Although Nimród Antal isn’t much championed outside vulgar-auteurist circles, he’s quietly built up a fascinating filmography via a series of what could easily have been simple work-for-hire projects. After breaking through with 2003’s stylish subway thriller Kontroll—which the Los Angeles-raised, Hungarian-descended Antal shot in Hungary—he came back to the States to make 2007’s Vacancy, which, though marketed as straight-up horror, effectively turned the torture-porn genre on its head. The heist thriller Armored has the brute efficiency of a B-movie and the nuanced male camaraderie of Howard Hawks or Raoul Walsh, and Predators put a new spin on the Arnold Schwarzenegger staple by casting unusual suspects Adrien Brody and Topher Grace.
Antal’s predictably unpredictable next move is Metallica: Through The Never, an IMAX 3-D concert movie that mixes footage of the storied metal quartet onstage with the story of a roadie, played by Dane DeHaan, navigating the post-apocalyptic wasteland outside the arena to bring the band a mysterious, much-needed item: Think The Last Waltz meets Resident Evil. The Dissolve caught up with Antal the day after the film’s ear-bleeding première at the Toronto International Film Festival.
The Dissolve: After Metallica: Through the Never’s world première in Toronto, the band mentioned initially soliciting four treatments for the film: Three were science-fiction, and the other was yours. What was the initial treatment? How did it compare to the film as it is now?
Nimród Antal: The process itself was three major steps: There was when I sat with Lars [Ulrich] and he explained what it was they were hoping to do. I was fascinated by the concept of taking some kind of story into a concert setting. So I felt that was refreshing and different, and I liked the challenge of doing that. The first step and the first thought behind it was that Metallica represented “fuck you” music to me. They’ve always represented rebellion, and certainly when I got into them, I was going through a very difficult period in my young life. So rebellion and protest seemed to be a given. That was one thing.
The second thing was, there’s a book I was very fond of with a beautiful structure—it’s a circular structure, and I liked the idea of a character starting somewhere and going on this epic journey that ultimately returns him to the place he started from. That was an elegant structure. And the last element was meeting with a guy called Dan Brown who works for them, meeting with other members of their crew. I realized in conversation with them how passionate and loyal they were to the guys, and how they were willing to lay their lives on the line every day to make it happen for the band. That was inspirational, for lack of a better word. It was really that last conversation with them that [Dane DeHaan’s character] Trip was born. That was it—that was the journey to get the story.
“There’s not a critic in the world who could say anything to me, because I kick the shit out of myself way worse than anybody ever could.”
I wanted it to be obscure. I wanted it to be abstract. I didn’t want the whole American, bow-tied little three-act structure. It seems that given this is a concert film first and foremost, I had to come up with a concept and idea that would be able to work within what they were doing. You don’t have an hour and a half, you don’t have two hours to spend with the character, you don’t have dialogue—you’re missing so many elements that help you in a narrative and help the viewers connect with the characters. So what I was hoping was going to be the connection, much like James said last night, you put yourself into it, and you can fill in the blanks. I certainly have ideas, and I certainly know where I was going with it, but someone may have a far more fascinating take on it if they allow themselves to interject themselves into the story.
The Dissolve: What was the book you loved with the circular storyline?
Antal: The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho.
The Dissolve: So you’re saying you were impressed by the devotion of the people around them, and from that came the idea of this member of their crew going through hell and high water to bring something back for them?
Antal: It’s funny, because at one point, life started to imitate art, and I began to feel like Trip. [Laughs]. Making this film was nothing like I had ever done before: emotionally, technically, logistically. On every level, this film has been incredibly difficult. I felt like Trip. I felt like I like I died and was reborn like a phoenix at one point.
The Dissolve: Was the part that wasn’t like anything you’ve done before more the concert aspect than the storyline?
Antal: There’s a few elements. I’ve done tons of videos for bands, but I’d never done a concert film. I had never shot in 3-D. I was attempting to do something I had no reference for. Usually when we’re making movies, we can always go, “Remember that really cool thing in Alien, how the light was reflecting off the helmet?” You always have a point of reference where you can kind of refer to something and say “We could do it like that,” or, “That worked well, let’s try to emulate that.” In this case, there’s no film that takes concert and narrative in the way we did, at least that I know of.
Early on, having seen so many bad 3-D films, and having seen films converted, and having my eyes sucked from my skull, I realized we have a band that is not known for slow songs. The majority of their songs are hyper-quick cadence. Then you have, in the default setting as a filmmaker, I say to myself, “Quick music, quick montage.” That’s the default button. Then I said, “Oh, and let’s throw the 3-D element into that.” And we’re brewing the perfect storm; it’s going to become this absolutely traumatizing experience. [Laughs.] That was something I was concerned about. Not having done 3-D, it was a relief to work with people like Cameron Pace, who explained interocular to me, and took the time to explain convergence to me, and all the different techniques.
The Dissolve: James Hetfield referred to them performing on a “Swiss Army knife stage,” which does more than any one stage could possibly do. How many concerts did you shoot?
Antal: The concert itself was shot over five days. We had two days in Edmonton, two days in Vancouver, and then a plus date in Vancouver. The first two Edmonton concerts and the first two Vancouver concerts were full-blown concerts: ticket-buying audience, band comes out, band starts to play, band finishes the concert, audience cheers, we cut the camera. It was only on the fifth day that we did more like a half-set kind of deal. I wanted to make sure we were capturing certain shots. In the entire concert film, there’s only one or two manipulated shots, and what I mean by “manipulated” is, we had to set up a move. Even Trip in the audience was live while the concert was going on. But there were one or two shots we had to go back and pick up. I remember there was one where Lars has the double kick-drum [makes double kick-drums sound], and that was one shot we picked up on the fifth day—stuff like that. Otherwise, what you see is a real live concert.
The Dissolve: Looking at the size of the production and the fact that it’s in IMAX and 3-D, the expectation is something very thoroughly staged, every detail nailed down. But some nice moments sneak in, like James shooting an annoyed look at the stage crew after his guitar feeds back between songs. Those feel like things that just happened.
Antal: Because they were. I want to be very cautious about how I say this, because when they play, they play. Their work ethic and their passion and their power, that’s all real stuff. But within any concert, especially in our concert, you have stage elements malfunctioning. You have this and that happening, and they have their own narrative within the concert. Having seen the concert and having been with them before we captured the concert, I knew what the script was.
The Dissolve: You play the same song every night for months, and certain patterns emerge: Kirk is always out on the thrust during such-and-such a point in “One,” or whatever.
Antal: Exactly. So when we were planning camera placement and movement, we took all those things into consideration. We knew on one song, we would be able to be on the stage with the band, with the Steadicam operator. And the Steadicam operator better get off the stage by the time “Fuel” hits, because it’s going to be balls of fire exploding from the bottom of the stage.
When I first realized I would be so-called “limited” with the camera, because I wouldn’t have the opportunity to be onstage with them during “Fuel,” that was a concern. But what I initially perceived to be a problem ultimately turned out to be a blessing, because suddenly each individual song had its own visual style. That’s fascinating to me.
The Dissolve: And you have those stage effects spilling into the narrative world as well: Flames erupting when they’re playing “Fuel,” electricity shooting across the sky during “Ride The Lightning.”
Antal: Right, and one influencing the other. Until I actually saw the concerts, I had no way of knowing how we could end—not only the hard cuts, but trying to do transitions, trying to introduce elements that transpire on the stage into the film and vice versa. Like you said, “There’s a ball of fire on the stage, can we do that in the narrative?” Those intersections were fascinating.
The Dissolve: You’ve managed to carve out a really interesting career for yourself, akin to old-school studio auteurs in an era where the studio system no longer exists. Vacancy, Armored, and Predators are all in very different styles, but they don’t feel anonymous or random.
Antal: I take that as a huge compliment. It’s fascinating to me, because as an artist, there are things you plan for, and then life happens. For me, Kontroll is the epitome of the kind of films I want to make, and that I respond to the most. Those are films you can’t quite put into a genre box. That was the past I wanted to continue with, and I know that’s where I’m ultimately going to get back to. When I came to the United States, my beautiful wife was pregnant with my first little boy. Suddenly, I had to work, and it wasn’t, certainly at that point, what I thought I wanted to do. Some of those jobs for me were very difficult to undertake, because I thought I had done something truly unique and truly beautiful with Kontroll, and then suddenly I’m making American genre films.
What I learned was, first and foremost, “Get the fuck off your high horse. Be grateful for working at all.” [Laughs.] Like Dave Chappelle says, “White people problems.” Like, “Really, dude? The problem is that you’re not making your art films, but you’re making studio films? Fuck you.” I quickly got over that. Vacancy and Armored were films I needed to do because I had to support my family. But through those films, I got to work with Luke Wilson, I got to work with Laurence Fishburne, I got to work with Matt Dillon, I got to work with Jean Reno, I got to work with Skeet Ulrich, who is fantastic. I got to work with all these great actors who taught me a lot about filmmaking. I also got to practice my craft, and each genre, you have to approach a completely different way: horror films, suspense, action, a thriller, or a crime story. I really beat myself up about this stuff—you have to understand, I kick the shit out of myself. There’s not a critic in the world who could say anything to me, because I kick the shit out of myself way worse than anybody ever could. [Laughs.] I was really, really, really hard on myself. With Predator, I had the poster on my wall as a kid growing up, so there was a beauty in that as well, and I got to play within the science-fiction genre, which happens to be one of my favorites.
“I wanted it to be obscure. I wanted it to be abstract. I didn’t want the whole American, bow-tied little three-act structure.”
Metallica, again, was a completely different challenge. Looking back, I see there’s an eclectic mix, and I’m proud I was able to do all those things. I’m not beating myself up anymore so much—everything in due time. I certainly hope I can return to writing and directing my own stuff, and I’m working very hard right now to make that happen. Hopefully it happens before my bank account runs dry again; that’s coming up in a few months. So once that happens, I’ll either have my dream come true and I can go back to writing and directing my own strange little weird things, or Texas Chainsaw Massacre: Part XV. [Laughs.]
The Dissolve: Vacancy is particularly interesting, because it plays against the torture-porn genre in a genuinely subversive way. There’s a lot of violence threatened, but very little takes place onscreen. You don’t just play it straight.
Antal: Very much the opposite. That was a very conscious decision of mine. We were certainly trying to elevate it. We were trying to do something more than, most likely, what was there on paper.
The Dissolve: So you’re still trying to figure out what you’re doing next.
Antal: No, I know what I’d like to do next. It’s just a matter of whether the film gods deem me worthy or not. I have a project I wrote a few years ago, and the title is The Repossession Of Max The Companion Robot. It is a very strange film, and it is a very beautiful film. Many people have cried reading the script, so I think we have something really touching and relevant. Nick Wechsler is a producer—he did films like Drugstore Cowboy, Requiem For A Dream, The Road. He grabbed hold of the script a few years ago, and said, “I want to do this thing with you.” And he’s been an incredible support system for me, and right now, it’s looking like it may happen, but we’ll see. Keep your fingers crossed.