We recently visited Fantastic Fest, and what a fantastic time it was! We had the chance to sit down across from Lamb director Valdimar Jóhannsson and star Noomie Rapace to discuss this epic visual poem of a modern fairytale.
First of all, I love this, and I'm so excited. I've been waiting for this. When I first saw the trailer, I was like, "What is this?" And then there's a moment in the trailer, where I full-on stopped, "Did I see that right?" I did a little rewind, and paused, "Yeah, that's a hand." Okay. I was seeing this right. It's a bit of like a modern fairytale. What was the inspiration for that?
Jóhannsson: I started making a sketchbook, with just like paintings -
Rapace: When did you start with a sketchbook actually? How many years were you working on the sketchbook?
Jóhannsson: It was many years. It's probably at least ten years back. And then I was introduced to Sjón. And I just showed him this book, because I didn't have the story. It was just very unclear, the layout and everything. But after that, we start working, meeting every week for many years. And it started like that.
You started with a sketchbook, you just have this image, and you knew you wanted to build a story around that?
Jóhannsson: Yeah. I knew that I really wanted to make a film, and I knew how the mood should be in it. We wrote a lot of scenes around some paintings and stuff that I thought could be interesting, because somehow we wanted to make, what is it, like a visual poem. We didn't want to have much dialogue or anything. We wanted to make an arthouse film.
Well, you succeeded in that for sure. Very much a visual poem. Noomi, did you get to see the sketchbook?
Rapace: Yeah, he brought the sketchbook to my house in London.
Rapace: And then he went out and had a cigarette and left me with the sketchbook, and I was like, "Okay." And then I got drawn into it. And it was strange. I kind of straight away felt like I've been waiting for this film and it was meant to be that I had to do it. And I just called my whole team, "I'm doing this Icelandic film, and it's about a lamb- human baby." And they're like, "Wait, what?" And I said, "The director is Valdimar Jóhannsson. He's done two short films." And they were like, "Are you sure about this?" I told them, "100%. Never been more sure."
I feel like you [Jóhannsson] are a little bit ... You don't communicate with words so much sometimes. Even on set, when we were filming, sometimes he came in, and it's like, "Uh." And I was like, "I think I know what you mean. Let's go for one more." And then we did one more take, and he's like, "Exactly, that."
That's all it took was that.
Jóhannsson: After we started working together, it was so nice, because sometimes you somehow started to read my feelings, because I remember that you always knew if I wanted to do another one, another take or something.
Rapace: I read your body language, more than your words, for sure. And I felt like we were both ... We were exploring and investigating. It seems even though you always knew what you wanted, you didn't always know the root there. So I felt like we were kind of in it together.
Jóhannsson: Yeah, definitely creating your character, because you brought so much with you when you came to Iceland, and it was such a pleasure working together.
Rapace: It was very playful. Sometimes it felt we were two kids, trying to figure it out. You know?
Jóhannsson: Every day, we were just talking on the phone, how we should do these scenes the day after. We talked a lot about almost all of the scenes.
Rapace: For sure.
I like that even your collaboration style sounds in the same vein as the visual poem element of that. Even the way that you guys work together is in line with that kind of feeling.
Rapace: Yeah. I mean, the story kind of took over and it was guiding us. I felt it was almost impossible for me to interact with any other people. I felt like I left the world, and I entered your world and stayed in there for that entire time. I couldn't really communicate with anyone else. It was very strange.
How long were you shooting this for?
Rapace: We shot it in two chapters. First was lambing season, when I was pulling out the lamb, which I have never done before. And then, we shot two weeks first, or three weeks?
Jóhannsson: Yes, I think two weeks total, 36 days.
Rapace: Yes. And then we took a break, and then we continued in the later part of summer.
So you say you've never done that before. So were you actually pulling-
You were really delivering lamb babies into the world?
Rapace: Oh, yeah. Yeah. The farmer was standing next to the camera and ready to jump in if something went wrong. And I was like, I have this life just here in my hands. And the baby lamb was standing up and drinking milk for the first time. And it was so magical and scary at the same time.
Oh, my gosh. You can add that to your resume too, you delivered a baby lamb.
Rapace: Exactly. Could hire me whenever you need one.
I will be calling you for that because I have so many lambs that I need delivered. So what was it like then acting opposite a lamb child?
Rapace: It is so strange, because I felt like pretty fast, I stopped thinking about the animals as animals. Same with the way I read your body language, I started reading their body language. And then you realize that communication is just so much more than words. And I could read the lamb, if she was tired or angry or annoyed. Same with the babies, because we shot with lambs and human babies and a dummy. So it was kind of a combination, and you kind of surrender into a different way of communicating, I guess. I was working on my patience. I'm quite an impatient person. And I was like, we have to just accept the fact that we're working with creatures that are not following any rules.
Jóhannsson: Yeah, yeah. All of these scenes took a long time.
Rapace: To get the lamb to fall asleep, the whole crew was quiet and trying to make the lamb sleep. And then just finally, it was asleep. And I was tiptoeing in. They were handling the lamb. And I was like, "Okay. Roll camera." And finally, it's like, right when you said, "Action" the lamb opened his eyes up, "Baa." And I was like, "No. Everyone out, let's start again."
Rapace: Yeah. Cut, cut.
That's not your line.
Rapace: You're supposed to sleep. Yeah.
You had one job, [lamb] you just have to sleep. Just chill out. So what was it like directing a lamb and a baby and then just kind of these unexpected things? Like you're saying, this is very unpredictable.
Jóhannsson: Yeah. I feel that we were lucky, because everybody is saying that you should not do a film with children and animals, but somehow... Yeah. It went well, and I thought it would be more difficult.
If you had to choose to work again in the future with either a baby or a lamb, which would you choose?
Jóhannsson: I'd really want to make another film with a lot of animals.
Rapace: I mean, I feel like we've been kind of talking about what we should do next and sending paintings to each other and songs. Could you build a movie around this song, or this strange painting?
Well, now I want to know what that is, do you have a sketchbook to show?
Jóhannsson: No, I'm working on it.
Okay. I'm excited about that. Can you tell us about the music video that's in the movie?
Jóhannsson: Yeah. Actually, that is my dream to make a music video.
Rapace: He did. I've seen it.
Jóhannsson: Yeah. They took my first music video! I think I've talked to almost all the bands in Iceland and somehow it has never worked out. But I think I will get a lot of offers after this music video.
I have a feeling that's going to change for you.
Rapace: Maybe you can shoot it yourself. You know?
Jóhannsson: Yeah. Yeah, I should do that.
Was that the most fun part for you, getting to do that music video?
Jóhannsson: Yeah, I really liked it. You know?
Rapace: That was the most fun part for you?
Jóhannsson: No, no. It wasn't.
Rapace: Oh, my God. What I was I doing there?
Wrong answer. Wrong answer. He said one of the most fun parts.
Rapace: Okay. Thank you.
Jóhannsson: It was an amazing time, but also super stressful. But yeah.
Iceland is kind of a star in this as well. Was that important to you, to feature that?
Jóhannsson: Yeah. Nature is a character in the film, so it was very important.
Beautiful. It's beautifully shot.
Jóhannsson: Yeah. Eli Arenson did an amazing job.
Gorgeous. Noomi, what was your favorite part of this, delivering lambs?
Rapace: [laughs] No. Working with bringing Maria to life and, and accepting all flavors and colors of her, all the pain and the desperation and the power and the strength, and that she was so determined to heal. I felt like I was carrying a lot of pain in me when we started. Throughout the journey, I felt like I started breathing more and more, kind of deeper and deeper in my body and finding my voice. It was strange. It was like, I kind of felt I also found myself again kind of. It was emotional and kind of coming back to my roots, working with you [Jóhannsson]. I mean, it was probably one of the best journeys I've been on ever. So I would say that was the best part.
Jóhannsson: But sometimes I was even worried about you, because you were so invested. And I can see how it was so hard, staying there.
Rapace: I was talking to my son sometimes on FaceTime. He's like, "You don't look like yourself. You don't sound like yourself." I was like, "I know." He's like, "Tell me about the character." And I did. And he's like, "Okay, now I understand your eyes."
That's intense. How long do you think, when you're done and wrapped shooting, does it take for you to come back to just feeling more like yourself and letting go of that?
Rapace: I came back in September, and I was supposed to start a movie in October. And I just pulled out of it. And then I was like, I think I need to clear the rest of my year. And then COVID happened.
Oh, my gosh.
Rapace: So I was like okay. It was a good break. Because also, when you peel off layers of that, you don't feel like you need a lot of protection. We live in this hybrid tech society and are quite removed from our primary selves and the animal within. And then I kind of felt like I reconnected with a lot of things in myself. I was like, "I can't go back to all this. I can't go back. I have to find who I am", like coming out on this side. And it changed me. I've passed on a lot of stuff. My choices are different now. So it's still going. It's still living. The shock waves from Lamb are still going.
It's changed you.
Rapace: It changed me.
From that point forward.
Rapace: For sure. Yeah. Yeah.
That's amazing. All right. I think that's all the time that we have.
Rapace: Oh, no. So quick.
This has been wonderful, you guys. Thank you so much.
Rapace: Thank you.
Jóhannsson: Thank you.
Thank you, and congratulations on the movie!
Lamb is now in theaters, click here to watch an exclusive (and particularly nightmarish) clip!
Editor's Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.