British writer-director Peter Strickland’s 2012 feature “Berberian Sound Studio” may have been a surreal exploration of sonic artistry, but he’s still not the first person one might expect to see at the helm of a Bjork concert film. It’s a counter-intuitive choice, however, that pays off in “Bjork: Biophilia Live,” a visually idiosyncratic recording of the Icelandic maverick’s 2013 tour closer in London, helmed in collaboration with film editor Nick Fenton (“The Selfish Giant,” the Sigur Ros doc “Inni”). The film, which bowed at Tribeca in April, recently had its European premiere at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival, where Strickland spoke to Variety about the project’s challenges and rewards.
I don’t think many people expected to see your name on this kind of project — was it a surprise to you as well?
It had certainly never been on my radar to do a concert film. So when I got the call from [producer] Jacqui Edenbrow, I thought: Why the hell not? It’s just a completely different way of working, much more collaborative than what I’m used to, and I really enjoyed it, actually. I loved working with Nick: He’s an editor I respect a lot anyway, but we really got each other.
How directly did you work with Bjork on the film?
There was a long process of slowly getting to know Bjork and seeing if we had the same ideas about doing this. Fanboy stuff, really. We found we both had this book called “Notations 21” by Theresa Sauer, of notational scores by Stockhausen and so on. That was the spark. We have the same interests in music. I’m into stuff like Ligeti, Chris Watson, Cabaret Voltaire — which sounds awfully pretentious to some people, but she’s someone I could talk to about them.
Most of it, though, was about her getting comfortable with us prior to shooting; once she did, she was pretty laid-back about it all. I fully expected her to tell us what to do. That’s something I’d normally resent on a feature film, but I saw myself as being there to serve her vision. In the end, to my surprise, she was remarkably hands-off, I think because she resents people doing exactly that to her.
What were the most substantial practical challenges of the project?
Filming in the round was quite daunting for me. For anyone, really. It’s a challenge to please so many people: not getting in the musician’s way, not getting in the audience’s way, but also allowing the film’s audience in. I saw the show twice prior to filming: Once seated in the audience and once within a dummy run, when Brett [Turnbull, the film’s d.p.] filmed it on two cameras. It turned out a bit rubbish, to be honest, and we could see that we needed a lot more people on hand. We ended up with 16 cameras, which seems a bit excessive, but the nature of being in the round didn’t leave us much choice.
The show itself is quite visually dynamic — how much did you feel you needed to add in cinematic terms?
There’s one Bjork concert film that’s really restrained — almost completely static. We wanted to do more than that, but not to go crazy. Nick cut the whole concert film clean first, and then we sifted through excessive amounts of archive footage of biophilia-related imagery, finding little portals in the film where they’d fit. I was initially looking at more of a Kenneth Anger route, but Bjork didn’t want to go there: She wanted something modern and visually crisp, a colder vision of nature than what I initially suggested.
Did you always intend to co-direct with Nick Fenton?
I initially asked him to edit it, and he was with us for the shoot in our little porta-cabin, looking like security guards with donuts and 16 monitors. But then we got funding for my third feature film [the recently completed “Duke of Burgundy”] quicker than I thought we would, and suddenly there was a clash. I knew I wouldn’t be very physically present in the edit room, and in a concert film, editing is directing. So I thought it’d be crazy for Nick not to be credited as such. I got to be one of those lazy directors who just swung around in my hammock, taking all the credit for Nick’s ideas. It all worked out really well.