Lamb, the latest international acquisition from A24 (the studio behind Hereditary), has blown critics away since premiering in July 2021. Currently holding an impressive 85% on Rotten Tomatoes, Lamb is a unique story about loss, folklore, and an anthropomorphic sheep child called Ada. In our interview with the drama movie‘s director Valdimar Jóhannsson, we discuss his process and challenges in making the Icelandic film that everyone is talking about.
Lamb marks Jóhannssomn’s feature directorial debut, and took the filmmaker eight years to fully realise. Weaving in a human-focused story with supernatural elements, the thriller movie received recognition after premiering at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival. It was nominated as the Icelandic entry for Best International Feature Film at the 94th Academy Awards. Starring Noomi Rapace and Hilmir Snær Guðnason, the film tells the story of a couple who, after losing their child, adopt a half-human half lamb as their own after a mysterious figure visits their barn one night.
In our interview with Jóhannsson, we discuss where his ideas for Lamb came from, the ins and outs of making such a fantastical story, and how, now following Lamb’s mass success, he wants to try directing perfume ads too.
The Digital Fix: First off, I loved Lamb. I got to see it a couple of months ago, and I’m still thinking about it.
Valdimar Jóhannsson: Thank you so much.
A lot of people have been labelling Lamb as a horror movie, a labelling that you have been against. Can you elaborate on where you would define this film?
Yes. For me it is not a horror film, you know? It is a drama. It’s like a family drama. It is some kind of folktale also. You know in the beginning we were just planning to make a film that we wanted to see and we thought it would be like in the Arthouse category. But I know that is not a very good genre to sell. Yeah, you know, for me, this is just a film with a lot of elements from many genres.
Speaking about Arthouse, one of the things I loved about the movie is how it flowed like a visual poem almost. Is it true that your process for making Lamb started with sketches?
What was that process like? How did you get from your artwork into crafting it into a fully realised script that was just over 100 minutes?
I made this book. It is a very thick book with a lot of photos, images and drawings. Then I had the very, very unclear story because I had drawn Ada, I had sheep farmers, and there was a lot of nature. I had some scenes in mind, you know not many but a few, and then my producers introduced me to Sjón, the writer.
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I met him, and I showed him this book, and after that, we started working together like once a week for many years. But then we would just talk about it, and maybe we found some image we really liked and then we would try and create a scene in that – a scene similar to that painting. So it took time, but we were just finding the right way to tell the story with these elements that we had and then just adding the layers and layers on to that.
Let’s talk about Ada since you mentioned her. Her design was striking this half sheep, half-human child. Did that character come from your mind, or was it inspired by folklore?
Yeah, I have to admit that, I… It’s very strange that I’m not quite sure how it started, you know? Or where I got this idea. I really like these gods that are like half animals. All these images from the mythical stories that see some mix of human and animal. And also, my grandparents were sheep farmers. So, I spent a lot of time with them, you know, through this lambing period, and I have been around lambs for years, and they are wonderful creatures.
And somehow also, I remember a lot of people have asked me if my grandparents were like horse farmers would Ada be a horse instead? But somehow, a Lamb is totally different. You know, it’s the same size, almost, as a baby when it’s born. So I think also, visually, it drew me in to make Ada this way somehow.
Speaking about lambs being the same size as babies, I remember when I first watched the opening scenes of your film. I was very shocked that Ada was a half child because I thought she was actually just a normal baby. And then when you saw the baby’s body later on with hoofs, I was like, Oh my gosh, OK.
Haha, yeah, I thought it was all psychological at first. Then you realise this sheep child is an actual thing. How did you manage to do the technology for that, to get the human body and the Lamb’s head to look so seamless together, and trick people (like me), when they first watch the film?
Yeah. I think the first chapter is almost all just really happy. And, you know, we were working with, like, ten children and four lambs. We started shooting during the lambing period, you know, because there were so few sheep left that had not given birth, and we needed to have a legacy like that. So we started shooting, I think for two weeks. There we always used every Lamb we had and also a small child.
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But then we had to take a break because we needed the lambs to grow. Because, for me, this story, except the prologue, that is in the winter in Christmas, the story starts in May. It’s almost like a three month period. Because lambs grow, I think 250 grams per day, we somehow made some rules for us, like how big she [Ada] could be in the end?
Yeah, but we have a lot of visual effects in the film too. But, I think it was nice that we shot all these elements, somehow, because I was working with an amazing team. And I knew that, for me, I knew that if Ada would not work. It would be a disaster (laughs).
You must have had a few obstacles while filming, right? The film is set on an isolated farm. The location is stunning, but it looks wet, and we all know water and cameras don’t mix. Plus, there was also all the livestock you had to deal with. What were the big challenges during the production of Lamb?
The big challenge was probably that this was my first feature. And I have to admit that I was super stressed, when I saw all the trucks coming, and all the crew and everything. I was just thinking, how it happened, how people (laughs) somehow thought I could manage to do it, you know? But, it was just somehow… it was very stressful. So, I felt it was all a challenge there. But I was so lucky to be surrounded by great producers, crew, and actors. Almost all of them were my friends or family. So, that’s helped me a lot. Yeah.
Speaking about actors. Maria (played by Noomi Rapace), in the film – that character is such a striking central figure that really carries a lot of the themes about grief that Lamb has. What was it like working with Noomi with that emotive part?
All of my actors were amazing working with them and with Noomi. She only came like a day before we started shooting. But she had come like months before too, you know, like for four days or something, But we were in a constant dialogue about Maria and ah, yeah, somehow we just created her together, and it was just through dialogue. I felt once she came, she was totally, you know, she was Maria once she came to us, so she knew the part very well. She knew her very well.
In Lamb, it feels like every character has lost something and is grieving in their own way by the end of the film. Your previous short film Harmsaga which you directed also dealt with themes of unexpected loss. What draws you to tragedy as an artist?
The short film, it’s based on an old Grimm fairytale. And I, I thought somehow that, because I got the opportunity to make a short film, I thought I should try to make like some sort of story that could be like a… I felt it was like a big story.
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And I’m not quite sure, you know? But, I really like these Greek stories, and trauma and yeah, it’s probably just something that I think is interesting in films and books. Yeah, I, I don’t know if there’s something else, you know, but it’s probably just that.
Prior to your directing work, you were on crews for quite some big Hollywood films like Oblivion and Prometheus. If you had the chance now to go back as a director and adapt any one of those films you’ve worked on in your style, which one would they be?
Oh, oof, you know, it’s a very hard question.
I’m not quite sure, but, you know, I have to say that when you’re working on some projects for other people it is always nice. And somehow you learn so much from every project that you’re in, and I think that is their project. So I think I would not be able to do it the way that it was planned to be done. So I think I probably just have to come up with my own. (laughs)
Yeah, I don’t know, you know? But I’m totally open. I think it would be interesting to work on some big films like that. But then I have to somehow be there from the beginning. I think it’s difficult to see some films and then think about how you would remake it, you know? (laughs)
Ok, so we have already established that Lamb isn’t a horror movie. But with all the discourse around its genre, it made me curious. What is your favourite horror movie?
I think it’s The Shining.
Nice. That is my favourite too, why do you like it?
I don’t know (laughs). I was reading some articles, not a long time ago, that people are arguing that it’s not a horror film. But, for me, it’s so… it’s a visceral film. And, you know, how he [Stanley Kubrick] tells the story, I feel it’s amazing. Also that it’s isolated, and I really like that. Not so many people, and yeah, definitely, one of my favourite films.
Speaking about your film and isolation, I want to talk more about the setting of Lamb. Like I said, I thought it was very psychological at first and it was just two sheep farmers mind’s playing tricks on them. But then you start to realise, no, there is folklore and supernatural elements in this drama too. How do you balance those two genres as a filmmaker?
You know, it is just like that in the script. But I always said that we have to treat the story like it was just a true story because we have to somehow believe in it. Because the way that we wanted to make it was something that people had to believe in, you know? They had to believe that it’s the ‘true story’.
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And because I think not many people have seen a creature like Ada. So, I think it was also telling us, we have to craft belief to let the audience accept her. And I think that is also the reason why, you know, we have to take some time to get to know the couple Marina and Ingvar before we see Ada. Yeah, I think sorry, I can’t remember the question.
Haha, it’s okay, you did answer it.
(Laughs) ok good
Final question. What do you see yourself doing next now? Lamb has been so widely well-received. Are you going to jump onto the next project? Have you got one in the works?
I’ve started a little bit on my next project. Yeah, you know, I don’t know if it will be next. But, I’ve started working on some things that I want to do next. But I know, it will take some time to deliver like a script. Lamb took many years, but I hope the next will take a shorter time. But in between I would love to do some TV episodes or, you know, just direct a script from somebody else or to do like perfume commercials and music videos. (laughs)
So are we going to get an Ada fragrance soon? Is that what you are telling me?
Yeah. (laughs) But I think it’s very necessary to keep on working because I think it will be hard to pick up from a gap if I take another ten years to come up with the next project.
Yeah. Thank you so much for talking to me. It was really nice meeting you.
Nice meeting you. And thank you so much. And I really liked your questions.
Thank you! I look forward to seeing all your perfume commercials. I will buy them all.
Lamb is out in UK theatres now.