As hero stories go, the epic Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf is the granddaddy of them all, with its original manuscript today under lock and key in the British Library in London. Written around AD1000 after generations of oral recounting, Beowulf tells the story of a great Norse warrior from around the 6th century who slays the monster Grendel that has been terrorizing the neighboring kingdom of Daneland.

According to the online translation/adaptation written by Dr. David Breeden (, the original Grendel is an archetypical baddie begging to be hero-smacked. Breeden translates the description of Grendel as "the foe of God, who had long troubled the spirits of men with his crimes." However, as adapted by writer Andrew Rai Berzins (Cowboys and Indians: The J.J. Harper Story) and versatile veteran director Sturla Gunnarsson (100 Days in the Jungle), the monster's blackness fades into moral grayness, while the shining whiteness of Beowulf's quest dims to the same ambiguous tone.

"Our Beowulf is a warrior who goes overseas on what he thinks is a righteous quest," Gunnarsson tells Playback. But once he meets Grendel - not a mythic monster, but a flesh-and-blood troll seeking vengeance for a wrong committed by Beowulf's friend, King Hrothgar - the hero's moral certainty starts to crumble. "In the end, Beowulf finds himself in the middle of a tribal war where nothing is what it seems."

This decision to align the Beowulf epic with modern sensibilities - including undertones of the U.S. War on Iraq - is central to the plot of Beowulf & Grendel. "We didn't want to make a museum piece or a literal illustration of the original poem," Gunnarsson says. "We wanted the film to be meaningful to the times we live in."

Beowulf & Grendel stands to benefit from audience fascination with ancient warriors on the heels of the Lord of the Rings films, and from the rising stardom of lead actor Gerard Butler, who enjoyed international attention for his performance in the film version of The Phantom of the Opera. It is out of the gate well ahead of Robert Zemeckis' announced Beowulf, which will be computer animated.

March 2001: Gunnarsson and Berzins set up the Beowulf & Grendel project at Alliance Atlantis, "which developed it with the intention of producing it," Gunnarsson says.

June 2001: Gunnarsson brings Berzins to Iceland (the director's birthplace) to introduce him to the landscape and culture of the film before the latter sets out to write the first-draft screenplay.

A coproduction partnership is subsequently formed with Fridrik Thor Fridriksson at the Icelandic Film Corporation.

November 2001: Berzins completes a first draft of the script, which is met with enthusiasm and sets the film in motion. The production is budgeted at $15 million, and Alliance Atlantis begins looking for partners. The strategy is to make the film as a Canada/Iceland/U.K. treaty coproduction.

2002: When Alliance Atlantis begins its protracted retreat from Canadian production, Gunnarsson and Berzins reacquire rights to the screenplay. Gunnarsson travels to London to meet with potential U.K. coproducers. Several are interested; they end up dealing with Sarah Radclyffe (Ratcatcher).

December 2002: Paul Stephens and Eric Jordan of The FilmWorks, which collaborated previously with Gunnarsson on the feature Such a Long Journey, offer to come on board as Canadian producers. Stephens and Jordan negotiate an agreement with Gunnarsson and Berzins.

March 2003: Michael Mosca of Equinoxe Films agrees to distribute the film. Arclight Films will handle foreign sales.

August 2003: Telefilm Canada agrees to invest. The Movie Network and The Harold Greenberg Fund are also contributors. At this point, Icelandic and U.K. funding remains uncommitted.

September 2003: Nick Dudman (the Harry Potter films, Batman Begins) agrees to design prosthetics for the film. Conceptual work on the troll Grendel begins.

October 2003: Radclyffe's funding evaporates after the Department for Culture, Media and Sport revises U.K. copro rules. Spice Factory steps in as the U.K. coproducer.

January 2004: Gunnarsson and Stephens travel to Iceland to meet with the minister of industry regarding the country's portion of financing.
February 2004: The Icelandic Film Centre and Icelandic Innovation Fund agree to invest in the film.

March 2004: Casting director Pam Dixon (The Company) agrees to cast the film.

April 2004: Gunnarsson meets with Butler at the Tribeca Film Festival, where the actor's Dear Frankie is screening. "We hit it off and he liked the script," says Gunnarsson. "He became our Beowulf."

May 2004: Stellan Skarsgård (King Arthur) and Sarah Polley sign on. Skarsgård will play King Hrothgar, while Polley will take on the role of Selma. The Canada/Iceland/U.K. crew is assembled. Gunnarsson travels to Iceland to begin prepping for a summer shoot. Winnipeg-born director of photography Jan Kiesser, who lensed Gunnarsson's Rare Birds, will be behind the camera.

September 2004: Hurdles in closing financing delay shooting, but $17 million is finally raised. The first day of principal photography finally begins on the south coast of Iceland. The Arctic winter is approaching and light is diminishing by six minutes each day.

December 2004: Shooting in Iceland wraps up after cast and crew have endured "the stormiest autumn in 60 years," Gunnarsson says. "We lost four base camps - they just blew away. One day we lost eight vehicles to wind - just blown off the road or had their windows blown out by flying rocks. We had wind gusting at 160 kilometers. By the last day of production, we were down to five-and-a-half hours of daylight." Just before Christmas, Gunnarsson returns to Toronto to work with editor Jeff Warren at Tattersall Picture & Sound.

April 2005: Editing wraps. Composer Hilmar 'rn Hilmarsson (In the Cut) begins to compose the score.

June 2005: The score is recorded in London and Reykjavik. The music and audio is mixed at Casablanca Magnetic North in Toronto.

July 2005: TIFF programmers select Beowulf & Grendel as a special presentation at the fest. "We haven't actually seen a film print from the [digital intermediate] yet," Gunnarsson said at press time. "I expect that the print will probably still be wet from the lab when we screen it!"

(Article by James Careless)

On its most basic level, this is a film about primal fear, severed heads and things that lurk in the shadows of a stark northern landscape - the story of a people terrorized by a bloodthirsty troll and the hero who comes to vanquish it. It takes place in a powerful landscape - the west fjords of Iceland, where Europe’s biggest glacier meets the North Atlantic - a land of volcanos, lava fields, black sands, waterfalls and brooding ocean. A dusky, primordial land of endless twilight, where people huddle together against the barren, haunted land that surrounds them.

It is loosely adapted from the Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf, the archetype of the western hero myth as we know it. While the story is medieval, the interpretation is contemporary. The aim is not to illustrate the myth, but to re-interpret it from a modern perspective. Our mythic hero, Beowulf, is not a simple man acting out a simple morality. He is a complex, thinking character, aware of the myth that has grown up around him, even as he grows to question the righteousness of his quest. The troll, Grendel, is not the supernatural embodiment of evil portrayed in the poem, but rather a creature of the natural world, capable of the same basic feelings as the men who hunt him. Thus, thematically, the story becomes an exploration of tribalism, of Man’s impulse to kill that which he doesn’t understand.

The look and action of the film is elemental - you will be able to smell the blood when it flows. We will use some digital effects, but this is in essence, an analogue film. Grendel is bound by the laws of nature. His strength is that of a four hundred pound creature of exceptional speed and cunning, driven by a powerful bloodlust, exuding the aura of invincibility. His arms can break a neck, his claws eviscerate a man and his rank smell can make you pass out, but the important thing about him is his character - his ability to feel rage, fear, loneliness, humour. His face and body will be prosthetically sculpted and he will learn a range of movements unique to the troll clan, much like the actors at the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey, who became apes through their mastery of primate body language. His power will be enhanced through stunt choreography and wire work and his speed with digital effects. But most importantly, he will have at his core an essence of humanity that makes him a worthy adversary to Beowulf and gives his inevitable death a tragic dimension.

The tone of the story will be leavened with humour, striving for an effect not unlike that of Unforgiven, where the conventions of a familiar genre apply, but the characters’ self-awareness (and that of the filmmakers) temper its earnestness.

On a personal level, Beowulf & Grendel represents an exploration of my own tribal roots through the prism of my adopted culture and adapt it to my understanding of the twenty-first century world we live in.