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Kent Jones Talks ‘Hitchcock/Truffaut,’ Finding the Right People, Shaping a Documentary & More

Written by on December 2, 2015 

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Given his credentials — a widely admired essayist, chairman of the New York Film Festival’s selection committee, a noted documentary filmmaker, and a key player in The Film Foundation — and the reputation they create, it may not have been much of a feat for Kent Jones to secure the lineup of his new documentary, Hitchcock/Truffaut, itself based on a book-length series of discussions between the eponymous filmmakers. What’s trickier, then, is fusing these films (among the most famous ever made), the original conversations (among the most seminal in cinematic history), and their participation into a new, worthwhile whole.

The film proves successful, and while some may see a fairly straightforward history-recapping that simply has a stellar lineup — Martin Scorsese, Paul Schrader, Olivier Assayas, Peter Bogdanovich, Wes Anderson, David Fincher, James Gray, Arnaud Desplechin, and Kiyoshi Kurosawa — pushing things along, there are many complexities underlying its approach. I wanted to get into those when given the opportunity to interview Jones, but such is his intelligence that, while we did, the conversation kept springing from one idea to the next — hopefully in the spirit of his exploratory, loquacious work.

The Film Stage: I have to admit: I wondered, “Why make a documentary about the most famous film book ever written and, by extension, two of the most famous directors ever?” The surprise of this movie is its clever expansion of the book, in that I’m learning about these directors, their tastes, and how they watch cinema. How much did you intend to get that sort of information from them, and how much of it just emerged in conversation?

Kent JonesKent Jones: There was a question about what kind of movie it was going to be. The project pre-existed me, because there was a woman who was going to make a movie based on the tapes, named Gail Levin. She was going to make a very different kind of movie — with animation, stuff like that. Gail passed away. Somebody called me and asked me, and it was like, “Oh, yeah, I absolutely want to do that.” But then it was like, “What kind of movie?” They were saying Gail wanted to use animation, and I said, “I’d have to think about that.” I mean, Marty and I got into a similar thing with the Kazan film, because we were thinking about interviewing all these people, and then I called him up one day and said, “Somebody else should make this movie. Why do we have to? This isn’t what you wanted to do.”

With me, with this, I thought, “This has to be about filmmaking, because that’s what the book is about.” I went back and reread the book. It was just as magical to me as it was the first time I read it, when I was 12 or 13 or whatever. I just thought, “That’s what the book is: it opens your eyes to what directing is” — as Fincher says, at its most simple and basic. And then I thought, “I don’t want to have ‘experts.’ I don’t want to have people who knew, or former lovers of Truffaut. And I don’t want to do a thing where it gets into Hitchcock and Truffaut as two separate personalities.” The book is not about Truffaut; it’s his experience of Hitchcock. And then I thought, “I want people who I know and who I know who are excited by the idea of talking about filmmaking, and who respond to the book and who respond to the films.”

Some people couldn’t do it, who I asked, but I’m really with the people who did do it. I was fully prepared for Fincher to say, “No, I never read that book,” because he just doesn’t talk about older movies that much. And when he said, “Oh, yeah, I read it a couple hundred times when I was a kid.” I said, “Okay, if you want to do this…” and he said, “Oh, yeah, absolutely.” And he was great. So I guess that, in that sense, yeah: the whole point is not to make something dutiful. The whole point is not to make something that’s… informational. The point is to make a movie. So the movie has to have its own energy and emotion, and what I did was just start from the middle and built it out. I kind of had an idea that I wanted it to feel like the website-building thing, montage, at the beginning of The Social Network, just because — nothing to do with David — the way that that felt. It’s kind of pretentious to say it now, but it’s just something that I had in my head, in the sense that I wanted it to criss-cross and move back and forth a lot. Also, I don’t know, I guess I just sort of wanted the conversation to keep going — to extend it into the present. That was the idea.

It’s not a rare thing to hear Scorsese or Assayas talk about films they love, but it’s funny when they’re breaking down a scene. It’s like seeing the movie through their eyes, and you consider their ideas of visual construction in a new way. But were you still surprised to get these things out of them?

Mmm… no. Well, first of all, when it comes to “the scene stuff,” some people do that and some people don’t. I mean, these guys all talk, maybe with the exception of Fincher, a lot. Marty probably more than other people, and Olivier tends to talk a lot; Arnaud talks a lot. The thing is, it’s the context in which they’re placed; that’s everything. The fact that they’re all kind of “talking to each other,” so to speak, and talking to these images — responding to them in a way that’s valid, direct, and engaged — as opposed to… I didn’t want anybody to sit there and pontificate. I leave that to other people. Yeah, when Marty’s talking about the frame line in Psycho, that’s interesting because it’s so specific, because he’s saying “lower or higher.”

Did it surprise me? Not really, because we’ve known each other for such a long time. We get into specifics like that when we’re talking about films, and yet, in the context of the movie — in the way that it’s cut — it feels really right to me. Fincher: I really love Fincher’s… there’s something so generous about him, in the sense that he wants to share how movies are made and to get rid of the mystification of it. He wants to get rid of the machinery and say, “Look, you don’t need all this crap” — albeit, this is somebody who makes very expensive movies sometimes. But, you know, what he says about directing being very simple is essentially true. He’s quite right about it, and to put it that way, and to pair it together with Hitchcock and Truffaut talking about the dilation of time… it’s not exactly what you’re saying. It’s not an “a-ha!” moment, but it’s a moment of clarity and realization — like a ping.

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Certain comments are particularly intriguing — for instance, when Assayas says, “Truffaut is not a stylist.” It’s exactly the kind of idea I want to hear more of . Were there things — maybe that, maybe something else entirely — that you would disagree with, and you’d talk about it to lead them on more?

I don’t disagree with that; he’s right. I don’t think that there’s any ambiguity about that, actually. His images are very plain. They’re not “opulent,” ever. He doesn’t construct set pieces. He’s always staying involved with the action of the scene. He was a great filmmaker, but you would say the same of Hawks; I wouldn’t call Howard Hawks a stylist. Nor would I really call John Ford a stylist. Or Hitchcock, for that matter. They all have their ways of working, but they’re very grounded in action. So I didn’t really disagree with him.

I don’t know if I disagreed with… I mean, you know, there was something that’s not in the movie, which is an exchange about Rope where Fincher [Laughs] is saying… Olivier is saying that Rope is just, like, a miracle. “It’s one of the greatest films,” the theoretician of space — that kind of thing. Fincher’s like, “I think Rope is worthless and it’s not cinema and why bother restoring it” — that kind of thing. I lean more in the direction of Olivier’s feelings about it, but I don’t think either of them… I’m not sure if I agree with either of them. I don’t care if I agree with somebody as long as somebody’s giving me something — as long as there’s emotion in their response. For the most part, I did agree with most of what people are saying, because it’s in the movie, I guess, but that’s…

What you find interesting.

Yeah. That’s right.

So why isn’t the Rope section included? Were significant parts excised throughout? Parts that you wanted to focus on, yet ultimately found were, for whatever reason, kind of…

Yeah. No, there’s a lot of it. I mean, you know, the thing is… for instance, the question about, “Why aren’t there any women in the film?” Okay? You know, my answer to that is: on the one hand, I asked three women. One said, “Thank you, but I don’t have anything to say about that.” Another one was in pre-production. Another one was shy about appearing on-camera. I can’t say who they were. Now, if I had said to myself, “Oh, got to have a woman in this film,” then, first of all, it wouldn’t be me, because I don’t agree with the idea that every movie has to be a propellant, a social propellant, sort of like a machine that helps advance society forward to a more desired state. When I see movies like that, I just immediately turn… [Makes slack-jawed face] They lose me. And, P.S., once you do that, then if you have somebody who’s just sort of, like, sitting there as “the woman,” it’s just kind of like, “Oh, wow. That’s a real disservice to them and to the film.”

Same thing with, you know, not including this movie or that movie. And then, by the same token, while “no women in the film,” but spending so much time dwelling on Hitchcock’s sexuality. Well, Hitchcock made movies that dwell on the questions of sexuality. I’ve never read a word of explication that actually gets into the complexity of what he reveals in the movies. It’s all there. It’s like Fincher says in the movie: if you think you can hide as a director — your prurient interests and your noble interests and whatever — you’re nuts. So the people who makes movies who aren’t so good are the ones who do think they can hide. [Laughs] I don’t see anything aberrant about Hitchcock. Stories about Tippi Hedren, that kind of stuff, hold no interest for me. There are a million other stories just like them that happened with other directors.

And I’m going at length about this because those are not ways that I don’t make a movie, but the questions — not yours — are often framed, but they don’t have any bearing on the choices that I make. The choices that I make are about making a movie so that everything is working and functioning together, and everything has to be talking to each other, so you’ve got a whole that’s like a field of energy. That’s the idea. Rope just didn’t fit. There was a whole thing about Notorious that just didn’t fit, either — and, plus, structurally it was just a bunch of people talking about how great Notorious was. At the end of the movie, for a long time I had a section about Truffaut and this TV interview, after he had had his operation. And then I used a little bit of The Green Room, and it was gumming things up. So it’s a joy to take things out. It’s an amazing thing; just look at what that yields. So I hope that answers your question.

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