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The unlikely history of Heavy Metal Parking Lot, the original viral video

The unlikely history of Heavy Metal Parking Lot, the original viral video


From a living room in Maryland to Nirvana's tour bus

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In 1986 two aspiring documentary filmmakers took some video equipment from a local cable access channel, and headed to the parking lot of a Judas Priest show in Largo, Maryland. John Heyn and Jeff Krulik filmed the tailgating crowd as they partied, drank, and professed their love for all things metal. The result was Heavy Metal Parking Lot, a bizarrely perfect, 16-minute time capsule showcasing the passion (and yes, sometimes the aggressive stupidity) of teenagers at an ‘80s metal show getting all kinds of fucked up.

But decades before the internet made sharing video clips as simple as posting to Twitter or Facebook, something special happened. Heavy Metal Parking Lot caught on, not through official distribution channels, but through an underground network of fans that would dub VHS copies and pass them along. I remember first seeing it in the 1990s, when a friend-of-a-friend got a copy, and even then it was wild, like watching a real-life version of This is Spinal Tap. According to legend, the short eventually became a favorite of Nirvana’s, in constant rotation on the band’s tour bus.

The day after Heavy Metal Parking Lot’s 30th anniversary screening at SXSW — which was preceded by a Judas Priest performance from The Barton Hills elementary school choir — I sat down with Heyn and Krulik to talk about the movie’s journey from experiment to cult classic, and how everyone from niche video store owners to Sofia Coppola played a role in the saga of one of the original viral videos.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

May 31st, 1986

John Heyn: We were in the unique and rarified position of having access to video equipment. Back in the mid-’80s, hardly anybody did. Professional video equipment, where we could make something that looked at least semi-professional.

"The equipment was pre-historic."

Jeff Krulik: It was like newsgathering. These were cameras that we’d use in the newscast room. It was 3/4-inch video. It’s a total relic now, the equipment’s pre-historic. The tapes are these clunky cartridges, you only get 20 minutes of tape. You’re carrying around a big deck, a big camera, a separate microphone.

Heyn: I think we were shocked by the [fans'] approachability at the time. We had experience as documentarians, and it’s generally hard to get people to open up on camera, or even go in front of the camera. But these people for the most part were really approachable. I don’t know what exactly to attribute it to, except maybe they were stoned?

Krulik: We got great stuff, and actually went back to my studio, which was close by. And I came up with the title, just looking at it in the monitors at our studio. It just kind of popped into my head. And John edited it over time at his job. We both just had these starter jobs, in our 20s. And a few months later he unleashed it.

The First Screening

Heyn: There was no way to really distribute it back then. We didn’t know what kind of reception it would get, but the first booking was a local punk rock club that had an indie filmmaker’s screening night on Monday nights.

Krulik: It was called "I Am Eye," and it was at a club called DC Space, which is just an art space that booked a lot of different things — punk, jazz, what have you — in Washington DC. And they had a Monday night screening series where anybody could bring anything to show. That’s where John took it the first time. which might have been October of 1986, I’m guessing. [We had] very few chances to screen it. I think I screened it more in my living room than in any established venue. And then we would start giving out copies to friends who wanted to have a copy.

Heavy Metal Parking Lot promotional still
Getting the word out

Heyn: As far as distribution, I think we thought MTV would be interested, but it was a very short conversation. Because we just thought, well this is too raunchy. They’ll never play it.

Krulik: Also, nobody wanted to tangle with the [music] rights issues. We tried at some point to get it on Discovery Channel, which was funny. We tried to just get some documentary outlets to consider it, and they all rejected it. We got a small clip on a video compilation called Metal Head.

Heyn: These small little things that helped generate just a tiny little bit of buzz.

Krulik: An infinitesimal amount. … But it was really through the tape trading, and dubbing, and friends giving copies to friends. And a few isolated moments and chances to screen it publicly, like at a record convention or a nightclub. Or an art gallery in New York that John set up.

"It felt like it had run its course in our community, and that was it."

Heyn: I would go around local record stores with VHS copies with some basic box art, to see if they would sell it or rent it. Tower Video, back in the day, would have videos to purchase and a huge video rental department. I got it into there, I believe, so once again the seed is sown. A couple people rent it, they’ll spend a buck on it and take a chance.

Krulik: We lived in Washington, DC, and we were fortunate enough to have the AFI Theater there that had video projection. The programmer was a friend of ours, and he programmed it on two different occasions. Once in front of the Taylor Hackford documentary, the Chuck Berry concert film Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll. That was in 1988. And then in 1990, our own little mini-festival of stuff that we did and things that we liked that other people did. Heavy Metal Parking Lot anchored that, and that was going to be our final show. We even said "we’re done" in 1990, because we didn’t want to force our friends to watch it anymore. It felt like it had run its course in the area that we were from, and that was it.

Going Hollywood, and gaining an unexpected fan

Krulik: A friend of mine was moving - his name is Mike Heath. We call him the Johnny Appleseed of Heavy Metal Parking Lot, because he asked for copies because he was moving out west in 1992.

Heyn: I worked at a video dubbing company, so it was free copies with labels and boxes and everything.

Krulik: Mike got copies, took them west. And in 1994, John gets a call from Sofia Coppola. She’d looked his name up in the phone directory in Maryland.

She had rented the video from a store called Mondo Video which was in Los Angeles. It was a cult video store. Mondo was the place to go, which we didn’t know about, but we soon found out. She rented it, and she was putting a show together for Comedy Central with her friend Zoe Cassavetes. There were putting this thing together that was a hodgepodge of different things, and she liked the video and wanted to use it.

Heyn: It was just totally out of the blue, it blew me away. It got me pretty excited, saying "Hey, this thing has a life beyond the shelf in my den or whatever."

"She'd looked his name up in the phone directory in Maryland."

Krulik: She gave him Mondo Video’s contact [information], and John called. [The owner] Colonel Rob was a total character, and he was just so happy to get a call from John and get in touch with us. He was a big booster. Much like people in our area, who were playing it in video stores, he was pushing it and proselytizing for it in L.A. Bands, movie stars, personalities, and directors and what have you. That’s when we first heard [it was catching on].

Heyn: A few years later Sofia Coppola would show it to Spike Jonze, who became her husband. And he became a big fan of it. He wrote me a nice letter acknowledging that he was a fan.

Boarding the Nirvana bus

Krulik: A big boost for us, at least within the music community, was when it got onto Nirvana’s tour bus. That had to be around the time when Mike brought the copies out west. It got to [White Flag singer] Bill Bartell, who was then friends with a roadie for Nirvana. And then Colonel Rob has a hand in all this; everybody’s tape trading, everybody’s getting copies to other people. This is the year punk broke, in ‘91.

Around all that time, it’s on the Nirvana bus. Again, we don’t know firsthand, we’re just hearing this from people. And then cut ahead to when we had the DVD [in 2006], we went backstage at a Foo Fighters show in DC and gave copies to Dave Grohl. Personally delivered them to him, and he kind of confirmed that it was on the bus.

Heavy Metal Parking Lot promotional still
Enter the internet

Heyn: We got a website up by ‘98, so that gave us the ability to sell it.

Krulik: John put a VHS tape together, which was a half hour — again you’ve got a 15 minute video, you want to give people their money’s worth for their 10 or 15 bucks. Heavy Metal Parking Lot, an unfinished clip of [a follow-up called] Monster Truck Parking Lot. And then the outtakes, which we went and found.

Heyn: Twelve years after we made it. Pre-internet, the only way you could sell stuff was maybe running a small ad in the back of Rolling Stone or Spin magazine, and that just wasn’t even worth it.

There was no PayPal. People had to send me a check made out to John Heyn, or send me $10 or whatever I was asking for it. I was happy to sell it. It was gratifying to get orders come in from around the country.

30 years later

Heyn: Once the internet came along, its popularity and its audience did grow quite exponentially. In different, surreptitious ways, but it gelled and got bigger and bigger. There’s several different versions that fans post. And they pull out excerpts from it. There’s been music mixes for it.

Krulik: In 2006, we put the DVD together which is a magnum opus. It’s like a dissertation, because again, it’s a 15-minute video. But at that time we made sure that people that were kindly to it got copies of the DVD.

"The entertainment value of it has endured. I'm not exactly sure how."

The entertainment value of it has endured. I’m not exactly sure how, except that it’s immensely entertaining and it’s timeless. I think maybe people today look at it reflectively as a time capsule, and it amuses me but it still is a little bit shocking. Which amazes me, because everybody’s so jaded [today]; there’s just so much content out there to jade people, to warp people’s minds. But this is still kind of a mind-warping experience. Just watching it on the big screen last night [at SXSW].

Heyn: We’re fortunate to be in this pantheon of entertainment, of films that people remember, along with Spinal Tap. I mean, these films are old, they’re ancient. They’re 30 years old or more, but they still get remembered over things that were released last year. I feel like we are in a pantheon of cult classic films.

Krulik: We’re just fortunate this arrived at a certain period of time where it could organically gather an audience and maintain it. People always remember where they saw it first. That specialness doesn’t really exist anymore in the way content is provided and distributed. Nowadays you get 15 seconds of fame before people move onto the next YouTube sensation. We could just be passed over in a matter of days or a couple hours, but it still endures because we had that solid organic base from back in the day where things were passed around, hand to hand, word of mouth. And it just endures.