How 'Los Últimos Frikis' Director Nicholas Brennan Made a Heavy Metal Movie in Cuba
In his documentary “Los Últimos Frikis,” Nicholas Brennan brings the viewer deep into the intimate lives of Cuba’s biggest heavy metal band, Zeus. Every moment captured, from the banalities of daily life to life-changing emotional revelations, makes you feel like you’re living life right alongside the band as a member of their inner circle. Maybe it’s because that’s precisely what Brennan did—the director followed and filmed the band, entrenching himself in their lives, for a decade. Considering that the film takes place in Cuba, a country with which the US has had contentious relations since the 1950s, that’s no small feat.
Topic sat down with Brennan to chat about his raucous documentary, reminisce over his own musical influences, and get the behind-the-scenes scoop. Here’s his firsthand account of what it was like to spend 10 years in Cuba making a film about a heavy metal band.
Click here to watch “Los Últimos Frikis” on Topic.
How did this project start and why did you want to tell the story of Zeus?
“Los Últimos Frikis” began as a short film in 2009 when I traveled to Cuba as a student with NYU’s film school. They’ve got a pretty amazing three-month documentary program that they run in Havana each year. A Cuban friend in the program invited me to a concert at the ‘Maxim Rock’ venue knowing that I was a bit of a punk. I walked in and Zeus was on stage putting on a hell of a performance. I was captivated and that essentially kicked off this 10-year journey. I made an initial short film called “Hard Rock Havana” during that first trip, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2010 and opened up a bunch of doors to ultimately be able to tell this feature-length story.
Did you grow up listening to heavy metal?
Hell yeah. I grew up as a drummer and percussion is such a fun and crucial part of heavy metal music. I was in that rather cringe early 2000s pop-punk and “screamo” era. So bands like Thrice, As I Lay Dying, Glassjaw, and Atreyu were what I mainlined as a young punk teenager.
This film is not only the story of a metal band, but in many ways it is also the story of Cuba. Can you tell me more about the country’s role in the film?
A big part of what makes Zeus and the frikis so special is how they’ve managed to flourish and survive in a place that has tried so hard to crush them. In this way, Cuba is really a second main character alongside the band in the film. We see how Zeus has evolved through the many changes that Cuba has gone through in the past 30 years.
What was it like making a film in Cuba over the course of 10 years? Was the project affected by the political whiplash between Obama’s term and Trump’s?
One special thing about making a film over a long period of time is seeing how we all grew and changed throughout production, not only the subjects in front of the camera, but also the crew. The film was made by a close-knit team of Americans and Cubans working and growing up together. These are friendships and creative partnerships that started during production and I hope will continue for years to come.
In terms of the political whiplash, when I made my first trip to Cuba, George W. Bush was still president and relations between the US and Cuba were basically frozen. Over the years, we kept filming through the opening of President Obama and then the backsliding under Trump, and we’re now releasing the film at a moment of great uncertainty about the future in Cuba. So the story continues!
What is your relationship with the country now?
Well, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the relationship is quite remote at the moment. We were lucky to have been able to screen the film at the major Havana film festival in December 2019 right before the pandemic hit, but unfortunately we had two other screenings in Cuba cancelled in 2020. After 10+ years of traveling there several times a year, it’s definitely been strange to be away for so long, particularly in the midst of so much difficulty there.
Can you describe in your own words what “the forbidden truth” is?
Tricky question. I’d say the best way to understand this “forbidden truth” is to watch the film! It’s something that we wrestled with constantly during production—how to show an audience something that the subjects didn’t feel safe saying directly. In this sense, I think the forbidden truth could be the limits of our own self-censorship, what we feel we can’t say openly, but know to be true.
Did you and the band have any fears going into making this documentary or did you all embrace it as another form of rebellion?
The band was excited by the opportunity to share their story and their music with the world, but obviously concerned with the limits of this “forbidden truth” that we talk about. The band members all live in Cuba and don’t necessarily want to leave the country, so the fears for them are the potential repercussions of the regime on their livelihoods in Havana. There’s definitely a sense of rebellion in the face of that fear to still speak their truth.
Were there any surprising, hilarious, or otherwise noteworthy incidents during filming that didn’t make it into the film?
So many! Ten years of filming adds up to a lot of footage! One element that we filmed a lot of, but you don’t really get a sense of in the final film, is how the lead singer, Diony, holds court at his home. His living room is like a town hall with people coming and going and hanging out at all hours. It feels like we spent years on his couches, but ultimately it adds up to one or two scenes in the film.
Having spent 10 years with the band, do you feel like you’re forever embedded in each other’s lives? Will you continue to follow Zeus’s journey and the evolution of heavy metal?
Definitely, I’ll look forward to seeing the band’s 35th, 40th, maybe even 50th anniversaries! We spent a lot of life together, so we still remain as close as we can be in the midst of these distant pandemic days.