‘Lamb’ Director Valdimar Jóhannsson Embraces the Mystery

The filmmaker answers questions about his feature debut without answering questions raised by it.

Valdimar Jóhannsson is surprised that people are talking about his feature directorial debut. But that movie, the beautiful and devastating Lamb, is a real conversation starter. And its story of a couple (Noomi Rapace and Hilmir Snær Guðnason) adopting a creature who’s half-sheep, half-human raises more questions than it answers.

Whatever the audience sees in the film, Jóhannsson welcomes any and all interpretations. In our discussion with the filmmaker below, he talks about the myth and the mystery behind Lamb without giving anything away and shares some background on the creation of Ada, the titular character.

This movie stays with you. 

I’m a big fan of films that I have to see again, that I don’t totally understand. Usually, my favorite films are films I still don’t understand. Like, I love Béla Tarr.

He has a credit on the movie. How did that relationship start?

I was studying in his school. He was my mentor. I had already started working on Lamb then. When I was working on the script, I would get some advice from Béla. I’m happy for all his advice, for me and the film.

Lamb makes you lean in to search for meaning, but do you think people should simply accept the mystery?

Yeah. I think it’s good when you can take so many different things out of it. I’ve met so many people, and I’m always getting a new explanation for what it means and what it stands for. I really like that, when you can somehow take different things out of it.

What are some of the responses?

Many people I’ve talked to about this film talk about man versus nature. How we are treating our planet, you know? I’ve also met some people who told me they had stopped eating meat. I thought that was very interesting [Laughs]. Four people have told me that. It’s interesting how they read it. I’m not quite sure what it is.

You could look at it as a pro-animal rights movie.

[Laughs] Okay. Yeah.

Do audiences look at Lamb differently in Iceland than here in the United States?

I have to admit, I’m a little surprised by how many people like it here. All of this is a little overwhelming. How we started it was, we just wanted to make a film we wanted to see. We didn’t know other people would want to see it. We were just trying to do something we hadn’t seen before. We just thought it was a classical drama with one surrealist element. It’s so interesting how excited people are here. I didn’t expect it.

How much did you think about comedy and horror when making it? 

You know, that was not all planned, but I somehow understand. I’m not quite sure what genre you put it in, but there are some horror elements. I would not just say it’s a horror film. It’s also funny, but it is not a comedy. Maybe it’s difficult to put it in one genre.

When you see a cat and a dog, and just this one supernatural element, you almost expect the worst because of how those genres have trained you to think. 

[Laughs] I think that could be it. What I also thought was interesting using all these animals to show the point-of-view of this world, you are already reading into their minds. Because we decided to have a little dialogue as possible, you started reading into the body language of actors, too.

How much did you debate how much to say and what not to say, especially about the surrealist element?

From the beginning, we decided to have as little dialogue as possible. For me, I always like it when you are watching scenes that tell the stories with visuals.

For yourself, did you have mythology in mind for, let’s say, the genetic father for the lamb?

Yes. I was working very closely with all of the actors. Sometimes with Noomi and Hilmir, we made up a lot of stories. For example, we don’t know all about María’s stories. I had some other stories in mind, but they didn’t fit. We didn’t always agree on what happened.

Where did you agree or disagree?

Sometimes we had different opinions, but we did agree about the characters and how they should be. With the character, some of her I know, but with actors, they may want to have it a little different. Maybe different backstories.

It’s a very ambitious debut. Of all the stories you had in your mind, what made you want to direct Lamb as your first movie?

Well, I knew I had wanted to make a feature film. I made a lookbook and sketchbook, collecting paintings and photos. I did some portraits of Ada. There were elements from Iceland folktales, mythic folk stories, which I felt we should work with, maybe to create a new folktale.

I had some of the elements from the beginning because my grandparents were sheep farmers. I knew I wanted to have a story there. I knew I wanted to work with a creature. Other than that, it was unclear at first, but my sketchbook made me realize the mood. We then created the outline for the story. We worked on this for five years before we wrote a script.

What specifically about Icelandic folktales influenced you?

I think Iceland folktales are so rooted in the Icelandic people. We are living in nature with this crazy weather. It’s a big part of us. We used similar elements from folktales, but for example, the creature we have, that’s nothing we found in folktales.

How did you initially think of Ada, just as a creature or as a child?

I think it’s so cute. I like her. Somehow, I’m just so used to it. From the beginning, I never wanted to spoil it, saying it’s half-man, half-sheep, so I probably kept calling it a creature. I just think she’s beautiful.

How was the effect of Ada achieved?

We were working with a lot of children. We worked with 10 children, four lambs, and puppets. It was very time-consuming. I’m so thankful for my actors because they were so patient. First, they did scenes with puppets, then with children, and then with real lambs. It took time because they can’t always do what we want them to do.

Somehow, I felt it would be more difficult, but we were working with such an amazing team and company. Ada was always there. Because it was so real, somehow, when you have all these elements, you just start to see Ada. It’s just so real on the set. I found that the actors didn’t find they were acting against a green screen or a stick.

Check out our review of Valdimar Jóhannsson’s Lamb to see why it’s one of the best movies of the year. Catch it on the big screen starting October 8th.

Jack Giroux: Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.