Horror: The Queerest Genre

February 9, 2018
Icelandic filmmaker Erlingur Óttar Thoroddsen discusses the process behind the chilling Rift.

When did you begin developing the idea for Rift, and where did the original idea come from?

I started generating the idea late in 2015. I was waiting for my first film [Child Eater] to get released, and since a lot of that was out of my hands, I was feeling super frustrated by how slow it was going and just wanted to get something done asap. So, I was thinking of how to make a low budget movie in a fairly little amount of time, and thinking of stories that had two characters in a single location. A few weeks before all of this, the relationship I was in fell apart, so I had a lot of post-breakup stuff on my mind as well. Then it just clicked — what if I write a film about two guys who have to deal with their breakup in an isolated summer cabin? The film kind of just started writing itself from that point on!

Things moved really fast after that. I wrote the first draft in November 2015, and we shot the film in March 2016, and had our World Premiere a little less than a year later.

 What is it about the horror/thriller genre you find so appealing as a director writer?

The horror genre has always been fascinating to me, ever since I was a kid. A big part of it is that it gives you permission to think outside of the box, and it also allows you to look at the world and its problems from a fresh, different lens – and this is also why I think horror can be the queerest genre! Horror and fear are things we usually avoid, but I think we all need to release those feelings every once in a while. And there’s no better outlet for that than a good scary movie, in my opinion.

On a visual level, horror also allows you the freedom to conjure up wild imagery, which is always exciting for a director. And creating tension, building suspense, are things that I think every director enjoys playing with.

What did you find challenging about writing and directing this film?

I was deliberately trying to challenge myself with Rift from start to finish. I had never done a story that was as open for interpretation as this one is, and that was a delicate tightrope to navigate. I wanted to create a mystery where there were definite hints of a solution, without every flatly stating the solution.

The other writing challenge was doing a two-hander in few locations that would keep people interested for 100+ minutes, but I think that ended up working really well once I “figured out” the characters. Once I found their voices, I kind of just let them roam free in the script. Which was something I hadn’t really done before, so that was a challenge in itself.

Directing-wise, the biggest challenge was figuring out how to make all this happen in 15 shooting days! That was super tricky, but I had a great team and we were very well prepared, so it worked out great. It also helped a lot that I had two amazing lead actors.

Rift is quite sophisticated in the way it represents queer characters. Was that something that was really important to you?

It was very important to me to make a film with gay characters at the center. This rarely happens in Icelandic cinema, which is a shame because in most respects Iceland is very progressive when it comes to LGBT rights. I felt like LGBT characters were severely underrepresented in our cinema, so I was very conscious of that fact when I was writing Rift.

That being said, when I wrote the film, a lot came from my own personal experiences and interactions, so the fact that they are gay is never really addressed head on even though it permeates through the whole story and why they act the way they do. I wanted the focus to be on their relationship, and not necessarily the fact that they are gay – even though their queerness definitely plays a large part in how their relationship turned out the way it did.

It’s been interesting to hear people’s reactions after seeing the film – half the people who bring up the relationship feel like it felt so universal that it didn’t matter that it was two guys, and then the other half feels that the relationship is very specifically gay. I personally lean towards the latter, but I think a truthful, specific representation of any relationship, queer or not, is going to feel universal to most viewers.

What were some of the cinematic inspirations you had for the film?

The three big ones that I had were Persona by Ingmar Bergman, Weekend by Andrew Haigh, and Don’t Look Now by Nicolas Roeg. The first two couldn’t be more different even though they are both two-handers for the most part. I really wanted to find some kind of middle ground between the two, stylistically speaking. And I love how they use dialogue to reveal character, but in totally different ways. Don’t Look Now was more inspiring in terms of finding a mood. I love how that film uses Venice as a character, and how unlocking the central mystery is not nearly as important as unlocking the protagonists. And obviously I stole the red coat from there.

The film is very layered in its approach to using horror to communicate and discuss complex ideas such as sexual abuse and trauma. What is your approach to connecting those two elements?

These are subjects that are very delicate, and I wanted to treat them respectfully and not in an exploitative way. I think the only way to do that, is for the characters to talk about their experiences honestly. This was an aspect that I thought would work a lot more effectively by telling rather than showing, which is usually the opposite of what you want to do in cinema. By having them talk about how these experiences affected them allows the audience to visualise what they want or need to (or not at all). Sexual abuse and trauma is unfortunately extremely common in the real world, and I think it’s a subject that doesn’t get addressed much within the gay male community. I was very surprised to hear from many gay men who have seen the film, how these scenes – specifically Gunnar’s monologue about his first time – felt familiar.

The cinematography and landscape of the film is absolutely arresting. What was the process of shooting and production like for you and the crew?

It was not easy to accomplish any of it – we had a 10 person crew, and that included the actors. The entire camera department was the DP, John Wakayama Carey, and the gaffer, Adam Uyemura, and those guys are just magicians. We knew going in that we would have to use a lot of natural light and that we didn’t have time to set up complicated lighting rigs (and we couldn’t afford them, anyway). And it helped that I had shotlisted everything pretty carefully. We have all worked with each other before, so that made things easier as well.

The location we shot at is also just stunning in every direction you look. The only problem was, it was so cold – which is perhaps not surprising for shooting a film in Iceland during winter. There were moments when the actors were so cold that they couldn’t feel their lips when delivering their lines, which was obviously not ideal for anyone!

What is the main thing you hope audiences will take away from this film?

I really hope that people can see themselves in the main characters, and that the relationship at the core of the film resonates with audiences. I think a lot of people mentally go back to old, broken relationships and wonder how things could have gone differently if they had only said or done this or that, and for me this whole story is basically about that – how things left unsaid can come back to haunt us. So I hope people will recognise those ideas as they watch.

What can audiences expect next from you?

I’ve got a few things going on that are at different stages. I’m shooting a film in Iceland later this year that is based on a novel called Kuldi by Yrsa Sigurdardottir. It’s kind of like a Scandinavian crime thriller with a spooky twist. I’m very excited about that one, the script is very fun. In addition to that, I’m spending some time in the US at the moment, hoping to get some things off the ground. In this business you never know, so fingers crossed for success!

Rift is playing at the Mardi Gras Film Festival. Get your tickets here.

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