Lamb: The folk horror set in Iceland is a poignant portrayal of motherhood and loneliness
For his first feature film, Valdimar Jóhannsson was inspired by his childhood memories of raising sheep for his grandparents. The Reykjavík-based filmmaker has always wanted to tell a story based on Icelandic folk tales. He found a collaborator in writer Sjón, whom he met in 2010, and the two began developing Lamb’s screenplay – the story of a woman named Maria, who lives on an isolated sheep farm with her husband Ingvar (played by Hilmir Snær Guðnason). When Maria and Ingvar discover a mysterious newborn on their farm, they decide to raise him as their own, defying the will of nature. There are, however, consequences that they must face.
To try out the central character of Maria, Jóhannsson approached Swedish actor Noomi Rapace, who with her powerful performance added a rich layer to the character. Rapace, who rose to worldwide fame with her critically acclaimed portrayal of Lisbeth Salander in the screen adaptations of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire and The girl who kicked the hornet’s nest, submerged herself representing Maria. Lamb, which won the Originality Award at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival, is currently streaming on MUBI. During a video interview, Jóhannsson and Rapace talked about their challenges and their process of working together to tell this unusual story. Excerpts:
Valdimar, you worked on Lamb development for eight years. When did you think of collaborating with Noomi Rapace?
Valdimar Jóhannsson: Right from the start. But we thought it would be difficult to get Noomi. We contacted her two years before Lamb started filming.
Noomi Rapace: I wasn’t hard to get. This kind of material and opportunity only comes once in a lifetime. I immediately felt that this project was special. Although Valdimar had only done short films before, he had worked in every position on a film crew. He knew the cinema and the cinema. It was like an invitation into his world.
How did Maria’s character development process change once Rapace joined the project?
VJ: We created Maria together. We talked about all the details for almost a year and a half. She came a day before the start of filming but Maria was there (inside her).
Noomi has lived in Iceland for three years. Was that connection important when you considered her for the role?
VJ: It was important because she speaks Icelandic. The fact that she grew up on a farm was also important. When we contacted her, we knew that no one else could play the role of Maria except her.
NR: I felt that too. It seems like I’ve been practicing this role all my life (laughs). I knew the film would take me to places where I couldn’t hide or pretend. I tried to be as sincere as possible.
Noomi, how did you reacclimate to Iceland?
NR: Before starting to shoot, we drove, met farmers. We were also trying to find my husband and check out my chemistry (with a possible co-actor). My main preparation with Maria was internal – to understand her grief and pain. I knew the physical part would come easily. The film has virtually no dialogue. I had to let Maria take over.
The way you created the scenes with Ada (the animal-human baby that Maria adopts) is intriguing.
VJ: We worked with children, lambs and puppets. Noomi basically had to work with these elements when filming the scenes with Ada. We only used visual effects in a few scenes. Ada came to life on the sets. We had no green screens.
NR: During the filming of a scene in which I feed her, we filmed with a lamb. Meanwhile, an animal keeper held her still. Then we moved on to a moving human baby. When the animal and the child were tired, we had the puppet. We tried to tune in and go with whatever they wanted to do.
You shot the film in North Iceland in different seasons. How difficult was it?
VJ: As it’s my first feature film, I was super stressed about everything. After a week, I realized that I was surrounded by so many nice people. My actors always helped me. My cinematographer Eli Arensson and I carefully studied the natural light available for the exterior scenes and made the most of it.
NR: Having Maria in me was painful. I had twisted dreams. I could not sleep. The loss of the first Ada, I could feel it all the time. It was as if I was missing a part of my body. I was away from my son (Lev Rapace) for a long time. However, we had such great energy around us the whole time. The difficulties and inner pain I was struggling with were ironed out with the belief that we were creating something truly special.
After being hailed as an “action star”, Noomi seems to have returned to art house cinema.
NR: It’s like going back to where I started. I’ve worked in art house films in Scandinavia (like the 2007 film Daisy Diamond) and a lot of stage work. The theater demanded pure acting. I really wanted that when I was asked to play Maria. I wanted to go back to that side of cinema, which always felt like my original family. The most important thing for me is that my son thinks this is my best performance. He had tears in his eyes after watching Lamb.