In case you missed it, yesterday we posted a review of the film Metalhead, which was a real treat given that we don’t get the opportunity to review things like this often. As noted in the review, Metalhead stands out not just because of the subject matter it tackles — the cliché of the “metalhead” as an outsider, a pariah to their family and greater community — but because of the nuanced relationships the main character, Hera, forms and the exploration of herself beyond surface-level emotions and situations. I had the chance to speak with the film’s director, Ragnar Bragason, and talk to him about the use of metal in the film, his own musical tastes, some choice moments in the film, and a quick quiz on ridiculous metal band names.
Good afternoon Ragnar!
How are you doing today?
I’m good, I’m sorry for being late.
That’s no problem at all, I guess we’ll get right to it! I want to ask you about your background with metal and what you grew up listening to?
I was born in the 70’s so my first exposure to metal was Iron Maiden. My first album was actually Number Of The Beast by Iron Maiden.
That is indeed a classic album, I was brought up listening to that myself!
After that I just started collecting. It was all the 70’s and 80’s stuff like Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Sabbath. Then when things started to heat up in the 80’s, Slayer, Metallica and the like.
Do you still have an active interest in metal?
Yeah I’m still an avid collector of vinyl. I’m constantly adding to my collection.
Who are you listening to just now? Are there any underground bands you’re listening to we might not have heard of?
Well, I’m kind of traditional in that sense. I’m not big into the hardcore sub-genres of metal. Not really a big fan of black or death metal. I do really like some newer bands, of course, like Solstafir from Iceland and a couple of other interesting bands doing their thing in Iceland right now.
We’ve featured Solstafir on the blog actually, quite a lot of fans of the band here. Let’s get down to Metalhead. I’ve watched it several times over the last few weeks and I’ve got questions about the movie for you. Metalhead is clearly a stand alone movie, whereas a lot of your previous works have been part of trilogies or spawned sequels. Is it difficult to get everything you want to say into one ninety minute movie?
Yeah, it’s always a challenge, especially when you start out you have high hopes and big aspirations for it. I mean, in one of the first genesis of Metalhead I wanted to tell the history of heavy metal in ninety minutes. Of course that is not possible. It’s too vast a subject to execute in such a short period of time. When I started writing I focused on, well the main character is born in 1970 or ’71, and the first scene I wrote which wasn’t in the film had Hera being born on the floor of the cow shed at the exact same moment as Tony Iommi and Black Sabbath are recording the first Sabbath record in a studio in Soho somewhere.
That’s pretty cool, how come that scene didn’t end up in the final piece itself?
That comes with the time frame of the story. You write everything that comes to mind and then you start going into the second phase of writing. You get into editing mode where you see what fits and what fits not. You have to kill your darlings you know, they end up on the floor of the writing room but you keep those things within yourself. Even though they’re not in the finished film itself.
One scene that did end up in the final product was near the end of the movie. Just before the band start playing to the hall there is this pregnant pause. A silence that had me holding my breath as I was nervous for them myself. Do you ever feel like that when showing your work to an audience for the first time?
Definitely. It’s the most nerve wracking moment in any film makers life. That moment just seconds before the lights go down in the cinema at the premiere, you’re holding your breath, your heart is in your stomach and your blood is pumping furiously. That’s part of the whole process. If you’re making art, a performance in any sense be it music or film, you never know what kind of reaction you’re going to get. I premiered Metalhead at Toronto International Film Festival. It wasn’t my home crowd, an Icelandic audience, so it was a bit easier than sitting with 800 of your friends and family. Just a little bit easier. I mean I’ve done five features films and it never really gets easier. It’s a nerve wracking experience.
I guess you’re sitting there waiting for the critics to start trashing the movie or sing it’s praises?
Yeah but you kind of get used to the reviews and everything. All films get a combination of good and bad reviews, you kinda get used to it. It’s more distant as you’re not sitting in a room with the critic debating the quality of the movie. I’m quite good in my later years in terms of dealing with bad criticism. It doesn’t effect me. I try and learn more from it.
I imagine that comes with all of your experience. I’m from the North of Scotland, a fairly isolated part but obviously not as isolated as parts of Iceland! In the same light as Hera, heavy music is what got me out of my shell and helped me grow confidence in myself as I grew up. Why do you think that metal reaches out to the ostracized youth and brings them together in that type of community. What creates that connection between people?
I guess it’s a combination of things. Speaking for myself, when you’re feeling like an outsider, not fitting in to the norms, you try to find some kind of community to belong to. For me it was buying metal magazines like Kerrang and Metal Hammer. I realized that there were metalheads all over the world. It was something global. It also has a title to it, being a metal head. It’s also the music itself and the lyrics. The genre that it is. It’s not about the mooshy, lovey pop stuff. It’s about the serious stuff. I mean, I wouldn’t say it’s a genre of music for nerds but it’s kind of a nerdy thing.
Well we’re definitely all nerds at Heavy Blog. A good mix of types of nerd but nerds none the less. We have a variety of nationalities and personalities that all band together in this tight knit group, we’re a family. I imagine you have a group like that around you too.
There are a lot of mitigating factors in the movie that add up to creating a really isolated, lonely vibe. Hera’s gender, the location, her taste in music and even the era it is set in. How did they all come together in the writing process?
It’s kind of a funny thing, you never know where the ideas come from. I had this idea, this image. This is my fifth film and I’d been thinking about it for twenty years, trying to find the story that could incorporate metal music into it. I never found it, it never presented itself to me. This image in my mind that stayed with me for years was a girl, dressed in leather. She was holding a guitar and surrounded by cows. That was the first image that came to me. I’d been carrying that around for some time when I was doing a workshop at the Academy of Arts in the acting department. I had ten students, young kids studying acting and there was this one girl there. It came to me in a flash. Maybe she could be that girl. She had that look, that attitude, even the way she presented herself. She had it. Somehow I married those two things together. That image and this young actress. That was the starting point. Myself I grew up in a very rural part of Iceland, up north. It’s a very harsh place with the mountains and the sea. I grew up in a very small village and immediately the story was set from that and my own personal experiences. Also on a subconscious level I think the story dictated that it would be set in an isolated place. Iceland in winter in the rural areas is a very visual place. Something that hasn’t been done in Icelandic films that much. Usually when people go to make films in Iceland it’s during the summer time. It was interesting for me to do it that way, having the snow and the bleakness of it all. It definitely factored in the story I was telling
That actually goes pretty well into my next question. really the only time we see any sort of color used is in the first scene and the last scene when the light comes through Hera’s bedroom windows. Was this part of the visual style you were going for?
Definitely, in terms of the color palette I really wanted the opening, nostalgic moments before everything turns sour, I wanted that to have a real warm, summer time feel. Then, after the tragedy strikes, the characters are basically frozen in time. I really wanted that colorless tone. Gradually over the last ten minutes of the film we start to add color in and and it isn’t until the last shot of the movie with the sun coming in, that really book ends the whole thing.
I love the fact that you reuse Symphony Of Destruction in those warm, closing moments. I have a lot of nostalgia attached to that song myself!
I have one more questions about the movie itself then we’re gonna do a quick metal quiz. I really like the relationship between the priest character and Hera and how that relationship evolves. A lot of people who have only seen the trailer will see the church burning scene in an anti-religious light but but, and this is my take on it, it is more like an act of anger against his rejection of her.
Obviously that ties in to the bond between metal and religion. You used real clips from the Norwegian church burning scandal I noticed. How do you feel the relationship between metal and religion has evolved from those times?
It’s much more open, meaning the stereotypical views on metal music, especially since I was growing up. They used to have these strong connotations with the bands using Satanic images and pentagrams. They were playing of that dangerous element of being either a Satanist or a social outcast. Today it’s much more varied. Even over the last few years we’ve had priests in Icelandic media, coming out and admitting they’re into death metal which is a total contrast and definitely something that wouldn’t have happened twenty years ago. The metal community is more open minded regarding the philosophy of it all, what it represents. We live in an age of information. It’s very hard for bands to shock with imagery, which could be done twenty years ago.
You put it a lot better than me! If it’s cool We’re gonna do a quick pop quiz now. I’m going to list off a few band names and you have to tell me whether you think they’re real bands or whether I’ve just made them up myself.
First up. Chainsaw Castration.
Shit. Mmm, Chainsaw Castration. Not a real band, I’m guessing.
Oh my god. They’re probably all bands. I would say, not a band.
Okay and next, Magrudergrind.
It’s too weird. It’s probably a band.
Finally, Full Of Hell
Full Of Hell? That’s a perfect name for a band. It’s a band. That reminds me, I saw somewhere something about this fake campaign by someone…
Yes, H&M. They created some fake campaign with fake black metal bands. I mean it’s hard, so many hundreds of thousands of bands today. We didn’t have any metal bands in Iceland, maybe one or two tried to do something but they disappeared after their first gig. Today we have anywhere between fifty and eighty bands put music. They don’t even play in Iceland. They’ll have a label abroad who release their music. It’s totally different now.
With the Internet, anyone and everyone can put out music today and show it off to the world. It does mean we have to sift through a lot of rubbish to find the gems. There is a lot of great music out there though.
Yeah and thank God for music blogs and review sites. There’s just so much music. I mean I ordered my vinyl albums from London when I was a teen because I couldn’t find any in Iceland. I had to order from a store in London as they had a small ad in each edition of Kerrang. My tastes were based on the reviews in Kerrang, with only ten or so reviews in each issue. Today you have ten albums coming out every day. So thanks to music review sites, they’re doing the job for you.
I wouldn’t call this my full time job but I definitely feel I put enough time into it to merit that! Just to call back to the quiz, all four bands are real! Ragnar, thank you so much for your time and for answering my questions. I do have one final question though which my colleagues would slay me for if I didn’t ask. How do you like your eggs?
Me too! Again, thank you so much. I really enjoyed the movie and I’ll be telling all my friends to get it watched as soon as possible. Enjoy the rest of your day sir!