FILM: Crazy film, crazy country

Suicidally depressed in winter, just suicidal in spring and alchoholic all year. Iceland is an ideal comedy location. By Peter Guttridge
Iceland is known more for barrels of fish than laughs, but with Cold Fever, one of two films produced last year by its tiny film industry, Oscar-nominated director Fridrik Thor Fridriksson and Jim Jarmusch's regular producer Jim Stark have fashioned one of the funniest films of the year.

Cold Fever, which received its world premier at the recent Drambuie Edinburgh Film Festival, is a road movie set in the Icelandic winter of almost perpetual night and constant blizzards, on desolate, frozen roads where the commonest road sign is "Does anybody know you're travelling this way?" Japanese actor and rock star, Masatoshi Nagase, best known in this country for Jarmusch's Mystery Train, plays a young employee in a Tokyo fish company forced to spend his one week's annual vacation not playing golf in Hawaii as planned but trekking in winter to a remote corner of Iceland to perform a memorial service for his dead parents.

Fish don't get much further out of water than this. En route through the surreal winter landscape, dressed in smart city clothes, he visits Iceland's number one tourist attraction - the hot pond formed by the overspill of water from an electricity generating plant - stumbles upon a colony of Icelandic cowboys in stetsons and spurs, gets drunk on Black Death, the national liquor, and ends up in bed with a cooked sheep's head, an Icelandic culinary speciality. (Others include ram's testicles and fermented shark.)

What is most surreal about the film is that this is Iceland as it really is. Although the country has more Nobel prize-winners and more Miss Worlds per capita than any country in the world, it also has more sheep than people. And a good proportion of the people who are there are suicidally depressed in winter, merely suicidal come spring and alcoholic all year round.

"Yes, but we have the best cleaning in the world," Fridriksson says, deadpan. At 41, he is Iceland's foremost film director, single-handedly almost quadrupling Iceland's film production this year by producing six films and directing another (Devil Island, about ghetto dwellers in Reykjavik).

"Cold Fever is the first Icelandic film to be shot there in winter, largely because it's such a stupid thing to do," he says. "You have only four or five hours of daylight each day and you lose a lot of days to the weather. We say: `We don't have weather, we have examples of weather' in Iceland because it changes all the time - one minute brilliant sunshine, the next freezing rain or vicious blizzards. It makes continuity very difficult."

Much of the film, therefore, is improvised. "For locations I just drove as far as I could until the car went off the road," Fridriksson says. "That's where we set up the camera." Almost daily snowstorms made even the shortest trip to these locations a major adventure. One camera car went over a cliff. The car was completely destroyed, though the crew and camera inside were unharmed. It was tough on the actors, who include Lili Taylor and Fisher Stevens (Michelle Pfeiffer's ex-) giving wonderful star turns as hitch-hikers from hell.

The film, which cost $1.4m but looks spectacular, took two months to shoot (including 10 days in Tokyo) then another month for second unit shots. Iceland has limited facilities - "we don't have dailies, we have weeklies because we have to send them to London for processing" - although Fridriksson now has his own state of the art post-production facilities.

The Icelandic film industry was only established in 1979. Each year, the government puts up $1m and a score of film directors fight over it. The 250,000 population go to the country's 50 cinema screens some 11 times each per year and happily pay double to see Icelandic films. "You can get half the nation to see one of your films," Fridriksson says. His Oscar- nominated Children of Nature played for 19 months at one screen.

Fridriksson, self-educated in cinematography, made his first feature in 1980. Before then, he had run a film society and set up the Reykjavik film festival. "I was always on the way to film school - I had been making 8mm film since I was 14 years old - but I decided to dedicate my life to showing films. It was a very small society so I was the projectionist too. As a projectionist, everything becomes yours. Even though it's by Fellini, the film is yours."

After his Oscar nomination he was offered a number of films in America. He turned them all down because nobody would give him the all-important final cut. "I quite understand that they are reluctant to give you the final cut but that's what I need." So he stays in Iceland, even though he is subject to occasional idiocies, such as accusations that his Children of Nature encouraged suicide.

"Total nonsense. I am a very optimistic film-maker. Though I recognise some of Iceland's problems. Yes, we have a drink problem - but it's because Iceland has never treated alcohol like a normal thing. Beer wasn't allowed until 1989. We used to trade with Spain: fish for wine. But there weren't enough people to drink the wine so they saw no reason to allow beer in. Now people are simply making up for lost time."

Fridriksson, who admits Japanese directors have had a big influence on him, sees many similarities between Iceland and Japan. "Both are volcanic islands. Both depend on fishing and sea faring. Both are fascinated by stories of ancient warriors and old battles and, of course, with witches, ghosts and spirits of all kind. But Japan is changing very fast. You turn on the TV in Tokyo and all you see is baseball. Somehow I can't see that catching on in Iceland."

n `Cold fever' is reviewed on page 11