It’s the day after the Bay Area-held world premiere of Metallica’s new 3D/Imax extravaganza Metallica: Through the Never, and San Francisco posh Fairmont Hotel—where the speed-metal maestros are holding their official press day—is positively crawling with journalists, most of whom have flown in from around the world. And it’s a crazy scene. Guitarist Kirk Hammett, drummer Lars Ulrich, bassist Robert Trujillo, and so-tall-you-can’t-miss-him vocalist/guitarist James Hetfield are shuttled between conference rooms throughout the afternoon, along with Chronicle star Dane DeHaan, who plays a hapless knight-errant band roadie named Trip in the concert flick’s interwoven (and truly unusual) narrative. Everyone recognizes these five as they pinball back and forth, barely pausing for lunch.
Leaning against a wall, unobserved, Hungarian-descended, Los Angeles-based director Nimrod Antal watches the nonstop activity and smiles. In many ways, he’s responsible for it all. After helming great horror/suspense efforts like Kontroll, Vacancy, Armored and the sorely underrated Predators, his phone rang one day with a surreal request. “They said ‘Would you come in and talk to Metallica about doing a 3D concert film?’” he recalls, still stunned at the unexpected boon. “And I met with Lars first, and he explained the concept—the idea of marrying a narrative to a concert—and it felt so weird and out there that I said yes. So they sent me on my way and gave me a challenge to come up with something that would work.”
Metallica fans will delight at Antal’s final cut. On a football-field-huge stage, floorlit in ever-changing ghoulish designs beneath suspended coffins, electric chairs, even a crumbling And Justice For All statue, cameras catch the group up close and personal as they blaze through catalog classics like “Fuel,” “Battery,” “Ride the Lightning” and “Master of Puppets.” Meanwhile, Trip is sent out into a city that soon turns violent after he takes a pill and crashes his tour van. Bodies are hanging over streets, as an angry mob—and an Apocalyptic mallet-wielding horseman—bear down on him. “A lot of the things that Trip goes through, you’re going to be able to find parallels and symbolism, and you’re going to be able to dig in deeper,” explains Antal, who came close to excising the drug-taking scene; he wasn’t sure it was necessary. “So his experiences definitely mirror a lot of the battles that the band has had, both on a professional and a personal level.”
Mainly, the filmmaker swears, he wanted to give fans a whole new slant on Metallica. “One of the benefits of what we did is, you’re going to be in places that you’re never going to see again,” he says. “And there’s going to be an intimacy that you just wouldn’t have at a concert, because you’re usually down, looking up. And Through the Never gives you the opportunity to be over James’s shoulder, looking out. And the opportunity to be on Lars’s drum riser, the opportunity to be on the bridge of Robert’s bass.”
When they finally sat down to talk, Kirk Hammett and James Hetfield concurred with their director’s assessment…
The best thing about the movie is, you don’t just feel what it’s like to be at a Metallica concert—you feel what it’s like to be Metallica.
Kirk Hammett: Absolutely. For us, that boundary between stage and audience has always been a problem. Always. Ever since the beginning, we’ve always tried to break down that barrier in whatever way—creatively, musically, personally. And we’ve gone out of our way to interact with our audience during our shows. But this movie updates that whole concept. And when you add the Imax and 3D to it, it definitely brings the viewer onstage with us.
And you can watch the fans, devotedly singing along to every last lyric.
James Hetfield: It’s great. And anywhere, anytime, if you’re a Metallica fan and you show up, you’ve gotta know the words. And you’re singing along in case I screw it up. And most of the time, I do! Ha! I can always look at people’s faces after I screw the words up, and they’re looking at me and I just kind of smile, like ‘I know! I know!’
Hammett: Some of my favorite shots in the film are shots of us playing onstage with the cameras behind us, so it’s shooting at the back of us and you can see the audience. Those are my most favorite shots, because that’s what we see when we’re playing. That’s exactly what we see.
You probably have to pinch yourselves sometimes at the enormity of what you’ve created with Metallica.
Hammett: I get a hammer and I hit myself on the head! See this dent right here? (He points to the center of his forehead, laughing.) And I do think ‘How did we do this?’
There’s a point where James’s mic shorts out, and he just throws it down. And you just left the scene in there.
Hetfield: That is part of the show. It was part of the buildup for the destruction scene. Really, it’s so complicated, this show. This show was its own thing, and then when we put the narrative in, it changed it. So the destruction scene was part of the Load tour, where everything implodes and its like ‘Wow—these guys have lost it. They’re too big for themselves, and all this stuff has crumbled around them.’ And we end up just playing with our half-stacks and finish the show with the houselights on. That was part of the buildup for that to happen at the [movie’s] end. It never really showed all of that in the movie, because a lot of it had to be cut out. But it really tied in to Dane grabbing the hammer from the rider and smashing the ground and basically destroying everything.
Hammett: It’s part of the thread.
Hetfield: It’s all part of the show!
The film soundtrack has several more songs than the film. Will there be an extended-cut video version?
Hammett: I think eventually. Maybe—over the course of time—those songs that aren’t in the movie will probably see the light of day, in some sort of package. But yeah, we have a lot of songs that we recorded during those shows that we’re just sitting on right now.
A statue crumbles around you onstage, pyrotechnics fire off all around you. Were there any mishaps while filming?
Hetfield: Kirk is always standing in the wrong spot.
Hammett: I’m either too close to the flames, or right where something is gonna drop or pop up or whatever. And quite frankly, I’m so focused on playing my guitar, I’m really in a world of my own. And only when it seems like it’s too late do I realize I’m standing right on top of a flame thrower!
Hetfield: Which happened to me in Montreal in ’91.
Hammett: That was one of the scariest things that ever happened onstage.
Hetfield: Yeah. It was a Metallica/Guns N’ Roses tour in Montreal, during “Fade to Black.” It was one of the first times that we had hidden pyro—it was under the stage. But I was confused, and we had a pyro guy that was even more confused, and I guess he wasn’t watching us. And we didn’t take it serious enough back then, and I backed up and went to some place I wasn’t supposed to, he pressed the button and a huge colored flame came up and torched me. It was bad. It took at least a year to recover. So burning is not recommended. For anyone who wants to try it at home? Do not!
Hammett: And one of the most horrific things I ever saw was running backstage and seeing James and people dumping water all over him. And he looked at me and held his hand up, and I could distinctly see the skin, slowly rising off his hand. And it was so shocking to me, I went into a kind of shock, too. Because it was totally unbelievable for me that something that bad would happen to us onstage. This guy has been through a lot. And survived. More power to him!
The Some Kind of Monster documentary showed a more human, vulnerable side of the band. But in Never, you’re almost superhuman, on a battleship-sized stage.
Hetfield: It is a battleship, huh?
Hammett: Yeah! Like an aircraft carrier!
Hetfield: And then the storyline, the narrative, it kind of replicates that. The theme being Alright, you’re showing up for work, and you have no idea what’s gonna happen today. And all of a sudden he (Trip) is sent out to fetch something, and he’s thrown into a city in turmoil. And he’s caught in the middle, and he comes face to face with hatred—the rider, the guy riding who’s kind of the epitome of hate.
Or is he a writer, not a rider? Your average rock journalist?
Hetfield: Ha! He is! And he’s hanging people daily, hanging them out to dry!
But in a real WTF/didn’t-think-that-through moment, DeHaan’s Trip character, when cornered by an angry mob, decides to fight back by lighting himself on fire. Any thoughts?
Hammett: Well, he faced with a desperate situation, and the only things he has are a can of gas, a lighter, a jacket, a hoodie and a scarf. So to put those elements together as a means to try and break out of his situation? It was pretty ballsy, I thought!
Hetfield: Yeah. He made a weapon of himself! I guess. I dunno. Like ‘No one will fight me,’ right? And they did anyway. But it also looks real cool, by the way!
Hammett: But if it was me, I would’ve instantly looked down and looked for rocks. That’s what I was taught when I was a kid. You don’t have a weapon? Look for rocks!
One thing this movie proves—Metallica is easily the hardest-working band in showbiz. Lars gets so amped up, he bursts from the drum kit after every song, and most folks wouldn’t last for one high-octane verse with you onstage, let alone a dozen anthems.
Hammett: When you’ve been doing this for 30 years, you find out what’s the best way for your own maintenance and self-care, and what you need to do to get through the day, get through the show. And we started really figuring that out about 10 years or so ago. Rather than waiting ‘til the last minute, when you’ve passed the point of no return. So we always take it seriously, and we take the physical demands of the show very seriously. So we try to take care of ourselves, eat well, stay somewhat in shape, and get a little rest. I say ‘try,’ because sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn’t.
Hetfield: Plus, there’s a little shock buzzer on Lars’s seat. So we press it when the song’s done, like ‘Stop now.’ But he won’t stop.
What if Never starts a new trend of people just staying home and watching your concert on Blu-ray instead of attending gigs?
Hetfield: Yeah! It’d be much easier for us to tour that way! Like ‘Here – watch this!’ But no, no – there’s a joy, there’s such an energy that you get from hanging in a crowd, hanging out with other people, being social. You can’t replicate that. You could have some goggles that replicate that vibe of having people around you, I guess. But having actual people there, that you have no control over? That’s the other cool thing—the total unknown that is happening.
Hammett: And just the ritual of buying a ticket and looking forward to the show! And it finally comes, the day of the show. You don’t get that pumped from Blu-ray. So to me, the concert experience will never truly be replicated, because it’s such a human thing. It’s like trying to replicate the experience you have when you’re going fishing.