It was lights, cameras, and non-stop action throughout the heart of downtown Toronto’s theatre district, as the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) once again glamoured up the city. TIFF is one of the most prestigious film festivals in the industry, widely regarded as the kickoff to the Oscar race. It’s also an exceptionally popular event among Toronto’s population, eager to catch the newest movies before anyone else (of the 366 presentations at TIFF this year, 93% of them were World, International, or North American debuts).
TIFF is more than just movies, however. There are parties every night and plenty of events for industry, press, and the average moviegoer. It was at one of these parties that I met Ragnar Bragason, the award winning Icelandic director and screenwriter. He was in town for the debut of his latest film, Metalhead (which I reviewed here), and was happy to set up an interview. So a couple days later, I joined my colleague Nikki Sin from the Wax Museum for a wide-ranging conversation with Mr. Bragason and Þorbjörg Helga Dyrfjörð, lead actress from the film. Read on to find out about what they thought of TIFF and Toronto, what their favourite metal songs are, and what tattoo Ragnar got when he was 16.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
What do you think of TIFF so far?
Ragnar: Oh, TIFF’s been great so far, it’s just an amazing festival to see how many people are around and doing screenings. It’s amazing. I’m still kind of getting off that cloud after the premiere, such good feedback. People seemed to enjoy the film, so I’m really really happy with it.
This isn’t your first time at TIFF, is it?
Ragnar: No, I came here in 2001 and made the attempt at premiering my first feature film. But disaster struck that day, Sept 11th 2001, so my premiere was postponed, the festival was in a state of total disarray the whole week, so this was my first experience of premiering a film here. You know, twelve years later.
Well welcome back.
Ragnar: (Laughs) Thank you.
So the film of course is Metalhead.
And you both wrote and directed the film, is that right?
Ragnar: That’s right.
Did you have a particular inspiration that drove you to create this film?
Ragnar: Well it’s a combination of things, it’s one of those things where I had been looking for a few years for a story to incorporate this music I love and grew up with. I’ve been trying to incorporate that into a story. But I don’t like to force things, so it took a long time you know, slowly it came. I usually don’t sit down to write until I have a story mapped out in my head. I don’t like writing unless I know where I’m going. So it’s a combination of my love of the music, and also I wanted to do something kind of rurual, go into that kind of community, because most of my stuff has been set in the city.
Did you grow up in city?
Ragnar: No, I actually grew up in a very small village in the north of Iceland, in a remote part of Iceland. There are some similarities from my own life and the main character, and the story I’m telling.
So this was almost like a homecoming?
Ragnar: Yeah a little bit. I don’t know why, but as you turn older and make more films, I think they become a little more personal maybe, you tend to kind of, maybe not analyze but try to discover who you are and where you’re going and where you come from. So I think that’s a part of it.
Now I’m typically a music journalist, so I’m very interested to hear about your love of metal. Could you elaborate on that?
Ragnar: Well, I bought my first metal album when I was like 10, turning 11, it was Iron Maiden’s “The Number Of The Beast.” And the reason is I saw one song on a TV show in Iceland and I’d never heard anything like it. Then I went with my mother past the record store and saw the album cover in the window and I kind of pestered her into buying the album for me. So that’s kind of where it started. I spent most of my teenage years collecting heavy metal albums and listening to lots of metal and buying all the metal magazines I could find, and doing that postal thing, going to the post office and writing a cheque and sending it off to London and getting an album back a few weeks or months later. So that was kind of, and still is kind of my hobby; I mean I spent like 400$ on records today you know, found a lot of cool obscure metal from the 80s, so I’m still collecting.
So how’s the metal scene in Iceland?
Ragnar: The metal scene actually is getting very lively at the moment, we have a lot of really cool metal bands getting recognition everywhere, bands like Solstafir, Skalmold, Angist, they’re like the new kind of metal bands. Yeah and we have this metal festival once a year, just Icelandic bands usually, and it’s growing. It’s some kind of resurgence I think in metal music.
So do you have a band?
Ragnar: No, I actually played in a band when I was like thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, you know, but I was a terrible musician, I had no talent for it. So when I discovered film that was kind of like, at least I could do something right (laughs).But really, if I would have been able to make that choice I’d probably be a musician. Because I think music is probably the most perfect type of art form, it can have such an impact and such an emotional effect on people, because a good three minute song can do more than big novel.
Ok, I have to ask – favourite metal band?
Ragnar: Well like I said my first one was Iron Maiden so probably Iron Maiden, but I like a lot of bands, especially bands from the 70s and 80s like Judas Priest and Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath, all the originators, Motorhead… and then of course the big 80s bands like Slayer, Metallica, stuff like that, Megadeath. Yeah, a lot of cool metal bands.
I know your films have been featured in numerous other International film festivals in the past including your homeland of Iceland, and even Cairo. How does TIFF compare to other festivals?
Ragnar: Usually I like the intimate small festivals where you meet people, but the thing here is it’s so well organized they have these gatherings where you actually meet the filmmakers, which I think is so important, you don’t get lost in the shuffle, it’s very organized because hey have this long history so it feels personal but it’s so big.
It has a lot of heart too?
Ragnar: Yeah it does, you get a feeling when you’re sitting there in the audience you can see they really care about it, sometimes people don’t really care about film but here you get the impression they really care. The reaction was very positive.
You seem to have established quite the director-actor connection, which is always very important in film. How do you think that affected the overall outcome of the picture?
Ragnar: Probably the most important thing, as a director you need to build up a good working relationship with your cast, that’s the key factor in doing something that works, to get to the truth of things the actor needs to feel comfortable in his work and I think that you know the amount of time you spend with the actors discussing the parts, developing the characters it’s really important.
I have to ask, what’s your favourite metal song?
Ragnar: “Victim of Change” by Judas Priest is in the film, I tried to get an Iron Maiden song because it’s my fave band but they have this philosophy to not let their music be in films, I really wanted to have “Children of the Damned” in the film. “Heaven and Hell” by Black Sabbath, so many great songs.
Þorbjörg Helga Dyrfjörð: So hard to choose one song, but in terms of the times, I really like the classics like in the beginning, really love Black Sabbath’s album “Black Sabbath.”
How do you believe an international audience will be able to connect to the film?
Ragnar: You never know what the reactions gonna be, the only thing you can do is make the best film you can at that time and it’s up to somebody else some higher force to make people react to it. Even though it’s Icelandic and takes place in Iceland I think it’s kind of universal, it has this core element of family and everybody has a family. It’d be interesting to see in different cultures but I think the western world everyone can relate to it.
The film has a pretty gritty look and feel to it and tells a tale of grief, at any point did you think “this might be too heavy for me”?
Þorbjörg Helga Dyrfjörð: oh, that’s a good question! Yeah I think at the beginning when you first show up, you haven’t yet become the character, but then you start to shoot and then you’re not afraid of anything because that’s what the character would do. And I had a good director. And also the woman who plays my mother and the man who plays my father are really well known actors in Iceland who have done a lot of work, so it was also very nice knowing that they have all this experience and they could help me out.
So it was beneficial to have mentors on set?
Ragnar: Yeah, we had a family sort of feeling throughout the whole filming, everyone was very in tune to make that film.
Þorbjörg Helga Dyrfjörð: Also because we had a lot of preparation and we met a lot before going on set and talked about it, and debated it so I think that was a good thing, so then I came on set and I knew we could just start to work.
So it’s difficult to just show up and act?
Ragnar: Definitely, I’ve spent a lot of time not just with the main actors but even people in smaller roles, meet up with them and discuss the scenes and what we’re going to do with them. I think it’ terrible for an actor to just show up on set, having learned his line but not knowing what he’s gonna do or what the director wants. I think it’s important for the director to share his vision on the style and substance of everything beforehand, so everybody’s in the same tuning.
It’s clear that the connection between actors and directors is so important, it will really show if there’s no connection.
Þorbjörg Helga Dyrfjörð: We could also talk about August, about how during shooting…
Ragnar: Yeah our cinematographer, August Jakobsson, I shot my first feature film with him in 2000, and his background is he started out as a music video cinematographer, he did a lot of Guns and Roses and Nirvana and all kinds of 80s and early 90s stuff. He spent two years on tour with Guns and Roses, he made the documentary on their big tour. So he had this kind of rock mentality.
Þorbjörg Helga Dyrfjörð: See even there I could get inspiration from him, so that was awesome, he had this background and understood the story.
It’s incredible to work with someone like that.
Ragnar: Yeah he was on tour for two and a half years , documenting them, just following them everywhere.
Þorbjörg Helga Dyrfjörð: He would say things to me all the time like, “well Axl Rose would do it like this…”
What’s next for you guys then?
Ragnar: Next project? I actually did my first play last year in Iceland. The theater director in one of the two big theaters in Iceland brought me in last year for writing and directing a play last year, my first one. and it was big success so they asked me to do another one. So I’m doing a new one that will premiere at the end of January. So I’m actually in the middle of writing it right now.
Think Toronto will give you any inspiration?
Ragnar: (laughs) Not for this particular piece no. But actually it’s another story, but I got an idea for a new film here on Saturday. So we’ll see what happens. I went into a basement here and there I met people and they’ll probably end up as characters in some film in the future.
What about you, what’s next for you?
Þorbjörg Helga Dyrfjörð: I think we’ll have to see when I get home, we haven’t yet premiered it in Iceland, so we have like a month before we premiere there, so I don’t really know now. But I’m gonna just focus on premiering it in Iceland and see what happens.
That’s really exciting. Also exciting that we got it first.
Ragnar: I mean she was just finishing another film actually.
Þorbjörg Helga Dyrfjörð: Yeah we actually just finished on Saturday before coming here. It was totally different. It was kind of nice to do it because Hera [the lead character from Metalhead] has been with me for such a long time, preparing and then the filming, so this was the first part I did after Hera so it was kind of nice to like say goodbye to her in a way because it was a totally different part I play. But now I say hello to her again, I was seeing it for the first time here in Toronto.
Have you ever done a horror movie?
Ragnar: No I haven’t, but you never know.
Þorbjörg Helga Dyrfjörð: I’ve been in a zombie movie, the only Icelandic zombie short film.
Ragnar: It was excellent actually. But I’m a big horror fan, I watch a lot of horror movies. It’s one of my hobbies.
I love Cronenberg, Cooper, Carpenter of course I think is one of my favourites, I was just watching The Brute by Cronenberg last weekend… all the original classics like Texas Chainsaw massacre, The Shining, The Exorcist, you know, Reanimator, the obscure low budget trauma stuff from the 80s, I watch it all.
Horror films are notorious for fan art, including tattoos. How would you feel if somebody got a tattoo of one of your movies or characters?
Ragnar: Oh my god, I have no idea.
Would you consider getting a tattoo of your own film?
Ragnar: No, I actually have a tattoo from a horror type character on my own body, but it’s not from my own film though.
Well now we’ve got to know…
Ragnar: The tattoo is the Joker from the Batman films, got it when I was 16, I went to a heavy metal festival in England in 88, so that was my first tattoo.
There’s quite a circuit of festivals isn’t there? Like TIFF is obviously a big one, but there’s a whole circuit to go through. It’s almost like touring in music, like a band does.
Ragnar: It is, like I’m going to Korea in a few weeks time, going to Brazil in October, Scandinavia and Germany in January, so it’s all over the place. There are festivals everywhere, all over the world.
Are they all as awesome as TIFF?
Ragnar: No, actually not. (laughs) Usually the spirit is there, but sometimes it’s not, you know, especially if you go to a festival where there is no culture of ordinary people going into cinemas. I really like the festivals where just the average person buys a ticket and goes to see the films, that’s much much nicer.
Words: Tim Ellis