Vísir 7th October 1978

Út í óvissuna – International gangster action in Iceland

An eighteen year old business school student, Ágúst Baldursson, was working during the summer for British filmmakers, who were in Iceland filming an adaptation of Desmond Bagley’s novel Út í óvissuna [Running Blind]. This job was very eventful, and in the article Ágúst describes various incidents that he found interesting during the filming.

The double agent, Slade, ran as fast as he could along the shoreline of Þingvallavatn. His expression suggested horror and fear, if he could not escape, his fate with higher powers would await.

Alan Stuart threw himself down and aimed the weapon. The viewer’s point of view is directly on the rifle barrel, through the scope of the rifle, where the cross marked the centre of the back of the fleeing man. The shot is fired, and the viewer sees the wound open in Slade’s back. He falls, and rolls into the water, – dying. Triumphantly Stuart lays down the murder weapon.

The director calls ‘cut‘ and the dying man gets up, drenched and bloody, the wind blowing his coat, he asks for a blanket. Before putting on the blanket he releases a steel plate tied to his back, on which had been fixed ‘blood bombs‘, which the ‘victim‘ had triggered by pressing a button, concealed in his palm.

On the screen, this is going to look extremely realistic, as one can only expect filmmakers to have mastered the fakery of the scenes so that they appear as real as possible for the audience.

The above scene was filmed here during the summer, when British filmmakers from BBC Scotland were here making the film Út í óvissuna [Running Blind] based on the eponymous novel by Desmond Bagley. I started working with the filmmakers at the end of May and had watched the filming in Iceland throughout. It was completed on 18 July.

Working on such films is extremely complex, and as a novice in the film industry, many of the items caused astonishmentt. Not least, the varied tecnhniques and special effects that were used to approach reality, in order that potential viewers could not tell the difference.

My job was to be a kind of ‘man of all trades‘, ranging from buying castor oil for the director to driving the exciting speed pursuits in place of the actors, some of which didn’t even have a driver’s license.

It is, to say the least, quite difficult to describe briefly the events that were most memorable, but nonetheless, I’m going to attempt to do so.

Hounded secret agent

The plot film is very roughly that a British secret agent comes to Iceland, and whilst here is hunted by both his own colleagues, and of course the enemy from the East. It seems that everyone wants to kill him, but despite numerous attempts to bring him to his fate, the hero’s encounters with his enemies always results in the former killing or seriously injuring the latter. The hero himself escapes unscathed from his trials, and finally he gets love in return.

The director’s policy was that in spite of all the action that the script demanded, things would be taken in moderation and not spiced up beyond what was reasonable. This was a film that would be shown on television and therefore it could not be made too unpleasant.

The first action scene that was filmed in this country was between the main actor Stewart Wilson and Steindór Hjörleifsson, who plays a Russian spy. Stuart kills Steindór with a bullet the Russian spy had originally intended for him. This scene took just over eight hours to film, although it was only a two-minute scene in the film itself. Steindór barely managed to reach Reykjavík before the show commenced.

Another amazing scene was filmed in the summer house at Þingvellir. The lead actor Stuart had been captured by the villains and it seemed as if his days were numbered. Then Stuart manages to sneak a full canister of lighter fuel into the fireplace. There is an explosion and during the ensuing commotion the hero manages to escape – unscathed despite the explosion. The summerhouse is ‘destroyed‘ significantly by the explosion and fire.

Summer house explosion

In order to reproduce ‘realism‘ on the screen, exact replicas of two exteriors of this lovely cottage had been made. They were placed approximately one metre from the house itself, and then special bombs were used to create explosive effects and they then added a smoke and fire. The burned ruins of part of the summer house had been created.

Immediately following the shooting of the scene, the fire was extinguished and it was ensured that everything was returned to looking normal. Then, work began again with the next scenes that were to take place there. The protagonists, Stuart and Elín (played by Ragnheiður Steindórsdóttir) have been captured by the enemy. Elín had managed to smuggle a gun inside her clothes, and after she had killed the enemy ringleader, a great deal of shooting began between the two on the one hand and the Russians on the other. In between filming, the make-up artist rushed in and prepared the various bullet wounds according to the wishes of the director. First the wound was shaped from wax, which when set, was filled with a sizeable amount of red liquid – film blood.

Towards the end, there were two Icelandic actors in the scene, Jón Sigurbjörnsson and Flosi Ólafsson, but in addition there was a British actor Vladek Sheybal, who is probably the best known of the actors starring in the film.

Previously, these men had been in a great dramatic chase with the hero onboard a ship in Reykjavík Harbour. Originally this scene was to take place at Geysir in Haukadalur, but since the film crew found the setting of Geysir rather poor – there was a quick script change to the harbour.

The protagonist escapes an ambush and boards a trawler that was tied to the dock and then a big shootout ensued. Of course, only blanks were fired, but in order to make the ‘bullet holes‘ noticeable small bombs were placed all over the ship Kúlnahríðina. They were literally moulded on the outside of the various objects and then painted over. They were then exploded according on the director’s order and looked like shots hitting the metal. Two of the enemies managed to get onboard the ship and after some fighting the hero managed to throw one of them into the sea and disable the other.

When it came to throwing the lucky man into the sea the filming was completed as quickly as possible.

Falling into the oily Atlantic

The victim dressed himself in a wetsuit and then put his clothes over the top of the suit. He then rubbed grease on his face and hands, changed his shoes and drank half a litre of fresh Icelandic milk. When he was ready he went into the oily North Atlantic. Luckily for him, the scene took only one take, so there was no need to repeat the shot.

We headed to the north of the country and filmed in Ásbyrgi. In one scene, a dust cloud was seen coming from a car indicating that it was an enemy approaching. There was not enough dust on the road, and they had to resort to hanging snow chains on the back of the car to whip up the dust. The car stops slightly in front of the hill and a man with a rifle in his hand gets out of it, but the driver remains inside. Next the man creeps up and he spots Stuart and Elín, holding his rifle at close range – he is about to fire a shot but Stuart throws a knife into his abdomen so he misses his shot hitting Elín’s shoulder instead.

Knife stabbing

In order to fake the stabbing the following special effect was used, firstly they filmed the enemy holding a knife in such a way that it looked as if he had been stabbed in his abdomen. Next there was a mannequin that was dressed as the actor, the knife was driven into it, filming began and the knife was pulled out very quickly by some thin line that was attached. When this is shown backwards is as if the knife flies with lightning speed from Stuart’s hand into the attacker’s abdomen.

Body in Dettifoss

In order to get rid of the ‘corpse‘ Stuart decides to drag it into the Land Rover and drive it to Dettifoss. There he carries the corpse to the edge of the waterfall and throws it in. Of course, it wasn’t the man that was thrown into the waterfall. Shortly before Stuart threw the ‘corpse‘ the filming was stopped and the man was replaced with the rubber mannequin mentioned earlier. The cameraman was lowered down by rope a little, hanging there in order to film above the churning water below. The police had been warned of the possibility of a ‘body‘ washing ashore to the north in the coming days.

Throughout the highlands the so-called ‘Driving shots‘ were filmed, which on the one hand, was the car travelling on its journey through the barren landscape and on the other hand, conversations between Stuart and Elín (Heiða) inside the vehicle. The film camera was mounted on a frame attached to the outside of one of the doors viewing the two in the front seat. In the rear of the vehicle sat the director, the cameraman, the sound recordist and the scriptwriter, all hidden outside of sight. The camera was remotely controlled and those in the back of the car viewed the image on a small television screen, which soon broke down. In order that the sound of the Land Rover engine did not interfere with the audio recording of the conversations, the Land Rover was towed by another SUV, so Stuart and Heiða only had to steer.

A trip in an ice-cold river

In the highlands (Landmannalaugar), there was a lot of filming, for example, a scene in which a helicopter that had been hiding in the craters at Ljótapolli flies over the edge of the crater and chases the Land Rover along the crater edge. Another scene is when a twin-engined aircraft flies over the Land Rover a number of times. The ‘Russian‘ in the plane was in fact Ómar Ragnarson.

A lot of effort was put into getting the most beautiful images of when the Land Rover ploughs through the rivers in the highlands. There were a few minor problems in one river near Landmannalaugar. The Land Rover got stuck in the river well outside of the ford. As we got further out into the deep river the flow was such that the water was up to our knees. The current began to raise the vehicle slightly off track, and the water flowed over the engine cover stopping the engine, and the vehicle started to tilt. We expected that it would tip on its side so then we grabbed the main items of value, escaped from the car and got ashore. The three of us, Heidi, Stuart and I waited on the other bank until a brave bus driver managed to drive through the river. After much fuss the Land Rover was pulled ashore. There was less shooting on that day.

Forget about dying

By the end of filming in Iceland, the producer’s nervousness became quite noticeable, as the cost of making the film had far exceeded the budget. One of the last scenes that was filmed in the highlands was the shootout at the cable car ferry over the Tungná. Nervousness started, illustrated by the actors forgetting to die in the right places and the filming of various scenes were not reshot, even if major mistakes were sometimes made. It was frustrating but we had to prepare for the next scene.

The bulk of the group left very soon after we came to town, – memories filled full of potholed roads, packed lunches and rainy nights in tents in the desert. Such things, however, are soon forgotten and presumably leave a memory of bright summer nights in a magnificent landscape, where the lenses glinted and people had fun.

Image titles:

Harsh fighting aboard the trawler.

The helicopter emerges from the crater and begins its pursuit.

…. Stuart bending over ‘corpse‘ Heiða looks on, worried.

Stuart and Heiða escape from the summer house at Þingvellir, which was later set on fire.

Jeep stuck in the river. Heiða and Stuart waiting for help.

The cameraman descends into the gorge in front of Dettifoss.

Filming the cars chases was sometimes carried out like this.

Stuart here, having a fight.

Two corpses. The one on the right was dropped into Dettifoss.

Libbie scriptwriter.

Stuart ‘corpse‘ (Dallas Adams) and Heiða by Dettifoss.

… and falling into the oily North Atlantic ocean.

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  1. ‘Út í óvissuna’: Vísir, 7 October 1978, p. 1 & 5-7; © DV ehf.