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The (Icelandic) answer to Hollywood flops

I can pinpoint the scene I was watching when I knew that the predictions were coming true, that Hollywood was having a season of reckoning, a dismal summer when potential franchise films were ignored by an overloaded and underwhelmed audience. It was the moment in The Lone Ranger where Armie Hammer wakes after being shot, and finds himself atop not just a towering, needle-shaped mesa, but also on a multistorey bier built on that towering needle. The camera pulls back to reveal Hammer at this dizzying height. And then in the next shot, he's – on the ground. Just walking along. We don't witness how he got down. We don't learn how or why he was up there. We don't know who decided that the needle or the bier wouldn't look awesome enough on its own. We only know that someone spent an unfathomable amount of money and time getting a shot that amounts to a five-second visual gag. "That's it," I thought to myself. "That's the moment where senseless overspending hit the point of no return."

Since then, The Lone Ranger, which cost $215-million to make and another $160-million to market – numbers unfathomable indeed – has officially been dubbed a box office disaster, and it's not alone. At least five other clunkers costing $120- to $190-million apiece have joined it on the road to hell, including R.I.P.D., Turbo, After Earth, White House Down, and Pacific Rim. As well, The Wolverine limped onto the field last weekend with a $53-million gross against a $120-million budget. And three other franchise films – Iron Man 3, Star Trek Into Darkness, and Man of Steel – look less like hits when you factor in their $190- to $225-million price tags.

Steven Spielberg predicted this crash in a recent speech, and the trades and Twitterverse are having fun with it, but the tsunami of waste makes my stomach hurt. So it is with genuine curiosity that I await the fate of 2 Guns, which opened Friday. It's a buddy cop picture with a pair of big stars (Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg) and truckloads of munitions, yet it boasts a much smaller budget than the films above because it was made by Baltasar Kormakur, an Icelandic director who knows how to squeeze every dime out of a dollar.

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Kormakur, 47, is one of those characters who occasionally saunter into Hollywood and cause a flutter, because they come from someplace exotic bearing a genuinely cool project all the more impressive since it cost next to nothing – in Kormakur's case, the 2000 film 101 Reykjavik, which he wrote, directed, acted in and produced. It doesn't hurt that, with his longish salt-and-pepper hair, he's also a charmer, a real-life version of the Dos Equis commercial's Most Interesting Man in the World.

Born to an Icelandic mother and a Spanish father who's a well-known artist in Iceland, Kormakur was taken to sea at the age of 11 by his fisherman uncle. At 20, he was a competitive sailor preparing for the Olympics, but abandoned that to train as an actor at theatre school. After graduating, he was snapped up by the National Theatre, where he had a successful run as an actor and director before making 101 Reykjavik. That film won the Discovery Award at the 2000 Toronto International Film Festival, netted Kormakur a CAA agent and a spot on Variety's "10 Directors to Watch" list – alongside Christopher Nolan and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu – and became the biggest international hit in Iceland's (admittedly small) cinema history.

"Every director who makes his first film thinks the world is waiting for it and only it," Kormakur told me during last year's TIFF, where he was launching The Deep, the true story of an Icelandic fisherman who survived a shipwreck against staggering odds; it was subsequently nominated for an Oscar for best foreign language film. "Still, the reaction to 101 Reykjavik surprised even me. I got a big head for a week."

Things slowed down when Kormakur returned home to his farm in northern Iceland: He read the "50 terrible scripts" his agency sent him, and thought, "I'm not ready for this yet. I want to develop more as a director." He honed his skills writing, acting in, producing and/or directing other films, and became a partner in Truenorth, a production company that lures Hollywood films to Iceland with promises of startling landscapes, skilled crews and 20-per-cent tax returns. Clint Eastwood shot Flags of Our Fathers there, and movies including Prometheus and the Tom Cruise-starred Oblivion followed. (You may recall that Cruise was atop an Icelandic volcano when he learned that Katie Holmes was leaving him.) Recently Darren Aronofsky and Ben Stiller shot their upcoming films Noah and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty with Truenorth, too.

Eventually Kormakur remade one of his Icelandic films, Reykjavik-Rotterdam, into an American thriller, Contraband, starring Wahlberg. And now, in addition to 2 Guns, he's working on an HBO pilot, The Missionary, with Wahlberg and Malcolm Gladwell; the film Everest, about the two terrible days in 1996 when eight climbers died on the mountain; and Viking, an action-adventure drama.

"It's not a big deal for me to shift gears between smaller and bigger films," Kormakur says. "Doing American films can be frustrating – you're fighting to get your day, and 60 drivers are sleeping in their trucks. Things are wasted. But I'm shooting big studio films for less time and money than most people can. For me the work is the same no matter the budget: The frame is the same size, the head of the actor is the same size. Most of the time." He chuckles. "They get bigger in Hollywood."

Of course, American films are also burdened with things like unions, safety monitors and stunt co-ordinators, costly items that Kormakur can ignore in Iceland. He frequently demonstrates and/or does stunts for his casts, as when he tied himself to his lead actor in a surging ocean to help keep him in the frame in The Deep, and later washed himself barefoot onto razor-sharp lava rock. "I do what I have to do to get the footage," Kormakur says, grinning. "It's a very good trick. I say, 'It's not hard, I'll show you.' I've jumped off all kinds of things. At some point I may have to reconsider that tactic, because I'm not getting any younger."

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Certainly one trick he pulled on The Deep would not go over in Hollywood: Near the end of filming, his lead actor broke down. He said he was scared of the waves and couldn't go back into the water. "I knew I didn't have the footage I needed," Kormakur says. "I had to push him off the boat." Excuse me? "At that moment I thought, 'I am a terrible person,'" he admits. "But I also thought, 'I have to get my footage, and this is the only way.'"

Wow. Talk about drastic budget-control measures. Somewhere, Armie Hammer is glad that Kormakur wasn't up on that pinnacle with him.

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