Sometimes real-life is more spectacular than anything one could dream up for a movie. ‘Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey’ follows the real life rock ‘n’ roll fairy tale of Filipino Arnel Pineda, who was plucked from YouTube to become the front man for iconic American rock band Journey. In this Cinderella story for the ages, Arnel, having overcome a lifetime’s worth of hardships, must now navigate the immense pressures of replacing a legendary singer and leading a world-renowned band on their most extensive world tour in years. Director Ramona S. Diaz and her dedicated were along for the ride and captured every moment of Arnel Pineda’s legendary rise to superstardom on film. Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently sat down with Ramona Diaz to discuss her captivating documentary, the challenges involved in bringing it to life and much more!
What was it about the world of filmmaking that initially intrigued you and ultimately made you pursue it as a career?
I think the thing that intrigues me about documentary filmmaking is the process. You never know what you are going to get with documentary filmmaking, it is very Zen! You are always living on the edge and have no idea what will unfold in front of the camera. I think that is really what attracted me to it. It is all about telling great stories and experiencing things that I would otherwise not experience because most of my films are immersive. I immerse myself in the lives of the people I am filming. For example, with Journey, I would have never in a million years toured with a band had I not made this film. I also became an expert on the band for the two years I filmed them and became an expert on public school education in Baltimore for the two years I spent with the kids in Baltimore for my previous film.
Who were some of your biggest directorial influences?
With documentary work, Errol Morris was certainly a big inspiration just because he broke down so many walls and opened up the genre for me. I also find Ross McElwee inspiring because his personal kind of filmmaking is unique and he has a very special voice. Chris Marker’s film “San Soleil” is a film that really drew me to documentary films because I then saw the possibilities of the different ways you could do it.
What was the catalyst which brought about the creation of “Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey?”
I saw an email! I found out that Arnel had been invited to audition for the band and I thought, “Oh my goodness!” I didn’t know at the time if he got it. The email just related how he had gotten his visa to audition for the band in San Francisco. It was just such a fun e-mail and at the bottom it had a link. It was the very same link that Neal Schon clicked on and saw Arnel singing “Faithfully.” I clicked on the link and I got goosebumps! I thought, “Oh my goodness! Someone has got to make this film!” That was the start of it and then one thing led to another, managers spoke to other managers, lawyers got on it [laughs] and then we went on the road with them. I make it sound so easy but it wasn’t! [laughs] There was a lot of back and forth and convincing them that they had a story this year and not next year. At the end of the day, they gave us access. They gave us full access for the two years we were with them!
What were your expectations for the film going into the project? Obviously, this film could have turned out a lot of different ways.
My wish was that I would get access in order to follow the unfolding story in an intimate way. To achieve that, we needed access to Arnel. After that, all expectations were out the window because you never know what is going to happen. As a Filipino American, I wished Arnel would succeed because there is a special bond there. I wished he would succeed because it was his dream. At the same time, I was also cognizant that he may not make it and he may lose his voice, chicken out or the pressure would get to him. I was very aware of that and had that happened, of course, this would have been a very different film but a film nonetheless. I don’t think I would have stopped filming had he failed but it would have been a different film. I think I had no real expectations aside from access because access was key. Beyond that, I was good — just as long as they gave me the keys to the kingdom, I am happy! [laughs]
Arnel is the focal point of this documentary. What do you remember about your first meeting and the impression he made on you?
I remember it well. It was in Northern California when I was in the process of trying to convince the band they had a story. They agreed to me coming out with a crew to film for one day with the band as they rehearsed before going on tour. At that point, I still hadn’t met Arnel. We flew out to film. The first time I met Arnel, he was just open. When you turn on the camera and see him through the lens, the camera obviously loves him, there is a chemistry and he loves it back. He loves it back because he is able to be very open and accessible. That is when I knew I had to make the film. Before that, although it sounded like a great story and something deep down I knew had to be made, I didn’t know if it was going to be a long story. It could have been a very short story and not all that compelling, right? I also needed to know that he was completely onboard in making this film because I didn’t want to get in the way of the biggest gig of his life. If it would have been a burden to him to have cameras around, I wouldn’t have done it. That was too much responsibility. I didn’t want him to feel pressured. When I met him for the first time, he seemed so comfortable in front of a camera and I thought, “Oh my gosh! I think this is really going to work!” Then I knew there was something really special there.
As you mentioned, the band gave you full access. Did anyone voice any reservations about bringing this story to a film form for the whole world to see?
I think even though they did give us access and allowed us to come onboard it was a new process for them. The band, on a whole, were not used to cameras constantly being in their faces. It can be a pain, right? [laughs] As a filmmaker, I can just imagine! Even though they are veteran rockstars, they weren’t used to cameras in the dressing rooms, buses, hotel rooms and hotel lobbies. This film was a process of back and forth. I think you have to build trust and respect. I think they needed to trust that I wasn’t out to get them and it wasn’t about discovering the gotcha moment and exposing that on film. It wasn’t about that. It was about a longer story and a profound examination of what happens to this man as he gains faith. Once they understood that and after the weeks and months we filmed them and became comfortable with it, everything was fine. There were moments like, “Really? You are still here? You are filming us again!” [laughs] I would say, “Yes, yes! That was the deal!” They would say, “We thought you guys would be flies on the wall!” We would reply with, “That’s a metaphor! You are still going to see us!” [laughs] It was a lot of back and forth! They eventually got used to us, which is the whole point — you then blend with the furniture!
You mentioned your films being very immersive. What was it like for you to be on tour with one of today’s biggest working rock bands?
Oh my gosh! When people in the music business are interviewed and say it is not glamorous at all, I was always skeptical. Now I know it is not glamorous! [laughs] It is tough, especially for us because we were independently financed. What we had to do, with very little resources, was keep up with a very big, well oiled machine. They were in their big touring buses and we were in a small minivan trying to keep up with them. We would drive all night and sing Journey songs to keep awake to make it to the next city, sleep for two hours, get up and do it all over again! The glamour that audiences are exposed to during those two hours those guys are on stage is contained in those moments. Everything around that is not glamorous but leads to those two hours being magical and it is a lot of work! I would never exchange the experience for anything. Now it is something I have been able to check off my bucket list: Tour with a big band! Check!
There are many unique elements when it comes to this film. As the director, what was the biggest challenge?
I think the stamina to go the distance with the band was a big challenge. Also, keeping a crew onboard for that long was challenging. As I said, this film was not financed by the band, nor did we get any big financing along the way. The film was basically made by my producer putting it all on her credit cards and when that ran out I borrowed money from my family and found a few small investors here and there. That was a big challenge, to really run the marathon with the band.
Did you take a different approach to this film in any way as opposed to your previous work?
No. Not really. There are two things I always try to keep in mind. Those are that I need to stay true to the story and capture the truth of it and leave myself open to whatever happens. You have to do that as a documentary filmmaker. If you are making fiction, you are more in control of the story and you know how it is going to end. It is really about being open to whatever happens in front of the camera.
One of the most interesting parts of the film is how the Filipino community embraces Arnel. Did that surprise you?
Absolutely! I think it was a surprise to everyone, including Arnel. The band was very surprised by it, especially Neal. There is a point in the film where he comments on all of the Filipinos coming out to support him. We saw it over the summer and watched it grow! The power of social media! People were talking about it, twittering about it and posting it to Facebook. They then came out and watched him perform. Arnel owes a lot to the internet! [laughs]
Did music rights ever threaten to pose an issue for this film?
It is always difficult and so complicated. That is one thing that really made me think twice about if I wanted to go down this road. I have cleared music before for my other films but I hadn’t cleared one of the most difficult catalogs in pop music! [laughs] Or so I have been told! There were no issues but there was a lot of back and forth. It is very involved and so many people have a piece of the pie. Even though the film was about Journey and they were on board with it, there is still the matter of publishing rights. Luckily, the stars really aligned for us and after much negotiation, everything turned out fine!
What is your relationship with Arnel and the band now you wrapped filming and are releasing the film?
It is still great! It is fantastic! I am still in touch with all of them, especially Arnel, because they like the film! [laughs] We screened it for them right before we showed it at Tribeca last year. It was the first time they had seen a single form of what we shot. It was nerve-racking but they loved it! When the lights came up after the screening they were like, “Wow!” I think by then they had given up on us because it took so long. When they decided to record an album, it takes them six or eight months and it is done. Documentary films just take a long time. It is over a period of years, it’s immersive and editing takes forever. I think at some point they were like, “Oh, this film is never going to happen.” They were pleasantly surprised when they saw it on screen!
Looking back at your body of work, how have you evolved as a director?
I think I am more confident that content is king. I am more trusting of my instincts, I think, when I am out there. I think as a new director, you always second guess yourself. Now, I am more trusting of the story. I trust at the end of the process, the thing that first attracted me to it will still be there at the end and, no matter what, there will be something compelling to tell!
What is the best piece of advice you can pass along to aspiring filmmakers?
You have to really want it. If there is something else you would rather be doing, then do that! If you wake up every day and say, “This is what I really want to do,” you really have to be sure. It is really not a sprint, it is a marathon. In order to stay the course, you really have to want it. There is nothing else you can do but that. The other piece of advice is to meet a lot of people. You have to go out and network and meet people.
What do you have in store for your next project?
I am actually writing a screenplay! I am going to try my hand at narrative filmmaking. I want more control next time! I am writing a political thriller, a historical piece. I am also off doing another documentary film on reproductive justice. It couldn’t be more different than rock ‘n’ roll! [laughs] I try to mix it up a little bit!
Thank you so much for your time today, Ramona. The film really is fantastic and will be enjoyed by Journey fans, music fans and film fans. You did a terrific job capturing the story!
Thank you so much! I appreciate it!
‘Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey’ hits theaters on March 8th. For more information, venues and show times, visit www.everymansjourney.com. To learn more about the fascinating life of Arnel Pineda, visit his official website at www.arnelpinedarocks.com.