In FX’s Murder at the End of the World, Alice Braga (left) and Emma Corrin traverse the snowy grounds of the Studlagil Canyon.
FX's A Murder at the End of the World
For True Detective: Night Country, Jodie Foster and Kali Reis shot in Iceland, a stand-in for sunless Ennis, Alaska
Iceland is stunning in every direction.
Its fjords, glaciers, waterfalls and black volcanic beaches have long lured movie productions in search of terrain that can look primordial, otherworldly or post-apocalyptic. American television shows came later to the island nation, their numbers growing since HBO’s Game of Thrones got the snowball rolling in 2012. History Channel’s Vikings and Netflix’s Sense8 soon staked their claims. Kendall Roy went to the most beautiful rehab imaginable in Succession’s second season, in the house that was also used for the Black Mirror episode “Crocodile.” Comedy Central’s Awkwafina Is Nora from Queens visited last year, when Edmund (Bowen Yang) explored his Icelandic heritage.
In 2022, HBO’s True Detective: Night Country, the series’ fourth installment, embarked on a ten-month shoot there. Asked about the country’s appeal, executive producer Mari-Jo Winkler’s (Y: The Last Man) enthusiasm nearly jumps off the Zoom screen. “It’s a lovely community and a great place to shoot,” she says. “It gives me chills just thinking about it. I would go back in a heartbeat.”
Night Country, created by Issa López (Tigers Are Not Afraid), stars Jodie Foster (Nyad) and Kali Reis (Catch the Fair One) as a reluctant duo investigating the bizarre deaths of a team of scientists in a small Alaskan town. A number of the show’s creatives took a scout trip to Alaska’s Nome and Kotzebue, a town twenty-six miles north of the Arctic Circle. “We had this extraordinary experience soaking up the culture and learning a lot about the High Arctic,” Winkler says. They also faced minus-22-degree weather. From there they flew to Iceland, which had all the snow, ice and darkness they required, “but it was 22 degrees instead of minus-22 degrees.”
New stages, an increased tax rebate of 35 percent and the ability to shoot in fresh snow year-round helped seal the deal. Winkler, an environmental activist, was thrilled to shoot in a country that runs completely on clean energy. (Cars and trucks still use fossil fuels, but the shoot relied extensively on electric vehicles.)
And the country has a solid crew base, thanks to years of hosting shoots for franchises including Mission: Impossible, Star Wars and James Bond. “It’s not a vast crew base, and we did need to bring a lot of department heads in,” Winkler notes, “but we set up a training program and felt we left Iceland having trained another crew.”
In A Murder at the End of the World, Iceland plays itself. The FX limited series — created, written and directed by The OA creators Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij — centers on nine guests invited to a wintry retreat by a billionaire (Clive Owen, Lisey’s Story). Darby (Emma Corrin, The Crown), an amateur crime sleuth and hacker, is forced into action after another guest dies mysteriously. A few of the gorgeous, treacherous scenes were shot on a frozen lake, a rocky beach and Studlagil, a canyon filled with naturally hexagonal basalt pillars. "They were logistically challenging places to shoot at, but you'll see they were very worth going to," production designer Alex DiGerlando (Fosse/Verdon) says. "That's not something you could create on a soundstage or a computer. The majesty of this landscape is so vast and pure and graphic, it feels sculpted on a scale that no human could do. There's something very enticing about that."
Production services company Truenorth, which has worked on innumerable projects, proved invaluable to both productions. DiGerlando singles out Thor Kjartansson, Truenorth's supervising location manager/head of health and safety, for particular praise. "He's also a paramedic and a tour guide, so he's seen every inch of the island. Every dangerous situation you could possibly be in, he's been in and gotten out of, so he knows how to avoid them. And he has a very gentle touch that makes you feel comfortable in these landscapes."
Winkler remembers one night on set, about a half-hour from their base town of Akureyri, when a blizzard started up. "I was starting to get very nervous, because it was just pounding snow," she recalls. She asked Kjartansson if they needed to cancel the shoot and head back. "He said, 'No, the storm is going to end at 2 a.m. We have a snowplow standing by in Akureyri. As soon as it stops, they're going to plow in our direction, and as soon as they turn around and plow back, we'll let everybody go home.' So we shot through the blizzard. It was fantastic. And I can tell you that anytime you see Jodie Foster or Kali Reis outside at night in blowing snow, it's real."
Reached via Zoom during a location scout, Kjartansson says, "Safety is our main focus when we go out in the countryside, out on ice lakes, up on the glaciers or in the highlands. We always have not only a Plan A, we have a B and C plan, making sure we keep everyone safe and comfortable." He adds that he enjoys working with American crews: "They are super interested in learning about our culture and what Iceland has to offer. They like to hang out with the locals, which is very nice, and sometimes I feel they have a little similarity in their humor. So it's always fun when they are here."
Iceland's landscapes fit any mood, from A Murder's bright, cutting-edge sci-fi to Night Country's eerie noir. "There's a tinge of the supernatural that comes from that darkness," Winkler says. And in the daylight? "Literally everywhere you turn there's something gobsmacking to see," says DiGerlando, who can't wait to return. "I feel like I've only just scratched the tip of the glacier."
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine issue #12, 2023 under the title, “Cold Comfort.”