With Cannes right around the corner, this month we are catching up with filmmakers Sara Nassim and Eli Arenson (both AFI Class of 2015) about their film LAMB which is screening at the upcoming festival. Produced by Sara with cinematography by Eli – and directed by Valdimar Jóhannsson and written by Jóhannsson and Icelandic author Sjón – the supernatural drama follows an Icelandic couple who discover a mysterious newborn on their farmland.
We spoke with Sara and Eli about the origins of the project, their inspirations and hope for the film and their advice for Fellows.
AFI: Congratulations on the success of LAMB. How does it feel to have your feature film playing at Cannes?
SARA: It’s an honor and a very rewarding feeling having worked so hard on this film for a long time.
ELI: It’s a huge honor having LAMB premiere in the Official Selection. I’ve always seen Cannes as the Mount Olympus for auteur cinema, so the excitement is real.
AFI: Can you share a little bit about your journey to becoming a filmmaker? What inspired you to become involved in filmmaking and attend AFI?
SARA: I started out as a PA and then worked my way up in production. Then there came a moment where I felt I had gathered a lot of experience in physical production, but because jobs kept on coming it was slightly more difficult to focus on the creative parts of filmmaking and producing. It was at that moment that I decided I wanted to go abroad to study and get to know likeminded creatives.
ELI: I began my career as a military photojournalist and war correspondent, photographing things like the Gaza war in 2008. This is where I first learned how to use a camera, and I was always obsessed with my compositions and creating a subtext beyond simply documenting the events. I eventually shifted into the narrative feature world where I worked my way up from film loader to 1st AC and eventually cinematographer. At the time, film school wasn’t on my radar until someone recommended looking into AFI because of its cinematography program. I’m really glad I applied because I learned so much during my time there, both from our professors as well as the other Fellows. It really helped me step outside of my comfort zone.
AFI: How did you become involved in LAMB? What connected you to this story and the genre?
SARA: I became involved in LAMB through my producing partner and the director. It was actually during my time at AFI, and I even pitched it in one of our classes. I was drawn to the script immediately. There is this classical story of loss, grief and hope which has this one surreal element in it inspired by Icelandic folktales. Then there is the power of nature and the fragility of the human that has no control over fate.
ELI: Sara first sent me the script for LAMB in 2018 and what captured me immediately was how beautifully it was written. The landscape and the weather were anthropomorphized, and the animals of the farm were acting both as characters as well as spectators. It did not feel like it was written only as a blueprint of a film, but like a standalone work of literature. I’ve read Sjón’s novels in the past and he is a master of mixing the surreal with the mundane, and in LAMB, along with co-writer/director Valdimar Jóhannsson, they were able to achieve something that was poetry over prose.
AFI: What was it like to collaborate with first-time feature director Valdimar Jóhannsson and stars Noomi Rapace and Hilmir Snaer Gudnason?
SARA: It was great collaborating with all three. Valdimar had drawn storyboards for the entire film, visualized the story and knew exactly what he wanted. Noomi’s portrayal of María was absolutely amazing, and Hilmir really showed us his strength as an actor taking on the role of Ingvar. They’re chemistry was so natural which was very fitting for the story.
ELI: Valdimar is an extremely visual director. He sees the world in shapes and colors. There is very little dialogue in LAMB and the story is told through the imagery. The film was storyboarded in its entirety twice, and, in addition, every frame of the film was pre-photographed on the location in the north of Iceland. No stone was left unturned, and I think this led us to a precise visual language which is also unique to this film. Noomi is a phenomenal actress and her passion for the film was parallel to our own. Hilmir is one of Iceland’s most prolific actors, and his chemistry with Noomi was timeless.
AFI: Eli, how did you approach the visual style of the film? What were the stylistic influences that you used for inspiration?
ELI: Valdimar and I referenced many films in our discussions. Notably, films by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Carlos Reygadas, Bela Tarr (who was also an executive producer on LAMB), Lars von Trier and Andrey Zvyagintsev were all influential to our conversations.
AFI: Sara, what do you hope people take away from the film? Why is important to make films like LAMB?
SARA: I hope the film leaves the audience with questions about the fundamental issues in life. LAMB is a timeless story that explores emotions most of us can relate to. The truth of LAMB is that loss and grief are sometimes indomitable, and we cannot always control our fate. In our time, when opportunities are limitless and we feel invincible, we tend to forget how small and vulnerable humans really are against the nature they live in.
AFI: Now with a Cannes film under your belt, what is next on the horizon? Do you have any projects you can talk about?
SARA: Yes, I have a few projects in early development stages, nothing that I can disclose of. For now, I’m going to enjoy summer, finish renovating my apartment and spend time with my six-month-old.
ELI: I recently filmed the third season of the Netflix series TRAPPED created by Baltasar Kormákur which is expected to be released in the upcoming months.
AFI: What advice do you have for current AFI Fellows to make the most out of their time at the Conservatory?
SARA: Make sure to experiment, fail and try things that might intimidate you, because the AFI Conservatory is a safe haven – you just might not know it now.
ELI: Do what you are least confident in. If you’re a great handheld operator, shoot a film using only a static camera. If your last film was beautifully shot using only natural light, for your next film shoot it entirely at night on a 200iso film stock. Make mistakes now, and if you’re like me, maybe you’ll discover you’re really good at something you were too afraid to try.