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Turning an Icelandic hit into an Aussie drama

by Don Groves

Miranda Richardson has joined Sam Neill and Michael Caton in Jeremy Sims’ Rams, a re-imagining of Icelandic drama Hrútar, the saga of two warring brothers.

Now shooting in Mt Barker in WA’s Great Southern region, the film is the result of more than two years’ hard work by the producers, Janelle Landers and Aidan O’Bryan of WA-based WBMC.

In 2016 the producers were looking for directors for another project when London-based agent Camille McCurry recommended her client, Icelandic writer-director Grímur Hákonarson.

Landers and O’Bryan knew his film Hrútar had won the best film at Un Certain Regard at the Cannes Film Festival in 2015 but neither had seen it. McCurry sent them a link to the film, which they immediately saw the subject as ripe for re-imagining as an Australian film and bought the adaptation rights. “We were amazed that no one had snapped it up,” says Landers.

The Aussies, whose credits include Ben C. Lucas’ OtherLife and Wasted on the Young and Julius Averys’ Son of a Gun, met with Hákonarson and his producer Grímar Jónsson at the Cannes Film Festival in 2016.

The Icelanders readily agreed to serve as consultants and the producers hired Jules Duncan, a former TV reporter who had been working on another project for WBMC, family film Pandamonium, which was ultimately shelved, to write the screenplay.

Jeremy Sims came on board as the director and Sam Neill and Michael Caton (who starred in Sims’ Last Cab to Darwin) were cast as the leads. Co-incidentally Sims had seen the Icelandic film when it screened at the Busan International Film Festival in Korea in 2015, where Last Cab to Darwin also featured on the program.

“Hrútar is an incredibly beautiful film and it’s undeniably art-house,” Sims says. “It’s long, slow, thoughtful and quiet. All those things about it are wonderful. It is a reinterpretation of a story which the director heard from his father, which comes from the collective Icelandic psyche, the idea of warring brothers.

“I read Jules’ script and was pleasantly surprised at the easy and charming way that he had gone about extending the world [of the original] . It’s rare for me to come across writers who understand visual style, who can write for visual beats as opposed to story beats or dialogue beats, and he gets that really well. And he has created some really great characters.”

Neill and Caton play the brothers who live on adjourning sheep farms yet haven’t spoken in 40 years. When a rare disease threatens their flock, they have to work together to save their sheep, their small town and their family’s legacy.

The Oscar-nominated (Tom & Viv, Damage) and BAFTA-winning (Damage) Richardson is playing Kat, an expat Brit who works as the veterinarian in a sheep farming town that is overcome by the disease.

Wayne Blair plays the best mate of Neill’s character and Asher Keddie is the town’s matriarch whose husband died in a previous bushfire. WAAPA graduate Will McNeill is her son who is in love with the local veterinary nurse. Leon Ford is a government official who is ordered to slaughter the sheep. Travis McMahon and Hayley McElhinney are a financially struggling, working class couple and Kipan Rothbury is a young guy who represents the future of farming through biodiversity.

Among the departures from the original, the snow and blizzards of Iceland are supplanted by the drought and bushfires in regional Australia while the town of Mount Barker becomes its own character.

It’s the first time Sims has worked with Neill, whose recent credits include Sweet Country, House of Bond and Hunt for the Wilderpeople. “I’ve have always been a huge fan of Sam’s with his kind of simple warmth and that beautiful stoic thing he has going on,” says Sims. “I love Michael, who is a giant of the Australian screen. They are a great combination.

I love telling stories. I don’t have an overt political agenda but whatever I do it is always linked to a sense of belonging. I would argue that casting Ningali Lawford, a black, mature-aged woman in a lead romantic role in Last Cab to Darwin is politically braver than a lot of other more obvious political films that have been made.”

The director is relishing teaming again with his Last Cab to Darwin heads of departments including DOP Steve Arnold, editor Marcus D’Arcy, production designer Clayton Jauncey and casting director Kirsty McGregor. Tess Schofield is the costume designer.

The producers raised the budget from Screen Australia, Screenwest and the Western Australian Regional Film Fund. Roadshow Films, which co-developed the project with WBMC, will distribute in ANZ. WestEnd Films is handling international sales.

It is the first produced screenplay from Duncan, who worked for Channel 9 in Perth and the regional WA network GWN before landing a job as the third assistant director on Wasted on the Young. He wrote two spec scripts before securing development funding from Screenwest and has penned Bogan Wedding, a comedy about two sisters – one an aspiring academic, the other a hedonistic bogan – for producer Robyn Kershaw.

Duncan says the new version is faithful to the core themes of the original, observing: “I did not want to change the guts of the story, but of course the landscape changes from snow and blizzards to heat and fire.”

The screenwriter spoke with Hákonarson when he was at the first draft stage and welcomed his feedback. “Grímur was so cool and laid-back about it,” he says. “He always felt his own film was a work-in-progress.”

Sims has not met Hákonarson but looks forward to chatting to him after filming wraps, explaining: “I don’t want to talk to him about it until I’m done because this is a re-imagining of the story, not a remake.”

The director is a big supporter of the federal government’s piracy website blocking regime. When Last Cab to Darwin opened in 2015 pirated copies of Sims’; 2010 World War One drama Beneath Hill 60 were still circulating. He estimates there have been more than 1 million illegal downloads worldwide of the film which starred Brendan Cowell, Harrison Gilbertson, Steve Le Marquand and Gyton Grantley.

“If you contemplate even some of that foregone revenue, it may well equate to the difference between a filmmaker’s next feature being funded, or not”, said Sims.

I think parents can do a lot to help by teaching their kids how downloading films and television without paying for them threatens people’s livelihoods and an industry’s wellbeing and is basically just stealing. That’s the message I teach my kids.”

Photograph by David Dare Parker): Jeremy Sims (left) with first assistant cameraman Steivan Hasler and DOP Steve Arnold on the set of Rams.