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Andy Warhol once famously proclaimed (or at least took credit for saying) that everyone will get 15 minutes of fame in their lives. Filmmakers John Heyn and Jeff Krulik managed to carve out 16 minutes for themselves with Heavy Metal Parking Lot.
Heyn and Krulik’s iconic short film, which documents youthful indiscretion through the lens of 1980s metal subculture, began as little more than an experiment. The two visited Landover’s fabled Capital Centre on a whim one weekend afternoon in May 1986 with the goal of capturing all of the drinking and insanity a Judas Priest concert tailgate promised. Equal parts comedy and surreal anthropological documentary, Heavy Metal Parking Lot is loads of debauched fun. But arguably more interesting than the film itself is the DIY means by which it has endured for three decades. After the filmmakers spent years privately screening the film and trying to get it carried in local video and record stores, bootleg copies of the film started making their way along the West Coast in the early ’90s, landing in the hands of bands like Sonic Youth, Public Enemy, and Nirvana. Soon afterward, clips from the film became staples on MTV and VH1. With that, what started as an offbeat neo–concert film grew into a certified cult classic.
To celebrate the film’s 30th anniversary, a year-long exhibit in the University of Maryland’s Michelle Smith Performing Arts Library opens on May 27. Here’s the story—as told by Heyn, Krulik, and the film’s cast of characters—of how a 16-minute short film about metalheads and wasted youth went viral, before going viral was a thing.
Laura Schnitker, acting curator for Mass Media & Culture, Special Collections & University Archives, University of Maryland: I got to know Jeff some years ago. I got to interview him for my dissertation, which was about independence in American popular music. As you know, Jeff was really involved with WMUC, the campus station here at Maryland.
Jeff Krulik, co-director, producer: College radio was cool. We had freedom, but I realized that wasn’t going to translate into a job. Television I thought was something I could get something out of and like. I went and got trained with the public access channel. Someone had a dance recital, and I said “I’ll tape it.”
John Heyn, co-director, producer: I read a story in the film section of the Washington Post weekend edition about Jeff and his documentary about old D.C. movie palaces. The year prior, in 1984, I produced a short experimental documentary about D.C. movie palaces. I was intrigued by his project, and I wanted to meet him and show him my film and see what he had to say about it. I contacted him, called him up, and we arranged an appointment to screen our films.
Krulik: You know when you meet somebody and you immediately speak the same language? It just connects immediately, and that was kind of going on with us. We just became friends pretty quickly.
Heyn: Jeff ran a public access television studio for the cable company in southern Prince George’s County, Md. He had access to this professional-grade news equipment. It wasn’t easy to borrow or even rent professional caliber equipment, but Jeff had access to this gear, which allowed me to satisfy a lot of creative urges and needs. It helped get our collaboration going.
Krulik: We actually had more ideas than things that we followed through on. But pretty early on in our relationship, John had the idea of shooting heavy metal fans at the Capital Centre.
Heyn: We heard radio ads on DC101 for shows at the Cap Centre, and I thought, “This could make for a good documentary.” We just had a hunch that there would be tailgate partying. It’s subculture, metalheads, so we thought it could be pretty outlandish. It exceeded our expectations.
Krulik: Because it was a Saturday and it was spring, we thought, “Why not?” Our biggest concern was whether people would take offense or if we would get beaten up.
Jalyn Graham Owens, concertgoer, aka “Gram of Dope”: When they walked up to me, I thought, “I’ll never see these guys again. They’re just walking around filming people.”
Nathaniel “Buda’”Dodson, concertgoer, aka “Bullshit!”: Truthfully? I don’t remember being there. I look at the video and do not remember being there. I remember nothing of that day. It wasn’t just because it was a long time ago, it’s because of what I was indulging in at the time.
Heyn: We took the approach of guerilla filmmaking, which was our M.O. in those years. I liked working that way. We didn’t get permission from the organization, because there was a good chance they would have turned us down, you know? It would have created a level of bureaucracy and hassle that we didn’t want to deal with. We drove in and paid our parking fee, pulled out the camera, and started doing it.
Krulik: We were only in the parking lot for two hours, so we just needed to convince them quick. I think a couple of times we said we were giving it to the band. We were a bona fide crew, with a deck and a camera just bouncing around.
Heyn: The format was three-quarter-inch video tape. The package consisted of a big camera, a bigger over-the-shoulder portable tape deck, a cable connecting the camera to the deck, and a microphone.
Krulik: The same day, we saw the footage and thought, “Whoa, this is really funny and really good.”
Owens: When I finally saw the movie, I was the father of a four-year-old. I finally saw it and I damn near choked on my beer. I was watching it like “Jesus Christ, that’s me.”
Schnitker: The first time I saw it I didn’t know what the hell it was. I thought it was going to be a documentary about metal, but it’s not really a documentary. There’s no narrative. It’s just about these people in a parking lot.
Owens: You have to remember, this was another routine concert we were going to. We went to so many. There were concerts every other day, every other week, whatever.
Eileen Zelaya, concertgoer, aka “Jack Daniels and Coke. What else?”: We saw Bon Jovi, ZZ Top, Scorpions, you name it. I still have all my ticket stubs. I have this one, too.
Dodson: There were four signs in the parking lot. If I’m not mistaken, it was the bell, the flag, the eagle, and the Capitol. You’d tell your friends, “Let’s meet at the bell or the eagle.” Eventually you’d find each other and start partying.
Krulik: John took it back to his job at a tape duplication house and edited it there. He did it over the course of several months, because he did it in his spare time.
Heyn: We started at the beginning of the summer and it took all summer to put together. Then we had to go back and do titles for it, find Judas Priest footage for it, and take care of some other elements. It took a couple of months to put together a finished product.
Krulik: We showed it in the fall of 1986 in a place called d.c. space. They had a bi-weekly film night where you could bring in different stuff, and that’s where it premiered. Reaction was positive, but any showcasing or distribution of it was done in my living room. You had to just show it on video, because it wasn’t going to get into film festivals.
Heyn: There weren’t that many avenues to marketing it. Tower Video, another legendary bygone music and video store, had a video section, and I tried to get it in there as a rental. We made quick dubs, VHS copies with limited packaging, and they took them. We tried to get local record stores and video stores to carry it.
Michael Layne Heath, writer and poet: I think Jeff and John eventually thought, “OK, well it’s run its course. Now we have something to show our kids and our grandkids when they grow up to appreciate metal.”
Krulik: We put it to rest in 1990, then several years later we found out it was getting out there.
Heyn: It started to click and pick up in the mid-’90s. It became a West Coast phenomenon on a small, underground level. There was a lot of tape trading, and it eventually got on Nirvana’s tour bus.
Krulik: A friend of mine, Mike Heath, moved to the West Coast in 1992. He moved to San Francisco and wanted to take copies with him. He showed up at my job at Discovery Channel and asked for tapes. I said, “Sure. How many do you want?”
Heath: I probably took about a half dozen. I gave copies to various musician friends that I became acquainted with. I also ended up getting copies to Anthrax, Public Enemy, and Primus. They did a tour and played in D.C. in the fall of 1991.
Heyn: In 1994 I was sitting at home in Silver Spring and I got a call on the West Coast from Sofia Coppola. She had called me to tell me that she was a big fan of the video. She hunted me down through the White Pages or whatever and said she was a big fan. She was producing a comedy series for Comedy Central called High Octane, and she wanted to use clips of the movie in her show. That was a “eureka” moment.
Krulik: Belinda Carlisle rented it. Paul Mazursky, the director, he rented it. It was this weird cross section of people. We thought “Whoa. What the hell is going on?” That’s when we realized we should get it out of mothballs.
Schnitker: I went to a screening on the 20th anniversary at the AFI in Silver Spring, and the theater was packed. Not only were there people there who were in the film, but it was full of a lot of the film’s original fans who were the first to get copies of it. The copy that ended up on Nirvana’s tour bus actually came from, I think, a Maryland student who had some copies and moved out to San Francisco. These were the first generation of bootleggers that really started circulating it.
Krulik: Chuck Howell and Laura are the ones that first really embraced [the exhibit], then other people came along to cement the weekend that we could have the opening. Also we had to find a gallery space. There’s a classical piano [exhibit] in the space now, where Heavy Metal Parking Lot will be.
Heyn: It still stands up pretty good, as both a documentary and a comedy. Even to this day, there’s still a lot of shock value to it. The people’s behavior and what they say, the lines, it all holds up over the years.
Dodson: Even doctors recognize me. I’ll tell them, “Yeah, I used to do this or that back in the day. Here, watch this on Youtube.” And they’ll get excited about it, like, “Oh yeah, there he is! That’s him!” These are doctors.
Owens: I’m proud to be a part of it, because it’s become this huge, cult thing. Here I am, I’m an executive professional chef, father of four, two grandchildren. I’m at the top of the family tree that I’m growing here. I could say it’s embarrassing, but I’m not ashamed that I did that.
Krulik: It all happened before the Internet. To be honest, I think if it happened today it would be over within a week. We had to really work to get this. I’m just so thrilled and happy to be talking about it 30 years later.
Heath: I think as long as people out there know what the devil horn symbol means, it’s gonna endure.