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Interview With Ramona S. Diaz Director of Don’t Stop Believin

Interview With Ramona S. Diaz Director of Don't Stop Believin

Don’t Stop Believin‘ is a terrific crowd pleasing documentary of the rags to riches story of Arnel Pineda who took over as the lead singer of the rock band Journey after he was spotted on You Tube.

Women and Hollywood: You’ve made a variety of different kinds of films.  What made this a story you wanted to tell?

Ramona Diaz: I’m always interested in compelling characters and this film was no exception.  What could easily have been a five-minute film – rock band finds lead singer through You Tube — is a much bigger story because of the camera’s unfettered love for Arnel Pineda. Arnel returns the affection by being the most candid and open person I’ve ever had the privilege to film.  And he was extremely articulate about his inner life.   Documentary gold.

WaH: This is such a crowd pleasing film.  Did you have any idea that it would turn out like that?

RD: No, I had no idea.  Had he failed, it would have been a completely different film, and not such a crowd-pleaser.  The fact that he triumphed makes it a crowd pleaser.

WaH: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

RD: As always, funding.  This was an independently produced film.  The band didn’t approach us to do this; we approached the band and convinced them that they had a story.  To follow a big rock band on tour with limited resources posed a lot of challenges.

It’s a cliche that filmmaking is a team sport.  However, let me say just say it again:  filmmaking is a team sport.  In this instance, I had a producer (Capella Fahoome) who was — is — a gambler.  When we were given access and had no money, she said, “let’s not let lack of funding stop us.” She charged up the whazoo and maxed out credit cards.  I’m risk-averse; I like having funding in place before I start but this story would have come and gone had it not been for someone like Capella on board.  It takes all kinds.

WaH: What surprised you the most?

RD: The tour was grueling, it wasn’t glamorous at all.  It was about driving for hours — sometimes for as long as 8 hours — after having filmed all day, singing Journey songs at the top of our lungs just to keep awake long enough to get to the next city, sleeping for a couple of hours and doing it all over again. I don’t want to seem churlish about it, but that was a surprise.

And for such veterans, the guys were really not used to having cameras around – which was another big surprise and posed its own challenges.  I guess in this age of reality television, I just took for granted that all big acts were used to it.

WaH: I grew up in the 80s and Journey was the quintessential American band- white dudes singing rock and roll.  Now the lead singer is non-white and non-American.  What was it like to see the crowds accept Arnel in this new role?

RD: It wasn’t a matter of course.  He won over most people, but some were never won over.  But when he did win over the skeptics, it was validating and heart warming and hopeful.  Hopeful because it demonstrated that, at the end of the day, talent rises above the specifics of race and culture.

WaH: Watching Arnel on that first tour he just seemed like he had no idea what to expect and didn’t know how to pace himself or adjust to the long slog of the road.  Was that hard to watch?

RD: It was absolutely hard to watch, especially when he got ill.  However, it was countered every night when he took the stage.  Arnel is a quintessential performer and being on stage erased whatever anxiety and fatigue he had been feeling moments before. 

WaH: When you look at Arnel from a distance he seems young but this a man who has been through at lot in life.  What were the biggest changes you noticed in him during the time you filmed?

RD: Although it was a slow process, he started owning being the lead singer.  He became comfortable during meet and greet sessions, signing autographs, posing for pictures.  The rest of the Journey crew always marveled that he never got “LSD” — lead singer’s disease — which just means he never became a diva.

WaH: You said in the notes that you don’t think it is a music documentary but a documentary with music.  Can you explain?

RD: My impetus for making the film was Arnel Pineda joining Journey.  It wasn’t about producing a portrait, or the history, of the band Journey.  It’s a fine distinction, but a distinction nevertheless

WaH: Women are much more successful in the film business on the documentary side.  Why do you think that is, and do you have any thoughts on how to get more women as feature directors?

RD: I think because it takes fewer resources to start a documentary film. Basically, if you shoot your own stuff, you can just pick up a camera and some wireless microphones, grab a couple of LEDs, and you’re off and running. And if you don’t shoot your own stuff, you can just grab one other person to do camera and you can learn how to do the sound, and you’re off and running.

I think there’s a perception – and this is just my opinion – that one should know more technical stuff than one really needs to when directing a fiction film.  Like one should know exactly what kind of light goes where, exactly what lens to use for certain scenes. I think this misconception scares a lot of women.  Again, this is just my opinion.  I’ve learned that I need to hire a director of photography who truly understands my vision and she (or he) can translate that vision and articulate what I need to the rest of the crew. 

However, this may be changing.  I am hearing from more and more female students in film schools who want to be directors and cinematographers.  In the past, most of the young women I encountered either wanted to be producers or writers.  This, I believe, can be attributed to the fact that girls are exposed to technology much earlier in life these days, and this makes them more confident about mastering the tools of the trade.

WaH: What’s next for you?

RD: I’ve started shooting my next documentary entitled The Bill about reproductive justice (I like to mix it up a bit!).  It’s gotten R&D funding from ITVS, Sundance, and Chicken and Egg.

And speaking of fiction film, I’m about to finish writing my first screenplay.  It’s an idea I’ve been toying around with for the past seven to eight years.  It’s a political, historical thriller of sorts.  We’ll see how it all turns out.  And I’m intending to direct and produce it as well.

WaH: What advice can you offer to other women filmmakers?

RD: The same advice I tell film students.  We’re so lucky to be living in this day and age when technology – the tools to tell our stories – is so accessible.  However, content still reigns supreme.  So find your voice, your unique voice, it’s there inside of you.  Find it, define it, write it down on paper, hone it, and clarify it.  Everything else is just technology which will help you tell your story.   Does this make sense?

Don’t Stop Believin’ opens today and is also available on everywhere on VOD.

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