By KJ Doughton | December 26, 2011

Hungry mice are enticed by cheese. Similarly, headbangers are lured by heavy metal.

I’m an unashamed, life-long Metal Geek.  As such, the following on-line news headline caught my eye last April: “James Hetfield of Metallica to Speak at ‘Absent’ screening at Central Christian Church in Mesa.”  Sounds interesting. Unleash the Geek.

Studying the article, however, I learned that “Absent” wasn’t about Metallica. Although Hetfield played a role, this was an entirely different kettle of filmic fish, having NOTHING to do with flash pots, The Big Four Tour, or Napster drama. Instead, “Absent” was NBC news anchor-come-independent director Justin Hunt’s heartfelt documentary proclamation that living without a father can be hell.

Where’s Dad? And why can’t I wash off this stain of sorrow?

The absence of fathers from the home is such a common occurrence, that perhaps words like “phenomenon” or “trend” don’t really do it justice. It’s the norm. It’s reality. Thus, it’s befuddling that until “Absent,” a documentary film has not tackled this common slice of life head-on.

It’s less surprising that Hunt was the one to finally break the ice. His previous film, 2008’s “American Meth,” confronted another under-reported scourge.  This isn’t a guy prone to sweeping things under the carpet.

Intrigued by the concept behind “Absent,” I contacted Hunt. Unlike most filmmakers I’d sought out for interviews, he responded immediately – nothing absent about this guy. And… get this. Not only had he read a Metallica book I’d written, but he had named his son Lantz after one of my friends featured within my pages.

It’s a strange, small world we live in, folks.

Hunt sent me a screener of “Absent.” His documentary struck a chord… and we’re not talking power chords. My inner Metal Geek had suddenly retreated. Instead, my real life roles, as beloved son of a devoted father, and as committed father of two kids, sensitized me to the significance of Hunt’s message. “Absent” opened my eyes to how a father’s neglect, abuse, or lack of presence had branded high school kids, models, boxers, and yes – a certain rock musician, with what the film describes as a Father Wound. A sense of abandonment, confusion over one’s gender identity, and an increased chance of criminality are the potential by-products of this permanent scar.

Can the Father Wound be cauterized? Or does paternal No-Show equate No Hope?

Hunt, a single father with two children, provides generous answers in the interview that follows. He insists that there’s more work to be done to reduce America’s pandemic of Dads who prematurely depart from their needy nests.

Documentary filmmaking is often rooted in some deeply personal connection between director and subject. Were your passion and drive to make “Absent” and “American Meth” based on any personal brushes with either subject?
I always joke about this question when it comes to “Absent” – that I’ve probably given my dad a complex. In the case of this film, both of my dads (father and step-father) were hard-working guys who were pretty engaged and did a good job. The motivation for “Absent”came more out of what I was going through personally in my life, having recently become a single father, partnered with relationships and conversations I was having with mentors of mine at the time. I’d also read “Wild at Heart” by John Eldredge a couple of times, and had been involved in and led some Wild at Heart (men’s support) groups. Being a Godly man and stepping up into the noble role of fatherhood was the center of my existence, and I took that and made it into a film.

It’s obvious that a band like Metallica is offered hundreds of requests to work on projects, the vast majority of which are filtered out of the mix. Nonetheless, James Hetfield agreed to appear in your film. How do you get through the thick walks of “gatekeepers” and actually make contact with prospective interviewees?
Having been a reporter and news anchor for NBC for about 8 years makes securing interviews a fairly simple process. You just know how to communicate with people and help them understand and believe in what you’re working on. With Het, however, that was a different story. I have to give all the credit to Facebook and a high school crush. A friend of mine from high school (in the little town of Bloomfield, New Mexico) by the name of Tiffany Cromartie, had become a classical musician in the Bay Area. We reconnected on Facebook and visited here and there.

Long story short, she was razzing me about some photos of a Metallica show I’d gone to. When I called her on it, she informed me that her kids went to school with James’ kids and she saw him all of the time. Incidentally, her husband was an entertainment attorney. So I composed an email, sent it to her, and her husband sent it to Metallica’s attorneys. They got it down to James, and three months later, I’m sitting in front of him at HQ (Metallica Headquarters), basically living out a childhood dream. Funny how God works sometimes. As for his decision to be involved, you’d have to ask him his true motives on that.

For “Absent,” did you have a laundry list of other potential interviewees who did not respond to your requests? Can you give an example of someone you felt would have been ideal for the film, but, for whatever reason, were not included?
In all honesty, there wasn’t one person I asked that didn’t agree to do an interview. The only one that backed out – and I see why now – was Sammy Hagar. Without a doubt, I would have wanted James the entire time, but never felt I could get to him. So, through the suggestion of Johnny Tapia’s wife, Teresa, I got in touch with Sammy. He agreed to do it, but canceled just two days before I was to head out to see him. He said it would conflict with his book, and I get that. However, I see now that there were bigger plans in the works for the film and the relationship with James developed, which has been a real blessing far above and beyond the production of the film or the content of the interview.

There’s a wonderful scene where Johnny Tapia has staged a comeback boxing match. His son opens the show with a warm-up fight. Father and son sit on the sidelines after their bouts in the ring, and exchange a loving smile. It just lights up the screen. How many of these magic moments are easy to predict and catch on film, and which simply come out of left field?
Moments like that are really all left field. I don’t think a person can really plan or count on an emotional moment. What you can do is position yourself to catch it. Also, I think one of the best tools in my toolbox is my ability to connect with the subjects on an emotional level. I don’t have a big crew. It’s just me, and a camera. I think that allows a lot more things to happen organically, and less intrusively. There’s no technological distraction between us, and they just connect person to person. That lends itself to more magical moments.

While watching “Absent”, I observed that its female subjects were much more guarded than the men. Do you agree with this? If so, did it surprise you?
To some degree. I think the guys were also guarded, but able to put up the front a little better, with more confidence. Although all the men in the movie did really open up and let it fly, they still held some back. You felt it doing the interview and you can see it when you know what you’re looking for in the movie. With the ladies, they’ve mastered the art of self-preservation, due to their respective circumstances, many of them still in the battle. So it doesn’t surprise me that you saw it as an audience member. I think of all the subjects, Het really is the one that has best embraced it and tried to deal with it, grieve for it and move on. The rest are still swinging swords, to some degree.

You chose an interesting way to frame model Robin Decker, using half of her face in extreme close-up. She’s beautiful, and candid – shedding that tear and offering a sweet, resigned half-smile. Very effective. What was the creative process behind this approach?
First, thank you for the compliment. Stylistically, if you watch both films, I really like to get very close. I feel that mid range to wide shots keep the person two-dimensional and you don’t really feel like you know who they are. They’re just another person in the box. The one regret I have about shooting “Absent” is that I didn’t get closer to James through the lens. Also, with Robin, I was using natural light and the window behind her. Coming in close really put this beautiful soft light on her face, and that empty space to the left of the screen just felt right.

“Absent” features interviews with two streetwalkers. According to the voice-over, each woman requested $20 dollars to speak with you. This must have been an awkward experience.
To be honest, I expected it and I offered it first. Not to sound cold or crass, but just as one shouldn’t just sit at a restaurant and take up a server’s table, I didn’t feel right taking them from their chance to make money. I don’t agree with their livelihood, but it is their livelihood and I was keeping them from it. So I guess I felt it was only fair to pay them for their time. What was so interesting about both of them was feeling their human side come out from behind the calloused front they’ve been putting up for so long. You could feel their sadness when I asked them something personal about THEM, like they’d forgotten what it was like to be treated as a person. In fact, that’s one of my favorite lines in the narration: “When asked about her father, she became visibly human.”

The “Absent” web site includes a means for sons and daughters to write letters to their fathers. Can you elaborate on how and why this was created?
This idea came out of the common ground I kept finding in all of the people I met, talked to, interviewed, etc., that seemed to have a disconnect with dad. It was as if they felt they weren’t on the same playing field and they were afraid to try to communicate, yet had so much to say. That no matter what their age, they were still little kids afraid of, and trying to find validation and affirmation from, their dads. So I thought they might need an outlet to do that safely. The response has been remarkable, to say the least.

Currently, with divorce rates skyrocketing, many fathers are not living in homes with their children. I would assume that divorce brings a complicated dimension to the act of parenting, with all of the associated awkwardness and emotional tension… Dad and Mom attending a school assembly as separate entities, for example. It might take more guts for a divorced father to step up to the plate…
Oddly enough, that’s the exact situation I’m in. I’ve been a single dad for about 7 years now. What I’ve learned through the process of not only making this film but living the life of a single dad is that a majority of men in a divorced parenting situation do check out. It’s a battle to be there for your kids, especially when you’re on your own. It’s easier to let it go, maybe blame it on the other person. Show up every other weekend and call it good. I’ve battled for mine and it’s paid off. The three of us have a wonderful relationship and I have them 50% of the time. It does take guts to be a warrior and step up, but the rewards are immeasurable.

From a filmmaking perspective, what are some unexpected hurdles that you encountered? Are there any warnings or cautionary tales you would be willing to offer to other young directors?
I think, from my perspective, I’m in a unique situation. I shoot my own stuff, write it, edit it, produce it, direct it, and pay for it. There are always going to be unexpected encounters, but you just have to roll with it. What always gets me is, going to these film festivals and whatnot, how many people there are in this industry that have hundreds of ideas, but millions of reasons why they can’t be done. I say “bullshit.” “Absent” is scheduled to hit over 100 million households on cable in January. That movie was done by one guy, with one camera. If you’re a young director out there, don’t let anyone tell you anything about what can or can’t be done and why. The thing I’ve learned about myself the most is that “That’s not possible” doesn’t EVER factor into my thinking. I think that’s the attitude you have to have to separate yourself from all of the others.

“Absent” has been marketed in an interesting, unusual fashion, through discussions and screenings in smaller community churches. Can you elaborate on this method for getting the message out – not only about your film, but about the “absent father” pandemic as well?
A couple of things were at play here. One, it’s not your typical film. The reaction to it and the impact of it have lead to these discussions and requests for screenings. I’m going to these locations and talking to folks about their lives and trying to help. It’s much different than just putting it in a string of theaters and hoping for the best. I’m also trying a different approach at distribution, due to some valuable lessons I learned from the last project, “American Meth.” Finally, having financed the film myself, for the most part, I don’t have the budget for a big promotional firm. If I did, I truly believe the film and the topic would be getting exposure on a much larger scale, such as national television shows radio and magazines. James and I went on Fox & Friends, the national morning program, in March. They wanted us again that weekend, live in studio. I just think it has that kind of impact. But that’s the downside of Indie filmmaking. I just don’t have the resources to give it all the chances it deserves.

Hetfield, who plays a prominent part in “Absent,” has been quite generous in promoting the film, accompanying you to various community screenings for Q & A discussions. Did you ask him to help in this way, or did he suggest it? Regardless, it’s obvious that he feels a particularly strong connection to the “cause.”
That really just came out of conversations we had about what the film can do, as well as the relationship that we’ve formed through the process of making the movie. I think he agreed to be involved to discuss the impact his father had on him, not knowing the impact it would have on him as a father himself once he watched it. Regardless, I can’t say enough about how selfless he, and everyone involved at Metallica, has been. Anything we needed, any ideas we had, they were open to and most came to fruition. It’s been one of the most gratifying experiences of my life, getting to know who James really is, as well as how special his family is to him.

How much did it cost to produce “Absent?” How did this compare to production costs on “American Meth?”
As far as simple production costs, I probably put $50,000 to $60,000 of my own money into it. Once it was completed, some dear friends, Brad and Tanya Dalley, came in and helped with funding to get the movie promoted and out to film festivals. “American Meth” was probably done for around $40,000.

John Eldredge and Father Richard Rohr outline several ways in which fatherhood is being acknowledged and embraced – “reclaimed” once again. Men’s groups and church projects have pulled the subject of absentee fathers into the limelight. Can you give an example of one particularly effective support group that has helped fathers improve their parenting?
I think there really are a growing amount of programs, curriculum, and men’s groups that are finding their way to the surface. What’s special about them is that they all seem to be unique to the men that are in the communities where they crop up. For me, it was ‘Wildman’, a curriculum created and applied by Mark Garica, a mentor of mine who is featured in the film. On a national scale, there isn’t one real entity that stands out. However, I also look at the work of Father Richard Rohr and John Eldredge as cornerstones of this movement. The “Men’s Fraternity” curriculum, as well. My hope is that one day, people will say the same about “Absent” – that it was part of the foundation that gave change some inertia.

If a young kid were to approach you and express the pain of living a father-less youth, what types of suggestions might you provide him with?
First, that it’s not your fault. At all. Second, you can break that cycle with your kids. It doesn’t have to go on. Take the pain, grieve for it in your life, and bury it so it doesn’t haunt your children. Be the warrior that steps up and breaks the cycle. Finally, find other men to lean on and learn from. Good men. Let iron sharpen iron. This is what it takes to reach the next level in growth and get past your wounds. We need good men to rise up and invite younger guys, or even less mature older guys, into manhood and the nobility of the fatherhood role. Because there is a gross misunderstanding of how important that role is. We desperately need to help guys understand that, for the hearts of their sons and daughters, one man really does make a WORLD of difference.

Image credit: Absent (Documentary) Facebook Page

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