Interview: Director Valdimar Jóhannsson and star Noomi Rapace on the primal nature of ‘Lamb’ and birthing live animals on set
Lamb is a movie that demands to be seen, but more than that, it demands to be felt.
From first-time director Valdimar Jóhannsson, Lamb follows Maria (Noomi Rapace) and Ingvar (Hilmir Snær Guðnason), a couple living on an Icelandic farm who, through mysterious circumstances, come to parent a half-human/half-lamb child named Ada.
In Ada, the two learn lessons about each other, both of the past and present. Altogether menacing, eerie, yet often darkly funny, the film manages to exist in many worlds at once, just like the characters themselves.
Featuring a cast of as many animals as humans, Lamb immerses itself in its surroundings, and it’s not afraid to take its time.
Daniel Trainor spoke to Rapace and Jóhannsson about patience, the intense on-set experience, coaxing performances out of animals and why Icelanders love handball.
Daniel Trainor: First of all, I had the pleasure of attending a screening of the movie and I really loved it. I found it to be quite the accomplishment. So, congratulations.
Noomi Rapace: Wow. Thank you, thank you.
Trainor: Noomi, before the screening, you said that you “could not have expected” the way people have, and continue to, respond to the film. Why did you say that?
Rapace: Well, Daniel, imagine the call to my team when I was like “I’m going to do this very small Icelandic film, there’s no money, it’s a first-time director, it’s going to shoot up in the north of Iceland on a remote farm, and it’s basically about a farming couple that has a lamb baby with a lamb body and a human head.” It could have been really bad. It could have been a total disaster (laughs). So, it was a bit of a risk to jump into this crazy world. What was beautiful about it, from the very first meeting I had with Valdimar, was that there was no hesitation. He has his truth, he has his universe, and it’s not so verbal. It’s very visual. He talks with his images. I always felt really safe in that, but at the same time, I didn’t know what the execution would be like until we were there. We were shooting with real lambs and real babies!
Trainor: In watching the film, I was really struck by how patient it was. As a first-time director, Valdimar, how were you able to muster up the confidence to be so secure in your style and vision?
Valdimar Jóhannsson: Thank you. Both me and (co-writer) Sjón, we’re fans of slow cinema. Somehow, I only thought it would work if we gave everything more time than usual. You start to read into the body language of the actors. We don’t have so much dialogue, so we needed to give them more time.
Trainor: I’d love to zero in on a particular scene, for a moment. When Maria and Ingvar are having breakfast, there’s a discussion about time travel that I keep thinking about. I’d love to hear, between director/screenwriter and actress, what sorts of discussions, if any, were had about that scene’s greater meaning?
Rapace: First of all, fucking beautiful question.
Jóhannsson: I really like that dialogue because there, we basically tell a secret. At least we give a hint that something had happened before. But we don’t give it away.
Rapace: It also shows how differently they each deal with the loss. She closed the door, you know? She’s not open. She doesn’t want to dig into that. The pain is too great. He’s carrying a lot of guilt and is trying to find a way to communicate with her. It’s not until Ada arrives, who becomes a bridge back to life for her. It’s a possibility for her to start to heal because she can put the motherhood shoes on again.
Trainor: Noomi, when you’re shown helping to deliver the baby lambs in the barn, it appears that you’re working with actual animals. Is that right?
Rapace: That is correct.
Trainor: How did you prepare? Because you look like a natural.
Rapace: Thank you! I guess I am! Because I didn’t have any time at all for any rehearsal. It was my first day of filming. It was at the very end of the lambing season.
Jóhannsson: And you had come just the day before.
Rapace: Yeah, I was shooting another movie. So, I arrived in Iceland, drove six hours north and, the next morning, it was like “the lamb is on its way!” I had to get down to the barn and pull it out.
Trainor: That’s wild. What was that experience like?
Rapace: Scary. My heart was racing. But at the same time, it’s strange, I just felt like I knew. I saw the farmer deliver two lambs in the morning. It was very primal. The smell, the blood. It’s a lot! The farmer was wearing plastic gloves. I had no gloves (laughs). The smell stayed on me for quite some time.
Trainor: Speaking of the animals, this may sound like a bit of an odd question, but I was really struck by the performances from the animals in the film – from the dog, to the cat, to the sheep. They all feel so present. How much time and energy was spent working with the animals to get them to be so responsive and alive?
Rapace: They didn’t come from a shoot right before! They had months of rehearsal!
Trainor: They had time to work on their craft! They weren’t just thrown right in there.
Rapace: Exactly. All of the auditions and then Valdimar was doing acting classes with them.
Trainor: (laughs) Oh wow.
Jóhannsson: But seriously, when we were shooting scenes with animals, we spent the time we needed, you know?
Rapace: You have this almost obsessive interest to let the camera rest and to allow, whatever you’re shooting, to live. You just watch. You love watching. A lot of times it felt like you were letting them be them.
Jóhannsson: Yeah. I think the scenes with animals are very interesting because it’s probably what you create by yourself when you’re watching their faces. You start to create your own story.
Trainor: I was really struck by how darkly and deeply funny the movie was in certain parts. From both a filmmaking and acting perspective, how important was some of that levity to balance everything out?
Jóhannsson: I think they were very important to have some comic relief, because it would be too heavy, especially in the first chapter.
Rapace: For sure. We got the giggles so many times. I mean, the lambs and the babies never do what you want. And the cat? Oof. The cat was the worst. There were many days where it was hard to keep a straight face.
Trainor: As an American sports fan, can you please explain the obsession with handball? You dedicated an entire scene to watching it on TV. The whole time, I thought they were watching soccer, and then there’s handball reveal. Was that intentional?
Jóhannsson: No, no, no! I just wanted to have handball, you know? I’ve been at parties like that.
Rapace: That’s how they party in Iceland! They watch handball and drink beers.
Trainor: Invite me next time.
Jóhannsson: I’m so surprised that handball is not popular here. It’s a very interesting sport!
Trainor: The only handball I know is the kind we played in elementary school, where we’d just hit a ball up against a wall. It was not very exciting.
Jóhannsson: It’s basically like football, but with your hands.
Rapace: With your hands! Surprise! It’s not with your head, Daniel! It’s with your hands.
Trainor: The two of you seem to have such a harmonious relationship. Have there been any conversations about working together again?
Rapace: Yeah! We would love to.
Jóhannsson: We would love to.
Rapace: But with less dialogue (laughs).
Trainor: Maybe a silent film next.
Rapace: But seriously, he did say that, Daniel. We were talking about [the dialogue] and he was like “I do think it’s a little bit too much.” So yeah, we can do a silent movie next time. We can have actors from all over the world! We don’t need to speak the same language!
A24 will release Lamb in select theaters on October 8.