Set in New Orleans, Contraband is Mark Whalberg’s new thriller about smuggling on container ships. He plays a blue-collar family man who’s sworn off his former life of crime, until his brother-in-law botches a drug deal and needs his help in order to repay the debt. Whalberg agrees to do one last job, running contraband from Panama on a container ship. Kate Beckinsale plays Whalberg’s wife, Ben Foster his best friend and business partner, and Giovanni Ribisi plays a New Orleans drug runner.
A remake of the Icelandic film Reykjavík-Rotterdam (2008), Contraband is directed by Baltasar Kormákur, who played the lead character in the original. At the press conference in New York, Kormákur spoke to a room of journalists about how the project came together, the choice of cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (The Hurt Locker), and his thoughts on the film’s moral ambiguity. Hit the jump for the interview.
Question: I think you’re probably one of Iceland’s most famous directors here—what made you want to do a remake of an Icelandic film? How did you get involved in it and what was your approach to the material?
BALTASAR KORMÁKUR: Well this project was brought me to me in Iceland and I actually thought that the director of the original was asking me to produce the film. Originally though he was actually asking me to act in it. And I had pulled out of acting for a long time. I started my career as an actor and then I started directing in theatre and in movies and I just decided I couldn’t do all. I didn’t really want to direct myself in my own movies—I don’t think that’s usually very wise—and therefore I wasn’t expecting that. But I really loved the idea of the project and I hadn’t seen that world been portrayed, of smuggling on containers ships, and I think it’s actually a bigger world than people realize. I really loved the character of Kristófer in the Icelandic version, and so I did also think that this movie could possibly play stronger as an American movie because of the crime world. I’m sorry to say it’s bigger in America than in Iceland, of the three hundred thousand people that we have! And therefore I thought, this kind of movie could even play better. And we did the movie and I produced it and I run the kind of main production company in Iceland today. And then I brought it to my agents in the states and they loved the idea of this. And I had actually seen a lot of scripts that had, you know, crime scripts, thrillers, and I just—in my steps, stepping out of the independent world and foreign language filmmaking into this world of yours, you don’t necessarily get all the best projects sent to you. So I thought, I’d rather create something out of what I’ve been creating and take the step with something I’m more confident with, and something I love. Because ten years ago when I did my first film 101 Reykjavík I got a lot of attention from the studios and from people making movies here, but I never found the right project that I really wanted to attach myself to. So I went back and did more films, wanted to be better prepared if this would come my way. And then I thought this was the right moment to take this step and this project was something that I could be proud of, and luckily I brought it to Mark Whalberg and he responded very positively.
KORMÁKUR: Well I started directing as a stage director. I did a lot of stage work. I’ve done it around the world, in England and Scandinavia. A lot of Shakespeare; I’m a big Shakespeare fan (laughs). And you know, contemporary work as well, even musicals. I did Rent, for example. But I felt it very important—because I’ve written most of my scripts myself—and I thought it very important to get someone who was more into American culture and knew it better than myself to do that. So we got Aaron Guzikowski who had read the screenplay Prison, that hasn’t been produced yet—a fantastic script—and also working with, you know, American producers, making this real and possible. And what we did, we actually went a year ahead of working on the script, to going to New Orleans, to scout before we started writing because I really wanted to find where it’s real. And for me, Mississippi has always been ‘smuggling’ and there’s something dark around rivers and all that, something dark around Chicago and the whole America, the shit that rolls down the river (laughs) must be incredible! And also you know, the kind of crime history of New Orleans seemed to be right for this. And then we started working it as much into that. And for me, remaking a movie, a lot of filmmakers ask “why do you need to remake a movie?” Well we’ve been remaking Hamlet since 1600—thousand times every year. So for me it’s just using a good story to make a movie, and I didn’t look at the original. I just thought ‘OK we’ve done that, now let’s make another movie with the same core story.’ I really wanted to dig into the character as well. I mean… I love doing action, don’t take me wrong, but my reason I make films is the character, to dig into characters.
Following up on that and your emphasis on characters, there is in this film a certain kind of a moral ambiguity. I wonder if you could comment on your thoughts about presenting a film where the characters are perhaps of necessity, as cruel as they are. They are not socially conscious. They get away with murder and robbery in the end, and this delivers some sort of odd message of success to audiences. Could you comment on your choices on that?
KORMÁKUR: Yeah but I don’t go about as a preacher either. My aims are not necessarily to educate people or tell them what’s morally right or wrong. I don’t agree that anyone gets away with murder, because I don’t remember either Kate or Mark killing anyone in the movie. But they’re put into situations, in which [Mark] doesn’t have any choices. But he’s put into situations where it’s either the family or doing something morally ambiguous but trying to navigate through it. The worst thing he does is he steals a painting, right? (Laughs). And beats up a few baddies. But he doesn’t kill anyone. But he’s involved in criminal activities and he’s not getting his way through it. One of the things that I really like about this story is that there are two characters—one is Ben Foster’s and one is Mark. They are similar except in a difficult situation, Mark does what is right and Ben does what is wrong. And there’s extreme pressure. Therefore, I would say the movie does take a moral stand even though he does things that are illegal, he does them for the right reasons. He does them to save his family. But he doesn’t go about, you know, killing anyone and harming anyone as he’s doing that. I am a father myself of five children, and it’s very important to me, and I don’t really want to go about showing people what they shouldn’t do—but also I’m a filmmaker and I like to tell stories and partly you can’t be a preacher at the same time.
KORMÁKUR: I sure did. I did on the original a lot. Even to the fact—OK, here’s moral ambiguity. In Iceland, because in the Icelandic version they’re smuggling alcohol, and the reason was because alcohol is so expensive and is sold by the government. And that’s kind of a crime that everyone accepts, right? My father was a painter, used to sell a Captain a painting, and he paid him with alcohol that he smuggled (laughs)! I never saw it as bad, it’s just old ways of making business. He got his painting and my father had alcohol in his closet for the year to come. So yeah, maybe I’m brought up with moral ambiguity for that reason (laughs). So I know a lot of this world. My mother’s brother has worked in this world for a very long time. He’s an engineer and when we did the original he worked with us on the details and getting us the stories that he knew. To him, it was very correct. When we came to the states we did work with Homeland Security who worked with us on the film—it was fantastic they did all the scenes with us for free actually. We would never have been able to do these heists, taking down these containers ships on the river of Mississippi without them. And then we called one of the captains on the ships and said ‘we’ll give you a bottle of whiskey if you just put the lights on on your ship!’ We actually had to do it a little bit how we do it at home: we had to steal stuff—not steal! But steal shots and do all kinds of things, because that was the only way really to make this happen, because they were not going to give me a budget of 120 million dollars and have a thousand feet container ship to play with for weeks.
How did you get the ship?
KORMÁKUR: Oh, you don’t want to know…Well we used a ship that was much smaller. When I saw it the first time I was almost crying ‘I can’t believe this is gonna be the ship!’ And then we got ships that were on the river and we put up fake fronts of the ship. We just made it look much bigger and complicated than it is. And that’s the way you make movies when you don’t have money. We had money, but we wanted to make it look much bigger than we had.
KORMÁKUR: There’s maybe not as much handheld as you might think. A lot of it’s long lenses and we didn’t do that much. Barry Ackroyd, who I’ve been a fan of for a long time [was the cinematographer]. You know he shot The Hurt Locker, United 93, he’s now shooting with Paul Greengrass, I think on his new Somali movie [Captain Phillips], and was supposed to shoot the Bin Laden movie, for some reason I don’t know what happened with that because he’s worked with Kathryn Bigelow. What I really wanted is to make it feel real and urban. I really wanted the film to portray a different part of New Orleans than from which I have seen in movies—the French Quarter, the jazz and all that. I wanted the iconic America: the steal workers, the ships, the rivers, all this big stuff. But I didn’t want the movie to look ‘slick’ at the same time. I wanted it to feel real and gritty but still have it entertaining. So it was that direction I was going down, therefore the choice of Barry I was really happy to get. He was about to shoot another movie called Tripple Frontier for Kathryn Bigelow, which fell apart and I figured out ‘Oh, ok…Now he might be free…’
Can you talk a little bit about the casting, because the film hinges on us liking and being sympathetic to Mark Whalberg’s character.
KORMÁKUR: First of all, from day one when I got this idea that he would be my perfect choice for the film. He was the only one we went to. Incredible luck that he loved the project and came on. And then what we wanted to do—I’m a part of the independent world in a way—so I wanted to use actors that related to me and I believed in. That’s why we went to Ben Foster, Diego Luna, Giovanni Ribisi who is fantastic and who I hadn’t seen in a while, and try to create a cast around him [Whalberg] that as well was real, and maybe in some ways like with Giovanni, a little bit surprising. And also we used for some of it, ship guys that were local actors who hadn’t played in movies before. I mean I love the casting process, finding the right person and making it all fit together and creating the chemistry. And that’s the reason Lukas Haas came on because I thought he had the right and sweet chemistry with Mark. And I didn’t want it to be like the funny banana sidekick, just a believable friend. And one thing I really didn’t want is for there to be ‘the specialist’—you know the one who’s good at this, and the one who’s good at that, ‘the best in the world’. No, just a bunch of guys who just do this. They do it sometimes and sometimes they don’t and that’s why they run into problems. I think it’s more relatable for me at least that they are real people and maybe do something a little dodgy sometime like we all do at some point.