Metallica: Against All Odds: Diary of a 'Monster' Maker
My new book METALLICA: This Monster Lives: The Inside Story of ‘Some Kind of Monster' tells the story of the happy accident that led to our film METALLICA: Some Kind of Monster. The book, like the movie, is a meditation on documentary filmmaking, fame, therapy and the creative process. The book also details my own personal emotional journey, which mirrored the band's: I was just coming off the disaster of Blair Witch 2 when I found myself sitting in a room with a bunch of guys going through the same existential and creative crisis that I was experiencing.
Initially, Bruce Sinofsky and I were hired to make a run-of-the-mill promotional video, a job I thought would last a few weeks. Instead, we spent two and a half extraordinary years filming the intense group therapy sessions of one of the hardest rocking bands of all time, as they tore apart their psyches and souls and ultimately healed themselves and each other. Once the door was opened, we knew we had an opportunity to transcend the film's original promotional intent and create something truly unique and special. By showing these icons of macho aggression as flawed human beings, willing to embrace and deal with their problems, we felt we could reach a wider audience than just Metallica fans, and tell a story that could appeal to anyone who has struggled with relationships.
Naturally, there were numerous obstacles along the way, as Monster morphed from promo video to independent theatrical feature. As this excerpt demonstrates, our footage almost suffered the fate of becoming a reality TV show, thanks to the band's record label, which was initially footing the bill. Ultimately, we persuaded the band to abandon the record company's plans and allow us to make the documentary we envisioned, without any editorial interference. Looking back, it seems like everything just sort of fell into place. As you will read, however, it certainly didn't seem like that while we were living it.
The first few months of 2003 were a blur of activity. After two long years, much of it spent in a state of lethargic disintegration, the new Metallica album was actually starting to come together. A June release date was set, and tentative talks about summer touring began. This was a delicate subject, given [singer] James [Hertfeld]'s rehab travails. Life on the road would present some serious challenges to James' new lifestyle. And his lifestyle, as James sang (but Kirk wrote) on the rapidly coalescing "Frantic," could very well determine his "deathstyle."
There was a light at the end of the tunnel for us as well. If the album was nearing completion, that meant principal photography on Monster would reach a natural termination point, allowing us to return from the front and actually get to know our families again. The questions that had dogged everyone from the beginning suddenly became more urgent: What exactly were we making? And for whom were we making it?
Back in the spring of 2002, when Elektra [Records] created the therapy-less trailer, there had been talk of us creating an Osbournes-like reality show. Most of the series would precede the album's early June 2003 release date. The penultimate show would air the day the album came out, and the last episode would lead up to an exclusive live concert. I was dubious that any network would be interested in such a show without the therapy scenes, but my first advice to Elektra execs had been that if they really wanted to do this, they'd better hurry up, since the pitching season is normally June and July—maybe August, if you're lucky. I had on several occasions set aside time to go pitch the show in LA, but the meetings never materialized. (Or if they did, I wasn't a part of them.) Since we had a special relationship with Sheila Nevins at HBO (our patron on the two Paradise Lost films), we had pitched her directly, without Elektra. By October, she had passed, feeling that this material was not for her America Undercover audience.
The summer buying season came and went. By Thanksgiving, Bruce and I assumed Elektra had abandoned the idea, since it would be nearly impossible to meet the necessary deadline. That was fine with us, since by now we were absolutely convinced that we had an incredible feature film on our hands. We'd known for a while that we had great footage, but in the last six months, as Metallica found its strength again, we now had an actual dramatic arc. We assumed that some of our footage would be used for its original promotional intent—electronic press kits, TV clips, maybe a bonus DVD packaged with the album—but we also figured that since nobody had really pitched the series, our material would become a feature film by default. On December 19, we were jolted back to reality.
I was in the editing room when I got "the call." It was from the Elektra executive who had day-to-day responsibility for Metallica and, therefore, this film. Marc Reiter of Q Prime was also on the line "We need to start thinking about turning your footage into the series we talked about so it coincides with the album release date," the exec said.
I didn't say anything for a second, wondering if I'd heard wrong. If the album was coming out the first week in June, our series would have to be delivered by the beginning of March. My vision got blurry. "To be honest," I said, "I thought that idea had gone away—at least the idea of timing it to coincide with the album's release. The pitching season has come and gone, and HBO passed. We haven't been cutting a series, just gradually whittling our material down. Isn't it too late to sell this thing for a March delivery?"
"We have some interest from Showtime."
I began to break a sweat. What I was feeling wasn't disappointment—it was panic. A high-profile cable series could be interesting, but this deadline was insane.
"Okay. Is it a done deal? Do we know how many episodes?"
"We need to go in after the holidays, show them some material and talk about all of this."
I tried to maintain composure, wondering if my voice was shaking. "Guys, it's almost January. I am very concerned about the timing of this. We haven't been cutting TV episodes. I'm not sure we can deliver a series by March. We are swimming in footage. Besides, if this is going to happen, we need to immediately know how many episodes and the length of each episode. We need to hear some thoughts from the programming execs about their take on what kind of show they want. We need to know that we are not going to be inundated with editing notes."
I paused and willed myself to take a deep breath. Reiter must have sensed the panic in my voice. "Joe," he said, in a tone that said, Get a grip. "This is Metallica. I hate to play this card, but Metallica gets things done against all odds. We always have. Make this happen—that's why we're paying you guys. It won't be easy, but we know you can do this."
The anxiety made my armpits ache. I called Bruce to fill him in. He agreed that what Elektra and Q Prime wanted was highly unusual, almost unheard-of. What network still has a six-hour hole in its spring schedule in the winter? The only possible explanation for Showtime's supposed interest was that some other programming had been canceled at the last minute. Or maybe we had underestimated this band. Marc Reiter's words rang in my ears: "This is Metallica." Was Metallica some sort of illuminati, a secret society with enough influence to get what it wants, even if that meant rewriting the rules of an entire industry? As for us, we had been treated so well by Metallica and Q Prime that we felt obligated to do whatever it took to make this happen, since it was apparently what the band members wanted. I just wasn't sure how we were going to do it.
The next day, I called an emergency meeting of the entire production staff. Bruce and I dropped the bomb that we needed to morph this production into a television series on a "crash" schedule, just as everyone was looking forward to a much-needed Christmas break. To create six hour-long episodes, we decided that we needed to hire three additional editors to work with David Zieff. The four editors would be connected by an Avid Unity system, which would allow them to share the same digitized media. Each editor would begin by tackling one episode. But before they could do anything, we'd have to re-digitize our footage—by now, it had ballooned to 900 hours—for the new editing system. The process of re-digitizing and logging just one hour of footage would take about 120 minutes, which meant we'd have to hire an army of digitizers to work around the clock through the Christmas and New Year's holidays, so that we could begin editing in January. The editors would then have to work six- and even seven-day weeks, racking up serious overtime.
We put together a budget and realized this was all going to cost close to an additional million dollars. All because Showtime had expressed an amorphous "interest." We couldn't afford to wait for the network to give the green light before starting the emergency editing process. What if Showtime passed? January was the worst month to pitch new programming to the networks. For that matter, even if Showtime bought the show, who was to say that they would want the show in the form we'd rather arbitrarily chosen, six one-hour blocks? Maybe they'd want four one-hours or eight half-hours. When you're editing at this pace, those kinds of changes make a huge difference.
Meanwhile—and this was the killer—Bruce and I would have to continue shooting. All of this furious editing would be in the service of a story that was still very much in play. When working on this scale, it's difficult to put together something coherent without knowing how it ends. There are themes that you want to introduce early in a series that pay off at the conclusion, but we didn't have the luxury to pursue that kind of nuance. The TV series also complicated our narrative arc, because we'd have to quit filming entirely in March. Many of the artistic considerations we had for the project were now completely unworkable. We had been toying with the idea of making the film nonlinear, beginning in the present, flashing back to the events of 2001 through 2003, and building to the "triumphant return" of the summer tour. But now we'd have to edit and complete each episode before finishing the next, so we'd be shackled to a rigidly chronological unfolding of the story—far less interesting, we thought. Elektra thought we could achieve the same emotional impact by building to a special live concert in front of a television audience, but we didn't think their ending would be nearly as powerful as the more organic one that we envisioned: Metallica taking the stage on its summer stadium tour, after being out of the spotlight for so long.
Two days before Christmas, Q Prime approved the new budget. We cancelled our holiday plans and worked nonstop. We were anxious to have our Showtime meeting to nail down the creative approach and confirm the number of episodes. January and February passed with no meeting with the network. We kept telling Elektra that it would be highly unusual, if not outright unthinkable, for Showtime to air this in two months, especially since there had been no talk whatsoever about how to promote the thing, nor had the format of the show been decided. How could a network still have that kind of hole in its spring schedule?
Finally, in early March, we met with people from Showtime's New York office. It wasn't a good sign that we were meeting in New York, since I knew the people with buying authority were in Los Angeles. We were meeting with mid-level executives in charge of corporate strategic planning and sports/events programming; in my mind, these weren't people who could green-light a reality series. But at least we were meeting. And even though we felt there was a better feature film, Bruce and I were going to go in there and pitch our hearts out—if for no other reason than that we really needed our marching orders.
When I arrived at the lobby's security desk on the day of the meeting, I ran into the Elektra exec who had instructed me to start turning our footage into a TV series. I seized the moment to tell him that, should the Showtime thing not work out, we had the makings of a great feature film.
He wasn't impressed. "Over my dead body will this be a theatrical film," he said. "We need to set up the album. That's why we hired you. Documentaries just don't do business at the box office."
"Look, I don't think you realize how great this material is—"
He shook his head and cut me off. "We want this to be a reality TV series."
We rode the elevator in silence.
Bruce and I did a great job of pitching the show during the meeting. The whole time I was talking, I kept thinking, We are actually having a serious conversation about airing these shows in May. We don't even have the first episode edited. By the rules of the entertainment industry, this is about as fucked-up as it gets.
After two hours of discussion, we got up and shook hands. The Showtime guys said they'd get back to us soon. My armpits were really tight again.
During these cold months, Bruce and I traded off between filming in San Francisco and supervising the editing in New York. Whenever I was at our New York office, I willed myself to put on a brave front. The four editors were all pissed at us, thinking this was the most ridiculous assignment they'd ever been given. They had taken to throwing darts at the delivery schedule posted on the bulletin board. Even as I told them to soldier on, I spent a lot of nights in March unable to sleep, staring at the ceiling, convinced we were headed for a shipwreck. I was starting to think there was no way we could make this happen. By the third week of March, I was practically pleading with Q Prime and Elektra to get Showtime to make a decision, and to show the project to other prospective networks. There were so many technical issues that were still unresolved—we didn't even know how long these shows should be. We were now six weeks away from the show's supposed debut, and we hadn't finished one episode.
Finally, Showtime put us out of our misery by passing on the project. It was the best news I'd heard in a long time. "Dodged that bullet," I said to myself as I hung up the phone.
Excerpted from the book METALLICA: This Monster Lives: The Inside Story of Some Kind of Monster by Joe Berlinger with Greg Milner, in stores this November. Copyright by the author and reprinted with permission from St. Martin's Press, LLC.