Colin Hanks & Eagles of Death Metal on Documenting the Bataclan Massacre Without Being 'Exploitative or Clickbait-y'

Rainer Hosch
From left: Colin Hanks, Jesse Hughes and Josh Homme photographed Jan. 26 at Good Times at Davey Wayne’s in Los Angeles.

When actor-director Colin Hanks approached Eagles of Death Metal about making a film chronicling the rock group’s journey after the terrorist attack at Paris’ Bataclan theater on Nov. 13, 2015, the band’s co-founder Josh Homme waved him off. “I told Colin, ‘Stay as far away from this as possible,’ ” says the 43-year-old drummer and Queens of the Stone Age leader, sitting in Studio A at Hollywood’s United Recordings. “‘Don’t get this on you. You won’t sleep.’”

Hanks did not listen. Eagles of Death Metal: Nos Amis (Our Friends), which premieres on HBO Feb. 13, provides a harrowing account by band members and fans of the assault that left 90 dead, but it also pulses with the spirit of the hard-rock group’s redemptive return to Paris three months later. 

Hanks, working with a skeleton crew, takes a deliberately non-fussy approach, utilizing close-ups to capture his subjects’ emotions; he lets the story unfold with the band's own words, using no narration.

“I thought this was a good way to make something positive — this is not just for the band, but for the people that were there,” says the 39-year-old son of Tom Hanks, who also directed 2015’s All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records. That documentary took seven years to make; Hanks completed Nos Amis, the first film through Live Nation Productions, in seven months.

It helps that Hanks has known Homme, whom he first met at a Queens of the Stone Age show, and EODM frontman Jesse Hughes, 44, for years. The access was a given, but he wanted to tread cautiously. “I very specifically did not want it to be exploitative or clickbait-y,” says Hanks. Hughes and Homme stress that they wouldn’t have trusted any other director with the project. “Colin’s one of us,” says Hughes.

With the camera tight on Hughes’ face, he chronicles, with brutal specificity, the horrific sights and smells in the club, and coming face-to-face with one of the attackers.

Fourteen months removed from that night, Hughes’ onstage flamboyance comes out; on a sunny day in late January, he giddily bursts into the studio on roller skates to interrupt Homme’s work on the next Queens of the Stone Age album, before popping off a respectable half axel on the wooden floor. As soon as he begins talking about the attacks, however, the facade crumbles.

“These were my friends that were killed, just trying to have a good time with me,” he says, fighting back tears. “So I’m always going to be like this when I talk about it. I don’t think it’s ever going to go away.”

Homme was not at the Bataclan; he had stayed in Los Angeles to be with his pregnant wife, and drummer Julian Dorio served as his replacement. Homme decided not to go to Europe only a few days before the November tour started. “I’d asked someone to sit in my place and that’s what happened to them, to Julian and all my closest friends,” he says quietly. 

Hughes and Homme have been friends for three decades, ever since a 14-year-old Homme rescued a 15-year-old Hughes from bullies at a Palm Springs pool party, and Hughes recoils when asked if having Homme at the show would have made the unbearable night any easier for him. Knowing that Homme was safe was “far bigger for me than him being there,” says Hughes, choking up. “He would have been in harm’s way. He’s just too physically large.”

U2, which had postponed its Parisian dates in November 2015 after the attacks, invited EODM to join the band onstage in Paris less than a month later. “It was important because it’s the defiant thing to do,” says U2’s The Edge in the documentary. Without that nudge, Hughes says he doesn’t know if the band could have played its February 2016 show at Paris’ Olympia theater. Though some members of their management team questioned their rapid return, Hughes says, “That was the only way to make it heal cleanly, to scrape off all of the other shit that had been building up over those three months.”

The documentary captures a visibly shaken Hughes being asked during a French interview the day before the February show if his pro-gun stance has changed since the attacks. He answers, in part, “Did your French gun control stop a single f—ing person from dying at the Bataclan?” Though he says he initially questioned Hanks’ decision to leave in the controversial comment, he’s glad the documentary features a longer excerpt of the interview that reveals a fuller context. Being back in the public eye so soon revealed his stages of grief—for better or worse. “When you go through someone trying to murder you at your own show, there’s going to be a healing process,” he says.

Last spring, he made derogatory comments about Muslim staff members at the Bataclan, which caused two French rock festivals to cancel EODM’s appearances. Hughes, an outspoken conservative, later apologized for the comments and blamed them on PTSD. “I love people. I have Muslim friends,” he says. “Some of the things that were revealed in my process, no one else ever had to have revealed into the light of day.”

Though he desperately wanted to be there, Homme’s participation in the Olympia concert was in doubt because it conflicted with his baby’s due date. His son was born at 11:48 p.m. on Feb. 13. Homme caught an 8 a.m. flight to Paris Feb. 14 for the Feb. 16 show. 

Being at the Olympia, Homme says, “was a chance to explain who I am to the people I care about—to the fans that survived, to the ones that did not make it who came to see Eagles because they came to see Queens first. Where words fail to express, a single action says it all.”

He also makes clear that, regardless of his Queens of the Stone Age commitments, he’ll always be on hand to support Hughes in and out of the band. In the doc, he gives Hughes a pre-show pep talk before they play the Olympia show. “I’ve got your back,” Homme tells Hughes. “I’m the arm, you’re the fist.”

For Hughes, the Olympia concert, attended by survivors from the Bataclan show, was the fulfillment of rock's healing promise and a chance to reflect on what he considers his true calling: leading EODM. “This is the greatest job I’ve ever had in my life,” he says. “I didn’t have a lot of friends in school and I have friends now. I have beautiful friends. I have a value and I have a worth and place in this beautiful, beautiful machine.”

The band did not play “Kiss the Devil,” the song it performed as the attacks began, during its February Paris set. Hughes vows it will return, though he admits, “If playing it would make one of my friends who was there even a second uncomfortable, then it wouldn’t be worth it to me.” 

EODM has begun working on a new album, which Hughes simply declares, “will probably be the horniest album that I’ve ever made. Your earholes are definitely going to know when I’ve been inside.”

Meanwhile, Live Nation (which declined to discuss the film’s budget) will continue wading into the documentary world with upcoming projects including the life-on-the-road series I’m With the Band for the Pop channel and a feature look at the recent Bad Boy Family Reunion. Hanks is concentrating on co-starring on the CBS series Life in Pieces, although he says he “will always make” new documentary projects. “Documentaries are my way to tell stories in a different way than I’m accustomed to, [which is] putting on make-up and pretending to be someone else.”

“I knew this was the perfect first film for Live Nation,” says Heather Parry, Live Nation’s president of production, film and television. “Set against the backdrop of tragedy and then survival, Colin has really delivered a powerful story,” agrees Live Nation president/CEO Michael Rapino.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Feb. 11 issue of Billboard.