Jeff Krulik is the only guy at the off-track-betting parlor in Brooklyn’s Fort Hamilton neighborhood whose eyes aren’t glued to a TV. Yes, there’s a horse race on. And yes, Krulik has bet on it. But the D.C.-area filmmaker, who has made a career out of documenting the mundane vulgarities of life, is riveted by a foul-mouthed, gray-haired midget in baggy jean shorts.
As Krulik watches, the man scurries between bettors, snatching up discarded slips from the floor, muttering obscenities, and wagging his brows when he finds that a bettor’s horse came close to placing first. The midget looks our way and wags his eyebrows at Krulik. But it’s clear that he sees him as nothing more than a fellow gambler.
Even in his heyday, Krulik—the auteur behind Heavy Metal Parking Lot—didn’t exactly get recognized on the street. And now, nearly a quarter century after his legendary camera-wielding foray into the crowd outside a 1986 Judas Priest concert at the now-demolished Capital Centre in Prince George’s County, diminishing returns from subsequent exercises in parking-lot verite mean Krulik’s been having a hard time even gaining traction among the documentary-geek types who once adored him.
Heavy Metal Picnic, Krulik’s latest effort at wringing cinematic magic from mulleted Marylanders, has been rejected from every film festival he’s applied to. Few of his friends have taken the time to watch it. And though it’s supposed to premiere next month at the American Film Institute in Silver Spring, the movie isn’t even finished. For a while, it looked like it might never make it to completion.
Which is what brings Krulik to New York, if not to this seedy betting parlor: With a month to go before the film screens in Silver Spring, he’s finally found an editor to turn his ill-fated rough cut into something approximating a quality movie. So he’s high-tailed it northward to watch a 23-year-old hockey-obsessed man named Greg DeLiso resurrect some found footage of a 1985 Montgomery County field concert featuring a bunch of metal bands he’s never heard of.
The venture—and Krulik’s career as a chronicler of pop-culture fanhood—suddenly doesn’t seem so different from racetrack gambling.
The midget disappears in a sea of hips, and Krulik’s eyes move to a TV. He points to a horse with 3-to-1 odds. “That one’s supposed to be a sure thing, but I don’t really know what I’m doing,” he says. “And, you know, there are no sure things.”
Music and film nerds revere Heavy Metal Parking Lot. Years before Jersey Shore, the film turned the unintelligible ravings of drunken fans into a documentary for the ages. A 2006 DVD reissue features endorsements to that effect from Cameron Crowe, who called it “one of the greatest rock movies ever.”
Even before the establishmentarian acclaim began to pile up, Heavy Metal Parking Lot had achieved a sort of cult status, traded around in VHS form. The Backstreet Boys referenced it in a music video. Lady GaGa’s DJ commemorated the starlet’s Fameball tour with a video called Lady GaGa’s Pop Culture Parking Lot in 2009 .
Krulik followed the masterpiece with more efforts to wrest gems from fan culture including Neil Diamond Parking Lot in 1996 , which gave way to Harry Potter Parking Lot in 2000 . The brand seemed so bankable that Trio, the late pop-culture cable channel, contracted Krulik to create an 8-part mini series based on the Parking Lot theme. This led to Parking Lot docs about a Cher concert, a tattoo convention, Michael Jackson’s trial, a pro wrestling show, and a meet-up of sci-fi nerds.
But the derivatives failed to capture the zeitgeist as effectively as patient zero. The Trio gig lasted just a single season. And, as much as Krulik resented being typecast as the man in the parking lot, the disappointments highlighted a bleaker truth: His non-parking lot films—more than 40, many of which premiered at respectable film festivals or earned DVD releases—were even less commercially successful than the HMPL reduxes.
“I don’t want to be the Heavy Metal guy. I don’t want to be the Parking Lot guy. That was my thinking for a long time,” Krulik says. “I’ve since changed my thinking. I now realize this is an opportunity. Don Ho had Tiny Bubbles until the day he died.”
Which meant that Krulik was in a mood to listen when an old friend called up in 2006 with an intriguing offer.
L ong-time metalhead Rudy Childs wanted to show Krulik a video he shot of a 1985 outdoor concert where a bunch of formerly up-and-coming bands—Forcer, Asylum, the Blue Rockers—played in a Potomac field. “He told me about this footage shot with his home video camera,” Krulik says. “I was blown away—it was a whole new mid-’80s video document that I felt right at home with.”
Krulik edited the 45 minutes of drinking, fighting, and jamming down to 30 minutes, dubbing it Rudy Childs’ Heavy Metal Picnic 1985. It played the Underground Film Festival tour in 2006. It wasn’t until he submitted it to that year’s Maryland Film Festival, where he felt it would be a shoo-in, that it occurred to him to do more.
“They said something to the effect of ‘we want to see more of a documentary with this footage’ which, at the time, was something I had no interest in doing. I thought the edited version of the footage spoke for itself, and was entertaining enough,” Krulik says.
Unbeknownst to Krulik, Childs—who stars in the original tape as the interviewer and cameraman—had taken it upon himself to interview the various attendees, starting with a Florida reunion of the band Forcer. Something clicked when Childs told Krulik what he was up to. “I got to looking at that footage and hearing the stories. I started percolating with the idea from the Maryland Film Festival programming board that ‘hey, maybe this could become a documentary.’”
“If I had known then what I know now, I would’ve never shut the camera off,” Krulik says. “I would’ve filmed the entire ’80s.”
And just like that, reviving the Heavy Metal franchise didn’t seem like such a bad idea. Perhaps it should have.
Krulik shuffles into the living room of his condo with a box of Triscuits and two Yuenglings. It’s February, and we are about to watch yet another rough cut of Heavy Metal Picnic.
On screen, a teenager with bad teeth and a thin mustache is announcing to the world that there’s gonna be a rumble. Moments later, the tape cuts to two shirtless blond guys sporting still more big hair and tight denim. Sure enough, they’re circling one another, crooking their arms at obtuse angles like 19th-century Irish boxers: Fight! Fight! But then the smaller of the two stoops to grab a beer bottle. The social contract of drunken brawling has been violated. The throng that had up to now been egging on the fighters now presses in, a mass of torn T-shirts and sun-scorched biceps, to break it up.
“When I showed the original footage in Brooklyn, it went over like gangbusters. Artforum gave it a positive review, and I edited that footage myself, which gave me the confidence to try and edit the feature-length version,” Krulik says.
It was when he actually tried to make the feature-length version, a task he’d never attempted, that the bubble went pop.
“If he has a weakness, well, maybe it’s that he hasn’t given in to the standard doc conventions,” says Marc Masters, Krulik’s longtime editor. “For the most part he likes to let his characters breathe and his scenes play out, and not necessarily streamline everything to construct a contrived story. HMPL was obviously the first great example of this, but he’s done it continually and sometimes I think that’s why Jeff isn’t the huge name on the indie doc scene that he should be.”
Still, Masters calls Krulik “the Herzog of the underground doc world.”
Then again, he didn’t have to edit back his old collaborator’s just-leave-the-camera-running excesses on Heavy Metal Picnic.
It shows. Today’s rough cut is overlong and conspicuously missing any narrative arc—a time capsule shoved inside another time capsule, like a chronological fetus in a womb. Here are Childs and his wild crew at a concert in 1985, here they are now in 2007, talking about a concert in 1985. Where Krulik’s original metalhead odyssey plays like a car wreck you just have to gawk at, this one plays like a bunch of people talking about a minor fender-bender that they barely remember.
If the Blue Moon Jamboree that took place just off Travilah Road had featured, say, Judas Priest, a plot might not have been necessary. But the participating bands never made it to the big time. That means it’s on Krulik to make their existence significant to viewers. That’s a tall order for anyone—particularly for a guy working with 12 hours of tape, limited software skills and, on this unhappy winter day, no editor.
We make it 40 minutes into a 98-minute smorgasbord before Krulik begins fishing for comments. “The clip is too long,” he tells me.
The clip is not too long, I say.
“Are you sure?” Krulik asks.
I think I’m sure. But how long have we been watching this?
“Forty minutes,” Krulik says.
By now, the screen shows Krulik interviewing a geriatric couple about the party, which they did not attend but remember avoiding.
In the condo, Krulik goes rigid. “FUCK!” he yells, before jumping out of his folding chair and bolting out of the living room. After banging around in the kitchen, Krulik walks quickly back into the living room and turns off the television. He crosses his arms and scratches his left elbow—something he does when he’s agitated, or nervous, or is listening to you speak when he himself would rather be speaking—while eyeing the carpet for something important.
“The footage is too long,” Krulik says.
A month after the programmers at South by Southwest gave him the thumbs-down, Krulik received a more personal note from Jed Dietz at the Maryland Film Festival: “We can’t fit HEAVY METAL PICNIC in to the MFF 2010 weekend. If I can help you think about other festivals, or Baltimore screening possibilities, do not hesitate to call.” Shortly after that, a friend dropped Krulik a line to say that he just hadn’t made time to watch the movie.
Krulik could’ve given up on Heavy Metal Picnic and no one would have thought less of him. He makes a decent living freelancing for the likes of Extra, and Inside Edition when celebs come to Washington. To anyone who had ever made a movie, it would look like he was taking the economical route and cutting his losses.
Krulik’s reputation wouldn’t have been harmed, either. As far as the film-geek population goes, their opinions would have about remained what they were when the initial Heavy Metal Picnic clips screened during 2006’s Found Film Festival tour. “They would say, ‘This was given to us by Jeff Krulik, who made Heavy Metal Parking Lot,’ and the crowd would start cheering,” recalls DeLiso. “At that point, I hadn’t even heard of Parking Lot…In cities all over the country, people are clapping at the mention of this movie.”
Krulik initially did decide to scrap the project. The first person he told was Joe Pickett, the Found Film Festival’s founder and one of the few people to have actually watched the entire 98-minute version of the film.
“It’s not very good. It needed an editor instead of my not so nimble fingers, and my go to guy just couldn’t carve out the time to help me,” Krulik wrote Pickett in April. “I give up. I don’t care. I’m starting to hate documentary filmmaking. I’m burnt out and there’s too much product out there. It’s going to be screened at the end of July to friends and family at the AFI and it’ll be a fun show and that’ll be that.”
Pickett pushed back, offering the same bland praise Krulik had been hearing for years. But he also mentioned something else: The Brooklyn address for DeLiso, the 23-year-old film wiz—born two years after Childs’ picnic—who seemed to be the one person in the world who might be able to save Heavy Metal Picnic.
Considering the severity of Krulik’s problems—it’s now three weeks before the premiere, and the film is nowhere near done—I arrive in Brooklyn expecting a top-notch editing HQ. A place with a receptionist, a modern art aesthetic, and free vending machines.
Instead, I find DeLiso. He doesn’t look like someone you’d trust with five years’ worth of your life’s work. He wears a black San Jose Sharks T-shirt and sports a reddish-brown pompadour haircut. He edits next to his bed in the living room of the apartment he shares with three other people. There’s a bearded dragon laying under a heat lamp across the room. Near where the group of us will eat pizza later, there is a taxidermied rooster and a lava lamp.
Krulik gave him the gig, site unseen, based on Pickett’s recommendation, mailing off a hard drive crammed with all the footage he’d collected in the course of the movie: Rudy’s, his own, a news story about the event, random clips of Ronald Reagan, and some footage by the lead singer of the Blue Rockers, which Krulik retrieved from California. Have at it, he said.
That was a month ago. Now they are tweaking scenes and debating what kind of pizza to get for lunch and whether to buy one 2-liter or two. Krulik doesn’t seem to mind the college atmosphere. He’s too busy arguing about a scene in which the cameraman zooms in on a woman’s breast while supposedly interviewing her significant other about the concert.
“When it happens, you’re automatically inside the cameraman’s head at that point. You see that he’s chosen to zoom in on the woman’s breast instead of like, the guy talking,” DeLiso says. In short, he wants to keep the cut. Krulik thinks it’s tacky.
“The problem is your editing,” Krulik says. “It needs more room. The scene needs more room.”
And on, and on, and on, for about 10 minutes until the two reach a reasonable if subtly testy compromise.
DeLiso has also put the film on a diet: It’s now down to 60 minutes from 98. Because DeLiso isn’t from Maryland—he’s from Michigan—and because until two months ago he had never heard of Krulik, he felt no obligation to preserve the lengthy scenes. Among other things, the trims leave less material to argue about. In DeLiso’s mind this has made the film leaner, faster-paced, and slightly funnier than Krulik’s first and second cuts. It has also, however, irritated the living daylights out of Krulik, whose take is that DeLiso went into Krulik’s kitchen, dumped out all the drawers, and put everything back in the wrong place.
Incidentally, this is exactly what Krulik said he wanted.
After eight hours of scene-by-scene nitpicking, I need to catch my bus back to D.C. and Krulik seems like he’s ready to blow off some steam. He seems happier than at any point since November 2009, when he first told me about Heavy Metal Picnic. He’s not ready to talk money or a return to the spotlight, but he’s not trashing his own efforts anymore, either. It’s hard not to root for a guy who’s devoted his life to making nobodies feel like somebody, if only for 90 minutes of running time. I tell Krulik I like what DeLiso’s done, and that I have high hopes for the premiere. Before I can hop on the subway, Krulik asks me if I want to test my luck at the off-track-betting parlor. At long last, he’s feeling lucky.
After four years, 12 hours of raw tape, and a deus ex machina in the form of Greg DeLiso, Heavy Metal Picnic is finally about the right length.
But is Krulik’s film—coming Aug. 6 to the AFI, ready or not—any good? On the bus back to D.C., I make a list of objective statements about the film: It is a time capsule, an inside look at Maryland’s white-kid 1980s music culture, and an homage to home video. Krulik made it because it reunites him with the franchise that made him famous, because too many pieces fell into place for him to say no, and because he realized a long time ago that if he couldn’t escape Heavy Metal Parking Lot, he needed at least to make his albatross into a piece of bling.
The movie is very good. But, at last, it is also not Heavy Metal Parking Lot. This is not a knock or a critique, it is simply an answer to the question that comes up every time Krulik makes another movie.
It isn’t until Krulik e-mails later to say he’ll be flying to Austin to screen a collection of his films—Heavy Metal Parking Lot included—that I realize what Heavy Metal Picnic is about. It is about Jeff Krulik. It is about revisiting a moment in someone else’s life that defined them in order to recreate a moment in Krulik’s life that defined him. This is why he wishes he’d filmed the entire ’80s, why Rudy Childs’ tapes lit a fire in his belly, why he did not give up on the movie even when making it seemed futile.
And this is why Heavy Metal Picnic is not Heavy Metal Parking Lot. Not only is it too personal, too thoughtful, and in some ways too sad to “go viral,” but it’s also too old to capture today’s zeitgeist. That was the whole point of Heavy Metal Parking Lot and its successors. By contrast, Heavy Metal Picnic is a guide to living one’s life once the monumental moments are over; when the epic field party you played before your band broke up is just a blurry memory and the accidentally great movie you released at the start of your film career is just a footnote in film history.
Whether he meant to or not, Jeff Krulik started Heavy Metal Picnic thinking he might be able to piggy-back off the movie that made him famous. He ended up transcending it.