Interview with Sam Dunn, BA '98

Sam with BangerTV team (photo courtesy of Banger Films)

We sat down with Sam Dunn, UVic Anthropology grad and co-founder of Banger Films, to chat about his work and some of his UVic memories. Sam has channeled his academic background into an unconventional career path – one that’s clearly working for him, given the many accolades and awards his work as a documentary filmmaker has received, including a recent Peabody Award win for his series Hip Hop Evolution.

Did you have a favourite professor at UVic?

I think the most influential professor I had at Uvic was Margo Matwychuk in the Department of Anthropology. She inspired me to think about the way anthropology could be used in the real world. She was key in making me realize that instead of being purely an academic exercise, anthropology could be used to create change in a political context. Anthropology should be political work.

John Lutz in the Department of History was another very inspiring person. First, because of the way he approached history – that history is active; history affects the present. Also he was working on Indigenous issues, which was particularly inspiring to me. It taught me that history is right next to you, it’s not in some dusty history book or in a far-off land.

How has your background in Anthropology influenced the way you approach filmmaking?

The anthropological perspective was particularly important to our first film, Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey. My business and creative partner, Scot McFadyen, and I wanted to make a film about heavy metal – but of course it’s a massive topic so we had to find a path into it. We decided to tell it through my eyes, as a fan and an anthropologist.

As a fan, to be sure we were telling a story that was authentic. And as an anthropologist, to look at metal from a holistic viewpoint – from the history of the music, to the geography, lyrical content, and themes that metal addressed for decades. The anthropological perspective helped us bring in a wider audience and make the topic understandable.

You’ve worked with incredible musicians from Canada and around the world. What has been your favourite project to date, and what exciting projects are you working on right now?        

Every film we make is painful. No matter how many times we do it, we think it’s going to get easier and it doesn’t. I actually don’t want to relive any of our films except for one: Iron Maiden Flight 666.

It’s our most visceral, least analytical film. The Iron Maiden film was the craziest ride of our lives – and the one I can sit down and watch because there’s a lot of joy in the film. They’re also my all-time favourite band.

Right now we are working on a documentary series for the CBC using archived footage that goes back to the early 1950s. We’re doing a feature documentary on ZZ Top – did you know they are the longest surviving music group of all time?

Finally, we’re in the process of developing our own streaming service e– a subscription-based service like Netflix, solely focused on heavy metal.

How do you feed your creativity? Where do your ideas come from?

There’s a running joke in our office that there’s “a documentary a day.” There’s never a shortage of ideas but the timing needs to be right.

We’re in the business of creating material that has a time limit, but also has a timelessness to it. What makes an idea good is that it works. I’m painfully practical sometimes.

I know it’s not a very seductive answer. I don’t spend my time doing yoga coming up with brilliant ideas – although I should! I have children, run a company – I hope I don’t come up with ideas in my sleep because it means I’m not sleeping.

Any words of advice for a young person starting out who is interested in combining anthropology and film-making?

Academia is quite a solitary, individually-focused discipline. That idea of being the “expert”. Filmmaking involves hundreds of people. Have you seen the credit roll? What are all these people doing?

My point is, you need to learn to be part of a good team. You have to be able to translate expertise and interest and talent into something that manifests on the screen. And to do that, you need everything from great research, to people who can raise money, to great technical editors.

Learn to work with people who are smarter than you.

And finally – get used to hearing the word no (because you’re going to hear it more than yes). You have to be prepared to put an idea aside.

Nothing about being a documentary filmmaker is easy, but you get to work at something you love.

After completing his BA at UVic, Sam went on to earn his master’s degree in Anthropology at Toronto’s York University, then embarked on his first documentary film, Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey. Metal premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) and won a Gemini Award for Best Writing in a Documentary. Sam’s additional credits include the Grammy-nominated Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage and Super Duper Alice Cooper, winner of Best Feature Documentary at the Canadian Screen Awards.  He co-directed and hosted the biggest-ever TV series on the history of heavy metal, Metal Evolution, which reached #1 on VH1 Classic (USA) and MuchMoreMusic (Canada), and co-directed the Peabody Award-winning spin-off series Hip-Hop Evolution. Sam is currently in production on a number of films and TV series. He lives in Toronto.