In Movies, I Tell People’s Transformation Stories. Here is My Own.

Jeremy Frindel charts his journey from subversive comedy pop star to "green-juice yoga guy" to documentary filmmaker.

It’s come to feel like the main story I tell is the reinvention story. The story of transformation. Perhaps in an archetypal sense, every story is a transformation story. But there exists a more overt sort of reinvention story that I seem to be continually drawn to.

My first film, One Track Heart: The Story of Krishna Das, told of how a Jewish kid from Long Island went from a hippy rock ‘n roll singer with the Blue Öyster Cult guys, to becoming Krishna Das, the rock star of Hindu devotional chanting. My current film, The Doctor From India, is the story of how a man born into poverty in India becomes a doctor of traditional Ayurvedic medicine, meets a young American guy who brings him to the U.S. in 1979 and finds his place as a global leader of the holistic health movement. My upcoming film, Spacefox, which I’m editing now, tells the journey of Marty Friedman from rock star and lead guitarist of Megadeth, to becoming one of the biggest TV comedians in Japan. I keep being drawn to this story in its myriad forms.

Perhaps it’s because of my time as Vince Diamond. VD. Or should I say my time playing a character named Vince Diamond? The lines became blurry at times. VD was my response to being 25 and single for the first time in New York City. A sort of alter-ego commentary on dating dynamics and the desire for fame. A character writing songs which revealed the absurd, unspeakable aspects of how young men sometimes view young women. And playing with the need many people have to be seen and applauded (myself included). This was 2005, the dawn of reality TV culture, the dawn of social media. VD had a killer MySpace page.

It started as a joke. I had just broken up with a girlfriend who I thought might be “the one.” I was heartbroken, living in Harlem, working on films, and drinking way too much. I started writing some goofy songs to release a little angst and make my roommate laugh. “You’re Just Too Big For Me, Girl.” “I Want to Fuck My Cousin.” “She Wants to Pee in My Face.” The basic formula was each song would begin seemingly sincere, and as it progressed would become increasingly twisted, poke fun at some sick part of our culture, and hopefully be entertaining. The joke was always on Vince.

My roommate at the time was a tech nerd and told me about this brand new thing called a “podcast.” There were just a handful that existed at the time. So, for fun, I made a couple of little radio shows as the character who wrote these songs, a delusional egomaniac who thought he was on the verge of being a big rock star. I had been a musician most of my life and played in bands for years, so this delusion was close to my heart. I named the character Vince Diamond, the bastard love child of Vincent Gallo and Neil Diamond. VD.

I put a few of these shows on iTunes as podcasts and shared them with some friends. Soon I noticed I was in the top 10 podcasts on iTunes and that other people were listening. I got an email from MTV wanting to feature “Vince” on a piece about this new podcast thing. Established filmmakers who I had worked with were writing telling me how much they loved the podcast. All of a sudden, this weird little joke was becoming the biggest thing I had going on.

VD in Times Square

A filmmaker I had worked with named Adolfo Doring loved what I was doing and wanted to start shooting stuff with me as Vince. He had directed music videos for Sting, The Dixie Chicks, Bon Jovi. He was directing feature films. I loved his work, loved him, and was blown away that he wanted to work with me on this. We started playing with how Vince could work as a character in the world. Vince booked a gig at CBGB’s and we cast a bunch of actresses to show up as diehard VD fans, swooning and cheering. I stayed in character as Vince all night, acted like a complete prima donna, terrorized the sound guy, smashed a guitar and almost got thrown out of the club. We made VD panties to sell. Another time, I showed up in Times Square wearing a rhinestone VD speedo, playing guitar next to the Naked Cowboy, hoping to incite a fight. Lucky for me, he was a true gentleman.

Shortly after, another producer friend wanted to pitch a Vince Diamond series. Da Ali G Show had just come out on HBO and gave a pretty clear blueprint of how an outrageous alter-ego character interacting in the real world could work. He pitched the idea for a sort of musical Borat series to a handful of networks, and eventually got offers from MTV and IFC. My head was spinning! We decided that IFC was a better fit for the subversive element of what we were doing with the character. The team there wanted to give Vince his own table at the Independent Spirit Awards, have him cause a scene, mess with celebrities. My picture was going to be on taxi cabs and in subways. I was going to be a star!

We were writing episodes and scripting out the arc of the series. Deep Inside Vince Diamond. Vince recording a record, playing gigs, his misadventures with ladies. Then it fell apart. Our producer friend was directing another show with IFC and had a difficult relationship with its star. It eventually became a “he goes or I go” situation; our friend was fired from the show he was directing, and my show got dropped in the aftermath. We went back to MTV, but they were no longer interested. It was one of the truly devastating moments of my life. I’d spent two years building this, tasted the fame and success I’d been dreaming of, and now it had totally crashed. I couldn’t get out of bed for days. I felt like my life was over.

Months earlier, I had read an interview with Rivers Cuomo from Weezer in which he talked about how he would do these 10- and 30-day silent meditation retreats. I had never practiced meditation in my life, but something about it intrigued me, and it was free, so I’d signed up for a 10-day retreat then promptly forgotten about it. But months later, lying in bed paralyzed with depression, I remembered the retreat and saw it was just a few days away. I crawled to the bus station and headed up to Western Massachusetts, to the Vipassana Meditation Center.

Jeremy Frindel teaching yoga in Japan with yoga master Dharma Mittra

Those 10 days rocked my world and cracked my heart open in ways that are difficult to articulate. 10 days of silence. 10 hours a day of staring at my mind and my thoughts. Feeling such deep emotions, incredible love, sadness, regret, gratitude. I walked out feeling a bliss and a love and a connection with everyone and everything on the planet that dwarfed anything I had ever experienced. And I started rethinking my priorities of how I wanted to live my life and what I wanted to do with my time.

When I returned home, my producer friend had another lead of where to go with Vince Diamond. Atari was rebranding itself as a Myspace-style social media hub, and wanted VD to be one of their flagship characters, with a web series and online VD video game. But my heart wasn’t in it anymore. I didn’t feel the same need to be the center of attention, to deal in sarcasm and button-pushing in that way. It was time to hang up the VD panties.

Soon I was studying yoga intensely with a master teacher in the city. I participated in a few teacher trainings, and then was asked to teach in the training programs. I traveled all over the world teaching yoga. All the film work I was doing gradually phased out, and for several years I was practicing, studying and teaching yoga and meditation full-time. I sold most of my old music and film gear to pay rent. Lived off brown rice and green juice. My family was sure I had joined some kind of cult. A girl walked into a yoga studio I was working at once, looked at me, stunned, and said, “Vince?!”

But I never felt at home in the role of yoga teacher. The practice of yoga and meditation gave me so many amazing tools to work with my shadows and learn to live with greater love and compassion. And the desire to be of service in the world. But being a yoga teacher didn’t feel like my path to do that. I still felt a strong pull to tell stories and make art. There was a man named Krishna Das I’d come across in my yoga explorations, a kirtan singer, a mystic, and a kind of yoga rock star, who had led a fascinating life that I thought could make a great documentary film. He agreed to let me tell his story, a good friend helped fund the project, and for the next few years I traveled the world with him and my camera. In poetic fashion, the film ended up having its theatrical premiere at the IFC Center in New York City.

Jeremy Frindel with Dr. Vasant Lad, the subject of The Doctor From India

With my second film, The Doctor From India, which is about to be in theaters, I can see how I went through my own sort of reinvention story. I have spent the last many years immersing myself in the lives of these different people who have made very bold, unexpected life choices. They were each following an untrodden path they were drawn down that felt unlikely and mysterious, yet also somehow inevitable. Retracing and exploring these paths has helped me gain perspective and confidence in my own choices. Bouncing about from musician, to subversive comedian, to green-juice yoga guy, all in an attempt to find myself. And finally, in this latest period, feeling most at home and fulfilled in the work I’m doing. Which I see as attempting to translate the big love and sense of deep time that I first tasted with meditation into a cinematic experience. To somehow make films that could function as a portal to glimpse this space of vast love. Work that felt totally unlikely when I first started out, but now feels exactly where I belong.

Jeremy Frindel is the founder of Substratum Films, specializing in cinematic portraiture exploring the resilience and majesty of the human spirit. In 2013 Jeremy released his first feature film, One Track Heart: The Story of Krishna Das. Distributed by Zeitgeist Films, the film screened theatrically across the US, and won the Best Documentary prize at the Maui, Dharamsala and Gold Coast Film Festivals among others. Jeremy is in post-production now on his next project, Spacefox, a feature documentary following the reinvention of Marty Friedman from lead guitarist in Megadeth to one of the most famous TV comedians in Japan. The Doctor From India, his second feature, opens June 1 at the Quad Cinema in New York City and is screening across the U.S. courtesy of Zeitgeist Films.