It begins with sharks and a boat full of print and broadcast journalists. It’s like a joke publicists tell amongst themselves, but instead of prehistoric predators sinking teeth into pesky media types, it’s the other way around.
The writers, photographers, and on-camera talent aboard The Elding, a whale watching vessel that operates out of Reykjavík Harbor, Iceland, are deep-sea fishing and sampling the traditional delicacy Hákarl. Hinrik Ólafsson, a location manager for Icelandic film productions, tells me that it’s shark and an acquired taste, but it’s only after I’ve choked down a cube of the gamey white-ish meat, which smells like an old mop, that he explains it’s rotten shark. After wind-curing and fermenting the fish to eliminate its natural poison, the Vikings who settled Iceland ate it during the mid-winter feast of Þorrablót, in January, as Icelanders do to this day. The Vikings also binge drank for 10 to sometimes 20 hours, he says, and after trying the shark, it seems entirely possible that it might take that long, and take that much alcohol, to get the taste off of your tongue. Fortunately, we’re also sampling Black Death, a.k.a. brennivín, a pleasant Icelandic akvavit made with potatoes, cumin, caraway, angelica, and other herbs, and that (plus a couple cans of Bríó beer) washes out the ammonia flavor that had been swirling around in my mouth like an ingestible sharknado.
The reason we’ve assembled, aside from testing our sea legs and taste buds, is the home video release of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (out now on Blu-ray and DVD). To promote the second film adaptation of author James Thurber’s 1939 short story, Fox Home Entertainment has flown media from all over the globe to Iceland, where director, producer, and star Ben Stiller filmed on a variety of stunning locations, some of which passed for Greenland, Afghanistan, and the Himalayas. We’re here to visit a few of these locations and to interview cast and crew, but also to get into the spirit of the film, which is about stepping out of your comfort zone and living life to the fullest. A full life apparently includes rotten shark, a helicopter ride over turbulent seas, a bone-rattling ATV ride, and hiking and rappelling down glaciers.
Our masticatory experience on The Elding represents one of the first leaps made in the film by Walter Mitty (Stiller), a meek and boring “Negative Asset Manager” for Life Magazine who supplements his staid existence with daydreams of action and romance until the search for an important missing photo negative starts him on an eye-opening, real-life adventure. Early on, he attempts to jump from a postal helicopter into a fishing boat, where he believes famous photojournalist Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) and his negative may be, but instead plunges into the choppy, frigid, and shark-infested ocean. Leifur Dagfinnsson, Mitty production manager and chairman/founding partner of the Icelandic film production company Truenorth, says Stiller earned everyone’s respect by repeatedly, tirelessly, and fearlessly jumping into the cold September sea until he got the shot he wanted. Says Dagfinnsson, “He behaved like a Viking.”
I find myself especially receptive to such life-affirming stories. The brevity and uncertainty of life was illustrated on my seven-hour flight from Seattle-Tacoma to Keflavík International Airport, when an elderly man a few rows behind me fell ill and required emergency medical attention. Flight attendants summoned the doctors on board the plane and they strapped on an oxygen mask and huddled around the man until we landed, when an EMT with a stretcher welcomed him to Iceland. Sometimes the challenges we face are minor, sometimes they’re life-or-death.
Iceland, birthplace of the Viking sagas, has no shortage of great stories and engaging storytellers. It seems every Icelander we meet has driven or flown towards a volcanic eruption and fumbled through a pitch-black ash cloud or a blinding white snow storm.
For Olafur Darri Olafsson, the 41-year-old genial 6' 4½" giant who played Mitty’s drunk and heartbroken helicopter pilot, and who recently started a transition from Icelandic stardom to U.S. fame with appearances in Banshee and True Detective, leaving his comfort zone meant taking a life. After a helicopter ride from the beautiful black beach Reynisfjara, Darri (as his friends call him) tells us about recently going deer hunting for the first time—10 years after he got the requisite gun license. “Everyone said I would never, ever shoot my first deer, but I did,” he says. “I did it for a very specific reason: In my world, in Iceland, in many ways I’m too distant from where my food comes from. I like to eat meat but I never killed a cow or slaughtered a pig. I felt that I needed to connect to what that means. It was a difficult experience but at the same time it was good for me because it made me respect my food more, respect the animals that give up their lives so we can eat.”
Iceland, birthplace of the Viking sagas, has no shortage of great stories and engaging storytellers like Darri. It seems every Icelander we meet has driven or flown towards a volcanic eruption and fumbled through a pitch-black ash cloud or a blinding white snow storm. “You are not a man if you don’t tell a story,” says a tipsy Hinrik at Hella’s Hotel Rangá bar on his 51st birthday. There is no doubting Hinrik’s manhood. When Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano erupted in 2010, spreading a massive ash cloud that shut down European aviation, he took to the skies in a helicopter to document it for “Iceland Volcano Eruption,” an episode of National Geographic’s Naked Science. When his wife questioned why he put himself in danger that he readily admitted was serious, he told her it was for the future of the world, because the next big Icelandic eruption could knock out satellites worldwide and do more damage than al-Qaeda ever could.
Hinrik’s story of bravery and nobility comes on the heels of one of the best, most Mitty-esque tales I hear all trip. While we sip Icelandic liqueurs, Grímur Jón Sigurðsson, a.k.a. Gimmi, the broadcast journalists’ 20-something cameraman, tells a small group of us about the time he and some buddies fucked around and formed a band so they could tour the U.S. in a van. Despite its raw semi-competence and dearth of material, Man Behind the Wheel managed to book and play gigs across North America, thanks in no small part to its members’ Icelandic charm and music lovers’ aching desire to be the first person up on the cool new band nobody else has heard of. Gimmi filmed the tour and is cutting it into a road trip music documentary (check out the trailer here). Hopefully the bits about his encounter with aliens, squatting with a loon, and a reunion in a homeless shelter don’t wind up on the cutting room floor.
Gunnar Helgason has a different sort of story altogether. The 48-year-old actor, who played the hotel keeper who saves Mitty from a volcanic ash cloud, is also the author of bestselling children’s books. He tells me, over lunch in Hellisholar, that, to him, living a full life means taking care of and spending time with his wife and sons, and doing something in his professional life that he’s both proud of and passionate about but that doesn’t overshadow his family. He’s not just blowing volcanic ash up my ass, either. Gunnar wrote 2011’s Spot Kicks from Hell, the first book in his series The Great Football Saga, to encourage his younger son to read after his eldest abandoned books for iPad surfing, video games, and sports in his pre-teen years. Spot Kicks, which is sadly not yet available in English, but which Helgason is developing into a TV show, is about a young boy in a football tournament who discovers self-confidence by helping a rival who’s suffering domestic abuse. Gunnar’s son not only read the book but also had a hand in editing it (his lukewarm response to the first draft led to the inclusion of all-important cliffhangers).
As for me, it's on an ATV, winding my way through rocky, hilly terrain covered in snow and mud and across streams that rise above my boots on my quad (see right), that I feel I’ve officially #LetLifeIn, as the film’s promo tag encourages. It’s an odd time to feel this, considering that the bumps and jumps, which force me to wrestle my steering column like the horns of a twisting, bucking bull, are assaulting my future progeny. Still, despite the abuse of my gonads, everything is simple and thrilling. With a balaclava and helmet on, all I hear is my ATV’s grunting motor, the valley’s whipping wind (which periodically fills the hood of my bright orange parka like a parachute and threatens to yank me off of my vehicle), and my thoughts, which naturally turn to appreciation of Iceland’s beauty and DMX's "Ruff Ryders' Anthem."
Everyone we speak to about filming in Iceland says the main attractions are tax breaks, industrious local crew members whose imperviousness to unpredictable shitty weather surely comes from their hard Viking ancestors, and, most important of all, the landscapes. Directors have told Hinrik that Iceland looks like it was created yesterday, with elements that don’t exist anywhere else, and they’re spot-on. Glaciers, glacial rivers, ice lakes, volcanoes, geothermals, black sandy beaches, black deserts, and green valleys are like neighbors just down the road from each other. And in the hospitable Icelandic way, these locations have all been kind to productions like Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Die Another Day, Noah, Prometheus, Oblivion, and HBO’s Game of Thrones.
The glory of the scenery mirrors my sense of accomplishment in not winding up trapped beneath, or thrown from, my ATV when I accidentally shoot off the road a few times, especially because others flip their vehicles on banks and in streams. I’ve only been driving a car since last July, when, at 33, I moved from Brooklyn to Los Angeles and it became a necessity. It took me until two weeks ago to brave the race tracks that are the freeways out here. And the last time I was on something approximating a quad—a scooter in Punta del Este, Uruguay, during college—I revved the engine too hard exiting a gas station and rocketed into the island in the middle of the street. I somehow jumped off unscathed but the rear tire skinned the arm of the young woman who was riding with me.
By the time I dismount my quad, my enthralling Mitty moment has passed, but I remember what it felt like to live a little. I’m grateful that it did not require rotten shark.
Written by Justin Monroe (@40yardsplash)
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