For "Breaking a Monster," filmmaker Luke Meyer gets some ridiculous access to Brooklyn-based heavy metal band Unlocking the Truth as the middle school-age members go from Times Square buskers to YouTube sensations to signing a massive recording contract with Sony and playing Coachella. We talk to Meyer about seeing their meteoric rise from the inside.
How did you get attached to the group so early to get this kind of access?
I was asked to make a short documentary about them for an online video magazine. We did some pre-interviewing with them and then I shot with them for a weekend. Then that video did remarkably well on the Internet. It was the most viral thing that I've ever made. Over a million people watched it the first month it was up online. After all that happened, the band took on Alan Sacks as their manager and things began to move a lot quicker for them, and in that process they started talking about doing a documentary about the signing of the contract and the beginning of everything, and the band and the parents liked working with us. We just had to make sure that we weren't being asked to make a promotional doc for the band, that we were making something that could stand alone as a piece of nonfiction cinema. And once we were able to be sure about that, we were totally on board with making it. This was a really incredibly interesting moment for these guys.
How do you walk that balance to remain an impartial observer and not come off as either judgmental or promotional?
It's a decision, really. It's sort of how I make films anyway, but it's not a sort of ongoing process once you know that's the sort of film you're making. You dig into that decision and stick with it. There are some interviews throughout it, but outside of that the whole thing is shot in a very direct cinema, cinema verite style. I mixed that with this constant awareness of looking for an overall, more traditionally shaped narrative that I really felt convinced was going to evolve in the first breakout year of this band — and it more or less did.
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This is such an Internet age. Before YouTube, this band would've had a couple of years in obscurity developing their sound. How do you think that changes their development?
I think it's a very unusual path that they're on because they are an identity before they've reached a lot of people as a band. More people are aware of them from the headlines last summer about their contract than they are from hearing them on the radio because they're not on the radio yet. That's not the route that most people go down. There's definitely some parts of their story that are completely unique to the Internet age, but there are parts of the story that are just a more classic entertainment industry story where someone blows up really fast. But there's no way they could've gotten their stuff out there without YouTube. But what would it have been 20 years ago, a demo tape? That wouldn't have gone anywhere.
When you were observing the process, were you keeping an eye out for any evidence the kids were being exploited?
That's a tricky question because they want the end result that everyone's going for, so it's not like they're being put into it against their will. It's confusing because they're 13 and there are contracts involved and there are things that are very much of the adult world that you can't help but feel is a little bit beyond a 13-year-old. So there are feelings of that. I don't think that they're being exploited. I think there are some people who have strong ideas on how to make money on them just the same way that people would with an adult pop star, and that never is very attractive to look at, when people see how to make money off something. That's not exclusive to these guys at all. But this is something that they want to do, so it's not exploitation.
"Breaking a Monster" premieres at SXSW Saturday, March 14.
Follow Ned Ehrbar on Twitter:@nedrick