Writer/director/star Tony Stone's "Severed Ways: The Norse Discovery of America" is almost certainly the only mini-DV American indie Viking film ever made. I defy you to name another one.
It's a story about two Vikings (one of whom is played by Stone) who are stranded in Newfoundland in 1007 A.D. and try to get back north to their expedition. Their trek through the woods pits them against nature, Native Americans and even Christianity.
The film also features a remarkable soundtrack loaded with black metal music by groups like Burzum and Dimmu Borgir as well as tracks by Popul Vuh, Brian Eno and Judas Priest among others. The use of modern music/DV technology in a film set a thousand years ago makes for an unusual experience.
You can read a full-length review of the film here.
Tony Stone was kind enough to take time out from editing his latest project to speak to me about "Severed Ways."
CHRISTOPHER LONG (CL): It's pretty rare that independent directors make historical films of any kind let alone Viking movies. When did you come up with the idea to take on this project, and what gave you the confidence to think you could pull it off?
TONY STONE (TS): I've always had those images in my mind from being in Vermont and listening to heavy metal music up there. If you listen to most heavy metal, especially black metal, those images come naturally to you. I always thought that would be an interesting clash to use, an anachronistic use of music over intimate, gritty images of nature which is really the experience of listening to that music in the woods.
I was always obsessed with this chapter of American history that has been forgotten and glossed over. We're still celebrating Columbus Day every year, so it seemed ridiculous that there was this story of discovery out there (that nobody knows about.) I also wanted to see that story for myself because that was something I was into. There haven't been any serious Viking movies about that chapter of history. The only ones are these ridiculous, shitty films from the 70s where they're running around with garbage pails and shields and they're in Bermuda. And I actually finished the movie before "Pathfinder" [A 2007 Viking film directed by Marcus Nispel] which is the movie since then that has dealt with the Vikings in the New World.
In terms of the confidence to do it, I wanted to tell this alternative history and tell it in an alternative way. Most period pieces are so sterile. I think being able to shoot on mini-DV gives you an intimacy you can't get most of the time on these big budget historical films because there's so much baggage from the costumes to the crew and spontaneity is a hard thing to capture. So I wanted to use video for its advantages to tell this alternative history and tell in a more intimate, personal way and to have the freedom to experiment and do what you want. When you're left to your own devices in the middle of the woods there's a lot of anarchy but I think that anarchy can be pretty refreshing.
CL: How large of a crew did you have?
TS: Pretty small. Two to four people depending on what was going on. Sometimes it was just me and a camera and the costume and the tripod. I ended up shooting 300 hours of footage for it and there's no way you can do that and experiment with it if you're shooting on 35mm or even more expensive HD. Mini-DV just allows you so much more freedom which is great for a first-time filmmaker.
CL: Even with a small crew and two main characters, this seems like a pretty complex shoot. How long did it take you to finish?
TS: I first thought, like a total novice, that I could shoot the film in two and a half weeks. I only ended up shooting about one-fifth of it. In the next year, I expanded the film and shot about eight to ten weeks. We went to Newfoundland and we visited L'anse aux Meadows where they actually unearthed evidence of a Viking settlement that was built by Leif Erickson [in 1000, seven years before "Severed Ways" takes place.] It's such a spectacular location, and that's where the flashback sequences in the film happened. We went to the coast of northern Maine and then settled down in Vermont for a very long chunk of time. There we fleshed things out and really had the time to try things out and take a naturalistic approach.
CL: And part of this was shot on your family home in Vermont?
TS: Yeah, my dad had the intuition to find a place to escape in the middle of Vermont back in 1969. He built a house in the middle of the woods: no road, no electricity. So it was perfect for the film and that isolation and immersion and really getting into the roles and being in the woods every day. Also, knowing them from when I was a child. I never needed to location scout. I always knew different parts of the woods that would be right for the scene in terms of light or lushness. It created an ideal opportunity.
CL: Had you read a lot of the Icelandic Sagas in preparing for the film?
S: Yeah, the Vinland sagas which is where the beginning of the film comes from. Also Njal's saga which is another great one which is more bonkers and extreme. It's amazing to me to me how few people know about the Vinland sagas because they're all about the early exploration of America with Leif Erickson. I think everyone in elementary school should be reading them because they're fascinating.
CL: Your character feels very much like a character out of the sagas where violence even from children was celebrated as a virtue.
TS: Yeah, he represents the automated kill switch-engaged blowhard Viking. There isn't much thinking. It's just an auto-pilot response for him. He solves everything through violence without second-guessing and is obsessed with his own glory and having his story written in stone. Whereas the other character [Volnard, played by Fiore Todesco] is a more thoughtful, pensive Viking who is entranced by the magic of Christianity. And Christianity is basically what unraveled the Vikings.
CL: The dialogue is dubbed in Old Norse, but you use idiomatic translations like "We're toast" "This fish is killer." Was that intended to have a little fun instead of making this so somber?
TS: To me there's more accuracy in it. The Vikings then obviously had their own vernacular, and maybe it wasn't exactly what I use but it might have been a similar thing that we wouldn't understand if you translated it literally. Granted it is totally absurd but it's almost truer in my mind. It's also a response to what you usually see in (historical) movies where they speak very formally and in English accents. To me, that's the most distracting thing.
CL: Your (predominantly black metal) soundtrack is killer too. How did you get the rights to so much great music on a low budget?
TS: I don't know. People were very understanding and very generous. Every single band. I set out to try to clear it and thought maybe I'd get half of it. And then to get Judas Priest and Brian Eno is such an honor. Most bands saw the film and, though I don't know personally, I guess they were into it and understood the financial constraints. It took a lot of time but we managed to do it all and not change anything which is pretty incredible.
CL: Black metal, at least in Norway, has been associated with a string of (Christian) church burnings. Your film features a church burning. Is this a coincidence?
TS: No, not a coincidence. It's more like saying that we're in the same plight now as they were then. There's still a lot of religious fervor and misunderstanding. We're using Norwegian music and the music scene that's responsible for about 60 church burnings in the 90s and recontextualizing it on American soil. It's a matter of trying to bridge the gap between the past and present.
CL: Burzum's "Tomhet" is the song you use as the main theme. It's a great piece. What made you choose that?
TS: It's a very deep emotional track. He actually made that track in jail, in the late 90s I think. It's a track I was listening to while we were making the film and it really felt right. There's something very powerful about his music. He epitomizes this modern day Viking character. He was in jail for church burning and murder. If people know that, that might change the way you see the subtext of the movie.
CL: What song plays while the church is burning?
TS: That's Dimmu Borgir. They're more straightforward heavy triumphant metal that backs up the characters' belief system.
CL: Do you have a soundtrack available yet?
TS: Not yet. It's a difficult thing to deal with different record labels and trying to coordinate that. Everybody was so generous already I don't know if I want to push them any further. Down the road perhaps.
CL: In addition to black metal and Eno, you also have some great music from Popul Vuh. What made you think they would go together well on a black metal soundtrack?
TS: I think it comes from the same place. To me, there's some sort of pagan aesthetic that's deep in them. Popul Vuh represents a force of nature, the Earth in a way. Which is also in a class with metal when it gets more ambient. I don't know if people even know that most of that (ambient music) is made by heavy metal musicians. Metal is classical music cranked up and distorted, and I think there are classical elements sonically and vocally in Popul Vuh as well, the same rhythm and the same pulse.
CL: Speaking of Popul Vuh, a lot of critics have compared your film in some ways to Werner Herzog's "Aguirre" which is a pretty tough comparison. Was this one of the films that inspired you?
TS: Absolutely. I admire directors who are about immersion. Herzog just throws you in the middle of the chaos of the jungle and you're living like the characters are living. In "Aguirre" when they're filming the scene on a raft on the Amazon there's another two rafts behind that the cast and crew are living on. That's something I'm really into, trying to get some authenticity and intensity and really putting yourself out there. There's also an absurdism that comes through in it, picking these impossible tasks that characters think they can solve when they really can't.
CL: You went to Bard College. Did you study with (avant garde directors) like Peggy Ahwesh and Peter Hutton?
TS: Yeah, Peter Hutton, Peggy Ahwesh, Adolfas Mekas. If you know those filmmakers, "Severed Ways" might be the film they all make together. It's got a bit of every one of them. Adolfas Mekas' "Hallelujah the Hills" (1963) was a big influence. It's about a couple of beatniks in Vermont that he made in the early 60s. It's a great film that's kind of lost but it's about a similar situation where he and his friends make this film in the woods. Different themes and feel, but definitely a big inspiration.
The great thing about the program is that it's very avant-garde and there are no rules. It's just about appreciating a work ethic. You get to experiment and learn from completely different film makers and figure out what you like and want to show.
CL: But "Severed Ways" is definitely a narrative film. Was that an exception at Bard?
TS: Yes. Most people were non-narrative, but non-narrative involves such variety. So it was inspiring to work with such different film makers. The good thing about working with Peter Hutton is that he's somebody devoted to perfect images. When you're with him you're doing all these studies of things. There's a focus on the natural world in front of you and trying to capture that in the right way.
[Note: Oscilloscope Laboratories released the DVD of "Wendy and Lucy" (2008) with several short films by Bard College faculty, including Peter Hutton.]
CL: In the Peter Hutton films I've seen, the pleasure in his films is simply to sit and stare at some beautiful images for their own sake, and you have moments like that too, especially the long nature shots.
TS: Yes. And to immerse too. I think of Severed Ways as an experience more than anything else, putting you in the natural world along with these characters. A lot of it is from the viewpoint of the woods.
CL: Is the idea of immersion why you included some of the extras on the DVD, like the film loops of four elements?
TS: Definitely. It's an extension of the yule log. Taking the four elements and let them extend and stay in that mindset even after the film is completed.
CL: Do you think this is a film that, much like "2001: A Space Oddysey," could be the "ultimate trip" for viewers who are so inclined?
TS: That would be my dream come true. There's another tagline for "2001" that uses three words that all mean the same thing [Ed. Note: "An epic drama of adventure and exploration"] that would be perfect for "Severed Ways."
But it's a film that isn't for everybody. If you're not engaged and ready for a different rhythm you'll be confused and wonder what the point of it all is. But it's an experience and it's a trip and you can either be in it or out of it.
CL: That split definitely showed up with the critics. Manohla Dargis gave you a good write-up but most critics haven't been kind. Does that mean anything to you?
TS: Not so much. Anything I've liked most people haven't liked at first or never have. And the film isn't for everybody. If you're used to watching the kind of mainstream indie film that people usually put out and you pick up this, not everyone will be into it. It is an underground film in a lot of ways. I think it will find its audience. It's a quiet but blaring heavy metal nature film that doesn't scream universal intrigue and interest. It's like any other heavy metal album. Most people hate metal. It has that same love/hate reaction. I think that as the metal community picks up on it, people that have an understanding of the heavy metal spirit will definitely understand the film.
CL: Are you working on anything else right now?
TS: Just finishing and getting out there this film "Out of Our Minds." It's a 30-minute fantasy rock... trip, let's say. There are three different time periods that come together and overlap. It has no dialogue and it's a 30-minute mini-epic.
CL: Are you eager to dive into another feature film?
TS: Absolutely. "Severed Ways" has probably gone on too long for me. This film was done in 2005 so, you know, it takes so long to get it out especially when you do it on your own. Finding the right people to shepherd it along to festivals, clearing the music, and the distribution [Ed. Note: Magnolia picked up the distribution rights]. So I'm definitely ready to move on now.
CL: Is there anything else you'd like to tell our readers?
TS: Well, watch the movie. (Laughs.) If you're into archaic ways, you'll be into "Severed Ways." If you're into physicality, this might interest you. But it's not for everybody.
CL: If everybody liked it, you'd know you did something wrong.
TS: Exactly. And people who get it love it. I'd rather be on the extremes than be right in the middle.
CL: You definitely managed that. Thanks for your time.