Lamb Star Noomi Rapace and Director Valdimar Johannsson Talk Genre-Defying Film: “Sometimes It’s So Strange You Have to Laugh”
In A24’s Lamb, Noomi Rapace’s most memorable co-star is a half-human, half-sheep newborn named Ada. As Maria, who runs a farm with her husband (Hilmir Snaer Gudnason) in remote Iceland, Rapace weathered a logistically complicated shoot that included actual nightmares. The resulting film, helmed by first-time director Valdimar Jóhannsson, who co-wrote it with frequent Björk collaborator Sjón, is an eerie, intermittently funny slice of folk horror. Rapace and Jóhannsson spoke to THR about how they made the movie and why they resist the temptation to classify it as a genre film.
Maria is a heavy character. She’s been through a lot of anguish, and she’s desperate to be a parent.
Rapace: It’s brutal to open up yourself for the emotions of losing a child. When Valdimar and his producer came to London and gave me this divine, disturbing package of the script and his lookbook, and I started to explore this world, I knew that it was a brutal, beautiful world. I knew I would need to get lost in it somehow, and I accepted that. But there were also moments when we were shooting it where I wasn’t sure where Noomi ends and Maria starts. It was quite intense. I couldn’t really sleep. In the summer in Iceland, it doesn’t really get dark. I was losing my mind.
Is the lack of darkness why you couldn’t sleep?
Rapace: There were definitely other reasons. I was dreaming a lot of quite disturbing dreams, of being chased by big rams. It was me against the animal kingdom.
Was the set as rural and isolated as it looks in the film?
Rapace: One hundred percent. Valdimar was looking for this specific set for quite some time. He was driving around Iceland to find this specific farm. It was abandoned. No one had lived there for 20 years. It was just us in this valley, and there was no phone signal working. It was a very small team, and everyone was doing everything. It was very intimate. I could feel how we slowly drowned in the story.
Was the house already there from 20 years ago or did you construct it for the film?
Johansson: We totally changed the house.
Rapace: But it was there. It was the same house.
Johansson: We added some things to it. When we found this [house], we saw that we could shoot out of every window. We could shoot 360. And the layout of the farm was so interesting.
What was in your lookbook?
Johansson: Just a lot of paintings and drawings and photos. It was beautiful but really dark somehow.
Rapace: Definitely dark. Some stuff in there was from all over the world — not just Icelandic.
Johansson: It was something that I’ve been collecting over a long period. I don’t know how many reference photos I have on my computer. I think it’s almost full.
Rapace: But you communicate in pictures and images rather than words. That is your language, so it totally makes sense that you would come to London and give me your mood board rather than try to talk me through the story. A lot of images that we can see in the film now, including Ada, were in your lookbook. It felt like you knew what you wanted. It existed on the page and in your head before we shot it.
Where exactly did Ada come from?
Johansson: I have to admit that I’m not quite sure, but my grandparents were sheep farmers. I’d been drawing Ada. She was one of the first elements that I knew I wanted to have in the film, even though I didn’t know how the story should be. It was just Ada and sheep farmers.
So Ada and these farmers came before the idea of this woman who desperately wants to be a mother?
Johansson: I made a book with a lot of references, and my producers introduced me to Sjón. We had coffee, and I showed him this book. After that, we started meeting once a week and just talking through what it could be about. The story came later.
To create Ada, you used multiple children, lambs and puppets. Walk us through the practicality of that. Are you shooting the same scenes over and over using different stand-ins?
Johansson: We were working with four lambs and one or two puppets. We did the scenes where we see Ada with all of these elements. We had to shoot everything with real lambs, with children and sometimes puppets. It took a lot of time, and I really appreciate how patient my actors were.
Rapace: The difficulty is what makes it magical. Working with animals and kids, you don’t know what they’re going to do, so you need to just surrender and be there with them and accept that it’s divine madness. It was incredible how Ada was not a CGI creature. She was very much alive, and that’s because it was real babies and real lambs. It was a waiting game for the lamb Ada to fall asleep. Everyone’s waiting outside of the house, and finally, 20 minutes later, I’m tiptoeing in, and they’re handing Ada over to me and she’s finally sleeping. And then as soon as they called action, Ada woke up, like, “Baaaaaa!” So we had to start again. And I’m not a patient woman, so I had to work on that every day.
Up until a certain stage, there were plans for Ada to speak. Why did that change?
Johansson: Because we have so many animals in the film, what is interesting is that everyone is reading into the animals’ minds and giving them human feelings. At one point, we thought we should also do that with Ada. It makes it more strong for the audience to give her the same [emotions] as the other animals so you can decide whether you feel she’s more human or more animal. I have to admit that she had beautiful dialogue.
Rapace: And a beautiful voice.
What was Ada going to sound like?
Johansson: We had a few voices, but we never had to use them. It was not like what you hear in a cartoon.
Rapace: Throughout this process, it felt like the way we were working on an everyday basis was very real. We wanted it to feel like it could actually happen. From an emotional place, it was very scaled-down. The only odd thing in this process was Ada. Everything else was grounded.
JÓHANNSSON And when we were working on it, we didn’t feel that there was something off with Ada after some days of shooting.
Rapace: No, we forgot that it was not normal to have a half-human, half-lamb baby.
This is the year of the weird movie baby. Lamb premiered at Cannes alongside Annette and Titane. Do you have any theories as to why these humanoid, horror-adjacent babies are all the rage right now?
Rapace: I have not seen them yet, but I think it’s a time of change and rebirth. The film industry has a new wave coming, where you can’t really rely on the old recipe for what works. People are really excited about filmmakers like Valdimar, with a very specific, original, personal take on things.
Johansson: It’s also interesting that you have films you can’t put in one genre. So many people think we put Lamb in a horror genre, but I feel it should be more open.
There’s a lot of discussion around “prestige horror” or “elevated horror,” particularly under a banner like A24. When you were writing and shooting Lamb, were you conscious of those distinctions?
Johansson: We just wanted to make an art house film that we wanted to see and felt we had not seen before. It’s a really classical story with this one strange element. The plan was not to make a horror film.
Rapace: But what I love about how A24 embraced our film is that they’re really letting the comedic elements shine. Is it horror? I don’t know. Is it drama? I don’t know. Is it life? Yeah. Life can be really fucked up sometimes. Sometimes it’s so strange, you have to laugh.
Interview edited for length and clarity.