By John Jeffrey
Jason Hook, guitarist for Five Finger Death Punch, is a busy man these days. While gearing up for spring-summer (world) tour dates, starting in April, Hook is currently promoting his documentary film, "Hired Gun." The cumulative brainchild between Jason Hook (Executive producer) and Fran Strine (director), "Hired Gun" is a feature length documentary which tells the story of several prolific musicians who are virtually unknown to the public. While some people might not know their names or even "care" who they are, these musicians have filled pivotal roles for artists like Billy Joel, KISS, Alice Cooper, Whitesnake, Ozzy Osbourne and Metallica.
While their names may be "unknown," the fact is, they have played thousands of shows, to millions of music fans who have seen them perform. Tens of millions fans have heard their music. While people may not realize it, these "hired guns" have been quietly ingrained into their memories, as they have performed countless times with their favorite bands - that they gone to see in-concert - and have performed as "ghost musicians" on many studio tracks they have listened to on CD or on the radio.
The "Hired Gun" documentary ultimately poses the question, "Who are these world-class musicians living in the shadow of the spotlight?" What was their path that got them there? Why have some succeeded while others have failed? Why are some in demand while others are beat up, beat down and left for dead in the wreckage of a failed career? What happens to them?
"Hired Gun" tells the story of these talented musicians and the gig's they've taken; sometimes by choice and sometimes out of necessity. Collectively, they are a group that possess uncommon musical ability and an uncanny knack for being able to deliver a great performance time and again. Individually, they are a diverse lot with vastly different backgrounds and experience in the music world.
When I originally saw adverts for this film, it appeared as though it would be a film that would only appeal to the followers of such devout 80's music sites, like "Metal Sludge." But "Hired Gun" edifies the viewer, showing the need and presence of these "mercenary for hire" musicians spans countless generations of music.
Rock Music Star had the opportunity to have a one on one talk with Jason Hook, and discuss the creative process and everything it took to make the "Hired Gun" film a reality, as Jason was at the SXSW Film Festival preparing the debut screening of "Hired Gun," which was unveiled on March 18th.
RockMusicStar: Jason, just want to say that I just viewed "Hired Gun" and really enjoyed it. As I watched the film, I noticed your production credits, so I wanted to ask you what role you served in the making of this film, how the whole project got started, and at what point did you get involved?
Jason Hook: The movie belongs to myself and my partner, Fran Strine, who is the director. Fran and I were on tour with my band three years ago, on a tour bus, in the middle of a long drive, having a long conversation, discussing how much we both mutually love documentaries. I knew that he had made a few movies and I was looking to do something like that. It was just a loose conversation, but that's how most things start. So we started talking about what we could do it about and how much money it take, and it just started from there.
We came up with the idea about hired musicians because we both know a lot of people in that field, and we thought that would be an easy way to get content. So we just started collecting interviews, one at a time.
RMS: Honestly, I have to say that, while I didn't have an exact pre-conceived notion of what the film would be like, I was really surprised at how 'all encompassing' the documentary really is, and after watching it, I thought the movie could have had a subtitle, "Hired Gun/Billy Joel is a dick." (We both laugh) Was it the original idea from the onset to have the ongoing story-line about Billy Joel and his backing band be so prevalent throughout the movie, or did it just come to be throughout the interview process?
JH: That is so funny dude! We had no idea what we were doing (or focusing on) when we started. We just started to collect interviews and ask people if they would tell their story. And when we started, somebody said, "You know who you have to get? You have to get Liberty DeVitto." This guy was with Billy Joel (as his drummer) for 30 years and then got booted. Liberty's a New Yorker, so he's got grit. And he's still pretty bitter about what happened there. His interview was so good, and so spiky, that we decided that his interview should be one of the main stories, just because it was that good. The guy does not hold back. That was actually a lot of stuff that he said that was kind of over the line, that we just couldn't use, that was even more fiery than what ended up in the movie.
Liberty ended up suing Billy Joel and won. So, it just kind of evolved that way. I knew that making a movie....it's kind of like writing songs...the best idea wins. Just let the cream rise to the top. Liberty's stuff was just that good, that we started building a story around it. We didn't initially know it was gonna go that way, but it was so good, we ended up having to get archive footage, archive interviews, things to support the story. I think it ends up becoming really compelling. I hope it doesn't upset Billy (Joel) too much.
RMS: Well, the truth is the truth, right? I mean the interview segments with Billy directly support and confirm everything Liberty and the other band members said about how things went down with the band.
JH: It's interesting you say that, because we figured out that we built so much of the story about what happened to Liberty, that wasn't until we had done a couple of private screenings, where we had done some surveys, in order to ask people some questions, and getting the questions answered, that we were curious about. It wasn't until we had one of those screenings where the audience said, "It doesn't explain why Billy turned (on his band)." It just seemed only from one side. So we actually went back and included the interview footage, in order to build the segment that explains Billy getting ripped off, and losing everything and being broke, and THAT'S why he turned on everybody.
RMS: I have to say that most of the 'subjects' in the film come across as REAL, sincere, humble people, who are thankful to be doing what they do, even if it's just being a 'hired gun.' But a few people, like Richard Patrick from Filter, show the darker side of the business. Was it important to have that 'Ying and Yang' aspect to the movie?
JH: Yeah. I mean, we just let people talk. So whatever they say, is on them. Like with the Richard Patrick story, when I first saw the interview, and the segment as it was being built, I thought for sure, he was going take from his experience in Nine Inch Nails, as sort of being taken advantage of, and you were expecting him to say, "I would never do this to my band, because I learned from the other side." But he actually turned on himself, and said, "I learned how to be a dick."
I like things that are unpredictable in films, so we tried to keep the most interesting, unpredictable parts from each story. And it was great to have the bass player from Filter chime in and say, "I'd rather stay home than spend another day with those guys and now I do the (voice-overs for) Carl Jr.'s commercials."
RMS: Was there anybody that you wanted for the film, that refused to participate or who couldn't, due to scheduling conflicts or whatever?
JH: Yeah, like Billy Joel. We wanted to see if he want to chime in or refute anything, as we showed him Liberty's segment, to see if he would be interested in commenting, but he wasn't interested. What we heard back was that he was quite upset by it.
RMS: If I may share a couple of criticisms I have for the film, one, being that I was a music fan, growing up in the 80's, and following the hard-rock/heavy metal music scene, to me, no one in the mid-80's encompassed the term 'hired gun' more than Eric Singer. Going from Gary Moore, to Lita Ford, to Black Sabbath, to Badlands, to Alice Cooper and then to KISS (via doing Paul Stanley's solo tour in 1989), the way he moved up the musical food chain is unparalleled in my opinion. In "Hired Gun" he's essentially mentioned as going from Alice Cooper to KISS, with the rest of his story somewhat omitted. Was there a reason that only that latter part of his career was focused upon and was there more footage 'in the can' than what appeared in the documentary?
JH: Well, Eric is a friend of mine and he agreed to do the interview, begrudgingly, for me. I'm grateful that he did it. Eric talked for four hours non-stop. He's a bundle of energy. He told his WHOLE story. All of his gigs, all of the Black Sabbath....he told all of it. We had 55 interviews with over 300 hours of footage and we had to make a decision, who do we focus on, who ends up doing just little 'chime ins,' and who gets smaller segments. There were a lot of people who didn't even make it in the film.
And with the KISS guys, my band has toured with them, I wanted to be very respectful and delicate with Eric, as he is in that band and out of respect for Gene (Simmons) & Paul (Stanley) as well, I didn't want to present it as "Eric Singer - the guy who plays for anybody and everybody," and now just happens to be playing for KISS. I wanted to make it respectful and tell it as 'his dreams came true' and he's in KISS now. I certainly could have put anything in the movie about Eric, but he's my friend, and I didn't want to cause any problems for him. I knew the guys in KISS would also appreciate it if it made him look special, and made KISS look special.
I'm a HUGE KISS fan, so no matter what, I was getting KISS in the movie. We were trying to see if we could get Paul to chime in, because he's doing his new Soul Station project, and I wanted him to reflect on what it's like working with other musicians. How do you select them, what is the selection process for that band, etc. I wanted to give Paul the chance to talk about something other than KISS. We couldn't get him, but I did have Gene & Paul approve the Eric Singer segment, because I didn't want to cause any problems for me or for Eric. But they actually saw it and approved it, so that was kind of cool.
RMS: The other person who I felt wasn't fully or accurately portrayed was Rudy Sarzo. In "Hired Gun," he's only credited for his participation in Ozzy, Quiet Riot and Whitesnake, when in all actuality, he's played with SO MANY other artists. I understand your time limitations, but people who don't know who Rudy Sarzo is, aren't really getting the full understanding of how active he has been in the music scene.
JH: You're right. You're obviously a music fan on the same level as I am, but it was really tough to get it all in there. 300 hours down to 90 minutes was just an unbelievable task. But on the flipside of that, because there is so much gold, so there's talk on extending this into a docu-series. Something similar to what you're seeing now on Netflix and Amazon, where it's an original series presented in 10 or 12 episodes. We have all of the content and then some. Each episode could be focused on 1 or 2 guys, where we could go further in-depth, like you were saying.
RMS: There were parts of your own story I wished would have been in the movie. How you went from playing in Vince Neil's band, and were replaced by Keri Kelli when you went to play for Hillary Duff, you bought a house (which was mentioned in the movie), had to turn down the Ace Frehley gig, because he wasn't touring at the time (and you needed an active gig to pay your mortgage) and then came full circle and wound up playing WITH Keri Kelli in Alice Cooper's band. You can't even make something like that up....
JH: We tried to get as much of that in there as possible. We talked to all of the Alice Cooper guys..I mean the Alice Cooper band could be a documentary itself. All the people coming in and out of his band. From what I'm hearing, splitting up the series and making more episodes is the right move. There's a lot of great stories.
For more information on the movie, "Hired Gun," click here.