In cinemas now, Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet is the moving story of the eponymous guitarist who refused to give up on his dream despite being diagnosed with a rare, incredibly serious wasting disease. PPH caught up with the film’s eminently likeable young director Jesse Vile to talk about his must-see film, the process of art, and cheese in cans.
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PPH (in bold): From watching the film it’s pretty obvious you have a great deal of genuine feeling for Jason and his family. Having read some of what you’ve written and said in previous interviews it seems this was an idea you had germinating for a while. Apart from knowing his work growing up what was it that drew you to his story?
Jesse Vile (in regular): The thing about Jason is he’s such a rare individual. Everything about him is rare. The fact that he was so talented at such a young age and the fact that he actually achieved the rock and roll American dream at 19 – that’s rare. Not many people get to do that. And for his talent and the amount of success that he was able to achieve he was still a super down-to-earth great guy who didn’t get into drugs and alcohol like most rock stars do – that’s rare. And then he gets a relatively rare disease at an extremely rare age, and then lives 23 years after diagnosis which is…only 5% of people with ALS ever do that so that’s extremely rare. So he’s just a rare person. I thought: what a fascinating guy, everything about this guy is just amazing and he just never stops amazing people and just being brilliant pretty much and that’s what drew me – he’s an amazing person.
So was it the idea of telling an incredible story, would you say, that you wanted to make something that was inspirational to other people in that sense? Or you just wanted his story to be known to a wider audience?
Yeah, well I definitely wanted that that for sure – for his story to be more widely known. But I didn’t want to make just a fan film – I didn’t want to make a film that only fan-boys of Jason and of the guitar would like – I think a lot of directors probably easily could have gone in that direction. I wanted to do something that was… that had more of a universal human story at its core – because it does. I mean – to spend all that time and resources to make a film about Jason which is purely just about his shred and having ALS and dealing with it would have been selling the story short – it was more about incorporating all of the main characters in his life and all the themes that come out in a film. So yeah, I guess I didn’t really set out to inspire people because Jason did that for me, I just pretty much kept myself out of it [laughs] as much as possible.
You can definitely see that in the film. And I would definitely say that it succeeds at being a universal message, one that I personally found really hopeful. As a film that’s aiming for a universal audience – because it is quite niche terms of subject matter – regardless of the way the film turned out some people are still going to perceive it as being mostly about a shredding guitarist. As the producer as well as the director how have you found the challenge of bringing it to that wider audience and how much pressure have you felt being so personally connected to Jason and the people who are close to him, in gaining that wider audience?
I feel very lucky and grateful that it’s been received so well on the festival circuit. I think that’s really helped bring it to a wider audience. It’s very, very, true people either look at my film and go “oh my god it’s about heavy metal and a guitar shredder” or “it’s about ALS and it’s sad and depressing” and they don’t go for either of those reasons. You know, people come up to you after Q&As and they say “great film” or, they don’t [laughs] – but the most satisfying ones are when people come up to me “I just stumbled in. The film I wanted to see was sold out so I came in here and I’m so glad that I saw yours. Has it been out long?” I mean that’s cool because that’s really who I made it for: people who would maybe just stumble in, had never heard of Jason, hated shred guitar and would walk out kind of glad that they saw the film.
I think it would be sad if people were put off by the fact that it involves shredding. In some senses it starts off as being about Jason’s career…but you don’t watch The Wire because you’re really into the idea of being a drug dealer…
Yeah, exactly, like “I’m a crack addict so I’m looking to start selling crack in the streets of Baltimore or whatever”. It’s difficult! Fortunately in the States, the UK and Canada it’s not my main job any more – my job is support and to help get the word out to Jason’s fan-base and things like that.
It was interesting: earlier you called Jason’s success ‘the American Rock and Roll dream’ – what did you mean by that?
Well, just to be a rock star. If you’re an American kid, most American kids want to either be a football player or an astronaut or…a rock star. Maybe some people want to be doctors and teachers and stuff, and those are brilliant obviously but I think kids grow up wanting to be rock stars. You’re in a rock band in middle school and high school because it’s worth aiming at.
It’s funny though because when you’re particularly a teenager the idea of rock and roll stardom appeals because of the lifestyle. But then with Jason it doesn’t seem he was really into all of that, so it’s interesting because he got into it purely because of the music – which I think is quite naturally a part of his success – that he really committed to it.
Yeah, Jason’s dream was never to just get chicks and do drugs and drink. His dream was to be a professional musician – but to be the best one. He wanted to be the best guitar player – and he was on his way to doing that. And that’s what those guys on that label – the label he was on, Shrapnel Records – that’s what that label was about. It was started for guys like that, that were focused on just being the best on the guitar. It was for guitar nerds and really technical guitar playing and – you know the guy in the film Richie Coxon? He’s in the film very briefly, he’s an old friend of Jason’s – he was in the band Poison in the 80s who are known for super glam excess and all that kind of stuff – and he basically said “we didn’t do that any of that stuff. That’s not what we were about on that label. We were all about guitar, being the best at the guitar.” And then what he said is kind of funny – it’s like “and then you know, once I figured out: ok I can play guitar. Now what?” That’s when he got into all the shit.
There seems to be an obsessive impulse that runs through all these guys…
It’s competitive! And…it’s not just like Keith Richards – they’re not just writing great songs on the guitar that aren’t…well some of those songs are really difficult! But you could probably learn a Keith Richards song if you started playing guitar within a year, whereas one of Jason’s songs you’d spend ten years trying to learn it. It’s a completely different level of technical guitar playing. And so you can’t be all fucked up on drugs if you’re gonna play like that! We interviewed Steve Vai. He had a really interesting thing where he was like: “I was a bee on the edge of the honey pot. And I would just take a little taste every now and again. But I knew a lot of guys that would fall in and that was it.” And for him, again, for him the most exciting thing was getting an idea out of his head and onto tape. And some guys, they’re excited about just being fucked up, you know?
They’re virtuosos. The way those guys look it almost reminds you of the way musicians looked in the times of Beethoven and Mozart doesn’t it?
[Laughs] Jason never wore that stuff though. All that glam stuff you see him in – that was just someone dressing him up for photos. He was just into jeans and sneakers.
He strikes me as an incredibly unpretentious guy from an incredibly unpretentious family. His parents and his brother – all the people around him – are obviously crucial in his life before as well as after the illness. The influence of his parents shines through the film as a big part to his character…
I’m glad you saw that because that was definitely intended – they’re huge characters. They’ve done everything for Jason – they’ve given up their lives for him – not just to take care of him for the past twenty years, but for everything. At the very beginning they nurtured him. They saw that he was interested in the guitar and they nurtured that. They supported him and, yeah, they’re huge characters. Hid Dad invented how he speaks now for Chrissakes! You know what I mean? They’re not going to not have a huge part in the film. They just awesome people, and really interesting. Gary (Jason’s Dad) has the greatest voice. He’s so great on radio. Everything about them was brilliant so I just wanted to include them as much as possible.
I think there are certain moments of the film that really bring out an optimism in humanity. The fact that his parents devoted themselves so much to their children…you can infer that from the film – they seem extremely tight as a unit and it was almost like a blueprint of how to be a good family. The parents are artists, really creative people but not in the way that they’re trying to use that creativity as a leverage above other people. Where was it they live?
Richmond, California. It’s quite near San Francisco.
It’s not an amazingly affluent area, it’s quite run down…
Dave Lopez says it’s pretty ghetto. And he’s right man. A couple of the guys from my crew went and picked up the Chinese food we ordered for lunch when we were shooting and they were scared to death! It’s rough man! Jason’s old high school has got barbed wire, a fence and metal detectors.
I love that though, I love that they’ve brought him up in a really… I guess it’s realistic urban environment. Some of his friends were interviewed in the film, and again, they just looked like an amazingly tight knit group – good people you know?
Yeah. I met some amazing people making this film. Everyone I met. Well, just about everyone (chuckles ironically) were just unbelievably amazing.
It’s just unbelievably selfless a lot of these people and what they give up for Jason. That was amazing. I never really saw a family that close before and people just give up their lives to help someone else before like that. It was really inspiring.
In the wrong hands this film could have been incredibly melodramatic. I could tell that wasn’t your intent…
I’m not a sentimental or melodramatic guy. Most Brits I think definitely aren’t and that’s why it was great working with a British film crew and a British editor because you want some drama but you don’t want it to be…[sighs] lame. I think it’s more of an American thing. Because we love our cheese.
Yeah. Why is that?
We just love cheese. We love it so much we put it in cans. And squeeze it out on ourselves.
Spray it all over each other.
Yeah! We love it! But you know, I think you’re just immediately aware when something’s just [grimaces] cheesy so it’s kinda…there are certain scenes in the film where I asked “dude was that cheesy” and they’d be like “no, that’s great” and I’d be like “OK, cool”, you know?
I think it struck a nice balance. To sentimentalise a situation like that is to patronise Jason quite a lot and you showed him the appropriate amount of respect – the tone of the film was spot on in that sense.
It could have been really easy to do that if you didn’t try and keep a close eye on it – not because he’s someone to be pitied but it’s not something you deal with every day is it?
You’re in a situation where it’s really easy for someone from the outside to say “Oh, poor you”, though.
He gets that all the time. At the end of the film you see him go see his spiritual guru, Amma – and he gets people going up to him [speaking in a loud, slow voice] “hello – how… are… you… today?” And I saw that and I was like for fuck’s sake. And Sorana’s like “he’s not deaf you know”. Or they’ll go round and go, “you’re such an inspiration” and he’s just like “thanks, that’s really sweet but it’s a bit much!”
The thing with Jason is once you hang out with him you know he’s not like everyone – in many ways. And not just because he’s ill. Especially in emails because on email he can ramble on and crack jokes…
He comes across as having a sharp wit.
He does. And he’s really observant. For obvious reasons. He can’t just jump in and start chatting. And he was really getting the whole film thing. He was picking up a lot of stuff, with people in interviews. He’d say “no, you have to go back and do it like that” and it was like “oh yeah!” No, he’s really observant and he’s a smart dude. He’s not just great at guitar he’s a smart guy as well.
You talked once before, in another interview I saw, about waiting to make this film until you were ready – you had the idea in film school – what prepared you to finally take that step of saying “alright, I can do this now”?
It was a combination of regret and the challenge. I think I always regretted not following through with it. I’d always see his name in my ITunes and just go “oh!” – I couldn’t even listen to it – I was so like “damn, when am I gonna make this film?” and all the rest of it. So it was kind of that, thinking “I don’t want to feel that way any more. I want to make this film. Fuck that. Fuck regret.” And the other was just – I’m ready. I was 29 when I started and I was like “I want to make – or be making a film – before I’m thirty at least” and…I don’t know! I just felt I was ready. I’d experienced things in my life.
It must take an emotional maturity to deal with such a vast subject matter that, as you say, requires a lack of sentimentality in certain areas…
For sure. And I think I was just really creatively starved. I wasn’t doing anything too creatively fulfilling at the time.
Were you working a normal job at that point?
Yeah. I’ve always worked in the film industry – helping other film-makers have their work be shown and put out there and exhibited – but never my own. And it was always like: when am I going to get around to doing that? You know, you get stuck in your day job, paying the bills and going on holiday and all the bullshit and then you come home and you’re tired – you don’t want to write. You don’t want to put a project together and raise a hundred grand of funding. You don’t do that stuff so…really, it’s a big effort so it just takes something to push you over the edge to think “Fuck it. Just do it.”
And now that you’ve done it have you got other ideas germinating? New plans forming?
Yeah, I’ve been developing something for the past few months. It’s not concrete. I don’t really have the rights to do it yet. Unfortunately. I’d love to be able to talk about it because I’m quite excited but because it might not happen. But yeah, it’s going to be amazing! It’s got to be something you love to do because you’re going to be busting your ass doing it for two or three years – longer sometimes.
I remember I saw a Q&A with Shane Meadows and he said just don’t work on anything you’re not passionate about. He said he wasn’t that passionate about Once Upon A Time In The Midlands and that’s why he didn’t like it, or it didn’t turn out as well as it should have – because he didn’t love it. And I feel the same way. I can’t get involved in anything I’m not crazy passionate about. So anyone who wants to make a film just needs to love it and do nothing but think about it, and hopefully they stay that way for two or three years! Otherwise you’re like halfway through a project thinking “I hate this, I just want to get it over with.” You just find ways to get out of it like “ok, that’s fine, cut, next one.” And it just becomes, you know…shit!
I think the only inexcusable art is lazy art, ultimately.
Yeah, and I think a lot of artists are (lowers his voice conspiratorially) lazy [bursts into laughter].
Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet is in cinemas now, and released by Dogwoof. It’s available on DVD from December 3.