Like a lot of movie fans, we’re pretty darn obsessed with movie locations. The planet is packed with fascinating places people have pointed cinema cameras at. So, we’ve decided to launch a new feature strand, in which we visit some of the most exciting film locations around the world, and do our best to recreate some of the movies made there. Welcome to Around The World In 80 Films. First up, The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty…
A helicopter soars over Eyjafjallajokull, the Icelandic volcano made famous for shutting down air travel during the ash cloud eruption of 2010.
The views are astonishing – nothing but miles and miles of black rock and untouched snow, which combine to create patterns that twist and intertwine like the veins of some giant mythical beast.
It’s a fiercely windy day, and the passengers have already sped over a rough sea, gazing at waves so high it felt like the water was brushing the belly of the machine, before it pushes higher and higher, taking the travelers far above the gigantic volcano.
Suddenly, high above the rock and snow, the pilot hits an air pocket and the chopper starts to spin out of control. It’s like something out of a movie, only it’s not a movie – it’s real life, and Total Film is on-board…
We’re in Iceland to mark the release of The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty on Blu-ray and DVD by completing some of the challenges Ben Stiller’s title character faced in his search to find himself.
Like Mitty, we’ve embarked on a journey that’s taking ourselves completely out of our comfort zone; facing an itinerary that includes eating Hakarl (an Icelandic national dish; essentially rotten shark soaked in urine), climbing a glacier, and taking a fateful helicopter ride. As TF is terrified of heights, those last two look far more intimidating than a bit of gone-off fish meat.
We step straight off the plane and onto a coach to take us directly to Reykjavik harbour, where we’re due to board a beautiful boat called The Eldling.
As we travel to the harbour, Iceland immediately reveals her magic to us. We see Christmas trees growing wild, piles of rocks that have been arranged to represent people gazing out to sea, and a sign for a town named Hafnafjordur - otherwise known as The Town of the Elves.
The landscape changes constantly, which must add to the appeal for filmmakers (we hear unofficial rumours that scouts for Star Wars Episode VII, and the next James Bond movie have made recent visits). But it’s not the only reason they come here.
“The raw nature and the pure beauty attracts filmmakers, and also the people here, we’re easy to get along with, we just want to get the job done, we don’t complain a lot, and we’re used to working in all types of weather,” Leifur Daginnsson, Production Manager on Mitty tells us.
But where does that temperament come from? “It comes from the Vikings. Those were pretty harsh guys. They didn’t want to submit to the king in Norway, so they said, 'Let's sail west' and they discovered Iceland and started a new society. They wanted to be independent. And they had to survive. Can you imagine walking by foot in this kind of weather?”
But as we arrive at the harbour and step onto the deck of The Elding, there are no Vikings onboard. Instead, we get our first glimpse at the kinder side of the famous Icelandic personality (which we encounter over and over again on the trip); it's a cold country, but the people are warm and welcoming, whilst being completely in control of whatever it is they're doing. Even if that thing happens to be serving up rotten shark.
We’re joined on the boat by Mitty cast-member Ari Mathiasson, and we ask him what he thinks of the dish. “It’s really bad. It’s exactly like when you eat rotten food.”
Which doesn’t exactly comfort us when the Hakarl is finally served, especially as the waves are noticeably rocking us up and down as it's placed in front of us.
We take our first taste gingerly, completely assuming we're going to throw up and humiliate ourselves in front of everyone. Luckily, the meat stays down. Which isn't to say it's pleasant. Intensely salty at first, it quickly turns into a powerful ammonia-like flavour. Just in case you're unsure, it was fairly horrible.
But because we enjoy interacting with the person serving it so much - a crew-member named Freydís Hjörvarsdóttir - we actually ask for seconds.
It did help that we got shots after each bite...
Going in for more is obviously fairly ridiculous, especially after we ask if it was a regular dish for the Icelandic people. "No, we only really eat it once a year, in February, and that's only because it's traditional."
So, brilliantly, TF has just consumed double the average yearly amount of rotten shark the average Icelander consumes in a 12 month period. Go us!
Anyway, we admired Mathiasson's honesty when we asked him about the Hakarl, so we decided to ask him for advice about facing our fears.
“I’ve been on a trawler in the North Atlantic sea in January and it was quite rough, but I was 20 so I wasn’t fearful, because you’re invincible at that age. I am afraid of heights, so when I’m mountain climbing I can get scared, but I know there’s no basis for that [fear] – so maybe that’s something you can use,” he told us.
Which is kind of amazing - Mathiasson is afraid of heights, and tends to think about it when he's climbing mountains. There's that Viking spirit again.
Mountains like this
But the spirit of bravery wasn’t in us yet. As we step off the boat, we realise we'd developed a small crush on one of the crew-members, but, like Ben Stiller in Mitty, we didn't do anything about it.
Still, maybe that was for the best. When we ask Mitty actor Gunnar Helgason what not to do when traveling around Iceland, his answer is immediate and clear. “For the men, don’t hit too hard on the girls, they’re pretty tired of it. The Iceland Air company did some advertisements about one-night stands in Reykjavik, so men come on trips and think it’s pretty easy. It is easy, but not that easy. The girls are pretty fed up.”
So we tell him about our boat crush, and how lucky it was we hadn’t said anything. He laughs hard. “That’s Walter Mitty! It doesn’t mean romance is out of the question, because sometimes you just know – something is there. You’re not hitting on that person, suddenly you’re alive! That’s what Walter Mitty is about. Doesn’t everyone do something crazy out of love?”
“If you meet her again, be upfront, nice, but honest. In my experience, Icelandic girls want to be treated like princesses, but at the same time they’re really realistic, really down to earth – I think Icelandic women are really strong, they can handle anything. There are two sides to the coin. I’ve been married for 20 years and I never know whether it’s princess time or action time,” Helgason says with a booming laugh.
But there was no time for romance the next day, as we were due to take a trip on the back of an All Terrain Vehicle through the Vatnsdalur Valley.
The ATVs are essentially bulky quad bikes, and as we approached them, and read the warnings about using them, we realised we’d developed a new fear; getting trapped underneath one of the bikes – they’ve been known to break bones, and even kill in extreme circumstances.
Still, unlike the lifelong fear of heights, it was a fresh enough terror for us to think we could cope with it. And, even as we drove along, hanging onto the back for dear life, past trees that looked like they were looming towards us like they were straight from The Evil Dead, we figured we could handle it.
What were we thnking?
And then, about an hour into the trip, we hit a bank, and started to tip over. Foolishly, TF stuck out a leg to stop the vehicle from falling. If we had carried on our trajectory, and fallen completely, that leg would have broken. Luckily, gravity took over, and the ATV righted itself. But we'd twisted our hip slightly in the process and a cramp-like pain kicked in.
But there was no time to focus on it, as suddenly we were off again - roaring through rivers and gullies. It was then our first profound lesson kicked in. As we gazed around at the intensely beautiful scenery, we realised that if we had given up, allowed that brush with injury, or that personal pain (which had vanished after five minutes) to stop us from carrying on, we wouldn't be seeing any of the unforgettable sights that surrounded us.
Sights like this
Pain fades, and what comes after it can be spectacular. It was a memory we filed for later, when the real challenge would arrive – a trip on a helicopter that was getting closer and closer...
But before that, we had to overcome another fear – climbing the Solheimajokull glacier, which sounded pretty intimidating.
Thankfully, we arrived to find we weren’t actually scheduled to hang off the peak of the country’s tallest ice-tower; which wasn’t to say there wasn’t bravery involved.
At one point, we abseiled into an ice-cave – but, as with the ATVs, the beauty we witnessed once we got down there was definitely worth conquering our doubts. But of course, then we had to climb out again. Luckily, with the help of a couple of ice-picks, not to mention the support of the team there, we made it out alive. We’d done it!
But that excitement was short-lived. We took a look at the schedule and it dawned on us… The helicopter ride was next. Despite all we’d achieved at that point, a tiny bit of panic started to sink in. Then we steeled ourselves. We’d be like the Vikings! But then we wondered what a Viking would do if you stuck a helicopter in front of him; he’d probably try to kill it. Should we try to kill the helicopter?
Luckily we had some Viking-esque company for the ride, in the form of the drunken helicopter pilot from Mitty, otherwise known as Olafur Darri.
Darri is a massive star in his country, and has just started to break into the States, with appearances in True Detective, and a recurring role in Charlie Kaufmann’s upcoming sitcom How And Why coming up. We're pleased he's having such success, he’s instantly likeable and very charismatic; a typical Icelander.
Though, as lovely as he is, some of what he says isn’t exactly comforting. "Here in Iceland you have to be careful, you can't just drive off the road and just take a walk and see what happens. You can walk for days and not see a single person, or a single tree. And Iceland has that quality of reminding us every once in a while that if Iceland doesn't want your plane to fly, we'll just shut them down."
Thankfully, he told us that after we landed. And, yes, we did land – despite our close call. Our pilot, an experienced member of Iceland’s coast guard, managed to quickly get control back over his vehicle.
And, once again, beautiful views were our reward.
But how did Darri feel when we hit the air-pocket? "I am absolutely terrified of heights, but it was like going on a rollercoaster. Being terrified is just so much fun. And I think that's what Walter Mitty is all about, in the end it’s about going out there and seeing what happens instead of sitting by the computer and waiting for it to happen. It could be really scary like that, or it could be anything.”
We couldn’t agree more. As the ‘copter touches down, we reflect on all we’ve achieved on this trip.
Whilst being super-relieved we didn't die
As for our story’s sub-plot, we didn’t find romance in Iceland – but that’s not what we set out to do.
But we did fall in love; with a country and its people. And we’ll be back for sure, just maybe not in a helicopter...
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is out on Digital HD on 20th April and Blu-ray & DVD on 21st April from Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment
Did you enjoy Mitty? And have you visited Iceland? Tell us below!