Action Maestro Baltasar Kormákur Returned Home and Leaned on His Family to Make the Sprawling Romantic Drama ‘Touch’

Icelandic actor/director Baltasar Kormákur is a member of a growing cadre of international filmmakers who make films at home as well as Hollywood. Kormákur is best known for studio action adventures such as “Contraband” (2012), a remake of “Reykjavík-Rotterdam” (2008), produced by and starring Kormákur. Producer/star Mark Wahlberg took a shine to the rugged multi-hyphenate, and went on to make another film with him, the $80-million actioner “2 Guns” (2013), co-starring Denzel Washington.

Accustomed to weathering harsh conditions while directing such films as the International Oscar-shortlisted survival film “The Deep” (2013), Kormákur used many tricks in his filmmaking arsenal for Jake Gyllenhaal starrer “Everest” (2015), blending a subzero soundstage with vertiginous ladders, real snow, location footage in the Dolomites, and CGI extensions.

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But like many Hollywood imports, he returned to his own country to start a production company and live a double life. He makes some projects in Hollywood (2022’s “Beast” starring Idris Elba), and others at home (TV series “Trapped”). With “Touch” (Focus, July 12), he deploys his filmmaking skills to portray a romance that spans decades in Iceland, England, and Japan. It’s hard to imagine anyone else being able to create and finance such a film. But Focus’ Peter Kujawski jumped on board the cross-cultural love story early on.

It’s all about taking advantage of your home turf — and your family. When Kormákur’s daughter gave him the latest book (“Touch: A Novel”) from Iceland’s top novelist Ólafur Jóhann Ólafsson (whose books published in Iceland first) for Christmas in 2021, the director grabbed the rights within a week. He developed the project through his own production company and wrote the script with Ólafsson — not the usual practice, but they worked well together.

The movie begins during the height of the pandemic as we track Kristopher (veteran Icelandic star Egill Ólafsson) as an older man with a ticking-clock illness who embarks on a search for his long-lost love from the ’70s, when as a student (Palmi Kormákur) he quit studying economics and learned to cook at a Japanese restaurant, where he is mentored by the owner (“Departure” star Masahiro Motoki) and falls for his daughter Miko (Kōki). The movie jumps back and forth in time, and what starts as a sexy period romance and a committed elder search becomes the unveiling of a deeper mystery dating back to Hiroshima.

“You learn something as you travel through continents and time and end up with this big canvas,” said Kormákur over Zoom from Reykjavik. “Sometimes we have to go inwards, and find those journeys. And I love that. And I also love there was a mystique that kept me going, and it kept me invested. I love it when a filmmaker can take you by the hand and firmly lead you, you don’t look this way and that, you stay in the story.”

The script was enough to get Focus on board for world rights on the film (except for Iceland, where the movie is already a hit first with older, then younger audiences). “Now the rest of the world is hopefully to come,” said Kormákur, who was persuaded by his casting directors to cast his art-school student son in the role of the idealistic, lovelorn cook.

“This was not a situation I wanted to be in, to be honest,” he said. “We had a lot of great artists, but they just were not right for that John Lennon gentleness, like the physique of the 70s. The kids are so pumped up now, and they’re so fit, and it just wasn’t like that back in the day. Palmi’s not interested in acting at all. And suddenly he pops up in my office, he’s in for an audition. ‘Yeah, I want to go out of my comfort zone.’ I didn’t have a choice, to be honest. I sent it to Focus and [producer] Mike Goodridge, and they didn’t know he was my son, and they all came to the same conclusion. So the decision made itself.”

‘Touch’Baltasar Breki Samper / © 2024 FOCUS FEATURES LLC

The movie takes you to an under-explored part of Japanese history. “It’s a wonderful way of telling a story about a horrific event that might repeat itself, by taking someone gently through a story, not finger-pointing,” said Kormákur. “We are shouting in each other’s face, and nobody’s listening. Artists often want to be aggressive and fight, but I thought this is the way: it’s not about who was right or wrong, it’s telling how does that affect 50 years later?”

The older Miko is movingly played by his casting director, Yoko Narahashi. “She was reading against the other actors, and she was always the best one in the room,” said Kormákur, who also used her as his on-set Japanese culture consultant. I had her read it for me: ‘You’re ready to go.'”

Filmed on location in Iceland, London, and Japan for $10 million, “Touch” could play well for adult audiences who are starving for unexpected, unpredictable stories, the kind that no one seems to make anymore. When making the movie, the director thought about Peter Weir’s “Witness.” “It’s not a thriller, but I never knew anything about the Amish people before I saw ‘Witness’ when I was kid,” he said. “‘Mississippi Burning’ is another one where you learn this incredible story about racism in the South. Even ‘Rain Man,’ in some way, is about autism. We have abandoned this in a way, the movies are not allowed to tell stories. And I want to tell a story that does have a big story at its heart and also find a gentle and light way. I was looking for humor in the journey of Kristopher. I looked a bit to Jacques Tati.”

In one scene his slightly goofy leading man had to juggle three languages as well as chopsticks. “He doesn’t speak Japanese,” said Kormákur. “We’re sitting in a Japanese restaurant. And I have this old actor with severe Parkinson’s speaking three languages in the scene when he’s talking and he is eating with chopsticks, not with his right hand but with his left hand. I didn’t foresee this scene: you will be eating with chopsticks in Japan with the left hand because Palmi is left-handed, chopping up endlessly and working so hard. He’s a wonderful actor.”

Iceland may select the movie as its Oscar submission; more than 50 percent of the dialogue is not English.

Next up: An ambitious period BBC/CBS series, “King & Conqueror,” about William the Conqueror, including the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Kormákur will get to film some Vikings. He’s been trying to get a Viking series off the ground for years, but the scripts never landed, and executives wanted them to have kings in them. There were no kings back then. And there’s more unannounced projects in the hopper. “It’s a bit more than I can handle at the moment,” he said. “I’ve probably never been busier. But then I always start thinking about building my next Icelandic project.”

“Touch” opens in select theaters Friday, July 12 from Focus Features.

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