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Music Video Round-Up: Interview with Severed Ways Director Tony Stone

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Music Video Round-Up: Interview with <em>Severed Ways</em> Director Tony Stone

After confusing critics at festivals and brief theater runs over the past two years, Severed Ways: The Norse Discovery of America—a set in 1007 AD, shot on digital video, heavy metal-scored, Viking anti-epic—made its way to DVD this past summer. Though most certainly not a music video, it’s a movie not only dominated by the interplay between music and images but one that apes the quiet-loud dynamics of the heavy metal music that makes up most of its score. Music is at the movie’s core and in that sense, seems appropriate for “Music Video Round-Up.”

Like an art metal album abruptly but successfully segueing from low-end riffing to Brian Eno-esque ambience, director (and co-star) Tony Stone’s Severed Ways bounces between Malick-esque patience and pulpy, in-your-face bursts of ugliness. Laconic hunting and gathering makes way for heathen church-burning. Wandering in the woods moves to the side for an awesomely unnecessary defecation scene. Imagine the atmosphere of your quasi-historical, Dungeons & Dragons-inspired metal video sucked of all the bombast and almost entirely focused on tiny activities of survival.

The result is one of the most bizarre and strangely moving films of the past bunch of years. And the film’s artfully jagged merger of opposites extends to its creation too; conceptualized, studied filmmaking sent into the Vermont woods, forcing on-the-fly, improvisation. Tony Stone was kind enough to break-down these unresolved tensions and why it was so necessary to go “off the grid” to make Severed Ways and explain metal’s rarefied appeal.

When the trailers for Michael Mann’s Public Enemies—a brooding, DV period piece—came out in the spring, I immediately thought of Severed Ways. Outside of convenience and budget issues, what’s the appeal of bringing video to a movie about guys in the year 1007 AD?

Well, the simple fact that it modernizes the image. I think what’s incredible about Public Enemies is it takes one of the most cartoony portrayed eras and makes it look current. We’re used to seeing the 1930s over-stylized and everything looking like its out of Dick Tracy. Seeing a Tommy Gun being fired at rapid fire in a no grain, extreme hi-def image is something completely new. Those guns usually look silly, but they’re terrifying in Public Enemies, as they should be. No different than an automatic weapon out of Heat. I think it’s very disconcerting to people to see the period piece myth shattered. I think people feel more comfortable putting up a sheen/wall between the past and present, saying “that was then.” But what is interesting is to suggest there is little difference.

And there’s the metal soundtrack, which similarly removes that wall. You even have a scene where the Vikings head-bang. Like the digital, I assume this was an extension of this “past is the present” attitude?

Yeah, exactly. This movie is trying to get out of that wall between the past and now. We’re basically doing the same shit as now. And the head-banging is more of ritualistic Pagan act. It’s a sacrificial moment to the gods after they’ve constructed their shelter. Granted there’s music playing in the film over the visual, but it’s the same act now as then.

The choice of metal, like the DV, is obvious but really subtle too. That’s to say, metal and Vikings go together, but there’s deeper thematics and stuff going on when the music of Dimmu Borgir pounds through a scene.

I’ve always loved the contrast of Metal in the raw nature, because of the clash. The clash is emblematic of us in it. We were listening to all this music when were making the film, it’s in the roots of the films’ incarnation. It wasn’t a choice made in the editing room later on. The film began with the metal attitude as part of the storyline and tone. There was a philosophy.

In the beginning when the Vikings are an intact unit, the heavier, more triumphant music of Dimmu Borgir is used to reinforce the Vikings’ belief system. But as the Vikings’ friendship begins to fade, the more atmospheric music enters. Brian Eno is used as Heathen to Christian conversion theme, and Popol Vuh represents the spirituality of the earth. Burzum is used as a reoccurring theme, representing the existential plight that they’ve found themselves in this endless natural world. There is a depth and darkness in [Burzum’s] music that captures it perfectly—and it is not a coincidence that he composed the piece in jail while doing time for church burning and murder.

And the film incorporates many themes of metal. I think there’s a tone in the film that is familiar to any metal head. That gut understanding can be lost on those unfamiliar with the music.

The use of metal also feels like it comes from someone who’s a fan of the music, which you obviously are. It’s a movie by somebody who gets the appeal of metal—that tension between subtlety and obviousness. A leisurely plot with minimal dialogue, but then there’s a close-up of a Viking shitting or some burst of violence. Was this conscious, translating heavy metal rhythms to film?

Yeah, partly it was. But I think just abiding by the metal spirit, it just ended up naturally having that ebb and flow. And I think metal is subtler than it is recognized as being. It doesn’t have to be sonically heavy to be metal. Ambient metal is just as heavy emotionally. There’s still a feel and tone that can transcend the lack of heavy riffage.

And when its heavy, like let’s say a Mortician track, it’ll go from super slow heavy sludge to then an unbelievable fast drum-programmed part. Metal is all about rhythm changes—double time, half time, drone time. There are some schizophrenic moments in Severed, but the changes felt necessary as part of the arc and rhythm of the film.

The blurring of past and present is a huge part of the movie, but you are also never ironic about the Vikings and their actions.

I was trying to place it in their time—being as in the moment possible. They’re doing what they’ve been told to believe and act. They are acting on religious fervor as people do today. It’s what they know. Considered with compassion, they can be seen as victims of their time, as we all are.

The movie is rooted in The Vinland Sagas, which is close to a primary document. Can you contextualize the sagas and how they relate to Severed Ways?

Severed Ways starts off where the Vinland Sagas end. The Vinland Sagas are all about the exploration of America, beginning with Leif Ericson. And for the most part they are very accurate. The Norse settlement in Newfoundland was discovered by sailing the description written in the Sagas. And the story of the two characters continued, but not on the written page. They were never heard from again, so their glory and their Saga was never recorded. It goes unwitnessed. But I wanted that rhythm of the Sagas to continue from the written text and be very blunt and action-oriented.

Yeah, like, this is from Erik Explores Greenland: “Erik was banished from Haukadale after killing Eyjolf Saur and Hrafn the Dueller, so he went west to Breidafjord and settled on Oxen Island at Eirikstead.” That could be an entire movie, not a sentence! I get the sense you were sort of expanding these sagas into real-time?

Exactly. Everything is told in matter-a-fact rhythm. They build fort, they hunt, they eat. It’s abrupt and direct. Not much chit-chat. I also think that’s more or less how it was. When you have to work for survival and everyday existence is in question, you’re not going to be yapping it up. Maybe a little fireside conversation, but that’s about it. So that’s why the rhythm felt right.

That kind of rhythm’s clearly important to the look and feel of the film. Nothing overly grand about the characters’ clothes or the movie’s style. It’s stylish and really awe-inspiring at times but it also just feels like a bunch of dudes wandering around in the woods…which I guess is what they are?

Yes, they are. The dudes today are no different than 1000 years ago. They had their own vernacular as we do today. They did not speak in an English accent in semi-Shakespearian grammar as we usually see in a period piece. And everybody wasn’t a chieftain. There are a lot of stories that haven’t been told and slipped through the cracks about Joe Blow who didn’t make enough of an impact to have his story told but was trying to. And maybe the story of these Vikings would have been told if they were more successful. Their attempt at glory and having there name written in stone doesn’t work out and they fade into non-existence. The also have this religious fervor that encourages martyrdom, so risk-taking and dying in battle is encouraged, but it doesn’t always lead to much.

But I think you can read a lot into people by their physicality, how they walk, chop. I think it’s more accurate and fairer to the characters. I think it’s far more interesting to decipher characters by actions than words that conveniently tell you who these people are immediately and give you their backstory within five minutes of watching a movie. That’s not how life works.

Was there research done?

Yeah, there was. Went to a couple of reenactment camps, which actually further instilled the level of informality and practicality of the Vikings. Everything was very simple and basic, but highly functional, including their clothes. Day to day outfits were pants with drawstrings, kind of like sweatpants. They didn’t mend seams, so things frayed. Basically, unless you were a king, you didn’t have chain-mail or a some fancy red robe. You wore sweatpants made out of wool, and perhaps a tunic that looked like a dress. It’s kind of like that Monty Python line that you can tell he’s a king because he doesn’t have shit all over him.

Also, I’m fascinated with their building and construction. They were incredible carpenters with very basic tools. The boat building was highly advanced, and the sod houses and grass roofs are unbelievable. I think their systems are the ultimate guide for any serious future-primitive back-to-the-lander.

Between research and an actions-over-words style to the movie, you develop a core empathy with the Vikings’ thinking and way of life, free of modern-day oversensitivities and recontexualization.

The two Vikings are operating by a warrior code that has been ingrained in them by their culture and beliefs. But in crisis, the code frays and doubt sets in, exposing something within these archetypal male relationships. They are sensitive and, at times, fearful Vikings who aren’t always blowhard warriors. They have their insecurities. At the same time, these guys do what needs to be done to survive without hesitation. They’re quick to act, and violence is not something that is used sparingly.

When they meet the Monks, there’s a moment of excitement, as the Vikings have been alone for so long, but then they attack them and burn their shit down.

Right. There’s a perfectly good structure they could take over but there’s this automatic reaction that kicks in and they kill the Monks because they’re Vikings. That’s what Vikings do, they’re trained to kill the Monks. And as spectators, we’re trained for that action as well. There’s always an obvious solution that’s right in front of us, but we neglect to see it. That’s why these guys aren’t successful in their journey. There were a lot of dumb dudes that tried exploration and disappeared into thin air.

The approach to Christianity vs. Heathenism is really sophisticated. From a 21st-century intellectual perspective, it’d be easy to find a lot distasteful in both belief systems. But the arrival of Christianity here totally upends the movie. The raw visceralness of the movie exits to some extent once the Christians enter, which seems appropriate as everyone’s beliefs system is being challenged/confused.

Yes—the Christianity actually represents consciousness. I think there’s a dose of humanity between the Viking and the Monk. A simple act of friendship and intrigue, born from guilt. Volnard puts down the Sword for the Book, and there is this clarity in stepping back from the chaos and incessant violence. Volnard forgets about the quest for glory and they just exist in their surroundings and companionship.

And like so much in the movie, this is mainly conveyed through actions and images. Your recent short, Out of Our Minds, is told entirely through story and action. What’s the appeal of visual, almost strictly visual storytelling?

I think visual storytelling is kind of lost. Its either extreme action, or a very talkative indie or romance. Back to Michael Mann, I think the effect of his movies can just knock you out. The actual words are hardly ever important, like in Public Enemies. Your brain is just trying to play catch-up with all the visual information. It’s exhausting and rewarding. Severed Ways and Out of Our Minds are basically silent films. I was always loved the films of Dreyer, which I think Mann takes a lot of inspiration from. I feel like people are forgetting the power of images and not looking for visual metaphors within them. There’s so much to show and explain through the visuals, editing and simple pacing. Most films are spending most of their time figuring out how to frame a conversation. It’s pretty liberating to be free of that restraint.

And it seems to me, the way you made it too, shooting with a small crew in the woods, freed you of typical moviemaking “restraints.”

The idea was to get out and off the grid to make whatever we wanted. To listen to the surroundings, and let them dictate what and when we shot. No restrictions within isolation and immersion. We knew people might not get it or like it, but the idea was to experiment and do what felt right. We knew some would recognize what we were doing. In a way, I guess it’s kind of like making a dark black metal album. You make what you want, and don’t really give a fuck if anyone likes it. And there was such focus up in the woods. In Vermont, where we made the film, there was no internet or phone service, and only enough solar electricity to charge the camera batteries. It was severe isolation. So we were getting close to living like our characters—shitting in the woods, not showering, sleeping out doors, eating the food we killed in the film. The mundanity of the woods also started to make us crazy. They’re beautiful and endless, but that can start to feel claustrophobic because you can’t get out of them. They’re eternal.

Brandon Soderberg is author of the sites No Trivia, The Biographical Dictionary of Rap, and Are You a Serious Comic Book Reader?