Brick By Brick: Travis Campbell Commits Heavy Metal Musical Murder

The eponymous antihero of the Troma Entertainment joint Mr. Bricks: A Heavy Metal Murder Musical awakens from a night of hot carnal action to find his comely young sweetheart missing and a bullet lodged in his forehead. His reaction is a bit unorthodox: He breaks into song…and then starts cracking skulls with his kiln-fired namesake, struggling to unravel the mystery of what happened to his beloved Scarlet and why, all while belting out expositional lyrics to a righteous soundtrack inspired by down and dirty early nineties metallic hardcore.
“I’m partial to musicals and, being a gay married man, I’ve wept through many a Judy Garland and Barbara Streisand musical,” legendary Troma head honcho Lloyd Kaufman tells Decibel. “[Mr. Bricks] is a bit aberrant in that it is a romantic, dark film much like Buddy Giovinazzo’s Combat Shock, but does not take itself too seriously. After all, how serious can a film starring a man with a tattooed face and a bullet lodged in his bloodied cranium singing ‘love is murder’ really be?”

Indeed, between theory and practice on a project such as Mr. Bricks lies a very thin tightrope of taste. To his immense credit, director/composer Travis Campbell manages to deftly marry the gritty aesthetic of a micro-budgeted old school hardcore record, sinister jazz hands, and the usual campy Troma joie de vivre with a twisting, turning, blood and guts narrative. (Troma calls it, “G. G. Allin meets The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” and that works, too.) Let’s be real here: Precious few are the films that could be endorsed by both a legit, Godflesh-inspiring auteur like Ken Russell (“Definitely an idea whose time has come”) and Lemmy Kilmister (“You must see this film”) — and the latter was enthusiastic enough to contribute the Motorhead song “Outlaw” to the film’s soundtrack, gratis.

Campbell, currently putting the finishing touches on his sophomore feature Slaughter Daughter as well as a Type O Negative documentary, graciously took the time to give Decibel the inside scoop on what it took to go “one step further than the rock opera stuff” with the imposing Mr. Bricks.

Why make a heavy metal musical?

Well first, I had never seen a musical where a character breaks out into headbanging and fist pumping while screaming their emotions. I have always enjoyed experimental musicals like Dancer in the Dark, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Pink Floyd’s The Wall — if you want to call that a musical. I have also always enjoyed heavy metal and hardcore music. Why not put the two elements together? It seemed natural in my mind…but would the audience accept it? I knew from the beginning the audience would either buy into the heavy metal premise or they would not — it is, after all, a niche film and most people don’t like musicals much less heavy metal. I felt like it was an experiment like Frankenstein’s monster: Either people would accept the monster or they would chase it out of town like a screaming mob with torches…Hey, that might make a cool heavy metal album cover!

How did heavy metal fit into your vision for a “murder musical”?

Heavy metal has always been a release for the listener. If you’re having a bad day and the world is going to shit and your blood is boiling you can crank up a Overkill, Slayer or Ramallah album. Or if your heart is broken you can wallow in songs like “Changes” by Black Sabbath or “Unsuccessfully Coping With the Natural Beauty of Infidelity” by Type O Negative. The key for me was finding the emotional beats of the characters and then writing a piece of music that would parallel the emotion. I mean, with metal, all feelings and emotions are right up front, right in your face — which is the opposite of filmmaking. In film school and books and writing workshops they always tell you that a character in a scene never expresses what he or she is really feeling. It’s all subtext. Not with Mr. Bricks! The characters sing and scream their emotions while punching each other in the face and contemplating the consequences of their actions. In a sense I guess this is what most musicals are anyway — the characters break the fourth wall and sing their true emotions. The only difference is Mary Poppins sings about a spoonful of sugar and Mr. Bricks sings about suicide.

I know that sounds funny, but I didn’t want the metal or the songs to be camp. There are ridiculous parts and I love it when people laugh because it’s a genuine reaction to something so crazy, but overall I wanted the viewer to experience the songs as metal is supposed to be experienced, loud, in your face and soothing to the soul!

I know Tim Dax (Mr. Bricks) is a Pantera fan… Was there any particular metal/hardcore frontman/woman that you or your actors looked to for inspiration?

When we were prepping the first Mr. Bricks teaser before shooting the movie I had Tim Dax watch some Biohazard videos, in particular the song “Sell Out.” I told him he didn’t have to imitate the actions but this is the attitude I wanted him to convey. I think he also watched some Mercyful Fate and G.G. Allin stuff to get into the “theatrical” mindset, like, Hey, we’re telling a story here but also rocking out.

Tim integrated the actions and attitude into his own and it blew me away. All the actors performances blew me away. Nicola Fiore had been a bass player in a hardcore band so performing this type of material was almost second nature to her. She really tore into the material and made it her own. Especially with the song “Torn,” the emotions in her face while she sings that song is gut wrenching. And although she has special effects make-up on, like the bruise around her eye, I can assure you the tears are real. I was breathless and she was emotionally exhausted after we filmed that scene. Vito Trigo who played Dukes also kicked major ass. I sang all the vocals for his character so when we would rehearse, it was great because he would approach the material from an actor’s point of view, with motivations and a backstory, basically everything Dukes was feeling up to the moment of the musical number. Then I would jump in and say, “Okay, during the verse I sang a line this way because Dukes is primally pissed his partner/love left,” or, “At the chorus I used an accent on this word because Dukes wants to break Mr. Brick’s neck.” [Laughs.] Then we would collaborate on the performance. Vito came up with all of his own blocking. It’s amazing, you watch him on screen and you would think this guy has been in metal bands all his life! There’s even a scene where he punches a wall and the blood you see on his hand is real. He bled for his art and for metal! When I yelled Cut! I was like, “Holy shit, this guy’s a maniac!” I love it!

You always hear of directors playing loud, aggressive music on set before filming emotionally charged scenes. This sort of thing is basically half your movie! You’ve been on a lot of sets. Did the injection of amped up music affect the energy level on the set?

It’s funny, a lot of time on set it would be deathly quiet before we’d shoot a scene. Everyone would be in their own head space mentally preparing for what was to come. Then when we would shoot the scene and an explosion of energy would come! I would be behind the camera smiling and wanting to fist pump. Then I would call Cut! and it would be dead silent because at first nobody knew what to think! I would yell, “Perfect!” And the actors would be like, “Really?” Yes! Really! I could feel where they were coming from, they had to put all their trust in me and in turn I had to put all my trust in them to give a great performance. It’s really, really difficult. Nobody had done a heavy metal musical before and I wanted the actors to feel safe. It’s really easy for them to feel like fools you know — it’s the equivalent of singing into your hairbrush in front of a mirror or getting caught air guitar-ing to Styx! They had to let it all hang out in front of a large crew and I wanted them to know even if they felt silly it looked fantastic!

We would also film the song in sections and reset the camera for different angles, and each song except the finale is, like, a minute and a half. So it would take almost three hours to film one song. If we filmed a musical number up to the chorus and then cut to do a different set up the actors would do push ups or physical activities, I remember Nicola Fiore always ran in place to keep her heart rate and energy up! It was physically taxing on the actors, especially if they had to fight during a song while lip synching. I couldn’t imagine doing that! That’s why I love these actors, they were committed and dedicated and brought their A-game every single time, even if it was four in the morning, every single person exceeded my expectations and I am forever in their debt for the outstanding performances they turned in.

Through the process of filming those metal scenes did you or any of your actors/crew gain a deeper appreciation of the genre?

[Yes.] During downtime we would all share stories of bands we loved or had seen live, a few times the cast and crew would trade songs for their iPod! If it were back in the day they’d be trading tapes, it was really cool and, dare I say, educational! Nicola informed me of a few bands she used to listen to back in the day I had never heard of. For me personally during the writing and shooting of the movie I discovered a new love for all genres of metal. I went back and unearthed all my old albums, from Deicide to Danzig to Exhorder to Sick of it All, and on set I was turned on to newer bands I’d never heard of like Holy Grail and Rapture. Tony Enz, who sang all of Brick’s vocals and who has been in the NYHC scene for over a decade with his band Reason Enough turned me onto Ramallah, Agents of Man and Bloodclot! Needless to say my iPod is filled to capacity. I have metal for every occasion, from cleaning my apartment to riding the bus to work.

What was the first “heavy” record you bought?

In sixth grade I was given Metallica’s Master of Puppets and Carnivore’s Retaliation on cassette by the bad kids or “heads” as we used to call those who sat at the back of the bus; the kids who had mullets and smoked Marlboro reds and wore jean vests with a universe of patches of their favorite bands haphazardly stitched on them. My life has never been the same since!

Did you enjoy writing these songs that were eventually brought to life on set?

Writing the music was probably the most fun part of the process for me. It was like a rediscovery of everything I loved when I was younger. In the nineties I played bass and sang in a bunch of hardcore bands that were influenced by Type O Negative, Biohazard, all that stuff. I really like that dirty, real, raw, not-too-produced hardcore and that’s the edge I wanted to bring to Mr. Bricks. The visuals are kind of grainy and grindhouse, and the music compliments that.

You mentioned to me previously that videos from the Rikki Rachtman-era Headbanger’s Ball influenced your filmmaking style.

There was nothing like getting a pizza, watching a VHS of the newest Texas Chainsaw, Friday the 13th or Nightmare on Elm Street sequel and then later turning on Headbanger’s Ball! What a Saturday night — yes my social life was a little non-existent back then. The videos that influenced me most from that era were Megadeth’s Peace Sells…But Who’s Buying, Sepultura’s “Territory,” Biohazard’s “Punishment,” Pantera’s “Walk,” Anthrax’s “Only,” Guns and Roses’ “November Rain” — for the ladies, of course — and Mr. Riki Rachtman! I also loved the Triple Thrash Threat — that’s how I found out about Death, Morbid Angel and Cannibal Corpse! If you look at Mr. Bricks editing style or my editing style in general you will find a direct correlation between those videos and my work. The fast cuts, subliminal edits and pacing, I miss that version of Headbanger’s Ball! Viva La Bricks! Viva La Metal!

Campbell’s recent video for Biohazard’s “Vengeance is Mine”:

Aside from any sequels you yourself make, do you think heavy metal musical has enough to mine in it to become its own subgenre?

I hope so! If heavy metal musicals catch on I am really excited to see what Michael Bay or Steven Spielberg would do…not! What I really hope in my wildest heart of hearts and fanciful wishes is that Bricks will catch on and for a sequel I could get my favorite bands — Megadeth, Anthrax, Biohazard, etcetera — to write the music. I would shit myself and die, in that order. Music and movies have always been my passion, my dream, and to work with those bands on a heavy metal musical would be the pinnacle for me, my ultimate goal, my ultimate man-crush-metal opus come true.

How did your five years of experience working at Troma affect how you approached Mr. Bricks?

Like I said, I was a fan of genre stuff from a very young age. I remember watching Toxic Avenger on VHS. I got the job at Troma just by chance through the website and for a long time I couldn’t believe I actually worked there. Every day is an adventure. You never know what’s going to happen. Troma really prepared me to work at a breakneck speed and to be able to switch gears on a moment’s notice. It’s a totally DIY attitude — you learn to scrape and scrounge and work with what you’ve got. You find out what works and what doesn’t and then you push ahead.

As a longtime fan, it must be pretty surreal, then, to have Lloyd Kaufman in the film and supporting it so vocally via Troma.

Oh, it’s a dream come true. When Lloyd was on set it was so intimidating. I’m directing him, and he’s been doing this for 40 years? He’d be like, “Hey, shouldn’t the camera be over here?” And it’s like, “Uh, yeah, right, of course. Do you maybe want to direct this scene?” [Laughs.] Lloyd’s been so great.

How surprised do you think those people who check out Mr. Bricks because they see the phrase “heavy metal musical” and think Rock of Ages are going to be?

Trust me I’ve seen this reaction and not only are people surprised, they are pissed. During early screenings we’ve found people either love the movie or hate it. One guy told me the music was “jock-rock,” and I was like, “Look asshole, one, I don’t know what jock-rock is. Two, I’ve never been a jock. And, three, I think you’re misunderstanding what metal/hardcore can be.” I know a lot of people see metal as campy, fun, fantasy dragon slaying music and I get that. Metal can be fun. But it also has a lot of subgenres. I feel like a lot of listeners of metal today don’t like the music when it’s political or tackles serious issues. It’s as though they are in denial of the darkness inside their soul. It’s the age of snark and it’s dangerous and schizophrenic.

That’s why there is such a backlash to early nineties hardcore music or nineties music in general. I hear a lot of people say, “Oh, that time in music was so horrible, so depressing, with shit like Alice in Chains and Soundgarden bitching about how bad life is! Get over it!” Or people think nineties hardcore is Limp Bizkit “rap-rock.” No! Biohazard invented the, ugh…“rap-rock” genre if you want to call it that or have to label it. But listen to the words, the message. They’re not talking about the nookie or shit like that, they are talking about real world problems like blue collar workers struggling to make ends meet or violence on our streets. I loathe when people who are “really into music” try and tell me what metal “is.” How do they know? I don’t know what metal it is — it’s always evolving. Metal has millions of subgenres. It’s not one thing. It’s so frustrating. I grew up on albums like Peace Sells, Rust in Peace and eighties/nineties hardcore like Agnostic Front, Carnivore and Madball. The content of those albums was serious while the music shredded your balls off. And the bands evolved. Megadeth and Sepultura went from speed/thrash metal to groove metal to pop metal — at least Megadeth did, see Risk [laughs] — and back to speed/thrash metal. You can’t label it. You just can’t. Look at Carnivore. Peter Steele had an amazing sense of humor, especially on songs like “Ground Zero Brooklyn.” He had lyrics like “Home watching Star Trek everything’s ok/Little do I know Soviet Missiles are on the way.” That’s funny but also terrifying because it’s true! And the music was a mix of thrash and New York Hardcore. The same with Mustaine’s lyrics. They were at times tongue-in-cheek but also addressed serious social topics!

Hardcore and metal was a community. Low income kids could come together, enjoy the music, while educating themselves about the world’s problems or how they felt inside. They weren’t alone because the music addressed that hollow black feeling they felt deep in their guts. For a night they could go to a show and forget their shitty situation. The music was like therapy because it discussed real issues not fantasy crap. I grew up in Ohio and metal and hardcore helped me get through so many tough situations growing up. If I felt suicidal because I worked in a factory and felt like my life was going nowhere I could put on a Life of Agony record and feel better instead of blowing my brains out. And that’s what I wanted Mr. Bricks to be, something everyone could relate to. I want the audience to feel like I felt the first time I heard Black Sabbath or Cro-Mags. Early in the film Bricks sings about suicide and how love is murder and murder is love. Who hasn’t felt that way? Especially when a relationship sours or the person you’re with cheats and breaks your heart? It kills. You want to kill! At least that’s how I felt, you want to kill the person they’re cheating with and kill yourself just to make the pain go away! That’s metal! That’s hardcore to me!

Sorry for the diatribe, I’ll step off my soapbox now! All I’m saying is Bricks is not Rock of Ages. It has elements of camp but it addresses the dark issues of the human psyche, and I hope people get that.

Mr. Bricks is now in limited theatrical release. The film was produced by Ship to Shore Media. Follow Mr. Bricks onTwitter and Facebook.