy – I got a film that I want to win all the awards, and I haven’t even seen it! The Revenant. I just like the director, I like the cinematographer, I like the star, I like Leo, I like Tom. When I saw that they won three awards at the Golden Globes, I was like “I haven’t even seen this film, and I know what these people stand for in the film community.”


But of the films that I have seen, I think that it’s been a really good year for indie films. Room, it’s brilliant. There’s another really, really big budget film that only happens in one place, and then you have this really, really low budget film which is Room – and I’m not gonna say what the other film is – and this low budget film is a thousand times better than this big budget film that only happens in one place. It’s all about the characters. 

Find out more about Thordur’s work on his website

Cameron Johnson

Cameron Johnson is a writer and filmmaker born in England, based in Michigan, USA, and currently living in Enniscrone, Ireland. He writes about all things entertainment with a speciality in film criticism. He has been working on films ever since middle school, when his shorts "Moving Stateside" and "The Random News" competed in the West Branch Children's Film Festival. Since then he's written and directed a number of his own films and worked in many different crew jobs. Follow him on Twitter @GambasUK and look at his daily film diary at letterboxd.com/gambasUK.

Posted on Feb 1, 2016

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