VH1: How did Rock Icons come about?
Sam Dunn: Initially the idea was doing a show called Metal Icons, since metal has been our bread and butter being at Banger Films for 10 years now. We approached VH1 Classic about doing it on the heels of Metal Evolution, as it did really well, but at the time they didn’t really need a new show. Fast forward a couple of years and we got an email saying, “Are you guys still interested in doing that Metal Icons show?” Of course we said yes, and as we started to develop the idea we all agreed that it shouldn’t just be metal. It should be broadened out to rock, because it just gives us the opportunity to tell stories about a broader range of musicians. .
What were the criteria for the people you picked this season?
What we like to do at Banger is tell good stories, so it was really about zeroing in on musicians that we felt had a good story to tell, whether it’s Rob Halford, Geddy Lee, Ann Wilson or Billy Corgan. These are musicians that have made a major impact over the past several decades, and many of them haven’t had documentaries made about their lives or even about the bands they’ve played in. So it was a combination of finding a good story and zeroing in on the artists who’s stories haven’t been told already.
I think that the positive thing with putting this series together is the people we chose have been doing it for long enough that the musicians in their bands have a lot of respect for them. A good example is doing an episode on Ann Wilson and not Nancy. There’s such love and respect between those two sisters that they’d do anything for each other. Nancy was really supportive of doing a show about Ann because I think people tend to forget how remarkable Ann’s voice is and remains to this day. I think that if we had been dealing with maybe some younger bands in their 20s, maybe there would be more ego at play, but the musicians we were focusing on made their impact, they’ve got a legacy, and there’s a lot of support for each other.
How long did it take to put everything together and what goes into that process?
The whole process of creating and delivering Rock Icons is about a year and a half long. We started the writing and research in February of 2014 and we just did the final interview for the series last week. The filming takes about a year and then of course we still have a number of episodes left to edit. Basically the process is we do research on the artist and we put together a loose treatment or script that tells the story. Then we go out and do the interview and shoot the b-roll and collect the archival material. The most important component is a new and very thorough interview with the icon, him or herself, and then we would select anywhere from three to five support characters to help tell their story who have been part of the icon’s life in some way. So it could be a family member, a band mate, a producer, or a life-long friend. There are no journalists or experts or historians in this series. We want to really give viewers an intimate portrait of who the person is behind the rock star that we know and see on stage.
What’s the hardest part of condensing it all into the half hour format?
Producing 30 minute episodes definitely created a lot of sleepless nights for us at Banger because we’re used to dealing with longer formats, either full-length features or hour long shows like Metal Evolution. But I think it forced us to pick and choose what elements of the story for each icon were important. And as the process developed I personally really learned to embrace and love the shorter format because then you don’t need to cover everything this person does. If we’re going to do an episode on Rob Halford, what are we going to talk about? Well, we’ve got to talk about his voice, we gotta talk about his stage persona and look, which basically came to define the heavy metal front man. He’s like the first person who stood up and said, ‘yeah, I’m metal, and this is who I am, this is what I’m doing.’ So I think we just had to really focus on what was most important.
All the artist you’re profiling are very well known. Did you learn anything about them that surprised you?
Well, I think what Rock Icons does differently than any other biography series on rock and metal musicians is it takes you one step further back into the childhood and the youth of the musicians. It spends time talking about where these icons come from. How their inspiration for music developed. I think what we learned is many of these icons had very difficult upbringings and experienced struggles in their youth and respond to it by creating and channeling their childhood anxieties into a love of music. And I think the other aspect, again, is we spend time with Geddy Lee in his wine cellar in his house. We go hang out with Ann Wilson backstage as she warms up before a Heart concert. We sit with Slash in his living room in Los Angeles and just hear him jam acoustically on his guitar. And we really try to humanize the rock god or rock goddess and in doing so you just get a deeper understanding of who these people really are.
Another thing thing that makes the show unique is that it talks about where the artist is at today. It’s not just a nostalgia trip going back to their “peak years.” It talks about what they’re doing now. I think we kind of live in a culture of ageism which assumes that if you’re 40 or 50 or even 60, that you’re not making good rock music anymore. I think that’s just simply wrong. If you look at someone like Ann Wilson, she sounds just as good if not better than she did in the ‘70s and ‘80s. If you take an artist like Slash, his post Guns N’ Roses career has been pretty remarkable. Rock Icons shows that these people are still active and gives a glimpse into what they’re doing now.It’s not every heavy metal documentary filmmaker that has a Master’s Degree in anthropology. In what ways do you find that coming to bear in your film work?
It was my business partner Scott McFadyen’s idea originally to actually use my background in anthropology as a kind of “lens” to look at metal through. We realized it was helpful because what it does is make it comfortable for people who aren’t diehard metal fans to enter the world of metal. It gives some context and a broad perspective on what metal is about. We’re not asking people, how was the recording of the latest record, how is the tour going? What we love to do at Banger is talk about where did these musicians come from and what motivated them to play this music and what keeps them motivated. I think in a nutshell, and it may sound cliché, but anthropologists do field work, they go out and spend time with the people they’re studying. I think that’s really what we do with metal except we put it on the screen. That’s what the kind of anthropological approach brings to our work.
What’s next for you and Banger films?
First we’ve got to finish editing Rock Icons. Then we’re doing a feature documentary on Soundgarden which we’re really excited about. They approached us about doing a film on their career, which they haven’t really talked about. But they’ve reached a point where they’re ready and they want the fans and the music public to know about the band and how important they feel their legacy is. We’ll start filming this year. And we’ve launched a kids programming division at Banger called B Minors and we’re hoping to start doing some music-related kid’s stuff, which I think could be cool. There’s two other projects we’ve been working on for a while. One is a documentary on Satan which really looks at kind of what’s been called “The Satanic Panic,” that exploded in the 1980s. We talk about the history leading up to it, why it happened and to some extent how we’re still living in a world that has a lot of anxiety about the devil. The devil is used as a scapegoat to explain terrible things that have happened in the world. And then we’re also doing a feature film on hip hop that’s kind of like (Banger Films 2005 feature) Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey, but about hip hop, where the Canadian rapper Shad is on his own journey to answer the question “What is hip hop?” Hip hop has changed so much and become such a massive mainstream phenomenon so he is on a journey to understand what hip hop really is at its core.It really comes through from your work, how much of a fan you yourself are. Having worked with so many great musicians, what’s been your biggest thrill?
That’s a good question, and you’re my first interview so I don’t have a lot of this well-rehearsed. We did a feature length film on Rush, right? And now we’re doing a half-hour feature on Geddy Lee. We sort of sat there and said, what else are we going to talk about, we’ve already covered so much. As we started to talk about it and do more research, what we started to embrace was not only the Geddy Lee that’s in Rush but who he is outside of Rush. What does that tell us about his personality? So even though I spent hours with Geddy and the other guys in the band making Rush: Beyond The Lighted Stage, going down with him into the “bass room” of his house where he’s got, literally, the history of the electric bass all on his walls, and to sit with him as he actually pulls basses off the wall and play them and talk about the history of the instrument – I still have these moments where I’m like, this is amazing. Because I started playing bass because of my love for bands like Rush and Iron Maiden. I mean, I wanted to be Geddy Lee and Steve Harris when I was 12. I still really get a big thrill out of spending time with these guys because they come to respect the work that we do and so it’s very comfortable. We can just sit down on a very one to one basis and talk about things in a fairly transparent and relaxed way. And I think… let’s just say I’ve had worse day jobs.