Musical styles like rock ‘n’ roll, jazz and R&B trace their roots back to the blues, which partly sprang from one man who recorded his famous "Cross Road Blues" in a San Antonio hotel room.
Blues musician Robert Johnson arrived in San Antonio in 1936 and recorded some of his most famous work, like “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom” and “Terraplane Blues,” in room 414 of the Gunter Hotel downtown.
The modest itinerant musician would join the legends after this, but it was a fledgling time in America’s recording industry.
This story piqued the interest of Columbia film student writer and director Robert Brink’s, who heard “Hell Hound on my Trail” and couldn’t get it out of his head.
An epic tale
Brink decided to take on the project for his non-thesis -- the film before his final thesis.
The film he’s calling “Devil Deal Blues” details Johnson’s trip to the Alamo City, which he says took a long time to write. A $25,000 grant from the San Antonio Film Commission’s Student Film Project greatly helped production. 40 cast members and about 100 members of the crew spent six days in San Antonio and surrounding areas to film the entire 15 minute project.
Once the film is completed by April, Brink said he’ll enter it into film festivals world-wide, but he really hopes to expand the film.
“Perhaps this short film, if it looks great, somebody’s going to want to finance the feature version of it, which we have a great feature script for this story. It shows off all of San Antonio,” he said.
Playing a legend
New York-based actor Tyler Jacob Rollinson plays Johnson, and said he wants people to learn about the blues legend.
“I studied about him in school,” said Rollinson. “I took a music course my senior year and it really went through the history of the blues. He was kind of the first modern, it’s what we see as modern blues musician is my opinion of what Robert Johnson enveloped and was. And so you can track everything that the Rolling Stones have done, everything that the Beatles have done, back to Robert Johnson. Bob Dylan, you can track back to Robert Johnson.”
Rollinson said the part helped evolve his own musical tastes, joking that he listened to “crap” growing up, like “a lot of bad rap and extremely awful hip-hop."
For Rollinson the most challenging part of shooting the film was handling the musical scenes. Although he said every close-up of his hands on the guitar is him playing, film tricks helped him out.
"Just like Robert Johnson we do some magical things with the film," he said laughing.
He hopes the project will shed light on Johnson, a man whose influence on the world of music didn’t become clear until well after his death.
"I want people who don’t know anything about Robert Johnson to really get into his music now," said Rollinson. "I think if you watch this film, you’ll say, ‘Man, wow. I didn’t know anything about Robert Johnson but now I know and now I hear his influences in today’s music.'"
Setting the scene downtown
To make downtown San Antonio look like it did during the depression, old-time vehicles took the place of modern cars.
Wayen Graefen drove his 1934 Terraplane from Kerrville to be in the movie. Graefen said he bugged his friend to sell him the car for years before his friend finally agreed.
Grafen said he did not get paid for the part, and that he was the one who reached out to the producers.
“I sent an email and said, ‘Hey, you know, the man’s most famous song was the 'Terraplane Blues.' You need a Terraplane.'"
The mystery of Robert Johnson
Actress Charo, who does not go by a last name, said the lack of information on Johnson allows creativity to reign supreme. Only three photographs to date are known to be in existence of Johnson.
Charo plays a maid, and Johnson’s love interest.
“There’s a lot of flexibility in the story of Robert Johnson because a lot of it, there’s some written and documented stuff, but then there’s also a lot of flexibility because there’s not so much documentation," she said.
Johnson had only one other recording session - in Dallas 1937. Months later he mysteriously died at the age of 27, but not before he created the template for future rock stars’ influence from the music he recorded in San Antonio.
- Learn more about the film at: devildealblues.com