Jeremy Sims on turning an Icelandic hit into a mainstream Aussie drama

Jeremy Sims (L) with Sam Neill on the set of ‘Rams’ (Photo credit: Merlyn Moon).

Jeremy Sims was promoting his drama Last Cab to Darwin on the international film festival circuit in 2015 when he noticed Icelandic film Hrútar featured in nearly every program.

His curiosity piqued, he watched writer-director Grímur Hákonarson’s film – the tale of two warring brothers, both sheep farmers – at the Busan festival in Korea, and was hugely impressed. The same year it won best film at Un Certain Regard in Cannes.

So it was a fortuitous coincidence when one of the producers, WBMC’s Aidan O’Bryan rang his agent earlier this year to ask if he would direct a re-imagining of the film entitled Rams after acquiring the adaptation rights.

Sims loved the screenplay by Western Australian-born writer Jules Duncan, which is a complete reinterpretation of the original, and readily accepted the offer. Produced by O’Bryan and Janelle Landers, the film is shooting in and around Mount Barker in the Great Southern region of WA.

Sam Neill and Michael Caton play the brothers who live on adjoining sheep farms yet haven’t spoken in 40 years. When a rare disease threatens their flock, they are forced to work together to save their livestock, their small town and their family’s legacy.

Hrútar is an incredibly beautiful film and it’s undeniably art-house, ” Sims tells IF. “It’s long, slow, thoughtful and quiet. We have broadened out this beautiful story and hope to find a much wider audience.

“I don’t have an overt political agenda although whatever I do, it is always linked to a sense of belonging. I would argue that casting Ningali Lawford, a black, mature-aged woman in a lead romantic role in Last Cab to Darwin is politically braver than a lot of more obvious political films that have been made.”

Among the departures from the original, the snow and blizzards of Iceland are supplanted by the drought and bushfires in regional Australia while the town of Mount Barker becomes its own character.

Wayne Blair plays the best mate of Neill’s character, a silent and stoic guy. Asher Keddie is the town’s matriarch whose husband died in a previous bushfire. Newcomer Will McNeill is her son, who is in love with the local veterinary nurse. Leon Ford is a government official who is ordered to slaughter the sheep and Travis McMahon and Hayley McElhinney are a financially struggling, working class couple.

Aidan O’Bryan and Janelle Landers (Photo: Ian Brodie).

It is the first produced screenplay from Duncan, a former TV reporter who worked for Channel 9 in Perth and the regional WA network GWN. He got his first taste of the screen industry as the third assistant director on Ben C. Lucas’ Wasted on the Young, produced by WBMC. He was working on another project for WBMC, family film Pandamonium, which was ultimately shelved, when Landers and O’Bryan asked him to adapt Rams.

Duncan says the new version is very faithful to the original, observing: “I did not want to change the guts of the story, but of course the landscape changes from snow and blizzards to heat and fire.”

Landers had not seen Hrútar when Hákonarson’s agent recommended him as a director worth hiring and sent her a link to the film. Landers and O’Bryan were amazed the adaptation rights were still available, met the director and his producer Grímar Jónsson in Cannes in 2016 and did the deal. Both have read the screenplay and have been “very collaborative,” Landers says.

Sims has not met Hákonarson but looks forward to chatting to him after filming wraps. The cast and crew are working on a staggered schedule: They spent two weeks filming the bushfire and other sequences before the total bushfire ban is imposed, are now on a break and will resume shooting in late November until Christmas.

The director is relishing teaming again with his Last Cab to Darwin heads of departments including DOP Steve Arnold, editor Marcus D’Arcy, production designer Clayton Jauncey and casting director Kirsty McGregor. Tess Schofield is the costume designer.

Rams, which received major production investment from Screen Australia, Screenwest and the Western Australian Regional Film Fund, will be distributed by Roadshow Films in ANZ with worldwide sales through WestEnd Films.