Q&A with Pétur Magnússon, Director Behind Sundur’s “To The Top”
Icelandic born and California raised, Magnússon is an experienced filmmaker who’s worn many hats— cinematographer, writer, and editor among them. His latest is a gorgeous video that captures the emotional edge heard in “To The Top,” the single to Sundur’s latest full-length, Somewhere’s There’s Music. The song features Keith Lawrence and will be out on Needle To The Groove records. Magnússon and his crew braved harsh Icelandic conditions to get their vision right.
Says Magnússon: “When I’m trying to find a concept for a video, this might sound kind of silly but I really like to lay down and listen to it in headphones on repeat and basically just see what kind of visuals pop up. On listening to this track the image I kept coming back to was a girl floating through something that looked kind of like water but not really. That shot ended up being what I built the video around. I landed on a concept that I thought might be relatable, which is an artist struggling with her inner critic. I definitely identify with that.”
Magnússon’s short film, I Live in a Hotel Now (a mockumentary he wrote, directed, shot and starred in) was a finalist at the Venice Shorts film festival. As we’re sure to hear more from Magnússon in the near future, we wanted to sit down and get his insight on what defines the role of the director, his approach to filmmaking, as well as the sublime results seen on the music video for “To The Top.” “After Platurn and Savannah approved the treatment I started producing, I don’t do it often but for the right projects I can operate as a one person production crew, so for this video I did the producing, writing, directing, camera operating, lighting, and editing,” says Magnússon.
Tell us a bit about your history with filmmaking. When did you start?
I started making videos around 2007; I did a drum cover of Jermaine Stewart’s “We Don’t Have to Take Our Clothes Off” that year that really kind of kicked off the whole thing. I followed up with a web series about me and my dad making jigsaw puzzles and a LARP themed music video for my buddy and then I just kept making stuff. In 2012 Platurn, who is my big brother, was like “dude you don’t suck at this, you have to go to LA” and I was like “shit you’re right” so I moved down there and started working. It’s been a process.
For the gear heads out there, what do you use?
I’ve shot on a lot of different cameras from camcorders to ARRIs but for this project we shot on a Blackmagic Cinema Pocket 6k with Canon EF Cine Primes that were very graciously provided by my good friend Bragi Þór Hinriksson, an absolutely brilliant film director and delightful human being. I put that rig on a Ronin DJI Ronin-S which is a DSLR gimbal and I was definitely over the weight limit which I wouldn’t recommend, it’s kind of a knucklehead move and it’s ultra hard to get steady shots when you’re following somebody through lava rocks. I couldn’t put a matte box on the rig so for the exteriors I gaffer taped an ND filter to the front of my lens. Being solutions oriented is something I’ve learned from many years of low budget filmmaking.
I shot the aerials on my trusty old Mavic 2 Pro with PolarPro ND filters. I’ve been running that thing for two years and the fact that I can shoot from the sky, what a privilege, still blows me away. For the interiors I lit with a KinoFlo Divalite that’s like the all color version of the old 4×4’s and the littler all color Divalite to match. The exteriors were all natural light, one nice thing about shooting in Iceland is that you have a very strong chance of natural diffusion, it stays cloudy out here. I edited and colored in Davinci Resolve which scores 1/10 for editing and 10/10 for coloring.
When did you first hear “To The Top?” Tell us how that struck you.
I first heard the track when Platurn sent it to me late last year, and it hit me pretty hard. The production is such a strong throwback to the kind of stuff we grew up with, he introduced me to hip-hop when we were kids and when he discovered the concept of sampling and started digging he opened up an entire world for the both of us. To bring that discovery full circle and create something sample based that feels both original and timeless really just got me in the feels. Plus Savannah’s vocals are just so beautiful, her voice could not be more perfect for the vibe of the instrumental. She floats over this track and there’s this sort of resigned longing in the quality of her performance that just drags me right into it. I love it.
Walk us through the process of putting together the video.
I sourced everybody else from our family. The actors are our cousins Guðrún Gígja and Freyja, they’re both fantastic artists and were super into the idea. Neither of them had acted before and I’m just so unbelievably proud of how hard the crushed it. They study Jiu Jitsu together and were super up for the physicality that we needed to create a literal version of that internal struggle.
I do contract work for our cousin Þorvarður Goði who has a company called Skjáskot that he started with his son Davíð Goði, they do live streaming and commercial production and they have a studio here in Reykjavík. They were gracious enough to lend me a bunch of the equipment that I used including the camera, the lights, and use of their sound stage for the living room set. My cousin Adam Thor was my right hand man and helped me out on the shoot days, and my cousin Vilhjálmur who is also Guðrún’s dad was our driver for the exteriors. The shoot was 2 half days for the exteriors, 1 half day in studio and two pickup days where I shot the props and did the green screen shot with Guðrún. Then I went into post-production and mollywhopped my RAM with way too many stacks of film burns. After a few rounds of back and forth with the group we had our end result. I’m very jazzed about it.
What was the toughest aspect of making this?
Bruh, winter in Iceland. Trying to direct while camera operating in heavy arctic winds is a very special kind of challenge. Like, my hands froze so bad that I’d lose the ability to use them right from the time I took my gloves off to the time I’d set my camera which was about a 30-45 second window. I honestly have no idea how people are actually just straight up operating cameras out here all the time.
From start to finish: how long did the video take to complete? What’s your favorite shot?
From concept to delivery the whole thing took about 4 months from concept to delivery, I was definitely holding up post-production because I’m a nitpicky perfectionist but hopefully that paid off. My favorite shot in the video is probably the top down shot where Guðrún drags Freyja out of the car. Sometimes this thing happens where I visualize something in my head and then I execute it and it comes out way better than I could have imagined. Like, we did that once, and I was battling psycho Iceland wind and operating the drone with frozen fingers and yelling directions because you couldn’t hear anything in the psycho wind and then I called action the drone started floating up and they just absolutely nailed it in one take. Those are the moments that make filmmaking the most gratifying pastime of my life.
What projects are you currently working on?
My cousin and I are getting ready to shoot a video for an Icelandic rapper out in the countryside here, and I’m developing a few screenplays, one is for a modern Viking television series, another is a zombie tourist feature. I wrote a darkly comedic romance novel about dating in hipster Hollywood, I’m currently editing that. I’ve also started recording my solo debut album and I’m working on a photo show of stills that I’ve taken of Icelandic life. These are mostly pretty big scale projects so it’s like moving a bunch of mountains at the same time. Luckily I’m doing the majority of this stuff with my cousins. Have I mentioned my cousins?
What word of advice would you give aspiring filmmakers out there?
Never stop never stopping. But seriously I think it’s important at every stage of filmmaking to think of it as community building. It’s a really difficult craft to do well but if you have relationships that are built on trust and mutual contribution those can turn into friendships that will last and make a much deeper impact on your life than any material gains you get out of it. Nothing’s better than celebrating the joy of creative expression with your friends. Except maybe celebrating it with your cousins.
How would you define the role that the director has to fill?
The director’s job is to reach people. Whether you’re aiming for pure entertainment value or trying to bake in a message that might spark some critical thinking, as a director for me the primary directive is to relay an honest human experience that people can identify with and feel some kind of way about it. There’s a lot of ways to get to that result, and your personal voice and perspective make all the difference in how impactful that end result becomes.