Q&A with Steve Lewis, The Empire, Iceland

Steve talks about the appeal of filming in Iceland as it opens up to international productions again - new quarantine rules, great exchange rate, stunning landscapes and qualitty crew

By Chris Evans 19 May 2020

Q&A with Steve Lewis, The Empire, Iceland
Filming in Svalbard, Iceland

Steve Lewis, owner, executive producer and expedition guide at The Empire Productions in Iceland talks to KFTV about how and why Iceland is opening up to international productions, including new quarantining rules, great locations and cheap costs.

Can you tell me a bit about your company?

We provide production services, logistics and creative support to international production companies embarking on projects in Iceland, Norway and Svalbard. We are specialists in remote wilderness shooting, finding and working in locations far from civilisation.

What is the current situation in terms of filming in Iceland? What restrictions are in place?

From 15 May professionals arriving in Iceland, including filmmakers, will be eligible for a modified quarantine with specific limitations and criteria. This allows companies to request an exemption from home quarantine provided they comply with extensive requirements around their environment and enact safety procedures on production sites.

Modified quarantine procedures for filming in Iceland during Covid-19 have been published by the directorate of health and chief epidemiologist for Iceland, which can be viewed at www.filminiceland.com.

No later than 15 June 2020 further easing of restrictions is planned. Travellers are then expected to be given a choice between a two-week quarantine or being tested for the virus upon arrival, or otherwise proving that they are free of coronavirus infection.

Do you have any projects lined up?

We have multiple projects in the works, including:

- A Bollywood feature film to be shot August 2020 in Iceland
- 13 Part travel Series “Travelpolitains” from September 2020 in Iceland
- A post-apocalyptic sci-fi feature film to be shot in Pyramiden, Svalbard, March 2021
- East to West Unsupported MTB Crossing of Iceland - Chris Burkard - Sony - August 2020
- Encounters - Season 3 - Greenland - Tencent - April 2021

There were a lot of projects that we had to move around, find new funding or indefinitely reschedule due to the current economic climate. Considering the projects above there are still major hurdles to overcome, but my overall conversations with producers globally are very positive about coming and filming in Iceland. We are still accepting requests for 2020 and are still very committed to solving logistical/creative problems inside the productions, not just focusing on the obvious corona virus pandemic. Another positive thing for international companies is that the Icelandic Kroner is quite weak at the minute compared to the USD, RMB, EUR & GBP, so it’s a good time for those projects to come and shoot in a usually expensive place.

What projects have you worked on recently and how did they go?

We have been pretty busy recently, we worked on an Audi commercial in Iceland, Ski the World, which won at Cannes Lions. That was amazing, Candide (director & skier) had a very artistic vision with a colour pallet that was linked between every destination, so in no shot should you be able to see the top or bottom of the mountain, and the skier could continuously move between landscapes. In order to capture this we had to be in some pretty remote locations, with the whole crew living in an expedition basecamp. It was a challenge but we live for those kind of days, and results. All permissions were obtained during two scouts, working closely with local farmers and municipalities. Iceland was mixed with shots of Vanuatu, a remote volcanic Pacific island.

Last summer, we were filming in Svalbard for the Chinese platform Tencent. It was a cultural documentary, Encounters, with 70+ crew, the presenter (Aya) and a well-known celebrity (Lui Wen - world’s 4th highest paid supermodel). It required 3 expedition vessels of different capabilities, multiple expedition guides to assist the crew across landscape where polar bears freely roam and some specialist permissions from the government and mining company on Svalbard.

Where are the best places to shoot in Iceland and why?

Iceland naturally lends itself to productions. The best places to shoot are the ones not yet realized. I would say that about 80% of Iceland is still largely undiscovered to the lens. Having unique expedition knowledge we plan to keep offering stunning, pristine, surreal locations that are going to blow audiences away. Even remote in the Highlands, you can potentially cater for 100+ crew in good standard living accommodation. Icelanders have developed unique methods of transport that can get you almost anywhere, summer or winter.

Can you tell me about the variety of locations on offer? Can they double for other countries?

You have classic Iceland - black beaches, moss covered lava-fields, volcanoes, moonscapes, glaciers and green mountains. But you also have this unknown Iceland - red/white sand beaches, Siberian forest, abandoned farms, islands with crystal blue waters and infinite lakes.
It has been used to represent Norway and other high arctic islands, but the potential is there to go further. Its most popularly used to represent other planets all together.

What makes Iceland stand-out from other locations?

Iceland stands out because it’s very young, only 14-million years old. Everything is in flux. Landscape here is developing before your eyes, the fragile biosphere is that of the beginnings of life and the weather controls all. When you shoot in Iceland you become a part of that amazing environment and those raw elements not only tend to stay with the crew, but really show on film too.

Is it easy to get permission to shoot in Iceland? What is the process for applying and who to?

Permissions in Iceland are varied. We have a good relationship with the National Parks so obtaining permits is not a problem with enough time in advance. A lot of land in Iceland is privately owned by farmers. For the most part we are able to come to fair agreements and I feel like it’s a relaxed place to operate. We take care of all permits via our local Icelandic locations managers.

What facilities are available in Iceland (Studios, sound stages etc)? 

Contrary to popular belief there are some studio set ups here in Iceland, RVK Studios has their own sound stage that can manage both feature and TV Series. Rental house Kukl also has a smaller studio, which is good for commercials and music videos. It's great to have these facilities supporting the incredible nature on the island, it really means that you can create anything here in Iceland.

How experienced are the local crew and are there enough of them?

There are enough crew to make multiple major productions at one time in Iceland. Of course, sometimes you don’t get your first pick, but the overall standard of crew in Iceland is very high. This is due to the amount of major productions, both international and national that are shot here.

What financial incentives are available and how do producers access them?

 There is a 25% reimbursement on all costs incurred inside Iceland for international productions. You can get an overview on www.filminiceland.com. Local production companies usually handle the application, assisting international producers with the process.

What would international producers need to bear in mind when shooting in Iceland?

One of the main differences with shooting in Iceland compared to many other places in the world is the weather. It's important that international producers really listen to the Icelandic production company on budgeting enough time to shoot, being prepared with correct equipment, clothing and vehicles and not underestimating nature. A major storm could happen in any season, becoming more frequent as winter approaches. That being said, the weather is what makes the glaciers, creates contrast and makes you feel appreciation for when everything comes together perfectly.


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