It’s been a rough few years for Iceland, what with that nasty economic collapse and all, but at least the North Atlantic nation can proudly list Baltasar Kormakur as one of its prime exports.
At 47, Kormakuar has become one of the busiest and most in-demand directors in Hollywood, no small feat considering big names like Spike Lee are turning to Kickstarter to fund their projects. Initially an actor who graduated from Iceland’s top drama school, Kormakur has directed a total of 10 films in the 13 years since his debut, 101 Reykjavík, wowed the Toronto Film Festival in 2000. Known for gritty action dramas in both English and Icelandic, he had a huge year in 2012, as director of Contraband and The Deep; the first made $91 million worldwide on a $40 million budget, while the second earned unanimous praise and was shortlisted for Best Foreign Picture at the Academy Awards.
Irreverent and always smiling, Kormakur re-teamed with Mark Wahlberg, his Contraband star, on the new action comedy 2 Guns, out this weekend. Wahlberg plays an uber-cocky Navy intelligence officer who partners up with a DEA agent played by Denzel Washington, the pair in pursuit of a major drug cartel in Mexico. The issue here — and it’s a big one — is that neither of them realize that the other one is undercover. Hijinks and murders ensue, with Bill Paxton, Edward James Olmos, and James Marsden providing their main adversaries.
After this film, Kormakur will move on to filming Everest, a movie about a disastrous trip up Mount Everest starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Josh Brolin, and John Hawkes.
BuzzFeed sat down with Kormakur and one of his producers, Adam Siegel, to discuss the movie, his career, and how he convinced Wahlberg and Washington to hang upside down while a bull tried to tear out their guts.
This is the second movie that you’ve done with Mark Wahlberg and I’m wondering how you met.
Baltasar Kormakur: Well, I pursued him for Contraband, because I had the remake rights to that movie. I played the lead in the Icelandic version of it, and I thought, who’s better suited for the role than I am? And Mark came up in my mind. There’s something very street about Mark [that], for that role, was perfect. And then we just got along great and we became friends. And we’ll probably do something more with him in the future.
Is his life like the TV show Entourage?
BK: It is, pretty much. Randy Emmett used to carry his bags and now he’s financing his movies. It is pretty much, with the entourage he has with him. It’s crazy guys out there. A lot of his old friends, he brings on set. But he makes them work. He’s a tough boss.
I imagine the budget for this movie was much higher than when you work in Iceland. Does it feel different, working with so much more money?
BK: Yeah, it is quite different, but at the end of the day it’s the same thing, and that’s the interesting part.
Adam Siegel: There’s enough time and never enough money.
In a way, is it harder with more money because there’s more pressure and less creative control?
BK: It is. It is harder, there is more expectations and more pressure. But at the same time, there are more complications just shooting in America instead of Iceland. There are insurance issues. Locations are more difficult, the traveling is more difficult.
AS: Well, let me tell a story. We wanted to get this great shot of the guys walking across the street with the trains in the background of the time, and on that day, it was kind of like making a movie in your backyard. Because when is the train coming? You don’t know, you don’t have a schedule, Balt needed to get the two biggest movie stars in the world to run across the street and just try to catch it.
BK: I couldn’t wait and I asked, “Are you ready to do this for me?” I had no idea. And I had them running, putting a mask on, they went three times as a fucking train was coming. So, if you approach people like that, you do it in a nice way. The stars become exactly like an Icelandic actor, just wants to do it. They get excited about it. When you see that there is still that guy, who was making his first film, wherever, in New York 30 years ago, and how it was. He’s still there; you just have to find it.
This movie was filed with practical effects, while movies this summer are so filled with CGI. Is that important to you?
BK: Absolutely. I’ll do as much as they’ll possibly allow me. Like The Deep, I was practically swimming in the ocean. Because I do think there’s gravity to it that these big CGI movies start losing. I remember when I saw Lord of the Rings, there were monsters spewing fire and all that, but when there was horses — and I’m a horse-person so maybe I’m biased — there were horses running with hoof nails, and my chest started pumping, and I just realized it’s the gravity of it. And I also think that if images and ideas are too removed from our own lives — horror movies really breathe on the things you’re afraid of as a child, things under your bed, outside the window. And these movies are the same way; you’ve got to connect with peoples’ experiences, and if it’s just a monster, it’s just ridiculous. It’s very hard. It can be very fascinating but it can be very hard to get a real gravity into it. I think if you start with the idea of always trying to get the out of what you’re shooting, then visual effects are just a tool to help you. If you start relying on visual effects, you get too far removed from what I’m interested in for filmmaking.
When you did The Deep, you dove into the freezing water yourself for a stunt.
BK: Well, I do that in any way that I possibly can. I hung upside down to show [Mark and Denzel] that it would be great. “Hanging out for two days from your feet, it’s no problem! See?”
How long did you have them hanging upside down?
BK: Oh, about two days. In the end, we had to do it twice.
AS: The funny thing is those guys fucked with Eddie through the movie, so when Eddie had them hanging upside down, he took his time.
BK: He took his time, just fucking destroyed them. He was so pleased to have those two big actors hanging there.
It’s funny to imagine two big movie stars just hanging from a bar in a shed.
BK: It was crazy. My wife walked on set that day and said, “Is that Denzel Washington” hanging there?
AS: And that’s a world champion bucking bull. Black Ice.
BK: It was funny because I came up with this idea, like let’s do this, and they were like yeah, we really like it — but who’s going to ask Denzel to do this?
So how’d you train a bull to just almost gore Denzel and Mark?
BK: That’s filmmaking right there. In Iceland, I’d just hang two guys and release a bull in there. But this is more, we have to touch it with stunt guys.
Who’s idea was it to give Denzel the fake gold teeth?
BK: I think that was his own idea. I think he came up with that himself. He approached me with it and I said that’s great, I love it. I like that, taking it in and out, it’s a badass little thing.
These movies can get confusing, and this one didn’t, even with four different plot threads.
BK: It’s a trick to keep that balance. Keeping it not too simple or obvious for a two-hour movie, but at the same time, not lose the audience.
Are there ways to avoid becoming too confusing?
BK: I always go for less, but you need to be supported, and you work your way into finding that balance where we don’t become too obvious and keep surprising the audience. It’s a fine line. I did a movie where I went too far and I’ll regret that all my life, people had no idea what they were watching. But also I learned from a film I did, Jar City — which was very successful, but also very confusing — that if you keep the emotional connection with the character, you are less frustrated if you lose a plot or two. A lot of women, for example, and I’m not saying this to be sexist, are less interested in plot than men. But if they’re invested emotionally with the characters, they’re fine.
So how do you begin approaching that story?
BK: I didn’t write it, but we had to do a lot of work. But it’s quite unconventional to have three guys who are leads. I think it makes it more exciting; that’s not what people usually see.
You’ve been doing English-language films for almost a decade now. What do you think of the Hollywood studio system?
BK: Hollywood is a state of mind; it’s not really physical. You might have a contract with a studio, but they don’t make movies there, the money doesn’t even come from there. The money comes from Russia or somewhere else; it goes into a pipeline and comes out in Hollywood. It’s an idea, which I like, an idea that you can play with. What is a Hollywood movie? Most people have an idea that a Hollywood movie is anything shot in English. Some of the biggest “Hollywood” movies are based out of the U.K. Like Harry Potter. I think when I saw Roberto Benigni get the Oscar for Best Actor, and I was like, “Really? All these years, we were in competition and just weren’t good enough for you guys? We were always being tested and you just had the best actors in the world?” Of course, that’s not the case [laughs].
When you make movies, do you think about creating a more international, broad appeal?
BK: I think when I’ve made my Icelandic movies, I’ve been aware of not making them too local. In the sense of making them so local that they become global. If you’re referring to some TV shows or something, you lose it. You can make some very authentic things that people are interested in; the more specific you are, the more global. I think the less specific you become, because you want to appeal to everyone, then that becomes very uninteresting.
You introduce Mark and Denzel a year into their relationship, and don’t spell out how they met or an “origin story.” Was there ever a conversation about revealing more?
BK: We had a conversation but we didn’t want it to feel contrived. I really loved from day one how it takes off. I don’t like those fucking first act set-up introductions. I like when they have the guts to go right into it, when you go, “Whoa, what’s going on?”