Thematically in film, heavy metal is often used to signify something boneheaded or unflattering about the characters entrenched in the genre. Think Back to the Future's Bill and Ted, the long-haired anti-heroes of Airheads, or the outlandish satirical antics in This is Spinal Tap. Even when packaged with the educational value of a documentary, the star interviews of films like The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years and Heavy Metal Parking Lot paint metalheads with far too broad a stroke.
The message is clear: if you dig metal, you’re either a doofus or a Satanist, and for women, the tropes are even more limited. Even modern films fall into this trap; 2015’s campy horror flick Deathgasm features the corpsepaint-wearing protagonist dealing with a “normie” girlfriend—until he transforms her into the perfect riff-worshipping partner by the film’s end. Everyone knows that girls don’t like metal until a boy shows them it’s cool, right?
It took an outsider named Laurel Vail to smash this long-standing trend to bits—and she did it in the space of a mere her 15-minute minutes. Her directorial debut, What Metal Girls Are Into, follows the weekend journey of three friends on their way to a metal festival to see bands like Cattle Decapitation, Trivium, and Castrator. Things take a strange turn when they find a severed hand in the freezer of their Airbnb, but like any true hesher would, they decide to focus on enjoying the festival first before doing any further digging. However, when their creepy host shows his true colors and forces his hand, the ladies seek bloody revenge.
What really stands out beyond the deliciously gory plot is the attention to detail and accuracy of representation in the film. The three friends are all women who like metal, but they are neither objectified nor treated as sexless entities cast as tomboy sidekicks to a male star. The best one-liner in the short nails an experience many a non-male metalhead has lived through: “I can’t believe I made out with a guy in a Slipknot shirt!” This level of understanding, combined with flawless art direction and some pretty obscure band references, makes it hard to believe Veil herself isn’t heavily involved with the metal community. She isn't, but she put in the work to ensure this film portrayed the subculture in a realistic and believable light, even hiring a friend to act as a "metal consultant."
The rewards for her dedication continue to pile up: What Metal Girls Are Into has won over two dozen awards at film festivals around the world, including Best Short Film Director at Cinepocalypse 2017, Best Short at American Horrors Festival 2017, and Official Selection at Final Girls Berlin 2018. The film is still going strong, too, with upcoming screenings planned at the upcoming Crimson Screen Film Festival in North Carolina and Porto Femme Film Festival in Portugal. I chatted with Veil between festivals and discussed her inspiration for creating the film, the research she put into it, and the filming process itself.
Noisey: Can you tell me a little about how you developed a specific love for film and any films or directors that inspired you, specifically in horror?
Laurel Vail: I’ve always been kind of a creative person. In high school I did some theater, which I did not actually do in college—I decided to go the film route. Originally I was a film major and transferred into a New Media program. I initially wanted to do computer information and basically did that—I did sports graphics for about 11 years. I was kind of burnt out on graphics, so I ended up switching jobs and I figured I could use my free time to focus on the creative stuff.
I was doing acting at the same time I was doing graphics, which is its own type of frustration. I really wanted to do my own project because you’re very powerless as an actor. Everyone’s always telling you, “You have to create your own stuff, you have to create your own stuff,” so I said “Okay, fine.” I had always wanted to do my own thing, and for acting, I wanted to create something I could be in. That was the initial plan: I would write something that I could make, but it sprouted into a bigger project. I ended up weirdly, but not entirely, regretting putting myself in it. I learned that I really like directing, so that’s actually what I’m looking forward to in the future. I’s not that I’m not acting anymore, I’m just not actively pursuing it as aggressively. If someone said “Hey, wanna be in this thing?” I would, but as for long-term goals, I’m focused on directing more.
You’ve discussed publicly that you’re not a metalhead—what was the impetus to base a feminist horror story on a group of women who love metal?
The original story stemmed from the story of a friend going to New York and staying in an Airbnb. She mentioned that there was potential that a comedy show could happen while she was staying there because it was some kind of weird hybrid space.
So I started thinking about these vacation rentals that are also public venues in some sort of way, like how they maintained security and such, and I started thinking about bad things happening. So you have this crumb of an idea, and you ask yourself, “Well, why don’t they just leave?” I needed the people in my story to be passionate, and I find music fans to be passionate. This is especially true when you’re going to a multi-day music festival. That is so much work in and of itself! Once you get out there, you really don’t want to leave.
The reason I made it metal is because of Fury Road. It had come out the year I decided [to do] this, or maybe the previous year, and I loved how driving the music was for so many of the action sequences. So that’s why I made them metal fans—I really wanted a metal climax! I decided to go full-on.
There’s that one character in Fury Road that’s playing the guitar strapped to the front of a truck—
With the flames!
Fuck yeah. I love that you hired a “metal consultant” to keep it honest. What did you discover about the metal subculture through that person?
Emory is a friend of mine who is always trying to get people to go with him to metal shows. He’s always having a hard time because most of his friends aren’t into metal. I would definitely describe him as a Metal Expert. At one point, he gave a TED Talk-style presentation to tell us about the history of metal.
The thing I found the most interesting was, as a non-metal fan, when you hear certain kinds of metal with the growling vocals, it’s hard to understand the appeal. What he was able to do is, through the history of metal, explain how they got to that point and what the appeal is. For me, it seemed to be less about the melody and more about the feeling and the rawness of the sound. He can listen to different vocalists in genres and tell me what’s good, whereas for me it all kind of ran together until I was listening to it a little more and could see who was more technically proficient. You really have to learn how to listen to metal.
Right, you really have to refine your ear for metal the way you would your palette with wine.
Yeah, and it seems like through the history of the genres and even in the fracturing of metal, society was almost learning how to enjoy metal. That was one of the things I found very interesting.
The other thing I really enjoyed was going to shows. At one point, I brought the other two actresses with me to a show so I could make sure they had that experience. We ended up accidentally getting on the edge of the pit right when everyone started moshing and bumping into us, and it was so fun and exciting! At the same time, everyone is still taking care of each other. That was what I really loved about going to the shows. If someone falls, everyone jumps in to pick you back up. There were people who just saw these three small women and would try to be chivalrous to a point where I was almost annoyed. I’d be like, “No! I want to be on the edge!” and they’d tell me I was going to get hit in the face! It was funny. Really though, the sense of community is really nice.
Do you remember what bands you saw?
That one I’ll have to look up, but I know I saw Goatwhore and Black Dahlia Murder, and another one that’s right there on the tip on my tongue…Anyway, I tend more toward the melodic side of things. We went to a power metal show and it was great!
I was re-watching Kill Bill the other day after I’d watched your film, and I thought about how What Metal Girls Are Into shares a bit with the classic “rape and revenge” plot structure. Do you have any favorites in that genre that informed your writing?
I think there are definitely stylistic influences of some of those, but not necessarily specific films. I’d say tonally, I was very influenced by Robert Rodriguez because I wanted it to be funny for the audience but for the characters to take it very seriously. That’s what I was going for, even if the story wasn’t the kind of story he would tell. Although, if you really think about Planet Terror, aside from the zombie thing, it kind of has that because you’ve got Cherry Darling with the machine gun leg. How great is that?! I re-watched it before talking to my director of photography. I love his oversaturation and the high-contrast feel, so he’s probably my strongest influence in that way.
Then of course there’s George Miller with the Mad Max stuff—he’s just stunning with the way he uses music. Certainly with Tarantino and the way he uses music, too and the attitude of the characters. Those are probably the top three influences with this project.
I can definitely see the Rodriguez/Tarantino influence now that you mention it.
I re-watched Deathproof and tried to find a couple of the movies that inspired that. Story-wise, I was less interested in that film than Planet Terror in that grindhouse pairing, but there are things to enjoy about both, like they’re so triumphant.
Speaking of Tarantino—I’m guessing the film’s conception and execution began long before #MeToo and #TimesUp started. Do you feel like the movements have affected the context or reaction to What Metal Girls Are Into in light of recent discussions?
Yes. It got a really, really good reaction at Screamfest in October. I think it still would have gotten a good reaction, but it was right around when the Weinstein thing was breaking and everyone was talking about it, and I think it just really gave this nice little catharsis at the end. It was such a relief because I’d never shown it to an audience, so seeing it with a full crowd—people laughed, they cheered at the last line. It felt really gratifying, and I think everyone had a good time watching it. That’s important to me: that everyone has a good time.
It seems almost serendipitous that the two things lined up that way.
I almost wonder it’s getting me into more festivals. It’s long for a short [film], but I think the subject matter is so hot right now that it’s balancing out the length by being fresh. It’s what we’re all talking about, so I think that’s helping me on the festival circuit.
I think because people are talking about gender discrimination in general, festivals are making an effort to seek out female filmmakers, and that’s great. I just happen to be timing it very well in terms of the effort more festivals are making. Even at Screamfest, which is a very big festival, I was the only woman director in my shorts block. It was five guys and me. I forgot that was the statistic! It’s getting better, I will say that.
It always strikes me as strange that horror is so heavily marketed to men, because most of the folks I know who are passionate about it are women! It seems like there’s something a little more cathartic about horror for people who’ve experienced some kind of identity-based abuse or trauma in their lives.
Right, exactly! One of the nice things about horror is you have a sense of community about it. The horror community is really supportive of each other, and that’s a really nice place for women to be. I think that’s one of the draws of it, similar to the metal community. You find your people, you look out for each other, and you’re excited about the same things. My experience has been very positive, and I’ve been doing various horror projects as an actor for a long time. I’ve always found the horror community to be very supportive.
Can you talk a little bit about the logistics of where and when the film was shot, and how long it took?
Initially in 2016, I made the decision that, “Okay, I need to film something by the end of the year.” That was my deadline. In August, when I was in pre-production and working on my budget, I went to see the space—a vacation rental.
So I booked it in August, and thought, “Well, now I have to raise money because I have a date!” So I booked it for December because there was a nice chunk of time still open there at the end of the year, and I was on vacation anyway so it worked out. What I didn’t really take into consideration is how cold it is in Joshua Tree in December. It is freezing cold. I also didn’t consider that, because it’s so cold (if you can’t tell, there’s a house and a couple of RVs) if you had more than one or two space heaters running at a time, it would blow the circuit. We kept having problems keeping warm, but my crew was super awesome. I mean, we were all complaining we were freezing, but I thought everyone had an amazing attitude. As a first time filmmaker, I thought that was more than I could ask for—such a relief. I was wearing so many hats; I was the director, the producer, actor, etc.
There was at least one morning where we woke up with no water because the pipes had frozen. It came from a pump we had to turn on when we arrived. And it’s such a neat space, but there were some logistical problems because it wasn’t ready for so many people.
How long were you out there?
Five days. The first day, there was a windstorm, so it put us behind but we managed to get almost everything we needed. I did two other sets of pickups shoots, but we didn’t have to go all the way back out. We just did some highway stuff, and I did the fake concert stuff in a theater near me.
You’ve been doing a ton of film festivals, and recently won an award for best short at the American Horror Film Festival. What is the best part of all this positive feedback for you?
The thing I like about acting and filmmaking is making people feel something. With this film, people laugh, they have fun, and they feel good. Seeing it with an audience is kind of my favorite thing—seeing people’s reaction when they watch it. I’m really happy that it’s getting into a lot of festivals because that means a lot of people are getting to see it. I worked so hard, and it was worth it. As anyone who makes a film knows, sometimes it just doesn’t come together. It’s a big relief that all of that hard work is paying off, and it gives me hope that I’ll get to make more.
Kelsey Zimmerman is having a bloody good time on Twitter.