Over the years, several filmmakers have approached the Becker family with plans to tell the guitar virtuoso’s story. All of their plans fell through. Meanwhile, that 15-year-old kid grew up, trained in film production and relocated to the UK. In his time here, Jesse produced the Raindance Film Festival for three successful years and made a handful of film shorts. But he never forgot about Jason.
Combining extraordinary family access, great archive footage and unobtrusive, earnest, interest in his subject matter, Jesse Vile has made a truly remarkable film. We sat down with him earlier this month to find out more about this inspiring rockumentary.
HUG: The first thing we wanted to talk to you about was your experience of Jason himself. Obviously you came to know him, initially, through your guitar playing and his music. Shred guitar, and all his classical influences, weren’t really your bag at the time so what was it about the music that intrigued you and made you want to learn more about the man behind it?
Jesse: The first thing really was that he was so young, you know, he was this kid. The first album he recorded with Cacophony he was only sixteen – who plays anything like that, who’s good at anything like that at the age of sixteen? And so immediately I was like this is special, he’s a prodigy, he’s unique, this is rare. And then it was just the amount of emotion and feeling you hear in his music. For a young teenager to exude that much emotion in his music and his playing is also really rare. At the time a lot of shredders – and when you talk about shred it’s like there’s no feeling in it – but he was all feeling and he was only sixteen/seventeen when he was doing his first kind of stuff so that was really interesting. And also, in comparison to other shred guitar players, he was just a much better songwriter, his songs were actually interesting and good and different and unique and fun. And also he was incredibly well-rounded – he would shred and do all this classical stuff and then break down into this crazy rock/blues riff or something – he was just a unique talent at the time and he still is. But his guitar playing at the time was incredibly unique and he was incredibly young – he had no business playing like that at that age – and yet he did and that was what really drew me to him.
It’s so striking that, through the course of the film, we see kids doing exactly as you did, discovering Jason today. I wonder if you can speak a little to the enduring appeal – as someone who comes from a fan perspective as well – I mean the young boys we see on screen are just enchanted by him.
I mean there are all kinds of guitar player but the kind of player who is interested in shred guitar is really interested in the challenge and the technique that is involved – like trying to learn a Niccolo Paganini violin piece on the guitar – I mean that is taking it to a whole new level of guitar playing. It’s not just trying to learn, I don’t know, a Green Day song or something. It’s taking it to a whole new level. So what I think intrigues them is just the virtuosity of it, from a guitar technical point of view for guitar shredders it’s very challenging and complicated. That’s what draws those kind of guitar players to Jason – when you look into that kind of guitar playing he’s at the top – he’s one of the top guys. And you’re always going to have people who take the guitar and challenge themselves to play that kind of music so he’s immediately a go-to guy for that kind of music; he’s one of the few. And I think that’s why he still has lots of fans coming up because there are still a lot of those kinds of guitar players coming out. But, then again, his music is so great that it’s timeless. You know you have twelve, thirteen, fourteen year old kids that are getting into his music now – twenty/thirty years later – so I think that’s really the appeal.
We see these incredible home movies and these amazingly intimate family moments in the film. I mean we see the footage of Jason when he was young – becoming the virtuoso. How important was it for you, and for the film, to have that sort of access? It is such a collaboration – and the family are so closely intertwined with the story and with the film – I just wonder why, for you, it was key that they be so involved?
Well, because I wanted the film to capture their true spirit and their true energy and the real story. And they really are…I mean they make the film, they’re the stars of the film, they’re real characters. And so my main goal with the film was to capture their spirit properly and to – when people watch the film – get a sense of who they are and to feel that energy as much as it’s possible just from watching a film. And family members, people that know them – and even they – say that it really does and so I’m really proud of that. So it was just really important that I work with them. And also you know I care a lot about Jason and now I care a lot about them, so going through the process I wanted it to be something they were proud of and also I wanted to be successful. You know you don’t want Jason going “Oh my family hates this film, please don’t. Anyone else out there care to have a go?” You know what I mean? Of course there’s that aspect as well so it’s just respectful, I mean it’s their story; it’s very precious to them.
How did you build that trust with them – because I understand they’d been let down by different filmmakers before. How did you establish that rapport and that level of trust?
I got Jason to give me a confirmed yes, because he was still skeptical at first, I just found as much of his videos, interview footage, news footage, performance footage…anything I could find and cut together a little teaser trailer. It was very low resolution, bad sound quality, everything, and sent it to him and him and his family loved it so they said “Okay great – you’re a creative guy at least – let’s do it!” And they’d been wanting a film made for so long that I think maybe it was just a gut thing for them at first. But, in terms of gaining their trust, before we even went out there I spent a lot of time on the phone, on email, going back and forth trying to get them to understand what my intentions were and I just made sure they were involved in every step of the process. Because I think it was completely new to them as well and I just kept the communication open, that way they never felt lost or concerned or anything. I addressed any questions that they had immediately and just communication and making them understand my motives and what I was trying to do was really what gained their trust I think.
It’s very noticeable that the things which elevate the story above melodrama or ‘true life tragedy’ is in the quality of the relationships that you’ve captured – the banter between Jason and his dad – and just how incredibly creative all of them are. Scenes with Jason talking about wanting to be seen as the dad from Family Guy or going comically back and forth with his own father – do you see the people you met onscreen? Are those the people that you came to know?
Definitely, yeah definitely, I mean, in terms of Jason, wanting to be like the gross dad in the cartoon show Family Guy it’s completely true. Um, it was very difficult at times to get him to be serious – when I was asking him serious questions – he would say something and then bust out with a disgusting line or something and we couldn’t use it. I mean it would actually get to the point where I was like come on now, just get serious – so he really is that way. And the banter between him and Gary is that way, they goof around and stuff, I mean they butt heads a lot – and that’s what Pat, Jason’s mom, always said – they’re very alike. I guess we didn’t capture too much of that just because… Had we been around ten or fifteen years ago, definitely fifteen years ago when he was really going downhill, we would have captured a lot of that, of the fighting. I mean I wanted to kind of get a lot of that, I mean I didn’t want to paint the picture that everything was so happy, everyone would just go “These people are completely in denial!” if everything was just so happy and rosy. But that’s really how they are and when you go over there everyone says the same thing, you just feel this energy of art and love and it just feels…weird, when you walk out of there you feel like you have this second skin or something. It doesn’t last very long after you go out into the real world but it’s really kind of a strange energy.
There was definitely a sense that the camera was a family friend. You’re not inserting yourself into the film and we don’t see you on camera but there was a sense that this was a welcome intrusion and that feeling was remarkable actually…I found that very touching.
We’re speaking to Jason later this week and I wonder if you can tell me, when you finally came to meet in person, what your first impressions were?
I was really just…I mean he’s been such a big figure in my life for fifteen, sixteen years, or however many years. And there’s a lot of mythology around Jason you know, and so he was kind of this mythical, this legendary figure. And, even though I’d spoken to him on the phone, though email and stuff, it was still like he wasn’t even real. And Dave Lopez, his friend who organized the benefit show at the end (of the film) he was like “Wow, people can fly from all over the world and see him and see that he’s real” and that was it. It was like wow, he’s real. He’s this very mythical figure so it was very strange for me to see him. 1) Because of that and 2) because I was like: wow this project is real, you know like there’s no backing out now. Not that I wanted to back out but it was just…that it was really happening, we were in San Francisco making a film about Jason Becker, finally. It was really surreal and his back was to us because we came through the back door so, just seeing him there it was…yeah it was very odd. I mean it wasn’t that odd for my crew because, whatever, they only knew about him for a couple of months, in the lead up to pre-production in the pre-production phase, but it was very surreal. And we ended up just smiling at each other (Jesse laughs) for like ten minutes before things kind of settled down and everything was fine.
How long had you been in communication before that? How long had you been speaking and emailing?
I initially got in touch with him when I was nineteen, when I was in film school, and I spoke to him on the phone, through Serrana (Jason’s former fiancée and long-term carer) with the idea of making a film, and it just never happened because I was really inexperienced and scared and didn’t know what to do. So I first spoke to him then. But properly, with this film, was in June of 2010 when I initially got in touch and the we didn’t start shooting until November 2010. So it was a good four or five months of pre-production that went into it and lots of emails back and forth. I mean we didn’t have much money so we couldn’t go out and take it…play things by ear and take it as it goes. We had to know exactly the questions we were going to ask and the people we were going to speak to so everything was set up –people even drove in 1500 miles for it – so yeah we spoke for quite a bit. We had to know what we were going to get because we only had a couple weeks the first trip and then a week the second trip, so.
That’s something that people may not know as well, that part of this incredible collaborative effort is the way you money for the production as well, could you talk a little bit about that?
Yeah, well we raised about three quarters of the funding through online crowd funding. We initially went through the…applied for grants and spoke to ALS foundations and stuff and they don’t have any money but grants…it was my first feature and I think not many people with money are looking to give money to people who haven’t made a film before there’s not…they want; “Oh have you won an Oscar, then we’ll give you money” kind of thing. So you have to do it yourself. That’s the reason why so many people never make a film because it’s very costly and, if it’s your first, not many people want to invest in you. So I just thought; well, maybe we’ll tap into his fans. And I spoke to Jason and made sure he was okay with it – I mean I didn’t want people to think I was exploiting him or trying to make money off him. And a couple of people even did I mean “How dare you try and scam money out of us for Jason” and it wasn’t, I mean he would hop on Facebook himself and go “No! This is real!” you know, he’s a good guy. So yeah, we had donations from all over the world and it took us about a year and two different campaigns on Indiegogo and just on my own site that was up.
Do you know how many people contributed?
It was over 400 – over 400 people. It might even be more like 450/500. I think it might actually be more like 500 – I can actually open this up and show you if you really want to see the spreadsheet* – but it was a lot. The thing that really surprised me was the places they were coming from, it was like Israel and Iceland and New Zealand, they were just everywhere it was really astonishing. I got emails from people in Iran saying “I really want to donate but in my country there’s a block on sending things overseas!” and the same with China “I really want to donate but I can’t can I maybe translate?” and in Iran “Can I translate the film into Farsi for you instead?” and Turkey and everywhere – it was really incredible the response. And some people gave a LOT.
(*When we looked at the figures they had risen to 900+)
Do you think that is testament to Jason? Are these fans?
I would say that 95% of people that donated are fans. The other 5% are more advocacy for ALS or that maybe just heard about it, saw the trailer and gave a bit. But 90-95%, I’d say, were his fans and that’s where I was really lucky because if this was just a film about someone unknown, with a great story but unknown, then it would have been completely different. They are the reason the film got funding because we would still be trying to raise funding right now. And I have been waiting years to make this film. Jason and his family have been waiting years for a film to be made and we just didn’t want to wait around for our proposal to get in front of the right person and some grant-giving organisation and so we were really lucky in that respect. But it was a lot of hard work and I didn’t have like a BA in it – though I feel like I have a PhD now in film funding and social media just by doing it!
Where is this path going to take you next? Obviously you’re out with Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet at present but what’s your next project?
Um, it’s in the really early stages right now so I can’t publically state what it is but it’s another feature length documentary about a sports figure, hopefully, if everything happens. It’s another great story a lot of people know about, like Jason, but most people don’t know about. Hopefully that goes ahead and, having a film as successful as Jason Becker, obviously that helps. I think it won’t be as difficult. Obviously it’ll still be difficult but it won’t be as difficult getting people to believe in me this time around.
I wonder, what do you want people to take away from the film? I mean you’ve made a rockumentary, certainly, but it’s not atypical. It’s not a sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll story. And I think people don’t necessarily need to come into it as fans of Jason or of the music because it is such a human story. What are you hoping the audience will take from it?
Well…I really made the film for people that had never heard of Jason before and who, perhaps, don’t even like that kind of music even HATE that kind of music but would like the film. I really like documentaries like that; that seem to be about one thing but actually they’re about something totally different and the thing you think it’s about is just the platform that all these other human things play on. I guess what I want people to take away from it is just to be inspired in some way. I mean I can’t really ask anyone to take something away but I think if they walk out feeling maybe a little bit inspired by Jason’s story. That, just because life gives you one of the worst hands it can give you, you still find a way to love and to continue doing what you love. One thing people always said in interviews, when I was making the film, was “Oh man when I’m at home and I think – oh man this terrible thing just happened – then I think of Jason and he’s dealing with something so much bigger and dealing with it like a champ”. I guess it’s just people…human beings seeing what other human beings can accomplish in the face of the greatest odds. Just to be inspired, I suppose.
It does that beautifully, particularly in that you take away that impression, not just of Jason but of each of his family members and each of the people in the film. I think it’s really inspiring that, despite the fact you have talking heads from some of the greatest names in rock, still the people who leave a lasting impression are Jason, his brother, his mother and his father.
Well thank you, and thanks for coming out to talk to me, that’s pretty cool!
Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet opens in the UK on Friday 16th November
Its DVD release is December 3rd 2012