Metallica's James Hetfield: "Plenty of Places to Die On That Stage"

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After selling more than 100 million records and decimating virtually every arena, stadium and amphitheater on the planet, there's little doubt at this point that Metallica is the biggest heavy-metal band in history. More than three decades into a career that has seen both unprecedented triumph and intense tragedy, the band is still managing to find new and unexpected worlds to thrash into submission.

A little more than two years after the release of the frankly bizarre Lulu, Metallica's ill-advised album collaboration with Lou Reed, the band is back with Through the Never, a big-budget 3D IMAX spectacular that weaves a violent, hallucinogenic narrative into the most laser-studded, animatronic Metallica concert ever staged. With the film, the group is stepping into a 3D universe more typically populated by the likes of Katy Perry and Justin Bieber, albeit armed with a great deal more double-bass licks.

How did Metallica find themselves in such a place in 2013, working with Hollywood directors and attending IMAX film premieres? To find out, we spoke with James Hetfield, the band's voice and driving creative force, about how Metallica: Through the Never came to be.

REWIND: The 10 Most Spinal Tap Moments From Metallica: Through the Never

"I think it was over ten years ago, maybe 12 years ago, IMAX came to us, wanting to capture the intensity of a Metallica live show," says Hetfield, checking in from Metallica's Bay Area warehouse HQ. "They were back in the days of doing their Climbing Everest or Finding the Titanic films or whatever; more nature stuff. Whatever energy that happens there between us and the audience, I think they found it very interesting.

"For us, there were kind of three dreams that culminated with this movie," he continues. "One was the IMAX thing, obviously, and doing a 3D movie; then the third one was capturing the best of Metallica's live stage. We wanted to have 30 years of theatrical props brought into one stage so the people that didn't see the crosses of Master of Puppets or Ride the Lightning, things like that, were able to see it live."

That mind-boggling stage is perhaps the film's biggest star. Stretching across the entire arena floor, it features more smoke, flames and lights than can be believed, in addition to a multitude of moving parts and explosive props that at times threaten to crush the the band under the weight of their own awesomeness. Simply figuring out how to perform on it without getting maimed was no quick task, says Hetfield.

"It is the most dangerous stage in rock and roll; I'm going out on a limb and saying that," says the singer, with his disarming laugh. "There's plenty of places to die on that stage. There's plenty of little warning signs, little skull-and-crossbone drawings, 'Do not cross this line during this song!'

"Of course when you're up there during the moment, crazy with the fervor of living the music through you, you're not reading little signs," he added. "So it took a lot of practice to not get killed on that stage."

That's not to say there's no death in the movie. The film's narrative component, conceived by Predators director Nimrod Antal, tells the story of a young Metallica roadie appropriately named "Trip" who is sent out on a mission by the band that descends into a hellish nightmare of police riots, evil puppets and masked horsemen of the apocalypse. Like all of life's most intense trips, it doesn't always make sense, but it's certainly fucking memorable.

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"When Lars [Ulrich] and I were jamming in the garage in 1981, we didn't think we'd have to be interviewing directors for our 3D IMAX movie," Hetfield says. "That world is new to us. We were reaching out to people we thought would fit with our crazy dream.

"Nimrod was one on the list, out of about five," the singer continues. "He showed up at HQ, brought his Hungarian crazy self in here, and sat down and pitched us a storyline and his vision of how the narrative would tie into the concert. He had a little more reality-based script, of sorts. The other ones were a little more sci-fi, a little more out there, and didn't really match up with what he had envisioned. His seemed a little more real, even though it's still pretty far out there."

Far out, indeed. Bonkers, even. With so much creative freedom and such a large canvas to work with, Metallica were free to indulge their most outrageous and spectacular impulses -- and in 3D, no less. Hetfield say that it was only with great care that the band did not transform completely into Spinal Tap.

"In general, the 3D cliché of things jumping out at you -- guitar headstocks pointing in your face, and fingers pointing, and all that kind of hokey 3D-ness -- we knew we did not want that," he says. "Instead of the film jumping out at you, we wanted the audience to be drawn into it. So the 3D was used to pull people in and make them a part of it, instead of attacking you. That was one thing that we had learned from other films that we knew we didn't want to see."

Though new to the experience of realizing their own creative vision on film, Through the Never is not Metallica's first Hollywood foray. While the 3D IMAX feature presents the band at their very best, pumping out their best-loved songs from atop Mt. Olympus, the 2004 documentary Some Kind of Monster captured them at their very lowest. Intending to capture the making of a new Metallica album, the movie instead presented the fallout of bassist Jason Newstead's unhappy departure from the group and Hetfield's trip to rehab.

Though the films are in many ways polar opposite presentations, Hetfield sees them as two sides of the same coin.

"I think the two movies complement each other," he says. "Tying into the same theme, I would say, the adventure that Trip goes on is not that dissimilar to the trip that we went on in Some Kind of Monster, where we're just going to work and doing the next, right thing in our lives, and then life happens in a big way and our whole world is rocked.

"Your first instinct is to flee, to run, to not be a part of it," he continues. "Then the fight mode kicks in. You know, life is supposed to happen! It's all about how you respond. That's where I think these two join together in commonality."

So now that the band has stormed not only Hollywood but the Third Dimension, as well, are there any more worlds left for Metallica to conquer? Hetfield says he's sure that there are, even if he doesn't know where they might be.

"Two years ago, we had no idea that this movie was supposed to happen," he says, laughing again. "There is always something that will come at us. We let it happen, and take the challenges on when we feel that it's going to improve our lives or take us out of ourselves, that we'll learn something from it.

"So we don't know what the next thing is going to be, except that we're going to make another record -- which besides me, I think a few people are interested in," he added. "Metallica makes music: that's what we do best, that's what we want to do. We're sitting on 1,000 riffs, so that's what's next on the plate."

And could there be another movie somewhere down the line, too? Hetfield chuckles at the thought.

"I wouldn't count on it," he says. "This one was intended to be the only movie we'd ever need to make."


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