Real ‘Life In A fishbowl’

A triptych of Icelandic lives in disarray
9.6.2014
Words by Óskar Bragi Stefánsson
‘Life In A Fishbowl’ tells three distinct stories of people living in pre-crisis Iceland. It stars Hera Hilmarsdóttir as Eik, a down on her luck kindergarten teacher who struggles to support her daughter; Þorsteinn Bachmann as Móri, a troubled writer; and Þorvaldur Davíð as Sölvi, an ex-footballer on the fast-track working for a bank doing some shady business.

Director Baldvin Z teamed up with writer/musician Birgir Örn (of the band Maus) to write the screenplay for ‘Vonarstræti’ (“Life In A Fishbowl”). It’s a follow up to his debut feature ‘Jitters’ (2010). Even though Baldvin has directed commercials, two feature films and produced three seasons of the television show “Hæ Gosi”—which was shot on location in his hometown of Akureyri—he’s still very adamant about keeping the amateur filmmaker within him alive.

How did you transition from making commercials to feature films?

I was always making short films, showing them in the local theatre and on a local television station. My commercial career got started when I got a chance to direct a commercial for Norðurmjólk in 2004. Then I moved to Denmark with my wife and two kids, intending to go to the film school there. I didn’t get in though, so I applied for jobs here in Iceland and got a job offer from a production house. We moved back home, but the company folded almost immediately, as this was in 2008. I was pretty much ready to throw in the towel and accept that this wasn’t going to happen.

I had applied to the Icelandic Film Centre with an idea for a short film, and had gotten turned down three times. They recommended that I revise the whole thing, as it was simply too expensive of an idea. So I went home and wrote something new in a fit of rage, in two hours, and sent it in. And finally I got a green light [this was for his short film ‘Hotel Earth’]. I made that film with Ingvar Þórðarson and Júlíus Kemp [Baldvin’s producing partners at Kisi Productions]—who’ve stood by me since I first sent them an e-mail about the idea back in 2005. We finally made the film together in 2008, and it did very well in festivals. Soon after the possibility of making ‘Jitters’ came up, and everything since then has just been an incredible amount of luck, it feels like.

The film’s Icelandic title is ‘Vonarstræti.’ Why did you decide to repurpose the title of a Maus song, ‘Life In A Fishbowl,’ for the English title of the movie?

The film’s Icelandic title, ‘Vonarstræti’ [“Hope Street”], reflects both the film’s location and its theme. When we were thinking about English versions of the title, they all seemed sort of hopeless. Móri [Þorsteinn Bachmann], the drunken writer in the film has written two books. And so I took two songs by Biggi [who sings and plays guitar in the band Maus] and used them as titles for these books. The first one is called “Lof mér að falla” [the titular track from Maus’s 1997 album ‘Lof mér að falla að þínu eyra’] and the second one is called “Lífið í fiskabúrinu” [Icelandic for “Life In A Fishbowl” from their 2003 album ‘Musick’].

In reality though, “Life In A Fishbowl” is very much a theme in the movie as well. We live in this sort of fish tank, swimming round and round, meeting the same people over and over again. So we decided to use it as a title. Biggi wasn’t very enthused about it to begin with, but I got my way. [He laughs.]



HAMMERING IT OUT

Where did these three stories come from?


The story of Eik [Hera Hilmarsdóttir] is based on two people, one of them very close to me and the other one I sort of know from afar. I thought it would be interesting to tackle the subject of prostitution because it’s not really discussed openly here in Iceland. When Hera first read the script she called me up and said, ‘This doesn’t happen here, Baldvin.’ But then she did some research and uncovered a report called “Prostitution in Iceland and its social impact [commissioned by Ministry of Justice and Ecclesiastical Affairs in 2001]. We looked it over together and agreed that, yes, prostitution is actually very much a reality.

I got the idea for the washed up writer from a woman I had known all my life. We were having coffee and she asked me if I wanted to have a cigarette with her. I was kind of taken aback, ‘you smoke? I had no idea you smoked.’ ‘Yes,’ she said, ‘but only on the bad days.’ That day, twenty-five years after losing her child, she felt just as bad as she had the day she lost her child. I felt drawn to that, having just had my first child.

Then in 2008, on March 18 to be precise, I looked at the paper and it just so happened that I was one of the ‘Birthdays of the Day.’ And on the same list was Jón Sigurðsson, director of [financial company] FL Group. And I thought to myself: ‘We are both the same age, to the day, and I don’t know him at all.’ I just looked at this dude and thought to myself: ‘Wow, interesting that this young whippersnapper has found himself in that position.’ I wanted to find out how he’d gotten to that place with an astronomical income in such short period of time. He was one of ‘those guys’– and at the time it was insanely cool to be one of ‘those guys.’ Later that year everything crashed and he became vilified like so many others. But I always liked this idea that these were essentially ‘good kids.’

How did you and Birgir collaborate?

I had been carrying all these ideas around for a while and had the worst case of writers block. So I gave him what I had and asked him to write a two-page synopsis to see if he had a way of mixing all the stories together. And he managed to open all the doors somehow.

We sat down for three hours every morning for about three months, hammering out the first draft. He’d sit at the computer while I stood beside him, acting out characters. We didn’t really know each other when we started. I knew him through his wife, who’s a childhood friend of mine. Today we’re the best of friends, and we’ve started working on another script.

Did you look to any particular film for inspiration?

I am a big fan of films with more than one storyline. Alejandro González Inárritu is one of my favorite directors. His films ‘Babel’ and ‘21 Grams’ are both spectacular. I really dug Paul Thomas Anderson’s film ‘Magnolia.’ And ‘Crash’ (directed by Paul Haggis in 2006) was an especially well-crafted film.

AMATEUR AT HEART

Is there a core philosophy that you work from?


No (laughs). Doesn’t that answer suck? Look, after I made ‘Jitters’ [2010] I got all these scripts sent to me. I’d give notes and take meetings, but after going through four or five scripts I realised that if I’m gonna keep making movies, I have to make them on my own terms. I have to do what I WANT to do. If I start doing this just to make a living, jumping on some get-rich bandwagon—I’m not gonna enjoy doing the work. I have to do what I’m doing on my own terms. Which I guess is what will eventually end up ruining my career. [He laughs.]

Did you learn anything new making ‘Life In A Fishbowl’?

So much. I feel like an absolute amateur as a filmmaker. I go 100% off of feeling and human interaction. I never went to any school for this. I don’t know if I like the idea of being a professional. Of course, you want to be, you know, accountable and well prepared. But there’s something about being an amateur that enchants me.

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"Life in a Fishbowl" is Director Baldvin Z's second feature-length film following 2010's "Jitters," about a teen boy exploring his sexuality. The film is already out in theatres.


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