Q&A: Jeff Krulik, Director of ‘Heavy Metal Parking Lot’
“Heavy Metal Parking Lot” is a seminal music documentary. More than that, it’s fucking awesome! Though it runs only 15 minutes, it captures the spirit of a musical genre better than perhaps any other. It is funnier than “This Is Spinal Tap,” captures the spirit of rock and roll better than “Almost Famous” and showcases fan culture like it hadn’t previously been seen. It is that rare document that taps into the cultural zeitgeist in a way that could never have been anticipated. It elicits laugher, discussion and joy from nearly everyone who views it, and each year it finds a new cult of devotees. Not bad for short film about a bunch of drunk fans at a Judas Priest concert in Maryland.
Though the film was made in the mid-1980s, it didn’t achieve true cult status until the ’90s. Twenty-five years later, it remains a magnificent time capsule of a bygone era, where beer and heavy metal ruled supreme. The film’s director, Jeff Krulik, was kind enough to answer some of our questions, providing insight about the nature of viral video, catching up with the film’s participants and its lasting legacy.
Here’s an excerpt if you’re not familiar with it (and if you aren’t, what the hell is wrong with you!)
“Heavy Metal Parking Lot” was truly a viral video — and in the days before the internet and YouTube no less. But how did it get started? Did it actually air somewhere? And how did tapes start circulating?
John Heyn and I made the video in 1986, mostly as a lark, with borrowed 3/4″ video equipment from the public access studio I was managing at the time. We were aspiring documentary filmmakers, and it seemed like a fun idea. Little did we know we’d be talking about it nearly 25 years later. It never aired on public access television, we always felt it had broader appeal than that. Plus, I couldn’t imagine flaunting that kind of language and wanton display of partying in front of my employers. We used to screen the tapes for friends, at parties, and in local record stores. We had a few art gallery and DC nightclub screenings but that was it. Most of the people seemed to see it via tape trading. Don’t forget, this was the era when film festivals wouldn’t show video, so it was doomed to just grassroots circulation from the start. And I guess that’s been a blessing for us. Eventually, it wound up in the hands of the alternative rock universe, and that’s how it got spread and VHS tape-traded around the country. The most notable story is that Nirvana had it on their tour bus during the early ’90s, and apparently screened it frequently. We met Dave Grohl backstage in 2005 and he confirmed that story.
It’s amazing the film is still being discovered by people who had never seen it, particularly since it seems so widely known by people of a certain age and interest. Is it simply finding its way to subsequent generations now or is something else at work here?
I’m flattered that it’s considered some sort of anthropological work, so future generations can screen it and enjoy it and, in some cases, study it. I know it’s been included in some film school class curriculum. And the phenomenon of the Internet helps spread the word of it greatly. We’ve managed to garner a decent amount of press hits, and it always helps to be included in top music film lists that get written from time to time. It’s very nice to be an evergreen title.
The film has had such a wide cultural reach, from its many celebrity fans to music video parodies, but is there one instance of its reach that really makes you proud?
Hard to say — I’m as flattered by the most earnest fanboy or fangirl gushing about it as I am by a personality or celebrity. Not that this necessarily happens all the time. I can’t tell you how many times people draw a blank stare when you mention the title to them. That’s always a humbling experience. I always think, “Don’t believe the hype!”
Did you know at the time that you had something special or was it only years later that you realized you had captured something unique?
We always were impressed with what we came away with, especially since it was a very low shooting ratio. John really deserves all the credit for being the architect of the piece since he was the editor. It’s pretty remarkable that we got such great footage with a minimum of effort. But I coined the name right away, and we always felt we had a crowd pleaser, at least among our friends and local hipsters. I think we knew early on it would be popular, but never in our dreams did we think it’d become such an evergreen touchstone. But hallelujah for that!
It wasn’t until we got wind of it being rented by Mondo Video in L.A., somewhere around 1994, that we realized we had something and needed to drag it out of mothballs (we had stopped screening it in 1990). By the time 1996 rolled around, we undertook our sequel “Neil Diamond Parking Lot,” shot at the same concert arena and 180 degrees in the opposite direction (on purpose).
Certainly it wasn’t why you made the film, but have you ultimately managed to make some money from it? At some point there was a TV show inspired by it that you helped create, right?
“Parking Lot” was indeed borne from the “Heavy Metal Parking Lot” seed — it was a short lived reality show on TrioTV, now sadly relegated to the web. It was a great opportunity to be a part of a major television effort, but it was such an obscure channel that it doesn’t even exist anymore. And the money we made was hardly anything to quit a day job over, especially since it only lasted six episodes. But it’s definitely part of our legacy.
In another one of your documentaries, you spent time with Ernest Borgnine — were you shocked by the news that the 91-year-old actor still masturbates… a lot?
I have indeed carved out a career in independent film/video/documentary production, and “Ernest Borgnine on the Bus” is a career highlight. You can find a clip on my YouTube page. Ernie was a blast to work with, and I had the good fortune to see him on his recent book tour. It’s my firm belief that he was kidding around on that clip, and he knew exactly that he was mic’d and that it would be heard. He’s a pretty sharp guy, and still has all his marbles thank God; I hope we are all blessed with his longevity genes. I’m sure he and his publicist Harry Flynn concocted many scenarios where he would give outlandish and unexpected answers like that, because it was a no-brainer that people would be asking him questions about his age and how do you do it???
Remarkably, you’ve managed to catch up with many of the people featured in the film over the years… but was anybody pissed off about being in it? There’s some pretty embarrassing behavior captured therein.
All the “Heavy Metal Parking Lot” alumni we’ve met, or even corresponded with on email, are great sports about being in the video. Most, if not all, look back on that as the folly of youth, and nobody carries on like that anymore. Some may be embarrassed, but most of them all recognize that they were, and some still are in some cases, passionate hard rock and heavy metal lovers. Defenders of the Faith!
What is it about the people featured in HMPL that makes it so compelling? Why is it such a fascinating and entertaining time capsule?
I’ve always said that you either were at that concert or you sat next to someone in homeroom who was at that concert. You didn’t have to attend to share in the experience and absorb it through osmosis. Everyone can relate to this sort of passionate concert going experience. There’s something about it that’s a universal archetype. And every year there’s a new crop of young people who are discovering concert going and music.
Are we laughing at the people in the film or with them?
John and I are absolutely no better than those people on camera, and we just let them be themselves. Any time you point a camera there’s a degree of exploitation in what you’re taping, but I like to think that we were a part of the spirit of the occasion and we didn’t goad anyone or put words in their mouth. So I think we’re all in on the joke, and laughing with them.
Have you ever been approached about adapting HMPL into a feature film?
In fact this is something we’ve wanted to do for many years, and scripts have been done. That’s a tough nut to crack though. Stay tuned…
Were you sad to hear the Capital Centre had been demolished?
Yes, it’s very bittersweet. We were there at the implosion in 2002. It’s a featured extra on our DVD. That was where I saw my first concert: Bad Company in 1977. [Note: You can check out footage of the implosion via YouTube]
What was the last concert you went to?
I saw ZZ Top at the York, PA Fair, Cheech and Chong on stage in DC, and Prabir and the Substitutes, at the Takoma Park Street Festival; they’re a really happenin’ band from Richmond who are developing a lot of fans in the mid-Atlantic. Keep an eye out for them.