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Talking Metalheads with Ragnar Bragason

I talked with the director of Metalhead about metal and melancholy.

The Icelandic film Metalhead premieres tonight in Sweden followed by Norway, Finland and Denmark within the next couple of weeks. The film has gained a rare pre-premiere popularity, which probably is due to that at least 70% of the Nordic population has some kind of relationship with rock and metal music, alongside an unexplainable melancholy embedded in the Nordic mentality. Despite what the movie poster might suggest, it's actually a drama dealing with heavy topics such as loss and grief that takes place on a remote farm in Iceland. As a 12-year-old, the heroine of the film, Hera, witnesses her metal rocker of a brother Baldur as he dies in a tractor accident. She spends her teenage years adopting his lifestyle, struggeling with relationships with everybody in the small society surounding her. If metal has been important to you at some point in your life, Metalhead is probably the film you've been waiting for without knowing you ever had. I had a chat with director Ragnar Bragason on Skype about the film. This is our conversation.


VICE: Hey Ragnar, are you in Reykjavik?

Ragnar Bragason:


I thought you were touring with your film.

I just got home yesterday.

How has it been?

It's been great, I just got back from Glasgow and the Glasgow Film Festival.

How was the film received there?

Very good. The Scottish are so similar to us, so they were great.

I find it really Nordic, or I related to the film a lot. Partly because of the music, which is pretty universal, but also because of the melancholy within Hera, the main character.

Yeah, it has that Scandinavian melancholy. But it's dealing with universal things like family as well. Everybody goes through these things at some point in their lives – trauma or dealing with difficult issues. So I get great response wherever I go. It doesn't matter if it's in Korea or Brazil or Scotland. It's been good everywhere and people can relate to it in one way or another.

Did you use metal as a way of balancing sad, dramatic, and kind of "cheesy" topics, if you know what I mean?

Yes a little bit. Because metal music is usually dealing with world issues, or serious issues. So it's kind of a counter balance to that, you know. It was one of the reasons I set out to do this. I mean I'm an old metalhead myself, and this is my fifth film, but I've been looking for a story to tell where I can involve metal music for quite some time. I wanted to do it in a serious way. Because usually when you have metal or metalheads in a film there are usually more the exaggerated elements of metal, with humor and ridiculous elements. And I didn't want to do that. I wanted to incorporate the music in a serious fashion.


So how much of the film is based on your own life?

A little bit of it. The main character has elements of myself within her. Of course I'm not a girl. It's not an autobiographical film although it has things in it that I've dealt with.

How come you as a man chose to have a girl as your heroine?

I was looking for a story and I only had a few notions of what it would be about. But it wasn't until I met Þorbjörg Helga, the actress that I got it. I was pitching at a workshop at the Art Academy in Iceland and she was in the theatre department. I did a workshop for them for five weeks, and she has this natural talent to do films, and the idea kind of sprung from that. I started thinking that it would be interesting to have a girl-metalhead. I had an image in my head of a girl with a guitar surrounded by cows. Cows are such beautiful creatures you know – they're oval-shaped and soft and very earthy. And they produce milk. Very feminine in a way. So I thought it'd be interesting to have a girl with a pointy guitar, dressed in leather in the middle of that surronding. So it's a combination of different things.

I did various versions of the script. In the first draft of the script it's more about the history of heavy metal through her. She was born at the same moment as Black Sabbath recorded their first album – when they were doing that first guitar chord in the London studio at Regent Street in january 1970. So originally I had more of the history of metal – and some of it is still there, such as the


black metal church burnings

and stuff like that. But when I started working with the actors it got more focused on the thing that the family is going through.

Did Þorbjörg Helga know how to play guitar?

I gave her a call a year and a half before we made the film and asked her if she knew how to play guitar. She didn't. I mean she knew a few chords on an acoustic guitar. So I told her "We will do this film in a year and a half, so you have to start practicing now." And she did! She was very determined to get it right.

So she's actually playing in the film?

Yeah, yeah. Most of it. She had two teachers. And then we had a great black metal band called Angist, with two girls playing guitar and singing. They allowed her to hang out with them in their rehearsing room and took her through the moves and everything.

VICE has made a film about the church arsons that you mention in the film. Did you use real footage?
Yeah, we actually got the footage from NRK, which is Norway's state broadcaster. So yeah, it's real. And one of the things I watched when I researched the film was your documentary, True Norwegian Black Metal, a couple of times. And I looked in your books and everything. That's fantastic. Is that why her make-up is so similar to the make-up the guys in TNBM have?
Yeah. Has metal ever been a huge part of the culture in Iceland in the same way that it's been in Norway and Sweden?
I wouldn't say big. Metal has always been kind of an outsider's culture. And when I was growing up it was really hard to get hold of albums, so I had to order them from London and stuff. It was really hard to get them in the record stores in Iceland. We had very few metal bands in Iceland, maybe two or three. But today the metal scene is getting bigger and bigger. It's not more mainsteram, but I think it's more accepted in a way. I think music genres fuse more today than what they did 25 years ago. A lot of bands are fusing metal with post-rock or whatever. I think it's more varied today than what it used to be. It's more hip and cool to listen to mellow music today than what it was 30 years ago.   I get you. In the scene when Hera's brother Baldur dies, was there a particular reason to why you chose to have his hair stuck in the tractor?
Yeah. It's one of those things that got stuck in my head from when I was a kid. I remember a news story about a long-haired kid who had this happening to him. And that got stuck with me. As a kid, I was really scared to go to farms in the countryside and watch all the machinery. I always thought about this piece of information from the paper or something about that kid having his hair stuck in the drive shaft of a tractor. So that was probably one of the first scenes of the movie that came to me. And maybe he would have survived if he didn't have that long hair. I thought it was pretty strong as well because long hair is typically associated with metal music.
Yes, definitely. Can you tell me something fun that happened when you shot the film?
It was a pretty nice shoot. But it was a bit hard to shoot in the middle of the winter in the countryside. We had to stay outside for long periods of time and spend a lot of time on the road. But I'll tell you about something that isn't funny at all. I really wanted to have snow in the film. But the location I chose for the film, the farm – and I had no idea about this: My set director went out looking for places and got back with photos, and one photo was of this farm and it was covered in snow and ice. So I though that this was the perfect place. But he scouted that location on the only day it had snowed for the past four years. So we had a problem with no snow in the film. We were shooting in November and December 2012, and waited to January and February to get those snow scenes, but it never snowed! So all the snow in the film is post-production. Oh, you wouldn't expect that to happen in Iceland.
No that's really weird.

And sad. Thanks, Ragnar!

Metalhead premieres in Sweden today. Check out the Facebook page for updates and other premiere dates.