It is a real privilege and pleasure for me to bring you my review of SEVERED WAYS: THE NORSE DISCOVERY OF AMERICA, a film which debuted at Los Angeles Film Festival in 2007 and which was one of my "Must See Festival Films" as well as a hot contender in the Narrative Feature competition. Just to show all you filmmakers out there that festivals do garner distribution deals, SEVERED WAYS now makes its way into theatres starting July 17, 2009.
Slightly off-beat and definitely not what one would expect with a Viking movie, producer/writer/editor/actor and first time feature director Tony Stone brings us a rather unique perspective of the coming to America by Vikings in 1007 AD. Shot over the course of almost 4 years (although not a 4 year time span in the film) using only natural lighting from the sun, the moon and fire, the results are at times magical.
Obviously one with a fertile imagination, Tony Stone creates a fictional story drawn from the actual Vineland Sagas, stories which tell the tale of Viking and Norse exploration of the New World starting with Lief Ericson. A group of Vikings have landed at Vinland. But for Orn and Volnard who have been sent inland to investigate flora, fauna, potential food sources and potential enemies, the rest of the expeditionary party has remained along the rugged coastline. Unfortunately, a little meeting between the Vikings and the Skraeling, as the Vikings refer to North American Indians, goes a little awry, leaving the beach littered with dead Vikings, and Orn and Volnard abandoned by those few comrades who survived the Skraeling skirmish.
Realizing they have only each other on which to reply on for survival, the two head north into the forest. They also realize enemies, violent enemies are lurking. Using brute strength, we watch them make camp by chopping down trees, making spears to fish, gathering berries and nuts, living by their wits and basic survival skills. The work is hard, but exposure to the elements and their enemies is even harder.
As they travel, they long for home and relive memories of days gone by and particularly Volnard, who is haunted by the killing of his sister’s Christian boyfriend. Needless to say, when they come upon a pair of monks, hostilities mount as at that time Christians were enslaved by Norse, each viewing the other as pagan. Orn immediately kills one of the monks, brutally hacking him to death with his axe, while Volnard feeling guilt from his memories of prior acts, lets the other monk run free. This guilt, however, doesn’t stop him from helping Orn to burn down the church.
During their ongoing journey, Volnard becomes more interested in the monk and his teachings, ultimately leaving Orn alone while Volnard’s pursues his spirituality. Angered at being left alone and having to do everything for himself, Orn senses he is being watched. He is. By a Skraeling. Baiting Orn with blackberries laced with an herbal narcotic, Orn falls unconscious and is taken away by the Skraeling where he is tied up and ultimately raped by the female Skraeling while still in his drugged state. Left alone and alive, Orn ultimately frees himself and sets out to find his double-crossing friend, Volnard. In Orn’s mind, were it not for Volnard leaving him, he would never have been taken captive. (Of course, he wouldn’t have had that very stimulating sexual encounter with the native girl either, something he really seemed to enjoy even in his drugged state.)
Twists and turns take place as the journey continues and tempers flare and all the while the Skraeling are never far away.
Lensing took place during two Falls and one Winter in the beautiful forests and seaside of Maine and Vermont, as well as the Norse settlement of L’Aanse aux Meadows. Using the elements and nature to his advantage, what is captured on film is actually man in survival mode. Tony Stone as Ord and Fiore Tedesco as Volnard, thanks to the use of anthropological resources, actually construct by hand for the camera, structures that are historically accurate and built to the specifications of the era. The tools used are as those used by the Vikings when they landed at New Foundland. The manner of dress, the mode of fishing by the two - all are accurate. Even the language is authentic as the dialogue is Old Norse and Abenaki. The Abenaki were the Indian tribe populating that part of North America in 1000 A.D.
Not a film that smacks of overplayed drama or a multi-layered storyline, SEVERED WAYS, is a look at survival, hard core survival, rooted in history and lore, that bears a standard of anthropological correctness. (And yes, the scene that people are still talking about - defecating in the woods and using leaves as toilet paper is one not to be missed.) Stone’s storytelling style warrants comparison to that of the legendary Werner Herzog. Using a "chaptering style" aids the audience in the events and experiences being told. Nature itself marks the passage of time. With minimal dialogue (that smacks of the 21st Century with the sub-title English translation and is the one thing that seems out of place, disturbing the essence of the Viking experience), we are left to the striking visuals to fuel our moviegoing experience.
I’m putting in my Oscar nomination right now for Best Cinematography for the work of Nathan Corbin and Damien Pais, no questions asked. The cinematography is flawlessly exquisite and simply breathtaking capturing and celebrating the beautiful imagery of the region. Shooting on Super HD and using the natural lighting of the break of dawn peeking through the trees illuminating dewdrops, a moonlit night, the sparkle of fiery embers rising into a midnight black starry sky, the sun glistening on crisp snow amidst the beauty of a crystalline waterfall, all give way to nature’s wonders and transport you into this new world being experienced by Ord and Volnard. It’s as if we too, are seeing the beauty and harshness of nature for the first time. On the other hand, certain sequences boast an over-exposed color pallette that is almost psychedelically intriguing. The one disadvantage to using HD over film when only natural lighting is available, is a loss of some details in the framing, which here, I believe, aids in the storytelling. When out in the dark with only a torch or the moon as your guiding light, one will not see very nook, cranny, enemy or creature that goes bump in the night. While some may disagree, I think this only enhances the experience and authenticity of SEVERED WAYS. Camera angles are also interesting and emboldening as Stone worked within the confines of nature. Lingering establishing shots are perfectly framed and in the case of one of the opening scenes of bodies littering the rocky Atlantic shores, powerful and commanding.
What I find particularly touching is that the majority of the film was shot on land owned by Stone’s family. When I talked with Stone, he told me stories of his childhood about these very woods, where he found great solace and would himself create imaginary tales as he ran in and out of the woods with his friends building forts, tree houses, playing war. I can relate. I did the same things along with my brothers in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey where my grandparents lived. I knew the woods like the back of my hand. Tony Stone knows his woods the same way. It’s only fitting that something that is so personal and such a part of him would be a vital part to his first feature film.
An added bonus is a soundtrack of Nordic ballads and black heavy metal guitar laden pounding rhythms created 1000 years after the Viking discovery of New Foundland, that actually seem appropriate for the Viking way of life and this film.
SEVERED WAYS was a Must See Film recommendation from me in 2007 and remains so today in 2009. Celebrating the true independent spirit of filmmaking, Tony Stone is a new voice on the narrative filmmaking horizon. SEVERED WAYS - a moviegoing experience steeped in history, the beauty of nature, and man’s instincts for survival as he embraces a brave new world, not to mention some really cool Viking lore.