Why Hollywood Studios Can't Get Enough Of Iceland

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is just the latest Hollywood blockbuster to use Iceland as a backdrop.

Iceland doubled for Greenland, the Himalayas and even Afghanistan in Walter Mitty (Credit: Rex Features)

What do you do when you need to take a trip north of The Wall? Where do you find a post-apocalyptic Earth, torn apart by nukes? Or a young Earth, before the biblical Flood pushed the planet’s reset button? How about an alien landscape that holds the secret to the origins of the species?  And how can you travel from Greenland to Afghanistan via the Himalayas in less than a day? The answer’s simple: book a flight to Reykjavik and drive for a couple of hours.

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It’s hard to believe that, three hours from London, you can start a journey to the deepest north of Game of Thrones’s Westeros and the barren wastes of 'Prometheus’s LV-223. But Iceland provided the backdrop for both, and with no pun intended, has become one of the world’s hottest locations for film and television production.

It’s the world’s newest landmass; a teenager in geological terms, with volcanic eruptions and shifting plates changing its size and shape in no time at all. And it’s no wonder it’s so popular for those looking for the unfamiliar: as Yahoo Movies visits, we fly over great plains of snow, tread over the blackest deserts of rock and abseil down sheer ice walls. It’s like no place on Earth.

Iceland’s diversity made it the ideal location for the film that shows the country off the best: Ben Stiller’s ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’ (out now on DVD, Blu-Ray and Digital HD). Stiller’s character traverses the globe to track down a photographer whose missing photograph will provide the cover for the last ever edition of Life Magazine. Iceland is one of the locations he visits, but the film also takes him to Greenland, Afghanistan and the Himalayas. And yet Iceland played every role.

“It’s understandable when films come and only shoot a portion here,” says Leifur B. Dagfinnsson, the founder of True North, which has helped film crews shoot in the country for more than ten years. “But with Walter Mitty, we pointed out that all of its locations could be done here. In some places in Iceland, you can pan the camera 180 and be looking at a totally different part of the world.”

That’s a view echoed by one of Iceland’s most famous actors, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, who steals scenes in Walter Mitty as the drunken helicopter pilot Ben Stiller’s Mitty finds in a bar. “Iceland is a little of everything,” he tells us. “And you can fly for 25 minutes and get 10 versions of completely different landscapes.”

Ólafsson, whose success has spread to roles in True Detective and Contraband, says Iceland’s size has helped. “Walter Mitty shot all over Iceland – the only place the film didn’t go was the west fjords – and because it’s pretty small it’s easy to get people and equipment around. Logistically, then, it’s pretty good.”

That logistical concern is important. As Ben Stiller explains, when you want to shoot the Himalayas, it helps if you can fake them on slightly more accessible ground. In Iceland, he says, “you can go up on a glacier that’s only a few hundred feet above sea level and feel like you’re at the top of the world. The landscape creates such amazing, stunning imagery for a movie.”

It isn’t called the movie business for nothing, and it takes three key factors to make a place an ideal film location. The first and most important is doubtless landscape, and Iceland has it in spades. The more adaptable – and perhaps unfamiliar – the better: try as you might you can’t make Clapham look like the Cote d’Azur. But with a huge amount of geological idiosyncracies, Iceland lends itself to doubling for any number of locales, otherworldly or not. “You have green valleys, black desert, cliffs, mountains, glaciers, snow, beaches,” says Dagfinnsson. “We have it all.”

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But the other two concerns are more practical. A place needs a good crew – since it’s usually only the actors and heads of department who will travel far for a production. And it needs much-coveted tax breaks, which encourage productions to visit in the hopes of stretching what dollars they have a little further. This proved to be a hiccup for Iceland when the global recession hit a little more in the main filmmaking hubs: the country proved too expensive.

Its success as a film location, then, has come in two waves. The first came with films like Tomb Raider, ‘Flags of our Fathers’ and ‘Stardust’. But following the recession, Dagfinnsson credits ‘Prometheus’ with starting the second, which has continued through ‘Game of Thrones’, ‘Oblivion’, ‘Noah’ and, of course, ‘Mitty’. He might want to acknowledge the Arab Spring too – Ridley Scott’s sci-fi epic had originally eyed a Morocco shoot to double for LV-223, but uncertainties about safety prompted a look elsewhere.

Iceland is a place that has to be seen to be believed, and given its proximity, it’s an ideal movie fan’s holiday destination. We recommend a stay at the Hotel Ranga, about 2 hours from Reykjavik. It’s a great base for outdoorsy pursuits like ATV drives, glacier climbs and helicopter flights. And it has real film business pedigree: Dagfinnson reports it was the base for the cast of Prometheus when they were in the country.

So what next for this diverse land? Well, ‘Star Wars’ fans might want to book their tickets: rumour suggests 'Episode VII' will shoot at least partially in the country. And tips have suggested that James Bond, who last visited in ‘Die Another Day’, might yet make a return visit with his next film, helmed by 'Skyfall' director Sam Mendes. 007 versus the White Walkers? It could happen.

'The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty' is out now on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital HD.

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