Exclusive Interview: The Director of ‘Anvil!’ Docs Our Faces Off

It’s a story about hope that all goes back to a life philosophy shared by the band members and director Sacha Gervasi: “The only way you can fail is if you give up.”
By  · Published on April 10th, 2009

People keep coming up to Sacha Gervasi and telling him that his movie is giving them the hope that they can endure cancer or pay their mortgage this month. If you don’t think about it, it doesn’t make sense. If you don’t think about it, it appears as if he’s made a simple documentary about a heavy metal band that never made it famous. Of course, if you watch the film, you realize that what he’s done is so much bigger than that. So much bigger than the band. So much bigger than the music.

It’s not a point lost on Gervasi, a guy who had the experience of his youth thanks to an Anvil concert and has grown up to get behind the camera to create something that may launch the band beyond where they could have imagined. What started as a portrait in failure might make the band succeed.

So far, the critical reaction and fan reaction has been enormous – standing ovations at all the Sundance screenings, rave reviews, a global impact that stretches from Asia to Europe to the U.S. At this point, the momentum has stretched beyond the film.

“When the movie ends, the narrative isn’t over,” says Gervasi while driving through The Valley, his cell phone reception cutting in and out as he goes along trying to contain the madness that promotional touring has become since the movie has exploded.

There’s a balance here at work with that explosion between the simplicity and earnestness of the subject matter and the complexity and chaos of an emerging social movement. It’s something striking, a little confusing, and definitely surprising.

“I don’t know if people were expecting to be moved by a couple of guys who wrote a song about the Spanish Inquisition called ‘Thumb Hang.’ I think it’s the surprise factor…That’s the thing about Anvil – it’s this crazy juxtaposition of total insanity that you can’t believe is real and extremely real stuff. It’s sort of this surreal, absurdist thing where people ask ‘how can this be real?’ That’s what’s freaking people out. You could never make it up.”

A thoughtful statement coming from a man who began the interview by doing his best Bill and Ted Wild Stallionz impression – hopefully with at least one hand on the wheel. Still, I have firsthand knowledge of that incredulity – watching the movie with Neil, he thought it was fake until about thirty minutes in.

“A lot of people have that response, and at a certain level…It’s like in the movie, you half-expect them to rip off their wigs and hats and reveal themselves as a performance art team from San Diego. But they don’t because they’re not. It was the same response when we were shooting the movie. My crew, my actual camera man thought I was playing a joke on the crew. He thought I was doing something deeply method so that I hadn’t even told the crew what we were doing.”

The question at this point is why exactly the film is having the kind of effect that it’s having. Of course it’s a great documentary, but what about the story is filling Gervasi’s inbox with emails from people telling them it’s giving them the strength to live in the face of hardship? What about it is making non-metal fans want to buy CDs that they’ll never listen to?

Gervasi has a theory.

“A part of the reason it’s resonating is the time that we’re in. Here we are at a point where people are getting shat on left and right, losing jobs, the economy is fucked – and here are these two guys who have persisted with this dream for nearly 35-40 years. And they’re fucking un-bitter. They’re doing what they love for the right reasons – not for the money – and so really it’s a story of hope. It’s about people enduring shit and surviving it. And possibly with a miracle at the end. People want stories of hope right now. People don’t want to hear about how awful America is or how terrible life is. They want to hear that it’s possible to make it through these times.”

Whether that’s the case or not, the result is undeniable. Gervasi recounts a story of a woman who approached him after a screening saying that the film put a lot of things in perspective for her. After watching two men endure and chase, mostly fruitlessly, a dream for over three decades, she figured that she could somehow get through figuring out where to come up with the rent money that month. The underlying truth is that shit happens, but we can wade through it to get to the other side.

Of course, all of this is wrapped in the giant flaming spectacle of heavy distortion turned all the way up to eleven. When Gervasi says that the narrative isn’t over when the credits roll, he’s right for another reason. He has plans to tour with the movie, showing the documentary and having Anvil play afterward. It’s a recipe that’s already garnered success. And that, Gervasi says, is the really trippy part. The audience falls in love with Lips and Robb during the movie, and then they come out to play and melt everyone’s faces off. People from Fallout Boy to David Byrne are losing their minds hearing a metal band that has failed to make it big. Billing it as The Anvil Experience, it’s going to stretch beyond the live show to the DVD as well – a release that will feature concert footage, footage from the film touring and the film itself. All of this is made possible because of how talented the band is and how strong the documentary is. Both are resonating with a large enough group of people that are tired of plastic falsehoods being paraded over the radio, of record companies making a band or singer popular just by claiming they are popular, of the business side of art crushing the art side of art.

That inequity is something also found in the film world as Gervasi learned first hand.

“When we went to Sundance, every performance was a standing ovation yet we had every major distributer saying, ‘It’s a heavy metal documentary. We don’t understand it. We can’t sell it.’ When I sat down and explained to them the notion of the live event, that this was a new kind of thing – a movie and a live event together – they thought I was on crack. They thought I was mad…It was just completely beyond the realm of their perception. But that’s exactly why that business is falling to pieces. It’s not like the old days in Hollywood where Jack Warner would go ‘Fuck it. I believe in it. Let’s do it.’ It’s a bunch of fucking accountants running things. They don’t have any imagination. They just run numbers and run precedents and make generalizations. And they’re all scared for their jobs.”

Gervasi goes on to say, “I think it’s important that people are starting to do different things.”

The core, according to Gervasi, is having passion and believing in what you’re doing. It’s difficult to tell how large this cultural phenomenon will grow. On one hand, it’s achieved something that less than 5% of documentaries do (getting released) and it’s moved above and beyond that by entering into a wide popular mindset. Still, as most movie events go, it still has a long road to travel – but it seems like that’s something Anvil is used to.

Somehow, Gervasi has created something that simply makes people want to help. It’s become an interactive experience where fans realize that they can make something happen for these two friends who made a pact at 14-years old to rock until they die. Middle-aged teachers are buying records just to contribute money, Vh1 has played the trailer for the film in heavy rotation to the tune of several millions of dollars worth of free advertising, and what’s even better – Anvil has gotten professional management and representation, placing them on the cusp of true fame and recognition after all these years.

Even still, there’s a humility underneath it all. “I just made a movie about my friends that I love, that I thought me and my friends would enjoy…Lips and Robb are such extraordinary characters that all I had to do was press record,” Gervasi says.

Clearly, Gervasi did more than just hit a button, but in rolling the camera, he’s touched upon something in the cultural psyche that has found stadium-speaker-sized reverberation. A real documentary that seems fake. Audiences losing their minds for a band they’ve never heard of. A band that will succeed because they made a portrait of their failure. There’s a lot going on here, and it’s all present in Anvil! The Story of Anvil which opens in New York and Los Angeles today. Luckily, The Story of Anvil isn’t the whole story. It’s a story about hope that all goes back to a life philosophy shared by the band members and Gervasi: “The only way you can fail is if you give up.”

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