Posted February 26, 2014 by Jeff in Flicks

As the Palaces Burn: Trying times for Lamb of God

Director Don Argott has been making documentaries for more than ten years now. He’s the guy behind 2010’s The Art of the Steal, a terrific film about the Barnes art collection and the fight to keep the museum from moving location. He originally set out to make his latest movie, As the Palaces Burn, about the fans of metal band Lamb of God. But as he was making the movie, singer Randy Blythe was arrested on charges of manslaughter stemming from a fan’s death at a concert. As a result, Argott and crew had to shift their perspective to include coverage of the trial. The resulting movie shows the way the trial really taxed Blythe and his band mates. It’s a compelling film that’s just starting to screen at stateside festivals. Argott recently spoke to us about the movie via phone from his Philadelphia home where he had just screened the film.

You just showed the film to a large audience for the first time. What was that experience like?
It was great. It was a really good turnout. I would say it was 94 percent Lamb of God fans. It was at the Trocadero, which is more of a traditional music venue, and it had a different vibe than sitting in the movie theater, but it was great. It was the U.S. premiere. We premiered it in Amsterdam at the International Documentary Festival in November and that was the traditional film fest audience. This was the first time that Lamb of God fans got to see it.

Talk about first what made you want to make a movie about Lamb of God. Are you a fan of the music?
The way the project came about was that the band’s manager had approached me out of the blue. He was familiar with my previous documentary work. He is based in South Jersey and I’m in Philadelphia so proximity-wise we’re pretty close. He said, “I manage this band and we’re interested in doing a documentary about their fans and their fans around the world. We want it to be about how their music gets people through tough times and unites them when religion and politics fail.” Unbeknownst to him, I grew up a metal head and have been listing to metal my whole life. He didn’t know that from the first call. I knew of Lamb of God, but wasn’t necessarily a fan. That’s not because I don’t like their music but because they’re a later band. I was listening more to ’80s thrash and speed metal like Slayer and Anthrax and all that stuff. Lamb of God came out a little later and I had moved into the grunge scene but always loved heavy metal and punk rock. I consider myself a metal head from Jersey from the age of 14. I loved the concept of turning the cameras away from the band and focusing more on their fan base. We were going to unique and interesting places and I thought that was a good opportunity to tell the story from the fans’ perspective.

At what point during the filming shift to the trial?
Primarily, we had finished the filming of the fan stories. We had found and identified 94 percent of the stories that were going to be featured. We were going to shoot more with the band once they were done with the tour. Randy’s sobriety and his journey was going to be part of it. We needed something to latch onto from the band’s perspective. His recent sobriety was something we latched onto early on. That was always going to be a part of the film.

So the trial happened after you were done with the film?
Yeah, we had finished making the fan part of the event and this event happened and we really started making another film. The original idea was to shoot for six months and edit for a couple of months and be done in eight or nine months total time. Here we are two years later. But it’s part of the process of making a documentary. We’ve been doing this long enough that we know that this is what happens when you’re following real life. You have to be ready to adapt to the situation, which is what we did.

A very strange set of circumstances resulted in the trial. Has there ever been another trial like this one?
It was and we talked about that during the making of it. Gimme Shelter has a tragedy that happened at a concert but no one was putting the Rolling Stones on trial. The only thing that was close to that was maybe the Judas Priest backward message trial in the late ‘80s. They did bring Judas Priest in for that trial. Those were similar on one respect but this is unprecedented on other levels. We’re getting into uncharted territory. We have to keep reminding ourselves that this isn’t normal. This doesn’t happen all the time. You have to maintain perspective.

The trial seemed so bogus. Was it hard to stay objective?
I don’t know if it was hard. We have been making docs for so long and why our films have the objectivity that they do is because we tend to try and be as objective as possible. We know we’re telling that band’s story. Being with Randy, it’s not about passing judgment or trying to catch them in a lie or anything like that. It was about showing what this band was going through. I felt like it was a bogus claim and messed up, but it was what was going on. The beauty of the film is that you see the film through Randy’s eyes and the way he feels about it. It was the way I felt about it too. It was tragic and not about placing blame but how they had to deal with what was presented to them. It’s what makes the film so compelling. You see how somebody in his position handles himself. People have really responded to that.

You could see how bad he felt about it.

How’d you find the Colombian taxi driver who was a super fan?
We knew we needed great fan stories. We used their social media and cast a wide net looking for compelling fan stories. We had hired a friend of ours who did reality TV casting. We put a list of criteria together and the types of stories and got a lot of great responses. We had to do pre-interviews and Skyped with people. We narrowed it down to the people we picked. There’s a whole Israel segment where we interviewed two fans in Israel who had great stories. That segment didn’t make it into the movie so there will be a lot of bonus features when the DVD comes out.

I think a lot of times metal gets classified as this Neanderthal music and the people are uneducated. That couldn’t be further from the truth.

You can tell that taxi driver was really moved by the concert.
That was the cool thing about being along for this ride. I think a lot of times metal gets classified as this Neanderthal music and the people are uneducated. That couldn’t be further from the truth, but that’s the stereotype. Seeing a softer side of the fans and the band is refreshing. It does play against the stereotypes that people have. All the guys in the band are really good dudes. They’re authentic and sincere and that comes across in the film. It’s something I really happy about.

I like the scene with Randy by the river, the place where he would hang out as a kid.
That’s something we try to do in all our films. You want to approach a topic a little bit fresh. We were going to interview the guys in the band, and I wanted them to have their own personal scene. I asked some of the guys to play with his kid. We had a scene with another member on his motorcycle. The idea was to bring something personal into it. I left it up to the individual. Randy wanted to do the scene by the river. When it came time to putting the film together, it felt like a great opening scene. It automatically sets the tone that it’s not a rock doc. It’s not a heavy metal movie. It’s a film about people and about life. We wanted to se the tone with that scene and it works and draws you in to want to know who this guy is.

I love the jacket he wears that says “loser” on the back.
Yeah, that’s his childhood jacket from when he was 15.  It’s perfect.

There’s humanity in the films we make and we try really hard. At the end of the day, if you don’t care about the people, you don’t care about the story. 

So was this movie drastically different from your other documentaries?
Every doc is different and they all present their own set of challenges and obstacles that you have to overcome. We approached it the same way we approached the film about the Barnes foundation or the film about atomic energy. We always want to get a lot of layers deeper and get into the human side. There’s humanity in the films we make and we try really hard. At the end of the day, if you don’t care about the people, you don’t care about the story. That’s like storytelling 101. If you don’t give a shit about heavy metal, then you need another reason to give a shit. We wanted to show their stories and the stories of their fans from around the world from a human perspective. That’s what we tried to do.

Have you thought about what your next film will be?
We always have five projects in development at any given time because they tend to take so long. Inevitably, three or four won’t happen. The one thing we’re doing some shooting on now is a Kurt Vonnegut documentary. We’re partnering up with another filmmaker who’s been making a Kurt Vonnegut film for 30 plus years. He wanted to bring us into the fold, and we want to include his story with Kurt. That’s the next project. We have another big project that I can’t talk about now. I think it’s cool. I don’t want to just do music docs or art films. That’s the great thing about making documentaries. You get to get into all these different worlds and experience new things and study these mini subjects. It’s like getting your PhD in something and then you move on and get another one. You’re constantly learning and constantly evolving.


Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at [email protected].