Director Zach Math was driving on the freeway listening to the radio when he heard an interview with Sigurður “Siggi” Hjartarson, the curator of the Icelandic Phallological Museum, which houses a collection of more than 250 penises and penile parts from nearly all of Iceland’s land and sea mammals. It was 2007, and Hjartarson was talking to a CBC radio host about his desire to acquire a human specimen to display in his museum. Two men--Pall Arason, a famed Icelandic explorer, and an American horse farmer named Tom Mitchell--had actually stepped up and offered their members, and Hjartarson had to choose between the two.
Math, who is known as a commercial director, found the odd situation fascinating, and soon enough, he and his producer friend Jonah Bekhor--the two have known each other since childhood--were co-directing a documentary about Hjartarson’s quest and the men willing to donate their genitalia. That film, The Final Member, is now in theaters after touring the festival circuit and winning rave reviews, though people still tend to laugh when they first hear the premise. Bekhor understands, noting, “It sounds like the most sophomoric thing you could possibly make a film about.”
And while the film shies away from dick jokes, it is funny. Mitchell, in particular, is a real character. The Californian refers to his phallus by the nickname Elmo, and in a show of nationalistic pride, he gets the American flag tattooed on the head of his penis.
Back in Iceland, the elderly Arason, a self-proclaimed philanderer, frets about shrinkage given his age, and it’s an issue for Hjartarson, too, because he wants to obtain a penis that meets the minimum standard of what he considers the “legal length,” which is five-inches long as dictated by some Icelandic folk tale.
Size isn’t a problem for the well-endowed Mitchell. Upping the ante, Mitchell, who is in his 50s, is willing to donate his unit while he is alive if he can find a doctor who will remove it.
Two of the men do achieve their dreams by the end of the film, while one is disappointed. “It’s a morbid thing to say, but this is a story that could only end with death or dismemberment,” Bekhor says. “Something had to happen for that penis to be in the museum.”
Looking back on the project, Bekhor and Math say that making their first feature film offered quite a learning experience. Working with a small, dedicated crew that included cinematographers Viggo Knudsen and Sean Stiegemeier, Math and Bekhor spent five years shooting The Final Member, patiently waiting for the story to reach its conclusion, though the most challenging part of the project was the edit. Editor Andrew Dickler--yes, that’s his real name--was instrumental in structuring the film, according to Math, who said that he and Bekhor ultimately learned to trust their own instincts when it came to how to balance storytelling and comedy.
The filmmakers also found the poignancy in what could have been spun as nothing more than a silly contest between men obsessed with their manhood. But the film defies expectations by presenting an engaging character study of three men who, it seems, are motivated by their mortality and a need to be remembered for something once they are gone. “There were fundamental human things that were driving these guys,” Bekhor says. “It’s all about their legacy and what they leave behind. There’s a real story here, and, I think, for Zach as well as me, that’s why there was a movie here.”
[Images courtesy of Drafthouse]