In the 15 years since Jeff Krulik and John Heyn made Heavy Metal Parking Lot, filmmakers worldwide have sped away with their idea.
Like Virgil’s Aeneid and Lord Byron’s Don Juan, the saga of Heavy Metal Parking Lot opens offhandedly, with a D.C. rock journalist named Mike Heath stopping by filmmaker Jeff Krulik’s office to bid farewell before moving to California 10 years ago. Preparing a West Coast survival kit, Heath snagged four copies of the 16-minute video documentary Krulik and his buddy John Heyn had shot in 1986 in the parking lot of the Capital Centre just before a Judas Priest show.
“I used to give them out like wateranyone who wanted one got a copy,” says the now-40-year-old D.C. resident Krulik. “I guess it just kind of became public domain that way, which has kind of come back and bitten us in the ass.”
But it started off as ass-kissing. Within two years of Heath’s move westward, Heyn got a call from director Sofia Coppola, who wanted to weave snippets of Heavy Metal Parking Lot into High-Octane, a pilot for a Comedy Central show that never took off. She’d rented Heavy Metal Parking Lot from a Hollywood video store called Mondo Video A-Go-Go. Then Krulik and Heyn got word that Judas Priest had pasted scenes of the video into its official documentary, Metal Works. By the mid-’90s, Heavy Metal Parking Lot had been catapulted, by way of bootlegging, even farther afield. In 1996, Heyn received this memo, scribbled across letterhead from the Riverview Hospital in Port Coquitlam, British Columbia, with a low-quality tape of Heavy Metal Parking Lot:
Jeff Krulik asked me to contact you. I’ve been making copies of HMPL and selling em thru mail order and a couple stores/distributors. About 100 so far….Is this OK w/you?
The note was signed by a guy named Justice. Heyn replied:
[Y]ou’re not that naive when it comes to distribution and artist’s rights of ownership?! I can’t believe you’d release bands’ material without getting their permission first. Nor do you not pay them royalties or other compensation. Look, I’m really not that mad. For now, I’ll give you tacit approval to sell the video in your catalog….However, you should improve on the quality of your copy; it’s abysmal!
As the ’90s tripped forward and Krulik and Heyn tracked their video’s increasing popularitythey heard that Nirvana had it aboard its tour bus and discovered that Columbia Records had co-opted the title for a promotional cassettethe pair saw the line between ass-kissing and ass-biting grow blurrier. They were thrilled that their no-budget no-brainer had garnered a substantial following, but they still hadn’t seen a dime from the video. And, despite the documentary’s soaring reproduction rate, Heavy Metal Parking Lot has never really brought fame home to its biological parents. Earlier this year, the pop-punk outfit American Hi-Fi ripped off Heavy Metal Parking Lot for its “Flavor of the Weak” music video, in which the scuzzy characters from the original are invested with 21st-century sex appeal.
“We felt like it was a wonderful tribute,” Krulik says as he sips a beer inside the bar of Visions Cinema Bistro Lounge in Dupont Circle, where Heavy Metal Parking Lot was running for a week last month. “We were flatteredand that lasted for a few weeks. Then we found out how much money they spent on the video, and we started thinking, Gee whiz, come on guys. We didn’t take any [legal] action, because we were so flattered. I mean, we would have never wound up on MTV’s radar screen without them.”
The filmmakers’ resentment toward their exploiters is tempered by the fact that their own video was birthed by exploitation. When they pulled into the Cap Centre’s parking lot 15 years ago in Krulik’s battered ’78 Bonneville, the pair was outfitted with a video camera and a used tape they’d sponged from the nearby public-access television station where Krulik worked. The filmmakers never sought permission from Judas Priest to dub its music and concert footage into Heavy Metal Parking Lot. And they never got releases from the flick’s headbanger subjectsor even clearance to shoot from the Cap Centre. Thus the door was opened for Coppola, Columbia Records, American Hi-Fi, and others to mine the movie free of charge.
The truth is, Krulik and Heyn never expected Heavy Metal Parking Lot to go very far. Approaching the fateful slab of asphalt in 1986, the two couldn’t exactly envision the documentary’s final cut. “We had no script, no idea of what to ask, nothing planned,” says Krulik. “We were completely winging it. My favorite review of the video said that our tape doesn’t reveal us to be any brighter or more enlightened than the subjects we interview. I agree.” The pair wound up using an unusually high proportion of the interviews they shotmuch of the discarded footage was the camera eyeing blacktop when they forgot to stop the tape.
“I thought the crowd would be tough, and I was nervous that we would get our asses kicked by bikers or people doing drug deals in the parking lot,” says 43-year-old Heyn, who now produces training videos for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. “But it was just the opposite reaction. Everybody wanted to mug for the camera.”
Krulik and Heyn emerged from the lot two hours later with a liquor-soaked slice of ’80s Americana. Hair-spray-crusted mullets, zebra-pattern spandex, bad teeth, late-’70s Camaros, coolers stocked with Budweiser and Busch, “Fuck Off” T-shirts, proclamations such as “I’d jump his bones” and “Madonna could go to hell as far as I’m concerned”: The pair had captured the metal zeitgeist at its high-water mark.
Heavy Metal Parking Lot hit the screen soon after it was shot, premiering in the fall of 1986 at the now-defunct d.c. space and screening in front of the Chuck Berry documentary Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll at the American Film Institute in 1988. That same year, Krulik and Heyn scored backstage passes to a Judas Priest concert at the Cap Centre, hoping they could coax the band into playing their video on the arena’s huge telescreen. The filmmakers dragged a monitor, tape deck, and speaker system backstage and persuaded the road manager to show it just before the openerCinderellatook the stage. But the telescreen operators balked at the last minute, afraid to associate heavy metal with the video’s foul-mouthed, drunken revelers. This was, after all, the era of the Parents Music Resource Council.
The filmmakers had also sent copies of Heavy Metal Parking Lot to MTV, the Discovery Channel, and a few home-video distributors, but had received only rejection letters. After the video ran again at AFI during 1990’s Don’t Quit Your Day Job Film and Video Festival, a one-night finale to Krulik’s sporadic living-room screenings, the pair retired it. “Our friends were like, ‘Come on, guys, how many times are you gonna make us watch this?’” says Krulik. “We didn’t want to make this our life’s work. We didn’t want to be one-trick ponies.”
But the filmmakers’ realization of Heavy Metal Parking Lot’s underground triumph, sparked by Coppola’s phone call a few years later, got them to pull the video off the shelf. It played at the Washington Project for the Arts in 1995 and at the New York Underground Film Festival two years later. A 10th-anniversary sequel, Neil Diamond Parking Lot, was released in 1998. Now, the original documentary is traveling the country on a 15th-anniversary tour, including the recent weeklong run at Visions and upcoming screenings in Chicago, Minneapolis, and Los Angeles. The tour package also features sanctioned knockoffs by other filmmakers: Heavy Metal Sidewalk (from San Francisco), Girl Power Parking Lot (shot outside the L.A. premiere of Spice World), and Raver Bathroom (from Canada).
The tour isn’t exactly lining the filmmakers’ pocketsKrulik and Heyn aren’t even getting paid by some theatersand the rip-offs show no signs of subsiding. A Seattle filmmaker recently packaged a video montage of concert parking-lot footage under the moniker Heavy Metal Parking Lot 2000, then appeared on Jenny Jones to promote it, with zero credit going to Krulik and Heyn. But they say that the movie’s curse-their reluctance to ward off its parasites given the shaky legal ground on which it was shothas also been its blessing.
“If we could do it all over again, we would have copyrighted the damn thing,” says Krulik. “We would have trademarked the damn thing. We would have protected our asses. We would have made sure we got releases. We would have pursued licensing for the music. We would have bumped it from video up to film. But to be honest, that would have robbed this whole thing of its pure organic quality.”
Although Krulik and Heyn probably won’t stake any legal claims on their imitators’ profits, they are trying to cash in on all the free advertising. On July 29, they will attempt to sell the roughly 130-page screenplay for Heavy Metal Parking Lot: The Movie at a screening at Hollywood’s Knitting Factory. Doug Cawker, an L.A. producer who shopped Heavy Metal Parking Lot around Hollywood last year, is hopeful about finding a taker. “The reaction to the film was excellent,” he says. “[Pulp Fiction co-producer] Richard Gladstein thought it was hilarious. Producers basically told me, ‘We need a screenplay.’ It was like, ‘Come back to us once you’ve fleshed this out.’”
The script, penned by New York playwright and screenwriter Gary Winter, is nearly finished. Set in Washington in 1985, it stages a fictional collision between congressional hearings about music warning labels and a heavy-metal concert at the Cap Centre featuring, of course, Judas Priest. An anti-metal Midwestern congressman and his wife, who spearhead the hearings and are loosely based on Al and Tipper Gore, don’t realize that their daughter is a closet headbanger. “Even though heavy metal can be lowbrow, in a way we’re talking about a really serious and important issue,” says Winter, who started writing three months ago. “I can write a funny screenplay and make a political statement in the process.”
Krulik and Heyn refer to the feature-length film as “the big payoff.” And it is likely to be their only chance at seeing some real bucks from the Heavy Metal Parking Lot diaspora, although VH-1 has offered them money to use footage from the original documentary and Neil Diamond Parking Lot for Behind the Music segments on Judas Priest and Diamond. A self-proclaimed marketing numbskull, Krulik showed up at Visions’ packed screenings with no videos to sell and tiny promotional buttons that he handed out gratis because he was too embarrassed to charge for them.
“For years, I was always like, ‘Why don’t you guys put this out for real?’” says Mondo Video A-Go-Go owner Rob Schaffner, who fields a half-dozen phone inquiries about Heavy Metal Parking Lot each week. “It’s the biggest fucking film classic that’s still underground, but they’re not worried about making a dime or a nickel or quarter.”
Even if it doesn’t change his image as a filmmaking charity worker, Heyn is excited about the possibility of Heavy Metal Parking Lot: The Movie. “I live vicariously through this film,” he says as we sit inside a Starbucks near his home in Gaithersburg. “I live a pretty status quo life, with a home in the suburbs, two kids, a dog, and a mortgageand a day job with the government, no less. By day, I’m a government video producer, and my alter ego is this outlaw filmmaker.”
Krulik, for his part, is less sentimental. “Money, money, moneythat’s what’s driving us,” he says. “It’s baldfaced exploitation of a property that we own. If we don’t rip it off, someone else will.” CP