When co-creators of the short cinema verité classic Heavy Metal Parking Lot, John Heyn and Jeff Krulik, went to the Capital Center in Landover, Maryland outside of Washington, DC to film the accumulating outdoor scene before a Judas Priest concert, much of what resulted, according to the filmmakers on the 30th anniversary of the project, was “dumb luck.”
“It was John’s idea,” said Krulik, “and I had equipment at this public access studio that I was running. I thought it was a great idea… it was a Saturday, May 31, 1986 — it wasn’t a work day. We met at my studio, took the gear, paid our way into the arena parking lot like any concertgoer.”
Heyn added, “It was on a whim – maybe three weeks before I heard a radio ad that they were coming to town.”
Krulik further explained the simplicity involved in the project. “We were only there two hours,” he stated of the period filming the scene and interviewing concertgoers. “We had 60 minutes on three 20” tapes and had a little on the fourth tape. It leapt into my head – Heavy Metal Parking Lot. John took the tapes where he was working and edited it into the most tight 15-16 minutes of material. We knew it was good when we saw it, but if we knew then, we would never have turned the camera off.”
Of note, the pair of nascent filmmakers did not even attend the concert. “We went back to my studio and looked at the tapes, said Krulik. “We just wanted people to be themselves, and we got that. We were fans of verité documentary filmmaking; we were already starting to work on things and produced stuff together, [but] we were fortunate to hit that home run. Who knew? We certainly didn’t know what it became.”
After Heyn took the tapes and worked on it for several months, the DC-based pair showed the film in 1988 at a record convention. “It was in the era of VHS and VCRs,” said Heyn. “People we knew who liked it, we gave them copies. Gave it to some record stores. We had our first big show at the AFI show — [they] had a theater at the Kennedy Center, paired with Hail Hail Rock ‘N’ Roll. We were the opening band for that film — they suggested pairing it. We always dreamed of having our work on the screen. There were very few opportunities for video projection. AFI has always had their East Coast arm in Washington.”
Due to the era, the filmmakers took what they termed “that circuitous route” with Heavy Metal Parking Lot because, at the time, film festivals were not equipped for video projection. “We didn’t enter a single film festival because they did not screen video,” they said.
Additionally, in a time long before cell phone-based video cameras, the filmmakers knew that they had unique material. “It was footage that nobody documented on tape,” said Heyn. “Now you can’t prevent people from having cameras, and there’s too much coverage. We’ve got something that no one else has; it’s been licensed by heavy metal documentaries. It’s valued as footage from that time.”
For Krulik, the project now seems archetypal in what it documented about youth culture in the 1980s. “That rite of passage when you discover your music, in this case, heavy metal,” he said. “You were either at that concert or sat next to someone in homeroom who were at that concert. It was a touchstone for a lot of people, and now it becomes a curiosity for younger people. It’s viewed as this anthropological presentation.”
After several specialized screenings, Heyn and Krulik stopped showing the film in 1990. “We mothballed it, literally,” said Heyn. “A friend of ours moved west and took copies with him – Mike Heath, the Johnny Appleseed for Heavy Metal Parking Lot. That’s how it got traded around and passed from one person from another. It wound up on Nirvana’s tour bus.”
Between 1990-94, nothing significant happened with Heavy Metal Parking Lot as Heyn and Krulik moved on with their lives. “Then John got a call from Sophia Coppola out of the blue,” said Krulik. “She had rented the film from a store in LA in Los Feliz called Mondo Video, at their heyday, and wanted to use it for a TV show she was putting together. That’s how we first learned that it was circulating on the West Coast like that. It blew our minds.”
In the 1990s, Heyn and Krulik were back in pre-show documentaries with Neil Diamond Parking Lot in 1996 and Harry Potter Parking Lot in 1999. MTV utilized material from the film. Then, in 2002, the filmmakers were courted to do a reality TV show; the result was a six-part series which premiered in 2003 simply called Parking Lot. In 2006, they created a 20th anniversary DVD with two hours of content, they quipped, for a 15-minute film. Hollywood films such as Rock Star have used the film as a point of reference for costuming and other art department items. After much consideration, the film was finally blown up to 35mm after which it was distributed to theaters in local art cinemas in 2002; sadly that print is now lost.
According to Krulik, for the 30th anniversary, a small exhibit commemorating the occasion was established at the University of Maryland. There was also talk of a reunion of people who appeared in the film. Heyn noted that though the film has been quite popular and has achieved cult classic status, “it’s been lunch money, mostly, but it’s been our calling card.”
Though Judas Priest remains active as a recording and touring band, the Capital Center was destroyed in 2002; moreover, with nearly every concertgoer owning smart phone video equipment, documenting pre-concert experiences in the 21st century is too easily executed, leaving such video material less than rarified. As such Heavy Metal Parking Lot might be a singular project which documents its specific time and place. Nevertheless, its creators remain humble. “It was dumb luck,” Krulik said. “Something we fell into. We had no idea it would be a time capsule. We are thrilled to have new people discover it.”