Film writer Freddie Deighton got a chance to talk to the director of A24’s new horror film, Lamb, Valdimar Jóhannsson. Read on as they get to talking about childhood, farming and David Lynch…
So for all the budding directors out there, what steps did you have to take to get your directorial feature debut produced by A24?
They just came on board when the film was almost finished. I have amazing producers Hrönn (Kristindóttir) and Sara (Nassim) and they were the people that believed in it but I’m very glad that A24 thought it was interesting enough to fit their category. They saw a work in progress trailer in Berlin and that grabbed their interest.
A general word of advice for working in film is to never work with children or animals, how much did challenging this contribute to the inception of this film?
I knew going in that making this film would be impossible because we were working with ten children, four lambs, a lot of sheep, a cat, a dog and some horses too. In a way though it wasn’t as hard as I thought it was going to be because we had a great crew and I think that that was the key. We had two animal wranglers, farmers and a big part of the crew had lived in the countryside or on a farm. Just giving them time and patience and animals will always give you what you want…in the end.
I did notice that the animals in Lamb were great actors, this approach must have helped then?
Yeah we were very prepared. We had all the shots planned and we had back ups if what we initially wanted wasn’t going to work. Everyone was just so invested in this project, the teamwork was amazing though we were probably lucky with the animals as well.
How far along in the pre-production process did you get Noomi Rapace involved in the project?
I think it was probably between one to one and a half years before shooting. She liked the project and she had some time between other projects. She really wanted to do it, she had been brought up in Iceland since she was six, she speaks the language and she grew up on a farm. We did have her in mind for a long time but we were extremely happy when she came on board.
It sounds as though the story is quite a personal one for Noomi, is it the same for you?
In many ways, but maybe not the story itself. There are lots of things I relate to; my grandparents were sheep farmers and I spent a lot of my childhood with them at the farm. I also grew up in a very small village close to the farm, I know this farm life very well.
Was Noomi actually delivering those lambs in the film?
Yes that was on the first day of shooting in fact. She had never done it before so she came a day before we started shooting and watched a farmer doing it. Then she was just waiting until there was a sheep giving birth and she’d run in and do it. It was the same day that she was doing the scenes where she drove the tractor. She’s a trooper.
And has she ever lived on a farm before?
Yes she had but I don’t think her farm had sheep.
Does Ada have any sort of origins in Icelandic or Scandinavian folklore?
Not that I’m aware of. I haven’t seen a creature like that. There could be.
So where does Ada come from then?
I have to admit that I’m not totally sure where. But in this look book I did in the beginning, I did a lot of drawings of Ada and she’s almost the same as she is in the film. That was one of the first elements that I came up with, I knew that it would be Ada with sheep farmers.
When Noomi is talking to Ada when she’s more grown up, what’s she looking at as a reference?
It depends on the scene you’re watching. Most of the scenes we shot with children, real lambs and puppets. Sometimes it’s CGI and sometimes it’s a real lamb.
How much do we see puppets in the film?
I don’t have an exact number but it’s not very often. There were small elements like a hoof. The whole process was a mixture of so many elements.
How remote was the farm you filmed on?
It’s one hour and fifty minutes from the nearest town. I had been looking for a farm for I don’t know how long. I drew the farm that I wanted and we drove around Iceland a few times and didn’t find it. But my brother sent me a photo of this one (everyone was helping me out in the end). This was actually pretty close to where I grew up and I’d never been there before. Nobody had lived there for twenty five years so we could go there and somehow make it into the home we wanted for María (Rapace) and Ingvar (Guõnason). It was surrounded by these beautiful, scary mountains, we could shoot almost 360 degrees and out of every window. Then we could work with the sheep from the next farm over which wasn’t too far away.
The house looks very nice in the film, I take it that took some renovating after being abandoned for twenty five years?
We worked a lot on it. We painted everything and renovated it. My production designer did amazing things. I went there recently, it’s totally empty again now. It’s strange to come back to it and see how it is without all of our changes.
You didn’t think about selling it on as property then?
There was a farmer that just gave us permission to be there. But I think after we’d been there they had more plans for it.
The film feels very intimately shot, how big was the crew?
I think with everybody, we had about thirty two people. It was the smallest crew that Noomi had ever worked with. We were shooting for thirty two days as well funnily enough.
Can you comment on any themes or interpretations Lamb and its story has? I myself saw it as an allegory for what it means to be a parent, am I in the right ballpark there?
Yeah, you’re right. I somehow feel that nobody can be wrong because I left it open and I really want the audience to get out of it what they think because I think it’s so boring if I just explain what I had in mind. I made this film because I really wanted to make a film that I wanted to see, I achieved that. But I also wanted to make it for the audience so that they could be a part of it in a way that I can’t explain everything for them. I trust them to come up with their own interpretation of the film.
It sounds to me like you’re quite inspired by David Lynch, he’s very secretive about the meaning of his films and you seem to be taking the same approach. Were you going for a Lynchian vibe and will the next film you make be in a similar vain?
I do like David Lynch as a director. I’m not quite sure what I’ll do. I’ll just say that I’m very open to explore more and I want to try to do something that’s not similar to Lamb. But I have thought that now I haven’t had so much time to think about my next project. I really want to do all kinds of stuff.
Are you in contact with A24 in preparation for your next film?
We’re on good terms at the moment but I’ve been travelling since Cannes and I’m still travelling – I’m in London now, of course. I can’t wait to go home, have a break. I think I need some headspace to figure out what I want to do next.
Lamb releases in cinemas on December 10