Interview : Ragnar Bragason, Director Of Metalhead (Málmhaus)
Films like Metalhead come along once in a blue moon…if that. This portrayal of an emotionally wounded young woman, who finds solace from her grief in heavy metal, is one of the strongest, most poignant films I’ve ever encountered. I feel exceptionally proud to feature this interview with the director of Metalhead, Ragnar Bragason.
When was the idea for Metalhead conceived, and can you recall what inspired the idea? Also, how long was it from the initial plan to the first screening?
I’ve carried the intention of making a film that would incorporate metal music and its history, or at least a part of it, ever since I started as a filmmaker in the 90’s. It’s a part of me, growing up as a kid inspired by the music. As Metalhead is my fifth feature film, the story didn’t present its self to me until around 2009 when I got an image into my head. It was of a girl in a leather jacket, holding a flying-v guitar, surrounded by cows. I didn’t know where it came from, but the image intrigued me. At that time I was teaching a course in film acting at the Academy of the Arts in Iceland and one of the students was Thora Björg Helga. I was really impressed with her talents, and from that point the story started to grow. It was a combination of so many personal things; the remote community where I grew up in the Westfjörds of Iceland, things that I heard and experienced personally. I wrote the screenplay in 2010 and started filming late 2012. The world premiere was at Toronto International Film Festival September 2014.
How would you describe the experience of writing Metalhead, and what environment was the film written in? Did you need to lock yourself away while writing, and was there always heavy metal in the background as you crafted the story?
I usually never start putting things down on paper until I can play the film from start to finish in my head. So the writing didn’t take long, few months. When I write I need to find a place where I can close the door and blast selected music for that particular story, in this case Metal. I made a playlist of around 100 songs which I liked and were good to reflect of. Out of those 100, 8 made their way into the script.
Can you reveal what the filming process was like? Was it a smooth ride, or were there hiccups along the way?
Filming is like going into battle with a selection of warriors that hopefully understand what is at stake and what’s to be done to make the directors vision come to life. Metalhead was a pleasure, tough as we’d spend weeks in the country away from home in the middle of winter, but all came in on schedule and I got the stuff I needed. The only problem was the lack of snow in the area around Eyjafjallajökull where we shot most of the exteriors. So some had to be done in post production.
Was there much research into heavy metal done for this film, or did you find that your life experiences and stored knowledge on metal culture and music was enough to fuel the story?
I had most of the research in my head beforehand but I read a few books about the church burnings in Norway, Black Metal and some academic writing on the social elements of being a metalhead etc.
What were the deciding factors for the film’s location? Did you travel across Iceland to find the right place for filming, or was it close to home? What made the place where you filmed so perfect for the picture?
The production designer rode around the countryside within 3 hours of Reykjavik to find the perfect spot. I had an ideal image of a dairy farm, under a steep black mountain but there also needed to be some wide open spaces. With those instructions in mind he found this beautiful farm which ticked all the boxes. We were also very fortunate that the people living there were extremely nice and open to our invasion.
The soundtrack to Metalhead is sublime. It interweaves with what’s happening on screen extremely effectively, and never jars or feels misplaced. Was it a difficult job deciding on who would feature on the soundtrack, and how did you go about making the musical decisions that led to the soundtrack we hear?
It was fun deciding on the music. I spent a long time putting those 8 songs together so they would make a great whole and also feel as a natural part of the scenes and the story. The first song that I decided was Judas Priest’s Victim Of Changes. Then the others followed. I got all but one of the initial songs I wanted. I wanted to use Run To The Hills by Iron Maiden but couldn’t, so I replaced it with Run For You Life by Riot which is the US alternative to Maiden.
How have Icelander’s reacted to the film? Has the feedback from your country men and women been as positive as the feedback from the rest of the world?
The response in Iceland was very favourable. Great reviews and the film got a record number of nominations for the Icelandic Film Awards and out of those received eight awards. The turnout in the cinema wasn’t great but it’s a tough film emotionally and not commercial. A female protagonist, theme of grief and heavy metal music isn’t the recipe for a financial gain. But those people who actually did go and see it gave a great response and that’s what matters.
Of all the scenes in the film, of which do you feel most proud? Which scene was the most difficult to shoot, and with which scene did you have the most fun filming?
I love the final scene and it was the most fun. I asked the actors to freak out which they really took to after all the restrained and emotionally hard scenes. The most difficult to shoot was the sequence where Hera flees to the mountains. It was shot on a mountain, really cold and we were using a Helicopter. But it was also fun.
I have no doubt that Hera Karlsdóttir will become a cult figure. She is relatable and bold, honest and metal as fuck. Can you talk about the experience of finding the lead girl for the role of Hera Karlsdóttir as an adult? How did you know that Thora Björg Helga was the perfect actress for the job?
It’s just a feeling you get. Like I said, I had Thora Björg in mind the whole time. She’s a great actress with good instincts and fearlessness.
The last scene in the film was entirely unexpected, and has delighted multiple reviewers. Without giving anything away, was that always the planned ending?
Yes it was planned before writing. I really wanted to have a cathartic moment at the end. Something that would make us feel good with the characters. This was the first thing that came to mind and it turned out perfect.
The corpse paint was extremely well executed, both in terms of the look and the way it was sparsely but effectively featured in the film. What are the reasons behind your decision to use corpse paint, and was it a decision made early on in the creation of the film?
Corpsepaint and black metal go hand in hand. Especially in the early days. Hera takes her idea from the news on TV about the church burnings in Norway but bands like Celtic Frost and Mercyful Fate had done it before, bands Hera would have known beforehand. It’s visually interesting and symbolic for what the character is going through but I didn’t want to have her wreaking havoc in corpse paint the whole film. It would have been an overkill.
In one of the scenes, there’s a news clip of Fantoft Stave Church being burnt to the ground. Can you remember where you were when this happened back in the 90’s, and did it, as a metal head, affect you and your way of thinking about metal, religion and the Pagan beliefs of your ancestors?
I saw it on the news in Iceland, just like Hera does in the film. Then I saw the issue of Kerrang! where the whole Norwegian thing came into foreground. It was a very low key thing internationally up to that point. I’m not a religious person but the whole made me curious. And it must have got stuck as it turned out in a film twenty years later.
Metalhead has received mountains of praise, and has also gone onto scoop multiple awards. Can you describe what it feels like to have your work so greatly appreciated and admired?
When you spend years making something and people appreciate what you have done it’s gives you a nice feeling. I’ve been doing this for a quite some time now and have long realised that it’s the personal journey that matters. Awards are nice but not the main thing. If I touch one person in a meaningful and powerful way so that it affects that person is more important than any film award.
During your teenage years heavy metal played a prominent role. Why was metal of such importance to you, and does it still play a large part in your life nowadays?
My first album bought was Iron Maiden’s Number of the Beast. I just liked the whole thing. It made my head spin. The images, the music, lyrics. After that I used all my money to buy Metal records and when I didn’t have any I stole them. The resources in Iceland were very limited so I cut out the ads in Kerrang! and ordered from Shades on Wardour Street in London. Put a check in the mail and received a fresh LP a month later. My sentiments are the sentiments of Hera in the movie. Metal fuelled my imagination and made me a part of something greater. I still listen to and buy Metal. Once a metalhead, always a metalhead.
Metalhead has a gritty, raw, genuine feel to it. Which films and directors would you say have inspired that way you work with cinema and present your visions to the world?
So many great artists have influenced me. I would say my biggest influences from are Charles Dickens, David Lynch and Mike Leigh. Dickens I read as a child and he instilled in me the power of characters and narrative. Sentimentality mixed with the gothic. Lynch made me want to become a filmmaker. But I think Leigh has influenced me the most in terms of work. His way of working with actors and creating very unique character based films was eye-opening.
Iceland has an eclectic mix of metal bands. Which Icelandic metal bands are presently screaming through your stereo, and is there any you would like to recommend that perhaps inspired you throughout the creation of the film?
The Metal scene in Iceland has never been healthier. Growing up there were maybe one or two bands experimenting but in a very generic way. Today we have many bands in all subgenres. My favourite is Solstafir, a great band. One of their songs features in Metalhead. Some others I could mention are Angist, Skálmöld, Dimma, Momentum. Angist is female fronted metal band who helped a lot with Metalhead. Thora Björg hung around their rehearsal space and Edda the singer/guitar player also stood in for some scenes.
Metalhead is one of the finest, most honest and gut wrenching films that I’ve ever seen. I honestly believe that it will connect with metal heads worldwide, especially those metal heads who have suffered great loss in their lives, and have turned to music for escape and recovery. What would you like people to feel when they watch your film? What would you like them to take away from it at the end?
Thank you. My only wish is for people to feel something. Anything, good or bad. Indifference or lack of emotion is poison to me. I hope people feel that us who made the film did it with passion and honesty.