It's a sun-drenched Thursday afternoon in Acton, California, which is about an hour's drive north of Los Angeles, and the air's nothing if not arid.
Here, we find the members of Metallica — frontman James Hetfield, drummer Lars Ulrich, guitarist Kirk Hammett and bassist Robert Trujillo. They're all milling about, wearing shades, waiting. All of a sudden, a Hummer painted in desert camouflage and topped with a .50-caliber machine gun rolls by.
The vehicle's carrying a group of what look like U.S. soldiers across the dusty terrain when, out of nowhere, there's an awesome blast. One of the soldiers is wounded; he's bleeding. Another soldier rushes to his aid, with a medic kit in hand, and starts tending to his wounds. Minutes later, a helicopter approaches, and the bloody soldier is flown to safety and into the capable hands of a military medical team.
Of course, this isn't Iraq. It isn't Afghanistan. It's the set of Metallica's video for their track "The Day That Never Comes," the first single from Death Magnetic, the band's first studio effort since 2003's St. Anger (due in stores this September).
But don't let the war-time theme of the video fool you. According to Hetfield, the clip won't be making any lofty political statements about the war in Iraq. Instead, it's a statement on humanity, helmed by acclaimed Danish director Thomas Vinterberg, who, along with Lars von Trier, co-founded the Dogme 95 movement in filmmaking.
Hetfield said that when he was writing the song's lyrics, he never envisioned the video would look anything like this.
"That's the beauty, I think, of writing vague but powerful lyrics — that someone like a movie director can interpret it in his own way and obviously, someone creative is able to take the metaphors and apply them to whatever he needs in his own life," the frontman explained. "The main [theme of the video] is the human element of forgiveness and someone doing you wrong, you feeling resentment and you being able to see through that in the next situation that might be similar and not take your rage or resentment out on the next person and basically keep spreading the disease of that through life."
The video's next scene involves the same soldier who assisted his wounded comrade in the previous scene. A group of soldiers pulls up alongside a broken-down car and spots a man in a djellabah, holding a set of jumper cables. The soldier approaches slowly — with gun drawn — fearing the car may contain a suicide bomber, and his crosshairs become fixed on the suspicious man's head. With anger and resentment in his eyes, the soldier debates whether to pull the trigger. Ultimately, he lowers his gun and assists the harmless civilian so that he can make his way home.
"The one thing that I wasn't keen on here was Metallica plugging into a modern war or a current event [that] might be construed as some sort of political statement on our part," Hetfield said. "There are so many celebrities that soapbox their opinions, and people believe it's more valid because they're popular. For us, people are people — you should all have your own opinion. We are hopefully putting the human element in what is an unfortunate part of life. There are people over there dealing with situations like this, and we're showing the human part of being there.
"It's the forgiveness part — that is key," he continued. "Metallica has never plugged into any current event visually, but this one is kind of a hotbed. People have very high opinions about this war, and we're trying to cut through all of that. The politics and the religion tend to separate people, and what we're trying to do is bring it together with the common thread of resentment and forgiveness."
Ulrich said that a father-son relationship inspired the song's lyrics but that the band didn't want the true meaning behind the track to bleed into its visual component.
"It's a story about human beings who don't know each other, in a particularly tense situation," Ulrich explained. "It could be a contemporary war setting, but it's really about forgiveness and redemption and understanding what goes on in people's minds. We really feel that this was such a beautiful and epic way to treat the song in something that was really radically different than the specificity of the lyrics."
"Ultimately, the concept of the video deals with humanity and the relationships between human beings and how your basic sense of humanity can override any sort of politicized situation," Hammett added. "It's about being compassionate and humanistic in that sort of situation. So you could call it a microcosm of what's happening in the world today."