Exclusive: Baltasar Kormakur Talks Directing 2 Guns

With the Blu-ray now available, we sit down with 2 Guns director Baltasar Kormákur to discuss working with Mark Wahlberg again, directing Denzel Washington for the first time, and getting ready to scale his own personal Everest.

Baltasar Kormákur is one of Iceland’s top cinematic exports. A respected filmmaker who has multi-tasked as a writer, director, producer and even actor, Kormákur has done it all, including the haunting The Deep, which was nominated for the 2013 Nordic Council Film Prize and was on the Academy Awards’ shortlist as the Icelandic entry in January. Yet, he is currently best known to Americans for making a pair of Mark Wahlberg thrillers with high stakes and higher adrenaline set-pieces: Contraband and 2 Guns. It was in promotion of the latter’s recent release on Blu-ray that he was gracious enough to Skype with me from Iceland, as he prepares work on his next film, Everest, this one about the famed disaster in the 1990s, which is set to star Josh Brolin, Jason Clarke, Jake Gyllenhaal and John Hawkes. To work with Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg, I’m sure that was a real dream.Baltasar Kormákur: Yeah, it was a fantastic opportunity. Of course, I worked with Mark before, so it was even more of a pleasure to jump back into something with someone you like and have a relationship with. Of course, [it can be surreal] to stand in front of Denzel and tell him what to do. But it all went well, and we got along really well. He’s an American icon. What can you say? You have to pinch yourself the first time you stand in front of him. But that’s the first day, then it’s just work. You’ve got to do the job. The positive surprise was that Mark and Denzel hit it off really well, and they connected well. So, it made my job a lot easier. Speaking of that, did you get to spend a lot of time with them before filming or did they spend a lot of time together? How did they develop that rapport?I spent a lot of time with Denzel. Mark came in a little later because he was on another shoot. Of course, I knew him. Then we got to spend some time together. The first part of shooting, they were actually separate [in] the beginning. Then, when we started doing their scenes, we kind of thought, “Oh, now the movie’s kicking up.” It’s becoming a movie, you know? Before that it was just some connecting scenes and tissues, not really the meat of the thing. It took a little time of course, and to find the tone, but they were both willing. Denzel of course came in a little more serious than I wanted him to be. Then actually later on, it was about making it less. So, he put himself up out there. I was pleasantly surprised how well he took my suggestions. And Mark came in hot and was ready to do this. And of course with our relationship, it’s always easier. We had been on the phone and talked about it. It’s just chemistry for a director. It’s like a matchmaker. You can put the candle down, cook a nice dinner, and then make the atmosphere creative and nice, so that they can connect. But they have to connect as well. You can’t just manhandle it throughout. It’s partly the instructions you give them, and partly the chemistry between the two of them.
 Doing this and Contraband with Mark now, can you describe what your relationship is like with him?From the beginning, apart from that he looks a bit like my old school friend, it felt like someone I’d known—it was an easy relationship from day one. What’s great about Mark is he’s not pretentious in any way. He’s very direct about who he is and he doesn’t have any false ideas about how he sees himself. And he’s very street smart. I don’t think people realize how street smart he is. He’s kind of broken through in three different or four different ways as a businessman, as a producer, as an actor, and even as a musician. People can laugh all about that, but the fact is it takes a lot of intelligence and a kind of innovative—most people are just lucky if they’re successful in one thing. And you can’t just say one comes after another. I don’t know how many actors have tried to breakout in music or this or that, and it just doesn’t work. His ego doesn’t get in his way. And that makes it very pleasant to work with him. Only thing, he gets lazy sometimes, you’ve got to push him a bit. [Laughs]. He knows that himself. You said Denzel took your suggestions about making it slightly lighter, and you obviously know how to work well with Mark. Could you describe what your process is with these actors?For me, it’s how I approach an actor. Doesn’t matter what kind of project it is, action, comedy or drama, because I’ve done almost every—if you’ve seen my Icelandic films, you’d see there is a very versatile catalogue. I never basically come in with an idea of how I’m going to direct them before I meet them. I listen to them and I try to understand them, and understand their process, and then try to direct them from there. Some people need to be pushed; others need to be encouraged. It’s very different. It’s almost like a little psychiatrist in a way, you know? You can’t decide your own method…you have to understand why something [you might ask an actor to do] is a problem. He won’t be able to tell you verbally necessarily why it’s a problem. You’ll have to understand what his personality is and from there understand why it’s a problem. Motivation is also a huge part of what I like to do. I like to motivate people. You can sit around a table and tell stories about the youth of the character, whatever it is, just so you have some place to come from. Often you read in the script he’s supposed to do something, and you just can’t find the motivation to do it, and I just think it becomes awful and terrible. And that’s where really bad acting starts happening, because there is no way for the actor to fill it in if he can’t understand why he’s doing it. Had you read the Steven Grant comic book before you started work on this film?Yeah, before I started working on the film. But when I received the script, I hadn’t. So, when I was in the process of accepting the offer, I went to the comic book. And actually what I feel happens, you adapt something, the first thing is you go away from it. Kind of get a freedom from the original material. But then in later stabs, I always find it useful to go back to the original material and remember—I wasn’t part of the beginning of the process, but why did they start with this property? Why this? You always find something like “we got a little too far away from it here” or “this is the tone” or whatever it is that can be helpful. I’ve done adaptations as a writer myself. It’s a useful process. You really want to break free from it, and then you need to go back and revisit it.
 I haven’t actually read the comic myself, but one thing I thought that was really interesting in this film was it took a very critical view of authority in it. There’s rampant corruption in the U.S. Navy; they burn a sailor for a cover-up. And then there’s the CIA. How were these satirical elements developed?I think that most of these things were already in the comic book. I even went back to the original idea, which wasn’t in the original screenplay, that they were using this drug money to fight the drug cartel…I mean if you read the news it’s comical. The whole thing about America spying on Europe. You just go like “What?!” [Laughs]. There’s no story that can make it more out there than the real one, you know? I’m not saying America is worse or better than other countries. We’re all in the same shit pile somehow, you know? [Laughs] I mean my country, Iceland, the corruption and bullshit that came up in the collapse of 2008 that we’re still dealing with is incredible. At all levels. I think that’s the most truthful part of the film. Basically that it’s corruption all over. You can take a scene and say, “That’s far off.” But it is a satire. It is comical. I always found the tone had to be light, so you could get away with all this. But in reality, it’s pretty much like that. Going off that, but one of my favorite performances in it was Bill Paxton as the CIA heavy. Could you talk about how that performance came out, and how you two developed that type of antagonist?I thought with the way we saw that character from the beginning—it’s out there, but it’s presenting the mentality of both of the government and kind of the American mentality that most of us loathe in some way, even in Americans and elsewhere in the world. You know like the mentality that Bush showed in the 9/11—just the way they spoke about things and dealt with them. And I think in some way it is playing with that. The idea came about Bill Paxton, because I come from the world of independent filmmaking and I love those kind of actors who have been around for a long time, not necessarily always in the spotlight, but really solid actors and have them do something you hadn’t seen before. I hadn’t seen him do anything close to this at least. He usually plays the straight, nice guys in most films. And I think he’s a fabulous actor, so when the idea came to talk to him about it, and have a little surprise, it’s kind of a candy of the really evil baddie. And I think Bill showed up in costume the first time I met him. We met in some restaurant in Hollywood. I was [just in from New Orleans] to meet with a couple of people, and Bill was one of them. And he just showed up in full dress. Pretty close to what it ended up being, I have to say. He was just so—he really wanted to do this. He wanted to show his muscles in a different way. Bill is a dream for a director, basically. He throws himself totally into your hands and he takes every direction that you give him. But he had a lot of ideas of where he wanted to take the character. Whose idea was the Southern accent? Because I thought it was a very nice touch of that specific image of Americanism, that certain mentality. I know it’s set in New Mexico, but it’s a Georgia drawl.Bill I think is a Texan himself, so I think it comes naturally. He put it a little thick on just to have fun with it, but I think that pretty much came from him. That was his suggestion. I’m very careful of accents, because I’m not a great judge of it, as you can maybe here? [Laughs] So, I have to trust the actor very much when it comes to those things. Coming from the world of independent film, from Icelandic filmmaking, what has attracted you to the action genre? Between this and Contraband, you seem to have expanded into this genre?I think it’s I did a movie called Jar City, which is a thriller, that was very well received in America and around the world. And you know how it goes in Hollywood. I produced the original Contraband, I have a production company in Iceland, which is called Reykjavik-Rotterdam. And I actually played the lead in it, but I didn’t direct it. So, I thought it could be a great remake. So that’s kind of what I took to America, and Mark loved the idea. We got along well, so it started. And it had that kind of action feel to it, but it’s not really an action movie. It’s more of a heist movie with a bit of action in it. And you know how Hollywood functions. They just pigeonhole you right away [Laughs]. I’m pretty much breaking away from that right now with Everest, which is closer to The Deep, the Icelandic film I made two years ago. It was listed for the Oscars last year, so that’s kind of where I’m at. I have no problem doing action. It’s fun. It’s just not something I see myself only doing in the future. Jumping ahead, could you talk a little about Everest and what else you’re walking on right now?Basically I’m in prep, and we start shooting in January. It’s a true story. It’s the same story as Into Thin Air. It’s not based on the book; it’s based on numerous books. One is Left For Dead Beck Weathers’ book, and The Climb. There are so many books about this and just the life rights of the people who are involved. It’s the story of Rob Hall, and Beck Weathers, and Jon Krakauer, and Scott Fischer, I mean it’s a fabulous opportunity. I was basically in Nepal a couple of weeks ago scouting Everest. Getting paid for that is almost a luxury [Laughs]. That’s going to be rough location shooting, I imagine.Yeah, it’s a tough one. We’re shooting in Italy, and Nepal, and UK, and maybe something in Iceland. You know, just very minimal. It’s the kind of movie that comes along very rarely. It’s been very hard to get off the ground. It’s been financially complicated. How long have you been trying to make this movie?Well, they’ve been trying to make this movie for 10 years. It started as Stephen Daldry like 10 years ago. Then it was brought to my attention probably in the post-production of Contraband, which is two years ago. We were supposed to start a little earlier, but it’s not a bad thing, because I didn’t have too much time either. Since then, we had a partner and that fell apart; it’s been a complicated process. But I’m not a director who’s been waiting without a job for two years, so I’m not complaining in any way. It’s just one of these projects that hopefully the hardship of getting them done—will benefit from the alignment and have something that was worth fighting for. Sometimes the projects that are really hard to get actually are the ones you’re proudest of.