Icelandic writer-director Hlynur Pálmason discusses his latest feature A White, White Day, an intense character study about a widower consumed by loneliness
“My films divide waters,” Hlynur Pálmason admits, dryly. “They’re arthouse films. People are afraid of that.” The Icelandic writer-director is speaking specifically about a surreal segment in his latest feature, A White, White Day. For the most part, A White, White Day is an intense, slow-burn character study about a widower consumed with grief, loneliness, and increasingly violent urges. Then a young girl switches on a TV and watches a children’s show. The presenter – a fictional, Icelandic version of Ant and Dec – screams to the young audience: “Life is too short! Everyone dies! Our dreams die!” It goes on and on. “All of you, sitting at home, will all die! I am so afraid!”
A White, White Day, then, subverts expectations. One might glean a certain kind of twisty revenge-thriller from the plot synopsis: Ingimundur (Ingvar Sigurdsson – awarded Best Actor at Cannes Critics’ Week last year) investigates the possibility his late wife was having an affair when she died. Ingimundur hunts down clues in rural Iceland, and even joins a football team to stalk a suspect. Yet Pálmason is more concerned with viewers soaking up Ingimundur’s sadness via osmosis. Often, Pálmason will cut to wordless, static montages of the weather changing; one whole minute is dedicated to a single rock falling down a cliff into the bottom of the ocean. In other words, come for the noir storyline, but stay for the chilly, desolate landscape reflecting a broken man’s fractured psyche and existential despair.
Shot on 35mm with snowy cinematography so immersive you need to wear a scarf, A White, White Day was supposed to have been released exclusively in cinemas. Due to the pandemic, it can now be viewed safely at home, with or without a scarf, on BFI Player, Curzon Home Cinema, Vimeo, and other VOD options. Pálmason speaks with Dazed below, in a conversation from last year’s London Film Festival.
You have an opening quote: “On such days when everything is white, and there is no longer any difference between the earth and the sky, then the dead can talk to us who are still living.” It’s credited to an unknown source. Did you make that up?
Hlynur Pálmason: It’s an old saying in Iceland. You’re in a place where it’s completely white, and you can’t see anything. It’s a visually beautiful place to be, but very eerie. Everything is hidden. There’s a dark possibility of something. It’s like life – there are big contrasts of beauty and brutality.
How long did it take to shoot the montages of the seasons passing?
Hlynur Pálmason: I shot the house for two years while working on the script. I had a 35mm camera in my trunk. At first, I was filming it every day, and then it was two times a week. In the first edit, it was 15 minutes long.
Sometimes films will just say “TWO YEARS LATER”. I didn’t want to do that. With a film, time is the material you work with. I wanted to really experience the passing of time. The seasons explore life and death: the grass dies, and it comes to life again. It’s all in a dialogue with the film. The temperament of the weather, and the world around us, shapes us.
The 35mm cinematography is extremely effective with the negative space. Are you a hardcore celluloid fanatic? When I saw Winter Brothers at the London Film Festival in 2017, it was projected on 16mm.
Hlynur Pálmason: I learned photography before I went to film school. Film is an emotional format. I really like the skin tones and the movement. There’s latitude in the film negative itself. If I’m doing a long scene, it’ll be working really, really well – and suddenly the sun comes up, and it goes down.
When it’s pitch black, you can still see the grain of the film – it’s almost a poetic reminder of Ingimundur’s repressed emotions.
Hlynur Pálmason: I agree. It’s boiling – and alive.
Did you do much research into grief?
Hlynur Pálmason: I’m at the age where I’m losing people I really love, like my grandparents. I wanted to go deep into missing someone. I like the idea of him losing someone and not being able to deal with it. It’s as if he can’t heal.
There’s a brief detour with a kids’ TV show where the presenter tells the young audience that death is inescapable. Are you interested in the idea that a stranger in a ridiculous costume on TV is more honest to children than their parents are?
Hlynur Pálmason: I never thought about why I was writing it. I was just laughing, so I went with it. I remember screening it for the first time to the producers and financiers. Some of them were saying, “This scene with the TV – are we keeping that?” (laughs) I was like, “Yeah, totally. It’s not going anywhere.”
I don’t know if the right word is “naïve”. But I film the scenes I want to film, and put them together. If I have a scene and it stops, I don’t care if I didn’t tell what needs to be told.
If your film was remade in America, I suppose the kids’ TV show might not make it in.
Hlynur Pálmason: Well, my films – definitely with Winters Brothers – divide the audience. It’s natural, because people are used to linear films, where everything is understandable. But that’s uninteresting and untruthful. Life isn’t like that. Life is not linear. It’s very fluid, and there’s a lot of ambiguity. You don’t know what’s going on. I’ve tried to do that in my films.
The sound design creates so much tension – with the footsteps and the river in the background. Maybe that’s just normal to you, if you live in Iceland?
Hlynur Pálmason: I moved from Copenhagen to that house, actually.
“I wanted to go deep into missing someone. I like the idea of him losing someone and not being able to deal with it” – Hlynur Pálmason
The actual house in the film?
Hlynur Pálmason: Yeah. In the early stages of any project, I always have my field recorder, and I record sounds. I try to find out: What season is it? What kind of birds are flying now? Are we late summer? When you’re in the edit, you’ve been over the film a million times, and you lose your stamina. So it’s good to do all that pre-work with the sound, because you can always go to that database.
What about bringing Edmund Finnis on to do the score? Was that also before the shoot?
Hlynur Pálmason: I had a completely different idea of the tone of the music. I thought it would be brass instruments. And it didn’t click. The collaboration never got interesting because the composer wasn’t given enough time. It didn’t work out.
And I had been a big of Edmund Finnis, who is a British composer. I heard his music, and immediately contacted him. We started talking, and I sent him images and video of things I was working on. We thought my next project would be our first collaboration. But I told him it wasn’t going well with the composer I was working with.
He sent me these new recordings with the London Contemporary Orchestra. Me and my editor were sitting there, and we were just blown away. It just fit the tone. It just worked. It was so strange.
So did you send Edmund the original composer’s brass music and say, “Not like this”?
Hlynur Pálmason: (laughs) Yeah, exactly. It’s strange. You have all kinds of ideas. But in the end, what works, works.
Your use of “Memories” by Leonard Cohen at the end is very bittersweet: he’s still grieving his wife, but has a new person in his life.
Hlynur Pálmason: I like when scenes go to different places at the same time. When you have children, it’s a simple, unconditional love. With a lover, it’s something only you have together – you are physically in contact, and it’s what makes a romantic relationship special and unique. I wanted to portray this moment together. Also, Leonard’s words, and the tone of his music, especially that CD, fit the character’s age.
You cast your own daughter as the granddaughter, Salka. Does Ingimundur and Salka’s relationship mirror your relationship with your daughter? He calls her a “young brat” at one point.
Hlynur Pálmason: It’s very personal. Ingimundur is a couple of per cent me, some per cent my father, some per cent my grandfather, and some per cent my uncle and people I know. Salka was written for my daughter. I tried to write the way she talks. She’s like a butterfly. It helps to know the people, and how they walk and talk.
So do you want your daughter to be the next Elle Fanning?
Hlynur Pálmason: The next Elle Fanning? I’ve never thought about it, no (laughs).
You’ve explored repressed emotions and toxic masculinity in Winter Brothers and now A White, White Day. Is this your filmmaking obsession?
Hlynur Pálmason: People talk a lot about “toxic masculinity”. I don’t know what that is. But I think it’s very normal to keep your deepest problems and feelings to yourself.
“People are used to linear films, where everything is understandable. But that’s uninteresting and untruthful. Life isn’t like that. Life is not linear. It’s very fluid, and there’s a lot of ambiguity” – Hlynur Pálmason
And at the end, Ingimundur has tears in his eyes, but tells his granddaughter, “I’m not crying – I’m just very, very tired”. He can’t even admit he’s crying.
Hlynur Pálmason: He comes from a generation where if you have children, you put on an armour and automatically put on a role. But it’s not my role as an artist to dictate to people how things are. I’m asking questions. I don’t have answers. I would never work on a preconceived statement of any kind. The film would die on the floor if I started thinking like that.
What’s your next film about?
Hlynur Pálmason: It’s a period film about a young, ambitious priest. He has this 8x10 glass plate camera. He’s sailing towards Iceland to build a church, and to photograph the process. When he comes to Iceland, he meets a guide that is supposed to transport him and his people to a very isolated place where the church is built. It becomes a very strange relationship full of love and hate.
Have you finished a script?
Hlynur Pálmason: I’ve been writing it since 2014. I’ve written probably six drafts.
You’re hoping to shoot soon?
Hlynur Pálmason: We are in preparation. I’m shooting two scenes from the film that take, like, a year. I’ve started that now. After a year, when I’m done with those scenes, hopefully we’ll be ready for principal photography, which we’ll do after that.
The funny thing is, when you’re writing something, and then you do another one like A White, White Day, your view of things completely change. I have to rewrite the whole thing and change it so much, it’s insane. So right now, I’m doing this intense rewrite.
Is your next film also based on your interest in photography? I believe you did a photography exhibition called A White Day as a precursor to A White, White Day.
Hlynur Pálmason: Yeah. Photography captures moments, and also manipulates and creates moments. It’s ambitious. You’re creating a world. He’s doing that in the film. He’s not necessarily documenting it, but he’s creating his view of things. And I find that fascinating. I love the idea of going to a land that’s so new that there are no roads. It’s almost like it’s not happened.
A White White Day is being released by Peccadillo Pictures on digital platforms from July 3