TLG scouts Iceland with Dark Knight Rises and Bourne Location Managers
Wind buffets us at the edge of civilisation. We’re exploring the remote heights of an Icelandic glacier and the elements are angry. Our car rocks from side to side but the glacier ignores us. Ilt Jones is braving a photo. He struggles to close the door behind him: “Wow! Just... wow! It’s nippy!”
The Location Guide is scouting filming locations in Iceland, travelling with renowned Location Managers Ilt Jones and Dow Griffith. We’re guided by Árni Björn Helgason of Reykjavik-based production company Sagafilm. Dow chuckles when even taking a picture through the open car window proves risky: “Wind wants my hat and my camera!”
As vast as they are epic, the lava plains are an ancient record of a geological past that was every bit as dramatic and turbulent eight million years ago as the Iceland of modern times.
My first experience of Iceland is a black void apparently stretching into the infinite on either side of the road. Árni drives me the 40 minutes from Keflavik Airport to Reykjavik city centre at midnight and smiles: “Those are the lava plains...”
By the light of day the lava plains of southern Iceland are a mesmerising sight. As vast as they are epic, they’re an ancient record of a geological past that was every bit as dramatic and turbulent eight million years ago as the Iceland of modern times. Frozen in pre-history, the lava fields roll lazily from the mountains to the sea.
Travelling with Ilt and Dow is an unparalleled snapshot into the Location Manager’s process. Viewing their surroundings from a filmmaker’s perspective, they still find the time to appreciate the arresting and raw drama that Iceland offers with such intimidating ease. They’re always keen to share memories of past experiences and reflect on how location scouting is hardly an exact science.
As we run out of road on a glacier high above where Ben Stiller is prepping his shoot day for The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Dow smiles: “Hitchcock was notorious for gliding around in his limousine and when he’d reached a potential filming spot he’d wind down the window just a little, glance out and say ‘That’ll do’.
There’s nothing like a violent sandstorm and the gravelly whoosh of volcanic sand scraping on a car window and rocking the suspension to heighten a sense of adventure.
“On Proof of Life the Director Taylor Hackford took a very hands-on and adventurous approach to scouting in South America. He’d take the lead hacking his way through the jungle. He’d never ask anything of anyone that he wouldn’t do himself.”
The elements roundly embrace us from the get-go as we navigate Iceland’s southern coastal road, with uncharacteristic high winds both battering and relentless. There’s nothing like a violent sandstorm and the gravelly whoosh of volcanic sand scraping on a car window and rocking the suspension to heighten a sense of adventure. The road is sometimes elusive as gale-force sand plays havoc with visibility.
Our intention is to check out some locations used recently by Darren Aronofsky for his upcoming biblical epic Noah. Despite Árni’s nerveless hands at the wheel, we’re eventually beaten by the sandstorm, but as we marvel at the drama whipping itself into a frenzy outside the car, Ilt shares some enthusiastic stories of working with Michael Bay on three Transformers movies: “More often than not there’s a fun, exciting atmosphere on Michael’s sets and you always know that everyone, in every department, is going to be the absolute best at what they do. It’s a real buzz.”
We find ourselves facing drama in the most menial of tasks one moment as the wind grapples hungrily at the open car door against the backdrop of the passive cracked bulk of a glacier. Then suddenly we’re able to appreciate the wind-sculpted beauty of a sapphire-blue ice floe in a sheltered glacial lagoon.
The accessibility is a major factor and gives Iceland an edge over places like Alaska. The locations look great and they're easy to get to.
Dow Griffith, Location Manager
HBO’s Game of Thrones was a recent visitor and we pick among blustery black-sand slopes to find the best vantage point of the Fjallsarlon glacier. Ilt disappears from view for a few minutes, before retracing his steps back through the sand and adjusting the lens of his DSLR: “Terrific angles from down there. It was a really great idea coming to this spot!”
The practicalities of Iceland’s vivid landscapes are welcome to both Ilt and Dow. A studio may sometimes find reasons to dismiss the notion of committing time and energy to this volcanic country just south of the Arctic Circle, but Iceland is young, energetic and good at making you feel like civilisation is just a façade. It’s also more film-friendly than many of the national parks in the US, which are the natural points of comparison for many American productions.
Dow updates notes on his iPad and nods to himself as we leave the Fjallsarlon glacier: “The accessibility is a major factor and gives Iceland an edge over places like Alaska. The locations look great and they're easy to get to. Also, places like these in other parts of the world, which are both above timberline and glaciated, tend to be at high altitudes, which can cause problems for the crew in terms of acclimatisation. Everything here is at sea level.”
Travelling via the thundering grandeur of the Gullfoss waterfall near Reykjavik – a “world-class location” in Ilt’s view – we drive across the desolate moonscape and continuing ancient lava plains of Iceland’s Southern Peninsula. This is the closest I’ll ever get to experiencing firsthand anything like the views that NASA’s rover Curiosity is beaming back from Mars on a daily basis. I only hope Curiosity has a few Led Zeppelin tracks too – it complements the landscape rather well.
The views on the Peninsula are apocalyptic, bleak and savagely beautiful, and I still count three bars on my phone. Close to central tourist attraction The Blue Lagoon, Árni shows us an enormous pressure valve set up specifically to release the volcanic gases brewing moodily beneath our feet. The valve whistles with such a piercing intensity that I have to cover my ears as we drive past. Rocks idly smoulder sulphurous fumes nearby in this tense and animalistic world.
Fading afternoon light has a stirring effect on imposing mountain peaks with immense gravelly buttresses and combines with stark northern sunsets to create rich and atmospheric textures. Unsurprisingly both Ilt and Dow have an eye for a good photo and take care to manoeuvre people or objects into the right spot to get an accurate sense of scale.
Sagafilm offers a very professional and knowledgeable service. Their personnel are highly experienced and - possibly most importantly - understand the needs of a US crew.
Ilt Jones, Location Manager
Ilt considers his words as I ask him for his impressions of the country as a whole: “I'd call it diverse, quirky and topographically spectacular.”
He also credits our hosts: “Sagafilm offers a very professional and knowledgeable service. Their personnel are highly experienced and - possibly most importantly - understand the needs of a US crew, both in terms of the locations and things like hotels, restaurants and other ancillary services. I was very, very impressed by their set up.”
I leave Iceland as I arrived, only this time in the darkness of early morning. Once again the lava plains lurk invisibly in the inky distance but the red wisps of sunrise reach curiously across the eastern sky. The edge of civilisation is an exhilarating place to be.
To read about Dow Griffith's career please click here.
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