In an interview with Awards Daily, director Valdimar Jóhannsson explains how his childhood in Iceland inspired his feature-length debut, Lamb, the years-long process of getting it made, and how he’s still discovering new meanings and ideas with each repeat viewing.
In a remote Icelandic village, Maria and Ingvar, [Noomi Rapace and Hilmir Snær Guðnason] discover that their pregnant sheep has given birth to a lamb-human hybrid. Mouning the loss of their daughter, the couple decides to raise the lamb, Ada, as their own.
To simply label Lamb a horror film would be a disservice to the thrilling, twisted tale director Valdimar Jóhannsson has weaved together. Jóhannsson, who co-wrote Lamb alongside famed Icelandic poet Sjón, delivers a moody and atmospheric drama that is steeped in symbolism and offers no easy answers to the shocking moral conundrums that unfold.
Jóhannsson is similarly tight-lipped about his feature-length debut, willing audiences to unravel Lamb‘s many mysteries—and fill in the blanks— for themselves.
Lamb is one of fifteen films short-listed for Best International Feature Film at the 2022 Oscars. Read our complete interview with director Valdimar Jóhannsson below:
Awards Daily: I’ve read that Lamb is based, in part, on your childhood in Iceland and dreams that you had as a child. Tell me more about how this story came together because it’s truly unique.
Valdimar Jóhannsson: Yeah, it all started with this mood book I created. I was collecting lots of photos and images and doing drawings. My grandparents were sheep farmers so I spent a lot of time with them. So lots of things that are in the film are related to things that have happened to me in some way.
When I finished the mood book, my producer, Sara Nassim introduced me to Sjón, my co-writer, and I showed him this book. And after that, we started to meet like once a week, for a very long period. And after about five years we wrote a treatment. When the producers were happy with the treatment, Sjón wrote the first draft.
When Sjón and I started working together, we were trying to create a new kind of folk tale.
AD: The film is about motherhood and loss, and it’s written by two men. What did you draw upon for such an accurate portrayal of maternal connection?
VJ: When we started, we knew that we would have Ada and this couple; we worked; we spent so many years on the script, talking about it, and trying to find the right way to tell the story where we can have all these elements. In a way, Lamb is a very classic story with this one surrealist element, so we spent a lot of time coming up with it. We thought this was the best way to tell this story.
AD: The environment plays heavily into the story and imagery used in the film. You can’t help but think of climate change, and the damage humans have caused to the world around us.
VJ: Nature was always like a character in our script. In Iceland, it’s bright for 24 hours during the summertime; we thought it would be nice to have nature act las a character that could almost be a threat.
Many people have said the film makes them think of climate change, how we treat nature and how small we are against nature; even though we think we can take everything and treat nature however we want.
AD: The birth scene in the film is quite visceral. Why was it important for you to have that?
VJ: I think it’s very important for the audience to get to know Maria and Ingvar, spend some time with them, see their daily process and what is happening.
When we did this birth scene, it was Noomi’s first day. So we did the birth scene and the tractor scene on day one.
AD: You have said that you don’t want to explain or tell your audience what to think about the film.
VJ: Yes. I’m hoping that when I meet people, they will tell me what they took from the film even if it might be different from what I think.
We also decided to have it open because we trust the audience. I think it’s nice to watch a film where you can, somehow, be a part of it.
Many of my favorite films are ones where I have to come up with something by myself.
AD: As you mentioned, Lamb is grounded in human emotion and experience. But there is that one surrealist element. How did you find the right balance?
VJ: I think it’s probably because we all treated Lamb like it was based on a true story. I think we almost believed it ourselves. And I think it was important to have it grounded so it would feel as real as possible.
AD: The film begins and ends with Maria in a state of grief. What do you make of that? Is life a perpetual cycle of loss? Do you think she learned anything from the process?
VJ: Yeah. You know, I hope so. What do you think?
AD: I just so felt sad for her. I feel like in many ways, she was kind of back where she began.
VJ: I’ve met some people who feel that it’s like a new beginning, so it’s interesting to meet so many people that think so differently about the ending of the film.
AD: You’ve said that you’ve changed your mind about what you think of the ending, and other themes within Lamb, as time has gone on. And as you’ve heard these different reactions. I’m curious about that. Have you settled on your own interpretation, or is the film still evolving for you?
VJ: You know, because we were working on it for so long, it almost depends on what part of the film we were working on. And sometimes you start finding something out or coming up with new ideas that you can take from it.
I’ve seen it so often. And I you start to look into new details and get ideas from all the people who see the film.
AD: How did you work with your actors to help mold their performances?
VJ: We didn’t have much time to rehearse. The process was mostly working with the dialogue. We talked about every scene, the mood, and the entire look of the film. I was extremely lucky because this is my first feature film, and I got the cast that I wanted. And I really appreciated how we all worked together and helped each other.
AD: Was there a scene or scenes that you found particularly challenging to work on?
VJ: You know, in the beginning, everything felt challenging. I was stressed about everything!
My cinematographer Eli Arenson and I were stressed about that first shot the whole time, even though it was the last thing we shot over the wintertime. And, you know, I heard a lot about how working with animals could be a problem. But we just learned that if you give them time and they feel safe, it wouldn’t be as difficult as I thought.
AD: You mentioned Lamb being your first feature. Some might consider Lamb a risky film to make. And I commend you for that. What made you go for it and commit to this story?
VJ: I think a big part of it is the people that I’ve been working with, because we all knew that it was a very risky thing to do, but we wanted to make a film that we felt that we had not seen, but wanted to see.
My producers were amazing, Sjón, all the crew, and the actors. We all believed in it. Without all of these people, it would have been impossible.
AD: What kinds of films would you like to make as a director?
VJ: I just want to make all kinds of films. Lamb was something that I really wanted to do. I’m not quite sure what I will do next, but I think it will be totally different.
Lamb is available to watch through Video-On-Demand (VOD).