Chapter 8, “Enter Night” from “Metallica: This Monster Lives”
by Joe Berlinger
[EDITORS NOTE: Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky‘s latest documentary, “Metallica: Some Kind of Monster” takes viewers inside the making of an album and offers a look at the challenges facing the members of one of the biggest bands in the world, and delivers keen insight into the creative process and group dynamics. Berlinger’s new book, “Metallica: This Monster Lives,” written with Greg Milner, depicts the challenging experience of making this, or any documentary film, and probes the inner workings of a rock band. Released earlier this year, “Some Kind of Monster” screened at Sundance, SXSW, Edinburgh, and the San Francisco, Full Frame, and True/False Film Festivals, among others, later receiving a nomination for best feature documentary from the IDA and the Independent Spirit Awards. More information is available online.]
Chapter 8: “Enter Night”
When James slammed the door and walked out of our lives, we thought we had a great dramatic moment, the kind of cinematic realism that verité filmmakers live for.We all figured it was a climax of sorts, but not a final act.We soon discovered, of course, that James had checked himself into rehab for an indefinite period. Again, this seemed like a momentary setback for the band, and possibly even a boon for the film. It never crossed our minds that we might have just witnessed the last time James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich ever made music together. Or that our film was coming dangerously close to disintegrating in front of our eyes.
We couldn’t know it at the time, but that slammed door would throw Metallica and Monster into a maddening limbo. James was very private about whatever problems and addictions had led him to rehab, and Kirk, Lars, and Bob were very guarded with us about what they knew. Their silence on this subject was the first wall Metallica put up between them and us. We didn’t have to avoid it entirely, but they made it very clear that they would not discuss the details of what James was going through without James’s permission, and he wasn’t around to give it. This was an understandable response to a situation that, as time went on, seemed to herald the death of Metallica, but it made our jobs much more difficult. Not once, however, did Lars or Kirk ever tell us the film project was dead. Through deductive reasoning, we figured out that James was being treated for alcohol abuse, as well as other temptations commensurate with being Metallica’s most visible member – behavior that would put a strain on even the best of marriages. It was also clear that James’s solo trip to Russia marked the death throes of the “old” James Hetfield. What the “new” James would look like was now anyone’s guess. I just hoped we’d be around to film him when he emerged from his self-imposed exile.
Since Lars was the member of Metallica who felt strongest about our film, we wanted to find out whether he thought the film had a future. Two months after James’s departure, Bruce and I cobbled together some of the footage we’d shot so far, flew back to San Francisco, and drove over to Lars’s house. Before we got down to business, he ushered us into his home theater, and said he had something cued up to show us. It was an experimental, non-narrative film shot by his father, the wonderfully eccentric Torben Ulrich. The film was like a European version of something filmmaker Stan Brakhage would’ve made under the influence of mushrooms (and if you’re familiar with Brakhage’s work, you know many of his films already seem like they were influenced by mushrooms). It was interesting, but I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to watch a nonlinear film, because I was feeling distinctly linear myself: I had one thought on my mind, and that was whether Lars would give us his blessing to continue. So I paid Lars a quick compliment, even though I had been unable to concentrate on his father’s film.
The footage we showed Lars was roughly divided into three parts. There was a bit of the first couple of weeks, when everyone was getting along and there were plenty of good vibes; some footage abut James’s reservations about democratizing the songwriting process; and the fight that sent James packing.
The lights went up. I felt a knot in my stomach. I wanted to communicate to Lars that we assumed the project was still alive, but that we were ready to roll with the punches. So I got right to the point: How far could we push this? Where did we go from here?
Lars stared straight ahead for a few seconds before speaking. “I only have one rule: no cheap shots. If it’s just voyeuristic, or does nothing but hurt or embarrass our wives, it’s out. But anything that helps move the story along is fair game.”
Bruce and I looked at each other, relief written all over our faces. Bruce said, “I think that’s totally fair.” And we spoke of it no more.
We were both impressed by Lars’s commitment to the project, despite the crumbling of his band. It demonstrated bravery at a time of extreme vulnerability, and it showed he trusted us. It also revealed Lars’s cinematic sensibility. Even in the midst of a severe crisis, he was thinking that this project could become much more than a promotional vehicle. He understood that this film could tell a gripping story, albeit one that might make Metallica look bad, or have an unhappy ending. There might not even be an ending: Maybe Metallica was destined to remain in metal purgatory, an indefinite limbo.This would be bad for us, but much worse for him. Lars was thinking like a verité filmmaker, moving forward without a guaranteed resolution. He was willing to take that risk.
Which left Bruce and me facing one burning question: Were we?
The moment Lars made it clear that we weren’t banished from his world, somewhere in the back of my mind, somewhere behind the relief, I remember thinking, yet again, about the innate hypocrisy of what Bruce and I do. If I was in Lars’s position, if what I’d been doing for fully half my life was in danger of disappearing forever, there is no way I would let some guy with a camera follow me around. I’d like to think this hypocrisy is at least partially offset by the care we put into telling our subjects’ stories, as well as our willingness to turn our own lives upside down to get our films made. We were about to enter one of those personally chaotic periods.We were, of course, ecstatic that the Metallica movie was still alive and starting to coalesce into a story worthy of something grander than a promotional vehicle, but we were also in an awkward position. This project was still officially a promotional piece, something to be used to hawk the album once it was released. As the weeks – and then months – went by without James returning, and it looked like there might not be an album, now or ever, the prospect of this even becoming a standard promotional project seemed increasingly remote; our footage was most likely headed for a vault somewhere at Elektra Records, never to be seen again.We could conceivably make a film about a band’s last days – a compelling subject for fans, perhaps, but one that would be hard to turn into something that many people would want to see: Metallica ending its career not with a bang but a whimper. Besides, who would pay to finish this film, and would Metallica ever let it be shown?
The possibility of making a compelling verité film tends to be in inverse proportion to how well things are going in the lives of the documentary’s subjects- at least that’s the case for the types of films Bruce and I are drawn to (I’m sure Phil would have a field day with that one). For a long time, it was hard for us to admit to this formula, because it makes us sound like ambulance chasers. There is, however, an important corollary: As things get worse for the subjects, things get riskier for us, in terms of investing time and money. If, after Bruce and I had spent several months with the Wards, Delbert had pleaded guilty in exchange for a sentencing deal, this would have been awful news for the Wards and Munnsville, and our film would have been anticlimactic. By the same token, if the prosecutors had dropped their charges, there would have been joy in Munnsville, but our film would have been, at best, the document of a poorly conceived investigation that ended before things got out of control – a different sort of anticlimax. Fortunately for us, the situation struck a perfect balance: neither side blinked, the case went to trial, and our film had a cliffhanger ending.
There reaches a point where things can get too dire for a film’s subjects, leaving you with no film whatsoever. The longer we waited for James to come back, the more our lives were in limbo.We submitted a budget to cover this extended period, reducing the frequency of shooting days and keeping our fees low as a gesture of good faith. Meanwhile, other potential film gigs piled up. Bruce and I agreed that we would only take on jobs that could be dropped immediately if James were to return. Obviously, there weren’t many gigs that qualified. The USA Network approached us about doing a TV movie about the actor Robert Blake, who was accused of murdering his wife. They envisioned something that combined scripted material with documentary footage. We would have a decent budget and access to Blake himself. It sounded like an interesting project, an opportunity to be really creative with the interplay between fiction and nonfiction. But to do it we’d have to commit to a tight shooting schedule that we couldn’t alter just because the singer from Metallica decided to bless us with his presence.
Other lucrative work was thrown my way. I got sent several scripts for feature films, especially gory horror movies. My Blair Witch debacle had apparently not ruined me as much as I’d feared (or maybe it had, considering the dreck I was being sent), but I had no intention of being pigeonholed as a slasher director. Still, it was nice to know that I could get a second chance, and I wanted the industry to see that I was still on someone’s short list of directors, so it was with some reluctance that I didn’t pursue any of these offers. Even more difficult to turn down were the offers to direct commercials. Like many documentary filmmakers, commercial work is our bread and butter. Making commercials is extremely lucrative. Most commercial shoots last only a week but also require a few weeks of preparation. Once you commit to a commercial, it’s basically all you do for a month, so those were out. Each time we turned one down, and then saw the time we would’ve spent making it come and go with no sign of James, we would think of the forty grand that could’ve been ours.
As the months wore on, and my family’s bank account dipped lower and lower, I really started to wonder what the hell I was doing. If it weren’t for the support of my wife, I might have walked away entirely. Just as she reminded me, after Blair Witch 2, that Bruce and I had made some great films, she now assured me that there was a potentially great film here.
Bruce and I were also fortunate that we had each other to lean on and support our mutual decision to keep going, which affected more than just us and our families. For our commercial work, we’re represented by @radical.media, the world’s largest television commercial production company. My company, Third Eye Motion Picture Company, also has an “overhead deal” with @radical.media. I agree to use @radical.media’s infrastructure for my productions and put the company’s name on my films (which helps it continue to grow its presence in the film world), and @radical.media, in turn, gives me office space and production support. @radical.media could have complained about our lack of activity but was nothing but supportive.1
After about six months of waiting for James, we decided he might be gone for good, so we began to take on some other projects. I worked on two HBO shows, Virtual Corpse (about a death-row inmate whose body, which he donated to science, was sliced into thousands of pieces, photographed, and put online as the first three-dimensional map of the human body), and Judgment Day (which followed the parole hearings of people convicted of violent crimes). Bruce worked on a film about Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater Company and made Hollywood High, a documentary about drug use in the movies, for the AMC network. I also began a more personal film. I read an article about the city of Vienna burying eight hundred preserved brains of mentally and physically handicapped children who were victims of Nazi medical experiments conducted by an Austrian doctor named Heinrich Gross. Vienna was one of about thirty “killing centers” that the Nazis created for their so called “euthanasia program,” which was basically a means to eliminate the handicapped population. Gross was particularly brutal. He would allegedly torture handicapped children until they died, tabulating every aspect of their deaths. He would then remove their brains and use them to publish papers about brain malformations. After the war, he became one of Austria’s most prominent forensic psychiatrists; he testified in many criminal trials and bragged about having the world’s largest collection of brain specimens, which he continued to study throughout his career. The Austrian legal establishment, which relied on his expert testimony, didn’t seem to mind his horrible past and in fact protected him from prosecution. But after an Austrian journalist uncovered more evidence of Gross’s complicity with the Nazi euthanasia program, the Austrian government, deeply embarrassed and trying to come to grips with the resurgence of far-right neo-Nazi political parties, agreed in the spring of 2002 to lay the brains to rest.
In my youth, I had been obsessed with the Holocaust. Recognizing an actual living link to these horrors, I decided to make a film about Gross called Gray Matter. I dropped everything and personally financed a shoot to cover the burial of the brains. I spent several months juggling Gray Matter and Monster, which meant living a very schizophrenic existence. I had a minuscule budget for Gray Matter and was receiving very little cooperation from the Austrian government. (Unlike Germany, Austria has generally been very slow to acknowledge its complicity with the Nazis’ atrocities.) Although Gross has attempted to clear his name by giving a few interviews over the years, my attempts to get him to tell his story on camera were futile. Meanwhile, back in the Bay Area, I was getting plenty of financial support and had the full cooperation of my subjects, but I couldn’t help wondering if the problems of rock stars were a bit trivial compared to the horrible suffering of Gross’s young victims. With James gone and the band slowly disintegrating, it took a lot of effort to remain excited about the Metallica movie. I was beginning to face the fact that we had no film without James coming back and the band getting its shit together, recording and releasing an album, and going on tour – all of which now seemed about as likely as Austria formally apologizing for giving the world Hitler.
The money notwithstanding, I was beginning to wonder if we even had Metallica’s “full cooperation.” It wasn’t enough to just sit around waiting for James to walk through the door. We also had to be poised to capture any event that seemed significant to Metallica’s unfolding story. The band wasn’t in the studio, which meant that anything the guys did outside the studio was potentially of interest to us, but it was becoming more difficult to get them to return our calls right away. As we see in Monster, Phil urged them during this period to keep thinking of themselves as a band, lest they become “coproducers of the process slipping off the planet.” That’s exactly what it felt like was happening to our film.
Finally, after about ten unreturned phone calls, I left a message on Lars’s voice mail, saying that if we didn’t hear back from him, we would assume the film was dead, and we’d be moving on to other projects. A few hours later, he called me back. “Look, Lars,” I said, “during this period that James is away, it’s really important that you guys stay in touch with us so that we know what you’re going through during this difficult time. So please either return my calls or check in with me from time to time.”
He was immediately defensive. “I’m living my life here, Berlinger. I’m trying to hold my band together. I don’t have to tell you every time I take a leak.”
“Actually, Lars, yes, you do. You have to tell us about everything.”
He sighed, mumbled something about seeing us soon, and hung up.
Disrupting people’s lives is an occupational hazard that every documentarian accepts, but it’s still unpleasant. It’s a central paradox of verité filmmaking that capturing someone’s life as it’s lived means inserting yourself into that life in a most unnatural way. You have to convince people to remember you when it’s time to take a leak. Still, there was a silver lining to my latest run-in with Lars. Last time, this sort of argument hadn’t been worth more than a “Hey!” on his part, a knee-jerk reaction that preempted any further discussion. Now, as defensive as he seemed, he was at least recognizing what it took to make the sort of film he insisted he wanted us to make. There was a band to save, a film to make, and leaks to be taken. It was a small bit of progress, but at that point I was willing to take what I could get.
[CREDIT: From the book “Metallica: This Monster Lives: The Inside Story of Some Kind of Monster” by Joe Berlinger with Greg Milner. Copyright by Joe Berlinger and reprinted with permission from St. Martin’s Press, LLC.]