Rúnar Rúnarsson Talks About Grief in Un Certain Regard Opener ‘When the Light Breaks’

In his fourth feature “When the Light Breaks,” Icelandic director Rúnar Rúnarsson (“Volcano,” “Sparrows,” Oscar-nominated short “The Last Farm”) starts with a heartbreaking tragedy. Una (Elín Hall) finds out that the boy she loves was in an accident. What follows is a day full of grief — and sunlight. The film opens Cannes’ Un Certain Regard section.

As proven by “Sparrows,” you are not afraid to tells stories with younger protagonists. Is it easy for you to go back to that mindset?

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Everything I write is based on my first- or second-hand experiences, which I then mix with fiction. I also had an amazing cast, which is probably one of the first things you have to have. There is a lot of talent in Iceland, but we wanted the crème de la crème. It was crucial to find the right people to portray these characters and turn them into human beings.

It’s different when you work with young adults, but we tried to make this story believable and timeless. There are still things that unite us, even though there was a middle-aged man behind the camera, which they realized only halfway through the shoot [laughs].

Why did you want to talk about grief, and over the course of just one day? Specifically, you mention two names at the end.

Usually, I prefer not to reveal my sources, but these were my friends. They both passed away. I wanted to dedicate this film to them.

I thought it was interesting to keep it within such a short time frame — we go from sunset to sunset — and focus on these first moments. If you experience something life-changing, regardless of your age, you feel … everything at once. It’s a rollercoaster ride. The same things that make you cry, make you laugh. At the same time, or five seconds later.

For me, that’s life. We don’t laugh all the time, even on the happiest day, and we don’t cry all the time either. There is beauty in the mundane and there is humor in grief.

Could you tell me more about this strange, unnerving melody heard throughout the film?

It was composed by Jóhann Jóhannsson [Oscar-nominated for “Sicario” and “The Theory of Everything.”] He died in 2018. I think it’s my favorite thing he did and it has never been used in any film.

It’s one of his first works and it’s so human, even though it’s “sung” by a computer. It combines the beauty of classical music with something completely different. I decided not to subtitle the lyrics, but it’s in Latin and it says: “I love, I hate, I don’t know why. I don’t want this, but it’s happening again. I can feel it and it tears me apart.”
I think you can still feel it, even though you can’t understand the words, because that’s how we are, as human beings: we have all these mixed emotions.

As you mentioned, you waited a long time to tell this story. How does it feel right now?

It’s a relief. I just had to get it out of my system, one way or another. But when something, like a box, has been standing on a shelf for a long time and then you move it, it leaves an empty space. I managed to get rid of the box and I am glad it’s gone, but nothing else will be able to replace it.

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