Stop The Presses!

Metallica’s Unprecedented ‘Through the Never’ 3D Concert Film Was a Four-Year Haul

Stop The Presses!

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Metallica with Dane DeHaan/Facebook

By Jon Wiederhorn

When fans first hear about Metallica's new 3D concert film Through the Never (out September 27), which interweaves live footage of the band's biggest songs with a surreal narrative story line, they might imagine a turbo-charged, high-tech production resembling the classic 1976 Led Zeppelin film The Song Remains the Same. Surprisingly, drummer Lars Ulrich said the structure of that movie was exactly what Metallica wanted to avoid.

"I don't mean to be disrespectful, but [we felt strongly that] it shouldn't be The Song Remains the Same," he said September 23 at New York's Walter Reade Theater at a post-screening Q&A moderated by New York Times writer Ben Ratliff. "We don't want to be in the non-concert part. We don't see ourselves acting."

Metallica also didn't want to create the kind of movie where a documentarian tags along with a band. "[We decided] it shouldn't be in the infomercial style that a lot of the current ones are, where they follow a band on the road, and here they are on and off airplanes. There wasn't a blueprint for this movie, and that's what made it so hard to sell in Hollywood."

Throughout their career, Metallica have frequently avoided the obvious path. After the progressive thrash album …And Justice For All, they slowed down, simplified their attack, and released The Black Album. Then they delved into alternative, blues, and classic rock with Load and Reload; and experimented with improvisational songwriting, unconventional editing, and challenging sound recording on St. Anger. They even recorded a much-derided impromptu double album with Lou Reed, Lulu.

"We’re four guys and we're always thinking, 'Let’s be creative and try something different,'" Ulrich said. "The model of album, tour, album, tour is a little old. There are so many other ways to express yourself now. There are festivals [like our Orion Festival], and Lou Reed calls, and movies. There are so many different things we want to do. We're just so curious, and we want to live in these things and experience them, and that invigorates us so when we go back to making another record or writing a song we have all of these experiences to draw from."

The first challenge in making Through the Never was picking a director. Metallica were determined to make an explosive concert film that combined stage set elements from the past 30 years of performances with a narrative that told a complete story. But it was hard to convince traditionalists that such an approach would elevate Through the Never above other concert movies. "We spoke to a lot of different directors," Ulrich said. "A lot of 'A-list' people you’d know by first name didn't quite get the concept. They didn't understand how to mix these two worlds. There were a lot of questions and not a lot of passion."

Then Metallica met Nimród Antal, a Hungarian filmmaker, writer, and actor whose credits include Vacancy and Predators. "He was the first guy we talked to who really had passion and was as crazy as we were," Ulrich said. "He didn’t frown. He didn't try to talk us out of what we were thinking. He had this kind of madness in his eyes. Metallica was a really big part of his upbringing in Eastern Europe. They helped shape his youth, and we felt he really understood what this band is about. He was ready to jump and didn't ask about parachutes or where we were landing."

Antal constructed the story line about a band roadie named Trip, played without dialogue by Dane DeHaan, who gets sent on an errand to deliver a container of gasoline to a stalled truck. Before he leaves, he pops a pill, then rapidly descends down a rabbit hole into a post-apocalyptic landscape filled with rioting mobs, retaliating policemen, hanging bodies, and a gargantuan hammer-wielding, gas mask-wearing beast on a horse who destroys everything he sees. As if that isn't bad enough, the kid gets into a slow-mo, glass-shattering car crash (which looks amazing in 3D) sets himself on fire and ends up mysteriously underwater. Then there's the climactic, block-leveling battle between Trip and the Horseman. And all the while, the band and its crowd are rocking out, oblivious to the carnage.

"I believe you can have this bubble of positive energy within a show – within a Metallica show especially – and then beyond those walls there could be a number of [crazy] things going off in the world right down the street," said bassist Robert Trujillo. "That exists, and there’s a reality to that."

"Nimród came up with the story line," frontman James Hetfield added. "It really is two movies in one. We wanted to have the best concert footage ever filmed and also have a story line and give it some legs that will be open for interpretation. There are so many metaphors in there. And there's no good side or bad side. There's just turmoil. That's just a part of human nature – fight or flight at times. For me, when the rider shows up he's the embodiment of hate. And then there’s fire. Of course. You gotta have fire."

Anyone who has seen Metallica live knows they’re masters of pyrotechnics. By comparison, "Through the Never" makes their past shows seem like a club concert with cheap flash pots. There was so much pyro during filming, in fact, that warning signs had to be placed on the stage. Even then, guitarist Kirk Hammett came close to being barbecued.

"That stage was pretty dangerous," Trujillo said. "We had to get used to it just enough to where we weren't in danger of getting blasted by the pyro cues. I know Kirk had a couple close calls."

"There were skull and crossbones, which you certainly could not read when the lights were turned off," Hammett said. "I was concentrating so much on my guitar playing and there was a dragon right next to me."

"Basically, if the pyro did not go off we knew why," Hetfield said. "Kirk was standing right over one [of the flamethrowers]. I've done the research for that," he joked. "It doesn't work.” (On August 8, 1992 in Olympic Stadium in Montreal, Hetfield received second degree burns over his arms and legs from stage pyro).

"[Shooting Through the Never] was dangerous, but I guess that's one of the things we were going for, too – most dangerous stage on earth," he added. "So fans, don't try to get on the stage."

In addition to the abundance of pyro, Through the Never features stage stunts from past Metallica tours, including a giant descending electric chair with lightning bolts zapping around it during "Ride the Lightning," graveyard crosses that pop up all over the stage while the band plays "Master of Puppets," and a giant Lady Liberty that's constructed and collapses for "…And Justice For All." The band also re-enacted a stunt it played in 1997, in which a piece of rigging malfunctioned and shot out sparks, causing a stagehand to become engulfed in flames that necessitated a fire extinguisher.

Considering Metallica had already presented such theatrics, they might seem easy to recreate, but that wasn't necessarily the case. "This is all the other stuff on steroids," Hetfield said. "Lady Justice is a lot bigger now than she was on the …And Justice For All Tour. Everything's bigger!"

"The idea to bring back some of the gags from the '80s, when we were a little more theatrical, was that there are so many kids nowadays who have only heard about statues and crosses and so on," added Ulrich. "So it was sort of like Metallica has generally shied away from being too retro. But five years ago, when we were with Rick Rubin working on Death Magnetic, he started encouraging us to be inspired by our past and not run away from it. So that's why we decided to bring back some of those gags, 2012-style. It was time to maybe be okay with sharing that with younger kids without feeling like we were turning into a retro band."

When most groups decide to make a concert movie, they hire a film crew and work with what they have scheduled. Not Metallica, which is why Through the Never is so spectacular and took so long to create. The IMAX film team actually first approached Metallica about making a movie way back in 1997. But the cameras were too bulky and there were too many "logistical issues," Ulrich said.

Then, four years ago, IMAX scheduled a meeting with Metallica in Belfast, Ireland and convinced the band to work with them to create the most mindblowing 3D concert movie ever. Just building the mammoth stage took 18 months. When it was done, giant LED screens were programmed to project images related to the band’s songs: ringing bells and scenes from the Spanish Civil War came up during "For Whom the Bell Tolls"; the floor appeared to fill with blood for "Creeping Death"; and the ground turned into a jumble of whirring gears, pumping pistons, and swirling flames during "Fuel." At least that's what was supposed to happen.

"When we got on the stage, none of the gadgets worked," Ulrich said. "So then that was another nine months after that of making it all work. That took us up to the summer of 2012 last year, when we did all the filming."

Metallica played two weeks of rehearsal shows in Mexico City, then shot Through the Never in Edmonton and Vancouver, Canada. The first shows in Edmonton were filmed from beginning to end. The concerts in Vancouver were more "Hollywood."

"There were a couple of full run-throughs and then three or four days of start-and-stops and one song at a time and different camera angles," Ulrich said. "We basically looked at the audience as extras in a movie shoot."

When the concert footage was done, the film crew spent another three weeks shooting the narrative parts in Vancouver. In the summer of 2012, post-production was completed, and Metallica started seeing the final edits. For the most part, they were thrilled by the movie, which, thanks to 20 3D cameras – including a bird's eye drum cam – is the closest a Metallica fan can possibly get to the band without being onstage.

There was just one small problem. "Much to the disbelief of the editor and the director, we wanted more story, more Dane, more narrative, less band," Ulrich said. "Every single frame that was shot of Dane DeHaan and the narrative is in the film. There’s not one DVD extra anywhere. It came to the point where we had to wrestle with Spiderman. Dane was working on Spiderman for six months this year, and we wrestled one day out of the Spiderman shoot for an additional five or six scenes."

With Through the Never ready for theatrical release, Metallica are at last ready to continue working on the yet-untitled follow-up to 2008's Death Magnetic album. "We actually started to give it some effort before," Hammett said. "But then the movie project kind of took precedent and then the next thing we knew, all we were doing was the movie."

"Making a film of this size was radically different than making a record," concluded Ulrich. "For me, the biggest thing was the scale of it and the amount of people that are involved. It can get overwhelming at times. It’s been three years and there are times it felt like the whole thing was running amok and [we wondered] who’s steering the ship. The intimacy you have in the recording studio where you really feel on top of what's going on...I don’t feel we had that the whole time [with the movie], but we tried to commandeer it. I’m proud to say most of what you see does come from us, but it’s been a mindf**k at times. And we're all psyched to get back to the studio and get back to that intimacy again."

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