Making a Successful Indie Film With My Brothers Was a Total Nightmare
In 2009, Kate Spicer started making "Mission to Lars," a low-budget film about trying to introduce her disabled older brother to his idol, Lars Ulrich, the drummer of Metallica. What happened next was less an uplifting tale of dreams coming true and...
Images courtesy of Kate Spicer/Brigade Marketing
A few years ago, in 2009, I started making a documentary called Mission to Lars. It tells the story of me and my brothers, Tom and Will, hitting the road in rural England and crossing the Atlantic to the west coast of America, where we tramp around trying to get an audience with Lars Ulrich, the drummer of Metallica.
Tom is a massive fan. Will and I thought it would be a cool thing to do for our brother. We'd drifted apart: Tom, 38, was living a simple life in a faded Victorian seaside town popular with pensioners, working in a factory that shredded newspapers to make animal bedding. Meanwhile, Will, 33, and I, 39, had lived in London like a couple of swells for years. We were getting into wine, starting to buy art, making friends with a few minor celebrities; Will is in advertising, and I write. We may have lost touch with Tom, but it still could be said that all three of us Spicer siblings worked in the media.
People always ask me why didn't we just sort out a "grip-n-grin" photo between Tom and Lars. But that wasn't the point. We'd taken him to one Metallica gig before, and just getting him to stand outside the stadium took subterfuge and time, and to get him inside the venue we had to lay an irresistible trail of beers and French fries. But we had also watched as he challenged his perceived limits; breaking through his fears and experience at that one gig—plus seeing his hero as a dot on stage and hearing Metallica—had given him such joy and confidence.
Tom has a severe intellectual disability caused by a genetic disorder called Fragile X syndrome, which creates a bundle of disabilities, including autism, and has been passed down through generations of my family. He lives in a residential care home. He cannot really read, write, or count, and his speech is poor.
We wanted to make a film with Tom for a lot of different reasons. We thought it would make a good film and be a great adventure. An estimated 4.6 million Americans have an intellectual or developmental disability; in the UK that number is about 1.5 million. But people with learning disabilities, or intellectual disabilities, or whatever you want to call them (except please, never, "retards") are too invisible, too forgotten. We wanted the world to see through Tom's disability to the funny, charming, complex human being he is.
It's a mark of how little we considered his demands that we didn't try to do something like this sooner.
It took over a year to fundraise—my skills as an executive producer do not rival Harvey Weinstein's. We brought in money by throwing a rave and auctioning off walk-on roles in my friend Justin Joybear's porn films.
Drunk at a party one night, a friend told me she had Lars's number and was going to call him. Drunk myself, I soon found myself talking to him. He told me my brother had crappy taste in heroes but that he wouldn't put any kind of stop to our endeavors to introduce them. His management were a lot less friendly. Fuck it, let's just try it, Will and I said.
Initially, the anticipation was exciting. Us siblings working together decades after we all left home could only be good, right? It'd be fun, right? It'd have all the feels and laughs of the road trips we used to make between our divorced parents' homes, hammering up and down the country in $100 old cars, listening to heavy metal cassettes, and stopping for regular junk food binges. Right?
Wrong. That's the thing about dreams: They're dreams. In reality, our road trip reveries were stymied at every turn. Making a film on a really low budget is not a laugh—that was the first wrench in our Brady Bunch engine. The second was Tom.
He'd told us, with typical autistic perseverance, "Wanna meet Lars, wanna meet Lars, wanna meet him..." for about 15-20 years. "Wanna meet Lars" was a constant refrain. It's a mark of how little we considered his demands that we didn't try to do something like this sooner.
Much more of a problem than Tom, though, was quite how little we knew about each other or even liked each other. Our time-worn family roles— Kate, bossy older sister; Will, cute baby brother; Tom, the disabled one—were proving inadequate. My confident older sister act crumbled under the slightest criticism, so I let off steam by drinking too much wine. Will had long outgrown his gig as the handsome golden baby brother; he had become very sensible and gotten married, with two kids and a massive mortgage. Comparatively, my bachelorette pad/seedy rent-controlled party pad/shithole and I had remained quite immature. I felt like he was constantly judging me. While I loved Will very much, I wasn't sure I liked him. And he definitely didn't like me. I feel like 75% of the filmmaking process consisted of him sighing in my direction.
Tom told us to fuck off frequently and gave us his version of the finger.
Will and I saw the filmmaking process as a chance to reconnect with Tom, whose life seemed as remote in flavor as it was in distance from ours in London. In fact, when we turned the camera on Tom, we turned him from our brother into a subject and as filming progressed he became more and more aware of that. To our stewed-up feelings about each other, we added a rich vein of anxiety for Tom's unusually attuned emotional radar to pick up on.
We also got everything wrong with Tom. He hates people being late; everyone told us that. You could blame that on his autism, but maybe he just thinks it's rude. Will and I were late for everything. My hairdresser sacked me earlier this year me for being constantly late.
The harder things got, the clearer it became that Will and I were not as close as being the two so-called "normal" ones had led us to believe. Whereas Tom and I were very close. Part of what makes sibling bonds so tight is all the fighting and squabbling. Tom and I did a lot of that; fighting was the only thing we could approach on equal intellectual terms, first happily and then unhappily, as playing around turned into beating the shit out of each other.
No one officially acknowledged Tom was disabled until he was about 11, but it was always clear he was different. It gives me chills thinking about how tough life was for Tom, trying to get by in a fast-talking world that wasn't built for his kind of brain. Tom's syndrome creates a complex mixture of disabilities: He can't handle sensing conflict, extreme anxiety, or fear in other people. And when Tom announces he needs a pee, that means he needs a pee real fast.
On our first day in the US, while Will and the crew were off hiring the cameras in Burbank, Tom and I tried to get from Studio City to meet them. The slim funds we'd saved to make the movie had yet to transfer to my bank account, and I was personally, actually, broke. (When I say we made a low-budget movie, I meant it.) We had no car. No money. In LA! While on the metro, Tom announced he needed to use the bathroom. Next stop: East Compton. We got off, a couple of freaked-out Brits blundering around at sundown, trying to find somewhere for Tom to relieve himself. It wasn't my finest hour as a caretaker for my vulnerable brother.
"I want to go home to Exmouth now, please," Tom said.
"Exmouth is 6000 miles away, Tom," I said. "We have to stay here. Don't you want to meet Lars?"
"No, no thank you. Want go home to Exmouth."
I saw in his eyes a mixture of fear, sadness, and powerlessness. What had I done? I wanted to give him a huge hug right there on the streets of Compton, but Tom's autism means he has to choose when any kind of physical comfort is due. Instead I said, "Let's go to the hotel and have a nice cup of tea." Nice, comforting, British cups of tea became for Tom what excessive drinking at any opportunity became to me.
Much more of a problem was quite how little we knew about each other or even liked each other.
Before we had even started filming, layers of stress began to accumulate, and Will and I started fighting. Tom, stretched to his very limits, told us to fuck off frequently and gave us his version of the finger. (We call it "Tom's polite bird": He uses his first finger instead of the ruder digit.) Tom was having to cope with us, not the other way around. For all the obsessing we had done over Tom's disabilities over the years, Will and I had bucketloads of our own issues.
The entire family dynamic had been turned on its head. With Tom the center of attention and Will trying to direct, I was being viewed as mentally ill and a necessary inconvenience. Tom started refusing to meet Lars—and without him, we had no film. Perhaps the most painful moment was on day three, backstage with Metallica, and I was talking to camera in front of about ten roadies. After one take, Will said, witheringly, wearily, "Kate, less of the fucking annoying MTV presenter act."
If we were going to make the film happen and get Tom to meet his ultimate metal megahero, we needed to both learn a lot more about our brother and respect him, too. Out of necessity, we went to see a professor at the Mind Institute at UC Davis. In making the film, Will and I were forced to learn more about our brother's syndrome that only by luck we did not have.
Cool people really like Tom; self-conscious, shallow people find him scary. The taciturn, initially terrifying Metallica crew softened and even gave Tom a round of applause at a key point during filming. We heard through the grapevine that James Hetfield, Rob Trullo, and Kirk Hammett were giving Lars stick for letting us into his backstage world—that they were calling us "Lars TV" and refusing to have anything to do with our cameras. But then, at another pivotal moment, there was a fist bump from each for Tom. I don't know if I have ever felt such pride for another human being as I did for Tom on that trip.
The sibling dynamic is the one we most often take for granted. Siblings are always kicking around, ready-made playmates and adversaries, yet our emotional stories are always about our parents. Where is the sibling equivalent of Philip Larkin's poem "This Be The Verse"? "They fuck you up, your mum and dad / They may not mean to, but they do. / They fill you with the faults they had / And add some extra, just for you."
Those unique emotional bonds between siblings come from a depth and breadth of shared experience. From Disneyesque joy of getting up breathless with excitement at 3 AM on Christmas morning to the messed-up daily business of the sibling power struggle: I once held a carving knife to Tom's neck; my favorite taunt with three-year-old Will was to pretend I was dead; Tom threw a large log at my head from an upstairs window while I was playing Swingball. The blood poured down my face in slasher movie quantities, and he laughed maniacally.
With who else can we share these more or less treasured moments without getting arrested?
I take my hat off to the Coen brothers, the Olsen twins, and even, grudgingly, the Kardashians, because the happy ending to this tale of us three working together took some time, years, to materialize. When we dropped Tom off back in Exmouth after our trip, he got out of the car without looking back or saying a word. My relationship with Will was on life support. Tom thumped Will extremely hard on the back at that year's family Christmas.
In the end, this difficult filming process showed the truth of who we were as adults. We needed time to recalibrate those entrenched family stereotypes set in childhood that had done us fine for family holiday gatherings but were exposed as paper-thin when there was a real task at hand.
Things are cool now; my brothers are more precious to me than words can express, and Mission to Lars has gotten great press. (It's out in the US this week.) But there's a bit in the final credits of the film where someone asks Tom if he'd recommend going on road trip with his brother and sister. His answer's precise comic timing is an example of another great thing about my supposedly "severely disabled" brother.
Kate's film, missiontolars.com, is in select theaters and on iTunes on September 25.