For Valdimar Johannsson, Lamb was an obvious first feature.
The 44-year-old filmmaker spent his childhood with his sheep-farmer grandparents in Iceland. His resume includes work in several filmmaking departments, including special effects for the Hollywood blockbusters Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and Fast and Furious 8. And he was a student of Hungarian arthouse master Bela Tarr.
Lamb, which is being streamed on MUBI, brings together Johannsson’s childhood memories along with his interest in special effects and Tarr’s brand of slow cinema.
Largely set in a valley in Iceland, Lamb follows a childless married couple, Maria (Noomi Rapace) and Ingvar (Hilmir Snær Guonason), who live on a farm. When a mysterious entity impregnates one of their lambs, a baby with the head of a lamb and the body of a human is born. Matters are complicated by the arrival of Ingvar’s drifter brother Petur (Bjorn Hlynur Haraldsson).
Lamb shares its themes of a humanoid baby with the other MUBI release Titane as well as recent European films featuring hybrids such as Zoology (2016) and Border (2018). Alongside the horror-adjacent elements is warm tale of parents raising their miraculous offspring.
“For me, Lamb is a family drama, a classical story with just one surrealistic element,” Johannsson told Scroll.in. “It’s not a horror film though it has some elements. It’s very strange that we always try to box a film in one genre. People expecting horror will be disappointed.”
The horror elements include Maria’s ominous dreams, which were inspired by Johannsson’s own experiences.
“When Lamb premiered in Iceland, my mother handed me a diary where I was writing down my dreams when I was 18,” he said. “And there were dreams of a big creature with the head of a ram, close to what you see in the film.”
In the course of the 10 years that went into the making of Lamb, Johannsson’s inner world led to a thick book comprising sketches, images and photographs that informed the film’s visual world.
He brought this to Rapace’s home in London. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo star hails from Sweden but grew up on a farm in Iceland. Her involvement fast-tracked the production.
Johannsson also reached out to renowned Icelandic writer Sjon, whose work includes a collaboration with the musician Bjork and the screenplay of Robert Eggers’s upcoming The Northman. Sjon agreed to turn Johannsson’s images into a screenplay.
“I had Ada, the farmers, these three characters, the photos of the harsh nature, but the story was broken and it did not work,” Johannsson said. “For the first five years, we just talked, came up with scenes, acted them out, and finally wrote a treatment that producers liked.”
Getting Lamb bankrolled was “risky” because “it’s a slow film”. The filmmaker added, “Also, if Ada did not work, it would become a very strange comedy. We also did not know how Ada would look in the end. The film doesn’t have much dialogue, so we didn’t know what that would look like.”
While early drafts of Lamb had Ada talking, the final film has minimal dialogue and exposition. Johannsson wanted “the audience to be a big part” of Lamb, “somehow making their own story out of it”.
Ada, the star of Lamb, was vivified by at least 10 child actors, four lambs, two puppeteers and visual effects artists. Various scenes of Ada involve different children, with their heads replaced by lambs in the post-production.
“Shooting with animals and children in my first film was very time-consuming,” Johannsson said. “But it wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be. We had farmers and animal handlers.”
Among the film’s highlights are the farm animals, which include dogs and cats. These were entirely possible because of editor Agnieszka Glinska.
“Most of this was written in the script but Glinska brought a rhythm and stillness to the film,” Jóhannsson said. “She found the right scenes such that the audience could figure what, for example, the cat was thinking.”
Like Sjon’s folklore-themed novels such as CoDex 1962: A Trilogy (2018), Lamb has elements of folk horror and Scandinavian myths. Johannsson’s debut short film Harmsaga (2008), also about a farming family dealing with loss and tragedy, was inspired by the Grimm’s fairy tale How Some Children Played at Slaughtering.
“Maybe Lamb is a feature-length version of Harmsaga,” Johannsson observed. “I’d say we tried to come up with a new folklore with Lamb, using small elements from the old ones.”