Grímur Hákonarson, Icelandic filmmaker, speaks to Helsinki Heroes about his film Rams (Hrútar), which won Un Certain Regard at the Cannes Film Festival.

Hello, Grímur. How did the idea of an ancient breed of Icelandic sheep come to be the theme of your film?
My parents are from the South of Iceland, and I was working on a farm as a teenager, so I have this experience of sheep culture, of farmers who are bachelors. I wanted to make a film about the relationship between the farmers and the sheep. They are our main animal, and all the farmers say that they have a stronger connection to sheep than to other animals like cows, etc. There’s this emotional bond between sheep and farmers, so I wanted to do a story about that. Then I read a story in the newspaper about two brothers who didn’t speak to each other for four years… There are a lot of bachelor farmers in Iceland, and they may be more connected to their sheep because they don’t have any families. The sheep become their family. Of course there are a lot of families still, but it seems to be sometimes the case that the men, the sons, stay on the farm, and the daughters move away because the sons are either more interested in agriculture, or they are stuck with the responsibility. It’s a common thing; a social issue, or a social reality.

Did you base the characters on a true story?
No, I don’t know those brothers who were fighting. They are dead, actually, it’s an old story. I based the characters on real encounters of farmers I met in my life. But these two brothers that don’t speak to each other… The reason I fell for that idea was that it was a kind of tragi-comic situation: people living on the same land, who are also brothers, but not talking to each other. It’s a perfect setting for a tragi-comedy.

Do you think the film reflects, in general, the nature of Scandinavia? Because in Finland people don’t talk to their neighbors very much.
Yes. Since I made the film, I’ve heard twenty stories of brothers who don’t talk to each other… It seems to be very common, I think it’s fair to say that. Because YLE, the Finnish broadcasting company, bought the film before we shot it. They were one of the few institutions outside of Iceland that supported the film before it was made.

They saw a connection there.
The programmer at YLE had a relative or brother he didn’t speak to, so he seemed to relate to it. Maybe it’s something to do with the isolation in the rural areas of Scandinavia, and the mentality of people. Maybe they drink too much and they are a bit stubborn.

I heard you had twenty-eight days of filming. What was it like to shoot the film in such a short time-frame?
The film is not a high-budget, million-euro film -we didn’t get much support outside of Iceland- so we shot it in twenty eight days. The story is divided into two parts: summer, which we shot in August, and winter, shot in November. We ran into problems because we had snow, but it was the warmest November in history and all the snow soon melted, so we had to finish the film in January. In the end we managed to solve the snow problem with computer effects, but it was our biggest problem financially, because it’s expensive to send thirty people home and back again.

In the film, the brothers are forced to team up, and they have to speak to each other. How did you handle those interactions?
They have a common goal, which is to save the sheep. The sheep is what unites the brothers, what connects them, they have the same stock. Even though they have two separate farms, it’s the same sheep.

The Icelandic landscape is very beautiful. Do you think it reinforces the character of the sheep, in the film?
The Icelandic sheep is quite free. It stays indoors in the coldest winter time, and then in spring it goes out and it can wander anywhere, like into the highlands. So they are more free than horses and cows. When they go to the highlands they also become stronger, because they need to climb, so they get pretty wild, and free. It’s not mass-production sheep farming, it’s still connected to the nature, and romantic.

Does that show in the brothers’ characters? Do they kind of adopt the free-spirited nature of the sheep, and become strong too?
Yes, you could say that.

You mentioned in another interview that working with the sheep was rewarding and surprisingly easy.
We chose them very carefully.

How did you choose them?
We visited a lot of farms, because it was shot in a sheep farming valley. We asked around, and we picked the sheep according to how well they cooperated, and how spirited they were. Also to how good they looked, we picked them from good stock. They are very relaxed, you can almost pat them and they don’t run away. Their owners are always talking to them, and stay with them. And we hired two farmers from the valley to train them, and we rehearsed all of the sheep scenes before each shot, just to make sure it was doable. They used some tricks sometimes, like giving sheep-candy to them.

What was it like working with Gunnar Jonsson, who was also in Virgin Mountain?
I remember when we called Gunnar he was about to cut his beard, and we were lucky he didn’t and that he was available. He’s been mostly working on television in Iceland, doing famous comedy shows. He’s very easy to work with, and a typecast.

Did you use any real sheep farmers for the roles?
Some of the smaller roles are performed by real farmers. Like the old man at the beginning -the chief- he is an amateur actor from the valley. So I went to see some theatre plays there to find some people. I put a lot of effort into trying to make the film authentic, to make it look real. The main actors grew their beards a lot. I made them go to the countryside to stay with the sheep, work on the farms, drive tractors… So people almost think they are real farmers when they see the film.

If there is a feeling or thought you’d want to leave with the audience, what would it be?
That it is possible to solve human conflict, both between individuals and nations. That it is possible to become friends.

The movie could be seen in Finland during the past Love & Anarchy Festival. A distribution deal is being negotiated at the moment, so hopefully we’ll have it on theaters later this year, or at the beginning of 2016.