The Guys Behind The Rockumentary Heavy Metal Parking Lot Spin Their Work Onto The Small Screen
It's 1986, and Maryland filmmakers Jeff Krulik and John Heyn are pulling into the old Capital Center in Landover a couple of hours before Judas Priest hits the stage during the East Coast leg of the band's Turbo--Fuel for Life world tour. Armed with bulky, two-man beta video units from Krulik's community-access TV studio, the young filmmakers are hoping to capture some interviews of concertgoers as the show begins. What they got was Heavy Metal Parking Lot, 15 minutes of bare-chested, beer-drenched, weed-smoking mayhem that has become both an underground cult phenomenon and a choice specimen of independent rockumentary filmmaking.
"We would go out and shoot, or at least attempt to shoot, little documentaries all along," recalls Heyn, 45, who got turned on to movies at age 12 when his uncle--the self-proclaimed Baltimore Street Corner Astronomer Hermann Heyn--gave his family a Super 8 camera. "Heavy Metal Parking Lot was basically just another documentary experiment for us. We were into music, and this was essentially another one of our ideas to go out and capture a unique subculture that had not been tackled yet."
Krulik, 42, has a less vivid memory of the day they spent taping metalheads rolling in and ritualistically fucking themselves up. "I wish I could recall the day--it wasn't anything uncommon for us to hang out and do oddball stuff," he says. "Now in hindsight, the resonance of the piece, I never would have shut the camera off."
HMPL's 18-year odyssey--from hand-passed underground video dub to indie film festival fave to American Film Institute screener--culminates this week when Trio, the cable TV music and film channel launched by USA Networks in 2000, airs six episodes of Parking Lot, an HMPL-inspired series created by Heyn and Krulik.
The filmmakers hope the series will become benchmark television for the fledgling pop-culture network, and if it does it'll be able to claim very humble roots: namely, that fateful drug-fueled Judas Priest tour. Several months passed back in 1986 before Heyn eventually edited a couple of hours of that footage down to the final 15-minute cut and the filmmakers cycled tapes of it among friends and colleagues. Their attempts to spin the doc into a full-length feature never got off the back burner, and a return to the Cap Center in 1988 for Monster Truck Parking Lot--applying the same parking-lot interview format to a monster-truck rally--yielded only a trailer. Meanwhile, copies of the film passed on to friends were in turn passed on to their friends, and a dub of a dub ultimately found its way to Hollywood's Mondo Video-A-Go-Go, an independent rental shop renowned for its deep catalog of hard-to-find indie titles, its celebrity clientele, and its annual transvestite barbecue.
Chief among the most frequent HMPL renters was Sofia Coppola, soon-to-be director of Virgin Suicides and Lost in Translation, who called Heyn in 1994 to ask if she could use the film in a project for Comedy Central. "That's when I knew we were on to something with Heavy Metal Parking Lot," Heyn says of Coppola's support. Her Comedy Central project never aired, but as the film entrenched itself firmly in the rockumentary underground, purportedly enjoying rotation on Nirvana's tour bus and praise from Spike Jonze, Coppola's call still stoked Heyn to nurture HMPL's fledgling success.
"It was very gratifying to be noticed by Sofia, especially since it was our first confirmation of a cult following beyond D.C.," he says. The filmmakers immediately hatched plans for the sequel--Neil Diamond Parking Lot, also filmed at the Capital Center, which goofed on the success of HMPL. The original HMPL meanwhile began to show up at regional festivals, including the Images Festival in Toronto and the 1997 Chicago and New York underground film festivals.
In 2001, the filmmakers packaged a 90-minute, 15th anniversary compilation video--including HMPL, Neil Diamond Parking Lot, and the Monster Truck Parking Lot trailer--and launched a national publicity tour, which led to a GQ magazine photo shoot at the Cap Center and a call from an agent for the entertainment firm Radical Media.
"Radical has always been an international commercial powerhouse in project development, TV, feature films," Krulik says. "They were looking for properties, and [the agent] wanted to pitch them the Heavy Metal Parking Lot idea. Shortly after, Radical generated some interest from Trio, and Parking Lot was born."
It's been a long time coming for the filmmakers, who have been shopping the Parking Lot idea since 2001. "We haven't seen any mainstream attention or mainstream success, and we certainly haven't had any monetary success from [Heavy Metal Parking Lot]," Heyn says. Other than a brief allusion to the movie from Priest lead singer Rob Halford in a mid-'90s interview, the band has refrained from talking about the film.
"There's this universal, archetypal reaction to Heavy Metal Parking Lot--you were either at that concert or sat next to someone in homeroom that was at that concert," Krulik says. "But the bottom line is that we wanted someone to latch onto it because we wanted to make money, and we still want to make money. So we're trying to exploit and capitalize on the film, and the Trio show definitely afforded us that. We are trying and hoping to further cement ourselves into this kind of pop-culture mythology, but nobody is quitting their day jobs."
Indeed, most of the money they've made from the Trio series has been absorbed by production fees, legal fees, and funding new projects. "Basic cable is not a place where they throw a lot of money around," Krulik says. "John Waters once said years back when asked about money that he was 'a thousandaire.' I'm looking forward to the day when I can say that."
Yet Krulik and Heyn still view the series as a worthy reward in their near 10-year quest since Coppola's call to pull HMPL kicking and scratching out of the underground. "It's been a small victory getting Parking Lot on air in the first place," Krulik says. "We're very grateful."
At its best, Parking Lot satisfies the same voyeuristic urge to peer into the hilarious oddities of subculture behavior that HMPL has been quenching since 1987, simultaneously mocking and celebrating the idiosyncracies of its subjects. Each 30-minute episode packs in three pre-event parking lots--from traditional Heavy Metal Parking Lot-esque concerts like Motörhead, to midriff-baring teens at Justin Timberlake and Christina Aguilera. A pre-concert Dixie Chicks protest is paired with vapid, cigarette-smoking garage hipsters psychobabbling before a White Stripes concert; other episodes include parking lots at Cher, Fleetwood Mac, and 50 Cent shows.
But it's the more obtuse Parking Lot episodes--including "Cat Show," "Civil War Reenactment," "Tattoo Convention," and "Daytime Emmy Awards"--that give the series its strange, anthropological feel so reminiscent of HMPL.
"It doesn't have to be heavy metal, it can be any kind of experience," Krulik explains. "Everyone has something that leaps into them, and I think you can find interesting people anywhere and still get the 'truth is stranger than fiction' sound bite. It's just fans, you know? It's just people who are into stuff, and I can relate."
Also in the works for Krulik and Heyn is a long-awaited DVD release of the original film to replace the VHS dubs-of-dubs still being traded among aficionados. The DVD includes outtakes, directors' commentary, the Monster Truck Parking Lot trailer, a visit with original HMPL alumni, and the sequels Neil Diamond Parking Lot (1996), and Harry Potter Parking Lot (1999). Currently, the DVD is being shopped to distributors with a view to a spring release.
For Heyn, the DVD may be the last run for the original Heavy Metal Parking Lot, though he still admits to scouting old Camaros and Firebirds to source if the feature-length ever gets back off the shelf. "It's been my alter ego to be this underground independent filmmaker, and it has been very gratifying" says Heyn, who today shoots training videos for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and has settled into a life as a self-described suburban dad.
Krulik remains a bit more torn on the issue. "I've been hoofing it for a while now doing documentaries, and a lot of the times it's like all roads lead back to Heavy Metal Parking Lot," says Krulik, who continues to film documentaries for Discovery Channel and National Geographic, and recently wrapped on a Travel Channel piece on freak shows. "We're hoping that Parking Lot gets picked up for another season, and of course John and I are very grateful to have registered any kind of blip at all because we know how hard it is to get attention."
But the dudes in HMPL provided that recipe for success all the way back in '86: a funnel of Budweiser, some zebra-print spandex, and a joint stretching across the United States for everyone to hit, headbanging along to "Living After Midnight," and rocking to the core.
Parking Lot airs daily at 9 p.m., 9:30 p.m., midnight, and 12:30 a.m. on Trio, Direct TV channel 315. Trio will air a Parking Lot marathon Super Bowl Sunday, from 8 a.m. Feb. 1 to 2:30 a.m. Feb. 2.
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