Needing a slot to kill in between screening choices led us to what turned out to be my favorite film of the fest. Admittedly, I was drawn solely to the title. It sounded intriguing and almost mysterious. Admittedly, I am not really a TV guy (besides HBO heroin) and once I found out it was based on a television show my intrigue initially waned. I had never heard of the series that it had been developed from. Whatever doubt I had about television’s ability to produce quality viewing vanished with this film. It brought tears to my eyes and left me speechless. The whole story can be
checked out at random1.com. I cannot say enough good things about this film. The power of what they are doing to better other peoples’ quality of lives should not go unnoticed. It should have fared better on TV. Helping folks live fuller lives should not be subject to marketability. Having said that, I am proud to do my part in plugging this film to help it gain internet attention and film release.
AUSTIN DAZE: Where did the idea for the story come from?
JOHN CHESTER: Well it started out as a documentary film and then it got picked up by A&E and we turned it into a TV series. But the whole time it was an experiment. We just wanted to see what would happen when you would randomly meet a stranger and actually get involved in their life-100 percent-and do something for them and just sort of watch where that random act would go. Once that series went off the air we continued to follow what we thought was one of the most profound stories of that series, about two men living in the woods in Woonsocket. We felt we didn’t do the story justice because of the way it ended on the TV series was in direct conflict with how it really ended. We felt an obligation to people in the situation to see the truth. We decided to pursue it and continue moving on it. That was our passion.
AD: Why did A&E stop running the program?
JC: Because the Nielson ratings system is a bunch of BS and everyone knows it and I’m coming for them.
Unfortunately, according to a rating system that consists of five to eight thousand people that make the decision on what we watch on television, there wasn’t enough of a ratings indication in the first three weeks. From a broadcasting standpoint they can’t support something that doesn’t show promise in the first three weeks. It’s a tough financial market for them and understandably for A&E. I don’t ever want to bash A&E because they have been very gracious to us and are just trying to run a corner store, in a sense. I don’t think we really had our rhythm and I don’t think we really had our audience until much later. We really started to find what our purpose was with the show-this experiment-much later in the season. So for us it was getting to that point. Unfortunately, it just didn’t take the viewers with us.
AD: Are you done with TV or would go back if they wanted you?
JC: Well let me add to that before I answer that question: Once we were off the air A&E gave us permission to cut the stories down and place them onto www.random1.com and suddenly we started picking up viewers in five different countries. Then it went from five to about eight and then started going up to ten and now it’s like twenty-five different countries are watching these shows and we have no idea how. So for us, the viralness of the shows being released on the web has been incredible because we’ve gotten more countries. If we had been a huge success in the states in the first ten hours we wouldn’t have had the opportunity to have it sort of released on such an international level. A&E does continue to run the shows internationally, so that helps, but it was a unique experience that went on. Based on the reaction from the web audience we knew that we had to continue telling the story.
As for TV, I don’t think so. We’ve been doing this for eight years, maybe more-we say ten. It’s kind of embarrassing but it’s also the tenacity that got us on the air. I think the show came on about a year too early. It would have been much better on the air now. I think I’m ready to move on; everybody is ready to move on. I think some of the crew have turned it into something different and they are trying to create pilots for that. I fully support that and it’s great-it needs to be turned into different things. So I don’t know the answer to that. If they came to me and offered us some way of doing it that made sense, changing the model to what works, I would consider it but it’s not what I’m envisioning as my personal future.
AD: Do you think the current cultural climate has to do with the success or failure of a story like this?
JC: I actually think that most of the people that would be into this kind of storytelling and experiment don’t watch a lot of television because it’s not there for them. And they are also the same people that don’t allow Nielson to put a box in their house because they think it’s stupid to have a Nielson box in their house because they don’t watch a lot of television. So for us, the opportunity to show this at SXSW is really the destiny.
For most people they make a film, show it at a festival, and then maybe they get a television deal and then maybe it turns into a series. We did the opposite. Perhaps if we had done it that way, there would have been some grass roots marketing that would have made the television debut a bigger success because the audience would follow it. Because A&E, I’ll give them credit, was a bit of a visionary and a risk taker-we kind of screwed ourselves. But I’m telling you I really think there is a community out there that’s going to take this and they are going to take ownership of it. It mythologizes the whole addiction thing, the whole humanity thing-in the most real sense. It’s not flowery; it’s real and it’s raw. I think that’s what I identify with and I knew we had to tell it for that reason. It wasn’t perfect. It was funny, it was sad, and super real. There are a lot of us that can sit around thanksgiving dinner and our dinner is like a three ring circus. And it feels good. Even though people are yelling at each other and it’s chaotic, that’s real life. And I think when you can capture that in a documentary, sort of show that same sort of raw raucous power and how it still in some way gives you hope, shit, that’s the story. When you can show something not working but at the same time how it works by breaking the law or being a maverick, that’s what we need to hear. That’s how changes take place within ourselves-within our culture. And in a sense, I feel like what these guys did is an example of that. To me, it felt selfish, just because we were tired, sick, and in a sense screwed, it felt selfish to not finish it completely.
We questioned that up until yesterday.
AD: What are the biggest differences between shooting for a film and shooting for TV?
JC: We had about 100 hours of behind the scenes footage from the episode that we never knew what we were going to do with. And when we started filming this documentary, how we were reacting became another subplot in the main arc of these guys. So we shot so much footage at distance with everything. Everything was so documentary to begin with there really wasn’t much of a difference other than when we were going back without the funding support of the network to do the series, we were much more skin and bones. Most of the time we would go out in the street with the crew-we’d travel with a crew of 20 something people. When we went back the last time we were down to about four people-which is pretty small.
AD: Do you have a distributor?
JC: We have some people interested. There are some midsize and then one big distributor that are talking to us. Not to sound unappreciative, the last thing we want is for someone to come in and make the promises, not understand the market, and sit on it. The audience I know that will take this on will market the film for us. It is their story. They know who they are and I feel like that’s my only concern. I’m not going to get distracted with any of the other promises because to me it would have already happened if it were really the right path. Again, I don’t want to sound unappreciative but we also know the game and have been through it and have seen people have their films picked up by distributors and try the traditional paths and then it doesn’t work. Well, of course, because they’re not using all their options in the medium anymore.
AD: Where can people find out more about this?
JC: At random1.com. We’ll keep people up to date on screenings and things like that. There are a couple more festivals that have just called us-they are not final yet. We are definitely going to be doing a screening in Rhode Island at some point whether it is at the festival or on our own. There are schedule possibilities at college campuses for screenings that we may do as well. I love having Norman there, that’s the best part. It was everything I could do not to cry last night.
One of the big things for people that are dealing with addiction is grappling with acceptance. Something that I’ve learned through this whole process is that these guys, as they heal, develop a real understanding for the acceptance of life on life’s terms. I’ve watched these guys do that before our eyes and watched how that acceptance has brought, has magnetized, people to them so they don’t have to deal with problems alone.
So acceptance is just another thing that I’ve learned from this. I dropped my phone in a puddle yesterday and just said “Ok, it’s dead; it’s gone.” And then somehow today, the f**king thing worked. How’d that happen? If this had been a month ago I would have thrown it out; I would have further destroyed it.
AD: What’s next for you?
JC: I have a feeling that there’s something about Lost in Woonsocket that isn’t done. I have a feeling there is another story there and it may not be a feature-maybe it is TV. We are also working on a documentary about a rock and roll photographer with a very interesting life history that parallels how we like to tell stories and the things he has overcome and where he is today. There’s another project that we just launched that’s a teen Dear Abby by a guy by the name of Josh Shipp. It’s www.heyjoshtv.com. It’s a weekly web series that in a matter of six weeks went to number four for video pod casting. So we are just experimenting with all those different mediums with things and people that are trying to do something that is entertaining but at the same time helpful in some way and raw and real.
That’s just some of the projects we are working on. ***