Few trailers have broken the Internet – or at least broken that strange corner of the Internet known as Film Twitter – with quite the shattering force with which the world’s first look at A24’s Lamb arrived. Reactions to the trailer ranged from “WTF was that?” to “WTF was that… I can’t wait to see it!”
The cause of all the bewildered excitement was the movie’s outlandish conceit: A farming couple living in a valley in northern Iceland come across a half-lamb and half-human girl and decide to keep and raise her as their own – no questions asked. It looked like a horror film, a fleecy cousin to Rosemary’s Baby. But then it also looked like a comedy. And: a serious drama. (Either way, GIFs showing Noomi Rapace’s Maria placing a flower crown on Ada the lamb’s head quickly began making the rounds.) Watching the film, you’ll likely experience that same giddy rush of “WTF”-ness with which the trailer was met, as Maria and Ingvar (Hilmir Snær Guðnason) grow to love their new baby lamb-girl, a strange and inexplicable arrival in their lives at a time when they need it most, and become increasingly protective of her. And as promised, it is terrifying at times, and funny at others, and, yes, incredibly moving in its sum. Ahead of the movie’s release in theaters, Rotten Tomatoes sat down with Rapace and director Valdimar Jóhansson to talk about their strange and beautiful creation. For Rapace, known to most audiences for the original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo films and Prometheus, Lamb offered a return to her art-house roots, and she’s looking forward to playing further in these experimental waters. For the first-time filmmaker, who had worked in different capacities on Game of Thrones and films like The Tomorrow War, it was an opportunity to play with the format of film and tell a classical tale… with one big surreal twist. For both, working with children and animals – particularly when they’re playing the same character – came with its challenges.
Joel Meares for Rotten Tomatoes: When we put the trailer for Lamb on our social channels, everyone was so excited about this movie, but the most common response was, “WTF, what the hell is going on here?” What do you make of that response, and what have you made of how people are reacting to the film and the trailer in general?
Noomi Rapace: Well, yeah, it’s super exciting how people embrace this film – I don’t think we expected that. We were in our own little bubble in Iceland, up in the north part of Iceland, shooting in a valley with no connection on our phones. We’re so remote, and so far from everything, so it’s quite a journey.
Valdimar Jóhansson: And I was also so surprised, I didn’t know that the trailer was being released that week. And I had never seen them, but suddenly I saw a lot of videos wondering what’s in Lamb, and it was very strange.
Rotten Tomatoes: And they’re making GIFs, and taking out photos, and just loving how strange it is! I found it interesting that there’s no scene in Lamb in which Maria and Ingvar really do a double take, or question what’s going on. They just take it at face value that this lamb-human child was born. How important was it to make that decision, that there was not going to be any questioning, they were just going to – like the audience kind of has to – just take it as it is?
Jóhansson: I think we decided from the beginning that we wanted for the audience to just feel the emotion, more than we have to tell them what’s going on. And, at least for me, I think you can feel it. I think the reason why Maria and Ingvar accepted this is because the pain is so much…
Rapace: They are ridden by this great pain and grief, and it’s almost like before Ada arrives and the baby’s born, Maria’s life is on hold almost, like she’s not there. She’s functioning, and she’s doing what she needs to do, but she’s not alive. And then when Ada is born, she just takes this opportunity, this gift, and this possibility for happiness. We always approached every scene with this simplicity, like it was kind of… it’s a family drama. The only thing that is odd and weird is everything else in their everyday life.
Rotten Tomatoes: I want to talk about Ada, because reading about the process of shooting with her character, it sounds quite complicated and quite involved, with puppets, VFX, children, lambs. From a directing point of view, what was the most challenging aspect of creating Ada and making her believable. And Noomi, what was challenging in terms of performing multiple times with different iterations of Ada?
Jóhansson: It was way… what do you say, time-consuming? Because we had to do all the scenes with Ada so often. We had to start with the puppets, then the children, and then real lambs.
Rapace: And neither one of them do what you want! It was a set that was run, and coordinated, and built around animals and kids for days and days. And then one day I was like, “Clearly the actors are not the number ones here. We can step aside.” We were always waiting for a lamb to fall asleep, and they were standing there with their little lamb, and I was tiptoeing in and they handed over the lamb to me, and it’s like, “Oh,” and everyone, the whole crew, is quiet. And then he’s giving me the action sign, and then the lamb wakes up, and is like, “Baa!”, and it’s like, “Everyone out again, we have to start again.” So it was quite challenging, and some days, I felt like I was going crazy, but… you have a lot of patience, though. We were always waiting. And also, we had to go with whatever happened, sometimes. It was one scene when I’m putting the flower crown on Ada, and … [to Jóhansson] remember that, how tender she was? She started breathing in my face, and putting her little face towards mine. All of a sudden, it was this extreme stillness, and she just started acting with me, and it was magical, in her life.
Jóhansson: I remember that it was just going on for… it was such a long time.
Rapace: We were communicating through breathing. It was a very special moment.
Rotten Tomatoes: That’s fascinating. Throughout the whole movie, even in the first five minutes when you’re focusing on all those sheep and there’s this extreme closeup and they look so terrified of what’s potentially happening, that all of the animals, not just playing Ada, are so expressive. And it’s in such an interesting contrast to Maria, who is quite stern at the beginning. Why did you choose to emphasize how human-seeming, or emotional, the animals were in this film?
Johansson: Yeah. We really wanted to have also… I love when I’m watching films, when you have a different point of view from, when you can see what is happening from another point.
Rapace: And it’s almost like the audience, you’re invited to see the world from the animal’s eyes as well. Also, spoke a lot about how communication is so much more than words. And when you start to tap into the animals, you realize how they communicate through bodies and body language, and energies, and all that. And that was very much the atmosphere on set.
Jóhansson: And usually animals, they can see if something has happened before. So I thought that was nice, to maybe just show the cat purr, or the dog.
Rapace: And the mother sheep! There were days when she was so stressed and so angry with us, way before we started the shooting. And we were like, “She knows we’re going to take her baby”. It felt like it was very… sometimes scary how in tune they are with us.
Rotten Tomatoes: Yes, the mother sheep! I thought she wanted to kill you. Genuinely, that was a good performance from that animal.
Rapace: She wanted to. [Laughing] We did not have a good relationship.
Rotten Tomatoes: You mentioned the shoot and the set, and it’s such a beautiful looking film, and it’s so stark, and these landscapes you shot they kind of feel otherworldly. When one of the characters went to the bus stop, I was surprised, because I had to be reminded, “Oh, this place is actually connected to the real world!” I also couldn’t place the time period. Was it intentional to have this place that felt like it wasn’t part of the world, like it was completely isolated?
Jóhansson: Yes. You know, we talked about it a lot, if we should open the world somehow. But we thought… It’s not the period, it’s just happening.
Rapace: This is also Iceland. My grandmother, a lot of family members, they live like that. And then once a year, they go to Reykjavik, which is the big city, which is like a village for you.
Jóhansson: But in a way, we wanted to somehow have total control of our world.
Rapace: And it’s almost mirroring what’s going on inside of Maria and Ingvar, because they are trapped in this cocoon of pain and grief of losing their baby girl. And then, it’s almost like time stood still, and it is this closed-off, locked-off environment, so very little other energy. It’s like when he’s reading in the paper, when we’re eating dinner and he’s, “Oh, I just read this.” And she’s like, “Blocking that.”
Jóhansson: We also had a color palette that we made before we stopped shooting. And all the items and everything had to somehow fit in that, because we wanted to have it also special in color palette.
Rapace: When Valdimar came to London, to my house to present a project, he came with a mood board/look-book, with strange drawings and pictures – his universe basically. And gave that to me in a book of Sjón, the writer, and then the script, and he went outside and had a cigarette, and just left me with this little pile of stuff. And I was like, “Oh my god, this is so dark and beautiful!” And that was already in there, so a lot of the images and shots were already in your mood board. So I feel like, you knew, you saw the film, you had it worked out inside you.
Rotten Tomatoes: I know you worked with Sjón, the acclaimed Icelandic poet and writer who has done so much great work (and we’re very excited to see what he does with The Northman with Robert Eggers). What do you think he brought to the project that might not have been there had you done it completely by yourself?
Jóhansson: He brought so much stuff to it. We were spending so much time together. We worked, I think, probably for five years before writing the script…
Rapace: [Laughing] Acting out lambs and stuff on the floor.
Jóhansson: When he just took it over and wrote the script, it took him a very short time, because he knew exactly how it was supposed to be. He’s very good at rhythm.
Rapace: And also the Icelandic folklore, and the sagas and all that. Yeah. And also just his presence, as a human – he’s writing Hamlet for me now, so we’ve been working on that – and how he steps into a character. He very much lived Maria. I had a few conversations with him, it’s like, “What about this scene?” And it feels like both Valdimar and him were kind of living from the eyes of Maria as well. So, I would say that you share the characters, you’re not just the parents, you’re also inside of each one of the characters.
Rotten Tomatoes: Yeah, that comes through. I know it’s very hard to talk about the genre of this movie, because it’s not really a single genre, it’s multiple genres. At times it’s terrifying, at times it’s really funny, at times there’s music, which I love – and soccer, or “football.” But is there a particular genre that you want to move forward with with your next project? Do you have an idea of what area you might want to explore more next?
Jóhansson: What I think I want to do next, is just explore the format more. Because we thought we were very brave to have very little dialogue, but now when I’m watching the film, I somehow feel that we have a lot of dialogue.
Rapace: It could be less. Just take it all out. Silent movie next!
Jóhansson: I think it could be interesting to just do more experiments.
Rapace: We spoke about it in Cannes about art house films. That’s how I started, and he kind of invited me back into the genre, if you can call that whole field [a genre], that is a specific atmosphere. And it’s a world where everything is possible, where the main ingredient is bravery, and I feel like that’s where we both want to go, and we want to swim in those dark waters more.
Jóhansson: Yeah. Everybody’s talking about it as a horror film. We just planned to make a very classical story with this one surrealist element, and we always thought we were making some kind of art-house film, but now I see people are putting it in so many genres.
Rapace: When I moved to Iceland, they have this whole… the family of the dark creatures, we have Grýla, who is this evil witch that comes and takes kids on Christmas. And she has… how many sons does she have?
Jóhansson: 13? And 13 days before Christmas, one of them comes every day.
Rapace: 13 Santa Clauses, they’re all evil. So the Santa Claus in Iceland is evil, they’re 13 mean brothers.
Rotten Tomatoes: See, this is your next movie. But make it a comedy.
Rapace: Yeah, Christmas comedy! So, I would say that all these elements of the overhanging threat that is just there, that’s something, as a kid, I remember was always constantly there. The breathing that we see in the beginning of Lamb, that was like Christmas approaching.
Rotten Tomatoes: Noomi, I think American audiences are so used to seeing you as this tough hero in thrillers, and then obviously, so kickass in Prometheus. Is there a commonality between Maria and these other characters that people might associate with you?
Rapace: I would say they all are on the verge of desperation, and have a determined willpower to live, and to survive. So the common theme, I would say, is always that something is broken – and a need for life.
Lamb is in theaters from Friday October 8, 2021.