Don Argott is the documentary filmmaker previously responsible for the likes of Rock School, The Art Of The Steal, The Atomic States Of America and Last Days Here. In 2012 he was commissioned to produce a film centred on the Virginian metal band Lamb Of God: a project that would move the focus away from the band members and on to their international fanbase and the wider worldwide metal scene. With that film almost complete, however, Argott and the band were thrown the curveball of singer Randy Blythe's arrest in the Czech Republic for the manslaughter of 19-year-old fan Daniel Nosek. The charge dated back two years to a stage-diving incident that the band didn't even remember, and as the drama surrounding Blythe's imprisonment grew, Argott found his film drastically shifting focus. With the impending UK premiere of the finally completed As The Palaces Burn next month, Argott spoke exclusively to Empire about his film's difficult journey, and the process of combining two essentially different films into a single coherent whole. The result is a riveting narrative that he hopes will transcend its band-centric metal origins to reach a wider general audience.
Director Don Argott sets up his camera in Prague.
Was this film an idea of your own, or were you commissioned to make it? Were you already familiar with the band? I grew up listening to heavy metal and punk. In the '90s I kind of went the grunge route, but I was aware of Lamb Of God. Then I got a phone call out of the blue one day from their manager, Larry Mazer, who's in the film. He'd seen some of my previous films, and he was in South Jersey, just across the bridge from where I am in Philadelphia. He's been a manager forever. He managed Cinderella and Kiss, and I think he's been with Lamb for eight or nine years, and they're his biggest band these days. They'd done [concert movie] Killadelphia and [tour doc] Walk With Me In Hell, and Larry had this idea for a film focusing on the fans rather than the band, and the global metal scene and how it unites people in tough times. That was the initial concept, and I really liked the idea. I thought turning the focus away from the band was a really unique approach, and I believed in the message. And if nothing else, it was an opportunity to travel to some cool places! Music films just get thrown in this "rock-doc" box, and if it ended up just a direct-to-DVD thing for their fans, that was fine by us, but we always wanted it to be bigger than that.
So we started making that film. We went to South America, India, Israel and some places just in the States like San Francisco and Napa, and we were starting to put that film together. Then we got a call from Larry as we were cutting it that Randy was in prison in the Czech Republic, and that was the start of the film turning into what it turned into. It was crazy.
Why name it after a ten-year-old album? It works with the film as it is now, in that it reflects the band's world collapsing. But what was the relevance to the film as originally conceived? It was actually Larry's idea. This was something that he's been thinking about for a really long time, and he pitched us the idea with the title already intact. The idea was kind of the same: the world is falling apart around you, but we're all united by music. There's a line in the actual song, "We'll dance as the palaces burn". We loved that, but then when all this other stuff started happening we weren't sure it was still the best title. We threw around some others, but that one just stuck. Nobody could ever come up with anything that worked better!
But now there's another documentary called As The Palaces Burn, which is about the making of the album and comes with the tenth anniversary re-release CD...
The band felt making the trial part of the movie was Randy's call. But no one could get to Randy because he was in fuckin' prison!
Yeah, that was a little frustrating! We were like, 'Why do you have to call it As The Palaces Burn: The Documentary? Why can't you just call it The Making Of The Record or something? Anything but The Documentary! Do something to differentiate it!' [laughs] It's all water under the bridge now.
So how close to completing your initial project were you when Randy was arrested? We were in the phase where we were done shooting and we were putting the film together. But as soon as we got the phone call [about Randy's arrest], I was like, well, we've got to get to the Czech Republic! In the first day or two, there was a lot of uncertainty about how this was going to shake out: the vibe was that it was a big misunderstanding and a blip on the screen, and the band might only end up cancelling one festival date. Once it was clear it wasn't going to be that easy, I really pushed Larry that it should be a big part of the film. Everybody was very hesitant, because obviously it's a nightmare situation and this is only a movie. When you make documentaries, so much of it has to be about walking that line between being in the right place at the right time but also respectful to the situation. That's tricky to navigate, so a lot of it is based on trust, and the idea that your subject knows what you're trying to achieve and you're not trying to be exploitative. So I was respectful of that, but I was also like, 'What are we doing here? This is a big opportunity! We should be jumping on this!'
We had developed a really good relationship with Larry and the band up until this point, and since Larry's office was so close, I really wanted to go and interview him and talk about what was going on. He didn't want to agree to that, kept insisting that he wasn't going to do it, so in the end we just fuckin' showed up. That's the scene that's in the film where he's on the phone. Two days later [producer] Sheena Joyce hired a cameraman in the Czech Republic just to cover the arraignment part. And then Randy was in jail, and at that point we had the sit-down discussion about how we were actually going to proceed with the film.
I spoke to all the guys in the band individually, as friends first of all, just to gauge what they thought, and the feeling was that it was Randy's call: if he was okay with us making these events part of the film, then they were okay with it. But no one could get to Randy because he was in fuckin' prison! It wasn't like I could shoot him an email. We had to tread very lightly.
A week or two into Randy's incarceration I went over to the Czech Republic with the band's lawyer Jeff, and Randy's wife Cindy, and I brought the camera just to see what I could get. I didn't film a whole lot on that trip, but Cindy and I hung out, and what came out of that trip was Randy's agreement that this was important and we should keep documenting as part of the film. Once he was on board, everybody else was more open to talking to us. From that point on I was around as much as I could be, in Virginia with the band and in the Czech Republic. Much like every documentary, there was no blueprint: it was just organic. Life happens and you suddenly wake up and find you're making a different film to the one you thought you were making.
Lamb Of God assembled in less stressful times.
Your documentaries are very narrative-led. What was the story hook to the original idea for the film? Did the Randy situation give you one where you didn't have one before? Absolutely: that was going to be one of the major issues with the 'other' film. Our idea to tie that film together was already going to be Randy and his newfound sobriety and the notion of him 'seeing the world for the first time'. All that stuff still kind of fit, but it certainly didn't have the same level of impact. In all honesty, as much as we wanted the other film to be able to transcend the heavy metal audience, I don't think it would have: I think it would have been a very fan-centred film that would have appealed only to Lamb Of God's audience, and maybe some other metal fans. I don't think it would have got outside of that audience as much as we would have liked.
The band seem very honest in front of the camera. Even Killadelphia and Walk With Me In Hell are unusually frank and not particularly concerned to show everybody in a totally favourable light.
It was very hard to structure. For a long time it felt like two different films.
It's great when you find people that are willing to be open and are not too concerned about what people are going to think. The way we make our films is very intimate. We don't have a big crew, so our subjects really get to know us as people at the same time as we're getting to know them. It starts to feel like they can open up and maybe talk more than they would be willing to talk to a news crew, for example. A lot of times when you're talking to people on camera, they're acting like the version of themselves that they want to portray, so they're constantly filtering what they're saying. It all sounds good, but there's really nothing there. I use that American sports analogy: y'know, after the game when they're like, 'I just gave 110%, it's just all about my team', and all that fuckin' stock bullshit that's just white noise. It's safe and it fills air time but it doesn't really tell you anything.
Very early on I spoke with all the guys on the phone before I met them, and they'd seen my films so they were comfortable with me as a filmmaker and they knew I wasn't just some fly-by-night guy with a camera. All that stuff helps when you're establishing a relationship. Plus Demian Fenton [editor and long-term Argott collaborator] and I both grew up listening to metal, so we already had common ground to work from. All those things created a really easy comfort zone, and they've all been together long enough that they're cool with themselves. If you've seen Killadelphia, there's that fist fight between Randy and Mark. They put it all out there!
Was (guitarist) Mark Morton always going to provide a solo soundtrack? The budget we got was a quarter of what I hoped for, so we had no cash for a composer. Mark mentioned to me at some point that he'd always wanted to score a film, so I was like, 'Well do you want to score this one for free?' It was actually great to work with him. He's such a talented guy. He's got a real ear for melody, which is really unusual for shredders! Like, Yngwe Malmstein: that guy can't write a fuckin' song to save his life! It's the curse of the shredder. But Mark has that great ability where he's a brilliant guitar player and his riffs are awesome and he has an amazing sense of melody. I would send him loose cuts of scenes or just describe the kind of vibe I was looking for in a particular place, and he really got to show another side to what he can do.
Randy Blythe, dressed for trial.
How did you get permission to film in the courtrooms in Prague? I had emailed the judge before the trial asking permission to film, and he said we could only film the opening of the trial and the verdict. So that sucked: that didn't seem like it was going to be great. But like anything you can't get hung up on the first 'no'. Once I was there I asked the lawyers if they were allowed to record stuff. And they were, for their own purposes, so I was able to give them some audio recording equipment so that at the very least I'd have had audio, and I'd have figured out how to use it with court sketches or something, like you see on the news. Slowly I was acquiring the content.
Then we started pushing the boundaries of what we were allowed to shoot, basically keeping the cameras rolling until they noticed, and the judge started to loosen up. And then something kind of crazy happened where part of the trial was postponed for a month because there was a key witness that wasn't available. And during that hiatus there was another high-profile legal case going on in the Czech Republic that was being televised, and I think our judge was like, 'Hey, I've got a high-profile case! I deserve some media too!' So when we got back we were allowed full access to film and we got a tonne of footage and some great drama.
How many times did you travel to the Czech Republic? And who funded it all? I went four times. The last couple of times I just used my air miles! It was mostly only me, plus the guy I'd hired who lives over there, who's actually from California. He helped me out with a couple of days here and there as a second camera. Nobody got paid, myself included! We were able to get a little bit more money later on, but nowhere near enough. But it's never enough! That's just what you do! The funding for the original idea came from [record label] Epic, but then when all of this other stuff went down and it became a much bigger film, we went back to them twice for small amounts of money, just to cover expenses. But the budget never really changed from the original concept.
How difficult was the edit, trying to mesh those two different films into a coherent single piece?
Mark told me he'd always wanted to score a film. I was like, 'Well do you want to score this one for free?'
It was really tough. On paper when we started to talk about the structure, it didn't seem too bad. We had started out making a film about the fans, and it became, tragically, about the death of a fan, so there were connections we could make. But it was very hard to structure. We were still trying to keep the two discrete ideas intact, but ultimately we couldn't, and it felt too much like two different films. We had to cut a lot of stuff out, like the whole Israel section. The fans we kept in I felt served the purpose of explaining the metal scene to an audience that isn't familiar with it. You have to start with the building blocks of information that your audience needs. I had to assume as a filmmaker that the audience doesn't know metal and doesn't know Lamb Of God. Y'know, mosh pits and circle pits and that level of aggression at a rock show looks crazy from the outside. That was one of the scariest things during the court case: what does that all look like to a court? It might have looked like incitement to riot.
Were there lots of different versions on the way to the finished film? There were cuts of this film where we thought we'd actually start with the trial. That seemed a natural thing to do for a non-fan audience, to come out and make it seem like a much bigger deal than just a heavy metal film. We thought it would hook the audience earlier, but it just wasn't working. It wasn't a traditional courtroom by American and British standards, for one thing, so that needed some explanation. And even in the best version of that, we found that the trial overshadowed everything, so when you went back to the fan stories, it was just like, 'Wait, what's going on now? Where's the trial?' Plus that Rashomon template really doesn't work if the 'before' scenes don't directly relate to the case. You felt yourself not being interested in what was happening, because you started with something so juicy and then just kept putting it off.
It just didn't feel right, so after a lot of incarnations of the cut, we decided to just make it linear, as we experienced it ourselves. There's that scene at the beginning of the film where Randy's kind of pinching himself because things are going too well, and that was just a throwaway line, but it gains a lot of weight because of what happens later. There are a few harbingers of doom like that, and then the trial story kicks in around the thirty minute mark. That's so much more rewarding a viewing experience than letting the audience know that's coming from the start. It felt like the right way to play it. It really was a total 180 that took everyone by surprise, so the viewer should feel that too.
We're getting a one-night theatrical release in the UK: is it the same in the States? We partnered with this company SpectiCast, who do what they call 'Alternative Content' screenings. They did Celebration Day with Led Zeppelin, and Rock Show, the Paul McCartney thing. They specialise in these more event-driven things. It's really tough to get documentaries played in theatres anyway. People would rather see blockbusters on the big screen, but because the band has a following we thought this would be a good way to release it initially, because it becomes like going to a show. But there are going to be more traditional runs. Over here the Alamo Drafthouse are taking it for a week or two, I think.
And what about the home release? The DVD is slated for October, and it'll have a tonne of extras. It'll probably have about two hours of deleted scenes, including all the stuff from Israel that we cut. There's a lot of stuff from the abandoned version of the film, but also a lot from Prague and some other things that just didn't fit. We're working on that right now.
Is that going to coincide with a new Lamb Of God album? I think they might do a digital-only soundtrack sort of thing for the film, but other than that I don't think so. They're back on tour now and then I think they're going to take a break. They've had to do a lot of stuff to pay the bills, and they just haven't really stopped for over a year. Randy's writing a book and I know he wants to focus on that. They've earned some time off!
As The Palaces Burn will play at the following cinemas on March 6: