Getting to Know MDF: The Movie Director David Hall

As quickly as Maryland Deathfest architects Evan Harting and Ryan Taylor brought the rage to outdoor stages, photos capturing the scene on Saratoga Street emerged, taken from the multi-story parking garage atop the venue. One thing very noticeable in said pictures are glowing cell phone screens being held aloft as folks attempt to capture the likes of Godflesh, Electric Wizard, Neurosis and Confessor for posterity, boasting or YouTube. It’s here I regularly find myself facetiously grumbling, “Hey, fuckos! Put your phones down and enjoy the show! Leave the filming to the pros.”
The pro enlisted by Harting and Taylor to capture the goings-on at MDF since 2009 is London, Ontario-based filmmaker and label impresario David Hall. Under the Handshake Inc. umbrella, Hall has done videos for Fuck the Facts, Rottenness and Jucifer, released our own Andrew Bonazelli’s fourth novel, DTV, as well albums by Sulaco, Surachai and ((thorlock)). One of Hall’s most recognizable projects has been the MDF movies, the third and final edition being recently released to coincide with the fest’s 11th year.

“I emailed Ryan and Evan in September 2008, asking if I could film MDF,” Hall says, regarding becoming the fest’s official eye. “I told them right off the bat I didn’t just want to make a straight-up performance DVD, but to craft a film out of the four days.”

Hall first converged upon MDF VII with a ragtag camera and sound crew to create the epileptically-edited Maryland Deathfest: The Movie. Combining natural progress with Hall’s distaste for convention, the following year brought the improved production values of the sequel. Maryland Deathfest: The Movie III, the final film in the Hall-helmed trilogy, gets down-er and dirtier in capturing the gritty feel of four days of extreme music in Baltimore.

“Shooting is dirty work,” Hall says, putting down the bowl long enough to discuss his process. “You’re downtown with 90 degree weather and insane humidity blasting your ass-neck. You’re drinking, hanging out and partying. People are passing out from heat exhaustion and laying face-down dead drunk on the concrete. You’re sunburnt, hungry, lost in a sea of people; the stink of the porta-potties; the night heat; your feet hurt, but you love every moment of it and are in total metal bliss. There’s a complete hedonism to MDF, and an honor and pride to making time in your life for it. That’s the ethos I try and bring to every aspect of the MDF films.”

Though Decibel’s chronicling of MDF has made it out to be the loud, stinky party it is, it’s actually a labor-intensive weekend for Hall and crew. There’s more to do than making sure a couple of tripod-mounted cameras are running as Die Pigeon Die, Napalm Death, Unsane and Ghoul ooze sweat all over the lenses and, by default, your living room’s widescreen.

“On the surface, it seems pretty straightforward,” Hall says. “You get camera operators, a sound guy, and start filming. But there are a million things that go into executing that plan: considering camera battery needs and charge time; calculating space in terms of memory cards and capture medium; scheduling shooters who are filming sets and doing interviews; making sure they have a good audio set-up, are fed and hydrated. Plus, I have to be on hand to deal with any emergencies during a 12-hour day. It’s a goddamn big job.”

Godflesh “Streetcleaner” – live at MDF X, from Maryland Deathfest: The Movie III

That job has encountered its share of hurdles over the years: batteries dying, malfunctioning gear and lightning storms. Then, there was the clusterfuck that came out the ass-end of a conflict between Hall and former partner David Caruso. The drama is detailed on a June 2011 Deciblog post titled “Don’t Be a Dick: A Tale of Indie Filmmaking, Extortion and MDF.” At the time, David was posting from the heat of the moment about allegedly being ripped off and having footage from MDF IX being held hostage, then deleted. Two years down the line, all he has to say about his former partner – who didn’t respond to our interview requests – is: “Yeah, I can sum it up nice and neat: ‘Do not give what is holy to the dogs; nor cast your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you in pieces.’ I was able to get some of the ‘lost’ footage back using data recovery software, but in many ways, that footage represents negative energy and bad vibes, and I don’t want to associate the final MDF film with that bullshit.”

Having overcome the disappearance of one’s hard work (“The ‘pre-production’ phase usually takes three or four months, and I’m often taking care of last-minute things up until the night before I leave for Baltimore”) and having to break promises (“I have to get permission and clearance from every band we shoot”), Hall pushed forward, digging in for MDF’s tenth anniversary last year.

“We pretty much reached perfection in terms of coverage and audio,” he says about the final film, “so I was able to achieve what I set out to do from the beginning: present a documentary concert film of the best metal fest in North America with some style, letting the footage and performances speak for themselves. Also, for the editing and post-production process, my co-producer, Richard ‘The Grindfather’ Johnson, watches all rough cuts, makes notes, and we keep refining until the final cut. Richard has been a seriously valuable ally; his judgment is impeccable and he knows so much about music in general. His stamp of approval lends credibility to the finished movie.”

The sound of the third film is pristine, and the video footage captures triumphant celebration, mass catharsis, acting as a memoir for people who don’t see anything weird about hanging out in urban America for the chance to experience extreme music at its energetic best.

“My philosophy is to create a ‘next best thing to being there’ experience,” Hall concludes. “So, I knew I didn’t want just a bunch of wide shots from the back of a room. I wanted shots as close to the action as possible. The whole production process is dictated by the mandate that I want the MDF films to be metal, not be about metal.”

**Maryland Deathfest: The Movie III can be ordered here for a miserly $13.00. Order before June 1st and receive a download link to the audio soundtrack and free shipping.**