Don’t Stop Believin': An Interview with Filmmaker Ramona Diaz
Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey, Ramona Diaz’s new documentary about classic-rock band Journey’s Filipino-born lead singer Arnel Pineda, premiered last month at the Tribeca Film Festival and showed here as the closing night film at the San Francisco International Film Festival. After attending the closing-night show, which also included Arnel and his bandmates live in person, I had the chance to chat with Ramona (who also directed the excellent documentary Imelda, about the former first lady of the Philippines), where she discussed the camera as confessor, converted haters, and the difficulty in finding late-night noodles in San Francisco.
BeyondAsiaphilia: I saw the movie on a DVD screener and then watched it again at the Castro last night, which is a really different experience. The film really works with the crowd. I loved how everyone cheered at the end as if they were at the concert.
Ramona Diaz: Yes, that happened at Tribeca, too. Even with jaded New Yorkers. The crowds have been incredible. It’s nice because you never know how a movie is going to be received.
BA: In Imelda you do a great job making Imelda Marcos a really fleshed-out person, for better or worse. How did she react to the film once she saw it?
RD: She tried to get a restraining order in the Philippines–she sued us in the Philippines but we won, so she let it go. When she saw the New York Times review she how people saw her. It was scary because you don’t want to have to pay all that money but we won. Luckily we got a lot of pro bono work from human rights lawyers who helped us out.
BA: So it’s interesting that you also have Arnel Pineda as an icon, but you personalize him in the same way.
RD: Well, you try to personalize someone and make them flesh and blood, or what’s the point? But when I met him I knew that he was golden. He’s a great narrator of his personal life in whatever language, although he’s more comfortable in Tagalog. The film is a happy story but inside that story is an angst-ridden artist trapped in a fairy tale. He addresses that in the language. Filipino audiences get it—it’s not even a word, it doesn’t translate—he’s kind of sarcastic about it. He knows that things don’t last. It’s a function of his personal experience and what he did to survive on the streets. He can talk about it in a real and fresh way.
BA: Where did you first meet him?
RD: I met him to the when Journey was rehearsing for the tour. I went to shoot a trailer to prove to the band that they had a story. The camera loves him and he returns the love to camera. I’m glad we made the movie in his first year because it would’ve been a very different film in the second year with the band. Now he has a personal assistant—in the first year the camera was his confessor.
BA: Was the fact that you’re Filipino helpful in the process of making the film?
RD: Yes, I was the only other Asian face in the whole band (entourage) and it really helped that he could talk to me. My crew was also very low-key and he got to trust them. Jim Choi was fantastic—he did sound and camera.
BA: You talk about how the band adopted this nation. I like how the Filipino fans are featured in the movie in an interesting way. They’re really present in the film.
RD: They just became more and more present as the tour progressed.
BA: So they found about him gradually?
RD: Oh, yes. With Filipinos word gets around!
BA: So where did you shoot that scene where all of the Filipinos are there with the t-shirts and signs and everything?
RD: That’s at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles.
BA: That’s just a wonderful moment in the movie because he seems so surprised.
RD: Yes, Arnel was just looking for a signal and he was totally surprised at all of the people there to see him. And yet he stood there and signed everything for a good half hour. He might not do that nowadays—now he has a roadie to protect him.
BA: Does he do that now, now that he’s more used to it?
RD: Not so much any more. It’s not a good idea to prolong those things. He has to save his energy for the stage and performing.
BA: Why has he become this icon to Filipinos?
RD: He represents someone breaking through the mainstream, and he’s a talented and wonderful person. He’s very kind to his fans and they’re kind to him. We had to cut this out of the movie but they give him a lot of gifts—clothes, clothes for his wife, clothes for his son.
BA: A friend of mine said that Arnel is kind of an Overseas Foreign Worker. He’s doing this diasporic thing where he has to leave his home in order to make a living. It must be comforting for him to see these Filipino Americans treat him like a family member and make him feel a little bit more at home when he’s away from his home.
RD: He is in a way the ultimate OFW but in a way not—he’s in a different league. He flies back and forth to the Philippines first class.
BA: So he really makes a point of going back to the Philippines?
RD: He refuses to live in the West and now his family tours with him—after the first year he wasn’t alone.
BA: So when you started to make this film did you expect him to become so popular?
RD: Well, it is Journey—someone at Tribeca asked me, “Is Journey really popular?” They’ve got 21,000 people at their shows every night for 90 shows. Converted fans love him. I knew he’d be popular in the Filipino American community.
BA: But some of the response has been, “Where did this person come from?” For people who aren’t Asian American the Philippines could be the moon for all they know. And of course he’s very talented and good at what he does and that helps a lot. But he does mention really briefly in the movie about the haters, the people who didn’t like him in the beginning—there’s one woman who says, “I wish he was American.”
RD: That’s petered out—what are you gonna do? You can’t force people to like you—there’s always racism, so you just have to deal with it and move on. So he really blocked it out. It’s easy to do because you’re in the Journey bubble. What do you care if the bloggers hate you? There will always be hardcore Steve Perry fans who never accept you.
BA: What if Arnel had lost his voice like Steve Augeri (Journey’s previous lead singer)? Did you ever have that thought?
RD: You never know what will happen at the beginning of the shoot–if he’d lost his voice and had to drop out it’s a darker film. You don’t participate—you just go along with it.
People ask if there were creative differences but there weren’t very many. He was their ticket to a very popular summer and everyone had a great time.
I think they were also happy because they took a leap of faith to hire this guy from what seemed like across the universe—who knew if he would work out? It was a leap of faith that worked, so everyone was very happy about that.
BA: How has it been screening the movie?
RD: It’s very exciting and fun. I love the shooting and the process but it is a lot of work. I’m so glad that people are responding so positively. One person said to me, “It seems like a real film!” Meaning maybe not a documentary! I think people have to be educated about documentaries.
BA: You guys were on the road shooting for four months?
RD: We were on the road for four months, plus we went to the Philippines three times. It’s been fours years this month since we started working on the film. My last film, The Learning, was in post when we were about to start this one so I was hesitant at first, but you have to take the opportunity when it comes.
BA: You mentioned funding last night—what support did you get for the film?
RD: We put it on our credit cards and we were working our ass off on commercial jobs to pay for our next shoot. We didn’t get money from the traditional sources like ITVS, since there wasn’t time (to apply). It’s also not a fundable film in the usual sense. Some funders said “It’s too commercial for us.” A lot of people working on the movie deferred their payment—it’s a fun gig, so they were happy to do it. When you’re used to shooting wars in Afghanistan this is much more fun, even if you’re driving around in a mini-van all day. At least at the end of the day you get to stay in a nice hotel.
BA: So this is much more relaxing! Well, congratulations again, this is a really fun movie. We all know how the story ends, that he’s successful, so for me as a filmmaker to watch how you structure that story is also very fun. It could’ve been very maudlin or sentimental and it’s not, it always has a very interesting edge to it.
RD: Arnel takes you out of that sentimental world—he’s a realist. He and his wife have both been around the block a few times so they have a good perspective. He went from nothing to everything in the space of a few months.
BA: So do you still keep in touch with Arnel?
RD: I just saw him off the to airport—I still see him quite a bit. We went to have noodles in Chinatown late last night. San Francisco is such an early town! It was hard to find a place that was open but luckily there was something in Chinatown.
Bonus beats: Arnel Pineda sings “Why Can’t This Night Go On Forever” acapella at the SFIFF Closing Night Q & A for Don’t Stop Believin': Everyman’s Journey. Thanks to APEX Express for the clip!