It’s not uncommon to hear Metallica — lead singer and guitarist James Hetfield, drummer Lars Ulrich, lead guitarist Kirk Hammett, and bassist Robert Trujillo — referred to as the biggest metal band in the world. It’s a defendable moniker. The band has sold over 110 million records worldwide and won nine Grammys; the demented length of their tours is legendary; their album Master of Puppets is considered the pinnacle of the genre; they’ve recorded a live album with a full orchestra; they did a documentary that was supposed to be about the making of an album, but turned into a chronicle of the closest Metallica has ever come to shattering.
Up against that list, a 3D IMAX movie just seems like the next logical step. Through the Never is currently in theaters. It combines the band’s show with a narrative about Trip (Dane Dehane), a Metallica roadie, who goes on a hallucinatory journey through the city during the concert. It’s big and deafening and slightly bonkers and probably the best concert film I’ve ever seen.
I recently got Hetfield on the phone to discuss the making of the movie, Metallica’s dream stage, and the strange shit that happens when the food delivery guy spells your name wrong:
Jeef, what’s up?
Hey man. thanks for talking.
We got a guy here named Jeff. And we call him “Jeef” because the runner who brought the food one day came back with everyone’s food. And they write their names on the little packages. And they spelled his name “J-E-E-F.”
What I always got was is it the regular J-E-F-F spelling, or is the British “Geoff” spelling? And I was like, “It’s the American version.”
Oh, the G-O-E-F-F-F-F-whatever?
Exactly. So dude, thanks for talking to me. I actually have to confess you guys were the reason I picked up the guitar 13 years ago when I got into college. So this is exciting for me personally.
So you waited until college to pick up the guitar?
I did. I don’t know why it took me that long, but it did.
Well the fact that you got into college is probably why. [Laughs] You were doing your studies instead of playing guitar like I was.
Well the studies slacked off a bit in college, but it worked out. I’ve got a decent job as a reporter. It didn’t dampen things too much.
So to start off, what was the moment when you guys sat down as a band and said, “The next thing we need to do is a 3D IMAX concert movie, with this narrative fictional element?”
Well it wasn’t in 1981 after we wrote “Hit the Lights,” that’s for sure. [Laughs] Sitting in a garage, there’s no way we thought — it didn’t even enter our minds that we’d be sitting here talking about an IMAX 3D movie.
IMAX had come to us over ten years ago with an idea that they wanted to capture the intensity of a Metallica concert. Us and fans create this energy. So somehow they wanted to capture that. Never really came to fruition for some reason, whether it was logistics or costs or whatever.
There are really three dreams that kinda culminated here. One was IMAX. And then making a 3D movie was always on the horizon for us. And then the third one was making a best of live show. You know, touring Metallica with a stage that had every theatrical moment of the last 30 years.
So all those prop effects were actually things you guys have done physically at shows?
Yes. Most of ’em. Ride the Lightning — that was 1984 — we did not have the money to make a giant electric chair and have four tesla coils zapping the thing with 10,000 volts of power. That was one thing that did not happen back then. But now it can!
But the crosses. Lady Justice that crumbles. The coffins. The destruction scene from Load and Reload where the stage implodes. All of those things did happen, but this is on steroids. You know, Lady Justice might have been 20 feet tall back then. Now she’s maybe 50 feet high. Crazy.
One of the things I was really impressed with by the movie was the quality of the cinematography, especially in the concert footage. The camera work interacted with you guys on stage in the same way it would interact in storytelling. What was it like shooting? How long did the set up for one song take?
Well that’s a great observation, first of all. And second of all great question.
We certainly did not want a music video shoot. That’s what we knew we didn’t want. It took a while to get to that point. Cinematography is the key word on this.
So we went down to Mexico City for eight shows and worked the bugs out of this stage. It’s the Swiss Army Knife of stages, and there’s a lot of danger up there. There’s many ways to die on this stage. So working that out where no one dies, no one catches on fire, no explosion, nothing falls on somebody.
And then taking it to Edmonton, did a couple of shows. Then Vancouver was the final date of this tour where we were going to film it. So all those shows prior were about research for the film team — [director Nimród Antal] and his film crew.
So they had a good grasp of what the gig was like: what needed to be captured, what works, what doesn’t, what angles are here and there. So thinking about the film first. That’s key in the result.
And the narrative portion. How did you guys come up with that? Did you take the set list and try to build plot points that related? Or was it the other way around? How did that work?
It was so difficult. We knew what we wanted. We had no idea how to get it.
And when you stand back and look at it, it’s pretty much two films jammed together. And interviewing directors, it was imperative that they knew how difficult that was going to be. And how seamless we wanted it to be.
And which was driving? You know, is the narrative dynamic asking for a soundtrack. Is us live creating what’s happening in the narrative? At what point is what leading here? And that was difficult. And it does flip flop through the movie.
How did you guys come up with the specific storyline?
The storyline was all Nimród. All Nimród Antal. That’s one of the reasons we picked him. His storyline was based somewhat in reality. But [Trip] popping a pill gave us carte blanche to do whatever craziness we wanted to do.
A lot of the other concepts were around sci-fi or some space thing that didn’t make any sense to us. We wanted it to be somewhat realty based. You know, the human conflict he gets into. It’s a human theme to the extreme.
[Nimród] came to the table with his storyline. He had another one that wasn’t as powerful. But that was a major contributor into why we picked him as a director. And then we were able to think tank it from there. What if this happens, and what if that happened? Hey, when you shoot that, wouldn’t it be awesome if this?
So tying in all these things collectively came after his initial skeleton of a script. I mean, I guess you could call it a script. When Dane Dehane saw the script, it was all narrative. There’s no talking! There’s no narrative in the narrative. It was all about his look. His look definitely fits with what our vision was.
I thought DeHane’s performance was interesting. I found it really endearing, almost. He’s clearly a young kid, in over his head. There’s even that opening scene when he’s skating up to the arena and he falls off the skateboard.
I loved that so much man. [Laughs]
Was that something you guys thought about? Go for something concrete and relateable as opposed to like, this distanced cool factor?
Well, I think making it as real and honest as possible.
That actually happened. They were filming the guy skating and he fell. And we said, “Well, don’t take that out! That is awesome!” Or the opening scene where the insane Metallica fan — first-one-in-last-one-out motherfucker — when he shows up and he tries to jump up on his car and didn’t make it. You know, don’t cut that out! That’s awesome! Real moments that happen. That’s what this thing is supposed to be about.
And then obviously the beyond real. The surreal happens. You know, the car. And then Robert. All four of us are introduced into this film not as actors but as these crazy characters. Robert’s playing bass and he’s shaking the place. Kirk’s guitar is bleeding. Just unique things.
But I think Dane definitely has an endearing character. You fall in love with this kid. You want him to succeed. It’s the sign of a good film. You want this guy to step up to the challenge and you want to help him.
Personally, what was the part of this experience that you valued the most? Filming this thing, what sticks out to you as “Yeah, that’s really what I’m gonna take away from this?”
Well we did this movie called Some Kind of Monster. I mean it wasn’t really a movie, it was a documentary.
I saw that.
So I noticed how well these compliment each other. The documentary was supposed to be a film about us making a record, and then life happened. And we started crumbling. We didn’t really notice the cameras after a while.
This was pretty different as in, we set out to capture certain moments. And you have to capture this because it’s intense. But stepping back, I see Trip’s storyline as pretty similar to Some Kind of Monster. Typical day at work. I mean this kid works there just so he can see free shows. Then he gets sent out, and then life happens to him. And he either runs or steps up to the challenge. So being a hero in your own triumph, in a way, ties these movies together.
And the other thing I noticed, the four of us as a band — and we’ve always known this and we’ve been pretty self-conscious about it — we’re not great at what we do individually. I’m certainly not winning any singer awards. Or Lars any drumming awards. Things like that. Individually we’re not great. But when we get together there is something that happens between the four of us that creates yet another band member of sorts. The X factor. What it means to be a four-person band chemistry.
You in particular seem conscientious about how the audience interacts with and understands the music. Trying to communicate it as a cathartic and life-affirming experience. Sort of a taking them through the darkness and out the other side kind of thing. Is that something you’ve done consciously?
That’s a great observation. I would say my life has been explained as narcissistic. [Laughs] And you know how I think my life applies to everyone else’s life. I’m wanting to be connected so bad that there’s no boundary between me and other people. But also, what happened in my life — just because it happened makes it interesting. [Laughs] Which is not the case, you know!
But I think in general, writing stuff that’s vague enough that people can apply it to their own lives and challenge them to get to thinking another level below just data. Or just surface. Or just, “Yeah, that happened.” But going beneath a couple levels, and how and why, the feelings and thoughts behind it. That’s always interested me.