An Interview With Jeff Krulik, Documentarian Extraordinaire

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There was a period in film history, after the advent of the VCR and before the Generation Y takeover, where people traded VHS copies of their movies on an underground circuit that spread all over the world.  The modern incarnation of this is the ‘viral’ video, or, a video that racks up a lot of views on YouTube.  But, if you’re old enough, you can remember a time when this was essentially done by hand (or, if you’re a Y-er, you can Google it).  

There’s something romantic about it really.  Each video had to be copied with noisy machines that spooled magnetic tape around heads that needed to be cleaned and would break after so many revolutions.  Each tape was an artifact adorned with the fingerprints of the previous owner, or in many cases, the filmmaker himself.  It was personal and exclusive and you had to be in the know to be blessed with a particular video’s presence.

In the summer of 1986, Jeff Krulik and John Heyn lugged some bulky video equipment to a Judas Priest concert in Washington D.C.  They rolled camera in the parking lot, and left after gathering about an hour of raw interview footage with concertgoers.  That footage was edited down to a fifteen minute time capsule that, by the late 90s, had been reviewed by Roger Ebert, rented out at Mondo Video in L.A., and spread enthusiastically around the Fight Club set by Edward Norton.  The DVD cover features quotes from Dave Grohl and Cameron Crowe.  Heavy Metal Parking Lot was one of the most legendary movies on the tape trading circuit.  In fact, Jeff once told me he paid his rent for a few months in the mid 90s simply by mailing VHS copies of Parking Lot around the world to eager traders. 

I met Jeff in the Summer of 2010 when I had the pleasure of editing his feature-length follow up to Parking Lot, Heavy Metal Picnic.  We became fast friends and he has generously granted me this interview. 

Q:  I’m sure it’s old hat by now, but for the people out there that don’t know, what was the idea behind Heavy Metal Parking Lot?  What had you been doing before then?  Did you guys set out to make a short documentary?  What was the original inspiration?

A:  Heavy Metal Parking Lot has been a good calling card, but it was totally by accident rather than design. Hard to believe I’m still talking about it 27 years later, but co-producer John Heyn and I are still grateful for the attention these 27 or so years later (I’m starting to lose count). When I graduated from college in 1983, I started selling cable television door-to-door and was still a volunteer public access user. After a year and a half on foot selling cable, when I was about to quit, I was offered a chance to run this small public access studio at the same company, and I jumped at the chance, as I was just a few years out of college radio and I still felt the freeform programming bug. So I became in charge of this rinky dink little tv studio at age 25. And since we’re mentioning it, here’s a look from 1988:

But this is where I was working when I met John Heyn in 1985, and we became collaborators and friends. Six months later, he suggested filming heavy metal fans in their pre-concert environment. I instantly loved the idea, so we picked an upcoming Saturday afternoon date and I was able to provide my public access studio equipment, and we just drove to the nearby arena. Luckily, it was a nice spring day and Judas Priest were the band. It could have been any band, but lucikly it was Judas Priest as their music still holds up.

At that point we honestly didn’t have a significant body of work, but John and I were ambitious, as, at that point, we aspired to be documentarians. We got lucky with Heavy Metal Parking Lot. Mind you, it took a while to grab hold, through many years of tape trading and word of mouth. It would never be duplicated today in this viral universe we live in; it would be over in a matter of days or weeks.

I’m most certain the inspiration came from just seeing what was going on in hair metal nation, which was all around us; Headbangers Ball was on MTV, and heavy metal could fill arenas. It was all very funny and we were curious since our tastes were the farthest thing from metal (and we didn’t necessarily identify as punk for that matter either; I used to just classify our music tastes as ‘alternative’ which seemed to encompass a broad swath of non-commercial sounds).

What Jeff say’s here about Parking Lot’s ability to percolate in the culture is interesting.  Nowadays the shelf life of any viral video is as long as its fleeting popularity online.  And it’s seldom filmmakers that get any attention, but rather unintentionally funny clips of people shooting themselves or marveling at rainbows.  There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this and I don’t begrudge those videos.  However, it is ironic that while low-cost video equipment is leveling the proverbial playing field, the marketplace is so over-saturated by media that it is increasingly difficult to penetrate.  When things are allowed to simmer, there can be a network that supports them.  Jeff is right that he and John were lucky Parking Lot had time to be spread around. 

Twenty five years later, when Jeff made Picnic, it was all of a sudden close to impossible to find an audience.  Festivals that used to be hotspots for burgeoning indie talent had been dwindled down to starfuck fests that received more submissions than they could handle. This frustrating saga was chronicled here

But back to the interview:

Q:  How much footage did you guys get and what was it like shooting it?

A:  We basically rolled up in my ’78 Pontiac Bonneville (I figured that out after looking at the outtakes many years later and saw my busted side view mirror I used to drive around with) paid probably the $5 parking fee like any other concertgoer, and then began walking around with our 3/4″ public access television gear.  We had four 20-minute U-matic tapes and shot about an hour of footage, much of it the camera pointed at the ground as we were walking around, so it was a really low shooting ratio, almost unheard of these days, and we were very fortunate to get great material for the most part. I remember the title ‘Heavy Metal Parking Lot’ sort of leapt into my head while looking at the footage immediately after, so I can take full credit for naming it. But John Heyn is the true architect of the piece, that’s why he can take credit as ‘director,’ since it was his idea in the first place and he edited it, no small feat.

Q:  What was the initial reaction when you first started showing it around?  When did you first realize it had become a thing?

A:  Initial reaction was very positive, but it had incredibly humble roots: a local film collective called I Am Eye showed it first in Fall 1986, and then it basically worked its way into rotation at some local record stores who played it for their customers.  We pretty much were content to just give copies away when requested, and by 1990, we decided it had run its course and put it in mothballs.

Cut to around ‘94 or ‘95, and John hears from Sofia Coppola by phone from the West Coast. She looked him up via a nationwide phone directory and said she had rented the video from Mondo Video in Los Angeles and wanted to include it in a TV show she was producing for Comedy Central called Hi Octane. What?!? Huh?!? This was our first indication that there was any interest in HMPL, as we had basically shelved it four years earlier.

Turns out, as we retraced our steps, a friend of mine from DC had moved to the West Coast in 1992. His name is Mike Heath and we call him our ‘Johnny Appleseed’, as he showed up to my Discovery Channel job before he left and asked for copies of HMPL to bring with him. I think I gave him four tapes. The rest is history, as he was the one who gave it to Bill Bartell who plays in an LA band called White Flag (under the name Pat Fear) and he made a copy as an Xmas gift for band roadie Mike Dalke, who happened to then go on tour with Nirvana, and they apparently played it for any and everyone on their tour bus. Eventually, a copy wound its way to Mondo Video which was THE cult video store in LA at the time, and they then played it for everyone who came in to that store. That’s how the LA music crowd, and actor/directors such as Sofia Coppola discovered it. (Our DVD extras include a visit with Colonel Rob of Mondo Video, as well as interviews with Bill Bartell and Mike Heath.)

So pretty much after we understood there was this West Coast buzz, that’s when we got it out of mothballs and arranged some nearby screenings, and that eventually begat our sequel Neil Diamond Parking Lot in 1996, and then I started taking it to underground film festivals in 1997 in New York, Chicago and elsewhere; that’s how it first started to find a film festival life.And film festivals were finally starting to show video projection, not just film prints. Also at that time I had a body of work, and I was able to package it into to a 90-minute collection called The Films of Jeff Krulik and Friends, as I was working with multiple collaborators on various projects (although John Heyn and I will always be attached to this so called Parking Lot franchise).

Parking Lot opened many doors for Jeff, and what has followed has been prolific and impressive.  Unfortunately, he’s never matched the success of Parking Lot, despite a staggering output.  But Jeff is not bitter—I say unfortunately only because it’s a shame that nothing caught on since there are a lot of real gems throughout his filmography.

But, let’s start from the beginning:

Q:  Did you always want to be a filmmaker?  

A:  From my earliest days, I was always interested in films and filmmaking, but I never had a clear cut vision that my destiny was behind a camera. I used to devour the movie listings in the newspaper as a kid and any R-rated movies I could sneak into (most notably the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre in 1974 when I was 13). My first four R-rated movies that my Dad took me to were The French Connection, The Godfather, Deliverance, and Rollerball and then I lost track. But I recently asked my Dad WTF was with him taking me to Deliverance; he didn’t really have a good answer. But I remember these experiences.

My original career direction was radio, as I was very involved in college radio at the University of MD. But I truthfully wanted a job in the record industry, or in concert promotion, as my early 20s was dominated by an obsession with music, and the new alternative rock and roll sounds that were happening in the late 70s and early 80s. But I soured on that career path as I realized the music I was championing had little to no commercial potential (at the time) plus I didn’t have the temperament to be a hardass concert promoter. Then I discovered public access television (a fellow radio DJ was taping a jazz concert on campus) and I was absolutely hooked—access to free professional tv equipment dovetailed with my freeform ‘anything goes’ radio mindset, and I was off and running. That’s how I first got behind a camera.

Q:  How did you get into documentaries?  Any specific movies that influenced you and/or informed your style?

A:  It seemed like a fairly logical step into documentaries because I was always drawn to true life eccentricity and weirdness, and always felt that truth was stranger than fiction.  Once I found myself with access to camera equipment, I felt very comfortable doing documentary work, although I knew very little about documentary filmmaking history.  I never studied it. Instead, I read a bit about Frederick Wiseman, Errol Morris, and Les Blank, and had been smitten by the music film work of Chuck Statler when I saw his music films when they came through town at the Hirschorn Museum.

I remember being really stoked by this Sunday morning TV show called Capital Edition that did these local profile stories, and I used to love getting up and watching that program. I think that was an early influence on my documentary vision. So I really have to credit that television program more than any film.

Q:  When starting a new project how do you find your subjects?  Do you go looking for things or wait to be inspired?

A:  It’s hard for me to specifically pinpoint my process, but I don’t recall much back-and-forth in my head over projects, they are usually knee-jerk decisions on my part to jump in with both feet and start taping away. This has led to many shelves of tape. But because it’s tape, it’s cheap and economical, as opposed to film stock, so you can get away with endless taping. But that sometimes leads to unfinished and incomplete efforts, which I’m guilty of. Before I owned a camera, it was easier to procrastinate, but once I started owning my own cameras, there was nothing stopping me. I’m still using tape, even in this digital card world we live in now. I just can’t make the leap, but I know it’s inevitable.

Q:  In 1995 you made a film called Mr. Blassie Goes to Washington.  To the folks out there who are unfamiliar, Fred Blassie is a professional wrestler who also starred in My Breakfast With Blassie, a remake of My Dinner With Andre directed by Andy Kaufman where he sits down with Blassie.  

A:  Mr. Blassie Goes to Washington sprung from my days working at Discovery Channel in the early 90s, sitting next to my colleague Brendan Conway.  Brendan and I used to cook up all sorts of whacko ideas for TV shows that we would love to see—it was from our talks and harebrained schemes that Mr. Blassie Goes to Washington (Fred Blassie going throughout DC yelling at politicians as The King of Men) and Ernest Borgnine on the Bus (driving with Ernest Borgnine across the country in his 40-foot luxury bus) came from. It usually began with a dare, to call the agent of Fred Blassie or Ernest Borgnine. Next thing you know, we’re arranging a meeting in NYC for a pitch meeting which is what we did with Ernest Borgnine. And for Blassie, all we needed to do was to pay him a $2000 appearance fee and he was ours for the day. As you can tell from watching this ‘documentary’ (I hesitate to even call it a documentary) we were making it up as we went along. In fact, I thought it was such a fiasco at first that I didn’t look at the footage for at least a year and a half. When I finally looked at it again I thought ‘hey, it’s not so bad.’

Ernie was very kind to include a paragraph on our film in his autobiography, which was really neat.

Q:  You worked on First Person and eventually The Fog of War, the Oscar winner for best documentary in 2003, which is one of my favorite movies.  How did you get involved and what was your experience working with Errol Morris?

A:  That’s nice of you to mention The Fog of War, as it’s a real crowning achievement in my career to have worked on that, and to have worked in Errol Morris’ orbit. So much of one’s career in this business is built on luck, some of it happenstance fate, some of it manufactured so you are able to capitalize on opportunities. In this case, my neighbors invited me to their wedding in 1999, where they had also invited their friend from Boston who had recently started working for Errol Morris as his office manager.  She and I became fast friends, and she liked my work and sensibilities, so I was invited to do pre-production research for Errol’s short-lived TV series First Person. It was a great thrill to work for Errol Morris finding and pitching ideas. Although he wound up mostly producing ones he already thought of, it was a still a neat opportunity. This then led to doing research for The Fog of War, as I live in close proximity to the National Archives in Washington, DC. I was able to help gather archival footage from the Vietnam War, much of which had never been seen before. And that was my intro to the world of archival footage research. I love walking into the National Archives, because every day you don’t know what you might turn up in their collection.

Documentaries are often dirty and rustic.  It’s the natural byproduct of being shot on the fly.  In fact, Errol Morris is even criticized for being too polished—his response is always ‘why can’t the truth look pretty!?’  What’s interesting about Jeff’s work is that it’s a combination of vérité and interview.  He has done plenty of sit down, talking head interviews, and plenty of fly-on-the-wall scenes as well.  But for the most part ,Jeff is interviewing while up and about, walking around with his subjects while they show things to the camera.  Often times instead of cutting to an image or piece of footage being referenced, Jeff will simply have his subject hold the object or picture up to the camera.  This keeps the energy flowing and gives a much more immediate and intimate view that is often lost in the sterility of documentary editing.  What it also does is insert Jeff himself into the drama. All of a sudden he is no longer a passive presenter of information but someone experiencing the action as it happens.  What results is that we are not being delivered information, but rather, watching Jeff gather it.  What we see is, quite literally, what interests Jeff, and thankfully he finds some eccentric folks interesting.

On Heavy Metal Picnic, it was my job to put the movie together from scratch, reworking a previous cut and diving back into the raw footage to build a linear story out of over five years of relentless and exhaustive interviewing.  I met Jeff through mutual friends and when I started on the project it was three months away from its already scheduled premiere and Jeff and I had never even met in person!  He trusted me to put his film together, and when we did meet, I had the pleasure of showing this guy the new cut of his five year old baby for the first time.  I was a 23 year old kid, it was my first feature, and needless to say, I was more nervous than I ever had been in my life.  I hit play and sweated through my newly constructed cold open, desperately trying to get a sense of what he thought.  Would he hate it?  If so we’d have to start over, from scratch, again, and all my work would be shot.  At this point you might be asking, why work this way, why be so unorthodox, why entrust your movie to a kid you’ve never met?  Knowing Jeff, the best answer I can give is that he does a lot on intuition, and needed a fresh set of objective eyes on his project.  Or maybe he was just desperate.  In any event, the seconds went on and I slowly started sensing Jeff’s reaction.  At around the ten minute mark, Jeff slapped my knee in excitement, he had picked up on a story beat I had created and at that point I had him!  By the time it was over we were friends, and three months later Heavy Metal Picnic screened to 400 enthusiastic Krulik fans at the AFI Theater in Silver Spring Maryland.  

Picnic is still the project I’m most proud of, and working with Jeff was a joy.  It took us about a month of back and forth to finalize a cut and I was always amazed at how specific Jeff’s ideas were.  But they were always right—they always made the movie better.  The structure did not change from my original skeleton, but we created moments and extended scenes, made trims and additions, and all the while shaped the piece into a Jeff Krulik masterpiece.  Jeff is an auteur through and through. His visual style is jagged and unique and tremendously original. 

Q:  We’ve talked about this a lot while working together, and I probably got a much more intimate view as an editor going through all the raw footage, but you have a unique visual style wherein your camera is always rolling and your interviews are often tours.  How did you develop that style and how does it serve you?  Was it influenced by other vérité documentaries or did you just start doing it on your own?

A:  I’ve never really stopped to think about where I developed this style, but let’s see, I think it was born more out of the necessity to frequently be everything—the interviewer, producer, director, and host or what have you—and I found it easier when interviewing people to just have my camera on my shoulder and not even look through the lens, so I can look directly at who I am interviewing. It’s gotten easier to do as cameras have gotten smaller, but it took a lot of practice to get it right, and it just comes from some self-developed intuition about how to frame something while not looking through the viewfinder (or nowadays, the fold-out camera screen). I think the essential tools I’ve come to rely on for this approach is a wide angle lens and camera shotgun mic; I always have them both attached to my camera at all times, and I always have my focal length pulled back as wide as it can go so I can get right close to my subjects. I don’t recall being influenced by any other vérité filmmakers, but I remember seeing Ross McElwee’s Sherman’s March and feeling a kinship with what he did. And jealousy, which is not necessarily a bad thing. I think when you envy a filmmaker it means something is really good, and it should inspire you to keep going, which is sometimes easier said than done, especially the older you get, but I’ve never felt bad about feeling envious of other filmmakers.  I see it as more of an admirable thing.

Q:  What’s your favorite movie?

A:  The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The original from 1974. I snuck i to a screening at a multiplex after paying for another film. I was 13. It left an indelible impression on me, and later in life I realized that maybe it was because it felt so much like a documentary, maybe that is one reason I’m so influenced by it. And people are automatically under the impression, especially these days, that the film is gory. It’s actually not very bloody at all. So much on screen is just implied, which is part of its genius. I’m so obsessed with this movie that I attended the 20th anniversary celebration in Cleveland of all places in 1994.

Q:  What’s your least favorite movie?

A:  Honestly, I can’t think of one. But I’m going to tell you a secret: I’m the world’s worst moviegoer these days. I’m not proud of this, but it’s a fact. Some filmmaker I am. I think it’s essential to stay up on what is being produced, and I tend to read about things more than actually seeing them. Maybe one day I’ll revert back to the way I used to be, where I gobbled up everything in sight.

After almost 30 years, Jeff is still plugging away. His latest film, Led Zeppelin Played Here, just premiered a few months ago. 

For more info about Jeff, check out his website: JeffKrulik.com.

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