Interviews: Noi the Albino
by Carlo Cavagna
t's not often one hears about Icelandic films, but for the past year one has been appearing in festivals all over the world, collecting prizes and leaving critical raves in its wake. That film is Noi the Albino, or Nói albinói in its original language.
Noi the Albino is a tale of teenage angst and ennui, but not like any teen pic you've seen before. In cinema verité style, the film focuses on seventeen-year-old Noi, a young man who looks as different as he feels. Noi dreams of escaping his home, a tiny town lost in the fjords of western Iceland, but the harder he tries to leave, the smaller his world becomes. As you'd expect from a film with strong Danish influences, Noi the Albino is not narratively driven, but a film of wry, black humor and small moments.
Tómas Lemarquis has an unpleasant job in a graveyard in Noi the Albino.
As Noi, Tómas Lemarquis appears in every scene, yet despite the burden he bears, he never appears to be straining as an actor. Born to an Icelandic mother and a French father (who appears as the French teacher in the film), Lemarquis grew up in Iceland, earned a degree in dramatic arts from the Cours Florent in Paris, but returned home disillusioned with the theater to study at the Reykjavik School of Fine Arts in Iceland. He returned to acting, however, when his old classmate Dagur Kári decided Lemarquis was the only possible choice to play Noi. Having earned a Best Actor nomination for Noi the Albino at the European Film Awards last year, Lemarquis has recently returned to Paris to cultivate his acting career.
Director Dagur Kári graduated from the National Film School of Denmark, where he met Noi cinematographer Rasmus Videbæk and editor Daniel Dencik. Kári's graduation film Lost Weekend won eleven international prizes. Noi the Albino is Kári's first feature film. In addition to writing and directing, Kári also composed the music as part of the band “slowblow.” He is currently working on his next feature in Denmark.
During the AFI Film Festival in Los Angeles last fall, AboutFilm.com had the opportunity to interview star Tómas Lemarquis one on one, and to put a handful of questions to Dagur Kári as well.Note: The interviews contain remarks about the ending of the film.
[Read the AboutFilm review of Noi the Albino]
Tómas Lemarquis as a dissaffected teen in a remote town in Iceland in Noi the Albino.
Tómas LemarquisAboutFilm: I'd like to begin broadly, and ask you about where you are from. You are half French, is that right? But you grew up in Iceland.
Lemarquis: Yes. Born and I've lived all my life in Iceland. Then I went to Paris and studied in acting school [at the Cours Florent]. Then I went back to Iceland and I studied visual arts [at the Reykjavik School of Fine Arts], and I just graduated this year from that school. Me and Elín [Hansdóttir], who is playing Iris in the movie, we were in the same class in this school of visual arts.
AboutFilm: What visual arts are you involved in?
Lemarquis: I do a lot of things. Drawings, some videos, animation, collage, different things.
AboutFilm: Have you had any exhibitions?
Lemarquis: Yeah, I was just now in the final exhibition at my school, because I just graduated this year, and I had one exhibition after that.
AboutFilm: Let's talk just a bit about Iceland. What would you tell somebody who doesn't know very much about Iceland? How would you describe it to somebody, other than it's cold?
Lemarquis: It's not so cold, actually, because we have the Gulf Stream. Like you see in the film, it's cold there in the north. But in Reykjavik, it's around zero during the wintertime, and it's pretty dry. It should be much colder, compared to the latitude. But, I don't know what to say about Iceland in one sentence.
AboutFilm: I guess it's hard to describe superficially something you know so intimately. Is it difficult to be involved in the arts in a small, remote country? Is there a large arts community in Iceland?
Lemarquis: Large? Certainly not. There are only 300,000 people in Iceland. There are maybe five films each year, which is quite a lot.
AboutFilm: Proportionally, that seems like quite a few.
Lemarquis: Yeah. And also a lot of artists and music coming out. I'm lucky to come from Iceland today, because I think we—also Scandinavia—we have a kind of fashion. There has been some focus on Iceland now, in Europe at least. People are interested in Iceland, and going there, and listening to music from Iceland. It helps us, I think.
Dagur KáriQuestion: Where did the character Noi come from?
Kári: It was an unusually long process, which is usually the case with a first feature film. You've had your whole life to prepare for it, and in my case I invented this character when I was seventeen or eighteen. At that time I hadn't even made the decision to become a filmmaker. I just had an image of this strange teenager who was different from everybody else. I collected ideas and situations around this character. Then I went to film school, and when I finished film school I had loads of material for this character, and I decided to make it my first feature film.
Question: What did you see in Tómas Lemarquis that moved you cast him in the lead role, and what are your impressions of him as an actor?
Kári: The character sprang out of the title Nói Albinoi , which means Noi The Albino. For awhile I saw him as a cartoon character, so right from the start he had a very graphic feel in my mind. When I sat down to write the script I was concerned that I would not be able to find a young, talented actor who had a striking appearance. But I'd actually known Tómas for years, and at the time I was piecing the script together he was taking his first steps as an actor. It was immediately clear to me that he was the only guy in Iceland who could do this part. Nói really has to stand out in a crowd and be totally different from everybody else. He represented all of these qualities.
Working with him was very enjoyable. He was really concentrated about it, and always ready. He's an unusual actor to work with. He's an extremely physical person, so he can't be still. When he was not in front of the camera, he immediately went to help the gaffers or the art department or whatever department could use him. This kind of worried me because I was afraid his concentration would be too spread out, but then he explained to me that this was his way of keeping his concentration. If he just sat down in a chair, he would be gone. That was quite funny to see.
Question: There are many spontaneous moments that you captured in the film, like the scene with the fly and the scene with the rainbow. Are there any others?
Kári: That was maybe the most important lesson to me when making this film—the power of the unexpected, and how important it is to be open to the unexpected gifts that can come into a film and make it richer. It's a really difficult task because you are on a very tight schedule, and you have to try to maintain your vision. One of the most important things is to combine that with an openness so that you don't have tunnel vision on the script. You're trying to make it more alive and rich than what you wrote on paper. In our case, unfortunately, we only had one day where just me, the DP and Tómas were playing around with no crew. That day we shot both the scene with the fly and the rainbow, and a couple of other things that are some of my favorite moments in the film.
Question: A natural disaster occurs at the end of the film. Earlier in the movie, we see Nói shooting at these huge ice formations on the side of a mountain with a shotgun. Is this act responsible for what happens in the end?
Kári: I really wanted the film to be open, and what I find interesting is to leave a lot of clues that the audience can piece together according to their own liking or personality. What you're mentioning is not clear in the film, but it's a possibility. You can sort of take it or leave it.
Question: I have heard that your next film is going to be a Dogme movie. What are your impressions of Dogme filmmaking?
Kári: It's kind of a misunderstanding. The film is not going to be in any relation to Dogme. It's just a Danish film. At some very early stage, it started as a Dogme project but I moved away from that. It's just going to be a Danish film, but there's no connection to Dogme.
Question: Why did you decide to move away from Dogme?
Kári: What is good is about Dogme is the flexibility and space to be spontaneous. It cuts right to the bone of the essence of filmmaking, because you're not allowed to use any effects or tricks or gimmicks. I think it was a very powerful thing what happened with these films, and it brought a lot of energy to the Danish film industry. Denmark became a trendsetter for much of Europe and even the world. But at this moment in time, I think it's quite ridiculous to make films according to some rules and to have the results approved by the Dogme brotherhood. It's done its job, I think.
Question: What else can you tell me about your new film?
Kári: We start shooting in May of this year. It's quite different from Noi. This time I started from scratch with no story and no characters. I wrote the script with a friend. We just emptied our notebooks and started to collect ideas and out of that grew a story. Noi was shot in the winter and it was cold and difficult, so I attempted to make a summer film this time.
AboutFilm: How did you become involved in films?
Lemarquis: Actually, there are a few connections, how we met, me and Dagur [Kári]. We were together in the same college, and my father—who was the French teacher in the film—he taught French to Dagur in the same college. He liked him a lot as a teacher. He actually taught him to make some mayonnaise [like in the film]. And [then] I was acting in another film [Villiljos]—there were five directors and Dagur Kari was one of them. He was not directing the part I was in, but that's where he saw me and asked me to come and act in his film. He didn't do any casting.
AboutFilm: Did he show you a script? What was it about the script specifically that spoke to you?
Lemarquis: I really liked it, the script. I just had a lot of sympathy for Noi. He's so misunderstood. [laughs]
AboutFilm: How did you get the budget together to finance this? Was it difficult to get the production together?
Lemarquis: Yeah. If you want to do a film in Iceland, you always have to go through the Iceland Film Fund. And, after you have the money from there, you can go and look for money elsewhere. This was a big co-production film with Germany and Denmark and the UK. The co-production office is situated in Paris. [Producer] Philippe Bober contacted us after he saw Dagur Kári's graduate film, Lost Weekend, the film he did in Danish Film School. He got a lot of prizes also for directing, which was quite nice for him. And Philippe Bober saw his film and wanted to work with Dagur, and I think he's the one who had the contacts.
AboutFilm: How long was the shoot?
Lemarquis: All in all it was about six weeks.
AboutFilm: I understand that you were very dependent on snow, and that you weren't getting the snow. Did that make things frustrating?
Lemarquis: No, but we were really, really lucky. Dagur has the right stars. There was no snow two days before we went north shooting, but we just had to go, and then [suddenly] we [got] all the snow to go with the outdoor scenes. Then all the snow went away, and we could just finish the indoor scenes. We had to hide that there was no snow outside. There is one scene actually in the film that you see there is no snow, the scene with the rainbow.
AboutFilm: Yes, that looked a little different.
Lemarquis: Dagur wanted to use it. He likes to work a lot like this. He was always changing things, and seeing some things, and deciding to shoot there. It was just improvised. He saw this rainbow; he stopped the car and shot that scene. The same for the scene with the fly. I was just playing with the fly, and he said, “Why don't we shoot this?”
AboutFilm: Yeah, that seemed very spontaneous. So, what do you think the film is saying, if anything? Do you think it has a message?
Lemarquis: Yeah, I think there's a lot of things in this film. Maybe a message, but there's no one message. That's really how Dagur thinks. He's not trying to have a message which is clear to the spectator. It's up to everyone to decide what he sees. But, yeah, there is a message. There are also some signs you can see, and some quotations. It's pretty subtle, and not too big, I think.
AboutFilm: What does the ending mean to you, personally?
Lemarquis: For me—even if it's really tragic and terrible—he loses all his friends, but I look at it really in a positive way. I think it's his only hope. It's a new beginning for Nói. It's his only way out.
AboutFilm: Out of tragedy, something new can begin.
Lemarquis: Yes. It's the only way to continue. He can't live there. I don't mean it's a good thing that he loses everything.
AboutFilm: Every single person in his life is killed. Do you think that he is in any way responsible? There is a scene early in the film where he's actually shooting those large ice formations with a shotgun. Is there an implication that he might in some way be responsible for the avalanche?
Lemarquis: Yeah, some people see that. I personally don't look at it in this way, but yeah, at one time in the script, that was a possibility. That was the case. But I don't think he is responsible, no.
AboutFilm: What should Noi have done if there hadn't been a cataclysm to free him?
Lemarquis: This is difficult. There is no one advice for that situation. But, I think it's—I respect this character. I really think he follows his heart. What he thinks is the right thing, even if sometimes it's a little bit stupid, at least he really follows his heart.
AboutFilm: What about you? Does the success of this film open new horizons to you?
Lemarquis: Yeah, I certainly hope so. I wouldn't say yes, because I'm just beginning now to have a sense of having something else. A few days ago I just got this nomination for the European Film Awards.
AboutFilm: Do you think you might work with Dagur Kári again?
Lemarquis: Yeah, I hope so. We haven't discussed that yet.
AboutFilm: I understand he's working in Denmark. Do you speak other languages, other than Icelandic and English and French?
Lemarquis: Yeah, I speak Danish, too. We learn Danish in school, but I speak it with an accent. I think he is shooting this film in Denmark with Danish actors.
AboutFilm: Would you like to work in American films?
Lemarquis: I would like to work in any country in an interesting project. The country is not so important.
AboutFilm: Do you live in Iceland or in Paris now?
Lemarquis: I just recently moved to Paris. I found an agent there, and I'm going to try making a career there, in film, and I also work as an artist besides. And I'm also looking for an agent in London now.
AboutFilm: What can you tell me about Dagur's approach as a director? You mentioned that he wanted to keep things very realistic, and that he would improvise using what was available on location. Is there anything else that is particular or idiosyncratic to his approach?
Lemarquis: Yeah. Like the choice of actors, for example—a lot of non-professional actors in this film. Both him and me, we don't like too much “actors” with a big A, you know. Like, “Here I come!” style. For example, I went to theater school in France, and when I finished I thought I would never go back to acting again. I don't want to be acting in theater, at least now. It's not for me. I'm sick of all this theater world, all these actors, and all that.
AboutFilm: Is that acting with a capital A, to you? Theatrical acting?
Lemarquis: It can be. Yeah, it can be. I was in a very big school; it was a factory. It was not very human, and I was looking for something more human in the acting of relationship between people. I thought it was not very interesting when I went back to the school of visual arts, then I went back to acting. The point is that—we talked a lot about it before shooting—the direction Dagur wanted to go was pretty much non-acting, but more of listening and reacting, in a really realistic way. Just to be. The film also is not really going anywhere. It's not a linear story. It's more small acts put together. We're not trying to have a big dramatic landscape. There are some dramatic events, but often nothing special is happening. Just be. That was something we wanted to do.
AboutFilm: I understand that the film Dagur is doing in Denmark is a Dogme film. Would you say that Nói albinói is similar to that?
Lemarquis: Actually he was supposed to do a Dogme, but it came out that it's not going to be a Dogme film. Dogme is not his style.
AboutFilm: How does he differ, then? You've spoken about naturalism, about using what's available—how does Dagur differ from Dogme?
Lemarquis: I think he likes to have some things. Like, it's Super 16 millimeter. He likes to have a stable camera. It's not hand-held. There are some things he likes to prepare.
AboutFilm: Do you think that the Icelandic film industry, sort of in the same way as the music community, will come to greater international notice as a result of this movie?
Lemarquis: Yeah, I think it all helps. And also, it's really stimulating because it's really small in Reykjavik, and we all know each other. The artists, they are my friends. It's always good to see that someone can go out of Iceland and do some things. The doors are just opening now, and it's stimulating to see.
AboutFilm: What do you hope for this film in the United States? There is a certain resistance to foreign cinema in the United States sometimes, and yet this film touches on some very universal and resonant themes. What do you expect?
Lemarquis: I think it's very dangerous to expect some things, ever. The only thing I can do is hope it will be well received. We will just see.
[Read the AboutFilm review of Noi the Albino]
Feature and Interview © April 2004 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2004 Palm Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
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