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 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.
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.
That and about two other questions. One thing, too, is that you’re talking to very smart people, so their lucidity isn’t a surprise — yet the way their words interact with the images is surprising. It’s almost as if they’re providing a director’s commentary, with it right in front of them while they’re speaking. Do you know if any of them were watching the films right before the interviews, so as to refresh themselves?
No, that’s interesting. Whenever I go to Paris, I stay at Arnaud’s house. I woke up the morning of the interview, and he said, “Come on in here. I want to show you something.” And he showed me that scene from the first The Man Who Knew Too Much that he talks about.
He goes on at length about it in the movie: the mother faints. It’s the shot of the daughter being kidnapped. He’s never really been a big fan of the English Hitchcock movies — he never discussed them or had never discussed them — but he said, “This scene is just remarkable.” So he was doing it. He was very nervous. Why, I don’t know. Olivier, that’s not his thing; nor is it Fincher’s. Marty probably took a look at his stuff, but he’s always looking at Hitchcock. James very well might have given a fresh look at some things; I really didn’t ask him. Peter and Paul, that’s different. I think that Kiyoshi looked at Notorious. In the interview — I didn’t do that interview; my friend, Abi [Sakamoto], did — he kept referring to Claude Rains as Joseph Cotten. That was very funny. But it is interesting how, sometimes, their physical gestures look. When Arnaud is talking about that scene and the mother lifts her head like this, it works. It’s one of those corny moments, but I didn’t do that a lot; I just did it twice. James did it, too, where he’s talking about the shot of the shower head. He just did it when it felt right.
I was very surprised that this movie uses an original score over the images, which almost feels like adding a splash of color to the Mona Lisa.
Mmm… yeah. Less than you would think.
Talk about that, then — the fears, risks, and rewards.
The score question was a whole thing. At first, the producers were saying, “Maybe you should work with a composer,” and I thought, “Maybe I’d like to score it myself,” the way that we scored the Lewton movie, using pre-existing music from the Warner Bros. library. Some of it was from Lewton films; others not. The Kazan movie was Lennie Tristano — just piano. This one, pretty early on, what I thought was, “I don’t want to have something that sounds like Bernard Hermann.” That seems like a really bad idea. I hate it when I see movies like that, where they’re tributes to filmmakers and it’s kind of done “in the style of.” It’s like, “Oh.” It really sets my teeth on edge when there are camera angles that…
And, so, when we were cutting the movie, we used, as temp music, Jonny Greenwood’s music from There Will Be Blood, The Master, a little bit of Inherent Vice, a little bit of Norwegian Wood. I wanted something that kind of sounded like that, and so, when it came time to, I actually asked Jonny Greenwood, but he was very busy. Rachel Reichman and I, who cut the film and co-produced it, found this young composer named Jeremiah Bornfield, and we said, “This is what we want: something that’s strings. You can sweeten it up a bit here and there, but we want something that has that kind of sound, has that kind of propulsive thing, and these kinds of colors.”
I was overjoyed with the result. As a matter of fact, when we were mixing it in Paris, I was coming out of it kind of whistling some of the score. It’s really cool; I really like it. He’s an amazing, wild guy. So there aren’t really that many moments when it’s over Hitchcock. There’s a lot of Bernard Herrmann in the movie, particularly Vertigo and Psycho, because that’s just an integral part of the movie. Other moments, there’s some music over some of the images here and there, yes, but we only did it when we felt like it needed that, when the movie needed that, as opposed to the source music. So, I don’t know. “Putting a splash of color on the Mona Lisa.” You know, we’re making our own movie. At a certain point… well, no, it’s always just about this movie as opposed to… [Nods]
What’s your experience with Reichman?
Rachel and I worked together for the first time on a movie that Marty and I co-directed very, very quickly in 2004 called Lady By the Sea. She and I had known each other before. She’s a filmmaker; she directed a movie that was in New Directors/New Films, called Work. So we knew each other, and when I was looking for an editor really quickly… because that movie was made in, like, six weeks, from the first phone call to the airing date, and it was a real adventure. [Laughs] When it came time to do Lewton, she wasn’t free, so I worked with Kristen Huntley, and that was a great collaboration, too. And then Rachel edited the Kazan film. She was already working on the Kazan film when we were making the Lewton film; we were kind of doing two things at the same time. The Kazan film, as opposed to Lady By the Sea, was like a four-year odyssey; it was just a really long time in the cutting room. So this is the third thing that we’ve made together.
I’d like to know about the editing-room relationship — how much it’s you making a direct decision, and in what ways she implements ideas.
We work really, really closely. Really closely. I write it out so that she has something to work from, and then I’m talking about the images and the words — what images, specifically. In the case of, like, this film, I know Hitchcock’s work so well that I was able to link through what images and what films I wanted for everything, pretty much. But I don’t know… it’s kind of hard to… I mean, at a certain point, I just want her to be able to string something together and interpret it and show me, and I can kind of come in and modify it. At other points, when we’re dealing with, like, a montage of things, we’re sitting there and working it out really closely together, “what should come first” — you know, the order of things, the rhythm of things. Other than that, it’s just a very close relationship.
Do you see any unifying factor in your film documentaries? Is there a common goal to encourage conversation or make people think about the films differently?
I want to give people an experience. Do I want to take them through? Yes, of course. There’s an element of it that’s like saying, “Here’s a guy named Val Lewton you may not have heard of.” In the case of this movie, it’s different; it’s a different kind of relationship. It’s what it is to be talking about filmmaking and about the materials of filmmaking, what it is to make a film and think about all the things that are involved in that. Kazan’s different because it’s a movie made from Marty’s point-of-view. It’s a point-of-view I share to a certain extent, but it’s his point-of-view. I’m in the movie in a different kind of way. The sadness of the movie is something that… I think he probably would have made a different kind of movie if he did it with somebody else.
I guess that, you know, I don’t want to just make a bunch of different movies about different filmmakers, you know? It would be awesome to make a movie about… well, no, it wouldn’t. I love Delmer Daves’ movies, right? The idea of making a documentary about him holds no interest for me, because it would just be a documentary about Delmer Daves. John Ford? That’s a little different, because that’s a story. I mean, I just felt like, with Val Lewton, there was a story there about who this guy was and who died so young. Kazan, obviously, and his relationship with Marty is a very touching thing. These guys, and particularly after I found… the whole exchange between the two of them is very moving, and particularly after I found these letters. But, again, it’s like: King Vidor? Maybe. I like his movies, but I’m not sure. So what I’m trying to say is, I’m very particular about what I want to make a movie about.
So there’s not necessarily anybody on your mind right now.
I have a couple of fiction films in mind; not docs.
Was any restoration done with the clips? This is a digitally projected movie, but you have the film grain and other “antiquated” qualities. When you license a clip, is it simply a matter of inserting them into the film as you please?
I don’t even know what restoration… when you’re talking about digital work, a lot of people, what they mean by “restoration” is sort of like, “They ran it through something.” Some of the films are fair-use, and, obviously, there are a lot ones where they aren’t. Or there’s a lot of material from the film. There’s no restoration involved. I can’t go into what was and what wasn’t, but I will say that I was really pleased with the way the colorist handled that stuff, because, in the case of films that weren’t fair-use, obviously, we had access to the masters. In the case of the films that were, not true. So, you know, I was really happy with the way that he handled that.
The silent movies are surprisingly beautiful.
The silent movies are incredible. I mean, they’re just absolutely staggering. Especially The Manxman. Just a great film.
I don’t really consider Truffaut a disciple of Hitchcock’s, but there are those films that people identify as being in his spirit — particularly The Soft Skin and Confidentially Yours. Do you see any as bearing that similarity, and might you have any stronger interest in them for that reason?
It’s very tempting, when you get into this question of influence, to identify the things that are “most like” the work of the other director, and to blot out everything around it. This was a thing when I was younger, when people would use the word “influence,” and would say, “This film is clearly ‘influenced’ by that film.” As you get older, you just realize that’s not the way that life works. It just isn’t that way. Even for somebody who was extremely film-historical conscious, like Jacques Rivette. When he’s talking about Fritz Lang, it’s not like, “I have just watched The Secret Beyond the Door, and therefore I am doing this or that.” If you’re talking about Brian De Palma and Alfred Hitchcock, that’s a different story, obviously, but that’s a very particular case. This is what he says in Noah [Baumbach] and Jake [Paltrow]’s movie — which is very complementary to this film — that Hitchcock’s films work as a language; he’s coming at it that way. So he’s saying, “This is a syntax that I’m availing myself of.” So that’s different. It’s almost singular.
The other cases that I can almost think of are, like, Hal Hartley with a mix of Godard and Bresson in his movies. But, you know, you can probably come up with some other examples here and there, but it’s a pretty… it’s much more mysterious than that. So, yeah, there are things in many more of his movies than The Soft Skin. I mean, the ones that people always talk about Mississippi Mermaid and The Bride Wore Black. The Bride Wore Black has a score by Bernard Herrmann; they’re both based on novels by Cornell Woolrich, a.k.a. William Irish. But Hitchcock would never have dreamed of making a movie out of The Bride Wore Black — never in a million years. Mississippi Mermaid? Perhaps, but not really. Soft Skin… yeah, but that’s very, very fine-grained, getting into the weirdnesses of controlling the time of the woman that you’re obsessed with and, you know, kind of demeaning her without trying to. It’s a very different kind of thing. So it feels Hitchcockian when there’s the whole conflict about going to the conference, the dinner with friends — “I don’t want to invite her,” calling her, saying, “I’ll be right there,” then going back — but it’s to a different end, to describe something that’s quite different from what he’s involved with.
In Fahrenheit 451, you can see a lot of moments where he’s thinking about how Hitchcock would shoot something — the cutting patterns, for sure — but, again, a very different kind of movie. So, no: I’m absolutely not drawn to anything that he did just because it’s got traces of Hitchcock. I don’t think that The Woman Next Door really has any trace of Hitchcock whatsoever, and it’s a great, great film. Most of his movies seem greater now, to, me; they grow as the years go by. It’s interesting. Now that all this Lennon and McCartney, Godard and Truffaut stuff is all a part of the past.
I’m in the middle of seeing Out 1, actually, and there’s one scene in a later chapter that feels very “Hawksian” — but, yes, one scene in the middle of a movie that Hawks would have never, ever made.
But, I mean, this question of influence: again, you get into something that’s very funny when you’re talking about, like… Hawks reminds me of John Carpenter. John Carpenter will just go on and on about Howard Hawks, and “Assault on Precinct 13 is a remake of Rio Bravo,” blah blah blah. I don’t know about you, but I can’t imagine… the final result, really, does not resemble. [Laughs] It’s just the opposite of Howard Hawks. It’s much closer to Hitchcock. He thinks of images in a very click-click-click, orderly, interlocking way. It’s the complete opposite of Hawks. When Marty made Shutter Island, he was talking about Val Lewton, but, when I saw the movie, I said, “It feels like something else. It doesn’t feel like Val Lewton.” Anyway, those things are very mysterious.
Hitchcock/Truffaut will enter a limited release on Wednesday, December 2.