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Perfect Landing

Filmmakers Sam Dunn and Scot McFadyen talk about their much anticipated documentary ‘Iron Maiden: Flight 666’ and why it was a beast of a number

May 20, 2009

On January 31, 2008, a Boeing 757 with the flight call number 666 asked for permission to land at Mumbai airport. But this wasn’t any ordinary aircraft, and not just because of its unusual call number or the fact that it seemed to have what appeared to be a demon painted on the tail, or that it was called Ed Force One. This plane had been modified to carry 12 tonnes of equipment and 70 crew members. But the most important passengers were Iron Maiden – on their most ambitious tour to date covering 21 cities, over 40,000 miles in 46 days – and the pilot was vocalist Bruce Dickinson. This is their story.

Well, at least that’s the story filmmakers Sam Dunn and Scot McFadyen of Banger Productions are telling on their third documentary Iron Maiden: Flight 666, having previously explored the history and reach of metal on Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey (2005) and Global Metal (2008). For those unfamiliar with the films, Sam Dunn – an anthropologist and heavy metal fan – decided to dig deeper into his favourite genre of music and understand what really makes metal tick. He joined Scot McFadyen – former soundtrack producer on a number of films and television projects – to track the various facets of heavy metal culture across the world, speaking to and filming artists as diverse as Alice Cooper, Tom Morello of Rage Against The Machine, Angela Gossow of Arch Enemy and Alex Webster of Cannibal Corpse. Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey was revelatory both for clearing some misconceptions about metal music and uncovering some aspects that even the filmmakers had a tough time reconciling with, like the troubled black metal scene in Norway. The duo followed up the success of the first film with Global Metal, a documentary on how cultures around the world absorbed and transformed metal, exploring the underground metal scenes in the most unlikely places around the world, including India.

During the making of these two films, Dunn and McFadyen came in contact with Iron Maiden, filming their March 2007 Bengaluru concert for the second documentary and they tentatively put forward a proposition to make a documentary on Maiden at some point in the future. When Dunn came across the press release for the Somewhere Back in Time world tour and the proposed itinerary, he knew it’d be the perfect opportunity to film the band and broached the idea with them again. Maiden’s manager Rod Smallwood was impressed by Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey but wasn’t convinced about the feasibility of the Maiden idea. “Rod thought it would be too difficult ”“ it was already such a difficult tour ”“ and the band wouldn’t want to have cameras around. It seemed like it wasn’t going to happen but eventually he came around,” explains Dunn.

Maiden’s Somewhere Back in Time world tour was the band’s biggest ever tour and in the course of six weeks they played to 2.5 million fans. The tour was made possible by the fact that the band had their own plane and a convenient pilot in Dickinson. But it still made for a gruelling circuit because the band was playing a show almost every alternate day while flying 2,000 miles between shows across Asia, North and South America and Europe. The tour was meant as a retrospective of the band’s golden era, a show of strength demonstrating that their legacy has not faded over their 30-year career. Flight 666 chronicled this tour, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that the fimmakers were quick to grab. Maiden are notoriously camera shy and intensely protective of their privacy, so it wasn’t easy for the filmmakers to get the band to trust them. Dickinson and drummer Nicko McBrain were comfortable in front of the camera and they didn’t need much convincing but the rest of the band members remained wary. “The other guys are a little more shy and private and aren’t used to having cameras around so it took time to develop their trust. Dick Bell, Maiden’s legendary tour manager said to us, ”˜If you take it slow it’ll all work out,’ so we followed his advice and it worked out for us,” Dunn smiles. Scott adds, “Nicko was always open, Bruce is open, Adrian [Smith, guitarist] is very shy, Janick [Gers, guitarist] never really wanted us around. Every time we had the camera on, he’d just walk away. Adrian and Dave [Murray, guitarist] slowly came around but it took a while. One good thing is that Adrian’s wife and Bruce’s wife were quite friendly towards us. They understood what we were trying to do and they tried to convince the guys to open up to us.”

Explaining the filming process and the logistics involved, McFadyen says, “There was Sam and myself, three camera people, a sound person and a line producer. We filmed 500 hours of footage over seven weeks ”“ we never turned the cameras off. After that, it took almost a year to edit ”“ three editors just literally getting through 500 hours of footage. It takes real-time to put it in the computer so ten 50-hour weeks just to get into the computer and ten 50-hour weeks just to watch it, so it was a bit of a beast.”

Given how exacting Maiden are about their concert DVDs, there was much speculation on fan forums and in discussion groups around the world about whether the band would step in to oversee the edits or control parts of the filming. In one infamous episode in the past, bassist and founder Steve Harris stepped in to completely re-edit songs from the Rock in Rio DVD because he claimed the editors had made a mess of it. Granted this history, Dunn and McFadyen were expecting the band to add their inputs but were pleasantly surprised that they kept interference to a minimum. Was there any form of censorship the band imposed on the filmmakers? “Steve Harris did have some comments, particularly on the live material, on some of the shots we’d used, but we were surprised that the band didn’t have more criticisms and things that they wanted to change. If Iron Maiden was like doing drugs backstage and sleeping with groupies, then they might have had some concerns but they’re a pretty well-functioning group of guys so there wasn’t anything to hide.” Fans who were expecting a Headbanger’s Journey-style exposé will be a little disappointed ”“ if the DVD is to be believed Maiden are as clean and professional backstage as they are onstage.

Ask Dunn and McFadyen if their being fans impaired their ability to be completely objective with the portrayal of the band and they’re quick to the defence. “I think we’re Iron Maiden fans and we’ve never hidden that fact. In the past, too, filmmakers have made films about bands that they love ”“ Martin Scorsese has done it and so have others. So I think that if you’re going to spend two years of your life putting a film together, it’s important that you at least like the music you’re dealing with. If we did find that there was conflict or tension or friction within the band we would have shown it as part of the film but there was none of that. So the story became more about how Iron Maiden have built this legacy and have kind of avoided the trappings of the rock & roll lifestyle,” Dunn says a trifle petulantly. McFadyen hits back with a fitting analogy, “It’s like Indian movies where you ask ”˜What’s the real story backstage?’ but the fact is that it’s not what you’d expect. They’re professionals and they have a balanced life. They can’t party hard and do drugs and drink and they can’t go out and play a show with that kind of a lifestyle. On the tour, Bruce would have to go to bed early because he was flying the next day.”

Towards the end of the tour, even in the film, the toll that it takes on the band and crew becomes apparent. The hardest part of the tour was “surviving!” laughs Dunn. “For us, the documentary crew, our job was to capture as much as we could. So even though the crew liked to take the piss out of us because they thought we were taking time off, we were out getting shots of the different cities we were going to or spending time with the band ”“ playing tennis with Adrian, going golfing with Nick, soccer with Steve. We never really felt like we had a chance to rest, and I remember midway through South America beginning to feel like I’m ready to go home.”

The duo are now buckling down to complete other projects they have in the pipeline including a documentary on much loved and equally reviled Canadian band Rush, which was actually meant to be their third project. “We got the opportunity to do Flight 666 and because it was based on a specific tour we had to put Rush on the backburner and jump on Maiden quickly,” Dunn explains. While they’re done filming, the editing and production is still pending and they’re not quite sure what it will be turn out to be like. “It’s a movie about the history and influence of the band and looks at how Rush has, not unlike Maiden, persevered without much critical acclaim. And yet they sold millions of records and have this fan base which is maybe even more obsessive than Iron Maiden’s fans,” McFadyen says earnestly. “We’re really interested by how many musicians are influenced by their music ”“ everyone from Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins to Trent Reznor from Nine Inch Nails ”“ so, yeah, we’re in the editing phase for that and hope to release it early next year, maybe by spring.”

In an attempt to salvage some time for themselves, the band are also working on a VH1 series which they hope is a lot less taxing than a documentary, given that they only have to do eight episodes a year. “We’re talking about doing a series based on the history of heavy metal from our first film ”“ that heavy metal tree, the genealogy chart of subgenres ”“ we’re going to do one episode on each on those subgenres,” says McFadyen. Meanwhile, they’re busy attending premieres for Flight 666 across the world and collecting accolades. The film walked away with the 24 Beats Per Second award at the SXSW festival even before its official release and is being heartily endorsed by Maiden at every opportunity. April 21 was declared Maiden Day and cinemas across the world screened the film for that one day giving fans around the world and opportunity to connect through the film, much like holding simultaneous concerts. The DVD-set released consists of the movie and another CD with two hours of concert footage. But if you’re waiting for the director’s cut versions of the film, you might be in for some disappointment. “I don’t think I could,” McFadyen says wearily. “I think I might break into hives if I had to go back to the edit suite and cut it some more.” Dunn laughs, “We’re not quite sick of Maiden yet, but we’re pretty close.”