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Meet the Filmmakers: John Chester--'Rock Prophecies'

By Tom White

Editor's Note: Rock Prophecies, which screened as part of DocuWeeks 2009, comes out on DVD September 14, followed by a broadcast on PBS stations in October; check local listings. Here is an interview with the director of the film, John Chester.

Over the past couple of weeks, we at IDA have been introducing our community to the filmmakers whose work is represented in the DocuWeeksTM Theatrical Documentary Showcase, currently running through August 20 in New York City and Los Angeles. We asked the filmmakers to share the stories behind their films--the inspirations, the challenges and obstacles, the goals and objectives, the reactions to their films so far.

So, to continue this series of conversations, here is John Chester, director of Rock Prophecies..

Synopsis: Imagine seeing bands like Led Zeppelin or the Rolling Stones long before they became famous. Legendary rock photographer Robert Knight did just that, and has the photos to prove it. Rock Prophecies explores Knight's amazing career and follows him on his quest to help the bands of today become the rock legends of tomorrow. When Knight stumbles upon Tyler Dow Bryant, a 16-year-old guitar phenom from Texas, he's convinced he may have found the next Stevie Ray Vaughan. Risking his reputation and career, Knight sets off on an unbelievable journey with Bryant to take their own shot at making history.

IDA:  How did you get started in documentary filmmaking?

John Chester: I was obsessed with video and film cameras, very much like the obsession story thread that runs through our film. I loved the way they looked and felt. The more time you spend on a curiosity, the more time it has to blossom. And like a lot of documentary storytellers, I'm also on the search to discover what makes people tick, what divides and connects us. So I picked up the camera when I was 12 and just started shooting short films about interesting people. 

IDA:  What inspired you to make Rock Prophecies?

JC: Producer Tim Kaiser introduced me to photographer Robert Knight, the subject of the film. After that, it was a deeper curiosity ignited by this intuitive radar Knight used to find these guitar players first.

Everyone struggles with their life purpose. Many wait as if they will be told what will make them happiest. However, we see a few who actually figure it out early on. Those who do, know the path to "destiny" is not clear; it's murky. Destiny puts out this weak signal; you have to know how to listen. One problem is that few are encouraged early on to expand on what subtle things attract them...The shapes of a car? The notes on a music sheet? The feel and look of still cameras? It is in this expansion of seemingly insignificant fascinations that brilliant careers can manifest. The most important thing is time--lots of time to adjust, build and add to what one ultimately becomes satisfied by. And the most important and often times dangerous ingredient is some mild case of OCD [obsessive-compulsive disorder].

Now, for legendary guitar players, it was the same path. Most obsessed over something indirectly related to guitar, but somehow ended up there and became known as...Guitar Player. But the path was still a path that only made sense after reflection, never during. The photographer Robert Knight looks for these clues in the young musicians that he finds. At times he literally looks for OCD.

Additionally, I wanted to make the film because of Knight's choice to not release the last Stevie Ray Vaughan photos for two years after his tragic death. To Knight, these guys are family. Even if at times they don't see him, he loves them and honors them with respect. 

IDA:  What were some of the challenges and obstacles in making this film, and how did you overcome them?

JC: You know, the normal crap like clearing music, getting schedules to work, finding money...But the biggest challenge in any documentary like ours is how much you hold onto the reigns and guide it. If you hold too tightly to your preconceived story direction, you will lose control. We had to constantly sit back and say, OK, where does this story want to go now? It was hard because Robert Knight as the subject would have been happy if we had just made the whole film about Jeff Beck. So obviously he was less then thrilled when we asked to include the story of his mom and her deteriorating health. The obstacles were mostly internal struggles with Robert about why we cared to explore his life deeper. This was overcome by time and by slowly building a trusting relationship with Robert and his wife, Maryanne. I love them both. They are family to me...for life. 

IDA:  How did your vision for the film change over the course of the pre-production, production and post-production processes?

JC: It changed a lot. I can't even remember what we thought this would be. We did ponder lots on whether to include some of Robert's other hobbies that were captured-- like the trips to the once-secret government base known as AREA 51 (Google: Gloom Lake, NV); the visits to dark basements in New York City to meet CIA psychics who invented "Remote Viewing"; and the long drives down desert roads to catch glimpses of UFOs. I'm not being sarcastic; all of this is on tape, but we had no room in the story for it. Maybe another film.

IDA:  As you've screened Rock Prophecies-whether on the festival circuit, or in screening rooms, or in living rooms-how have audiences reacted to the film? What has been most surprising or unexpected about their reactions?

JC: We all feel blessed to be on such a wild ride. The film has done extremely well and we just can't ask for anything more. You're always so relieved to hear people say the film inspired them in a deep profound way. People are having such personal reactions to the stories. For all of us who made the film, it's the highest compliment because the backbone of this story to us is one of passion and obsession gone right. Many are told during their developmental years to fear uncertainty, and this is the story of those who embraced that fear and ran towards the obsession. Not everyone is cut out to live life to the fullest, sad but true. This is a film about those who are, and do. 

IDA:  What docs or docmakers have served as inspirations for you?

JC: Werner Herzog: Fitzcarraldo; Grizzly Man. Errol Morris: The Thin Blue Line; Fast Cheap & Out of Control. 

Rock Prophecies will be screening at the ArcLight Hollywood Cinema in Los Angeles and the IFC Center in New York City.

To download the DocuWeeksTM program in Los Angeles, click here.

To purchase tickets for DocuWeeksTM in Los Angeles, click here.

To download the DocuWeeksTM program in New York, click here.

To purchase tickets for DocuWeeksTM in New York, click here.