On The Line with Sam Dunn

Sam Dunn continues to establish himself as a highly influential and respected film director in the world of hard rock and heavy metal. His work includes Metal: A Headbanger’s JourneyIron Maiden: Flight 666Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage, Metal Evolution, and most recently, Super Duper Alice Cooper. I spoke with the man himself about Super Duper Alice Cooper, live bands, his heroes, Bruce Dickinson, and even a mention of opera.

Alex Obert: With the recent release of your latest documentary, Super Duper Alice Cooper, how do you feel it compliments your previous documentaries on Iron Maiden and Rush?

Sam Dunn: That’s a good question. I think doing the film on Alice Cooper is quite different than doing a film on Iron Maiden or Rush because Alice Cooper is a pop culture icon. That is a household name. Regardless of whether or not you’re a rock fan, everyone knows who Alice Cooper is and when you say the name “Alice Cooper”, an image immediately comes to mind. With Maiden and with Rush, these are more kind of the underdogs of rock and metal, if you will. And so for the fans of Maiden and Rush, I think there was this sense of films needing to be done to bring justice to these bands and their legacies. With Alice, it was more about, “What’s behind the story of this guy we all know something about?” We all know what he looks like and we all may know I’m Eighteen or School’s Out, and we may know something about him bringing snakes on stage or guillotines or whatever. But beyond that, I think that average music fan doesn’t know much. And for us, making Super Duper Alice Cooper was a journey into discovering who really this person is that gets up on stage and performs as Alice Cooper.

Alex Obert: When you interview musicians, such as those who discussed Alice Cooper in this film, were those choices your input or Alice’s?

Sam Dunn: Nine times out of ten, we approach the support characters for any film we make. It’s because of our creative vision for the film. So in the case of the Alice Cooper documentary, people like Iggy Pop, Wayne Kramer, Dee Snider, Bob Ezrin, and on, these are all people that we wanted to be part of the story. From time to time, there will be artists that ask if we’re interested in interviewing someone about them. For example, in the case of the Rush film, Jack Black was someone we had not initially thought of, but that management had a relationship with and knew that he was a huge Rush fan. And so that was a case where management was like, “Well what about Jack Black? What do you guys think?” And we were like, “We think Jack Black would be fuckin’ amazing! Let’s get him in the film!” (laughs) And most of the time, we approach who we want to be in the film.

Alex Obert: With your films and Metal Evolution, how do you prepare for interviews?

Sam Dunn: Well for every show or film we make, there’s months of research and writing that go into coming up with story arc for the film, the different themes or eras of a characters like that we want to cover, and then based on that research, we developed what is called a beat sheet. That’s kinda like a script, but not really, because it’s a documentary. We map out the story we want to tell, then all the questions we ask in the interviews are based on that beat sheet, “What are the questions that we need answered that are gonna give us this story?” It’s a long process and it involves a lot of coffee. (laughs)

Alex Obert: Which deceased musician do you wish you could have interviewed?

Sam Dunn: I’ve had the good fortune of interviewing a lot of musicians recently that have unfortunately passed away like Jon Lord, Hubert Sumlin, the legendary blues guitarist, and Piggy from Voivod. But in terms of musicians that have passed on, I guess John Bonham. Kind of goes without saying! (laughs)

Alex Obert: Getting into concerts, what do you feel makes a good frontman?

Sam Dunn: I think any good frontman will probably tell you that their job is to connect with the audience, to make everyone in the room feel like they’re part of the show and they’re part of creating a special moment together. I think what it comes down to is that’s what every frontman’s number one job is. Every frontman has his or her own vocal style, performance, costume, things they do on stage, things they say between songs, that varies artist to artist. But I think the common bond is that they’re all looking to achieve a connection with the audience.

Alex Obert: What was it like when you first saw Alice live?

Sam Dunn: You know, I didn’t see Alice live until fairly recently. I grew up in Vancouver Island on the west coast of Canada where not a lot of big artists would come to the island. I was kind of cut off from a lot of main tours growing up. I grew up as a teenager in the eighties and the first time I saw Alice Cooper on video, I felt like he looked like an older version of Motley Crue, but that’s because I was an ignorant fourteen year old. But what I realize now seeing him and all the stuff he does on stage like carrying a snake, like having a guillotine, like having a straitjacket, those seem kind of campy and outdated now, but I think if you appreciate that this is where a lot of shock rock came from, that it feels like you’re seeing history in the making. You’re being reminded of how important Alice is in the story of rock and roll performance.

Alex Obert: Aside from Alice, who are some of your favorite live musicians/bands to see?

Sam Dunn: Maiden, probably one of the best live bands ever. And I think my newest favorite live metal band is a French band called Gojira. I think they are absolutely incredible live.

Alex Obert: Who do you listen to outside of hard rock and heavy metal?

Sam Dunn: I listen to a bit of reggae, a bit of jazz. I like old jazz. I like a lot of reggae music. I like Muse, Sigur Ros, and Radiohead. If I’m not listening to rock or metal, I tend to gravitate towards music that has some complexity to it, a lot of musicianship. If I wanna relax, then it’s reggae. (laughs)

Alex Obert: Do you track down and listen to the music that influenced the early metal bands?

Sam Dunn: Yeah. When we made Metal Evolution, that was a massive project that really required us to step back in time and really dig into where the foundations of metal music lay. So that meant listening to a lot of Robert Johnson and early blues, it meant listening to a lot of classical music and a lot of jazz as well. And so with making that series, we definitely spent a lot of time listening to these old recordings and going, “On the surface, this doesn’t sound anything that has to do with heavy metal.” The longer you listen to an opera, the more you realize it’s connected to Rob Halford than you initially thought.

Alex Obert: Musician or non-musician, who do you look up to? Who would you say are your heroes?

Sam Dunn: Wow, I have a pretty bizarre mix of heroes. I admire filmmakers, I admire anthropologists, I admire musicians. Some odd characters you may never think of like anthropologist Wade Davis, he’s a huge inspiration for me. I’m inspired by bands like Iron Maiden who have achieved so much and achieved so much later in their career, just due to hard work and creativity and staying fit and on top of their game. I really admire that. With filmmakers, I like a lot of work from the Coen brothers to Ron Howard, I think his films are really spectacular. It’s a pretty unusual mixed bag of characters! (laughs)

Alex Obert: With your relationship with musicians, what’s the best advice or words of encouragement you received from one of them?

Sam Dunn: “Don’t do it.” (laughs) Sometimes the best forms of encouragement are discouragement. I don’t know, the best piece of advice I think we ever got as filmmakers was from a broadcaster. Years ago when we wanted to make a film about heavy metal that was smart, and when we said that to most people, we got laughed out of the room, but there was one woman who said, “Don’t dumb it down. Whatever you do, don’t dumb your project down.” And I think that still remains one of the best pieces of advice we ever got and it worked for us because we didn’t wanna make films about metal and rock that were just reinventing the wheel, guys smashing beer cans on their heads and screaming, “I’m not worthy!”, you know? We wanted to do something that spoke to the fans of metal in a way that was true and authentic and also do something that brought people into the world of metal in a way that they could understand and appreciate.

Alex Obert: With you accomplishing so much, what do you have to say to those who want to go after their dreams?

Sam Dunn: Work with people smarter than you. (laughs)

Alex Obert: What’s been the most surreal experience for you in doing all of this?

Sam Dunn: When we made the first film, Headbanger’s Journey, meeting Bruce Dickinson and doing the interview on the stage of the Hammersmith audience still stands up as this surreal moment. I was thirty years old, I’d listened to Maiden since I was twelve, and here we were with an opportunity to make a film about heavy metal. He was one of the early interviews we did for the film and I was nervous as hell. It remains one of those moments where it was like, “I can’t believe this is actually happening!” It’s incredible.

Alex Obert: Before you got into the business, who was the first big name musician you met?

Sam Dunn: I was never really an autograph seeker. I was never really a guy to stand in line to meet an artist. It just wasn’t my thing. I’m not a collector, I’m not really into memorabilia, so to me, it was never really about meeting the musicians. And maybe in a way, that’s kind of enabled us, when we do do these projects with these rock and metal musicians, that might be what helps us keep our eye on the ball. We’re there to make a great film or show about this person. And while it’s an honor and it’s a real pleasure to be able to have a career spending time with these great musicians, at the end of the day, that’s not why I’m there. I’m not there just to meet them. We’re there to create a good story.

Alex Obert: Speaking of musicians, if you could have dinner with any three musicians, who would they be?

Sam Dunn: I think if you threw together Mike Patton, Tony Iommi, and Bruce Dickinson, it’d probably be good for a few laughs.

Alex Obert: It would be an interesting conversation, I must say. With your future concerned, what’s going on with the Satan documentary?

Sam Dunn: We’re still pluggin’ away on the same film, it’s been a really challenging film for us to make. We’ve got basically ninety percent of it done, but we’re still chasing a few remaining interviews to give the film an emotional thread, as well as a historical thread. Realized in putting it together and screening it for friends and colleagues that there’s a lot of really interesting information about the devil in popular culture and the effect that the devil has had on our lives. But what we need is a character that people can actually connect with, what we need is a personal story where they’ve been effected by the devil in some way. We’re just now in the final stages of doing a few interviews and editing this year and I imagine it’ll be seeing the light of day late this year or early next.

Alex Obert: Before we wrap up, what are your websites at the moment?

Sam Dunn: We’ve got two, it’s BangerFilms.com, it’s our main website. We also have a website called BangerTV.com, which is our new website that is hopefully gonna become our online hub with metal content for metal fans around the world.

Alex Obert: And getting back to the original topic of Alice Cooper, what’s your favorite song of his?

Sam Dunn: I’m a big fan of The Ballad of Dwight Fry, actually. It’s such a cinematic song, I fell in love with it in putting the film together. I didn’t really know Alice’s early catalog that well and so I came to know a lot of the Alice Cooper songs through making the film and so the songs that really resonate with me are in scenes in the film which really have had an impact on me. And the big one for me is when he tells the story of recording Ballad of Dwight Fry and literally being in a straitjacket when singing that song, it’s a very emotional, very powerful song. I think it’s great.

Alex Obert: Awesome! I’d love to thank you so much for your time.

Sam Dunn: Yeah! Thank you! Appreciate the interview.

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