As hero stories go, the epic Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf is the granddaddy
of them all, with its original manuscript today under lock and key in
the British Library in London. Written around AD1000 after generations
of oral recounting, Beowulf tells the story of a great Norse warrior
from around the 6th century who slays the monster Grendel that has been
terrorizing the neighboring kingdom of Daneland.
According to the online translation/adaptation written by Dr. David
Breeden (www.lone-star.net/literature/beowulf), the original Grendel is
an archetypical baddie begging to be hero-smacked. Breeden translates
the description of Grendel as "the foe of God, who had long troubled the
spirits of men with his crimes." However, as adapted by writer Andrew
Rai Berzins (Cowboys and Indians: The J.J. Harper Story) and versatile
veteran director Sturla Gunnarsson (100 Days in the Jungle), the
monster's blackness fades into moral grayness, while the shining
whiteness of Beowulf's quest dims to the same ambiguous tone.
"Our Beowulf is a warrior who goes overseas on what he thinks is a
righteous quest," Gunnarsson tells Playback. But once he meets Grendel -
not a mythic monster, but a flesh-and-blood troll seeking vengeance for
a wrong committed by Beowulf's friend, King Hrothgar - the hero's moral
certainty starts to crumble. "In the end, Beowulf finds himself in the
middle of a tribal war where nothing is what it seems."
This decision to align the Beowulf epic with modern sensibilities -
including undertones of the U.S. War on Iraq - is central to the plot of
Beowulf & Grendel. "We didn't want to make a museum piece or a literal
illustration of the original poem," Gunnarsson says. "We wanted the film
to be meaningful to the times we live in."
Beowulf & Grendel stands to benefit from audience fascination with
ancient warriors on the heels of the Lord of the Rings films, and from
the rising stardom of lead actor Gerard Butler, who enjoyed
international attention for his performance in the film version of The
Phantom of the Opera. It is out of the gate well ahead of Robert
Zemeckis' announced Beowulf, which will be computer animated.
March 2001: Gunnarsson and Berzins set up the Beowulf & Grendel project
at Alliance Atlantis, "which developed it with the intention of
producing it," Gunnarsson says.
June 2001: Gunnarsson brings Berzins to Iceland (the director's
birthplace) to introduce him to the landscape and culture of the film
before the latter sets out to write the first-draft screenplay.
A coproduction partnership is subsequently formed with Fridrik Thor
Fridriksson at the Icelandic Film Corporation.
November 2001: Berzins completes a first draft of the script, which is
met with enthusiasm and sets the film in motion. The production is
budgeted at $15 million, and Alliance Atlantis begins looking for
partners. The strategy is to make the film as a Canada/Iceland/U.K.
2002: When Alliance Atlantis begins its protracted retreat from Canadian
production, Gunnarsson and Berzins reacquire rights to the screenplay.
Gunnarsson travels to London to meet with potential U.K. coproducers.
Several are interested; they end up dealing with Sarah Radclyffe
December 2002: Paul Stephens and Eric Jordan of The FilmWorks, which
collaborated previously with Gunnarsson on the feature Such a Long
Journey, offer to come on board as Canadian producers. Stephens and
Jordan negotiate an agreement with Gunnarsson and Berzins.
March 2003: Michael Mosca of Equinoxe Films agrees to distribute the
film. Arclight Films will handle foreign sales.
August 2003: Telefilm Canada agrees to invest. The Movie Network and The
Harold Greenberg Fund are also contributors. At this point, Icelandic
and U.K. funding remains uncommitted.
September 2003: Nick Dudman (the Harry Potter films, Batman Begins)
agrees to design prosthetics for the film. Conceptual work on the troll
October 2003: Radclyffe's funding evaporates after the Department for
Culture, Media and Sport revises U.K. copro rules. Spice Factory steps
in as the U.K. coproducer.
January 2004: Gunnarsson and Stephens travel to Iceland to meet with the
minister of industry regarding the country's portion of financing.
February 2004: The Icelandic Film Centre and Icelandic Innovation Fund
agree to invest in the film.
March 2004: Casting director Pam Dixon (The Company) agrees to cast the
April 2004: Gunnarsson meets with Butler at the Tribeca Film Festival,
where the actor's Dear Frankie is screening. "We hit it off and he liked
the script," says Gunnarsson. "He became our Beowulf."
May 2004: Stellan Skarsgård (King Arthur) and Sarah Polley sign on.
Skarsgård will play King Hrothgar, while Polley will take on the role of
Selma. The Canada/Iceland/U.K. crew is assembled. Gunnarsson travels to
Iceland to begin prepping for a summer shoot. Winnipeg-born director of
photography Jan Kiesser, who lensed Gunnarsson's Rare Birds, will be
behind the camera.
September 2004: Hurdles in closing financing delay shooting, but $17
million is finally raised. The first day of principal photography
finally begins on the south coast of Iceland. The Arctic winter is
approaching and light is diminishing by six minutes each day.
December 2004: Shooting in Iceland wraps up after cast and crew have
endured "the stormiest autumn in 60 years," Gunnarsson says. "We lost
four base camps - they just blew away. One day we lost eight vehicles to
wind - just blown off the road or had their windows blown out by flying
rocks. We had wind gusting at 160 kilometers. By the last day of
production, we were down to five-and-a-half hours of daylight." Just
before Christmas, Gunnarsson returns to Toronto to work with editor Jeff
Warren at Tattersall Picture & Sound.
April 2005: Editing wraps. Composer Hilmar 'rn Hilmarsson (In the Cut)
begins to compose the score.
June 2005: The score is recorded in London and Reykjavik. The music and
audio is mixed at Casablanca Magnetic North in Toronto.
July 2005: TIFF programmers select Beowulf & Grendel as a special
presentation at the fest. "We haven't actually seen a film print from
the [digital intermediate] yet," Gunnarsson said at press time. "I
expect that the print will probably still be wet from the lab when we
(Article by James Careless)
On its most basic level, this is a film about primal fear, severed heads
and things that lurk in the shadows of a stark northern landscape - the
story of a people terrorized by a bloodthirsty troll and the hero who
comes to vanquish it. It takes place in a powerful landscape - the west
fjords of Iceland, where Europe’s biggest glacier meets the North
Atlantic - a land of volcanos, lava fields, black sands, waterfalls and
brooding ocean. A dusky, primordial land of endless twilight, where
people huddle together against the barren, haunted land that surrounds
It is loosely adapted from the Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf, the
archetype of the western hero myth as we know it. While the story is
medieval, the interpretation is contemporary. The aim is not to
illustrate the myth, but to re-interpret it from a modern perspective.
Our mythic hero, Beowulf, is not a simple man acting out a simple
morality. He is a complex, thinking character, aware of the myth that
has grown up around him, even as he grows to question the righteousness
of his quest. The troll, Grendel, is not the supernatural embodiment of
evil portrayed in the poem, but rather a creature of the natural world,
capable of the same basic feelings as the men who hunt him. Thus,
thematically, the story becomes an exploration of tribalism, of Man’s
impulse to kill that which he doesn’t understand.
The look and action of the film is elemental - you will be able to smell
the blood when it flows. We will use some digital effects, but this is
in essence, an analogue film. Grendel is bound by the laws of nature.
His strength is that of a four hundred pound creature of exceptional
speed and cunning, driven by a powerful bloodlust, exuding the aura of
invincibility. His arms can break a neck, his claws eviscerate a man and
his rank smell can make you pass out, but the important thing about him
is his character - his ability to feel rage, fear, loneliness, humour.
His face and body will be prosthetically sculpted and he will learn a
range of movements unique to the troll clan, much like the actors at the
beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey, who became apes through their
mastery of primate body language. His power will be enhanced through
stunt choreography and wire work and his speed with digital effects. But most importantly, he will have
at his core an essence of humanity that makes him a worthy adversary to
Beowulf and gives his inevitable death a tragic dimension.
The tone of the story will be leavened with humour, striving for an
effect not unlike that of Unforgiven, where the conventions of a
familiar genre apply, but the characters’ self-awareness (and that of
the filmmakers) temper its earnestness.
On a personal level, Beowulf & Grendel represents an exploration
of my own tribal roots through the prism of my adopted culture and adapt
it to my understanding of the twenty-first century world we live in.