Marrakech Film Festival: Interview with Kent Jones

Earlier this week, Cédric Succivalli talked to Kent Jones, the New York Film Festival director whose debut feature film Diane played in Competition at FIFM after winning three prizes in Tribeca and the FIPRESCI prize in Locarno. They discussed his semi-autobiographical film, about an older woman dealing with her son’s drug addiction. They also talked about his leading lady Mary Kay Place, the process of filmmaking, his close relationship with Martin Scorsese, Hong Sang-soo and Olivier Assayas, and more.

CS: Congratulations on your film Diane, which struck me deep. This and Richard Billingham’s Ray & Liz are probably my two favorite films of the year, both debuts, and both documenting their filmmaker’s personal history. Before we dive into your own film, what can you say about Ray & Liz?

KJ: I was amazed by his film, and that he shot it in such short time. When you watch it, it seems like every single gesture is remembered. Restructuring the look and texture of a place is one thing, but doing it gesturally with the actors and build scenes around small things that have a real arc to them was astonishing to me. It takes a while before you understand what story is being told to you, and indeed that there is a story being told, but when you get to the moment where the boy decides he wants to go to the foster home it is devastating. I was absolutely impressed in a way that I was impressed by few films this year.

CS: I can say the same thing about your film! You shot Diane in only 20 days, but you said it took you almost two decades to write it?

KJ: It sat in my head for about two decades, more really, in the sense that I was moved to do something about my great-aunts. My grandmother was the oldest of ten, and they were brought up in a log cabin on the Canadian border, their father a woodsman, and they went through the depression together. Most of them were women, so it was a real matriarchy, and growing up that kitchen was where everyone would congregate. So I wanted to do this from when I was really young, just to share it. It’s something that Marty (Editor’s note: Jones and Martin Scorsese are close friends and collaborators) and I talk about a lot. When he was young he wanted to convey the world around him, quite literally, and for me it was the same desire. When I saw The Rainmaker by Coppola, Mary Kay Place’s performance in it was just astonishing to me, she’s on screen for just nine minutes but every second counts. She is from a completely different part of the country, she still has a bit of that Oklahoma twang, but that wasn’t the point. The point was that there was a spiritual match-up, and so I had her in mind from day one. Then I met her a few years ago and I told her about my ideas, and she said “Tell me when you write this“. After my mother died Mary Kay wrote me again and I was, okay, I must do this.

CS: How was this process for you as a first-time feature director, as opposed to what you have done before with, for instance, Martin Scorsese?

KJ: I knew a lot about filmmaking from being around sets, from being with Marty for so many years, from talking about films with filmmakers. Particularly Olivier Assayas, one of my best friends, who would say to me that nobody was going to make me come forward but me, so don’t be polite and count on others to make it happen for you. He also said that basically making a movie is just being there and answering questions all day, and the point is not giving the right or wrong answer but just to respond to the moment. The more important thing though is we would talk about how he often would put himself in a position where it was almost impossible to make a movie. He said he basically does what he’s afraid of, and in order to make a film that is what you have to do. Plenty of films are made in other ways. When I was shooting this film the gaffer told me he was not used to communicating with his director, and other members of the crew also said that. And it astonished me, but then it dawned on me that is why many films just aren’t that good. Olivier said a crew is perfectly capable of making a movie without a director, and you know that has happened when a movie just checks certain boxes. So if you put yourself in a position where it is intimidating and, as Marty says, you have to go do it anyway, that is when something starts to happen. And I really liked that pressure. You make it into a driving force, so the movie starts to become a thing of its own whatever the circumstances are. The idea that you would get to a certain point in the day and be confronted with the fact that if you don’t stop now and cut some setups it is going to eat into time the next day, and that was a good kind of pressure because it forces you to zero in on the essential.

CS: So that was why it was such a straightforward process when shooting. How long did you spend in the editing room?

KJ: We shot in January of 2017 and we were in the editing room immediately after. I think we were done in May. After that we did the mixing at Skywalker for five days, and then the colouring, so around five months. I was very clear about what I was shooting and what the structure of the film was, so there was no fishing around. I don’t think I could make a movie that way to tell you the truth, some kind of exploratory work. You need to do that to a certain extent with the actors in order to let something happen, but not elsewhere for me.

CS: You deal with the daily routine and suffering of Diane in an almost Bressonian way, a visceral texture, but mix that with an emotional, almost melodramatic aspect that counterbalances it. As far as Diane is concerned, Mary Kay Place reminded me of Gena Rowlands in Another Woman but also Cecilia Roth in All About My Mother, such a wide range of complexities that she is able to portray. How did you direct her to make her go to these extremes?

KJ: At a certain point she said to me “I don’t get to be funny. And I’m funny. You can get that for free.” And I told her that she would, in a way. The spirit and energy behind her humor was just going to be channeled in different ways. So she and I agreed that we were both making the same movie. When there were times she had to be still we had to talk it through, because she would get worried about it. I told her to leave the worries to me. She would worry that there was too much ‘shoeleather’ in a scene, too much walking around. So I told her to leave the shoeleather to me. The day we had to shoot the scene of her in her nightgown throwing the book down, she wasn’t sure, and I told her to just do it. You don’t have to know, just lean back, close your eyes, open your eyes, and so on. How we worked together was hand in hand, so whenever she needed clarification on something, I was there with clarification. And if she wanted to change things because she didn’t feel it was right even though I did, we continued until we both were satisfied. And then sometimes I would use it, and sometimes not.

CS: As far as the theme of addiction is concerned, we have had quite a few films on this topic recently, all pretty heavy-handed. What is remarkable is you managed to stay on a realistic level but also conveying the idea of transcendence within a mother-and-son relationship. How did you work on this theme with Jake Lacy, who plays the difficult role of Diane’s son Brian?

KJ: It is a very difficult thing that he did, and because it is all about Diane and the women he hasn’t quite received the recognition he deserves. He really understood the part. I already loved him in Obvious Child and also in Carol. There is something little boy-ish about him. I didn’t want to make a movie about drug addiction, but that is based on the experience of a friend of mine thirty years ago. The encounter in the cafe where the two meet, a lot of what he says came from my friend. Heroin is a horrible, destructive drug, but the other side of it is the pursuit to break through to the other side, so to speak, and that is something that mother and son share. A couple of times people have asked me if that was a dream, and I told them of course, but I’m still very happy with the scene.

CS: Can I ask you about NYFF? The festival is sometimes, unfairly in my opinion, criticized for being an antechamber of Cannes. What do you think of that?

KJ: I don’t care (laughs). I feel some years we have more films, sometimes less. This year we also had Non-Fiction by Assayas, Transit by Christian Petzold, Hong Sang-soo’s films. I could go on. At the end of the day it’s not the point. If that criticism gets people through the night, fine.

CS: You just brought up my favorite director ever, Hong Sang-soo. What is your relationship to him and his cinema?

KJ: I’ve known him since ten or twelve years ago, and we went over to Marty’s house together. He ended up playing with the dog (laughs). We went out for dinner with Pierre Rissient to a Korean restaurant, and Pierre was talking about Raoul Walsh and asked him what his favorite Raoul Walsh film was. Hong Sang-soo said something like, “I don’t know. I don’t even know who he is, is he a friend of yours?” But his body of work is the only one like that now, where every film is made within the same set of parameters as the previous films, it rearranges them, builds from the previous film emotionally, answers to it, advances it. You could say previously there was Rohmer, but Hong Sang-soo is different, and the simplicity of the work is astonishing. Following up on your Cannes comment, people could also say, “Oh, another Hong Sang-soo film.” But I don’t give a shit. I sometimes make a joke about it when I’m presenting the selection: “This year’s Hong Sang-soo slot…” Obviously we don’t do it to fill a slot, we do it because the films are good.

CS: Last question, about Martin Scorsese, who you worked with a lot. You were Executive Director on the World Cinema Foundation, but I also remember you co-directed A Letter to Elia with him. How much of an influence has he been in your life in general, on a personal level?

KJ: My name may be Kent Jones, but I’m part Italian. When my mother and I first went to see The Godfather, Mean Streets… Previously Italians had been played by Steve McQueen, Natalie Wood, Kirk Douglas. Suddenly there was this. Sure, James Caan, Harvey Keitel, but it didn’t matter, that wasn’t the point. That was thrilling, but it was also thrilling to just see this new voice. Last night Marty was recording something about Bertolucci, and he was talking about seeing Before the Revolution for the first time, and feeling he was being there in the presence of something new, in a new place. And I remember seeing Mean Streets and having the same feeling. And then Taxi Driver was the central movie of my youth, I saw it over and over again. I went to see New York, New York over and over again, I saw Raging Bull many times, and it was a couple of years before I fully comprehended that. It was in my blood before it was in my understanding. Then I found myself working in Marty’s office. First I was his archivist, then we started writing A Voyage to Italy.

At this point in my life he is one of my closest friends. It’s difficult to talk about. On a personal level I could say just “Yes“, a simple answer. As far as filmmaking goes, yes, but not in the sense of copying camera movements or something. It’s what we talked about before: it’s intimidating, but then you do it anyway. That’s a very important thing, I can’t tell you how important. And when he was young, John Cassavetes said these same simple things to him: Boxcar Bertha is terrific, but if you spend a year of your life making something that’s ultimately a piece of shit, you have to do what matters to you and stick with the essential. Cassavetes was also the one who said: in order to make a movie, all you need is to not be afraid of anyone or anything. Like Olivier Assayas said. You’re afraid, but then you just do it anyway.

Kent Jones