Production Designer Eggert Ketilsson: “There is a hidden film in everybody”
by Viktorija Samarinaite
by Viktorija Samarinaite
There is a rumour among the filmmakers that those who want to shoot a movie in Iceland, must give a call to Eggert Ketilsson first. Art director, production designer and special effects supervisor Ketilsson knows the native island as the back of his hand. Together with the world-famous directors and crews Ketilsson harnessed dramatic landscapes to recreate the scenes of different countries, mystical and secluded places and even..planets.
One TV set for a town
As a kid, I used to draw dreams, I had a strong visual sense and an unconscious desire to know where these visuals come from. All of us, the children, used to go to the cinema every Sunday at 3 pm. Mainly American films were being screened, sometimes they were Icelandic, Danish, or Swedish. We watched cowboy movies, horror, sci-fi, gangster films and even musicals. There was no Icelandic television until 1968, but prior to that we had the American one, broadcasted from the American naval base.
My father was one of the first ones in town to buy a TV set. People used to come by our house to watch it – at least through the window. As a young kid I was already able to watch TV at home. It was a big thing.
During my teenage years, I attended a film club. That club was all about the old experimental movies. Later, I joined a local theatre and started building visual worlds on stage and acting as well.
I remember, my very first film job was for a friend. He was shooting on 16 mm film, so I helped him with the sets and also got a role as an actor. Back in the day we experimented a lot. We had the Super 8 camera and used it to film visuals for our band’s concerts and art performances.
Natural drama of Iceland
The authority and unpredictability of nature in Iceland had an effect on my personality. An opportunity to work with pioneers of Icelandic filmmaking also shaped my professional point of view. Incredibly low budgets and a young industry at that time probably influenced my liberal and sometimes chaotic natural approach: we were used to doing everything on our own. The crew was just a few people wearing many different hats.
Iceland has some quite peculiar, visual and dramatic landscapes. A variety of them are scattered within a small radius around the main roads, so all the necessary infrastructure is within reach. In Iceland one can find almost all kinds of natural locations. Some places might resemble the Himalayas or other planets. Picturesque monochromatic landscapes are also available white, black or green.
I recall that for Lee Tamahori’s James Bond film Die Another Day, the crew looked all over the world for a spectacular frozen lake to shoot securely on the ice. Actually, they found a place in Alaska, but they had to take a plane, a train and drive to reach the location . Here in Iceland a suitable location was just a short walk away from the main road.
When Clint Eastwood was making a movie about the American invasion of the Japanese island of Iwo Jima – Flags of Our Fathers – at first the crew scouted locations in Japan. They wanted to film on the black volcanic beach, but were not allowed to do so by the government. The soil of Iwo Jima is regarded as holy ground, because countless soldiers have lost their lives there. The same beach was found in Iceland.
The power of nature
I met the director Christopher Nolan for the first time on the set of Batman Begins on a stormy and freezing day by the glacier. It was a very challenging shoot.
We were shooting in winter, so the wind got really violent. We built the Himalayan village in the area with a glacier. The place that we chose was just a 10-minute drive from a nice hotel. All the infrastructure, all the equipment and the tools were easy to get. Despite the weather, everything went very well.
A few years later I received a call from Nolan’s production designer Nathan Crowley, who is a magical designer with a great multi-layered visual approach. He offered me to work on Interstellar production in Iceland. I only got some pages of useful information. No script.
Usually, Christopher Nolan keeps the script very close to himself. He does not want anything to get out into the world before people see the film. The first time I actually saw the script was for the movie Dunkirk.
While shooting the Endless summer and Dr Mann’s planets for Interstellar, the only obstacle again was the weather. That particular location is known for its horrible, even deadly wind, which can damage vehicles and hurt people.
We knew that a storm was coming, so we stopped working, packed everything and managed to protect all the sets. We could not continue for 3–4 days even though all the A-list actors were present. The crew used that time to shoot a scene at the car park in the hopes that it will have any value.
Weather conditions are an important issue, but quite a usual thing all over the world. Let’s say in the desert, a sandstorm might come, last for hours and destroy the sets. It is crucial to predict that change: to follow the weather forecast, talk to the locals, calculate the probability of that happening. If there is an 80 percent probability for the weather to turn harsh, the producers must be advised to stop, cancel the filming, pack in the sets and protect the crew. Some of them might call you crazy, but when it happens, they are happy to have avoided the worst case scenario.
Nature is to be dealt with in filmmaking. There is no escape. It can be unpredictable, but usually the weather changes quickly and those windows have to be used. More often than not, the dramatic weather looks way more interesting in the shot.
A scene of a thousand soldiers
I was excited to go to France to film Dunkirk. I kept dreaming about the lovely southern weather and the beach. It turned out to be the windiest place I have ever been to.
We were struggling to keep our sets intact, but some were badly ruined and had to be restored. Actually, there is a scene with a jetty that we built; one side of it was damaged and even visible in the movie.
The decision to film on the actual location where the events took place in Dunkirk was both very helpful and challenging. A thousand soldiers had to be made out of cardboard to trample the coast. The cutouts were produced in Los Angeles and hand-painted. Later these soldiers stood proud on the beach ignoring the crazy weather conditions we endured. The general rule for them to work visually was to keep them approximately 300 feet away from the camera and have a couple of real humans wander around them.
When the movie is being shot on a large format celluloid film, it is awfully expensive to employ visual effects to situate a mass of people right in the action level of the frame. So, we needed to think of something without hiring 1,000 extras per day for a period of 20 days.
In the beginning I was not satisfied with the result. I would have done a lot of things differently. But the audience did not see it, did not pay a slightest attention to the things that hurt my eye.
I think that Dunkirk is the biggest achievement in my career. The scale of the job was huge: the size of the art department reached up to 120 people at the peak of the construction in France. We were almost simultaneously dealing with the scenes in the ocean, air and ground. We were also scaling things down to be able to manage, we used certain filming techniques to make the vision much bigger.
There are many issues to be dealt with when working in different countries at the same time. You need to hire a crew, make sure that all the materials and tools are there to be able to finish the job. For example, the chase-heist scene on the freeway in Tallinn for Nolan’s Tenet perhaps was the most complicated one. It took up to five weeks and 1,000 people working in different departments to accomplish. Sometimes what seems to be the simplest thing at first can become a real obstacle.
Movie-making at home
During the lockdown, I have been working remotely. It is quite doable, but sometimes the personal presence is essential. Nowadays, the technology and enhanced means of communication at home make remote work possible. When I started my career, we just had beepers, not even mobile phones.
As the art director, I have mostly been working online together with a production designer: we were restructuring the budget. Usually, I issue the budget, I include new things and throw out the old ones. I also sharpen the budget, so we could stay close to the reality of what the film will come across in the end.
Back in December, I was in Saudi Arabia working as a supervising art director. We were preparing and building the set for the movie Desert Warrior. It is a story from the fifth century based on the Arabian history, when the Arab tribes were overthrowing the Persian reign.
Everything tells a story
The beauty of this job lies in constantly trying to combine practical and creative sides. You have to manifest the work and to be able to deliver, that’s the magic of it. When designers create something on paper, we have to process it, add layers and textures, then someone builds it and it is fantastic to see that design rise in front of your eyes.
I get inspired by many things: dreams, casual everyday situations, angles of light, shadows, architecture or arts. These details are as essential as the artefacts for the collectors. It helps to stock the inner vault and create a beautiful mosaic of knowledge. Working on movies can actually eat you up, consume you. Sometimes when you come back home after an awfully long and busy day, it takes time to shift the personal focus.
My life is all about filmmaking. Honestly, I had this feeling one day: I looked into the mirror and realised that 30 years have passed by. I could not understand how it happened. I had my dramatic moments in life like everyone else. But I believe there is a story everywhere, in each person, there is a film hidden in everybody. A movie, a script or a visual can be made out of the tiniest detail; it is all around, all within.