What We Can Learn From ‘Metallica Through the Never’ About Managing Creative People

Originally published on Wired.com.


One of the dirty little secrets of managing a large-scale creative project is that leaders are powerless. They may have the grand vision, but rarely are they in a position to execute it. So they rely on other people, many of whom come to the project with their own ideas, agendas, and quirks. How do leaders of complex creative projects manage creative people?

In making their new movie, Metallica Through the Never, Metallica had this very problem. At the center of the movie is Trip (Dane DeHaan), a Metallica roadie who goes on a mission to retrieve something important for the band. His surreal and terrifying journey involves a car accident, a police riot, and a horseman with an appetite for murder. Meanwhile, Metallica performs a greatest hits show packed with special effects and an elaborate stage set that appears to fail as the show progresses.

Making a narrative feature movie in 3D was above and beyond Metallica’s skill set as musicians. Their approach for leading the creation of Metallica Through the Never is instructive for anyone trying to implement a large-scale creative project.

You’re not the expert so don’t meddle. When Walt Disney set out to make the world’s first feature animated movie, Snow White, he did not intervene in areas that were beyond his expertise. He came into the picture after the experts on his team had solved most of their own problems. He liked to tell his staffers, “Don’t look to me for the answers. All I want you to use me for is approval.”

Likewise, Metallica provided a broad vision for the narrative portion of the movie but did not interfere with details as they were being sorted out. “I’ve worked with many different kinds of people,” told meThrough the Never’s director, Nimród Antal (Predators), who wrote the story for the narrative portion of the film. “And when you are micromanaged, when you have people breathing over your shoulder consistently, then as an artist at some point you just go, ‘[Expletive], you do it then.’ Whereas when you’re working with an entity like Metallica who believed in us from the get go, you work all the harder to make sure that you live up to their expectations and that you deliver.”

In the spirit of practicing what he preached, Antal was similarly hands off with his production and filming crew. He let them know his vision through storyboards and shot lists that provided a guiding structure, and then he let them go about their work. In this way, “He achieved what he wanted to achieve without micromanaging or getting lost in details,” said Carl Hempe, who was the production supervisor for the movie.

Put that ego away. The guiding question throughout the making of Metallica Through the Never was “What’s best for the film?” This meant setting aside egos and agendas and abandoning courses of action that did not advance the vision of the movie.

“There were a lot of meetings and a lot of discussions and what worked on paper might not have worked once we got into the arena,” said Winky Fairorth, CEO of TAIT, the company that built the stage set for Metallica Through the Never. Yet “through the whole process I never really sensed egos because everybody had a mission. One guy might have thought one thing, I wanted to focus on this, but in the end the good stuff rises to the top and it becomes obvious what you toss to the side.”

By making space for all parties to influence the final outcome, the movie became a truly collaborative endeavour.

Be audacious. Taking on an ambitious project requires unjustified optimism, especially when you’re doing something with no existing template. As Walt Disney said, “Webster sums up the spirit of theSnow White enterprise in his definition of adventure: risk, jeopardy; a daring feat; a bold undertaking in which the issue hang on unforeseen events.”

For Metallica, making Through the Never meant going out of their comfort zone, taking on an enormous financial risk (the movie was self-financed), and creating a new format, a 3D concert-feature hybrid. According to Kirk Hammett, Metallica’s lead guitarist, the inherent risk in such an endeavour was what made it exciting. “We’re the type of people who are just very adventurous creatively,” he told me. “As adventurous souls we just leapt at the opportunity.”

For Metallica, the desire to do something different and at the same time spectacular was part of what kept the movie project moving, despite numerous obstacles along the way. There was no business plan, there was no backer, just a desire to deliver the Metallica experience to their fans in a new way.

Ruth Blatt writes about the intersection of rock n’ roll and business. She is writing a book about teamwork lessons from rock bands. Follow her on Twitter (@ruthblatt) or Facebook.