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Photos from the set of "The Juniper Tree"

(Click to enlarge images)

MY Dream Job

In the summer of 1986, I traveled to Iceland on an amazing adventure that would prove to be an unforgettable journey. I was hired as the cinematographer to shoot a black and white feature film called “The Juniper Tree” - directed by Nietzchka Keene. It was one of my first feature film credits as a director of photography - and remains one of my favorite films. I was thrilled at the rare opportunity to shoot on black and white film stock. The fact that it was a period adaptation of a Brother’s Grimm fairytale made it all the more intriguing.  


I spent a total of 7 weeks in Iceland - 5 weeks of filming and two weeks of preparation. It was my first time traveling outside of North America, so to be working in a small remote country was an incredible experience. Iceland was still fairly provincial at that time. It had not yet been discovered as a tourist destination. The population was only about 200,000 at the time and most of them lived in the capital of Reykjavík. The people were generally reserved by nature, but friendly, generous, and very helpful once you got to know them.  


My primary memories of Iceland center around it’s ruggedly beautiful scenery of rocky cliffs, swift rivers, waterfalls, and glaciers. Not far outside of Reykjavík, the signs of civilization greatly diminish. Combined with the most beautiful summer sunlight I’ve ever filmed in, these barren Icelandic landscapes create the ideal location to film a period film. One could almost point the camera in any direction to find an interesting and compelling background.


Whenever I’m asked about “The Juniper Tree,” the subject of working with Bjork usually comes up. Of course, at the time none of us knew that she would become so famous internationally.  It turned out to be a brilliant choice to cast the relatively unknown singer Bjork in her first acting role. In all three of her films, Nietzchka proved to have a great knack for seeing raw talent in unknown actors before they became big names.

Bjork was a fascinating young woman who was lovely to work with.  But I can’t say that I got to know her very well on a personal level.  She seemed to be a naturally introverted person when she wasn’t on camera. She was friendly and got along with well with everyone - but she didn’t engage in a lot of small talk outside of the working relationship. I remember her being very focused on her work and she behaved professionally in every way. I was quite impressed with her natural acting abilities. It was hard to believe that this was her first acting experience on film. She was so relaxed, confident and never seemed to struggle. I also think that Nietzchka did a great job directing Bjork and the other actors’ performances.


At the beginning of the filming, I had to remind myself, when I spoke with her, that she was a 21 year old adult and not a child.  Her acting talent combined with her young looks and voice convinced me at times that she was only 14 years old - just like her character. I was jolted back into reality when I noticed her breast feeding her infant son on set during filming breaks.


When “The Juniper Tree” was finally released in 1990, it didn’t make a very big splash - although it was nominated for The Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance film festival. With the recent 4K restoration and the theatrical re-release of the film, I’m very pleased that “The Juniper Tree” can now be re-discovered and fully appreciated by audiences. I feel fortunate to have worked with Nietzchka on her three feature films. It’s a shame that her life and career was cut short by cancer. 


It’s now clear to both critics and viewers that Nietzchka Keene was very talented as a writer -director and definitely ahead of her time in terms of her feminist views and themes. Her interpretation of an essentially misogynist fairytale into a more humanistic and believable story is both compelling and nuanced.  I, like many others, continue to discover new and wonderful artistic details in “The Juniper Tree.”

MY Dream Job
What’s Your Dream Job?
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