Forget Morgan Spurlock, the hottest new documentary maker is an unassuming Canadian named Sam Dunn. Along with Scot McFadyen, he has produced the year’s most exhilarating doc – and it’s all about metal.
Following the genre from its very beginnings, and including interviews with all of the movement’s major players, Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey is an absolute necessity for annoying with even a passing interest in heavy guitars and the vigorous banging of heads, and if not – what the fuck are you doing reading this mag?
Beginning with an argument over who can truly claim to be the first metal band, and taking in pretty much everything from metal’s relationship to opera, the use of the devil’s tritone, the infamous court cases of the 80s and more than a little hero worship, it’s an epic production. But did it feel that way while making it?
“It was a long, long road,” says writer/director/presenter Sam Dunn. “It was about five-and-a-half years, from the point of conception through to completion. It took us three years to raise the funding because we were first-time filmmakers taking on a pretty ambitious project, so it took a while to wrangle the funds. Once we had the money, it was about two years for the research, writing, shooting and editing of the film.”
And you drew the short straw and ended up presenting it? “Yeah, I ended up being ‘the dude in the film’,” he laughs. “The interesting thing in this collaboration between (co-director) Scot McFadyen and I, is that I grew up listening to this sort of music, but Scot is not a metalhead. I mean, he’s a fan of music, and has worked as a music supervisor for a long time, so I think that between us we were able to have the insider and outsider perspective. Which is something we tried to balance in the film.”
Was it hard not going too far down the fanboy route? “Yes and no. That was the balance we were trying to strike,” Sam explains. “The film was a personal journey that was obviously fuelled with passion and all of those good things, and on the other hand I had to bring in the anthropological angle. I think that it really speaks of the collaborative process that Scot was always there to keep me in check if we were heading down the nerd path too hard, and steer us back on, and remind me that we don’t need to obsess about the British grindcore movement for 20 minutes. It was by virtue of that kind of collaboration that enabled us to maintain some kind of objectivity. Scot acted as the other side of my psyche.”
When watching Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey, it doesn’t feel like your standard documentary. It’s bigger in scope and feel than many other films of its type – certainly rock docs. Was there a moment when the production suddenly felt bigger than planned? “It happened fairly early on in the writing process,” Dunn says, “but it took us a while to figure out that it had the potential. Originally it was going to be a much more conventional, historical documentary about heavy metal, and we were thinking of getting Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden to narrate, and it would be more of a look back.
“As we threw the idea around and talked about it, we realised we needed something that would bring people in from the outside, because we didn’t just want to make a film for metal fans.”
He continues: “If we’d done that, it would have turned into a TV project. The combination of a personal journey and the anthropological angle was something we felt would bring in more people, and we felt we had more of a story on our hands, rather than just a history.
“Our intention with the film is to convert as many people as possible,” he says, tongue-in-cheek… I think.
It’s clear from the outset of the film that Dunn is a massive Iron Maiden fan, and that getting to meet Bruce Dickinson in the process of shooting was a major thing for him, which is cool – I think we can all relate to that – but was there anyone else who made an impression?
“Well meeting Bruce Dickinson was obviously massive for me because Maiden are my all-time favourite band,” he reiterates, “but Tony Iommi was amazing. That was for a few reasons – the obvious reason is, he pretty much single-handedly created this guitar sound that became defined as the ‘heavy metal sound’ and played such a huge role. Secondly, he was just great with us – gave us plenty of his time and he was really gracious and friendly with us, which made it easy. Thirdly, that interview with Tommy came quite late in our production, right at the end, and there were a few ket interviews we felt we still needed. One was Lemmy, and one was Tony Iommi, and they both came together towards the end, and once we had Tony and were driving away from that country manor where we interviewed him, we felt like ‘Yes. We’ve got it now. We can make a film about metal, that covers all our bases.'”
It speaks volumes for the film that the makers chose to go after true metal heroes like Iommi, rather than taking the easy option of just grabbing Ozzy and letting him ramble on. Dunn agrees: “Yeah, Tony has a bit more to say. Our intention and motivation was to create a film that was smart and that gave the music the respect we felt it has always deserved. It was really just a matter of asking the right people the right questions.
“Growing up it felt like most of my metal friends were pretty articulate people, it wasn’t like they were always walking round smashing beer cans on their foreheads, which is the standard portrayal. Interviewing Tony instead of Ozzy is a sign of how we wanted to approach the film.”
This articulacy is evident throughout the documentary. Interviewees like Rob Zombie, Ronnie James Dio and Dee Snider bring up pertinent points, which is not something the average fan necessarily expects.
“Yeah, I agree. I honestly feel it was about framing it all in the right way. Most musicians, particularly in the metal world, are just used to answering pretty superficial and mundane questions like, ‘how’s the new album coming along?’, ‘how’s the tour?’, ‘tell me about your craziest moment on stage, dude.’ Those are the kinds of questions they’re used to fielding, and we were coming at them from an angle of the history of the music and the themes of the music, and what it means to people and why it is obsessed with all these bizarre things. Once we got going with the interviews, most of the artists began to open up and it was an opportunity to talk about things that they don’t usually get to talk about.”
In a world with such rabid fans, there was bound to be some complaining along the lines of ‘Boo hoo, Manowar weren’t featured enough’, and the internet is certainly testament to that, with a variety of websites and forums praising and decrying the film in equal measures for its choice of subjects. Has Dunn personally encountered any complaints?
“Ooooooooohhhh yes,” he says with a chuckle. “The great thing about making the film is that we’ve had to travel to dozens of film festivals around the world, and wherever you go, the fans that love this music and are passionate about it always have their opinions about which bands were omitted, and who we didn’t spend enough time on – but that’s what makes metal music so special; people care so much. It’s part of how they grow up and become their own person, so it has a lot of personal resonance.”
How have you answered those more critical fans?
“Our intention with creating the heavy metal family tree (check the film out, or go to www.metalhistory.com) was hopefully a way for us to at least touch on all of the different movements and the different bands. We knew we weren’t going to have interviews with everyone, but the tree was kind of a way to go ‘okay, we can tick Megadeth off the list.'”
As the film progresses, proceedings take a darker turn as Dunn investigates the world of black metal and the more questionable exercises some people practise… church burning, for example. One sections sees the director travel to Norway to chat face-to-face with some of the guys involved. It’s quite uneasy viewing in places; was Dunn intimidated at all?
“Well, to start with, I’m a huge fan of a lot of the black metal bands,” he explains, “and the bands and I communicated by email, there was a sense of camaraderie, and of trust, and that we could talk about these issues. So, it wasn’t so much a matter of being intimidated by them at all, because they’re really nice guys. It was more about being surprised, because when we wrote the treatment we expected the bands to distance themselves from those events – that’s what we were expecting to get – but we were surprised in one or two situations to find that some of the artists actually support the burning, or, if they don’t necessarily support it, there is an underlying resentment of Christianity that stretches back a long, long time. That is something that is very real in their culture, and that was often the case with some of the bands we interviewed there.
“When we came back and started editing, we were like ‘Wow. Religion is really important to these people and has had a huge influence on their society’, so we wanted to reflect that in the movie.”
Another of the more notorious scenes in the movie takes place at the Wacken festival, when the the filmmakers catch up with Norwegian metallers Mayhem. It’s not an overexaggeration to say that they were dicks. Were they really like that, or did they just turn it on when the cameras started rolling?
“They were actually pretty obnoxious,” says Dunn. “But I will say, I’ve met them in Norway and I’ve talked with other band members on different occasions, and they’re actually pretty nice guys – it’s not like they’re out to control the world. In the context of that interview, they’d just got off stage after playing to 40,000 people and they’d obviously been drinking most of the day, so I don’t think they were particularly interested in doing an interview. All of those factors combined with the fact that there were 30-40 people standing behind me watching the interview, so it was like they were still performing. As an interviewer your goal is to establish some kind of intimacy, but clearly… we failed.”
What about current, more populist bands – are there any that grab Dunn’s attention?
“I’m not a huge fan of metalcore, emocore, eyelinercore, whatever,” he explains. “Metal is not supposed to be cute, and when it becomes cute, it becomes wrong. These bands begin to tread that fine line between being too commercial and staying underground.” Dunn continues: “If people are discovering Coheed and Cambria or Slipknot or Avenged Sevenfold, and are then discovering the Black Sabbaths and Iron Maidens and Slayers, then I think that’s good. Who am I to judge that? That’s how I got into the music. It’s like we say in the movie, with Van Halen and Motley Crue, before it was Morbid Angel and Creator. I mean, c’mon, you don’t start at step five. As long as that more populist music is providing a gateway into the core of metal, then that’s a good thing.”
So the more traditional idea of metal is still alive and thriving?
“Yeah, I think now’s a really exciting time for metal,” he says. “A lot of people think metal is just about nostslgia and that it dies in the 80s, and that was another myth we were trying to debunk in the film. Metal is underground, that’s where it comes from, and it’s always gonna survive.
“Right now what’s great is that loads of bands that have been toiling away in the underground for a long time are starting to get some recognition. Bands like Arch Enemy, Mastadon, Lamb of God, Children of Bodom, so many of these bands are really starting to make their way, and it’s really positive for metal because it’s not like Linkin Park where you can handpick your heavy metal boyband. These bands are the real thing, and that’s what metal fans really appreciate and they deserve it. It feels like 20 years ago, and I see parallels between what was happening then and what’s happening now.”
The exuberance with which Sam Dunn talks about his film, his band at home and his next movie idea is a reflection of his love of the music. Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey isn’t a plea to the wider world for understanding, it’s just an attempt to shine a light on a greatly misunderstood medium, and if the haters still don’t get it, then that’s just fine.
As Dunn says at the film’s close: “We’re doing just fine without you.”