Scumdog Cinema: Director Scott Barber Talks “This is GWAR” Documentary

The powerful story of the most iconic heavy metal/art collective/monster band in the universe, as told by the humans who have fought to keep it alive for over thirty years.

That’s right: Nearly four decades into its legendary viscera n’ killer riff festooned existence, GWAR at long last gets the full-length documentary treatment — and it’s everything a fan could hope for and much more.

This is GWAR is a funny, inspiring, fascinating portrait of a true American original that tugs on some heartstrings even as it rips others out.

This required viewing experience for anyone who appreciates a good under(scum)dog triumph story and/or outsider art debuts on Shudder this Thursday, July 20.

Check out a trailer for the film and our exclusive interview with director Scott Barber below.

So, you made a GWAR movie. I’m assuming you have a growing up metal story.

Yeah, for sure. I first was introduced to GWAR like many people through Beavis and Butt-Head. Now, in the early nineties, I was a teenager that was super into heavy metal in Texas with a mullet. So, I did not get the irony of the show. [Laughs.] I legitimately thought they were cool! Anyway, Gwar was Beavis and Butt-Head’s favorite band and I can remember just thinking, “Wow, this is awesome.” At the time music was shifting from glam rock to alternative and here was this crazy band that both existed outside of that but also got love and respect from basically all these different parts of the rock n’ roll community.

I never really thought about it, but GWAR really does serve as an interesting counterpoint to whatever the trend du jour is. Like, in the moment you just referenced, they were a counterpoint to both that kind of aloof, self-serious grunge thing and the nothing but a good time glam. And then they’ve also outlived all of it. That’s pretty unique.

GWAR is a paradox. An incredibly fun, entertaining, wild paradox.

Part of the reason the extreme stuff works is—like any good horror movie—it’s grounded in actual, for-real good, solid, music, right?

Absolutely. Thomas Lennon [of Reno 911! Fame] has a great line in the documentary where he talks about how funny Gwar is, but, he says, the ultimate joke of Gwar is that they’re good. I love that because, in a way they’re parodying metal, but they’re also clearly celebrating metal. It’s kind of funny that this band that sometimes gets deemed a quote-unquote joke band is so much better and more interesting than a lot of supposedly serious metal bands. If there’s one thing that I hope This is GWAR makes clear to audiences, it’s that GWAR is absolutely in no way a gimmick band.

Well, gimmicks don’t typically last multiple decades, right? What’s the origin story of the actual documentary?

I had just finished working on The Orange Years: The Nickelodeon Story with my co-director Adam Sweeney. Going right from Nickelodeon to GWAR might seem like a weird combo, but I really love telling the story of outsiders who do things their own way and triumphs in the end. Believe it or not, even though Nickelodeon is a huge corporation now, the company was initially led by a teacher who was able to understand kids in a way that a corporate business guy never could. So, I love back stories like that and thing about GWAR is, they consider themselves more than a band. They’re an artist collective—the artists that make the costumes are every bit as member as the guitar players. It’s like a punk metal band channeled through a Troma movie created on a hippie commune — I’d never heard a story remotely like that. And then the more I looked into their lives, even just online, I was like, “This already kind of feels like a movie.” I’ve been friends with this guy Rocky Moon for twenty years — he’s in a great band called American Sharks and he’d opened for GWAR and, actually, he’d just had Thanksgiving dinner at Jizmak Da Gusha’s house. Which was an image that stuck with me.

I think that will stick with everyone who read this as well.

Right? So, I asked him to introduce me to the band. And they’ve had a lot of people approach them to do shows, documentaries, docu-series, whatever over the years, so they’re a big guarded. They ended up asking me to make a little mini doc that showed my vision and present that to them. Which was super nerve-wracking. But I did that. I interviewed ’em a couple times. I filmed some shows, some backstage footage. I showed ’em that and thankfully they said, “Okay, you’re actually gonna put the work in. We’ll do it.” I think a lot of people in the past had just pointed a camera them like, “Be crazy!” They understood I had a real passion for their larger story.

So what was it like to go into that world then?

It was awesome. They were open and honest; just such a treat to work with. I did a lot of research ahead of time so I wouldn’t be walking in there asking, like, “Hey, what’s it like playing with a costume on?” In turn, they didn’t hold back. I think people won’t expect to cry during GWAR documentary, but there are definitely a couple moments in here that are very powerful and poignant. So, getting to know the actual humans behind GWAR was great. But so was experiencing the characters—the scum dogs of the universe—up close was also awesome. I got so spoiled being right up on stage for their concerts. I’m addicted to it. It was an amazing gift.

And then outside of the band…I mean, GWAR really are Americana. They cross a lot of interesting lines for a lot of different people. In the movie you see how many bigger stars — Weird Al, Thomas Lennon, Ethan Embry — were only too happy to do interviews about them. So that was a great part of it as well.

You can really explore a lot of different ideas and creative territory when the normal rules don’t apply. There is something cool about being able to access that place in your brain beyond where you’re constantly trying to analyze or structure a narrative. By which I mean, because GWAR takes you out of that normal reality and it seems like they allow you to access a purer, more primal place in your psyche. Is that going overboard?

That actually totally makes sense… One thing I think that they do so well is create an environment where escapism and realism coexist at the same time. Like, yes, GWAR are these space barbarians that are here to kill humanity and they fought dinosaurs and accidentally created the human race by having sex with apes a long time ago. But at the same time, they are a social commentary. And I think that’s one thing that people who have only viewed them at a glance don’t realize is how smart GWAR really is. It’s a smart thing disguised as a disgusting boneheaded thing. It really, it are commenting on our society in a really intelligent way.

I think when they wear these masks, both figuratively and literally, you go to freer places.

What was the most challenging part of making, making this documentary?

Well, there’s two things. First, cutting it down because there’s so much there, so many people involved, so much story you need to do justice. GWAR isn’t a regular band that has four or five folks in it. For the movie to be successful, you have to fall in love with these amazing people, like I did getting to know them, and that takes a little more time than the average sweet-spot ninety minute doc.

The second thing was trying to straddle that line of making a documentary that GWAR’s passionate fan base would love but that would also capture the imaginations of people who either didn’t know who GWAR was or only knew them from Empire Records.

I imagine you also felt a responsibility to the band because they’d put that much trust in you.

Yeah. And the band was happy with it overall, you know? I know that it’s hard to be objective about a story of your life. And, again, there’s so much that had to be cut out — a lot of cool things that they’ve done that we couldn’t go into. I think both GWAR and myself wish we could have made, like, a series about the band — and who knows? Maybe that’ll happen one day.

Edited and condensed for length and clarity.