Interview: Jake Kring-Schreifels


Diaz and the film’s subject, Arnel Pineda

Make your way to any prom night, dinner function, ballpark, or festival, and a song from Journey will surely find your ears. Their age-old sound has transcended generational barriers throughout each decade and has kept a plethora of classic rock anthems familiar, if not relevant. Yet after losing frontman Steve Perry in the late 90s and replacement Steve Augeri until the mid-2000s, Journey faced a potential voiceless tragedy. Who would be their next lead singer?

Arnel Pineda, the heart of Ramona Diaz’s inspiring new documentary, Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey, filled the demanding void. A small Filipino man, Pineda was plucked from obscurity by guitarist Neal Schonn, who casually happened upon Pineda’s cover of their song “Faithfully” on Youtube and called him over to audition. A rags-to-riches story, the documentary follows Pineda during his immersion into the band along their first concert tour with him in 2008. This is not a pure documentary about Journey’s history, but instead a momentary glimpse of an iconic band giving someone a larger than life chance.

I talked to director Ramona Diaz about her latest venture, Arnel Pineda, life on the road, and having Journey constantly stuck in her head.

Inflatable Ferret: Talk about your experience from the time between the festival circuits until the film found a distributor. What was that in-between time like for you?

Ramona Diaz: The entire process of shooting and producing is a roller coaster ride, and then you deliver the film, and you’re finally premiering, and then it takes on this whole other phase. It’s like the phoenix and the flame: a lot of ups, a lot of downs. We were really lucky to partner with Cinedigm to release this because I think they really understand the film and they really understand its strengths.

IF: What about this story inspired you the most?

RD: Arnel, I think. In this age of superstardom and instant fame and American idol fueled stardom, there’s a lot of fakery. But I think Arnel is very genuine. I think that’s what people will respond to. As he toured with this film to various film festivals, I think they really responded to Arnel because he’s genuine. They can feel it. He’s not fake, and that’s what still inspires me and draws me to this story.

IF: He appears so humble in the film. Have you talked to him recently, and is he starting to lose that as he lives in constant stardom?

RD: You know, no, he hasn’t. Of course he’s now completely come into his own and completely embraced the fact that he is the lead vocal of this big American iconic rock band.  But on the other hand, his feet are still firmly planted on the ground. He told me if this had happened early in his career, like in his twenties, he would’ve gone crazy. He would’ve gone insane with everything being thrown at him. But because it came later in his life, in his forties, he’s wiser, and he knows he’s often lived a lot of his life without money.

IF: With Arnel being Filipino, did that help him open up to you on camera?

RD: I would like to think so because we could lapse into Filipino. We would go back and forth between English and Tagalog [Filipino language] and I think he was most comfortable doing that.

IF: Your last film, The Learning, was about Filipino women teachers coming to America. What have you taken away from these transcultural experiences?

RD: I think the themes that I tried to deal with in these certain projects are still universal. It’s still following a dream. In The Learning the impulse was to really go after the American Dream, and the choices you have to make to have your dream come true, having to leave your family behind. So I hope that the themes are still universal.

IF: It seems like it takes a certain openness and spontaneity to make a film like this- especially as a documentarian, because you don’t know what’s going to happen as you follow this band on the road. Is that true?

RD: Well as a documentary filmmaker that’s sort of my stock and trade. You’re following unfolding lives. You never know how it’s going to turn out and that is part of the attraction for me in making documentary films, a very immersive kind of filmmaking. In a way you’re not in control because who knows what’s going to happen. That’s why I like doing it.

IF: Throughout the process, then, what surprised you most in making this film?

RD: Usually it’s a surprise at every turn. I think what shocked me the most was how unglamorous this whole touring with the band is. You always think it’s going to be so glamorous. It isn’t. It’s such hard work. I’m not going to complain, but I just had no idea how much difficult work it really is, on the road everyday. Basically what we did was travel in a mini van across the country sometimes for eight hours, get to the next city, sleep for three hours, and then do it all again and film and then get back in the minivan. Wow, this is really hard.

IF: There must have been a funny story on the road. Do you remember one?

RD: I think for us it was the whole situation itself. Basically we just independently produced this film. So what we did was we had very limited resources, so we were actually in this small mini van with a crew, our producer, our luggage, and equipment trying to keep up with big twin busses singing Journey all night to keep ourselves awake until we’d get to the next city. And then we’d just laugh and say, “What are we doing? This is crazy.” By then we had no idea. The story was still unfolding. We had no idea what kind of film we were going to end up with. Everything about it was so ridiculous, but we had to laugh, otherwise we would’ve given up.

IF: Had you listened to Journey a lot before you took on this project?

RD: Oh yeah. I was very familiar with their songs.

IF: How long were their songs stuck in your head going into the editing room?

RD: [Laughs] They still are, are you kidding me? They will forever be stuck in your head, because even after shooting, we edited for a whole year, so it’s still in my head.

IF: I feel like the editing process is something people forget.

RD: Yeah, and not only music, but certain pieces of dialogue. It happens a lot.

IF: You said in a previous interview that you were scared to do a film about a band, or one with music, because of all the copyright trouble. What else scares you as a filmmaker?

RD: Well as a filmmaker, financing is always scary, needless to say, but also because of how I work. I always say if you see a light, if you get access, if you give me the keys to the kingdom, I will find a story. But the reality is it may not translate into a cinematic experience. So that’s always frightening to me.  Not that I’ll ever stop, but it’s always in the back of my head whether it’s a good film or a bad film.

IF: Does being a female filmmaker scare you at all, the challenges you face in the film world?

RD: Oh, absolutely. I think in almost any field. But I try not to think about that because I think it’s debilitating. I don’t think I’ll ever move if I get consumed by that. But as a female Asian woman making a story about a rock band, it’s not usually the case. It’s usually a male who makes rock-docs. So, absolutely.

IF: What’s Ramona Diaz’s next venture for the future? 

RD: It’s funny, I was just talking to the producers about it. I recently started another documentary about reproductive justice, which couldn’t be further from rock ’n roll. I’m also writing a screenplay since I’ve been trying my hand at fiction, a political thriller historical piece. We’ll see where it leads.

IF: Don’t Stop Believin’, Ramona!

RD: [Laughs] There you go, Jake, there you go!

Don’t Stop Believin’ opens Friday nationwide and is available 3/9 on VOD everywhere.

Read more from Jake Kring-Schreifels on his blog, Peanuts and Popcorn.

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