Piers McCarthy chats with filmmaker Jesse Vile about his directorial debut, the documentary Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet…
Jesse Vile: I first heard out about Jason when I was a teenager and I was taking guitar lessons and a guitar teacher of mine told me about Jason and gave me some of his music and I immediately fell in love with it. Then when I read more about his story and heard more about him I just became more and more interested in him as a musician and as a person. And so over the years [I] just loved his story and wanted other people to know about it.
I would always try and introduce people to his music and show them songs and things like that and tell them, and they’d always go, “Wow, that’s amazing!” And I just wanted to do that visually and I have been involved in film for many years – I studied film – and so, naturally, making a film about him was the next step.
PM: You’re producer of the Raindance Film Festival, which specialises in promoting new filmmakers, how long were you part of that?
JV: Well I was. I was from 2006-2008.
PM: When did you start prepping for Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet?
JV: It was under 2 years. Essentially I’ve been in the film industry for 10 years or but it was always in the position of helping other filmmakers and I wasn’t doing my own work and I went to film school, I want to be a director, and so I don’t want to take a back seat. I was at a point in my life where I decided I was going to make my own dreams hopefully come true, so that’s what really launched it. And I saw a lot of filmmakers, who I met, and I saw their work, and I saw that it was doing really well and I thought, “Well, I’ve met them and they’re not any smarter or more creative than I am; I’m sure I could do something just as good, if not better.” That’s the attitude you have to have in life – just go and try and do it. So, yeah, it was under two years.
PM: How was it going about the process of making it? How easy was it to get Jason and his family involved, and to collate all that footage and material?
JV: We spent a good three or four months just taking on the phone and on email. I sent them over a ton of questions and they’d send them back and I’d just always ask questions and try and get a better understanding of who they were as people; where they fit into the story, where everyone else fit into the story and then take it from there.
They’ve been a part of the process from the beginning all the way until the very end. It was very important to have them involved for many reasons. Mainly, because I thought it would make a better film. So anything from giving me their archive—their footage of Jason as a kid, as a teenager, photos, any audio, any scrap of anything I wanted. So they had to dig everything out (they hadn’t done that in years) but it’s good because I digitally archived everything and gave them a copy. So now they have copies of everything saved on DVD and stuff.
PM: There’s a scene in the last third of the film where Jason and his dad are communicating through the sign language…
JV: They call it “vocal-eyes”
PM: Well when we see them using the “vocal-eyes” technique, it all seems second-nature to them and very interesting to watch, was there any thought about extending stuff like that? With all that footage you mention, how did you decide on a particular length/structure?
JV: Well we went through various cuts and various versions of the film and the final film was the one that we were the happiest with; we felt it was the best film we could make. We initially discussed having a more past/present, present/past in the way we told the story – mixing up the way we told the story/the form – but I was just always more interested in the classic three-act structure. Mainly, with the first two acts being a telling of Jason’s story in a linear fashion, and the third being the present day – that’s just the way I envisioned it and when you wrote it down and laid it out that’s, I think, the easiest way to digest the story and it also helps to tell the best story.
PM: The pacing is handled expertly. And this is your first feature film, is that right?
PM: Well drawing upon that: the start of Jason’s story looks at his musical education (Bob Dylan, for instance), what education did you bring to the project? Did you watch a lot of documentaries before starting?
JV: I watched a ton of documentaries; I mean that’s all I watched. I mostly watched biographical ones; just to get an idea of how other directors did things – not to copy anything but to get a sense of how certain things are done, or how certain things can be done. You watch anything that’ll educate you or help you develop as a filmmaker. There were certainly ones I gravitated more toward – it’s really the ones that were more honest and true, that captured the spirit of the individual as that was more of what I was going for.
I would send Jason DVDs of documentaries to watch also, as I don’t think he watched too many docs and I think, at first, he was a little wary of opening up so much. My initial conversations with him I think he was planning on putting on a front but not revealing himself as much as I wanted him to. So without saying anything I sent him documentaries like Tyson, in which he [Mike Tyson] reveals a lot about himself (he even cries) and Anvil, which Jason was like, “Oh my God, I hope you don’t make me look as ridiculous as those guys!”. But they’re honest and open and they don’t hold anything back, so I sent him those films (and a few more) just so he could see that to make a good documentary it’s really great when people are honest and open. So I watched a ton of documentaries and I read Jean-Dominique Bauby’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. I had seen the film a couple of times before I started making this film but I wanted to read the book and get a sense of what it’s like to be trapped inside your body. So I definitely read and watched a lot.
PM: Sadly, the success of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is something Bauby was not able to experience; this isn’t a nice thing to bring up but the fact that Jason’s disease is terminal, did that dread affect you as you were making the film?
JV: It didn’t in terms of making me feel weird or anything, but because it’s so up in the air (his life expectancy), no one really knows – it’s unprecedented. So I was always panicked that we weren’t going to finish it or that he was going to pass away before we had chance to finish it. Not for any other reason than I wanted him to see it and experience any kind of publicity or fan-fare that he would get from it, and so thank God that that didn’t happen. That’s probably the only time I ever really thought about his terminal illness. Because every day is a miracle for him; I was like “Wow, it’s almost three years—three and a half, that’s a lot of miracles.” So thankfully he’s still around.
PM: Well it is a miraculous story and it has the chance of reaching a massive audience because of that story of a strong human spirit. What are your expectations of the film?
JV: Thanks, and I know what you mean, but unfortunately documentaries aren’t the most popular form so it really just depends on cinemas picking it up and putting it out there, getting it into the press or just something happening (it being on a famous talk show). There’s a lot of great films that don’t get seen by as many people as they should, so I don’t know. I just hope it helps Jason and his family and that people take away something positive from the experience of watching it.
PM: Well documentaries are kind of thriving at the minute, so has there been any push from distributors?
JV: Yeah, well we have UK distribution, US and Canadian distribution and hopefully they’re doing their jobs in trying to get word out as much as they can, and having the film into as many outlets as they can. But they can’t control the cinemas – if the cinemas don’t want to book it, for instance. But we have a Facebook page with 40,000+ strong around the world. And Jason has a huge following. So we just promote every screening and try to get as many people as we can to go, and try to do as many interviews as we can, and that’s essentially all we can do. I’m a one-man-team – doing all this stuff on my end and there’s only so much I can do. But hopefully it gets out there.
PM: Well I imagine anyone who’s seen it so far – me included – hopes the same. You mentioned being on your own for the promotional side of things but when it came to making the documentary how did you assemble your crew?
JV: Most of them were NFT [National Film and Television School] graduates and so what’s really good about NFT grads is that they’re usually very talented, very creative, and they’re looking for projects; they’re fresh out of film school with all this knowledge and talent and looking for big projects. So I asked one of my co-producers, Peter King, if he knew anyone and he’s worked with some people and he gave me a few recommendations – that’s how I found my sound designer and my cameraman. With my editor I was just asking people – I asked my sound designer for any recommendations he had (people he knew, people he’d worked with) and he gave me a few names and then I went to an editing talent agency – I can’t even remember how I got the other guys – to interview them and the one I gelled with the most, and the one I felt the best energy from, and whose work I liked the most was who I went with.
It was a small budget – they weren’t doing it for free but compared to what the top editors earn it was very little. It was really just getting recommendations from people and meeting them and making sure their ideas for the film gelled with mine and that I got a good feeling from them.
PM: Did their love for music come into that choice at all?
JV: I think originally – it definitely helps if they like music (none of them liked Jason’s music to begin with) – I was looking for an editor who was a shred guitar fan; I felt I needed someone who knew what that type of music was about and just got it. But then that didn’t happen (it didn’t break my heart that it didn’t happen – I wasn’t beholden to that idea) and after I picked my editor I realised it’s actually better they’re not into that kind of music because I wasn’t making the film for fans or fans of shred guitar, I was making it for people that don’t even know about it but will still like the film. So I thought it was more important to have someone who was into music, but not into that type of music because then you would have had a fan-boy putting in lots of stuff, and as a director I would have stopped them, but it would gotten in the way of things. The main thing was that they were all in love with Jason’s story and that was important. Everyone who worked on it was very passionate about Jason’s story and that was the important thing with putting it together. This wasn’t a money project; it was more about getting experience (of course getting paid, too) and believing in the story.
PM: Speaking of music, what’s your favourite track of Jason’s? It’s incredible that even after being diagnosed and becoming paralysed that he still writes music – are you a fan of the new stuff or more taken with the old classics?
JV: Well I like everything that he’s doing, but my favourite stuff is the stuff that turned me on to him because it’s nostalgic and it’s what launched this whole thing for me. My favourite track (which is probably pretty much everyone’s) is “Altitudes” which is on his first solo album, Perpetual Burn – that’s what made me stop and say, “Wow, I can’t believe this 17 year-old is exuding this much emotion in their music with the guitar” and that’s what made Jason stand out for me, so for those reasons I prefer his early work.
PM: I know you mentioned it not being a money project but would you release the soundtrack for the film?
JV: I don’t think so because I know nothing about the music industry and, again, it’s just me and I don’t have the time or resources to put out the soundtrack and I don’t think his record label does either.
PM: But it’s all out there anyway?
JV: Yeah, the only thing you can’t get is the original score that Michael Lee Firkins did, which is not throughout the whole film (it’s mainly in the first half of the film – it doesn’t appear at all in the third act).
Actually, there are two tracks in the film that you can’t get yet but I’m sure they’ll be out soon.
PM: Right at the end we see that concert honouring Jason – is that more common now? Are people more aware of the man behind the music thanks to the documentary?
JV: I’m not sure how it’s affected his album sales but he’s going to a lot more screenings and he’s a lot more active now because of the film so that’s been really great for him. It gives him stuff to look forward to and to go out with his family and friends, celebrate his life and meet new people – in that regard it’s been really great for him.
PM: Veering off from the film, have you got any future projects lined up?
JV: Yeah, I’m developing one at the moment. It’s way too early to get into it – I’m not supposed to say anything about it – but it’s the early stages of development. It’s quite a complex story but hopefully it does happen.
Thanks to Jesse Vile for taking the time to take part in this interview and to DogWoof for setting it all up.
Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet has a limited release starting from the 16th November, you can read our review of the film here.
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