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Berlinger & Sinofsky

There's never been a rock 'n' roll movie quite like Metallica: Some Kind Of Monster. It's a revelatory, brutally funny, and emotionally charged documentary in which Metallica's members spend nearly two and a half hours discussing their feelings, working through their issues with well-paid "performance coach" Phil Towle, and—to a much lesser extent—working on the album that would become 2003's St. Anger. The film marks a departure from Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky's best-known collaborations (Brother's Keeper, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders At Robin Hood Hills, and the latter's sequel) in that there's no murder or trial central to the action. But Monster shares a lot with those films, including an obsession with overturning and contradicting stereotypes, and a generous, sympathetic, complex portrayal of people often dismissed as hicks and rednecks.

One of cinema's most vital documentary teams, Berlinger and Sinofsky made their reputation with 1992's Brother's Keeper, which empathetically explored the life and trial of an elderly, impoverished rural man charged with killing his brother. The muckraking 1996 film Paradise Lost also focused on murder and the legal system, this time through the story of three teenagers (Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Miskelly) railroaded into jail in connection with three brutal child-murders, seemingly on little more evidence than their fondness for black clothes and heavy-metal music. In 2000, Paradise Lost 2: Revelations followed up on Echols, Baldwin, and Miskelly's legal travails, in addition to documenting the growing movement to free them. That year also saw the release of Berlinger's solo effort Book Of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, the disastrous sequel to the horror blockbuster. The Onion A.V. Club recently spoke with Berlinger and Sinofsky about Monster, Metallica, and the unique challenges of documenting headbangers in therapy.

The Onion: Therapy generally involves a confidentiality clause, where the therapist can't talk to anyone about what goes on. But in Monster, therapy is shown to the entire world. How did you finagle that?

Bruce Sinofsky: I don't think we finagled it. Joe, isn't that just sort of how it happened naturally?

Joe Berlinger: Quite honestly, I was amazed. Just like Brother's Keeper and especially on Paradise Lost, we had six families—three on either side—plus defense attorneys, lawyers, prosecutors, judges... We somehow talk our way into situations, and people trust us. In the same ways, I had to call Phil Towle for our very first shoot. You see, in the first scene in the movie, [Metallica drummer] Lars [Ulrich] says, "I wonder if having these guys in the room is going to change things?" Before that shoot happened, when Lars invited us to come out, I had to call Phil Towle to get permission. I assumed that we'd have all sorts of issues, and there would be all sorts of ground rules, and he would have a lot of trepidation about it. But he was totally open to the process, excited by it, and interested in it. I think it's because he doesn't think of himself as a classical therapist. So there was little finagling. Lars invited us, the band said yes, we called the therapist, and he said "Sure." There we were.

BS: You've also got to remember, Metallica had control over the film.

JB: Towle takes very seriously his role as performance-enhancement coach, as opposed to just being a therapist. Therapists shouldn't become emotionally involved with their subjects, but he thinks it's okay. He became very emotionally involved with them, to the point where he did not want to leave at the end. In this instance, I think the cameras were actually very cathartic and therapeutic. Lars has said that the cameras were like a truth serum, that if there were no cameras in the therapy sessions, these guys probably would have just bullshitted each other. We have found on our films in the past that sometimes the camera is a neutral observer, and sometimes the camera is a very cathartic device that brings emotion out of people that wouldn't have come out if it weren't for the cameras.

JB: The real rule, the one thing that [Metallica frontman] James [Hetfield] said to us was, "Just be truthful. That's all we ask."

O: Why do you think people tend to be so candid in front of film cameras?

BS: I have no idea why. We're still sort of surprised that they've given us the access and didn't ever pull the producer role and say "You can't do this." Ninety-nine percent of this movie is what Joe and I wanted it to be, which is far more than what we had in Brother's Keeper and Paradise Lost. We had much more notes from the people at HBO and the people at American Playhouse for Brother's Keeper than we did on this film. Sometimes there was a helpful suggestion from Lars, but for the most part, they trusted us to tell the story, and when they did finally see a three-and-a-half-hour rough cut after two years, there was silence and laughs. At the end of it, Joe and I were, of course, nervous. Lars patted him on the back and said, "You guys are pretty good at this." We went back to HQ and spent two hours talking around the table where they often had their meetings, and at the end of it, Joe passed out the videotapes to all four of them and said, "Watch this with your families and friends, and get back to us with notes." James took his tape, pushed it back, and said, "I never need to see this again." He said, "You guys promised that you would deliver, and that it would be truthful and honest and wouldn't pull any punches, and you delivered that." You don't get moments like that as a filmmaker when you're dealing with the documentary world. It's a rarity that we had not experienced up until that point. You know, we had a funny story. Jim Jarmusch is a friend of ours, and we sent him a copy of the film, and he called us back and said, "When are you going to show this to the guys? Because they'll never let it go out." We said, "No, this is the approved cut." I love those guys. I can't believe they would be so willing to allow themselves to be so naked, and in some cases so ugly, for all their fans and non-fans to see. We've been blessed on this film. The Film God, as Joe and I like to say, has touched us on the shoulder and said, "Good work, lads."

O: It seems like James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich are the two poles of the band, and everyone else sort of falls in between. How would you describe their relationship?

JB: The film is very much about them. These are the two founding members, the warring personalities. They are the Lennon and McCartney of this kind of music. I think they were grappling with issues of control and insecurity and collaboration, and who gets credit for what. They have a very interesting relationship. One of the things that Bruce and I learned about our own relationship is that when you're together and successful, you sort of forget about the alchemy that you can't reduce to a scientific analysis. On the surface, Lars is a highly educated, affluent Danish guy who lived a very sheltered life with loving, supportive parental units. James is a Southern Cal redneck. If he weren't a rock star, he'd be a grease monkey. These two guys are very different kinds of people, and yet when you throw them together, there's a certain kind of magic. Bruce and I were having some growing pains and some issues with our own collaboration, and one of the great things about making this film is, it allowed us to work on our issues. Bruce and I are very different people. Perhaps if we met in high school, we would be in such different social spheres, and have such different interests, that we wouldn't necessarily be friends.

BS: We both smoke pot, Joe, so that's one unifying principle.

JB: That's one binding thing, but one of the things the film taught us about watching collaborators is, it's hard to say who does what. It's hard to say who's responsible for the magic. But when you throw two people together—or in this instance, four people, but mainly those two—how could an upper-middle-class Danish guy and a Southern guy change rock 'n' roll? Not that Bruce and I have changed anything. It's a very interesting phenomenon.

BS: We used the therapy to help us out, as well. Not that we're James and Lars, but when we were sitting through those therapy sessions, we saw the issues that he was talking about, and we'd continue the sessions ourselves at the hotel, obviously without Dr. Phil. We would work out issues that we had sucked in our gut and not really addressed, and certainly by the end of their therapy, we realized how much work we had put into the film. When Joe and I make a film, it's a special film, and it has a signature on it and our magic. Would we be able to make great films separately? Yeah, we could, but I think there's something we bring to each other that the other person lacks, without even being aware of what that thing is. Metallica's management thought that going through this therapy probably bought it another 10 years of recording together. We'd like to think it gave us an equal amount of time, should we choose to use it, of being able to make films together. We're very grateful. You know, if this hadn't come along, we might not be making films together right now. It was a blessing.

O: As the film went on, it seemed like there was a certain amount of resentment toward Phil Towle.

BS: I think the band realized that they were getting close to the time where they could be on their own. Phil felt that he wasn't quite done with the performance-enhancement coaching. He had visions for them. I think he crossed the line a little bit. I know James says, "He thinks he's part of the band," and all that. I think he crossed the line a little bit, but it's okay, because he wasn't a traditional therapist. And it allowed the band to push him away, to let him know in no uncertain terms that they felt they were prepared to go out on their own. They didn't want it to be a mean ending or a nasty ending, which it wasn't. Certainly at the end of the film, you see James thanking him for giving them the tools.

JB: Any healthy relationship—parent/child, student/teacher, therapist/patient, any process like that—involves ultimately pushing away the person of influence so you can stand on your own two feet. Whether it's going off to college or dumping your shrink, I think that's part of the healthy growing process, and I think Phil had a much longer view in mind.

BS: Considering it had gone on for two years, it was already a lot longer than they had initially thought.

JB: I would have been more disappointed if Metallica hadn't pushed Dr. Phil away. But I think it's all okay, because it's in the service of their own mental health.

BS: Phil is still very close with the band. He doesn't do therapy with them now, but I know they all speak to him regularly. We're going out to San Francisco for a festival, and Lars was talking to Joe and asking if it would be okay for Phil to come there and be part of it, and we said, "Of course." He's part of the extended family; we all are, in some weird way. I think anybody who has any real connection with Metallica, it's like a lifetime thing—you'll always have a connection to them, and you'll always be part of their lore. I can't tell you how many people come up to Joe and me and say, "We saw you on the web site," or "You're the one who broke out the name St. Anger." We'll always be part of that big Metallica picture, and it's bigger now, because when the film comes out, it's going to touch hopefully a million or more people in the theaters.

JB: A million. That'd be good. That'd be a $10 million gross.

BS: That's why I said it, "a million or more."

O: What did you guys think of Lars Ulrich's war with Napster?

JB: I gotta be honest with you. First of all, I think Lars unfairly has a reputation for being a greedy-motherfucker rock star. It is not about the money. These guys, first of all, were incredibly generous with us. This is a long way of answering the Napster thing, but these guys are anything but greedy, and they don't deserve that reputation. When we first started making this film, it was classified as some sort of promotional thing, and nobody knew what it was going to be. But Elektra [Records] was paying the bill. The price tag started escalating, because Lars—and everyone, but especially Lars—kept saying, "Keep filming, keep filming, even though Hetfield's away, because we're on to something, let's not stop filming." When the band came back and was making music together, Elektra came swooping in. We kept saying that this was much more special than just a promo film, and Elektra said, "We agree. It is more special. We want to take your guy's footage and turn it into an Ozzy-style reality-TV series—we'll air eight episodes, and the last episode will air the day the album drops in June." We were horrified to think that this was going to be turned into that, when it had so much more potential. Without missing a beat, the band stood up to their record company and said, "Fuck you, Elektra. Here's $4 million, go away. We're now paying for this. We believe in these guys, and we want them to make the movie that they want to make." That is a hugely risky proposition that they undertook.

O: It seems like Metallica has gotten so big, business-wise, that they can't possibly go back to being four guys making music for themselves anymore.

BS: It's a huge business. They can never go back to the way it was. That was part of the story of the film.

JB: That was part of the reason these guys didn't want to quit. Even though they weren't enjoying being together, or enjoying the process, they're like a corporation, with hundreds of people who work for them, who have dedicated their lives to them, who depend upon this company existing. So that's part of their pressure. They were at an all-time low, they weren't talking to each other, they weren't enjoying the process, and yet they recognized that there were a lot of people involved in this machine.

BS: James says, "I went along with the film because it's part of being Metallica." That's part of what was eating at him, that he felt there were too many things he was doing. He was overwhelmed by being a member of the band, because the band was always first, and his family and himself and his own mental health were always second and third. And now he was a father with a third kid coming, and was obviously having problems at home, and he says, "I had to stop." That's why he went away for nine months, because he had to stop and get control over his life. He needed to put Metallica on the back burner until he could find a way to put it on the stove with his family life, and be able to balance the two. But it's not an easy thing to do, when you see the demands. This is just a small degree of it for me today. I flew in, I went to one meeting, I came here, I'm doing interviews. There's a screening, then another interview, then I'm going home. These guys have it seven days a week. How do you balance that with a family? I think he was having problems with that, and if he made the wrong decision, he'd be divorced and living alone now, and seeing his kids on weekends.

O: Did you guys think that Metallica was going to break up, and that you would be documenting the dissolution of the band?

JB: Absolutely. It felt as real as it could be. One of the challenges of condensing two and a half years is that the section where James is away is boiled down to about 15 minutes in the film. But there was a long period where these guys were in a real funk and thought the band was over, and where we thought we were now making a film about the demise of one of the greatest bands of all time.

BS: I know Lars and [Metallica guitarist] Kirk [Hammett] together—not as a band, but separately—were figuring out what they'd do if James didn't come back. They had to have their own plans. They couldn't just sit there forever. Nine months is a long time when you're used to working and touring all the time. And I'm sure, just from conversations off-camera, that they both had ideas of what they'd do: They'd be recording music together, or maybe Lars would be a producer of movies, because that's something he loves, or Kirk might have been just a solo artist, who knows? They were preparing for what would have been an eventuality if he didn't come back.

O: Before Hetfield goes into rehab, he talks a little bit about drinking, but the film doesn't show him drunk. Did you realize the extent of his alcohol problem?

BS: No. I did not see him drink a lot. I guess he was drinking outside the studio, or in advance before coming to the studio, but I didn't see him drinking much there. I was a little bit surprised when the big talk was that he was going into an alcohol-treatment place. But there were other problems. It was a huge lifestyle issue. It wasn't just the alcohol. So many of the other things are involved when you travel on the road, and I think he needed to deal with all those vices in one fell swoop, or he was going to self-destruct.

JB: It's funny, we didn't realize he had a drinking issue during the first part of the film, so when we were editing, we were scouring the footage for drinking shots, and the only two drinking shots we found, we cut into the film.

BS: Just him drinking some wine.

JB: That was obviously stuff that was happening offsite.

BS: The band members themselves were surprised. Lars and Kirk used to comment that they always thought it would be them that would go into an alcoholic-treatment center, not James.

O: It's funny: They have a reputation for hard living, but they now seem very far removed from that.

BS: They were all approaching 40 at the time, and family men. I don't think they could possibly live like that anymore without killing themselves, ultimately. It's also more and more difficult. It's like an athlete at 25 can party all night and then go hit a home run, but at 30, they can't do that. They cleaned up their acts significantly. You won't find them lying in a gutter somewhere, like you might have 15 years ago.

O: Stereotypical Metallica fans obviously aren't going into the movie anticipating two and a half hours of the band members talking about their feelings.

JB: We screened the film for fans because we wanted to be sure that there wasn't anything wrong or incorrect. But we also wanted to get their vibe, because it's a very fine line we're riding here. You can't give too much information, to bore the Metallica fans, but you can't give too little information, so that the non-fan doesn't know what the fuck we're talking about. Just in general, we were curious to see how Metallica fans were going to accept their heroes being stripped down and naked, exposed in this way. At the end of one of these screenings, we had a hundred hardcore Metallica fans, and this guy shot his hand up. He had to talk, and he had tears in his eyes. He was this big beefy guy who looked just like James Hetfield, with tattoos, and he looked like he'd been around the block a few times, and had led a couple of different lives. He said, "When I was 17, I used to bang my head to Metallica, and I drank myself under the table listening to Metallica. And I've got all these drinking problems, and now I'm married and have kids, and I'm trying to get my life straight. And the fact that James Hetfield can go through this, and then put this message out there for me, so I can try to live up to what he's doing, it just makes me love him even more, and relate to his music even more." By and large, we've been finding that...

BS: They embrace it.