UNDERGROUND VOICES: INTERVIEW 06/2004
METAL GONE SOFT
Cami Delavigne interviews the filmmakers of the new documentary Metallica - some kind of monster
Three years in the making, SOME KIND OF MONSTER is the latest film from the documentary duo Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky (BROTHER'S KEEPER and PARADISE LOST). The film documents Metallica's mental meltdown during the recording of the St. Anger album back in 2001.
After long-time bassist Jason Newsted quits the band, the band's management sends the group to therapy. Helmers Lars Ulrich, James Hetfield, and guitarist Kirk Hammett spend several overstuffed couch sessions with a performance-enhancement therapist Phil Towle. Towle's $40,000-a-month presence provides a platform for the band members to air deep-seated dissatisfactions.
After the international premiere of SOME KIND OF MONSTER at the Berlin Film Festival this past February, Berlinger and Sinofsky talk about their own journey in the making of the film.
What was it like to see your subject matter literally unravel in front of you?
Joe: The hard part and the beautiful part about these films are that they never turn out to be what you expect. You throw yourself out the window and hope there is a mattress on the other side to catch you. In PARADISE LOST, we thought we were making a movie about guilty teenagers, because that's the article we had read down there. It became a story about the miscarriage of justice. This film, frankly, we found these guys to be interesting fellows and the dynamics of their relationship... they had always been extremely nice to us because they gave us the music for PARADISE LOST. But when we started this film, we thought it was going to be a "TV Commercial gig" in between our big films. They wanted us to document the making of their next album. We never dreamed that it would take on this journey and this arc. It took a lot of courage of Metallica to stick with it, keep filming when the band was falling apart and it took a lot of courage for us too. We were giving up other projects when we saw this film was turning into something special. You have to have the faith to see it through.
Bruce: The beauty of non-fiction for me, at least in the films that we've liked, BROTHERS KEEPER and PARADISE LOST and this film, is that every day when you go on location, you're interested. At the end of the day there was some little nugget that could keep your mind occupied and you could say that's going to go into the film. That's something we can build on. If everyday you're interested then ultimately you know that your audience will be interested. We've started films and after a week or two, we're bored with our subjects. If the subject matter fascinates us, then we make good films.
Joe: The big films that we hang our hats on, that we go for broke on, are subjects that we feel transcend the normal realm of storytelling. The great storytelling experiences have some sort of universal message. There is a reason we had a film in '92, '96, 2000 and now 2004. Choosing your subject is very important. Who could have guessed that Metallica would have turned out this way. These guys who were incredibly shut down emotionally and guarded of their image, gave us the world.
James Hetfield comments on the presence of the microphone and camera and a scene is devoted to the band discussing stopping the making of the film. How do you feel about being sucked into the film?
Joe: Bruce and I, we always avoided the filmmaker making a film about them making the film. But if we are organically drawn into the story and don't force it upon the subject, then it's fair game to put it into the movie. In BROTHER'S KEEPER, Roscoe named the turkeys after us. To us that was a natural moment and it demonstrated their growing affection for us. In PARADISE LOST, we were handed a bloody knife. We, all of a sudden, were part of the evidence. With Metallica, these guys were ready to shut the film down so we chose to film the guys having a conversation about what it means to make a film. It became natural to include it.
Bruce: At the beginning of the film Lars says we didn't know if this was going to work having these guys here. At some point James realized he was uncomfortable with the filming process. We were invited to sit down with the band. We thought we should film this because it's organically happening, maybe the film's going to be shut down and that's the end of the movie. Then, at the end, they acknowledged the fact that they bought the documentary. The audience is reminded that there are filmmakers there. During most of the film you're sort of lost in the story and not thinking about technique or filmmaking, it's almost like you're there witnessing and experiencing what the band is going through over a two and a half year period. We debated. There were some cuts with it and some cuts without it. But the better film was with us in it so we left it in. And we looked good (laughs).
Did you go through therapy too?
Bruce: The film was therapeutic for all of us. Joe and I as partners are not that much different from James and Lars. We had our own set of problems. We've been together for fifteen years. Joe had gone off to do Blair Witch 2 and I was doing another film. There was always a little competition going on, growing pains. The therapy sessions were helpful to us too because we would watch what they were going through. At the end of the day, we would go back to our hotel rooms and we would talk through some of our problems. Some of the things that were deep seated. It made us better filmmakers and better friends now. I think it will allow us to make better films together. We grew up on levels that we hadn't.
The therapy sessions seems to have the most impact on James Hetfield. He, in particular, learned an almost childlike way of communicating, expressing his emotions as he was feeling it.
Joe: I totally don't agree with your assessment that James was childlike. One of the interesting arcs for James was that he was most resistant. Afterwards he embraced therapy and utilized it as a tool. He literally transformed himself. He was able to articulate his feelings, which is something that he had a problem with the past. He had a big problem communicating with people so I think there was a slight over compensation. That's just a sign that he was really working on himself. Interestingly, Lars was all over the therapy in the beginning and he was the one who became the most fed up with it. He was an instrument of the film's demise at the end of the movie.
A memorable scene is Lars with his father and Lars still seeking his father's approval.
Joe: It was very important for Lars that we film his father. In fact, the first person to give us notes about the film, the first real conference call about Metallica's reaction to the film was with Lars, his father, Bruce and me. We were all waiting for what Lar's father had to say. We knew that Lars was invested in his father's opinion of the movie. Thank God the first thing out of his mouth was, "This is a film, not a movie. This is a film." That relationship was really important to underscore in the movie because the yin and yang of James and Lars extends to their relationships with their parents. Lars father plays a very large, nurturing role and James had no father figure. His father abandoned him at an early age and his mother died when he was sixteen. As James says in the movie, he's very controlling because all he had in his life as a young teenager was his music. That juxtaposition is so important for understanding the dynamic between James and Lars.
Is there someone who says to you, like Lar's father, "Keep that. Delete that."
Joe: That's a really hard question. I had a horrible childhood. I have worked my entire life to throw off the yoke of approval. I have failed at times. Critics used to be my surrogate parental approval. Of course with the horrible reaction I had to BLAIR WITCH (2), having my movie put through the blender, that was the ultimate in rejection. Now, I care what critics think and what audiences think strictly from a business standpoint. If the critics pan a movie, that makes it more difficult to do well at the box office. But the old Joe Berlinger who used to get wrapped up in what the critics thought of BROTHER'S KEEPER and PARADISE LOST, which was my stand-in for my disapproving father - I have worked very hard at eradicating from my life. There are three people's opinions that I care about. My wife, my partner and myself. And of course my children. That is a good and touchy issue with me.
Bruce: I had a very nurturing and caring environment -- parents that loved and adored me and vice versa. In terms of approvals, it's just Joe in terms of the films. Florence, my wife, doesn't really involve herself. She watches and loves them. But Joe can say delete that and I would respect his opinions. I never cared about critics. I was incredibly flattered when we did Brother's Keeper and the critics were saying it was a brilliant film, but I didn't really care.
Joe: You check Google all the time. You check Google on Metallica more than I do.
Bruce: Not to seek approval but for the same reason that you do. To check the business. A great review in the Times drives the theatrical. I am really thrilled that Metallica fans came to the screening today and dug the film. They said that for the first time ever, they got to see who the band was. They never really knew what James sounded like as a person. They only knew him as someone who sang. They had never seen Lars and James interact. All of a sudden, they're seeing their heroes talk about something that they can relate to.
Joe: That was great it translated into another language. We did a fan screening in New York. There were hard-core guys with "M" burned into their scalps as a scar or heavily tattooed with the faces of the band members -- that level of commitment. At the end of the film, there was this guy who looked just like James Hetfield in tears, wanting to talk. He had a look on his face like he'd lived three lives. At the end of the screening he was like, "When I was in my teens I banged my head with the rest of them, in my twenties I drank heavily. Now that I'm in my thirties I have to stop drinking. The fact that James Hetfield can go through this and put this out there for people as a message makes me respect him even more." I told this story to James and as I'm telling James this story, you can see his Adam's apple well up. He said, "Man, if I reached just one person in this way, then it has made this whole experience worthwhile." The beauty of this film for me, is taking you into worlds you don't see, breaking down stereotypes. These tough as nails, blood-spitting guys are deep caring important people. They allowed themselves to grow as people.
Do you have any heroes?
Bruce: My Dad. He grew up in the streets of Boston and bettered himself. He helped people, he was a psychiatric social worker. Eugene McCarthy was a hero of mine for coming out in the war in 1968. The Beatles were heroes to me, major influence to me. Joe's a hero. The people who influence you. George Bush is not. I can't stomach the man. In terms of film, Cassavetes and John Huston. But people who actually touch my life: David Maysles was a hero to me. Charlottes Zwerin was an influence to me.
Joe: To say I had a difficult childhood is an understatement. Human beings have been really rotten to me and really incredible. I have never taken the time to have a hero. I created a show for VH-1 called FAN CLUB because I am fascinated by that cult of worship. It's just not something that I can fathom. However, that being said, I have to say that at the end of this film, James Hetfield is a hero to me. This is a guy who put the most intimate stuff onto film, without a care. When Electra wanted to make this into a promotional film for the band, James handed them a check for 2 million and said, "Go away, we own this film." I decided that the key to my happiness is to focus on the work and to only care about your creative outlet for what you care about it. To me that is the journey that James Hetfield took. His whole psychological problem, what drove him to drink was that he was the front man for this hard-hitting, edgy band. He had to live up to that image. That took its toll. I look to him as a role model in my moments of doubt.Delavigne studied screenwriting at Columbia University's Film Division. BLUE VALENTINE, a feature she co-wrote about love and divorce, is being produced by GreeneStreet Productions and @radical.media. As a radio reporter, she has done features for WNYC's THE NEXT BIG THING and ON THE MEDIA.
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