Everything You Wanted To Know About 'Lamb' But Were Afraid To Ask: A Spoiler-Heavy Discussion With Director Valdimar Jóhannsson

A24 is back at it again doing peak-A24 stuff with the release of “Lamb” this week, a suspense drama chock-full of quiet desperation, rich imagery, and unsettling body horror. Early reviews and the trailer have been coy about how much they reveal of the plot, and for good reason: the journey of discovery is half the fun of the picture. It follows a middle-aged Icelandic couple who discover a lamb-human hybrid on their farm, using this as a platform to extend the narrative’s tendrils around concepts of grief, salvation, and humanity’s place in the natural world.

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Buttressed by a thoughtfully minimalist script that allows for the story and its characters to develop organically within the framework of its larger themes, the movie by director Valdimar Jóhannsson takes several unexpected turns. Spoiler-free reviews can be found here, but what follows is a no-holds-barred discussion of “Lamb” with Jóhannsson that goes deep into the weeds of the production’s practical components, thematic ideas, and plot particulars.

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Jóhannsson has been a regular on Icelandic film and television shoots for years, having worked as an electrician on “Game of Thrones,” a lighting tech for “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” and with the special effects team on “The Tomorrow War.” “Lamb” represents his feature directorial debut.

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**Warning, as the headline suggests, this is a spoiler-filled chat, so if you haven’t seen the movie, bookmark this page and circle back when you’ve seen it.**

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I’m curious about the process of rendering Ada when she’s bi-pedal and walking around. How did you achieve those shots? Was it a child or little person on-set with a green hood and sleeve on, or was it something different?
Yeah, we were working with children and lambs and puppets. So somehow, it’s a mix of everything. And then, we were also working with an amazing company in Sweden, and Fredrik Nord and Peter Hjorth were with us on-set.

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It seems daunting because that old adage in Hollywood is to never work with animals or children, and you had to work with both for this. But I assume it went smoothly? Or no? Were there issues?
Yeah, you know, you hear that very often, and somehow I thought it would be more difficult. Somehow it worked; we just had to spend a lot of time shooting every scene. But yeah, that was the only thing: we always needed time to make the scenes because they were complicated.

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Sticking with that, in terms of the special effects and the rendering, since it was more of a full-bodied creature, I assume the process for creating the Huldufólk creature at the end, what I’ve been calling “Ram-Man,” was a different process? In terms of maybe full mo-cap, was it much different from the rendering process with Ada?
It’s just make-up. I think it was also, like, a tiny bit of fixing after, some little things…

Oh, okay. So that was all fully practical with just some post-production touch-ups…
Yeah, yeah.

Oh man, that’s amazing. So what went into the creation of that creature’s design, look-wise? Was it a mix of the different mythological influences, or was it born out of a specific, singular idea, or image, or painting that you were drawing from?
I have to admit because everyone wants to know this, where it comes from. I had this look-book or mood-book that I made, and I have a lot of drawings of it. I don’t know exactly how to say it in English, but it’s like when you take something from a magazine, and you use scissors and glue.

Like a scrapbook collage?
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I did a lot of art that way. So, it’s almost like the same in the film as it is in the book that I made.

I just had a practical question about the story. How much time passes between Ada’s birth and Pétur’s arrival? I must have missed that clue during my viewing, and it left me wondering if a considerable amount of time had passed or that maybe Ada just developed quickly and grows fast? Because I know the story opens on Christmas, but as far as the timeline, I sort of lost track of it beyond that.
The period of the film is basically three and a half months. So, if we start when the sheep are giving birth to lambs, and they grow. They can be like 50 or 60 kilos at the end of the summer. Then they are usually slaughtered, so they grow about 250 grams per day almost.

Ah, yeah. That makes sense: I hadn’t quite thought of it that way. Because lambs don’t grow the same way, human babies grow. So they mature faster, yeah.
Yeah, we found a sort of middle way. Because I’ve also heard, you know, people feel that it was maybe some years [that had passed], and I understand that not everybody knows how fast lambs grow.

I’m not concerned with spoilers today, but I am hesitant to ask this next question, because I don’t want you to think I’m asking you to explain the film’s themes, but I think it’s all there, and that’s for people to discover. But I am curious: was there anything that Maria and Ingvar could have done to avoid the wrath of the Ram Man? The creature at the end. Like, was there ever a right way to handle the situation after they found Ada in the barn?
Uh, I’m not sure if they could do something. Somehow, when we were working on this, I think we knew how the end should be very early on. And I don’t know why we wanted to have it end this way, but somehow we knew that it would probably not end super nicely, you know? [chuckles]

Yeah, absolutely. Because in my mind, I think about these ideas of grief, and that Maria and Ingvar: they’re not letting go of their grief. They’re trying at the beginning to work their way through it physically, to ignore the pain they’re feeling from the loss of their child. So, they’re working hard, and they’re not speaking to each other. Not really, anyway. And then when Ada comes, it gives them something else to help them not confront this inevitable thing.
Yeah, it’s a little bit like a healing process, because suddenly they can start breathing again, and uh, what I think they know, at least Maria, is that this will not last forever. It will probably last for a short while because they are willing to do almost everything to recreate the happiness that they had before. So all the healing they can have, they just take. And I think that is also the reason why they do it so fast. Because I have gotten some questions, people think it’s strange that they just take it right away. But I think they are suffering so much that, you know.

No, that makes perfect sense to me. They don’t question it because they need it. They’ve been struggling not to confront their grief, and they’ve found this thing that makes it very easy for them not to do that. It was, for them, like a life preserver when you’re lost at sea.
Yeah, yeah.

What do you think happened to Pétur after he takes that bus? Maybe that VHS tape performance re-inspires him, and he reforms his band?
Ha, yeah, it could be. [laughing] I think this was not the first time he came back, you know? And I think that any time he’s in some big trouble, he, you know, returns. But it could be that he goes back and meets the driver from before, and you know, says sorry and stuff. And maybe make more songs and another music video. [laughing]

It is a great video.
Thank you! You know, my dream has always been to make a music video, and somehow it has never happened. Like, we make some plans, and when we were almost starting to shoot it, then something comes up. So I was happy to get the opportunity to make a music video!

Did you find laughs or gasps in places you hadn’t expected when you watched the film with an audience? Did you find it played about the way you were expecting or were you surprised at certain reactions?
Well, first I have to say, when it was screened at Cannes, I thought it was funny. Sometimes it was needed. And, when you know that people are, maybe they are feeling uncomfortable or something, so you have to let something out, and what I was a little bit surprised about was that they started laughing before the joke or line or something. But I’ve seen it again with many others, and I’m happy that they’re laughing. But I was surprised that they started a little bit earlier than I had thought.  

“Lamb” is in theaters now via A24.