In honor of the great Bruce Sinfosky, who passed away on February 21 at the age of 58 [and pictured above on the far right], we’re rerunning this interview I conducted with the filmmaker and his frequent collaborator Joe Berlinger at the SXSW Film Festival in 2004 for The Daily Texan. I could only get out one question while speaking to the two in my allotted 15 minutes, which was probably for the best considering how in awe of them I was for making “Brother’s Keeper” and “Paradise Lost,” their probe into the West Memphis Three murders that eventually grew into a trilogy that exonerated the trio of young men at the center. Still, I may even be more fond of “Metallica: Some Kind of Monster,” their thrilling warts-and-all epic showing what happens when the biggest rock band in the world has an identity crisis, prompting me to ask whether they could see any of themselves in the band that was trying to reconnect with one another after their own time together as longtime collaborators.
Sinofsky surprised me when he said, in spite of the many interviews they had already done that day and in the months that followed its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, that no one had actually asked. After realizing that the answer was going to take up the entire time of our interview, he gave me his card, insisting that I get back in touch with him, the first filmmaker to ever extend me that courtesy and no doubt indicative of the desire to get past soundbites in order to get to something real that made all of his work so astonishing. The documentary world truly lost one of its very best, in all respects, today. This piece was originally published on August 31, 2004.
“I just wanted some red meat,” Joe Berlinger could be overheard saying not long before we sat down to speak about his latest film with Bruce Sinofsky at SXSW. On a vegan diet before traveling to Texas, a steak at the Austin eatery Sullivan’s may have done the trick for Berlinger’s taste buds, but he’s given audiences something bloody good to chew on with “Metallica: Some Kind of Monster,” a chronicle of the tumultuous off-and-on making of the band’s 2003 headbanger “St. Anger.”
An album started without bassist Jason Newsted, who quit the band in 2001 and marked midway by the temporary departure of lead singer James Hetfield, who entered treatment for alcoholism, the film ends in triumph for both the band and the filmmakers, who were allowed to eavesdrop on the metal band’s therapy sessions to for one unbelievable moment after another. As Robert Trujillo, the bassist who would come to replace Newstead, would later tell me, “Here, you have a rollercoaster that derailed for a few years, but it’s back together again,” resulting in a masterpiece of the rock doc genre, though Berlinger objects to that term, noting “the only concert footage you see is at the end of the movie.”
“It’s about a band approaching a midlife crisis,” said Sinofsky. “And the strangest thing is in that very first session, Lars [Ulrich, Metallica’s drummer] said, ‘We’ve been together for 20 years and I don’t think I know you guys.’ We were dumbfounded. Maybe he was just making a very broad statement, but as it turns out, these guys really didn’t know each other as they matured, as they became parents, as they became husbands.”
With Berlinger sitting right next to him now, Sinofsky says, to a lesser degree, he could’ve just as easily been describing his relationship with his longtime filmmaking partner. In an area of film not known for celebrities, the duo are considered rock stars in the documentary world after redefining the form with scrupulously investigated and compellingly executed murder mysteries such “Brother’s Keeper” and “Paradise Lost” and its sequel, “Revelations.”
However, after the release of “Revelations,” the two began to work more and more apart with Berlinger flirting with narrative filmmaking in directing “Blair Witch Project 2” and broadening his reach as a producer. It wasn’t until the duo checked in with Metallica, whose music served as the score for the “Paradise Lost” films, that the filmmakers saw something that clicked not only professionally, but personally.
“We’ve been a partnership for a long time, and there was a little of a chill in our relationship, because we had some growing pains,” said Berlinger. “There’s a certain magic when he and I come together on a project and we took it for granted, frankly.”
Sinofsky added, “The therapy probably bought Metallica another 10 years, at least, and I’d like to think it also saved our working relationship because we’re not that different from Lars and James on a certain level. We’re collaborators, too and it really made a huge difference.”
Ultimately, the film is a testament to the endurance required to make great art, taking itself 1,600 hours of footage to complete. It also cements the place of both the band and the filmmakers as great artists, resulting in a final product may be transformative for audiences, who may not always appreciate the artistry in their specific brands of art, but likely more so for those directly involved.
“We were able to get rid of any anger or envy [we had] and just put things in the proper perspective,” said Sinofsky. “Now, I know we’ll make a couple of more substantial films, if only we can find the right subject.”