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An Economy of Words: An Interview with 'Lamb' Screenwriter Sjón

Script contributor Sonya Alexander interviews 'Lamb' screenwriter Sjón about his writing background, the inspiration for the film, and collaboration with co-writer and director Valdimar Jóhannsson.
Lamb. Photo courtesy A24.

Lamb. Photo courtesy A24.

There is poetry in silence and Icelandic cinema captivates with its expert use of it. One of Iceland’s masters of economical writing and applying silence to the fabric of a film is revered wordsmith Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson, whose pen name is Sjón. There is no artistic medium that requires words that he’s afraid to attempt. He creates novels, poetry, scripts, plays and librettos with a deft pen.

His first love was poetry, and he had his first book of poetry Sýnir (Visions) published when he was only sixteen. The rhythm of his words in this artform extends into all of his work, giving everything he touches a sort of lyricality. This award-winning writer has been translated into over thirty languages and has worked with an array of people in the arts, including Björk. No matter what language his works are in, the common connection is the ardent way he conveys the human experience.

His latest endeavor is the horror/mystery film Lamb, which was released on October 9, 2021, in the U.S. and September 24, 2021, in Iceland. Starring Noomi Rapace and Hilmir Snær Guðnason and co-written and directed by Valdimar Jóhannsson, the starkly beautiful film is steeped in Icelandic folklore. In Sjón’s poem “an Icelandic economist in soho,” there’s a verse that says, “the gust of wind, that crosses the square, and is meant for him alone.” This holds a tincture of meaning in the film Lamb.

What inspired Lamb?

The general inspiration behind it is the world of Icelandic folklore. The director came to me with a scrapbook that he'd put together with images of women holding babies with lambs’ heads. And photographs of the Icelandic countryside at its bleakest and most beautiful. He felt like there was a story there. That there was a farm somewhere where this woman came from. Then we started with the general sensibility and that is that strange things happen, and people embrace it. They don't question the supernatural. They engage with it.


What are your favorite Icelandic folktales?

I have many favorites. I became obsessed with the books when I was a kid, around eight years old. What fascinated me so much was that they were told so matter of factly. It didn't matter if it was a story about a monster coming out of a lake or an undead person meeting someone in the middle of the night. It didn't matter what was happening, it was all told in a dry, matter of fact tone. It became even more real for me. I think it was the stories of the strange creatures that fascinated me the most as a child.

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What was the process of getting involved with Lamb and director Valdimar Jóhannsson?

He knew my work as a novelist and was especially fond of a book called The Blue Fox, which also has these folk elements. It takes place in the 19th century Iceland. In it, there's a strange creature, the Skugga-Baldur. His wife, who was eventually the producer on the film, spoke to me at his suggestion. It turned out that he and I had previously met in the city library. He brought me the scrapbook of collages and photos for Lamb and that's how we started. He brought the seed of the story to me.

I noticed it was almost ten minutes before there was any dialogue in the film. What did the silence mean for you in the film?

Valdimar and I are both fans of "slow cinema." We decided very early on that we would have as little dialogue as possible in the whole film. We decided to hold it out for as long as possible in the beginning. We wanted to do this because we wanted to create a sense of reality. You have two people who have been living in isolation together for a long while. In a situation like this, you're not talking all day. People talk when it's necessary. We instinctively knew that making the people silent and allowing the audience take part in their daily chores and life in silence, that we'd put the characters on a similar level as the animals. We are so used to reading into animal behavior...their looks, moves, and whatever. We thought, let's see what happens if we bring that same aspect to the characters before they start talking and behaving like humans.

How long did it take to write the script?

It took us a long time to get the story right. To begin with, we met weekly, every Saturday afternoon and talked and explored the material for three hours. Exchanging tips for films to watch. Bringing in visual material like art books. We were working on the material for up to three years. We're not only lovers of slow cinema, we're lovers of making cinema happen slowly...! Once the story was there, I took the outline, which was maybe seven or eight pages, and I wrote the script from that, it took me about two months. There was a great challenge in writing a script with so little dialogue.

Sjón. Photo by Júnía Líf.

Sjón. Photo by Júnía Líf.

When did you first know you wanted to be a writer?

I started as a poet in my teenage years, and I just discovered that I love doing this. It gave me extreme satisfaction to be alone with the words. I was a very social creature in school. I was involved in a lot of social activities, including athletics. When I discovered poetry, I found it was something I needed to respond to by writing something myself. I just got completely absorbed by it. It gave me a satisfaction that I couldn't find anywhere else. I joined a group of surrealist poets. Then I tried my hand at writing a novel in '87.

The Song of the Stone Collection was made into an opera. Do you feel the meaning changed in the adaptation?

The opera was built from a selection of poems from this book. I had to come up with a framing story for it. Opera is an amazing art form. In opera, you can allow yourself to be very sentimental. You can go all the way to melodrama. I really enjoyed exploring all the melodramatic possibilities of my poems. Of course, something happens when a singer produces the words. It takes you to another level. I didn't care if the meaning was lost or not, it was so beautiful.

When and how did you and Björk start collaborating?

We were friends in the 80s, so we belonged to the same group of creative young people in Reykjavík. We had a lot in common when it came to what we liked in films, music, and literature. It wasn't until Björk started working on her solo career that we started working on things together. She said, 'I have this song that I need epic words for. You're the one who's got that in your brain!' That became a song called "Isobel." After that, we collaborated for a long time. I enjoy working in different formats. There are always new possibilities and new challenges.

You write for many different mediums. Do you have a different writing process for each?

There are different processes. The big difference between writing poetry and novels and everything else is that with those two, I'm like my own boss, I'm in control of everything. If I want a novel to be thirty-three pages and still call it a novel, I can do it. And no one is hurrying you with poetry. The poems come at their own pace, and I just enjoy it whenever a new poem is born. With opera librettos or scripts, I'm usually working with someone, which means I have a deadline.

I saw an interview where you a said you like readers to do the work. Your writing is very economical with Lamb. What kind of work do you expect viewers to do?

Heavy lifting! All the reading the viewer has to do into the story and behavior of the characters. Viewers are really clever people. Why not utilize the wealth of cinema knowledge they bring with them?

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You write for many mediums. Do you have a favorite?

Cinema was my second love after folktales when I was a kid. I'd say cinema is a foundation of my work. I think you can see that in my novels. They are sparse, visceral.

Do you have a writing routine?

Yes, I like to write without routine as long as I can get away with it! Then, when the deadline is a burning sign in the night, I have to force myself to follow a routine.

What are you currently working on?

Just completed a script for a Danish production of Hamlet. That was with director Ali Abassi, who made Border. Also just finished co-writing The Northman with Robert Eggers. Then I'm working on a more science fiction-oriented story, writing for a Swedish producer. I can't talk too much about that. I'm also doing a new Icelandic film, Klara. It’s about a man who loses his wife and he gets entangled in the web of someone who’s possibly a false medium. It takes place during WWII.


Are there primary things your works address?

I gravitate towards the more eccentric elements in life and our ability to adapt to strange situations. I'm very interested in how our inner-being engages with the outer world in sometimes surprising ways. And how we try to give our lives meaning. When we’re trying to make sense of this strange place we're born into, sometimes it brings forth strange creatures.

Any advice for aspiring novelists and screenwriters?

For a novelist, read, read, read. For screenwriters, watch as many films as you can. You don't have to make stories up. Go into situations with human beings. The story will come to you. 

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