As Björk’s Biophilia film prepared for its Reykjavík premiere, we spoke to co-director Nick Fenton
Way back in June 2011, English film editor Nick Fenton was one of the lucky few sitting in the crowd at the Manchester International Festival waiting to experience the live premiere of Björk’s epic Biophilia project. David Attenborough’s voice came over the speakers, the screens lit up, and the lights went down, and for the first time an audience was transported into the magical world of Biophilia: from the young and excited girl-choir to the specially constructed stage and dramatic new instruments, the dizzying array of nature footage, the firing Tesla coil and, of course, the grand dame herself, bobbing around the stage on platform shoes, under that iconic red eruption-wig.
Little did Nick know that almost two years later, he’d be sitting in a cramped control booth at London’s Alexandria Palace in the co-director’s chair, equally absorbed in the daunting task of capturing the last full Biophilia concert for posterity.
“It feels quite tidy in that respect, being able to have seen it at both start and finish,” says Nick, Skyping through a steamed-up webcam from a family holiday in Turkey. “There was that feeling that people didn’t know what they were going to see. David Attenborough’s voice sent a wave of anticipation through the audience, and we got the sudden awareness that this was going to be something very different.”
At Alexandria Palace, the experience was far removed from that of the concertgoer. Alongside the other half of the directorial partnership, Peter Strickland, Nick sat surrounded by screens whilst a sixteen-part camera crew took their positions. “We felt like security guards,” he says. “You couldn’t feel further away from what was going on in the arena, from the intimacy of the crowd and the performance.”
And although capturing live music, with no opportunity to shout “Cut!” might seem a little like tightrope walking to the outside eye, Nick says meticulous planning was the key to successfully capturing Biophilia. “It’s all about the preparation,” he explains. “You trust in the expertise of the cameramen and women. Our director of photography, Brett Turnbull, was incredible—the voice of experience, having done so much music film before.”
Nick has no shortage of music film experience himself, having worked on the Sigur Rós films ‘Inni’ and ‘Heima’, which gave him a valuable take on the process. “I think I was more aware than most of how precious every moment is,” he says. “The only thing I asked Peter to pass on to camera people was ‘never stray from your shot—keep the faith, and believe that every frame is crucial.’ Sixteen cameras sounds massive, but can still miss moments that the piece is crying out for.”
And just how did the filming apparatus fit around the already sizeable stage setup? “Well, it’s a big, big machine on top of everything else in the performance,” says Nick. “It could be extremely distracting to the performers, but what I found in editing was that the purity and integrity of the songs was present throughout. I hope that we’ve represented that concert and the music as well as possible in the film.”
The Biophilia film was a long time in development, as the personnel came together, and funding partners were sought. Co-director Peter Strickland and producer Jacqui Edenbrow shepherded and championed the project, trying to develop the surrounding structures to make it a reality. “It was their persistence that got this made, really,” Nick says. “It was going to be filmed in Paris first, then Tokyo, but needed a partner to help foot the bill. Jacqui got the interest of the Wellcome Trust, and Australian broadcaster SBS got involved, and it was all systems go.”
Humour, surrealism, jellyfish
The resulting work builds on the idea of concert film, weaving in visual elements from the wider Biophilia project. But the creators were careful in how much of a personal mark they left on the film. “We love what Björk does so much that we didn’t want to overlay it with too much of our own artistic leanings,” Nick explains. “We wanted to represent her music as truly as possible to the way she sees it. So there’s humour, and surrealism—we used the nature and science footage in a very integrated way, so it actually feels like part of the environment of the concert—there are parts where there are jellyfish swimming around her, or the auditorium is adapted into different natural environments.”
Björk was receptive to the ideas of her assembled crew. “She has a strong track record for working with amazing people; there’s a lot of trust there,” Nick explains. “She wasn’t prescriptive at all—when we presented our ideas, she loved them. It was a really special. And obviously, a great, great relief.”
And how is it to emerge from the editing suite and be thrust into the limelight, doing interviews and travelling to premieres? “It’s out of my comfort zone, I have to say, but pleasurable, too,” smiles Nick. “My normal space is to discuss ideas intimately with a director. It’s a very different role that only makes me appreciate what they do even more. That responsibility of making something your own never stops—even after the film is finished.”
Much to the surprise of Nick and his co-director, there were some chances to get a second take after all. “Unlike any other artist, Björk was very aware of the need for perfection,” Nick says. “On three separate songs, because she wasn’t happy, she actually did them again. Which is unheard of in front of a crowd of 3,000 people. Obviously, the audience loved it. She wanted to get it right.”