On the set of Universal’s 2 Guns, Icelandic director Baltasar Kormakur left little doubt about who was in charge.
On a whim, Kormakur decided to hang stars Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg upside down by their feet and unleash a raging bull on them.
“It wasn’t written that way in the script, so I kind of had to convince them to do this,” he recalls. “It wasn’t easy, but they went along with it. It turned out to be a fun day, at least for me.”
The bullish move isn’t typical for European directors, who are often courted by the major studios, knowing they will be malleable and take orders. But the actor-turned-helmer didn’t come to Hollywood to be bossed around.
In fact, when Kormakur landed his first studio project—Universal’s 2012 Wahlberg vehicle Contraband—he came with an ace up his sleeve. Having produced and starred in the Icelandic version on which the film was based, he owned the underlying material.
“I had a bit more control,” he explains. “I wasn’t interested in just becoming a hired hand.”
The 47 year old already enjoyed a successful career in his native country. After his 2000 black comedy 101 Reykjavik became an international breakout, Hollywood came calling. He first signed with CAA, which started sending him horror scripts.
“That’s not my genre, so I wasn’t interested,” he says. “I decided to keep on working at home.”
Kormakur moved to ICM for a while and pitched his own ideas around town, finding little interest. He made the small English-language film A Little Trip to Heaven with Forest Whitaker back in Iceland, but still felt no burning desire to make the switch to Hollywood, at least not as a director for hire.
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But after his 2006 Jar City became the highest-grossing film in Iceland’s history and an international success—hitting the screen as interest in Scandinavian crime thrillers mounted—WMA began chasing him. He signed with WME post-merger, where he remains today.
“They loved the idea of remaking this movie,” he says. “The championed it, packaged it with Mark and got it off the ground.”
Kormakur pulled in about $500,000 for Contraband, but more importantly, he retained some authority. After Contraband, Wahlberg and Universal were eager to reteam with Kormakur and began exploring options. David O. Russell, who had been developing 2 Guns with Wahlberg, had a falling out with his leading man and dropped out, leaving an opening for Kormakur.
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But Kormakur, who received a slight pay raise for 2 Guns, decided to zig where others had zagged. The original idea called for Wahlberg to partner with a Vince Vaughn or Owen Wilson.
“I didn’t want go down that road,” he says. “I thought, ‘Let’s get a real serious actor and crack him into more lightness.’ I thought if I could get Denzel to do it and then have him play off Mark, they would make great screen couple.”
Kormakur will next scale Everest for Universal in the fall, a project that Christian Bale circled before eventually bowing out. Instead, Kormakur reimagined Everest as an ensemble effort rather than a hero’s journey and it will star Josh Brolin, Jake Gyllenhaal, Jason Clarke and John Hawkes. The director remained philosophical about the casting shuffle.
“We were in negotiations (with Bale), and I think Ridley Scott simply came with a bigger offer and a bigger movie,” says Kormakur of Bale’s decision to play Moses in Exodus. “Unfortunately it didn’t work out for us. But, you know, I was cool with it.”
Either way, Kormakur will be calling the shots at the top of the mountain.