Earl Lynn Nelson, 72, is an ocular plastic surgeon, the only such mender of eyeballs within a 200-mile radius of his eastern Kentucky home. He is also a hoot, a one-man party, a lover of all things carnal and delicious. Martha Stephens, 30, an indie filmmaker and his second cousin, was planning a vacation to Iceland when a thought came to her. Why not take Earl Lynn there and film that? He could go to that wild, wintry place and, well, that’s about as fleshed out as the story was when she texted her idea to a fellow filmmaker, Aaron Katz. Maybe they could direct the film together.
“The story sounds improbable, or like we’re trying to spin a yarn that sounds fun or interesting, but that’s really how it happened,” Mr. Katz, 32, said.
From such airy beginnings came “Land Ho!,” a buddy picture written and directed by Ms. Stephens and Mr. Katz, friends who met a decade ago at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. Opening July 11, the movie stars Dr. Nelson as Mitch, a boisterous surgeon not unlike the guy who plays him, and the Australian-born actor Paul Eenhoorn, 65, as Colin, Mitch’s former brother-in-law and longtime friend. Mitch invites the taciturn Colin to accompany him on a trip to Iceland — his treat — with promises of lobster and “broads.”
When it premiered at Sundance in January, “Land Ho!” received rave reviews (in The New York Times, Manohla Dargis described it as “a dual portrait of gloriously alive men who just happen to be old”) and was hailed by many as the sleeper hit of the festival. The gorgeous scenery, from the Reykjavik streets to the hot springs, didn’t hurt, but it was the chemistry between the two aging leads — the irrepressible Mitch and the slowly thawing Colin — that has won over viewers on the festival circuit, and their bond carries over, with crucial differences, off screen.
The stars of “Land Ho!” met up at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel recently to attend its screening at the Los Angeles Film Festival. Pacing around a sixth-floor suite, Dr. Nelson, who bears a passing resemblance to a jollier George C. Scott, his voice booming and twangy, was making sure everyone had something to drink. Somebody wanted them to sign copies of the movie posters, and Mr. Eenhoorn, blue eyed and genial faced, pulled out a pen he swiped from the hotel and started signing.
This sort of thing is familiar to Mr. Eenhoorn, a lifelong actor whose “This Is Martin Bonner” won an audience award at Sundance in 2013. It’s less so for Dr. Nelson, who was scheduled to perform an eye operation in Kentucky the day after returning from the Los Angeles festival. At his age, he could quit his day job; he just doesn’t want to. “I love it,” he said. “I make people see better, I make people feel better, and I make people look better. And my patients don’t die.”
Although the two have known each other for only a year and a half, they talk over each other and finish each other’s sentences like an old married couple. At one point, they were calling each other names and talking about the moments on the set when they wanted to punch each other; later, they were complimenting each other and saying, ah, he wasn’t so bad.
When asked how the two first met and if they hit it off right away, Mr. Eenhoorn called the question unfair. He came to the film to work, he said, not to socialize or pal around. Mr. Eenhoorn then began a complicated explication about how he saw his role vis-à-vis Dr. Nelson. “I’m like David working with Goliath,” he said, “and I have to figure out how to stone him.”
Dr. Nelson listened to all this with a bemused smile before using two unprintable words to describe his co-star’s comments, which he considered nonsensical.
“All the actors out there know what I’m talking about,” Mr. Eenhoorn replied.
The way Dr. Nelson remembers it, the two got along fine when they first met at his home in Boyd County, Ky., in the spring of 2013. Mr. Eenhoorn spent three nights there, along with Ms. Stephens and Mr. Katz, talking about what they thought the movie might be and drinking homemade moonshine out of Mason jars. “I really got to like him as a person,” Dr. Nelson said. “He was a pain,” he added, “every once in a while, but hell, we all are, right?”
Filming began in Iceland last September. With just a 16-day shoot planned, the directors’ urge to go, go, go ran up against the less-hurried pace of the Icelanders, generating feelings of mild paranoia in the American cast and crew. “We were like, ‘Oh, they’re trying to avoid us,’ ” Ms. Stephens said, but they learned that’s just the way Icelanders work. “It’s not rude to not call someone back for a week.”
There were other surprises for the Americans, some pleasant — like two sightings of Björk, the country’s most celebrated public figure — some less so. Craft services consisted often of broiled fish and root vegetables, which took some getting used to; one night, Dr. Nelson’s wife unknowingly had horse for dinner. (The menu said “meat stew.”)
Whole sections of the film were improvised. In one scene, Mitch and Colin riff about Satan and subterranean sex while patiently waiting for a fickle geyser (no “Old Faithful,” this) to blow. In another, Mitch ad-libs his interpretations of each painting in an art gallery in the most vulgar and sexual of terms. “The sad part about it was, the woman who did those paintings was there,” Dr. Nelson said.
As Mitch and Colin grew closer, so did Dr. Nelson and Mr. Eenhoorn, perhaps bonding through moments of shared misery. To hear them tell it, they spent much of the time on the film soaked to the bone in icy waters, sharing toilets and showers in hostel-like hotels, eating way too many tubers and having black sand from a beach blown into their faces by 45 mile-an-hour winds. “It was not as joyous as it looks on screen,” Mr. Eenhoorn admitted.
Despite the trials, the film has been a boon for all concerned. Ms. Stephens was finally able to quit her job as a substitute teacher in West Virginia to devote her time solely to filmmaking, thanks to the sale of the movie to Sony Pictures Classics. And Dr. Nelson has his first lead role in a feature film, which didn’t spook him one bit. How hard could it be? Only two things ever scared him, he said: his father and God, and his dad’s dead.
“If I set my mind to it,” he said, “I don’t think there’s anything I can’t do.”