Alma Har’El on her Shia LaBeouf-Starring Sigur Ros Video
Containing the same truthful fusion of fantasy and reality as found in her documentary Bombay Beach, filmmaker Alma Har’el’s latest work is a provocative and dramatically compelling short film for the Icelandic band Sigur Ros, made as part of the group’s Mystery Film Eeperiment. For the Project, the band invited a dozen filmmakers to select a track from their new album, Valtari, gave them the same modest budget, and told them to do what they saw in their heads. “The idea is to bypass the usual artistic approval process and allow people utmost creative freedom,” they wrote on their site. In the case of Har’el, the result is “Fjögur Píanó,” a wildly ambitious emotional journey in which a couple — Shia LaBeouf and Denna Thomsen — passes through all the stages of a relationship amidst imagery ranging from psychedelic drug trips to a room decorated with butterflies. And, of course, there’s dance, as there was in Bombay Beach, with the couples’ shifting relationship beautifully charted by the shifting of their bodies.
Har’el was selected this past year as one of our 25 New Faces, and, more than a music video, “Fjögur Píanó” is an exciting work from one of our most spirited and innovative young directors. Below, I spoke to Har’el about the video’s origins, its meanings, choreography, and a naked Shia LaBeouf.
Filmmaker: Were you able to pick the Sigur Ros song, and if so, why did you choose it?
Har’el: Yeah, that was a big part of why I wanted to do it. John Best, their manager, emailed me and told me I could choose any track, and then he sent me the album. I wanted to do “Fjögur Píanó” right away but wasn’t sure. I waited for a while and when John contacted me again I told him that was the track I wanted but that I need to listen to the album again to see if I felt strongly about it on the second listen. He then told me how they did it and that really captured my imagination. Basically they had this loop, a sound that they didn’t know what to do with. So they ended up playing it on headphones, and everyone had to leave the studio except for one person from the band at a time. So each person in the band recorded a piano line to that loop in his turn. None of them heard what the other people in the band did. Then when they finished they took out the loop. So the track is every one’s response to something we’ll never hear. I found that quite captivating. There’s like a ghost track that’s there and you never hear it, only they heard it… I don’t know, it just made me even more curious about its effect on me.
Filmmaker: The video is clearly a symbolic narrative, but how specific are the various elements to you (the lollipops, the butterflies, etc.) Do they have metaphorical meanings, or do they exist more abstractly?
Har’el: The process of writing something like this which is more of a dream then a narrative involves switching between the dreamer and the “shrink.” First you dream, then you analyze what things mean to you and then you dream some more but with more awareness and goal. More lucid. Then the actors come in and ask what something means and you have to analyze again.
Filmmaker: How did Shia LeBeouf become involved, and can you describe the initial conversations you had with him?
Har’el: Shia just found me. I still thank him for that. He randomly picked up my film Bombay Beach at Amoeba Records on Sunset Blvd. and watched it at home. I got back home late that night around 11 and checked my emails. There was an email that simply said, “Hello my name is Shia LaBeouf and I’m a big fan of your work. Can we open a dialogue about working together in the future?” Something like that…. My husband was convinced it was a joke because usually his manager would talk to mine so I just wrote back, “Is this a joke?” But it wasn’t, and we went to dinner the day after. When I came to the restaurant and he got up to greet me I was so taken by how he looked, which is basically the same as in the video. He looked nothing like I’ve ever seen him in movies.
We ordered food but never ate it… I just answered his questions about Bombay Beach and we had an immediate connection that you have with people who love the same things you love. Both of our fathers suffered many years from hard addictions. I know he speaks about it openly so I can mention it. Talking about that and how it becomes part of your psyche as a child and a grown up probably had an impact on me when I wrote the treatment for the video. When we finished, he asked what am I doing now and I said that just a very small-budget video for Sigur Ros and working on a script. He kindly offered to be in the video. I was very surprised and happy by that and took a week to write it.
Filmmaker: For someone associated with big macho films, he appears very vulnerable on screen – was that contrast something you wanted to explore? As a high-profile star was he wary of the nudity?
Har’el: Yes, I’m always interested in the way we fit into our gender and how abstract all of it is in the end of the day for most of us. Especially when relationships get deep and you sense all the in between and the human layers. Shia is a beautiful and strong young man but he has the ability to tap into anything and every part of himself. He wasn’t afraid of anything. If anything I was afraid to ask at first… I didn’t know him enough. He took on the dancing like a hero. He never danced before but by the end of the first rehearsal he was already adding his own accents to the dance. Some of them are my favorite moments.
Surprising as it is, his nudity wasn’t planned. As we started to work on the part where they get dressed, it came up and then naturally happened. I initially thought they will be in underwear but they both felt they should go all the way. Shia has all the professional skills of someone who has worked on big scope movies but all the humility and sensitivity that’s hard to find. I don’t think anyone knows what kind of work he’s capable of, probably not even him. That’s what’s beautiful. I learned so much from him in just a few days.
Filmmaker: I understand the budget for the video was pretty minimal. What’s the secret to getting this level of production value and effects out of such a small budget?
Har’el: Love and devotion. The love of people for the music and for what I do. I could have never done this without the people who worked on it. Their love for their work and this project and their generosity with their time, money and equipment.
Filmmaker: What appeals to you about using dance in your work?
Har’el: Dance is for me the best way to speak about the unspoken. It’s also full of mystery to me. How one’s body can tell so many things and create such beauty. I don’t like verbalizing everything and dance helps me to talk with out saying the obvious. I’m in awe of dancers, their bodies and their charisma when they move, but I’m also in awe of everyday gestures we make every day and never stop to think how theatrical they are.
Filmmaker: There’s a beautiful mix of delicate and violent scenes – what do the butterflies signify for you?
Har’el: For me butterflies are beautiful, perfect things that die fast. They only live for a day or two. I believe the longest they live is a week. They hold so much detail and then they’re gone. But they can mean other things to other people. What I love about certain images is that they are potent but open to interpretation. Butterflies also take a long time to form, they’re hard to catch until they die and the idea that they can fly but end up behind glass on a wall is also something that gets me.
Filmmaker: What are your thoughts on the band’s Mystery Film Experiment – is it refreshing to be given so much creative freedom?
Har’el: I once heard a man say that freedom is the only thing worth fighting for. He was talking about freedom from our minds and our oppressors in society but it’s true about everything. Except when it comes to love. I remember listening to Johnny Cash singing the song “Desperado.” I was alone at the time and without love in my life and the lyrics were:
“…And freedom, oh freedom,
Well, that’s just some people talkin’
Your prison is walking,
Through this world all alone.”
Whatever truth you try to hold on to in this world there’s another side to it… I try to remember that. I suffer a lot when I have no freedom to do what I want because it always turns less than what it can be.
But making films is expansive and you have to choose your battles. In this one, we were all on the same side.