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Interview

Filmmaker David Hall Discusses "Maryland Deathfest: The Movie III"

The Maryland Deathfest (MDF) is arguably the biggest yearly metal festival in the United States. For four days over the course of a weekend in late May, over 50 bands and thousands of metal heads descend to Baltimore, Maryland. On its 11th year, the festival has grown into something that can rival the best that Europe has to offer.

This year features Venom, Ihsahn, Down, Pig Destroyer, and dozens of other noteworthy acts. For the past few years, MDF has been documented by filmmaker David Hall. He is preparing to release the final chapter of his MDF film trilogy just in time for this year’s festival. I had a chance to talk to Hall about ending the MDF film series and what the festival means to him.

What made you want to be a filmmaker?

I’ve always been a really big fan of film, ever since I was a kid. Movies have always been a big part of my life. One of my first memories was seeing the first Star Wars film when I was three years old. As I got older, I found that was a good, creative outlet that I wanted to pursue. I remember my last year of high school thinking, ‘I could go to university for something I don’t really like that will give me a better chance of getting a job, or let it ride and try to go to film school.’ I did a bit of research and applied to film school and I didn’t get in (laughs). I went to university and finished with a degree, and hated it. I tried again and got into film school. So I went to film school in Montreal, and I haven’t looked back since.

What did you take out of going to film school that has helped you as a filmmaker?

I think the biggest thing is the exposure to different kind of movies. When I went to film school, I was 23 and I thought I was the shit and had seen every obscure movie, and I hadn’t even scratched the surface. You take classes where you watch movies; that’s basically all you do. Apart from learning techniques, you watch movies all day long. I learned to cut on the actual film and shoot on actual film. None of those skills are really relevant today, but it taught me the patience and dedication it takes to make movies that way, as opposed to just grabbing a camcorder and shooting on video.

How did you get into filming music-based works?

After I graduated film school, I worked with this really great producer in Montreal. Based on the woman that I was seeing at the time, who is now my wife, she got into school somewhere else and we moved. I dropped out of film for a while and became a stay-at-home dad. Cut to five years later and I’m living in Ottawa. I’m also a musician, and I hadn’t done anything creative - I’d been Mr. Mom for four or five years - so I put an ad on this web site looking for people to play some cool metal. The person that responded was Topon (Das), who is the guitarist in Fuck the Facts. I didn’t know anything about them, and we started playing and we formed a band and it was fun. I started teaching film making at a local college, and it sparked my interest in film again. Fuck the Facts had a new album coming out, so I emailed Topon and went, ‘Can I make a video for you guys?’ So I did and that just sort of started everything. The floodgates opened and I fell in love with film making again. Based on that, the next thing I did was make the movie for Steve Austin, “Axis of Eden.”

When did you decide to film the Maryland Deathfest? Where did the idea come in to make a whole movie based around that festival?

I made the movie for Today Is The Day, then I was set to go on tour with Today Is The Day to project this movie I made. As a part of that, I was set to go to Nashville and live with Steve for a week leading up to the tour. I didn’t know anything about Steve - I was a huge fan of the music - so I was googling Today Is The Day and I came across the web site for the Maryland Deathfest. They were originally scheduled to play that year (2007). I saw this line-up and thought, ‘That’s a great fucking line-up!’ There was Brutal Truth, Today Is The Day, and all these bands that I loved. I love concert films. The movie “Woodstock” is one of my favorite movies ever. I emailed them and I was like, ‘This festival looks amazing. Can I make a film about it?’

Little did I know that they had wanted that to happen for a while, but they just couldn't make it happen. If they called up Joe Blow’s video production, they would go, ‘Sure, we’ll make it for you, but it’ll cost $20,000,’ or whatever. I was able to email them and got in touch with Ryan, who is one of the co-promoters of MDF. We started talking and he eventually went, ‘Okay, cool. Let’s see what happens.’ It was amazing, because knowing now what I know about MDF and how special it is and how protective they are of who they let into that inner circle of trust, I got super lucky. It wasn’t shortly after that when all these other filmmakers started knocking on their door and showing up and filming. I had luckily secured the exclusive rights to film it.

What was it like working on the first MDF film? Did you feel like you were in over your head? Did you have a good command of what you wanted?

Honestly, I had no idea what I was doing. I had a pretty good idea in terms of organizing how many cameras I would need and asking the bands for permission. For the most part, I was finding out about it as I went along. Looking back, I think it was just useful ignorance that led me to do this. I didn’t know how to pay for any of the production. The whole process of raising money didn’t work. Two days before we were supposed to go, we were scrambling to get crew members and any money we could to buy tape, because we shot on tape for that one. It sort of worked out. I stand by the film and I’m really proud of it, but it’s definitely rougher around the edges. It’s a diamond in the rough, so to speak. We pulled it off, and that to me was the most important thing. We went, we filmed, and we made a pretty good movie out of it.

With filming a three or four-day festival, there’s so much footage you have to go through. How do you go about condensing that into two or three hours?

It’s tough. The first thing that happens is obviously, if there are any bands that don’t like their performances, that gets nixed right away. The way it typical works is that I’ll listen to the audio, and if there is a song I really like or know is a fan favorite or the band nailed it, I’ll say, ‘Okay, that’s a song I want to use.’ It’s not as simple as filming the whole set. Sometimes, somebody will run out of tape or it’ll be a bad angle. It’s a matter of going band by band and looking at all the assets and seeing what’s usable and what’s not. Based on that, I’ll chop up one or two songs per band, upload all the footage, and send bands a link. First of all, if bands are like, ‘No, we’re not happy,’ obviously they are done. I chop those guys out of the mix and go on to the people that are happy. It’s a real refined process. Starting off with this massive catalog of footage and whittling it down to the best that you can get out of that footage. It’s a long process; at least three or four months just doing that.

Have you found that you gotten better with it, since this is the third movie?

Oh yeah. This year, for this new one, the planets sort of aligned and three or four factors really came into play. One was that I got a new editing software which is awesome, because it enables me to edit much faster. Secondly, I had a really awesome crew. This is the fourth time I’ve done it, even though this is the third movie, so I knew how to tell the shooters going in what I wanted, where to stand, and what we’re doing. For the third one, the footage is much more streamlined. I would know that any song I wanted to pick would have enough coverage of it and enough footage. The more you do something, hopefully the better you get at it. Even the second one was that much better. We had better cameras, knew what we were doing a bit more, and last year was perfect. It could not have gone smoother. Audio was awesome, crew was really great, and scheduling really came together.

What is it about the Maryland Deathfest that keeps you coming back to it?

It’s just a special place. I know that sounds really cheesy and corny in today’s ironic world, but it’s just an honest place where people who like music can go and enjoy themselves and meet awesome people and see really great bands. Especially for metal heads, and fans of that music, in four days you could see 50 bands you wanted to see your whole life and never thought you get to see. The way Ryan and Evan run the festival, they have a very personal touch and it doesn’t feel all corporate and weird. The security staff are nice...sometimes, you go to a concert and there’s a weird vibe you get from the staff, but there’s nothing like that there. For a fan of that kind of music in North America, it’s the ultimate place to go. You got 5,000 people who are pretty much all of the same mind, and they are there to have fun and check out this killer music. It’s a very meaningful experience.

You’re selling “Maryland Deathfest: The Movie III” at the festival this year, but I heard that you’re not making another film. Is there a reason you’re not making a fourth one?

There’s a bunch of reasons. The main thing is, as much as I love MDF and that it has sort of defined what I do, I use the analogy, ‘If I keep doing it year after year, I’m going to be like the wedding photographer.’ I have other things I want to do and honestly, I do self-finance it, it’s real guerrilla, and it’s real DIY. I love the challenge, but it takes up a good seven months out of my year. It’s always a gamble, because you don’t know if five bands don’t think the sound is that great, and that was five really awesome bands you wanted to include. If that happens, you don’t have a movie anymore. On top of all that, I think it’s cool to have closure and quit while you’re ahead. I think it came down to going out on a high note and knowing when to stop. That’s how I felt. I have a lot of other stuff going on, and it’s going to be nice not to have that massive seven-month project when I have other stuff to do.

You also have your own record label, Handshake Inc. How did you decide that you not only wanted to film bands and make movies, but release albums?

Through MDF, for the second movie, I was able to get a distribution deal through Sony. Because of all the videos I’ve made and MDF, I’ve become friends with a lot of musicians. Especially underground music, there’s a lot of good music that doesn’t get put out. I love vinyl and I love music and it wouldn’t be so bad to have a hand in releasing stuff. I got that distribution deal and I said to them, ‘Hey, can I put out records too?’, and they said sure. It felt like the right thing to do for some reason. It had nothing to do with money, because there is none (laughs). It’s a lot of work, a lot more than I anticipated, but it was an opportunity and I grabbed it. I keep doing it until somebody will tell me to stop or I run out of money.

Do you have a vision for where Handshake Inc. could go? Do you see it expanding beyond what it is now?

It’s hard to say. In terms of the record side of things, I can keep putting stuff out. I’ve been able to work with people I really like. That, to me, is successful enough. In terms of the record stuff, that’ll be always the status quo. I’ll put out a few releases a year. I don’t think I would ever grow it into something much bigger than that. It’s really sort of a boutique label, though not in the sense that it’s exclusive, but it’s more that I plan on doing three or four physical releases a year and I’m happy with that. I think if anything will grow, it’ll be the movie, film, and video side. I hope that it does. I would like to expand that in terms of exposure and the profile of projects. I got some amazing stuff coming up and it seems to be really taking off. That’s my area of expertise, so that’s the beast that I roll with.

You mention some projects that you’re working on. Can you reveal any of them?

The one thing for sure is that back in January, I went and filmed the Decibel 100th issue celebration show. I’m basically doing a documentary on the history of Decibel. With that, it’ll be a concert film of the show that went down with Converge, Pig Destroyer, Repulsion, Evoken, and Tombs. I don’t know exactly how it’s all going to be structured, but that’s one project I’m really excited about. I love Decibel and when Albert (Mudrian, Decibel editor-in-chief) asked me to do it, I was totally floored and honored.

For the past three years, I’ve also been filming a documentary on producer Billy Anderson. He did a bunch of Mr. Bungle records and Melvins and Eyehategod; just countless, awesome albums. He’s an iconic guy for me. I’ve just been gathering footage and filming stuff with him. I have a game plan now to finish that. I have a few other projects, but I can’t really talk about them yet. There’s also a short film, about 15 to 20 minutes, that Andrew Bonazelli from Decibel wrote. I released a novel he put out, and we’ve become really good friends. He wrote this script and I liked it. I went to Philly and filmed for two or three days. I have to finish that too.

Do you see yourself branching out from music and doing more film-based stuff that doesn’t involve music?

Yeah, definitely. There’s a full-length script from Andrew that we’re developing and trying to get finance for. I’m a writer as well. I haven’t written anything in about five years, and I really want to do a feature narrative film. That’s something I want to do; however, the music stuff is sort of evolving and I don’t want to bite the hand that feeds me. That’s sort of always in the back of my mind though, to make a narrative film.

Is there one band that you’ve never had a chance to make a film for that you would love to, and why?

Probably the Melvins. I love that band. That’s probably one of my favorite bands. I’ve always wanted to work with them since day one. It’s just never happened, and who knows if it ever will. I love that band and that’s really what drives me in everything that I do. It’s based on passion and stuff that I really love.

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