On the Rock Roller Coaster: “Metallica: Some Kind of Monster”
by Liza Bear
“Metallica: Some Kind of Monster” (which IFC Films opens today) is a tour de force of verite filmmaking. It marks Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky‘s triumphant return to co-directing after a “Blair Witch II”-induced hiatus. “A happy accident,” Sinosky calls it. [Metallica had provided the soundtrack to the duo’s acclaimed earlier doc “Paradise Lost.”] Whether or not speed metal is as far removed from your taste in music as Los Van Van, Cheb Mami, or Morton Feldman, this highly charged portrait of the number one heavy metal band-in-crisis offers rare insights into the nature of collaboration, issues of artistic power and control, and the real-life context for the creative process. Like the balancing act between the exigencies of home and recording studio. All of which amazingly takes place not only before the cameras but under the watchful eye of Phil Towle, the band’s “performance enhancement coach.”
For the doc, Sinfosky and Berlinger filmed 50 four-hour group therapy sessions over the two-year shooting period as vocals/guitarist James Hetfield, drummer Lars Ulrich, and guitarist Kirk Hammett battled through personal and interpersonal issues to produce an album they can take on the road. That album, “St Anger,” topped the charts. With virtuoso verite cameraman and longtime collaborator Bob Richman as director of photography, Berlinger and Sinofsky alternated on the B camera [a PD 150] to get simultaneous reaction shots. David Zieff served as the masterful supervising editor. Liza Bear spoke to Berlinger and Sinofsky at @radical media, whose industrial office chic matches the diamond plate on James Hetfield’s guitar.
indieWIRE: You two met working at Maysles Films. What did you learn about cinema verite technique, which is very much in evidence in Metallica, from the Maysles?
Joe Berlinger: Hmmm… Good question. That you can follow a human drama without knowing where it’s going to lead and trust that you can shape it into something as narratively compelling as anything scripted — that’s such an accepted tenet today. But really that’s a result of the technological revolution the Maysles created with their portable sync-sound equipment. It pushed documentary away from straight reportage, news stories, into capturing a human drama that’s as rich and ambiguous — into not making illustrative lectures — where the storytelling is as important as the journalism. Now, where we differ [from Maysles] — I’ve been dealing with this a lot because I’m writing a book about the making of “Metallica.”
iW: Ah hah.
Berlinger: [laughter] I’m calling everything verite from Leacock to Louche, for simplicity. Generally those filmmakers believe that you are not a director — in fact, they wouldn’t take the directing label — that the camera is an objective recorder of reality. Where we beg to differ is that we openly acknowledge that documentary filmmaking is a very subjective process. That doesn’t give us license to stage and contrive events, the way reality TV is doing. But we also believe that the camera is not just a recorder of reality — that happens sometimes. But the camera can also be what I call the quantum theory of filmmaking — it can change what you film. For instance, in this film, the presence of cameras enabled the therapy, according to Metallica.
Berlinger: We didn’t say, “Let’s come film you so we can help you have therapy.” After the fact, we were told by our subjects, “because there were cameras in the room, it kept us honest.” It made them not bullshit each other. And therefore it made the therapy effective.
Bruce Sinofsky: I was at the Maysles for 14 years and David [Maysles] and Charlotte [Zwerin] were my mentors. What Charlotte taught me was instinctive editing, which we really took to heart in “Brother’s Keeper.” You know your material, you understand it. You take a scene you think can be an important scene, you cut it and you put it aside. A lot of people just noodle and noodle and noodle. Charlotte always said, “Just cut the scene and I guarantee 90 percent of what you cut will remain.” David also thought that the best films are the ones where you jump off a cliff and you have no idea where you’re going to land. I don’t want to wake up everyday and know what I’m going to have for dinner, so to speak. And that’s the same when you make a film. Every day during the Metallica shoot we’d drive over the Golden Gate Bridge to get to Presidio [where the band set up its recording studio], we’d set up at 10 a.m. for the band to come at 11 and get ready for what was always a bit of a roller coaster. [But, unlike other films,] most days we’d get something with the quality of narrative that we’d want to use.
Berlinger: It’s a very important point that Bruce brought up, the idea of not having a preconceived notion of what the film is about. Of course you have a basic idea… “Metallica” started out as a little promo video. And because we got our foot in the door and we saw that they were in therapy and we asked to push our way in, we saw a much greater [story] developing. Thankfully the band shared our vision that what we were capturing was some universal thing, a real statement of the times that we live in.
The other thing we learnt from Maysles editorially — Bruce touched upon it in a different way — certainly with scripted documentaries, like a fiction film, you know your structure in advance, and make your material fit the structure. We work in the exact opposite way. We go into the editing room and we find the most important scenes that can be anchors for the film… then we start playing with structure. Our editor on “Metallica” found our philosophy of editing a little troublesome. He wanted to have the structure first and cut the scenes later.
Sinofsky: Those were all puzzle pieces. We’d say, let’s put these two together and then build out from there. All of a sudden you’d get a 20-minute sequence. Though we had to “slay some babies,” the film that we made at 2 hours and 16 minutes, is exactly the film we wanted to make. Thank God for Metallica, because this is as close to director’s cut that we’ve ever had.
iW: You don’t normally get a director’s cut?
Berlinger: Well, we always get as good as those notes are. You can’t make a film for various netwoks without getting… uh… notes.
iW: Oh. You’re talking about television.
Berlinger: And movies. “Paradise Lost.” “Brother’s Keeper,” we got notes from “American Playhouse.”
Sinofsky: And we got notes from HBO.
Berlinger: Not that they’re bad notes. It’s just the nature of the process. Many of the notes help us tremendously.
iW: You don’t see them as censorship?
Sinofsky: No. Not really censorship. There are things that are sensitive. Or that they feel were inappropriate or there may be some legal reasons why…
Berlinger: It’s an inevitable fact of life if you’re going to be paid money for somebody to take your product and broadcast it, there are certain notes that you may not agree with but you have to do, even on our most personal and most independent films. In this case our client, Metallica, was ultimately paying for the film; originally they weren’t. But when the record label Elektra decided that the material was good enough to warrant an Ozzy [Osbourne]-like reality show, to set up the album, which we all felt would have…
Sinofsky: It would have been an insult to the material.
Berlinger: Even if we made the greatest reality show ever, the world does not digest, and the press does not consume reality television the way it does important documentaries…
Sinofsky: The headlines say, “Documentary is no longer a stepchild to Hollywood.” You never saw that before.
Berlinger: Also, there’s a much more profound connection to Maysles… “Gimme Shelter” is a groundbreaking film that influenced us tremendously. I was in love with that film long before I came to the Maysles. Bruce’s mentor was Charlotte Zwerin who really is the genius behind that. Music films that are just about music are interesting but not transcendent. The films that transcend the subject of music to become a document of its times – “Gimme Shelter” obviously is about the flame-out of the ’60s utopian dream… “Don’t Look Back,” too, is a glimpse of the period. “Some Kind of Monster” couldn’t have been made 10 or five years ago. Only now has the self-help craze gotten to the point where a metal band can go through that and celebrate it… And that says something about our times. And also, more importantly, it’s a document about the destruction of your personal life and individuality that being elevated to rock god status creates. The other structural tip-of-the hat to “Gimme Shelter” is that we feel this film ultimately is not for Metallica fans per se… although initially that’s 75 percent of our audience. Anyone with basic knowledge of hard rock or rock and roll in general will know that Metallica weathered the storm, that they came out with an album, went on tour. So the band didn’t disintegrate. We had a choice. We could make it all unfold in the present tense, and the drama is, what happens. Or you could have a flashback structure where we start the film with a journalist coming to hear the new album — we’ve taken away the suspense of what happens, but instead the storytelling experience is why it happened and how. It’s harder dramatically to keep the suspense up by telegraphing your ending. But that’s exactly what “Gimme Shelter” did…
iW: Did James Hetfield start drinking after his pyrotechnic accident, to kill the pain?
Sinofsky: No, they’d all been drinking heavily since the ’80s.
Berlinger: Drinking was part of the scene from the get go.
iW: So conquering that for James is a personal triumph and he reaches a height of eloquence that maybe some of the others don’t.
Sinofsky: He had the most risk and he went through the most changes… A lot of pop stars go away for five weeks and they’re back, they don’t really get deep into what the issues are — multiple issues. James was having terrible problems with his wife, with the band, Lars in particular. Although he seems resistant to Phil’s therapy, he was an ice cube melting. He knew he had to get some help or his life was going to completely collapse. When he slammed the door and walked out, we didn’t see him again for 11 months. So his journey is really the centerpiece of the film. And yes, he’s incredibly eloquent, at the end when he’s talking to the prisoners and says, “We’re all born good, we have the same-sized soul.”
iW: That was a great speech.
Sinofsky: He’s reached a place in his life where he’s comfortable with himself and the people around him. And that’s such an important lesson-that it’s okay to get therapy, it’s okay to get help. That message to a frustrated 18-year-old is as important as the message from 20 years ago which was a more angry message from James with his own angst. It’s a more healthy message. He’s somehow found a way to harness that anger and internalize it instead of going out and fighting with someone.
Berlinger: This was a band where members would dictate music to the other members. Hetfield and Ulrich would come to the studio with everything prepared. [For the recording of “St Anger”] they came into the studio with no licks, nothing. Very democratic. That was more scary to Hetfield than having his psyche picked apart by a shrink.