Return to Bataclan: Colin Hanks documents the emotional journey of Eagles of Death Metal

Movies Features

You might know him as an actor, you might know him as the son of Tom Hanks, you might even know him personally. But it might be worth getting to know Colin Hanks as a documentary director. Unlikely as it may seem for someone not coming from a journalistic background, the 39-year-old star of such TV series as "Roswell," "The Good Guys" and his current CBS sitcom "Life in Pieces" can tell a nonfiction story with insight and balance.

He did so with 2015's All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records, which Film Journal International critic David Noh called "fun, often funny and moving…richly informative, human and easily compelling." Hanks' first feature documentary, following the 2014 short "The Anti-Mascot" for ESPN, it scored 97 percent at Rotten Tomatoes based on 31 critics, and while one thought it "goes too easy on the hubris and greed" and another said "Hanks makes the rookie mistake of covering the same points too thoroughly," it was by and large an auspicious debut.

Turning 180 degrees from the musical nostalgia and business lesson of that film, Hanks now faces the unspeakable in Eagles of Death Metal: Nos Amis (Our Friends), which traces the events of Nov. 13, 2015, when Islamic fundamentalists killed 89 people and wounded hundreds more at Paris' Bataclan concert hall, and the journey of the band playing there that night as its members regrouped and returned to the city just three months later—confronting fear and trepidation by getting right back on that pale horse.

Despite the name, Eagles of Death Metal does not play death metal, that subgenre of heavy metal distinguished by heavily distorted guitars, growling vocals and screams, and lyrics invoking violence and horror. Some of those bands evidently are better at all that than others, since when a friend of musician Josh Homme played a particular band's songs for him, the laconic Homme judged that group "the Eagles of death metal"—i.e., death metal, but with that peaceful, easy feelin'. Homme and his friend and musical collaborator Jesse Hughes liked that conceit so much they used it as the name of their straight-ahead rock band—a loose-knit outfit composed of those two principals and a rotating cast of whoever's free to go on tour.

They made a living and had a fan base on both sides of the Atlantic, yet were largely unheard of until the real-life horror of that evening in Paris. And as they amply describe in Hanks' film, they would far rather have remained less known and the horror never have happened. Front-man Hughes, despite all his strutting and macho showmanship, chokes back tears when he contemplates going back, saying in a desperate voice, "I just don't want to fuck up and do anything wrong by anybody that was there with me." Hanks’ HBO documentary portrait of the band’s odyssey opens in New York and Los Angeles on Feb. 10.

One of four children of Tom Hanks, Colin Hanks starred with John Malkovich in The Great Buck Howard (2008) and has appeared in films including Orange County (2002), King Kong (2005), The House Bunny, Untraceable, Oliver Stone's George W. Bush biographical drama W. (all 2008) and others, and starred in seasons of TV's "Dexter" and "Fargo." Married to former publicist Samantha Bryant, he has two daughters. Hanks spoke by phone from the set of his current series.

You had just released the Tower Records documentary, you're appearing in a network TV show... how and why did you want to cram in a documentary? Were you already familiar with the band?

Hanks: Oh, yeah. I've known Jesse [Hughes] and Josh [Homme] for almost ten years now. I was a fan of theirs long before I met them. So I was very well-versed in their music and with Joshua and all of his musical forays. I mean, the dude's in, like, four or five bands [simultaneously]. He is, for lack of a better phrase, a jack of all trades who has all of these different interests and has no interest in doing anything by a book that someone else has written. He's very much an artist in every sense of the word; that's one of the main reasons I was drawn to his music.

I get the feeling that as long as they can make a decent living, the fame thing doesn't matter.

Hanks: Yeah, I mean look—one of the reasons Jesse and Joshua and I became friends is because of our mutual love of music and comedy and movies. It wasn't like, "Oh, you're this actor and I'm this musician, let's be friends." It was that we had the same interests that we would turn each other on to… I would maybe try to show Josh some music he hadn't heard about and he would maybe try to turn me on to a comedian that I hadn't heard about. It was really just that mutual sort of thing.

So how did you come to do it? Did it take a lot of time?

Hanks: We had three weeks. I think maybe the first week was me coming around to it and then meeting with one of their managers and I said, "Look, if the band wants to do it, we'll do it. But they need to really want this. I want to be able to help in any way that I can to make something good come from all of this horrible shit that they're going through"—and not just the band, obviously, but everyone back in Paris. Because we didn't know what it was going to be, but all of our intentions were in trying to be there for everyone who was in Paris. That said, [I told their management that] they need to want to do that, and that's not for me to tell them they should. That's not for me to pitch to them. They've got to be open to the idea, and if they're open to the idea, then we can talk.

And then I think within a couple of days Jesse had sort of said, "Yeah, sure, you're the only person who could do this." Joshua was, like, in a very Joshua way, "You shouldn't do this. I don't think you want to jump into this because this really sucks, this hurts and I don't want to bring you into it." And we sort of had this discussion where I said, “Well, that's really why we need to do this. I'm more than willing to do it because I think this is important, not only for the [survivors] who are going back to the show [on Feb. 16, 2016 at the Olympia concert hall], but I think it's important for you guys, as my friends, that you are able to put something together that you're comfortable with that addresses the most uncomfortable stuff so that you never have to talk about this again."

With this and with your Tower Records documentary, you seem to have a feel for the way pop culture resonates and ripples within a larger human context. Where do you think that comes from?

Hanks: I'm a fan of things—I think it's important not to lose sight of that. I think a lot of times people's instincts are to be cooler than they may seem to be: "Hey, you know about this band?" And your instinct is to go, "Yeah, of course I heard about that band." But I've always thought that's when you shouldn't be afraid to say, "No, I don't know about that…what band? Should I know about that band?" Or that movie or that book or whatever. And that is how you become friends with people.

That's how Jesse and Joshua and I first started bonding and that's how I started bonding with people when I was a kid and would go into a Tower Records or record shops in general when I was growing up. There's that the moment of discovery, when you find something that means the world to you or explains how you feel, whatever it is. That connection that you have with something, when it becomes your new favorite thing or your jam or whatever cool phrase you want to put to it—that, to me, I think is something that everybody can relate to.

The Tower Records documentary could have just been something nostalgic aimed at people who grew up on Tower Records. And yet it managed to speak to people much younger than that.

Hanks: Yes, because it's not about what the stores were, it's about what the stores stood for. I call it "the Hoosiers theory." You say, remember the movie Hoosiers? And everybody goes, "Yeah, the basketball movie." Well, yeah, it's a basketball movie. But what that movie is really about is a small town in 1950s Indiana, the struggles of all the kids and the parents there. So for me, what I try and latch onto is some kind of emotional truth. Or something that may seem innocuous but is actually speaking to a much greater thing. So Tower wasn't just some store that you went to and bought goods. It was a saloon that anyone could go to—everyone could go to—and everyone was welcome. It didn't mater what you looked like, it didn't matter what you sounded like, it didn't matter what your interests were: You could be a snotty classical-music fan or a super-cool jazz fan or a punk-rock kid. Everyone was welcome at that place. It stood for something.

You raised $100,000 on Kickstarter for the Tower Records documentary. And y'know, you're the star of a network TV show, you come from a highly successful family—so why raise money from people on Kickstarter? A hundred thousand—don't you have that lying around the house? [laughs]

Hanks: No, I do not. I do not. [laughs] I started making [the] Tower Records [documentary] in 2006. I was an unemployed actor in New York who had been in some movies and had been on some TV shows but was also desperate for a job. And I was trying to make a documentary in the middle of [the 2007-2008 housing and] financial crisis—nobody wanted to make a documentary about a record store when Lehman Brothers and all the car companies were going bankrupt.

So for me, A, I don't have that kind of money lying around, and B, that's also not how movies work. Not everybody self-finances their entire productions. But I did put my own money in—I shot it with my own camera, that I bought.

"The Anti-Mascot," a short that you did for ESPN—that was your first documentary, right?

Hanks: Yes. Well, no. Really, [the] Tower [Records documentary] was the first sort of foray into it, but that took a great deal of time and while I was doing it I was already doing all of these other things. I did a series of short little mini-docs for a radio station here in Los Angeles, KCRW. I did "The Anti-Mascot" and that was the first thing that was released.

When I found out about Tower [filing for its second and final bankruptcy in 2006], I thought, okay, that's an interesting story. I'm an amateur photographer, so I know how to do that. I've watched a lot of documentaries, I know how to tell a story—it's a sandbox that I'm kind of familiar with, and it struck me as a great way to spend my time between auditions, trying to find the next job. It was a great way to try to be creative in between pretending to be other people, and I just kept with it and kept with it and eventually I was able to meet some other people in the doc space who were willing to take a chance on me. Dan Silver, who used to work over at ESPN, was the one who gave me a shot with "The Anti-Mascot."

Persistence is very important. A lot of people want to do this or that and never do it. You did it.

Hanks: I appreciate that, man. It's the one thing I've learned: If you want to be an actor, it's all perseverance, because no one's going to just give it to you. It's a lot of rejection, and I realized [making documentaries] was exactly like that—dealing with a lot of rejection and just enjoying the work. The outcome isn't really so important—what's really important is the enjoyment of doing the damned thing. And I really love doing it.

I do have to ask one thing about acting. You very often play nice guys. But I understand that you're going to be in your "Life in Pieces" co-star Zoe Lister-Jones' upcoming movie Band Aidas a character called "Uber Douche." Is this humorously trying to break out of "good guy" roles?

Hanks: Well…no. Zoe obviously knows I've played a bunch of good guys at various points, as well as being able to play a few bad guys. But I play a douchebag who happens to be a passenger in an Uber. That's a very important distinction—it's not that he's, like, an über douche, the douchebag of all douchebags. He's just one small douchebag in an Uber!

I can now say that I've talked to good-guy Colin Hanks about douchebags.

Hanks: [laughs] There you go!

Do you think you'll do more documentaries?

Hanks: We'll wait and see. The first one took seven years and this one took seven months, so I'm definitely going to need a little bit of a break. I'm a little fried now, but I'm always looking for a story that seems engaging to me, whatever that may be.