By now, you’ve probably heard of Unlocking the Truth, a heavy-metal band made up of three black middle-school kids from Brooklyn that’s really, really good—and not just for their age.
Maybe you saw one of their viral Times Square performances, or seen that they have thousands of Facebook fans, or heard about their $1.8 million record deal with Sony. Director Luke Meyer’s rock-n-roll documentary, Breaking a Monster, follows these kids—Jarad Dawkins, Alec Atkins, and Malcolm Brickhouse—as their careers skyrocket while they go through adolescence.
When I saw the film at its South by Southwest premiere in March 2015, I loved that it was so present, unfolding in such immediate real time with the band’s story, and how much access Meyer was given behind potentially closed doors. I spoke to the director in Austin about moving quickly with a small crew, crafting a story in the here and now, and a documentarian’s responsibility in the digital age.
Andy Young, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): I, like most people, discovered this band online. How did you?
Luke Meyer (LM): I made a short with them for an online interview magazine. I wasn’t aware of them until then, so I was mostly just thinking about the short at the time. But as soon as that hit the world and a million people watched it in a month, we got calls from a few production companies asking if we’d considered making a feature about it. We shot that short in April 2013, so at that stage there wasn’t really a story; they didn’t have [the Sony deal] or even Alan Sacks as their manager until October. Once they signed the record deal, everything began happening very fast for them—and also became more interesting from a filmmaking perspective. That was the beginning of 2014 and we started making the feature film with Black Label Media, who were able to get us up and filming right away so we wouldn’t miss any of the story. It was a quick turnaround; we’d shoot and have no idea what next week would look like.
MM: It’s crazy how extroverted those kids are on stage, yet how introverted they get everywhere else. Were they on board with making the film?
LM: Yes, because it reinforces the idea that they’re doing something important if there’s a film being made about them, which is always a good feeling.
MM: What’s your process in creating a filmable environment where you can be a fly on the wall and make it feel like the camera’s not there?
LM: Trust, like always with documentaries. When you’re shooting you have to create a space where the subject feels comfortable.
MM: You had so much access with the private Sony meetings and things you usually don’t get to see in music docs. Was it difficult getting that access?
LM: I made it clear to Alan and the band how I wanted to be there as much as possible. Sometimes we’d have to directly ask for access during things like media events, but for business we’d remind Alan how important it was to capture this and he’d make it work. It also helped that we had a very bare-bones crew; you can’t get this kind of access with a big crew. It was myself, a producer, camera, sound, maybe an assistant cameraman, but generally just four people.
MM: Since your story is taking place in real time and you’re using both your footage and several other sources, are you editing and building a narrative throughout, either in your head or in the cut?
LM: In my head the whole time, absolutely. But we started going through and cutting about halfway through the shooting. The whole vantage point of the film is that we wanted to stick with them rather than having outside voices discuss them, so we needed a way to show they were getting big, like their appearances CNN and the Colbert Report. Outside of those bits of evidence that they’re gaining popularity, we wanted to just stick with them.
MM: How do you find an ending for your film while the story is taking place?
LM: It was difficult because the story doesn’t end for them—they’re still very much going. We were looking for a moment like their single getting released, or them going back to school… and it never really felt right. So we just edited throughout until we felt like we had a strong ending.
MM: What advice would you give aspiring documentarians?
LM: There’s the classic piece of advice that holds true, especially now in the digital age, that there’s no good reason not to start. If you see a story you want to tell, there’s a way to start recording it. Something I’ve been thinking about a lot is that, because filmmaking is so visual and ubiquitous now, we think of it as a default way of expressing things. But that can be dangerous, because it becomes less thoughtful. So I think a great piece of advice is to think about why something should be filmed, why that format makes sense to tell your story, and if you think about that you’ll hopefully make better cinema. MM
Breaking a Monster opens in theaters June 24, 2016, courtesy of Abramorama. Photographs by Ethan Palmer.