What Do Lars Ulrich and A.O. Scott Have in Common? A Lot, It Turns Out
The Metallica musician and our film critic have both spent their careers thinking about the creative process and how it’s received. They compared notes.
In December, Rolling Stone asked Lars Ulrich, the Metallica drummer, which celebrity he’d most want to quarantine with. His surprising answer was The New York Times’s co-chief film critic A.O. Scott. We knew they had to meet, and on Tuesday they chatted via video for more than 90 minutes about the creative process, criticism and what happens when their children disagree with their artistic tastes. Ulrich even stumped our critic when it came to movies. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation
A.O. SCOTT Be careful what you say to Rolling Stone, I guess.
LARS ULRICH I woke up late that day, and I got a lot of activity in my inbox that morning from your tweet. So that was very cool. I’m in San Francisco. Are you in New York right now?
standing invitation to talk classic movies any time pic.twitter.com/DoWsPCrAiF
SCOTT I’m in New York. That’s why I didn’t just show up at your house with a pizza and a bunch of Blu-rays. It felt like that was the invitation. I have to get it out there, what you said about me in that Rolling Stone interview [that his reviews struck the right mix of critical and serious but personal and at times humorous] was like the nicest thing anyone has ever — I just felt like somebody kind of finally understands what I’m trying to do.
Because as a critic, most of the time, especially from artists and creative people, you’re viewed with some suspicion. People are like, “Why do you hate movies so much?” What you said — I thought, “OK, somebody out there reading gets what I’m trying to do.” So I appreciate it.
ULRICH Thank you for saying that back. Obviously, it’s a strange time and has been a strange time for a while because at some point, as you know, it went away from just being a few esteemed critics, a few notable publications. Everybody’s got a voice now. As a musician who’s been at the receiving end of criticism for coming up on 40 years, you want to have your finger on the pulse of what people are saying about you. At the same time, you don’t want to get so deep in there that it starts derailing what you’re doing from a creative point of view.
So now really understanding criticism — whether it’s film, music, painting, the three things [that] are my main interests — it just seems like it’s such a lost art because I just love intellectualizing art. I love talking about it.
I realized, as I was thinking yesterday about how this [conversation] was going to go, it actually comes from my father. He was a professional tennis player, but really his passion was music.
For many, many years, he was one of the main critics of jazz music in Denmark, writing for two or three newspapers. In the ’50 and ’60s, all these incredible artists — Dexter Gordon and Ben Webster, Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis — were coming to Copenhagen. My dad would write these very in-depth pieces about not just the concerts but about music in general.
SCOTT It’s really interesting that your father was a critic and that you as a musician got interested in music in that way, because I’ve always felt like the line between artists and critics is much thinner and blurrier than a lot of people think. It’s not just that critics are motivated by devotion to and interest in a certain art form. But that interest is also what nourishes creative people. You listen to something or you see something or you read something, and you want to think and talk about it.
Sometimes, if you’re more creatively inclined, you want to figure out how they did it so you can do it yourself. How did he play that so I can try to play it? But sometimes you just want to do that to appreciate it more.
ULRICH At least in my head, I’m very comfortable with the fact that all great artists derived from something else. You take the things that turn you on and mold it with the other things that turn you on, and hopefully you spit out something that’s your own thing and that sometimes works for other people.
When I really, really get turned on by an artist, I go deep and want to get to know this person. It’s almost like a calling to get closer to them.
SCOTT When you say getting closer to the person, I think that it is really, in different arts in different ways, a form of being in contact with someone else’s consciousness, someone else’s voice. I started out as a literary critic, and in some ways, my touchstone is still reading — poetry and novels and fiction. For me, it’s very much about the voice. It’s about getting to know how artists think and watching their creative process and feeling some connection to it. That’s certainly true with music. The first art form that I really responded to in that kind of personal way was music, punk rock, when I was 13.
ULRICH If you have curiosity, you want a sense of intimacy. For me, what are the motives? Why does this particular thing end up like this? Where does it come from? Let’s circle back to where you just were with punk rock. Maybe most people that know your work wouldn’t think [of] punk rock as the springboard. Like the Clash?
SCOTT “London Calling” and Gang of Four’s “Entertainment!” — I think I wore out the vinyl on that because it was like nothing else, and it was very challenging musically. Those kinds of off-rhythms and the dissonance, and then the lyrics, are very intellectual and political. That was just what you’re talking about. The first time I played it, I thought, “What the hell am I listening to?”
ULRICH What made me want to play music was the new wave of British heavy metal, the hard-rock version of the do-it-yourself independent movement. At that time, so much of hard rock was about mythology and these larger-than-life characters. So the punk aesthetic, which was about bringing it all back down to a level that we could all relate to, really turned me on. Did you ever play yourself?
SCOTT I was in some really horrendous bands. This friend and I tried to write some songs, but I don’t think I had much of a knack as a songwriter or composer. This is something I actually wanted to get into. Part of what I lacked was just the discipline.
ULRICH It’s interesting you say discipline because I grew up in a tennis-playing family. My dad was the best tennis player in Denmark. My dad’s brother was the second best tennis player in Denmark. Their father was a tennis player. At some point, the Danish Davis Cup team was my father and his brother, and the captain was my granddad.
I initially was going to be a tennis player. Then when I realized that was not going to happen and music took over, the disciplinary elements of growing up around sports helped me focus quite a bit.
[With a D.I.Y. sound] there wasn’t a lot of, “Oh, I’ve got to master my instrument and I’ve got to sit there and learn how to play quadruple paradiddles upside down for six hours.” It wasn’t until a few years later, which we’ve talked about openly, that we [Ulrich and the guitarist Kirk Hammett] were like, “Maybe we should better our skills.” I started taking drum lessons after we’d already put out our first record. Kirk started taking lessons.
Being in a band [might] be more like filmmaking because filmmaking is a collective endeavor. We’re in a garage band, but at some point, if you really want to do it for real, then you’ve got to be disciplined — if nothing else, out of respect for everybody else that you’re on that team with.
SCOTT Movies are collaborative, yes, but they tend to be a one-shot thing. The idea of filmmaking, at least as its been practiced for the last 50 or 70 years, is there’s a guy whose vision this is about and everyone else is serving it.
ULRICH [With a band] you have to learn from what you’ve done, the good things and not good things. We’re all in our mid-50s, and we’re in the middle of creating a new record right now. We’re much better songwriters than we were 30 years ago, but with understanding the craft, you’re weighed down by the options.
So many times when we do interviews, people ask, “In 1987, you said this. In ’95 when this happened, why did you do that? What did you mean?” It’s 25 years later, I can’t tell you because my version of it changes as time goes along. I can’t listen to a record of ours without thinking about where we were when we were recording it, what did the studio look like, what was the drive to the studio every day.
But it’s also fun to sometimes throw that back into the things you can appreciate. Pick something random, [Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood”]: You’re watching this movie and it’s incredible, and you go, “OK, what was he doing three hours after that was shot? Did he do a rewrite of the next day’s scene? Was there something that happened that day that made him tell something different to [Leonardo] DiCaprio about this character?” That’s what I was talking about earlier about getting into the head spaces of people that really turn you on.
SCOTT It makes sense that you picked that movie because what he’s interested in is what these guys are doing when they’re off [the] set, and the process. Tarantino himself is fascinated with the finest grains of process. How do you make a movie? An episode of a totally mediocre TV show takes, in a way, just as much work as making a masterpiece. I’m totally with you on that.
ULRICH We’ve watched a lot of movies in the last 10 months, and I showed my kids, I don’t know if you’ve seen it, “Painters Painting.” It’s a  documentary about the New York art scene.
SCOTT No. I haven’t seen that.
ULRICH It’s got these great interviews with Barnett Newman and Bill de Kooning, [Robert] Motherwell, Jasper Johns. Incredible footage to sit there and watch Barnett Newman talk about his art and his process. Then [there’s] a bunch of the critics talking. I don’t want to be disrespectful here, but they cut to the New York Times art critic.
SCOTT Hilton Kramer?
ULRICH Yes. Hilton Kramer is the guy, and he’s sitting there talking about Jackson Pollock. You’re going, “What planet is this guy from?” Some of these critics at that time were using a language and aesthetic that were so removed, I think, from at least a significant portion of their readers. Why I love reading you more than anybody else — it feels like you and I are having a conversation just like we are now, but the points that you bring up all make so much sense. It’s not a language that sounds like you’re speaking Turkish to me.
At least nowadays, for criticism to work, it has to be in a language where most of the readers can relate to it and understand it.
SCOTT I think that’s right, and I think that this idea of the critic as a kind of authority, which certainly the old-school New York Times critics used to embody — I’ve never believed in that.
ULRICH There’s one other thing I’m curious about, kind of in the same area. I had an experience two days ago, which made me think of this conversation. I’m lucky, I got three boys, most of them still listen to a lot of AC/DC, Guns N’ Roses, Black Sabbath, System of a Down, Rage Against the Machine. All good quality stuff. We can share a Rage Against the Machine song on the [drive] to school, which always sets the mood for the day.
So, a couple days ago, my 13-year-old hijacks the stereo. I won’t name the artist, but he goes, “Check this song out.” It was by a fairly well-known band. I listened intently to it, and it didn’t really do much for me. He goes, “Wasn’t that cool?” I catch myself in that weird place of what do I say? Do I really say I thought it was, I don’t know if banal is the right word. But it was just a little easy or whatever.
It made me think back to my two older boys. [After Pixar releases like “Toy Story”] all the movie studios decided to do basically C- and D-level animated movies. And as the responsible parent that I considered myself to be at the time, every weekend we would go see whatever was there. My 8-year-old and 5-year-old are going, “That’s the best thing I’ve ever seen. That was even better than ‘Monsters, Inc.’” And I’m going, “Seriously?”
You must have gone through some versions of this. How do you deal with this?
SCOTT I had a strong flashback to that because as the film critic with kids, I would often get assigned those movies and also I was interested, since I did have kids, in writing about it. As you say, Pixar had set this very high bar — I remember going to movies, I won’t name them at this point, but just what you described. I just wanted to leave. This is just so bad. And my kids are like, “Oh my God, that’s my favorite movie ever.” Then they would say, “Did you like it, Dad?” And I would just be like, no.
ULRICH Did you actually say no or did you tap dance your way out of this?
SCOTT I learned to finesses it because when they were really young — 5, 6, 7 — they’d just get furious. Now, I feel like I’ve created monsters because they’re in their early 20s and they’re such harsher critics than I am. We’ll watch something together. I’ll be like, “That was pretty good,” and they’re like, “What? That was terrible.” They’re often not wrong.
ULRICH Can we just end on the one movie that has really spoken to me, which I’ve seen three times in the last couple weeks is “Another Round,” which is very Danish. [Directed by Thomas Vinterberg, it stars Mads Mikkelsen as a teacher who responds to a midlife crisis with a loosely scientific experiment in drinking.] Thomas is obviously a Danish friend. He’s also made Metallica videos. I was just wondering if you had seen it and whether it spoke to you in the same way. I’ve recommended this movie to at least a dozen people.
SCOTT It is one of those movies where it’s like, how did they know this? I don’t know what your relationship to alcohol is but it certainly spoke to me on that level, too. This fine line between pleasure and coping mechanism, and indulgence and problem. But also, Mads Mikkelsen, he’s such a special actor.
ULRICH It’s a very, very short list of people who you can really say that it doesn’t feel like he’s acting. You don’t feel like the wheels are turning.
Listen, this was so much fun.
SCOTT Such a pleasure. Until next time.
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