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When filmmaker Bruce Sinofsky and his partner, Joe Berlinger, agreed to document the recording of Metallica's St. Anger CD, they thought they'd be making a record-company-funded infomercial a fairly pedestrian entry in a career that's ranged from the provocative (the documentaries Brother's Keeper and Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills) to the commercial (the MTV series FanClub). Then bassist Jason Newsted left the group in a huff, and Metallica's minders hired professional guru Phil Towle to salvage the remaining musicians' relationships, which were suffering from decades of creative push-and-pull. By the time guitarist/singer James Hetfield enrolled in rehab, putting the recording sessions on hold for more than a year, Sinofsky knew he and his partner were compiling far more than a high-volume puff piece.
"Lo and behold, the very first day of shooting, Joe and I walk into a therapy session with the biggest heavy metal band of all time," the filmmaker recalls. "We just kept nudging the door open wider and wider and wider as we saw that the material we were accumulating was richer and richer and richer."
That material revealed a band in the throes of painful self-analysis, searching their psyches for the reasons behind their frequently fractious creative process and reaching for an operational fix.
"The therapy sessions were very difficult to sit through on a couple of levels," Sinofsky says. "The tension level in the room was palpable. On one hand, as a filmmaker, you're saying, 'This is great stuff.' On another hand, it's like going to your friend's house where you've been invited for dinner, and the dad comes home and starts yelling at everybody in the house. And you don't know whether to stay or go."
Helping to earn and maintain the band's trust was an intimate, involved filmmaking style that Sinofsky and Berlinger had honed through projects like Paradise Lost, an inquiry into a triple homicide in West Memphis, Ark.
"We spent incredible amounts of time with mothers whose children had been murdered just weeks before," Sinofsky remembers. "There's nothing less comfortable than that. My 20-year-old was 8 at the time of the murders, and I could just visualize and feel what they were going through."
The good faith the filmmakers built up with the band and the looming threat that the footage would be turned into a reality-TV series inspired Metallica to purchase the rights to Some Kind of Monster from their record label. The final production bill ran to $4.3 million for a warts-and-all theatrical doc that premiered at this year's Sundance Film Festival. It must have been a relief to Sinofsky, who in the thick of Hetfield's open-ended absence wondered if the film would ever be completed. ("We thought many, many times that this project was dead in the water.") But even if it had remained unfinished, the two filmmakers would have had something to show for their effort.
"Joe and I had been having some relationship issues about collaboration and working together," Sinofsky reveals. "And sitting in those therapy sessions really started melting the ice cube that had formed between us on a collaborative level. We continued those therapy sessions back at our hotel or at a restaurant, and over several months we were able to save our partnership as filmmakers."
If they also learned to play "Battery," he doesn't say.