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Ten Years Later, Joe Berlinger On How ‘Some Kind of Monster’ Helped Him Heal

Ten Years Later, Joe Berlinger On How 'Some Kind of Monster' Helped Him Heal

How did shooting “Some Kind of Monster” change your attitude about filmmaking?

The making of “Some Kind of Monster” [has] had a profound impact on my filmmaking philosophy — imbuing in me a sense of the wonder [about] the journey. Even if you don’t know the destination, the “movie” can be about the journey itself. “Some Kind of Monster” was truly a happy accident.

It started out as a much smaller, much humbler project. Basically, Elektra Records, Metallica’s label at the time, was hiring us to just document the band going back into the studio for the first time in 5 years to record an album. Napster and other digital sharing platforms were starting to nip at the heels of the industry, but iTunes did not exist yet, so the record industry was still in the big business of selling physical CD’s of music, and the thought was to have us document the making of a few recording sessions as both an EPK (electronic press kit) and to create a short film to include as a bonus feature on the physical CDs being sold in stores to encourage the purchase of the CD (i.e., a “value added” product to discourage file sharing.)

The last thing we were all thinking when we began the project was that we were embarking on a three year journey to document a band in crisis and that we would be deconstructing the very image of Heavy Metal in the process. However, when I arrived in San Francisco to begin the project, long-time bassist Jason Newsted had suddenly quit the band because of all of the interpersonal dysfunction that characterized Metallica in those days.

The album was being put on hold because the band seemed to be falling apart as founders James Hetfield (lead vocals, guitar) and Lars Ulrich (drums) were barely communicating. When I heard the band’s management had brought in a “performance enhancement coach” (aka band therapist), I thought something interesting might happen. So, even though I was there to create an EPK about the making of the record, I convinced everyone to allow us to film the first therapy session and see where the journey went.

I had no idea if there was a film to be made and what the story was going to be, but felt something special was about to begin — so this approach really opened my eyes to the fact that sometimes if there is an unusual situation and you don’t know the outcome, just jumping out the window and hoping there is a mattress down below to catch you can make the most compelling filming situations.

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The other fundamental change in my attitude towards my own filmmaking that occurred with “Some Kind of Monster” was realizing that documentary making isn’t always about “observing.” Sometimes the presence of the camera can affect the nature of what you are filming and actually change the outcome of an event, similar to the phenomenon of the Observer Effect in physics (sometimes confused with Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle); which of course raises all kinds of philosophical issues about the nature of documentary filmmaking that we can talk about in some other forum than this 10th Anniversary article. Certainly not every situation that one makes a documentary about would be changed by the process of recording it on film, but, without question, the cameras did affect the outcome of this particular situation, and instead of fearing or resisting it, we embraced that process and principle.

Lars was quoted repeatedly at the time of the film’s release in 2004, saying that the presence of cameras during the therapy behaved like a “truth” serum for the band; that because cameras were rolling that were being held by guys they knew and trusted (we knew them from the Paradise Lost days, again, another story for another day), it allowed the therapy to actually work. In other words, the band members felt like they were saying things to each other that had been bottled up for two decades, speaking to each other through the cameras.

So, the cameras actually enabled the therapy, and the therapy itself without question saved the band and allowed it to heal and move on and become an even stronger force today, a decade after the film’s release in 2004. The band is the first to admit that had there been no cameras, the therapy probably would not have worked, and without the therapy, there would be no Metallica today.

In what ways was the film a personal film for you in terms of your own career?

This was perhaps the most personal film of my career, in ways that are not evident in the actual film. But, this is the film that I feel luckiest to have made and that came at precisely the right time in my life, which was after the debacle of “Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2.”

When “Blair Witch 2” came out in the fall of 2000, it was greeted with abysmal reviews and personal attacks on me. And although I think the venom was overplayed and, in hindsight, any movie calling itself “Blair Witch 2” was asking for trouble (despite the fact that the film still ended up grossing over $50 million worldwide and $25 million on DVD on a $10 million production budget), it was nonetheless a doubly agonizing experience because not only were the reviews poor, but I had lost control of the final cut of the movie — changes were made and sequences re-shot that I had vociferously fought against.

Obviously I can’t say with any assurance that the critical outcome would have been any different if my director’s cut had been released, but at least it would have been my movie that I would have been proud to stand behind regardless of the terrible reviews. But to get such vicious reviews on a film that I myself did not believe in really sent [me] into a deep, dark place. Just to pick myself up off the ground and try to get back to work after that debacle, I reached out to Metallica to follow up on a conversation that Lars and I had a few years back about filming them the next time they went into the studio (I had just read that they were just about to do that).

So, the call to Lars right after the “Blair Witch 2” critical failure is the reason I headed out to San Francisco to make what I thought was going to be an EPK for Metallica’s next album. It is ironic to me that the critical drubbing of one movie directly led to one of the most joyous filmmaking experiences of my career. In fact, when I was sitting with Metallica and observing their first therapy session through a camera viewfinder, I was grateful that the universe put me in this place at that particular moment, because I, too, was going through the same existential and creative crisis the band was going through in my own way, having coming off such a visible failure as the sequel to “The Blair Witch Project.” So hearing these icons of Metal working through their issues was exactly the medicine I needed, regardless of where the film was headed or whether or not it would actually ever be completed.

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I also saw an eerie similarity to the relationship issues that James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich were going through… basically these musical partners who had founded the band were having all sorts of communication, collaboration and ego issues that mirrored what had gone on in my relationship with my “Brother’s Keeper” and “Paradise Lost” filmmaking partner Bruce Sinofsky. In fact, Bruce and I had a bitter break up just before I went off to make “Blair Witch 2” and I had begun the Metallica film alone, thinking it was just a little gig of going behind the scenes for an EPK just to get back on my feet after the “Blair Witch 2” bellyflop. But, when I was filming that first therapy session and realized there was potential here for a much bigger, more universal project about the creative process and collaborative relationships, I knew in my heart that this was an amazing opportunity for Bruce and I to repair our relationship and work through our personal issues, so I invited him to be a part of the film.

As we filmed Metallica in therapy, we used the experience to heal ourselves instead of just observing the healing of others. For that reason alone, this film stands out as one of the greatest personal growth experiences I have been lucky enough to experience. It also taught me to really fight for what you believe in. With “Blair Witch 2,” even though I argued against the changes that were forced into the film, I lacked the courage to really take a stand and take my name off of the film prior to its release to demonstrate my antipathy to the changes that were forced on the film.

In contrast to allowing “Blair Witch 2” to be butchered by its studio (Artisan Entertainment), this time I was not going to make the mistake again with whatever this Metallica film was going to turn into. So when James came back from rehab mid-way through production and wasn’t sure that he wanted us to continue with the making of the film, we made it clear to the band that we, too, were prepared to walk away if we were going to be saddled with too many unreasonable restrictions.

A number of months later, in 2002, we faced another challenge: MTV just launched one of the first big celebrity reality show hits, “The Osbournes,” a look at the home and family life of Black Sabbath lead vocalist Ozzie Osbourne. We were deep into filming Metallica’s journey when the Elektra execs who had been paying for the filming wanted us to quickly morph the footage and our plans to make a feature documentary into an ongoing reality TV series, even before Metallica had finished recording the St. Anger album or completing the therapy process.

Believing this would be a bad thing for the band and a real compromise to our vision for the film, we convinced Metallica that reducing this experience to an MTV series would make it seem like therapy was a pre-mediated reality TV concept instead of the truth of the matter, which was that the band decided to try therapy for real and legitimate reasons and, and quite by accident, filmmakers happened to be around who organically decided to capture it.

To us, the power and authenticity of the material demanded allowing it to live as a documentary feature project instead of restricting it to the conventions and schedule of reality TV. So, we fought this idea and won. And now, ten years later, it’s really exciting to see the film being re-released on Blu-Ray [because the re-release] includes a new short film that addresses some of these issues. With “Some Kind of Monster” being made available on digital platforms for the first time ever, we hope a younger generation will have the opportunity to discover this very life-affirming film.

READ MORE: Joe Berlinger on Michael Moore and The Changing Market for Documentaries

You can check out an exclusive clip from the new short film below. “Some Kind of Monster” is now available for purchase on Blu-Ray and digital.

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