Sjón Sigurdsson wields some impressive credentials in the world of European culture. The Icelandic novelist/poet won the Nordic Council Literary Prize for The Blue Fox and Best Icelandic Novel for The Whispering Muse. (His novels have been translated into 25 languages.) His involvement with new-wave experimental music led to collaborating with Lars von Trier on Dancer in the Dark, for which he scored an Oscar nomination for the song ‘I’ve Seen it All’. (He also penned several songs for Björk’s latest project, Biophilia). He’s the president of the Icelandic PEN Centre, an initiative to help foster storytelling skills across generations and continents, as well as the chairman of the board of Reykjavik, UNESCO city of Literature. Oh, and he wrote the film that’s been called the worst in the history of Icelandic cinema, Reykjavik Whale Watching Massacre.
“This film was made for fun. It’s a typical B-movie,” Sigurdsson says in defence of his only script to date “I was sitting in a terrible hotel in Italy, with very weird glass art everywhere and a fish tank full of algae and dead fish and, after one too many, I just said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if there was a film called Reykjavik Whale Watching Massacre?’ Adding, “The title tells it all, like a good B-movie title should!”
Sigurdsson is speaking to SBS Film from his home in the Icelandic capital on the eve of his first trip to Australia, where he will be involved in a number of events at the Sydney Writer’s Festival and join Irish author Roddy Doyle on stage in Melbourne as part of the ‘Ten Writers, Five Double-bills’ series. He will present a late-night screening of the film in Sydney and hopes that Australian audiences will appreciate the work for what it is.
“One of the problems of our time is that everybody is taking themselves so seriously,” he proclaims. “There’s no space for fun, for doing things for the heck of it! We had a great title and a script that was absolutely nasty. It is an exercise in total nihilism; everybody deserves to die.”
He cares very little for the opinions of critics, who have both championed and derided his past creativity. “I come from a background in surrealism and new-wave music, so I just don’t give a damn if somebody feels a trashy horror film does not fit in the career of this respectable author. I could find artistic excuses for the film’s worth, but it doesn’t need it. [I’m happy] for it just to be the gritty horror film it is.”
Sigurdsson is entirely open about the inspiration for his film: Tobe Hooper’s ground-breaking classic, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. “That film made a big splash in Iceland when it was released. Not only because of its violence and its new approach to horror but because of its actor, one Gunnar Hansen!” he declares. The original Leatherface, Iceland-born Hansen was cast in …Massacre by director Júlíus Kemp at Sigurdsson’s insistence. “People were disputing whether we should be proud of him or not,” says the writer, “but I think in the end, we were very proud.”
Sigurdsson may face some probing questions from Australian audiences regarding the portrayal of several ethnic characters in the film. Amongst the massacred whale watchers (it’s no spoiler – look at the title!) are a shrill American blonde, an obnoxiously drunk Euro-yuppie, three middle-aged British women that scowl at their fellow travellers and a sexist Asian husband with an immoral, ruthless 20-something daughter. Add to the mix a sociopathic lighthouse-keeper who feigns mental illness to make a profit and there’s plenty to put the politically correct offside.
Posed with this viewpoint, Sigurdsson almost yells down the line. “It is absolutely stereotypes!” he exclaims. “That is the attitude [that pervades] the whole whale-watching trip. None of them like each other, they are all up against each other.” Their portrayal plays into the writer’s intent to create a cross-section of reprehensible characters representing humanity’s worst. “It really is that nihilistic world, where man is cruel to man, and we were prepared to go all the way with that, where nobody is sympathetic. We were determined to find the most negative side to all the characters.”
Sigurdsson gives himself a big laugh with his next observation, though. “I think we save ourselves by being completely politically correct in making our hero an African-Canadian gay man!”
Sjón Sigurdsson understands why this film did not please his countrymen. The whaling industry has collapsed under the lobbying might of conservation groups (“Green Piss”, one character states) and doesn’t need its brethren portrayed as harpoon-wielding psychos. The small domestic film industry also has lofty artistic goals which obviously doesn’t include genre gore.
Sigurdsson, who draws a great deal of satisfaction from Reykjavik Whale Watching Massacre’s international sales success, is unrepentant. “We are not making this film for the Icelandic tourism board or to pump up the egos of the Icelandic public,” he says. “And we are not trying to do what the rest of the Icelandic film industry is doing, which is to make respectable films which they can then go and show abroad and show our country in a good light. Our film is like the bad brother, who is always shut out the back and turns up to spoil the party.”
Sjón Sigurdsson will introduce a screening of Reykjavik Whale Watching Massacre as part of the Sydney Writers' Festival on May 19.