It's been more than two years in the making. Now The Odyssey, the film to accompany Florence + The Machine's album How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, is complete. Conceived by Florence Welch and Vincent Haycock, comprising chapters that have served as individual music videos for tracks from the album, The Odyssey charts the singer's real and emotional rollercoaster in a succession of narrative-driven dance pieces, choreographed by either Ryan Heffington or Holly Blakey, and filmed in a series of evocative locations in Los Angeles, Mexico, London and the Scottish Highlands.
With the release of the final chapter, for Third Eye, The Odyssey has also now been released in full on the Florence + The Machine website. And it was premiered at the Rio Cinema in Dalston, London on April 20th, followed by a Q&A session where Welch and Haycock discussed the project with AG Rojas.
They started by talking about how it was conceived, some months after they had worked together on the video for Lover To Lover, from her previous album Ceremonials. Florence, experiencing a difficult period in her personal life, was already in contact with Holly Blakey. (Behind The Scenes photos by Emma Polley)
How the project started
Vince Haycock: The very first thing that you sent me, was you and Holly dancing in her studio, and you said you wanted to do something more personal and dance-based.
Florence Welch: Yeah, because in that year - the 'car crash' year - I needed a different outlet. I wasn't performing and I was going through stuff and trying to find different ways to express myself that wasn't just getting wasted or singing. I felt dance was kind of like being drunk, but without the hangover! [laughs] I was a bit at sea really, and dance was a big anchor. We got together twice a week sometimes. When you're dancing, you can't fake it. You're really going through something.
VH: Yeah - a lot of the imagery came from dance. We were trying to figure out how to express these stories in a linear narrative.
FW: I'm not very good at staying still anyway. What was frustrating to me in other videos that had big set pieces and costumes, is that I had to stay still! Being in a gown, staying still, looking pretty, wasn't me.
FW: For me, it’s the most focused record about a period of time. I wasn't doing it consciously though. I think it's because I had that period of time off. Things were happening to me and I would just write it down.
I was spending a lot of time in LA, which is why I wanted to shoot there. I was spending a lot of time in the actual hotel room we shot in. And in my house which is in the video too! I didn't think as I was doing it that that's what I wanted to do. I was just kind of making things, but musically I wanted something that felt like the sky. I was listening to a lot of music, in LA, driving around with big blue skies everywhere so I wanted something that was warm and big and y'know, blue and.. beautiful [laughs]
"I was talking about the purgatory of being stuck somewhere repeating the same pattern, and looking to express that in dance." - Florence
VH: Right when Florence said that she wanted to do dance, while she was still working on the album, I started thinking of that quote from TS Eliot. It's about being still and dance being the chaos, and it's beautful. ["So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing."]
It was kind of my motto at all times that dance was gonna show the emotion. So instead of acting out scenes where she loves someone or someone breaks her heart, she dances to that.
FW: It's been really interesting actually because when we did the videos the album was done, the story had already happened. So I didn't have to write a script, it was more down to Vince to take it and see it through his eyes. That's so freeing, because it isn't just mine anymore. Other people are involved, and they will have a different attachment to it as well.
It was incredibly cathartic because even in What Kind of Man I was still super in it, it was really heavy, and after shooting it, I felt incredibly liberated, because I was really thrashing - literally thrashing it out - with myself.
"Florence's songs are very personal, with these fantasies, and that's what we created in the visuals." - Vince Haycock
Working with Ryan Heffington
FW: I went to Ryan's dance class in LA - called Sweaty Sunday – it’s amazing! And again, the choreography that I’m interested in is very much to do with the storytelling and emotion and movement that perhaps you wouldn't associate with classical dance. Working with him and Holly- they're both like an emotional sponge. If you tell them the story, it'll just go in and they'll reinterpret it physically. It's a really incredible thing to witness.
An audience member asks a question about the lip-touching movement in Heffington's choreography in What Kind Of Man...
FW: It's about the things you can't say, when you have to say goodbye to someone, or you have to tell them you love them and they don't want to hear it - that's never happened to me (laughter). It's like trying to tell someone something really intimate and personal so you're taking the words and putting it in their mouth, and taking the words they were thinking about and putting it in your mouth. It's trying to exchange sentiment without talking. To me the guys in the What Kind Of Man video symbolise all these other things as well I was battling with, like the demons in Delilah, like with my other self. It was just about my own demons.
Q: How did you choose the songs to make into a video?
FW: Well it was quite narrative, wasn't it? You [Vincent] were a big champion of the little, slow ones which is what was so nice about this. Videos got made for songs that aren't singles. If you were a label you wouldn't go 'lets make a video for Long And Lost'. I'm very grateful to everyone because we got to do something really special.
VH: It was half 'this song is an amazing single, lets get this single out' and half 'if thats gonna be the third single then lets do this other little bit inbetween'. We did St Jude on a whim. We were shooting What Kind Of Man, and we thought, we gotta do St Jude right here. I had my team, Steve Annis and Arrie Robins our camera operator and we just rocked that out. We had a lot of freedom and we just kinda went with it.
The importance of dance
FW: We used dance to describe the difficulties in human relationships - people pulling away from each other, or being pulled back by their own internal self that means they can't be together. They're being pulled apart all the time. We were looking at the fragility of relationships, and it was symbolic of a lot of that stuff. I was obsessed with Pina Bausch and this amazing piece where people keep getting dropped all the time.. the repetition. And I was talking about the purgatory of being stuck somewhere repeating the same pattern, and looking to express that in dance.
The What Kind of Man was more about relationships, perhaps, and Delilah was a lot about my relationships with myself and those other demons that weren't related to Love. That’s why I think that became more about me, trying to figure that out.
"I was going deeper and deeper into the darker places, and when you get to Delilah you're in the darkest zone." - Florence
FW: With each video it was as if I was going deeper and deeper into the darker places, and I think when you get to Delilah you're in the darkest zone.
VH (about the demon on Florence's chest, recreated from the painting The Nightmare by Fuseli): We borrowed the imagery to represent... well, the same stuff that's represented in those paintings. We stole from historic paintings just to give the viewer the idea that there's this big weight on her chest.
Florence's songs are very personal, with these fantasies, and that's what we created in the visuals. They all relate to her in different ways - like in Delilah there's this over-version of herself following her around, and at the end of that she kills that version off. She sheds those layers of demons.
The artist/director relationship
AG Rojas: I think that as filmmakers we look at this and get jealous because it's the filmmaker's dream being able to grab an artist who makes sophisticated music and are able to create this story out of it. Could you talk a bit about the level of trust that was developed through the videos beforehand?
VH: For me, when I first started doing videos, I would see guys like Jonathan Glazer and Radiohead doing loads of videos together and be like 'fuck, if I could just find an artist that believes in me as much as I believe in them'. And when we started working together it just started happening like that. I still kind of can't believe we did it. It wasn't fully planned out, I didn't write it ahead of time and get it approved.
"I would see guys like Glazer and Radiohead doing videos and be like: 'If I could just find an artist that believes in me as much as I believe in them'." Vince Haycock
FW: [The label] were so supportive and that's really incredible and I think quite rare. There were definitely a few nervous emails being sent at some point. I think once everyone is on board, everyone wanted to see the end. It felt like a dream made reality. I still can't quite believe we did it.
Because it has been such a long process - we didn't have to do these all in one go and as my life was changing the videos were always came at really opportune moments. So it was an actual journey, and as the videos evolved I was changing too. When we got to Third Eye, the last one, I was just in a completely different space. I'd gone all the way down and all the way back out again.