“I thought the music industry was a circus but it’s nothing compared to the movie industry”: how Nightwish channelled their inner Tim Burton to make the fantastical Imaginaerum movie

Nightwish on the set of the Imaginaerium movie
(Image credit: Ville Juurikkala)

Never a band to do things by halves, Nightwish followed 2011’s epic Imaginaerum album with a Tim Burton-inspired movie of the same name a year later. In 2012, as the band geared up to release the film, keyboard player Tuomas Holopainen revealed he he brought his cinematic vision to the screen.

No one could accuse of Nightwish of lacking ambition. As if the extraordinary opulence, intricacy and grandiloquent melodrama of last year’s grand conceptual piece, Imaginaerum, were not sufficiently bold and dazzling, the globe-conquering Finnish symphonic metal crew are about to once again prove that old adage that if something is worth doing, it’s worth overdoing. 

November sees the release of their first full-length feature film, also entitled Imaginaerum. It’s a fairly logical step for a group of musicians who’ve always revelled in the limitless potential of art based on fantasy while exhibiting genuine passion for infusing their own distinctive acts of metallic bombast with the evocative power of the best movie soundtracks. Nonetheless, despite the fact that the idea of Nightwish making a film is far from surprising, there is something particularly invigorating about the levels of self-belief required to pull off such a brazen feat of artistic derring-do.  

“I remember it vividly when the idea came to me,” keyboard maestro and chief composer Tuomas Holopainen tells Hammer. “We had just finished mastering the Dark Passion Play album in 2007 and I was listening to it, feeling really happy with it. I was starting to think about what the hell we could do next, because we always want to challenge ourselves and the fans, and do something different and innovative. It just occurred to me that I’ve always loved film music and it’s a big inspiration for the band, so why not try to make our own movie, to go along with the next album? The original plan was just to make 12 or 13 independent music videos, to go with each song on the album. That was the idea I had in 2007 and it’s been evolving ever since.”

Although a self-confessed movie fanatic, Tuomas is under no illusions about his ability to make a movie without some skilled assistance from someone with the right kind of professional experience. With that in mind, he contacted music video director Stobe Harju in the summer of 2008, with whom Nightwish had previously worked on the video for The Islander in 2007, and presented him with that original, basic concept of a series of visual representations of the songs on Imaginaerum. It is a testament to the strength of Tuomas’s vision and the atmospheric depth of the Imaginaerum album itself that Stobe was immediately inspired to push the idea even further than its creator had ever contemplated.

“When I first spoke to Stobe I had the basic script in my head, knew what all the songs were about and how I’d like the music videos to look,” Tuomas recalls. “I played him demos of all the songs and told him that we needed an Arabian dancer doing her death dance in this song, and a ghost circus reflecting childhood nightmares in that song and so on. He said it was fantastic and he’d love to do it and delve deeper into it. After a few months he suggested that we did a full-length feature film instead of separate music videos, and he promised that he’d include all of my original ideas in the full-length film. The idea of doing the film completely came from Stobe, not me. It sounded really ambitious, which is something I really like. He hired a professional screenwriter who worked on it for months and months and then they gave me the script. I was overwhelmed, like, ‘Wow! You really did it!’ That convinced me that the full-length film idea was the right thing to do.”

Nightwish on the set of the Imaginaerium movie

(Image credit: Ville Juurikkala)

After selling over eight million albums worldwide, arguably becoming Finland’s foremost musical export in the process, and enjoying the kind of vast success that generally eludes bands from the metal realm, Nightwish can hardly claim to be short of a bob or two, but making a feature film is an entirely different matter from the routine business of making an album. As a result, Tuomas suddenly found himself in the middle of a brutal crash course in the trials and tribulations of the movie industry, as he endeavoured to raise sufficient funding to make his grandiose flight of fancy a big-screen reality.

“I thought the music industry was a big circus but it’s nothing compared to the movie industry, for sure!” he laughs. “The Finnish Film Foundation gave us a really nice amount of money, so big thanks to them for that. Originally I was rather naïve. I thought that when I went to certain people and told them about the idea that we would get everything we needed, but that was not the case. It was really, really hard to get the money and at some point, a few years ago, it got really bad and we were thinking, ‘Are we going to be able to make this movie or not?’ Finally the band agreed that it was now or never, so we decided to pay for this ourselves.”

Dealing with the realities of commerce would dent many people’s enthusiasm for such a huge project, but Tuomas’s determination far outweighs any doubts he may have had about pulling off such an ambitious conceit. You only have to listen to the Imaginaerum album itself to witness the Finn’s ability to see big ideas through to their ultimate conclusion. A bittersweet tale of an ageing composer’s death bed reminiscences, the seventh Nightwish album made everything else released in 2011 sound a little restrained, so its visual reinterpretation was never going to be anything other than an exercise in untamed creative extravagance. Interestingly, Tuomas insists that the movie is not a rigid screen adaptation of the album’s somewhat nebulous narrative. Instead, this is an entirely separate entity that merely shares the album’s basic underlying themes.

Nightwish on the set of the Imaginaerium movie

(Image credit: Ville Juurikkala)

“It was clear from the start that we wanted to keep a certain distance between the album and the movie, so that when you listen to the album it still makes sense without seeing the movie and vice versa,” he explains. “We didn’t want them to be too connected. The overall atmosphere and the message behind the album and the movie is the same. It’s all about praising imagination, the beauty of life and all the positive and beautiful stuff that there is, but the album doesn’t tell the story of the movie at all. The movie tells a different story, about this old guy who goes through his life in his dreams and searches for the memories that mean the most to him. It’s very hard to explain the differences between the movie and the album. In a way it’s one big mess, but I hope it will make sense when people see the movie.”

We will have to wait until November to stand any chance of seeing Imaginaerum for real, but judging by the imagery used to promote the movie and the information and teaser trailers released online in the build-up to its release, it is fairly obvious that it belongs to the same world of dark and surreal fantasy beloved of directors like Tim Burton. There may be plenty of metal fans who would not normally listen to Nightwish, dismissing their music as overly fluffy and lacking in grit, but Imaginaerum has the definite air of a highly credible venture that deserves to be assessed in its own right.

“I need to be a bit careful about mentioning certain influences because people will start to have high expectations!” Tuomas admits. “Of course, I’m a big fan of Tim Burton and I love everything that he has done, and maybe this Imaginaerum movie is somehow influenced by him but it’s not on the same scale. We had a budget of about three million Euros [£2.4m] and there’s only so much that you can do, but we tried to capture some of that spirit that he has, together with the spirits of, let’s say, Neil Gaiman and David Lynch. The movie’s really weird. There is not so much dialogue in it, but it still tells a very clear, touching story. I would say that about 70 per cent of the movie is about audio, about music and sound. It’s really impressive. About 30 per cent is something else. There are professional actors, there is some dialogue and a real story, but there is so much music and soundscapes, so it’s not like your everyday Hollywood blockbuster feature film.”

Another aspect of the film that cements the notion that this is more than just a vanity vehicle for Nightwish themselves is the fact that the Imaginaerum album has not been directly used as a soundtrack for this peculiar visual spectacle. Instead, the songs have been dissected and rebuilt in an entirely new and highly inventive form by soundtrack composer Petri Alanko. Thus, the final cinematic manifestation of the Imaginaerum concept has moved ever further away from Tuomas’s original idea and, endearingly, he could not be happier about the way things have turned out.

Nightwish on the set of the Imaginaerium movie

(Image credit: Ville Juurikkala)

“It was clear from the start that we wanted to include every single song from the album in the movie, and in the same order as they are on the album,” he states. “But then at some point we realised that the music from the album is too big and bombastic. We really couldn’t use it in the film when there’s dialogue going on. So about a year ago we realised that we needed to do a whole separate soundtrack for the movie. We were starting to tour back then and we were really busy so we had to hire somebody who could do it and Petri Alanko was a good friend of Stobe’s. He has done the Alan Wake sound- track for the Xbox 360 console, so he’s done a lot of this soundscape stuff. We gave him all the tracks from the album and got him to do his own versions of the songs. He worked on the stuff for about five or six months and came up with a brilliant soundtrack, so those are the versions that you’ll hear on the movie. I’d been working on Imaginaerum for years and I was so into the songs that I just couldn’t listen to them anymore, but he gave them life again and I heard them in a new light. It’s really beautiful.”

Nightwish fans might be disappointed to discover the lack of the band’s music during Imaginaerum, but the consolation prize – Alanko’s beautiful soundtrack aside – is that Nightwish do appear in the film, albeit in what Tuomas describes as “a cameo role”.

“There are two scenes when there is this band playing in the background and you can see us all,” says the keyboardist. “None of us says anything. I was very strict with Stobe about that from the beginning. I said, ‘Please don’t put us in the movie!’ because we want it to be a believable story. I don’t care how good an actor Justin Timberlake is, whenever I see him in a movie you have certain preconceptions and I think, ‘What is this guy doing in there?’ I just wanted to avoid that. And the truth is that we all suck at acting!”

Watch On

The world premiere of Imaginaerum will take place in Helsinki in a massive 10,000-seater arena. The movie itself may not be a particularly big deal elsewhere in the world, but Nightwish are righteously fucking huge in their native land and the film’s release is destined to be regarded as a major cultural event in Finland. There are also plans to release the film in selected theatres across Europe and, inevitably, there will be a full release on DVD and Blu-Ray in the spring of 2013, which may be most non-Finnish fans’ first opportunity to lose themselves in their favourite band’s most vivid fantasy to date. It may also be the case that the stand-alone nature of Imaginaerum will enable it to reach an audience beyond the band’s fanbase and, as a result, Nightwish may find themselves reaching many people who would never have considered listening to their music in its standard context. As far as Tuomas Holopainen is concerned, everyone is welcome to live this dream. All you need is a little imagination.

“I’ve no idea what people’s reactions will be, especially people who’ve never heard about the band,” admits Tuomas. “It has the phrase ‘cult movie’ written all over it. It’s never gonna be a big Hollywood blockbuster so the producers of The Hobbit should not be concerned! There’s always the chance we’ll make some new fans, but this is not the reason why we did the movie. We just wanted to do something innovative and challenging and beautiful and different. The most simple way to put it is that we just wanted to tell a story. It’s escapism, you know? It’s been a tough ride but I’m not completely traumatised by the whole thing so we might just do it all again some day!” 

Originally published in Metal Hammer issue 237

Dom Lawson

Dom Lawson has been writing for Metal Hammer and Prog for over 14 years and is extremely fond of heavy metal, progressive rock, coffee and snooker. He also contributes to The Guardian, Classic Rock, Bravewords and Blabbermouth and has previously written for Kerrang! magazine in the mid-2000s.