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Tuesday, 14 January 2014 20:48

Iceland: The Land of Fire and Ice

Written by  Dyana Carmella
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Iceland 3Mythical. Wild. Majestic. Magical. There are many superlatives that can be used to describe Iceland, but the truth is that it’s a place that must be seen to be believed. The country is also an extraordinarily versatile filming location — it has successfully doubled as Alaska, Siberia, Northern Europe, tropical islands and distant planets.


Over the past few years, Iceland has garnered an outstanding reputation for attracting notable films and TV productions, like the upcoming sci-fi Interstellar (starring Johnny Depp) and period epic Noah (starring Russell Crowe). Other recent projects include The Fifth Estate, Oblivion, Thor: The Dark World, Star Trek Into Darkness, After Earth, Prometheus and “Game of Thrones.”

Iceland is well known for having an amazing range of natural and geological phenomena, such as fire and ice, midnight sun, northern lights, black-sand beaches and deserts, deep fjords, glaciers, snow-capped mountains, lava fields, waterfalls, lakes with floating icebergs, lagoons, tundra, blue ponds, volcanos and steam-emitting red- and yellow-sulfur mountains — and all these offerings are within reach for filming. From mid-May to mid-August, the sun sets in Iceland for only three hours a day, so it essentially remains light for 24 hours. In mid-winter, there are only five hours of effective daylight, while early spring and late autumn enjoy long periods of lingering twilight. Iceland’s white nights of summer and northern lights of winter enhance the unearthly scenery. “Oblivion was shooting till one or two in the morning, and ‘Game of Thrones’ came in winter because they weren’t looking for daylight,” reports Iceland Film Commissioner Einer Tomasson. “They prepped in the dark then shot in daylight, and wrapped in the dark with key lights.”  

Iceland SM 1The country also has an advanced infrastructure and experienced production companies to benefit visiting filmmakers. Experienced in business and international marketing, Tomasson has had a hand in attracting filmmakers to the country since 2004. “When I talk to producers, they say there has to be a balance between the creative work and the budget,” says Tomasson. “Our biggest draw is the creative nature and the diverse locations we have [along with] a very short distance to travel between them. Then we have the incentive, which absolutely ties everything together.” 

The Film in Iceland office offers a full range of professional services, including assistance with locations, crew, equipment, casting, studios and permits. The island also has two rental houses that carry necessary gear, and local crew can obtain anything else a production may need from the United Kingdom. “The crew is just outstanding,” notes Tomasson. “Past filmmakers talk highly about the quality of the crew, and, with the impressive lineup of past projects, [the crews] have gained great experience. We are one big chain with many good links. From the top of the glaciers to the beaches, the crew knows exactly where to go and what to do. In high elevations they can predict changes in the weather because they are used to working on outdoor conditions.” When it comes to financing, Iceland has a very high level of government support, offering a simple and effective 20-percent reimbursement of costs incurred during production for film and TV projects shot in Iceland. The country also has the local community’s support of filming — everyone knows each other and will work to make things happen quickly, so there’s minimal red tape. 

Iceland SLWM 400One of Iceland’s most recent productions was for The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.Directed by and starring Ben Stiller, the fantasy adventure tells the story of a meek day-dreamer who vanishes into imaginary scenarios of heroism and romance until a job dilemma catapults him on a life-changing journey in the real world. During filming, Stiller became an instant fan of Iceland, and says his best day on the shoot was when he and the crew climbed a glacier. His second favorite day involved a scene where he had to jump from a helicopter into the ocean and avoid being attacked by a shark. This scene was scheduled for September to capture seasonal high seas, but, much like his character Walter, Stiller believes that you can’t be afraid to step outside of your comfort zone. “To actually get in the water and really be doing the shots for real was one of the most exciting days I’ve ever had really in my life,” Stiller enthuses. “[Iceland] is really beautiful place. It’s a place of extremes for sure. There are beautiful barren spots, there are beautiful lush spots, but there’s something there. There’s a feeling there. Nature there is so vibrant, and you’re so much a part of it. It kind of takes you outside of yourself a little too.”

Iceland 400 4After working on period and sci-fi films like Noah and Oblivion, Assistant Location Manager Fahad Falur Jabali enjoyed working on Walter Mitty, a project set in present-day Iceland.He was on hand throughout the shoot to break down the action and suggest alternative locations when necessary. As a result, the production team got nearly everything they desired, including their favorite locations. “My most challenging locations [involved] shooting in the town,” Jabali recalls. “[For] one of them called Stykkishólmur, located on the west coast of Iceland, we changed the location into Greenland with all the necessary artwork. Another challenge was Seyðisfjörður, on the east coast of Iceland, which had to appear deserted for two shooting days. Aside from these two, the other locations were very straightforward to manage…. The success of the filming process lies in the preparation.” Jabali praises Iceland’s film commission for playing a key role in the success of the shoot, but he also appreciates how the local government supports filmmaking: “The biggest help came from the individual mayors and authorities of the rural areas where the film shot.” 

Iceland SIf SMWhen it comes to lodging, high-quality accommodations and catering facilities can be found throughout Iceland. In the northeast, the Silfurberg Country Hotel (pictured left) overlooks the stunning Breiðdalur Valley and is surrounded by prime filming locations. It is privately owned by Guðrún Sveinsdóttir and Jón B. Stefánsson, who pride themselves on delivering the best possible experience for every guest. Silfurberg offers double rooms and a roomy suite ideal for second-unit crews, and all are designed with quality and comfort in mind. There’s also a bar, courtyard, wireless Internet and exercise facilities. The hotel offers a healthy and delicious food menu, and a lounge area has a view of something you’ll only see in Iceland: an old sheep house where sheep live during the coldest time of the year. To learn more, visit 

Iceland is clearly a worthwhile filming location, as it has continued to raise the bar for accommodating on-location shoots. For productions traveling and importing equipment from New York, the flight time to Iceland is about five hours (the same as flying from New York or Boston to San Francisco). There are daily flights to Iceland from major gateways in North America and Europe. Shipping is also easy, with regular liner sailings to and from major ports in the U.S. and Europe. For more information about shooting in Iceland, visit


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