April 30, 2012

Out of the woods with John Chester

By Steve Diogo

Director and filmmaker John Chester first reached a wide audience with a primetime series on A&E called “Random 1.” Each episode, the director and his team chose a town or city at random and found someone who needed help. The show focused on the team’s efforts to connect their subject with people who would provide help. The one rule: The team couldn’t directly offer help. Out of this program—and specifically, Chester’s decision to break that rule to get a homeless alcoholic into detox—grew Chester’s feature documentary, Lost in Woonsocket.

The film focused on the Random 1 team’s efforts to help a homeless addict named Mark, whom they found living in a tent in the woods of Woonsocket, R.I., with his friend Normand Cartier. In the process, Chester exposed the often Byzantine struggles addicts face when seeking treatment. Since it premiered at Austin’s famed South by Southwest Festival, the film continues to impact the lives of the many people who see it in touring screenings, often followed by Q&A sessions with Chester and Cartier. Recently, the film returned to a wide audience when it was featured on Oprah Winfrey’s OWN Network.

Renew: Lost in Woonsocket grew out of a TV show you were doing for A&E that was truly unique. Where did the idea for the show come from?

Chester: I grew up in a time when reality TV really started to take over. Watching the version of the world as presented on these shows I always thought, as powerful as we can be as filmmakers, as storytellers, we could use that power to change the lives of the people that we were—for lack of a better word—exploiting. So I thought, maybe we could use TV to get people off the ledge. I set out with the mission of saying, “Here’s this person who needs help. Would you be willing to give this person a shot?” I thought we could go very deep and very personal. We wanted to show the world that these people are human and see if we could create some connection out of that.

Renew: And yet, people frequently saw what you were doing as exploitative.

Chester: That always intrigued me. We’d get interviewed to promote the series, and interviewers would ask, “Don’t you feel you’re being exploitative?” And these were news media asking this question! They have no problem using people for stories, but at the end of the day, they don’t help them. Their story would have been: “This dude is living in the woods. The neighbors are pissed off about him being there,” and then they’d leave. So what’s exploitative about what I’m doing? I’m out there saying, “Hey, let’s get the guy some help.”

Renew: What do you think draws people to stories like this?

Chester: Some of it is the conflict. But I believe people are drawn to these stories because we all want to believe that redemption is possible. It absolves us of the concern that we will be forgiven for all the things we’ve done in our own lives and be given a second chance. I think we are unified by the experience of transformation.  People are constantly looking for evidence to base their hope on.

Of course, network executives don’t talk in that kind of language. You’d never hear a network guy talking about redemption, except maybe Oprah Winfrey. Most network executives are looking for conflict and train wrecks. It’s up to the film maker to turn the story toward redemption.

Renew: I found myself imagining what the conversations with the network executives must have been like throughout this process. Of course, in the end, the show got canceled.

Chester: A&E as a network will always hold my tremendous respect because they went for the show exactly as I presented it. I had been pitching this idea for five years to other networks before A&E said yes. No one would take the show because they didn’t think it was mean enough. It didn’t have the fear-factor element. Actually it was Extreme Makeover: Home Edition that changed the game. Once that show started doing well, people started warming to the idea that people might actually enjoy seeing people get help. The same people I was pitching five years prior were now suddenly asking me for the show. I think what made it work for A&E was that we weren’t giving away prizes. We weren’t using money to solve problems. We were using people’s stories.

Renew: One of the most moving parts of the film is watching you struggle with breaking your rule about not giving money.

Chester: That was the crux of it for the network. They had a lot of integrity around that point. That’s why I was freaking out about giving money to Mark, because the network was always telling me, “Whatever you do, don’t break your rule. It’s the one thing about your show that’s so unique and powerful.”

Renew: How did you justify it?

Chester: Anyone who starts any enterprise aimed at helping people has rules they set up. The more institutionalized they get, the more red tape gets involved and the more the rules start getting in the way of actually helping people. We show this film in a lot of colleges where there’s a social working program, and I tell the students, “You’re going to face a choice at some point in your career to either follow the rules or do what’s right. And the stakes may be losing your job. That’s going to be tough, and that’s normal, and no one’s going to tell you that. You just have to know when it’s OK to break the rules.”

We always have to be considering the question of whether this is the moment we realize the rules need to change in order to actually be of service. We originally weren’t going to include that conflict in the film, and now I think it’s hard to believe that we ever even considered that. We could have just shown Mark magically getting into detox, but his challenge getting in was the core conflict of the film. How do you get sober when you’re out on the street, totally alone and broke? Where do you even start? Anyone who has faced the challenge of getting a loved one into detox has to know that there are certain things you have to do to get the detox to accept them. Most families who have been through this more than once have figured out that you have to go get them drunk and basically leave them on the doorstep in order for them to get in. Mark’s case was not the exception. There can be way too many barriers to getting help. That has to change.

Click here for information on setting up a screening of Lost In Woonsocket or to purchase a DVD copy of the film. Renew’s profile of Lost In Woonsocket’s Normand Cartier can be found here.

For information on Cartier’s organization, Lost and Found in America, click here.

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