Magnolia Pictures releases Under the Tree at Quad Cinema on July 6th, 2018.
NYC MOVIE GURU: What do you think is so appealing about dark themes?
Hafsteinn Gunnar Siguršsson: You always need that contrast. There's a certain dynamic in having the light and the dark elements. You appreciate the light things and then you have the contrast with the dark things and vice versa. Life is funny and sad---and sometimes at the same time.
NYC MOVIE GURU: How important is it to have likable characters? I think the more flawed a character is, the more interesting he/she is.
HGS: I think so, too. You're taught in film school that you have to have sympathetic characters, but I don't agree. As a director, I really sympathize with the characters and really care about them, but I don't agree with everything that they do. The more flawed they are, the more dynamic they are. There's a contradiction there that can be really interesting in characters. I think that it's a very human thing as well.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Would it be safe to say that the tree is a metaphor? The plot circulates around the tree, but the film really isn't about the tree.
HGS: There's some trauma underlying the film which is the disappearance of the brother. I think that that's, sort of, the ignition for all the problems in the film. The tree conflict is just an outlet for something else. Yes, it's a metaphor for sure. The tree is a symbol for life and family.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Between the first, second and third act of Under the Tree, which of those was most challenging to get right as a screenwriter?
HGS: In the beginning, you pretty much get away with everything. People are ready to go with you for a little bit and then things start escalating. You have to start taking the elements that you've introduced in the first act to the next level. I think that many people just keep on adding things, but I think that that gets things into a mess. The second act is often said to be the heart of the film. It's the heart of the story and what it's really about. It's the longest and the one that's often the hardest to hold together. If you get that right, somehow, then the third act somehow writes itself because then you just have to come into the resolution out of what your conflict has been. I think that it's important to keep escalating.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Do you think that the conflict in Under the Tree can be solved through some sort of mediation?
HGS: I think all of the problems in this film could be solved around the table if people would just sit down and talk. I think that that's often the problem. There's a lack of communication and people just make assumptions and rush forward in anger and revenge. This film is very much about living in a community. It's about the people living under the same roof that you live in and also about the people who you have next door. It's always going to be a compromise to some extent. This is what happens when you're not willing to compromise. There's a bigger story in there that we can read in terms of world politics.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Where does your sense of humor come from? Do you think that comedy is often rooted in tragedy?
HGS: Yes, you can say that. I kind of like more kind of subtle, darker, sarcastic sense of humor. Maybe it's a kind of sense of Nordic humor which tends to be more downplayed in a way. I like a lot of the humor in the Coen brothers' movies, for instance.
NYC MOVIE GURU: How do you know when to trust an audience's intelligence, patience and imagination?
HGS: It has a lot to do with your own intuition as a director and a storyteller. Filmmaking is always working in the dark. You're always guessing. During the script stage, you're writing and thinking about how it's going to come through and whether it'll be clear enough. The same thing happens during the editing process---you're always working in the dark. You never really know what you have until you're sitting in a room with people and watching the film and seeing how they react to it. Either it's going to confirm that you're right or that you were wrong. It's something that's very hard to understand. [laughs] But I think that you need to have a respect for the audience and their intelligence. Of course, you test the film during the editing process and the script process. You learn how to get feedback and to understand what's working and what's not.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Do you think that it's ok for audiences to be confused about a plot or how they feel about a character?
HGS: Confusion is not good. I think it's really interesting if your relationship with a character changes and grows. One of the most interesting things about Walter White [from Breaking Bad] is that your simpathy for him goes around in many circles. I don't think that it's confusing because it's done in a very specific way. So, I think that it's important to be very specific, but changing the relationship between the viewer and the characters is a good thing.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Francois Truffaut once observed that a truly great film ought to have a perfect balance of Truth and Spectacle. Do you agree with that?
HGS: The way I understand this, and I think he's right, is that you're after something truthful. At least as a director, I think that the characters in the world have to have a certain credibility. If you're just going to document this truth in a very, kind of, observational and dry way, it's not going to be interesting because you have to make it interesting at the same time. That's where the spectacle lies: you have these things that are truthful, but they're told in an interesting way.