it’s strange to say now, but when we first thought about making a film of sigur ros we didn’t immediately consider iceland. the band hadn’t toured the country this century, and the crowds in, say, portugal were so very excitable that our minds were initially elsewhere. at some point, however, kjartan mentioned that he’d had always had a notion that they should play a show in the national park at asbyrgi in the far north of iceland, and we latched upon this as a sign.
so, three years ago, in the middle of 2004, we made a reconnaissance trip to this strange canyon just shy of the arctic circle, to check midsummer day light levels and think about how we might stage such an event. in the end, we decided the midnight sun would be too bright for a film incorporating the band’s onstage lights and visuals, and the shoot was conceptually pushed back a few weeks to late july, to allow for some dark to creep into proceedings, but hopefully not so far as to make it too cold to play outdoors at night.
we couldn’t shoot the following summer because the ‘takk” album was about to come out and the band’s calendar was full of artwork deadlines and the like, and anyway they hadn’t played live for ages and would be too rusty to film. so instead we settled on the very end of the touring period, a whole year later, in the summer of 2006.
slowly the idea mushroomed. seasoned icelandic all-rounder, kari sturluson came in on the creative and logistical side, and gradually more locations were added – inevitably including a hometown show in reykjavik – til we had a full tour of the island in our sights. since certain shows had to be free for practical reasons, it was decided to make every stop on the tour free, and for sigur ros to roll into town with something like their full production, regardless of local facilities (or lack thereof) and the sheer expense and folly of the exercise. only two of the shows, reykjavik and oxnadalur were publicly announced, with the other smaller community hall show and asbyrgi relying purely on word-of-mouth.
in the event, the open-door policy worked amazingly well, with people of all ages, who would never have normally bought a ticket for a sigur ros show, just coming along to check it out. as the tour went round it gained a semi-mythical status, with the biggest national daily, morgunbladid, saying in an editorial that this was some kind of gift that was joining the nation together at an important time.
we stopped at many amazing places on the two-week jaunt around the country, some with audiences and some without. a disused herring factory at djupavik, with its strange circular fish-oil tanks in which jonsi sang ‘gitardjamm’; a lonely protest camp against the building of a dam in the pristine wilderness; a traditional ‘thorrablot’ meal with an audience of pagans, among them.
although the band wanted a visual record of the live show with which they had just toured the world, we also wanted to deliver a different kind of experience of watching sigur ros than you get in a gig venue. many people watch sigur ros with their eyes closed (sic) and enjoy the show as an overall experience. what we wanted was to move the camera in much closer and reveal what was actually going on on stage.
we watched a lot of rock (and non-rock) films in trying to work out what we did and didn’t want to do in making what turned out to be ‘heima’. we liked ‘jazz on a summer’s day’, ‘pink floyd live in pompeii’ and ‘walkabout’. we didn’t like ‘travis live at t in the park’. both ‘pompeii’ and ‘jazz” had amazing close-up photography that felt almost invasively intimate, the cutting was minimal and any camera motion ‘ and there was little – was at snail’s pace. all these things were great. plus ‘jazz” also made amazing use of the audience at the 1958 newport festival.
from nic roeg’s debut ‘walkabout’ we saw a way of making an ostensibly beautiful environment look annihilatingly huge, a place where humans really had little right to be, which is how iceland had always seemed to us on our way round. in order to do this, we put aside any ideas of using american or european directors (we’d talked to a few), who might find the clich’d lures of volcanoes, geysers and the blue lagoon too irresistible, and went instead for an all- icelandic crew, collected around local producer and man-who-can, finni johansson.
we filmed eight shows, ranging from the smallest (snaefell protest camp – incidentally the first time the band had ever played acoustically anywhere) to the biggest shows of the band’s career (reykjavik was the largest show ever in iceland with around 25,000 people, with even premier league football cancelled for the day), in addition to filming a bunch of locations without audiences.
denni karlsson, the director of the summer filming, started the editing process in the early autumn, but the initial results fell somewhat short of the grand expectations we had had in trying to follow the footsteps of some of the most enduring music films ever made. we played around with the footage for months, trying to get a proper film out of it, before admitting that what we had was a bunch of pretty performances without much of a narrative thread to hold it together. meanwhile, on a parallel track, we were talking to a guy called dean deblois, a canada-by-way-of-hollywood dude, who’d written and directed ‘lilo & stitch’, and was asking us if we might want to get involved with a forthcoming animation feature.
we’d met dean the previous autumn at our hollywood bowl show and knew he was a keen fan of the band. so we didn’t feel too bad asking him for some advice with how to progress a movie that’s hitting the creative buffers. we knew he’d been head of story at disney and figured he might be able to give us some pointers. we sent him the 120 hours of footage we’d shot in the summer and he spent a weekend staring at a computer screen. he also read the tour diary written at the time of the tour on the band’s fan-site, and for the first time worked out what exactly we’d been trying to accomplish all along. the next week he came back with what he thought we needed and said he’d be up for helping us get it.
so, in the spring of 2007, dean wound up in iceland to shoot another substantial tranche of live footage with the intimacy brief to the fore, as well as environmental colour, sub-textural links and, crucially, the face-to-face interviews with the band, which ‘ despite the fact that the band were uncomfortable with talking to camera – he felt would provide the glue to hold the whole thing together. he also came up with a title, ‘heima’, which instantly seemed better than our, then sadly accurate, ‘lost in the lava’.
finally, we found english editor nick fenton, who was suggested by a mutual friend who had wanted use him for a joy division doc, but had graciously allowed us to ‘borrow’ instead. thankfully, nick decided not to watch our blind alley edits and, looking at the work with fresh eyes, immediately found layers and connections that brought a new weight and power to the film.
between them, nick and dean provided the final missing pieces of this jigsaw project, producing a honed and impressive end result from what were pretty disparate elements. dean’s undoubtedly commercial eye and nick’s more experimental leanings seemed to hold each other in some kind of dynamic tension, lifting the film further and higher than we could have hoped or, at times, expected.
‘heima’ was filmed on hi definition entirely on location in iceland and mixed in dolby 5.1. it was off-lined in london through june and july, and then finished in los angeles in august 2007. all the music was recorded live on the road with absolutely no overdubs by birgir jon birgisson, who is the engineer at sigur ros’s studio in alafoss, and ken thomas, co-producer of ‘agaetis byrjun’, ‘( )’ and ‘takk”
– john best, manager of sigur rós. 15th sept 2007.