An Interview with Tony Stone, director of Severed Ways: The Norse Discovery of America
by Jeff Reichert

Indie DIY, as cobbled together into a series by New York’s IFC Center a few years back, is having a bit of a stuttering, awkward second wind after seemingly falling out of fashion. New films from Swanberg, Bujalski, and others will see U.S. premieres at this weekend’s SXSW Film Festival, and the “movement,” such as it was or is, is being argued over by the likes of David Denby, Glenn Kenny, and Richard Brody. Never mind that some critics are revealing themselves as ignorant of film history by comparing Joe Swanberg to Maurice Pialat or Philippe Garrel—when the old guard picks up the banner for a new trend, it’s a sign that the novelty party’s over and mumblecore has now seeped into “the culture.” Look for Alexander the Last (Swanberg) or Beeswax (Bujalski) in New York Magazine’s Approval Matrix any day now.

As with any nominal grouping, some of the films are good, some are bad, most are god-awful, so it’s a pity this lot’s making all the waves as I much prefer the full-bore DIY ethics of Tony Stone, who not only took paltry funds and turned out a viking epic called Severed Ways: The Norse Discovery of America, but did so by ditching out of NYC and living the Norse lifestyle in Vermont for long stretches over a couple of years. Stone stars as one of the pair of lost vikings, directs, kills and cooks a chicken, terrorizes a monk, burns a church (that he built himself), and even has a healthy bowel movement on camera. Do it yourself, indeed. [Full disclosure: During 2008, my final year working for Magnolia Pictures, the distributor of Severed Ways, I had the good fortune to meet Tony and participate on the release of his film. I wished for its success then as I do now. ]

Reverse Shot: I’m sure you’ve followed the “mumblecore” movement a bit—there’s something funny to me about this group of guys of about the same age and general demographic as you who got together a little bit of money to make movies and created a movement with pretty circumscribed aims while Tony Stone makes a viking movie. How did that happen?

Tony Stone: I think that stuff represents—and no offense to the filmmakers—exactly what I didn’t want to do. That sort of twentysomething romantic entanglement story is something I wanted to get as far away from as possible. I don’t want to knock all those filmmakers—every genre has highs and lows—but there are more important issues out there to deal with like the state of our natural surroundings, the collapse of civilizations. Not that Severed Ways fully deals with all of this stuff or even makes those concerns really apparent.

RS: Can you describe the production process -- from what I’ve heard it was a bit, well, unorthodox.

TS: I grew up in New York City, but spent three or four months a year out in rural Vermont completely off the grid. There’s no electricity at all—it’s complete isolation. So I’ve always had this dichotomy between being super rural and super urban. Filming in New York has so many limitations so it was appealing to work somewhere completely open-ended where you could do whatever the fuck you wanted. That was really important. Creating a process that would dictate your product.

RS: It’s interesting, and not to harp on this whole mumblecore-vs.-Severed Ways idea, but there are a bunch of new films and articles going around and the stuff’s been in my head -- the things you’re saying about control, about getting off the grid, sound similar. But I think the grids are really dissimilar.

TS: It’s an interesting way to make a movie—outdoors, using only natural light. I wanted to make a film with limited resources but on a grand scale. It was important to look for pure natural beauty, and we shot in incredible places, from Newfoundland to Maine before settling in Vermont. You can make all the noise you want, build things up, burn them down. It was a great way to begin filmmaking.

RS: Almost as if you made your own little lab.

TS: It’s like a backlot, and we’ve filmed a bunch of things there since then. It’s a very green way to make a movie. Film is so wasteful, and we don’t have that luxury any more. Part of this process was finding a sort of “back-to-the-land” filmmaking. It’s something to keep in mind and more movies should be shot that way. The intimacy, the isolation, the DV shooting—it’s all about dropping all the baggage of production scale, costumes, huge cameras, power.

RS: Let’s talk a little bit about the visuals. I was impressed with the different modes of DV you employ—in the beginning, that really crunchy high shutter-speed stuff, the hazier imagery towards the end. It seems like a conscious effort to push what that medium can do.

TS: Those cameras can be amazing—there are so many tools within them, and we wanted to utilize all of DV’s advantages and flaws, whether it was shooting into the light or playing with contrast. Visual flaws can articulate the right feel and we spent a lot of time figuring out for each scene where we should go with the image.

RS: You’re using them not just because the cameras are cheap, or lightweight . . .

TS: No, but having the camera and being able to just grab it and shoot when the light was right helped us to achieve a certain intimacy. You can take more risks and since the story is told largely through visuals this was the primary goal. In the beginning the image is super-crisp and on the big screen it’s shaky—you’re terrified and off-balance like the characters. As the film goes on and gets into nature it slows down and is shot from the point of view of the trees and the woods. It becomes more anthropological, almost zoologicial. As the characters get more lost they’re passing to the point where their existence will be snuffed out. We wanted to use this forest as a kind of temporary stage that, like all of us someday, will just dissolve into the abyss.

RS: How seriously are we supposed to take all of this? Early in the film you have a shot in which a man stands on a tree trunk holding two axes headbanging to Dimmu Borgir, while a title card underneath of him reads “Camp.” Are you tweaking us?

TS: Sure. My favorite films are generally very multidimensional, and you can take them on a range of levels. The fact is that everything is absurd. Humanity is absurd. You could laugh at us having this conversation right now. But you can also identify with the saga, the human struggle. You can watch a Herzog film or Barry Lyndon and they’re epic in scale but they’re also hilarious and you can tune the humor out or in. The greats have always walked that line. It’s also about hitting on a certain excessiveness—finding a place that’s awesome and bitching and funny. The appeal of heavy metal is the same. I feel that everything I like ends up having this kind of duality. Watching Severed Ways sober and stoned would probably be completely different experiences. It’s probably less funny stoned. Both with heavy metal and vikings, you expect this bonehead silly thing, but we wanted to give it some sort of authenticity and grit. This produced music is an anachronistic element, but it also reinforces the belief system of these vikings.

RS: Tell me a little bit more about the music.

TS: Heavy metal and vikings have always had this sort of connection—the warrior spirit, the harshness, the visuals of battle, the pagan side. The music is hard and rough and trying at times, but that’s what the physical world is; that’s how we used to live. Metal describes something of another time. It’s a very emotional music that’s more like classical music in the way it recalls history. It’s also just music we were listening to while making the movie. We were out headbanging to that stuff, so somehow it all melded together and works. I listen to a Hollywood score for, say, Lord of the Rings and it’s just bullshit to me. What does this music have to do with what we’re seeing? You don’t think of vikings or battle. People who are making metal music are picking up on the same shit that’s in the film. Maybe differently, but they are writing with these visuals in their head.

RS: So, I’m guessing reactions have been all over the map, eh?

TS: It seems like a love or hate thing. I can’t really tell sometimes.

RS: When you were making the film did you conceive of an audience, who this might be for outside of metal fans? Or is that out of the equation?

TS: Not completely, but I felt very much that I had to make whatever I wanted, and if I failed doing it, so be it. But some people who have similar ideas and tastes really get what I’m trying to do, others just don’t. I just wanted to do something different, not for the sake of being different, but it just happened to be what I wanted to do; being in Vermont, being with your friends, being with the music you love, being with things you’re comfortable with, and experimenting. We should make movies based on the experiences that you want to live.

RS: John Cassavetes said to make movies about where you want to be.

TS: And Michael Mann—he shoots what he wants to see. That was one of the best parts of the movie—just spending time out in the woods in the fall. In these beautiful woods, you get kind of hypothermic by the end, but the idea was to connect with the land and make films in a different way. It was intense, but it was a blast.

RS: Do you ever see a point at which you might take yourself away from the manner in which you like making films and impose some restrictions and limit yourself in some way just to see what happens?

TS: Well, each film does have its own set of rules. The new film I made, a short called Out of Our Minds, is completely different. The first couple of days making it, I had to get out of the Severed Ways thing and find the voice of the new film. Bergman, even though you could look at his body of work and just say, “Oh, all those films are the same,” he said he was a different person for every single film. And I think that’s completely right. You don’t want to be stubborn. What does the project require? There’s always the journey.