Metallica’s Lars Ulrich on ‘S&M2,’ ‘Mission: Impossible 2’ and His Movie Buff Credentials

     September 10, 2020

It all started with Natalie Fucci. She was one of the Sneider brothers’ many babysitters, but she was by far the coolest, and she changed my life and my taste in music when she handed me a homemade mixtape featuring her favorite band — Metallica.  I was around 12 or 13 years old when I started listening to the metal band, and 20-plus years later, I still haven’t stopped headbanging in my car, where I can really crank up the volume and rock out to “Blackened.”

So imagine my delight when a digital copy of Metallica’s new album S&M2 showed up in my inbox a few weeks ago. I listened to it right away, and loved the band’s reunion with the San Francisco Orchestra, but what was I going to do, review it? We write about music, of course, but Collider isn’t Pitchfork, and we don’t really review albums. But if there’s anything this pandemic has taught me — besides to wear a god damned mask — it’s that life is precious and almost always too short, so if I was going to shoot my shot, there would be no time like the present.

So, I did it. I put in an interview request for Metallica. And after a few weeks of emails with the band’s generous PR team, they made it happen. Legendary drummer Lars Ulrich had agreed to talk movies and music with me. To say this interview was a dream come true would be an understatement. I’ve been very fortunate in my career to interview some of my heroes, though none have been quite as generous with their time as Ulrich was. I gave myself 30 seconds to fanboy out on him and prove my own Metallica credentials, and then it was time to get serious.

In addition to addressing Metallica’s collaboration with James Newton Howard on Disney’s Jungle Cruise movie starring Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt for the very first time, Lars also talked about the new S&M album and his deep love of movies, which makes him one of us. I’m going to shut up now and let Lars speak for himself, but I hope you enjoy our wide-ranging conversation, because it’s one I’ll never forget. And thank you, Natalie, for turning me on to the greatest metal band of all time. Now let’s ride the lightning together…

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Let’s start with S&M2, which like the first album, opens with “The Ecstasy of Gold.” How did you start covering that Ennio Morricone track and why do you guys typically open with it? I’m also curious if you’re a personal fan of The Good, The Bad and the Ugly.

LARS ULRICH: Well, we drove out from San Francisco to New Jersey in 1983 to meet with a gentleman named Jonny Zazula, who subsequently became our manager for a while, and he also started the record company that we ended up putting our first record out on. He suggested we start playing shows out in the greater Tri-state area, and we may have had some lame intro piece, but he basically suggested that we use “The Ecstasy of Gold” as our intro tape, as it was called at that time, or our walk-on, or whatever you’d call it. So we’re talking 37 years now, that [track] has been, basically, if not at every show, then pretty close to every show we’ve ever played. Certainly the ones we’ve played ourselves. Maybe not when we’ve done a few collaborative hangouts. But basically, for 37 years, that’s been our walk-on music, and the last thing that any member of Metallica would hear before we went onstage.

So when we did the first S&M collaboration 20 years ago, it felt very fitting, and obviously, Michael Kamen, who was sort of steering that ship, had a significant relationship with movies, and basically came out of the movie world. He was a composer who scored films, so it was a fitting thing that that would get the treatment of the orchestra. And when we did it again a second time, that was one of the things from the first go-round that we repeated. The good folks at Warner Bros. and the good folks in Morricone’s world know about the relationship with his song. There was actually a tribute album to Morricone himself, maybe about 12 or 14 years ago, where we played kind of an electric, heavier version of the track for this collaboration album. There was a bunch of other artists on it, like Bruce Springsteen and many others, so hopefully that gives you a little bit of background.

And then the answer is ‘yes,’ of course, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is a significant piece of film history, an all-time classic, and all three of them between A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More, stand the test of time very well. I’m hard-pressed to think of a better… when you think of the scene in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly in the cemetery towards the end there and Eli’s character is in the cemetery and he runs around looking for the grave, that’s probably one of the greatest marriages of visual and score, of film and music, for lack of a better way of saying it. So it’s obviously a piece that we’re very proud to have with us, and to be associated with, and the fact that the San Francisco Orchestra has done such a great job with it, both in ’99 and ’19, is super cool.

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Image via YouTube/Blackened Recordings

As I understand it, you guys have only contributed one original song for a movie, and that was for Mission: Impossible 2. What do you remember about your meetings with Tom Cruise from back then, and do you ever see Metallica writing a new song for a film again?

ULRICH: I flew down to L.A., this was right around the same time, actually, as the first S&M. This was probably right after S&M came out, I flew down to L.A. to meet with Tom. He was on the set, and so it was probably January or February of 2000, and he was on the set. Obviously, soundtracks and original songs had a very different meeting at the time. You think of the Whitney Houstons of the world and the associations to movies like The Bodyguard, so original songs were a whole different thing. So they reached out, I flew down, Tom was filming in L.A., and it was great, because not only was I a fan of Tom and everything that he’d done, but I was also a huge fan of John Woo. This was one of the first films that he did in America after some of my favorite films before that, like Hard Boiled and The Killer and A Better Tomorrow and Bullet in the Head. So to be on the set for a day, and to hang out with Tom…

I spent a couple hours with him in his trailer and hearing his vision for the movie and hearing his vision for how the music would sort of work within it, and how the song that we were gonna write, what that could be. He showed me probably 30-45 minutes of early cuts and early edits of scenes so I started to get an idea of what the movie was, and I flew back to San Francisco and reported to James, and then we wrote “I Disappear.” And certainly, we would do it again, absolutely, except that association of writing songs specifically for movies may be… I’m not saying it’s never gonna happen, and certainly Metallica is always open to those kinds of endeavors, but obviously, the original soundtrack type of thing is maybe not quite what it was. But there was nothing about that experience that was not great, and to get close to the filmmaking process… I’ve always been fascinated with film, and I’ve always been very inspired by film, and Tom’s been very generous. Because it was a project for their movie, and though it was a collaborative [effort], there were different dynamics in play on the practical side. But Tom’s been very supportive of us, putting that video into all our different things, like compilation DVDs and all that kind of stuff. Tom is very personable, and always engaging and interested, and has always been super cool to me.

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Image via Prime Zero Productions/Trafalgar Releasing

Can you talk about your work with James Newton Howard on Jungle Cruise? I know Disney’s Mitchell Leib has said that you’re working on an orchestral version of “Nothing Else Matters,” so I’m just curious how that came about and why you guys said ‘yes.’

ULRICH: (surprised) OK, it’s a Collider World Exclusive then. OK! James Newton Howard, the man, the myth, the absolute legend, and considering what’s he’s done, it’s an absolute honor to have done this with him, and we’re excited for the world to hear it. It’s kind of an interesting morph because it’s kind of — and I don’t want to give too much of it away — but it’s a very unusual morph in that it’s kind of his arrangement of “Nothing Else Matters” that we’re playing. We wrote the song, but he took the song and rearranged it to fit something specific in the film — and I’m obviously not going to give any of that away — but we then kind of took on his version of it. I think that’s all that should be said.

But it really goes back to Sean Bailey, who is a lifelong rock fan, and is just all around one of the greatest, most friendly, generous and warm, and embracing people you’ll find in the music business. I think he’s always been a Metallica fan, and we’ve gotten to know each other well. My wife and I are big Disney fans, so there’s a great friendship there, and he’s always looked for the right match where there was a way that Metallica could contribute to some project of there’s, so this was the right fit with Sean leading the calvary, and with James Newton Howard and his track record and what he’s done. I got a chance to meet James before we did this and he’s such a generous collaborative spirit, and the director, Jaume Collet-Serra, is a Spanish gentleman who has obviously made some incredible films, and Metallica has also been part of his journey.

So it was a very natural fit, and as you know, and everybody at Collider knows, film is a very collaborative medium, and for somebody in a band, one of the many things I love about the creative process of film is the collaborative element. So when you look at our association with this film, the first word that comes to mind is “collaborative,” between Sean’s vision and James Newton Howard’s vision and Jaume’s vision. Obviously, The Rock has been very supportive. Dwayne has been very supportive, and it’s a really cool thing to be a part of. I can’t wait for everybody to see it.

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Image via IFC Films

Do you think Metallica will ever make another fly-on-the-wall type of movie like Some Kind of Monster again?

ULRICH: Again? I’m not against it. Certainly, it was a difficult time and a trying time that was being captured on film, but I’m very, very proud of how the project came out. I’ve sat through that film enough to sort of be able to almost remove myself from it. It’s almost like [watching] characters on a screen, and kind of third-person, if you know what I mean? But obviously, what worked about it, and Joe and Bruce’s vision, really, was the dramatic arc that ended up sort of organically playing itself out. I think that’s a significant part of the reason that the film resonated with so many people.

It probably resonated with more people in the film world than the music world, which is interesting, because a lot of people in the film world were almost shocked at how transparent it was. And I think at that time, before social media, and before the kind of access that social media obviously requires and facilitates, not a lot of people had seen a rock and roll band that vulnerable and that up-close, and as we say at the end, “warts and all.” So obviously, there was a lot of stuff in there that a lot of times doesn’t get aired, because people only want to sort of promote the positive things, or whatever. So I’m very proud of the fact that we stuck with it, I’m very proud of Joe and Bruce’s vision, which we supported, and I’m very proud of the fact that we actually took control of the film back from our record company and handed it over to Joe and Bruce, because they did such an incredible job.

Would we do it again? Again, it’s the same answer as before. I’m not against doing it again, but I think maybe the value is less because of how social media nowadays has kind of… everybody’s much more used to seeing behind-the-scenes of musicians and actors and creative types, and well-known people share much more about what goes on, especially now in the COVID times, about sort of what goes on in their houses, and what goes on in their creative processes, and the writing stages and the recording stages, and all that behind-the-scenes stuff. So it probably has little less ‘holy fuck!’ value than it did 20 years ago when that movie first came out.

But again, I think it’s important to remember that a significant part of the reason that movie connected with so many people was because of that dramatic arc that was there. Obviously, when we were going through that process for those two years, nobody knew how it was gonna end. It’s pretty crazy that none of it was scripted, and so we were very lucky in that sense, in that there was a sort of, almost, basic screenwriting 101 [with] the three acts in the way the dynamics play out over the course of that two-hour journey.

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Image via AB Svensk Filmindustri

What have you been watching during the pandemic, because I’m so curious how you’ve been entertaining yourself?

ULRICH: I’ve been watching at much as I can. I don’t know where to start! It depends what the mood is, and there’s three different moods. In no particular order, there’s classic films, or a film that we’ve seen numerous times that always deserves repeated viewings for additional things that you get out of a film when you see it a fourth time or a fifth film, or an incredible film that we haven’t seen for a while. At the beginning of the pandemic, we had Movie Night four or fives times a week, where the whole family would [gather] and there’d be ensuing arguments about what to watch, but we did away with that, and now we just rotate the picking selection. ‘You pick tonight, I’ll pick tomorrow, etc.’

In the beginning we watched classics, and I got a chance to show the kids things like Midnight Express, which is among the films that were most meaningful to me when I was growing up. We watched The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and Platoon, and other things like Amores Perros, Y Tu Mama Tambien, and The Seventh Seal. One of my kids actually picked The Seventh Seal, which is crazy. My oldest son picked a Godard film. I thought it’d be my wife and I picking all these crazy films, and that they would… I knew they wouldn’t pick superhero movies… but I didn’t think we’d go to this depth. So with Breathless, the bar was set. It was pretty crazy watching Bergman films and early Kubrick films. I would show them a lot of Dogme films. We watched The Celebration and other [Thomas] Vinterberg films, and different things from Lars Von Trier. We watched Full Metal Jacket.

There were a lot of movies they haven’t seen, like Dr. Strangelove, so we did a slew of those, and have certainly returned to some. I’ve got things on my list, like there’s a Russian film that’s one of my all time favorite films, Come and See. But that’s one where you very much have to be in the right mood, because those are two of the hardest hours you’ll ever have watching a movie. I’ve got a few others I want to share, my favorite hidden classics like Nil by Mouth and Once Were Warriors. There’s an incredible film called Red Road. The other thing that we see is a lot of documentaries. We watched the Beastie Boys Story, and the one about The Band, Once Were Brothers. There was that movie Echo in the Canyon last year, and then there was that two-part series Laurel Canyon. We watched that, and the Linda Ronstadt film. I think I showed them The Last Waltz. So a lot of music docs, but we see a lot of docs generally. I think in the last week we saw Mike Wallace Is Here, Alex Gibney’s Citizen K, and we saw two films about Russia the other night. The same night we saw Citizen K, we watched Red Penguin, about the Russian state national hockey team and when the Pittsburgh Penguins started getting involved in that. That was interesting. So we’ve seen a lot of docs, and I have these sort of running lists of documentaries, so that every night you can just go to a list, and any of these documentaries are sort of timeless. We’ve seen The Biggest Little Farm and the Halston one. We saw Bluebird, and the David Crosby one.

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Image via Universal Pictures

And then we’ve seen a few of the newer movies. We saw Palm Springs and the Judd Apatow-Pete Davidson film [The King of Staten Island], and really liked that one a lot. I thought, once again, Judd hit it out of the park. I didn’t know that it was a real story of Pete’s sort of early years, and losing his father in 9/11 and all that, and I thought it was very brave of him to be that open about his own life. I thought he was a really great actor. I didn’t really know that much about him, but I loved that film. I saw the Steve Carell-Rose Byrne film Irresistible from Jon Stewart. We saw that a couple weeks ago, so we’ve seen lots of stuff, but it’s been great to show the kids different things from stuff that was meaningful to mine and my wife’s formative film years. I had actually not seen The Seventh Seal, for instance, so it’s pretty cool when your 19 year-old kid picks out The Seventh Seal. There’s been some lighter stuff too, like, we got a chance to watch the Lethal Weapon movies again, because they’d never seen the Lethal Weapon movies, which, by the way, Michael Kamen scored. There were a few other classics they’d never seen, like Die Hard, and I don’t think I’d seen Die Hard in 20 years, so it was kind of fun to see a few of these. They feel very period specific in the look and the dialogue, but there’s definitely elements of all those movies that hold up pretty well still. Like in Lethal Weapon, for instance, it’s hard to deny the chemistry between Mel Gibson and Danny Glover, and obviously if you look at the whole South African storyline in Lethal Weapon 2 about apartheid and all that, some of the stuff holds up very well still.

Obviously, there’s been a raft of music biopics lately between Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody and Elton John’s Rocketman, so if there was a Metallica biopic, who would you like to see play you?

ULRICH: (laughing) Yeah, well, they’d need a five-foot-seven, small, balding… I mean, we sort of joke about this all the time. We use to have kind of the standard answer back in the day, just because you’d get asked that every three months in interviews. James Spader would play me, the Cowardly Lion from The Wizard of Oz would play Hetfield, and we’d joke about how Carlos Santana would play Kirk [Hammett]. We had all kinds of fun, but the question would beckon,  what time period are we talking? Is it Metallica in their youthful times, or now? There’s so many incredibly talented people out there, and it’s incredible how some actors can just transform. I think what Taron did as Elton John stands out as just being incredible casting, an incredible fit.

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Image via IFC Films

But the biopic thing, I think that’s more of a cautionary tale, which kind of falls in under the whole thing with autobiographies. I’m not sold on the idea. The idea of writing an autobiography I think is challenging, because I think you would have to be completely truthful, and to be 100 percent truthful, it’s hard to tell the stories without bringing other people into it, and then you sort of get into that whole thing where maybe the protagonist in that particular story wouldn’t want the story told. So to me, it’s kind of a dilemma of, these stories deserve the truth if you’re going to talk about them, but at the same time, you can’t take for granted that everybody who’s involved in those stories wants those stories out there.

It’s a little bit like, you and I take a picture together, and then I put it up on my social media without asking you. So there’s something about that I haven’t quite figured out yet, but obviously as a creative undertaking, I would love to throw myself out into what Metallica would look like in the medium of film. That’s one of the main reasons we did Through the Never six or seven years ago, but if it’s going to be more of autobiography, I think that’s going to be way more challenging because there’s so many biopics where you kind of sit and roll your eyes. I guess somewhere I’m just kind of a stickler for the truth, for some reason, so if you’re not gonna tell the truth, then maybe you shouldn’t say anything at all. That’s where it gets a little complicated for me, but let’s see how it plays out.

I know the situation is constantly changing, but when do you anticipate being able to resume live performances in stadiums and such?

ULRICH: Obviously, if there’s one thing we know today versus on March 15, [it’s that] on March 15, everybody thought it’d be a month or two, and obviously on Aug. 27, we know now that it’s been over five months, and probably will be quite a significant amount of time, still. I think in our world, in the music world, obviously, everybody’s trying to crack the code on this, and everybody’s trying to figure out the right answer, so what I’d say is that it’s probably going to be more geo-targeted. So I would say there’s a chance that certain parts of the world will start getting into concerts before others. I don’t think there’s going to be one specific day all over the world where ‘woooo, now concerts are back!’ But the way it’s looking now, Western Europe will probably have a significantly better chance of opening before North and South America, but nobody really knows yet, and everybody’s trying to sort of predict it. But we’re all trying to figure out what we can do to connect with music fans all over the world in the meantime.

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Image via IFC Films

We’re doing this drive-in event this weekend, which is exciting, and certainly experimental, and we’re the first rock band to do it. The company that is paving the way, they’ve done one with Garth Brooks, and they’ve done one with Blake Shelton, and now we’re the first rock band to do 300 drive-in theaters across North America. So it’s exciting to be a part of, and obviously we hope that the fans connect to the experience. We’re all just sitting, trying to figure out what we can do virtually, but the good news in this conversation is that when there are concerts again, and when Metallica gets a chance to play again and other bands get a chance to play again, especially in the bigger places, that will mean that we’re at the very tail end of this. Because obviously, right now, concerts are pretty much the last fucking train station along the pandemic path. So when concerts are back in all their glory, which we all hope is yesterday — not soon enough, obviously — then that’ll be a signal that we’re pretty much through all of it. Concerts and large-scale sporting events with full audiences.

This last question comes courtesy of my Dad. How much longer do you plan to keep doing this? Do you see yourself ever retiring, or do you plan to just drop dead in front of your drum kit?

ULRICH: The spirit is still youthful. We still feel engaged and inspired and invigorated by the idea of playing music, by the idea of being in a band, by the idea of connecting with an audience. Who the fuck would’ve thought, 35 years ago, that we’d still be sitting here in the year 2020 releasing records and doing interviews, and at least up to 2019, playing gigs, and connecting with audiences all over the world. Nobody would’ve expected that! So I would say that if the necks and the knees and the elbows and the shoulders and the rest of the body parts hold up, then I still think we’ve got a good run. There’s certainly no shortage of enthusiasm or desire.

I can tell you last weekend that I was watching a Rolling Stones tour documentary on YouTube from their 1976 tour in Europe, and the whole theme of the documentary — there’s like 45 minutes in Belgium and it’s 1976, so most of the dudes in the Stones were probably 32 or 33 years old, give or take a year or two — and at that time, the main question being asked of all of them was, “how long do you plan to keep doing this? You’re 32 years old, leave it to the youngsters.” That was 44 years ago, and the Stones are still out there loud and proud, and making audiences feel good. So I’d say that health issues and pandemics aside, we hopefully still have a good run, and [we] can’t wait to get back to making another record. Maybe our best years are still in front of us, hopefully.

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Image via Carole Segal/Picturehouse

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