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Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey - Kerby’s Interview With Filmakers Sam Dunn and Scot McFadyen

By Jeff Kerby, Contributor
Monday, May 22, 2006 @ 11:22 AM

"Metal [is] heavy, dark...You

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It should come as no surprise to anyone that there are a variety of genres and sub genres within metal that are basically comprised of a myriad of fans given to expressing themselves---often in a negative way. That being the case, it is surprising that Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey has received such consistently positive press from both word of mouth accounts of the film as well as the considerable wave of Internet buzz that has accompanied the movie since its release. Generally, viewers of this documentary created by Sam Dunn (narrator) and Scot McFadyen (behind the scenes) seem mostly to have just been grateful for the opportunity to view a film that is completely devoted to a form of music that they love so dearly. It’s true--the most ambitious aspect of this documentary lies in its unflinching desire to cover metal in its totality. There is something here for everyone---sure, there are going to be those who wish for more coverage of their particular corner of the spectrum, but…given that there is only about a two hour window for a film of this type, the creators of Headbangers need to be commended for the documentary’s brisk flow as well as the amount of information conveyed.

The DVD release of Dunn and McFadyen’s vision is a two-disc extravaganza featuring not only the documentary, but also another DVD containing an interactive version of the metal family tree as well as extended Norwegian death metal footage. It’s difficult to predict what the long-term effect of this release will be in respect to the perception of metal throughout the world, but one aspect of the film that is undeniable is that it truly does manage to display a rather complex subject in a palatable form that even laymen unfamiliar with the movement of metal can appreciate. Sure, in most cases Dunn and McFadyen’s work will amount to the equivalent of preaching to the converted, but regardless of the audience this movie eventually reaches, it doesn’t make the message any less important or the means of communicating it any less effective. It’s pretty clear: metal is metal, and for some it is everything. Either you decide to accept the power/magic it possesses as a potentially life-altering aspect to your life or you don’t.

Ultimately, the decision is yours.

KNAC.COM: Were you ever afraid of having a bad experience interviewing one of these guys? I mean, if Bruce Dickinson had been really abrasive to you, would it have ultimately affected your love of Maiden’s music?

SAM: I mean, for me, I’m in my early thirties now, so…if I had been doing this as a teenager and would have had a bad experience, it might have impacted how I saw their music…for a couple of days maybe. The music, for me though, always trumps everything else--that’s just the risk you take when you meet your heroes. They might disappoint you. I guess we were lucky. So many of these interviews we got were great. A bad one might have discouraged me for a little while, but give it a few days, and I’d still want to listen to their music. You have to be able to make that separation. Some musicians that I admire are ones who are notorious for not exactly being the nicest guys on the planet.

KNAC.COM: Don’t those people end up being the best interviews though? It almost always seems like the musicians with the worst reps end up having the most interesting things to say.

SAM: Yeah, there is always a surprise with them, and they always end up keeping you on your toes for one reason or another. It’s a potentially more volatile situation though.

SCOT: It might be like a Sebastian Bach—you never know if he’s gonna hit you.

SAM: Yeah, you don’t know if he’s gonna hug you or hit you at the end of the interview. The way that worked out though is kind of telling for how the movie worked out. We started out with this premise that we were going to make a movie that was in-depth about metal and wasn’t going to alienate any of the fans in any way. That was our foundation. As the film began to evolve, we began to incorporate more humor into the film, and the Mayhem interview is a great example because initially I thought it was a throwaway--I thought it was a useless interview that didn’t have any interesting content. Scot, on the other hand, was like, “let’s take another look at that.” It has now become one of the favorite parts of the film. Like you’re saying, you never know what’s going to happen.

KNAC.COM: It’s funny you mentioned that because you don’t always know about an interview when you walk away from it. Sometimes, you leave a person thinking, “that wasn’t all that great”, but when it comes time to go over it, there may have been a lot of content that for whatever reason just didn’t resonate at the time.

SAM: I guess the good thing about it for us though was that it was collaboration between Scot and I. I was doing the interviewing, but Scot was there for every interview watching and listening, so I guess we had the advantage of having each other’s viewpoint. Having another set of eyes and ears involved was especially helpful since we could discuss the interviews afterwards.

KNAC.COM: So if the two of you came to a consensus about something, you had to feel you had a pretty good grasp of what had occurred.

SAM: I think given the enormous subject matter, the only way we could have made a film like we made is through a collaboration.

KNAC.COM: I don’t think that many people really think about all the work that can go into coordinating an interview and know just how many people need to be dealt with sometimes just to make it into a room with someone. From your footage at Wacken to the whole Sharon Osbourne issue, there had to have been about a million different hoops to jump through during the making of this documentary.

SCOT: That was probably one of the most difficult parts of making this film for sure. We could have probably come up with a much simpler topic to make a documentary about because we were dealing with all of these people who are surrounded by all of these other people whose job it is to screen you. It gets really tiring to have to keep proving yourself each time to people. The good part though is that our emails get answered pretty fast now that people like the film.(laughs)

KNAC.COM: You mean, people didn’t just take you at your word to start with? You know, “honest guys, it’s gonna be great!” It would have been nice if you would have had that open-door access from the beginning.

SCOT: I always say that the person to this day who was the most helpful was Rob Smallwood—Iron Maiden’s manager. He was like the first person out of any of the managers to say that he understood what we were doing and actually wrote us back a letter.

SAM: That kind of goes back to your earlier question about what it’s like when you get in the room and you get Tony Iommi in there—it’s like you want to be totally prepared because you know how hard it was to get to that point--this better be a damn good interview. In a way, I think that it helped focus us before.

KNAC.COM: I would always joke with some people that it would be easier to get an audience with a senator or someone than some of these musical figures. The funniest part of that is that it isn’t always the people you expect who have the highest amount of security.

SAM: Yeah, definitely.

KNAC.COM: I assume you guys have seen the Penelope Spheeris documentary The Metal Years---what did you take from that film, if anything?

SCOT: Personally, I think it’s a good movie. I think it was fun—it was a snapshot of a certain time in metal’s history. I wasn’t necessarily convinced in a way that she wasn’t making fun of heavy metal. Everything is about how you frame things, and there are a ton of choices--we could have made many different choices in our film that would have made metal look ridiculous or funny. I’m not sure that was the most sympathetic eye towards metal, but that was also a pretty ridiculous time in metal history as well. (laughs)


SAM: I don’t think Penelope maybe had the intention of it being comedic or kind of a spoof, but I think that in hindsight, it has that flavor to it. I think that is true particularly because Decline isn’t just about metal but it is about the challenges and the volatility of that environment and being a rock star and about being an obsessed fan of rock music and how on one hand it can be inspired, but the next minute it can give you a false sense of the world. That’s what I always saw as the underlined commentary whether it was intended or not. “This is the world—proceed at your own risk.”

KNAC.COM: That’s funny because the one part of Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey that sort of reminded me of Penelope’s movie with regard to regret or the expression of some of the pitfalls occurred when you guys interviewed Rob Jones of KNAC.COM. From the beginning, it seemed like he was speaking very sincerely about his perception of women and the warped perspective of them that sometimes happens when a person is working on the road in that context.

SCOT: Yeah, we had him in just on his own for a long time, and we had several screenings and showed it to a lot of women who thought it was kind of one-sided and some of the women wanted to hear about the other side of it. That’s when we kind of went back and spoke to Pamela Des Barres and spoke about being a groupie from her perspective.

KNAC.COM: Did you get a true sense that she actually believed what she was saying or do you think that she has simply rationalized this “career” of hers as something that empowers her and is somehow desirable?

SAM: I don’t know. She struck me as being quite sincere. Since her experiences in the scene have been a positive thing and she has made a career out of it in publishing…I guess she is seeing it through those eyes---as someone who has managed to maintain control over her life and have integrity in those types of things. Obviously, she sees it as a positive thing.

KNAC.COM: I understand that. I guess my problem would be that I mostly just tend to see the ten million garden variety type groupies who mostly just suck dick either because they are delusional and think they might actually land a particular guy or simply to engage in an activity in which to tell their friends. I mean, Pamela’s empowerment is the equivalent of hitting the groupie lottery--I just thought Rob’s disclosure rang a little more true.

SAM: I kinda came away from that completely respecting Rob for being totally open about it. It was like, “this is the way I looked at women at the time, and it kind of really damaged me in a way. Thankfully, I got out of it, not everyone does.” You’re right, it is the closest thing to Decline of Western Civilization in a way because he is commenting directly on that period where there were people who never got out of that frame of mind, and it can be very damaging over the long term.

KNAC.COM: Then there was the comment about how some of the musicians are still looking for those experiences even today and simply can’t adjust. What is that like? I’m sure it was great in ‘86 when you were nailing hot chicks left and right, but what’s it like when you’re fifty and cruising for women and no one knows who the hell Danger Danger is anymore?

SAM: Or Britny Fox or whoever.

KNAC.COM: Yeah, or whoever it might be. What fascinates me though is how someone manages to continue on with their life knowing that they had the world at their feet at twenty-two, but at twenty-four, all of that is over. How do they view the rest of their lives?

SCOT: That would be a cool documentary actually. Talk to different people—I mean, I’m sure it happens in many different professions.

SAM: I think that all ties into the cult of celebrity, and we all want these people that we admire or worship for one reason or another, but the reality is that you could be king for a day and fool for a lifetime.

SCOT: That’s why I like being behind the camera…that way I can just walk away instead of “there’s that dude that did the metal movie!”

SAM: Years from now I can be walking around with my Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey shirt going “see that movie I made? That was me back when I had hair and didn’t have a pot belly!”

KNAC.COM: Just make sure you’re sitting next to the guy from Britny Fox when you’re spinning that—it might make you look better.

SAM: Yeah. (laughs)

KNAC.COM: I’m sure the two of you were together as much or more than most band mates during the making of this film, did you ever fall prey to the whole “you’re getting on my nerves, jackass!” band squabble syndrome?

SCOT: Yeah, but I think we are part of a rare sort of partnership or team where we are friends first. Out of a hundred friends, I probably have just one that I could work together like this with. It’s kind of a good cop-bad cop thing where I’m the bad cop.

SAM: I think it’s really hard for collaborations to work, but I think the reason it worked for Scot and I is that we have different strengths and different weaknesses. It may be cliché, but it’s true. There’s definitely tough times when you’re pulling fourteen to sixteen hour days during the winter in Toronto editing a film for seven months, it gets pretty ugly. I think that we both thought we were onto something though, and we both have these working class mentalities where nothing comes easy in life, so you have to work for it. Despite our differences, that was the one unifying factor—that and we’re both frighteningly ambitious. (laughs)

KNAC.COM: Well, conquering the world through a metal documentary in 2006 is an interesting way to go.

SAM: I’ll take it. (laughs)

KNAC.COM: Did you guys ever have to sit down and chart how much time you were going to devote to a given topic or did the flow come a little more naturally?

SCOT: I think it was sort of a trial and error thing that had a lot to do with instinctual pacing. You just watch things over and over again. We did some test screenings from people and asked how they felt about a certain point. If you ask people after a test screening of a film, “how long was it?” and they say it was two and half hours, and the film was two, then you know it was too long. You have to just kind of balance it out and if the people respond with the right amount of time or just a little less, you know you’ve got it. There really isn’t a formula or anything for it.

KNAC.COM: So you never said, “I can only devote twenty-two minutes to Wacken footage?"

SCOT: Oh no, we knew that—we would definitely time different sections, but it wouldn’t be a formula.

SAM: Yeah, it was more about rhythm that involved more visuals and graphics. The interview portions were kind of the spine of it, but then we could kind of jump off and have these musical moments and graphics that sort of enabled us to keep people interested while giving them some content as well.

KNAC.COM: How hard was it to remain objective regarding the Norwegian church burnings?

SCOT: It was a battle. You know, when we talked about cutting down the film, that was the last part that got cut. Once we got to Norway, there were a lot of interviews we did that kind of explained Norwegian metal, but it was about forty-five minutes long when the rest of the film was mostly made up of ten-minute sections.

KNAC.COM: A person could have truly done a movie simply on that topic alone.

SCOT: In fact, that’s what we did on the DVD. We went back to Norway and made this forty-minute documentary. We realized we didn’t have a lot of time to go into great depth, but this is also a very complex subject that is hard to get across in the fourteen minutes we had there.

KNAC.COM: Did you come to any ultimate truth as to how an area that appears to be beautiful and pristine as Norway could have spawned this?

SAM: You were asking earlier about how hard it was to be objective about that. I am a fan of a lot of those bands from Norway, but I also wanted to look at it as an anthropologist. That was probably the one case in this movie where the anthropologist beat out the fan. What happened with the church burnings was really much broader subject than just being the work of a bunch of kids who liked a certain kind of music--it was actually coming from a deeper resentment of Christianity in Norway. There’s no denying there is a connection there though because I think that is why so many kids are attracted to metal and black metal. It’s about standing up against the mainstream and finding something that is your own.

KNAC.COM: Were you surprised that there was such a lack of remorse from the people involved in the burnings even years later?

SCOT: We wrote a treatment for the film that was about a fifty-page script that was about what we expected to get when we did the movie. Most of the time we were pretty close to getting what we expected. In this case though, we thought that people were going to distance themselves from it and wrote that into the treatment that there would be remorse and that people would be turning away from it.

KNAC.COM: Instead, you could see the conviction in some of them to this day.

SCOT: Certainly with some of them, that is true.

SAM: I think it’s safe to say that the majority of the Norwegian metal bands don’t necessarily agree with the act of burning a church and destroying a piece of their country’s history. Yet at the same time there is this belief that religion is a constraining and moralizing force that has had a negative impact on their society and has not allowed the individuals to express themselves and be true Norwegians. That sentiment runs very strong throughout Norwegian metal.

KNAC.COM: How much flak do you think metal takes simply because this genre of music generally discusses the underbelly of issues that society as a whole generally doesn’t want to acknowledge?

SAM: Sure, that goes back to the origins of metal where it was heavy, dark and just had this sound. You can’t sing about flowers and peace and love with that---it has themes and imagery that comes with that sound.

KNAC.COM: Ultimately, how much do you think metal has become a need for people versus just something that they might enjoy listening to while playing whiffle ball?

SAM: Yeah, that’s an interesting point. I think that is part of what our commentary at the end of the film where we have the voice-overs of various people who have talked in the film is about. I think that is why metal in many cases sort of competes with religion if you will because it provides many of the experiences have always gotten from that—a sense of a higher power and force. It makes you experience something and you don’t know why.

KNAC.COM: And you have the congregation.

SAM: It has you in its clutches whether you’re standing a gothic cathedral in central Europe or at Wacken Open Air, it is kind of the same experience. It competes with religion in that level because it taps into the same place that a religious experience does. That’s something that I learned through the movie. Certainly I was a fan of the music, but I had never really thought about it like that before. It sort of really explained to me why my life has been void of any “acceptable religious background.”

KNAC.COM: So you see that in yourself as well then? The idea that you may take from metal some of the same spiritual feelings from this music that others purport to take from something like a Baptist church service?

SAM: Which perhaps suggests that these are universal needs.

KNAC.COM: Who is to say then that one person’s Sunday morning church service is a more authentic experience than my Saturday night at the metal show?

SCOT: No one should. It’s like that picture of clouds with shafts of light coming through the clouds from the Middle Ages that was used to describe to people the feeling of being close to God. That’s an important thing—being close to God…or something Godlike.

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