2015 Tribeca Film Festival Filmmaker Profile: Kevin Kerslake (Director – ‘As I Am: The Life & Times Of DJ AM)

AS I AM: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF DJ AM covers the late, great mash-up pioneer’s life from seed to sorrow — his meteoric rise to become the first million dollar DJ in the States, a long-running struggle with addiction, titanic efforts to help others in recovery, tabloid romances with assorted models and actresses, top shelf endorsement deals and appearances in IRON MAN 2, ENTOURAGE and DJ HERO, and surviving, along with Blink 182 drummer Travis Barker, a fiery plane crash a little less than a year before his controversial and untimely death in 2009. 

Featuring interviews with Jon Favreau, Mark Ronson, Mix Master Mike, Steve Aoki, Diplo, DJ Jazzy Jeff, DJ Vice, A-Trak, Q-Bert, Z-Trip, Paul Oakenfold, Pasquale Rotella, Jason Bentley, Red Foo, Dr. Drew, Seth Binzer, Samantha Ronson and many others, along with music by artists as diverse as Jay-Z, Queen, Guns and Roses, Madonna, Michael Jackson, Oasis, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Daft Punk, etc., many of whom collaborated with AM at various points throughout his career.

Anticipating the WORLD PREMIERE of ‘As I Am: The Life and Times of DJ AM‘ at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival we spoke with the documentary’s Director Kevin Kerslake about DJ AM, the current divisiveness of the electronic music scene, his approach to the documentary form and more.  ‘As I Am: The Life and Time of DJ AM‘ will screen on Friday, April 17, Saturday, April 18, Wednesday, April 22 and April 25, 2015.

Find Tickets to ‘As I Am: The Life and Times of DJ AM’ at the 2015 Tribeca Film FestivalHERE

DJ_AM_In_The_Mix

When did you feel was the right moment to start work on the documentary?  What aspect of the film came first, kicking off what would eventually be the completed documentary?
Although, they are the stuff of legend, it wasn’t actually AM’s skills as a DJ or the fact that he blazed so many new trails for artists with his entrepreneurial instincts that drew me to telling his story.  I was drawn to the tragedy of his personal life, which is Shakespearian in scale.  We’ve lost so many talented and wildly successful artists to circumstances that are similar to the ones that AM wrestled with and are all the more tragic because their deaths are so incongruous with what we know about them from the outside.  I mean just recently, the losses of Philip Seymour Hoffman and Robin Williams tore all our hearts out.  When they were among us, you couldn’t imagine what life would be like without them because they enriched our lives in ways that we didn’t even know or fully appreciate until they were gone.  Until they were gone….

I shot AM a number of times during the last year of his life, when I handled film & video responsibilities for HARD Events and Insomniac Events, and was certainly in awe of his dexterity on the turntables.  I never put much stock in the tabloid, gossipy stuff, and the times we met I was struck – and people may think it’s funny to say this because of his success – by his humility.  Knowing what he was going through at the time, a serious bout with PTSD after the plane crash which was calling up all sorts of demons from his past, I couldn’t help but be impressed by his grace and composure. 

I declined a number of invitations from the family to make a documentary on AM after Pasquale and I dedicated THE ELECTRIC DAISY CARNIVAL EXPERIENCE to him.  Quite honestly, I didn’t want to sugarcoat any of the circumstances that led to his death, many of which were rooted in family dynamics.

And then we lost someone else, and something clicked.

Having lost a number of friends throughout the years to some of those same demons, I suddenly set AM’s story within the continuum that includes the likes of Elvis Presley, Jim Morrison, and Kurt Cobain, who died when we were in the middle of making a movie together.  I started to become more interested in the forensics of AM’s own personal story.  I went back to Andrea (AM’s mom), and proposed doing a film that not only celebrated his talents, but was an uncensored look at the circumstances that led to his death, hoping, perhaps, that it may help raise consciousness and even save a life.  Andrea agreed that that was the film that needed to be made, and gave me final cut.  And here we are…. 

image008As a documentary filmmaker, how did you want to construct the ultimate narrative of ‘As I Am”? Describe the effect the posthumous narration from DJ AM himself ultimately has on the film.  Was this always your intention?
The instant I heard the autobiographical speech that Adam gave at an AA meeting, I knew it was the road map for the movie.  It not only laid out AM’s life in vivid – and sometimes chilling – detail , but showcased AM’s gift for storytelling.  You can’t think of AM without thinking mash-up, and the pinball, motor-mouthed nature of this speech was a mash-up in its own right, careening from past to present, self-reflection to laugh-out-loud humor, boastful to self-deprecating….  It mirrored the structure I first envisaged for AM’s life story – a nail bomb that exploded out in every direction at once, jumping around chronologically and fairly promiscuous with styles.  The only potential danger that existed with bouncing around that much in time and tone was that the sense of triumph you felt when AM overcame certain adversities in his life (and they were legion) was somehow diminished, and I hope we’ve been able to avoid that by sharing enough chronological detail.

Being a part of the International nightlife community myself, I see a certain fragmentation within its various “scenes”.  For example, “techno” people tend to dislike “Trance” people and everyone seems to dislike “EDM,” but with DJ AM being a champion of the open format/mashup approach, this animosity would be quite counter-intuitive/productive toward success.  In what way(s) did DJ AM represent the communal aspect of DJ culture? Where does DJ AM fall within the wider spectrum of contemporary nightlife, with specific respect to the inclusive nature of the scene’s roots?
I think AM’s passion for music – all types of music – just naturally broke down barriers that not only existed between sub-cultures but broader cultures, as well.  He embodied aspects of turntablist culture as well as parts of our culture that are drawn to the power ballad, a slamming techno track or a perfectly crafted pop song.  From a distance, dance culture may look just like this ecstatic orgy of hedonism, and while there’s certainly a corner of dance culture that’s frivolous, the tribal virtues of nightclubs and festivals are often overlooked.  AM was the hi-priest in that ceremony, and he welcomed everyone into his church.

image009Was there a story or interview you encountered while making this film that made a particular impact on you?  Did anyone say anything that stuck with you long after the camera’s stopped rolling?
Uncovering the snake pit of the billion dollar teen rehab industry was shocking.  The legacy of abuse heaped upon hundreds of thousands of kids is a dark stain on our culture, and its inability to embrace kids that don’t fit into the box.   As a child that was terribly misunderstood, even by his own family, AM was a victim of that abuse, and it had lasting effects on him, especially because it helped disable his ability to ask for help when he needed it most.

As Writer/Director/DP on the film, your responsibilities were quite vast.  Did you have a favorite production responsibility? How did you manage to juggle these responsibilities at once?  Is it something you would advise aspiring documentarians to do?
You know, all those responsibilities – writer, director, DP – somehow fuse together when I pick up a camera.  Even though I also pound the keys, I also write through the lens, and direct through the lens.  The most laborious responsibility is producing, which entails raising enough money so you can tell the story right.  The relentless tug of emails, phone calls and meetings to get all the pieces into place and raise money to afford telling the story right is apocalyptic.  But once it gets to the filming stage…I’m free.

Why is the Tribeca Film Festival an appropriate place for ‘As I Am: The Life and Times of DJ AM’ to premiere?
New York, New York. Big city of dreams, but everything in New York ain’t always what it seems…

– Interview Conducted by Steve Rickinson

* The DJ AM Memorial Fund maintains the legacy of DJ AM/Adam Goldstein and his commitment to helping others with addiction. Utilizing media partnerships to garner support and increase awareness, contributions help organizations and projects committed to addressing issues of addiction and recovery.

If you would like to donate to the DJ AM Memorial Fund, you can do so – HERE

As_I_Am_poster_TribecaAbout The Filmmaker
Kevin Kerslake is one of the handful of directors responsible for forging the visual identity of the MTV generation. He has directed award-winning music videos for Nirvana, Green Day, R.E.M., the Rolling Stones, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, along with scores of live concerts and music docs.

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