Q&A: ‘Under the Tree’ Director Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson on How Bad Neighbors Make a Good Story

“Love thy neighbor” does not apply in the Iceland suburbs of UNDER THE TREE. After his wife kicks him out of the house, Atli (Steinþór Hróar Steinþórsson) stays with his parents—just as the passive aggressive hostility with their neighbors is ramping up over a large tree in the yard. Director Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson establishes character dynamics with jabs to the gut and enough dark humor to quell the uneasiness in your stomach. With a moody score and sound design that sways between the tension and release of the scenes, you may find yourself nervously laughing the next time you want to talk to your neighbors about the noise. Iceland’s official submission for the Oscar® for Best Foreign Film.

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What a well-crafted story! How do you describe UNDER THE TREE in your own words?

Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson: Most importantly for me, it’s a humane story about people trying to figure out how to live together in a community. But I guess you could define it as a dark, comic drama with some unconventional thriller elements.

What inspired you to make this film? Have you ever had any bad experiences with neighbors yourself?

Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson: I do consider myself a pretty good neighbor and I’ve been lucky with neighbors as well, so it’s definitely not anything autobiographical or anything like that. But we have a lot of famous neighborly disputes here in Iceland, revolving around trees that have been taken very far and ended up in court.  So in some ways it’s inspired by true events, although this story is completely fictional.

There is definitely a WOW factor as things escalate in the film. Without giving too much away, what do you think is the point of UNDER THE TREE where things get blown out of proportion? 

Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson: I think that’s actually right from the beginning. And that’s one of the main points to this story. People make assumptions and rush forward in anger, without any consideration or a will to talk things over.

What would you like Hamptons audiences to take away from UNDER THE TREE?

Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson: I think there is a story in here, which says a lot about world politics today. When you come to think of it, what is war other than a neighborly dispute on a very big scale?

Congratulations on Iceland’s recent submission of UNDER THE TREE as their Oscar contender for Best Foreign Language Film! What does that mean to you?

Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson: Respect from my colleagues in Iceland who chose the film. And some good, positive attention abroad.

What advice would you give filmmakers striving to make their first feature?

Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson: Know your limits and don’t try to make a huge, expensive film. You will have time for that later. I mean, even dwarfs started small!

We look forward to having you at the festival. What are you looking forward to most at HIFF25?

Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson: I’ve never been to the festival but I’ve heard very good things so I’m very excited about that. Hopefully catching some good films and meeting good people.

Check out the East Coast Premiere of UNDER THE TREE in the Narrative Competition section of HIFF25. Find tickets.