It's a bit intimidating to speak with someone who has an entire encyclopedia of film knowledge in his head. Or someone who is good friends with Martin Scorsese, or who calls Richard Linklater “Rick”, or who is the director of the 51st New York Film Festival. That person is Kent Jones, the director of the new documentary Hitchcock/Truffaut, which is one of the best documentaries of 2015 and a must-see for anyone who loves the two directors, and just loves cinema in general. AMovieGuy.com was honored to talk with Jones on making the film, talking to great directors, and why Hitchcock and Truffaut are so important for cinema.
AMG.COM: What is it that sparked your interest and makes you decide, “That’s it, right there, I want to make a movie about Alfred Hitchcock and Francois Truffaut.”?
Kent Jones: Well, somebody asked me, so that definitely helped. When I was asked, I didn’t even think twice, I said of course I want to make it. It was a project that another filmmaker was going to do, but she was going to do it differently. She passed away, her name was Gail Levin, the films dedicated to her. I started with the book, which I had for most of my life. Ever since Marty (Scorsese) and I have known each other, we have talked about Hitchcock and Truffaut's films, so it felt immediately like something I wanted to do.
AMG.COM: It’s a big question, but can you express how important this book, and this conversation conducted between two great film makers was to the art of cinema?
Kent Jones: It's like Schrader says, Kevin Brownlow is interviewing people, but that's not the same thing. Critics or a historian interviewing a filmmaker is not the same thing as the two of them talking. Its not just two filmmakers, its a young filmmaker and an old one. Its a French filmmaker and a transplanted English filmmaker, so its a whole other thing. Truffaut's not saying, “okay tell me about the good ole days”, it's a book about actual filmmaking. Written for two reasons, it was Truffaut's reaction to hearing all these people say, you must pay attention to Hitchcock or take him seriously, and at the time there was this abstraction that was part of the critical judgments of cinema to Hitchcock. Even David Fincher says, “when you look at that book, it just opens your eyes to the ideas of filmmaker and what filmmaking is.”
AMG.COM: You made a film that was about Elia Kazan. Now you are focusing on Hitchcock and Truffaut, is there a connection or path you find yourself on with studying other directors? What have you found along the way?
Kent Jones: Film critics have a tendency to write about how movies are made in a way that doesn’t add up, it's pretty disconnected from movies of note. I don't think that is as true for other arts. It's certainly not as true for a literary critic who is writing about writing. With film, the path comes off as a world of full appreciation. It is a different world, involved only with movies. The connection with the audience is that these movies tell us how things are actually put together. I guess that's what the path has been for me, not that I want to correct it, but I want to share it. People think that making movies is a daunting, big undertaking, that only a privileged few have the luck or skill to even do it. Fincher says, “all that stuff is window dressing.” He says “If you know a few things, over time you can begin to know what your doing”.
AMG.COM: And the collection of directors/auteurs, how did you go about selecting them to speak about Hitchcock? What is your relationship with these directors?
Kent Jones: I wanted people who had a connection to the movies and the book. One person who didn't have a connection to the book was Rick Linklater, but Rick to me is an important person, in the sense that he has a very soulful connection to Truffaut. I didn't want people who would just go on the camera and say “Alfred Hitchcock was great, here's why”. I wanted people who were engaged in the questions, so I liked the people that I knew, people who I admired. In certain cases they are people who I am really close to, Ollivier (Assays) I know, Marty (Scorsese), Fincher and I are pretty good friends. And Marty and I have known each other for 23 years, were really close. Fincher, I got to know when Zodiac came out, and it was sort of dumped, that was a real revelation for me. I contacted him, to see if he had ever read the book and he said, “oh only a couple hundred times” and I asked if he would do this movie and he said, "yeah of course I would".
AMG.COM: Did you notice that all of these directors have had a fascination with, or have used blonde females as muses in their films? Fincher (Gone Girl) Linklater (Before Sunrise) Scorsese (Raging Bull/Taxi Driver)? Does that say something about Hitchcock? Or how directors are inspired by him?
Kent Jones: I think in the case with Marty, yeah. With Vertigo, Hitchcock and James Stewart, they are interviewing her with mystery, but in Casino it is DeNiro's character who is viewing her with mystery and Marty is not. He is viewing her lovingly, but the whole point of the movie is that we are able to see clearly what he is not allowing himself to see, because he is just into the idea of being in love with her. Same thing with Michelle Pheiffer in Age of Innocence or Robbie in Wolf of Wall Street. With Gone Girl, that is a different story, I think it's different in a sense that it's not the same relationship with the heroine that Hitchcock has with his blondes, but I think Fincher, when he was talking about Vertigo, saying that the more honest point of view is her story, it's almost as if he was describing, to a certain extent, the movie that he made. You can certainly argue that about Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl.
AMG.COM: Could you argue that directors do things like that because of influence?
Kent Jones: I think that the question of influence is really complicated. It is much more complicated then people used to make it out as. Yeah you see things, you absorb them, and then they come up in odd ways. Its not like John Carpenter was Howard Hawks. I was talking about this the other day, I think that with the word auteur, someone asked me if the New York film festival was an auteurs film festival. My response is, if what you mean is that movies are made by human beings, then I guess I agree. It seems like auteur is a fancy way of saying that movies are made by artists. As opposed to they are made by people, people who are engaged in the art of cinema. If they are engaged in the art of cinema that means they know the history of cinema, so sometimes your relationship to cinema is different and your work can be an extension of that.
AMG.COM: The documentary speaks more about the art of filmmaking than the men-Truffaut and Hitchcock. Is that a conscious choice on your part? There have already been plenty of movies to talk about Hitchcock the man, but not enough about him as an artist, correct?
Kent Jones: Well, that's what the book is, so in this case you can't not talk about him as a man because you are talking about him as a director and his films. Fincher says “if you think you can hide as a director, you're nuts.” The movies that are made by people that do think they can hide, are not the good ones.
AMG.COM: I found it very interesting that a director like Kurosawa said that “he stays away from trying to make films like Hitchcock's because he could not come close to them.”
Kent Jones: Yeah, it's like when you read the book, you can say wow, this is wonderful, but as a prescription or way for making movies, that is another question. It is lovely to read, but the idea that it is a handbook, does not work. I think in terms of Hitchcock, that is always a deceptive thing. People can look at his work and think, "this is the way to make movies", but there is no specific way. They point you in a certain direction, but what you're learning is to listen to yourself.
AMG.COM: I saw the film using Truffaut as a vessel into the study of Hitchcock the director, the narrator of your film, and he was able to create his own name, so is it better to use the director as inspiration and then go out and do it on your own?
Kent Jones: I can't think of a case when someones career turned out well, where that didn't happen. Now you know, maybe the exception would be Brian De Palma, but De Palma did something that nobody else has done, because he took what Hitchcock did and interpreted it as a language in of itself, which is a very strange thing to do. He did it. It is not the same for Hal Hartley with Goddard and Bresson, because how Hartley's movies do the same thing to a certain extent, but there is not an intense power or connection to what De Palma has with Hitchcock. That is the exception to the rule, I do not think you can say that about any other directors though.
AMG.COM: For Hitchcock, was his art of filmmaking a form of, in some ways, self-torture? He used the line “actors are like cattle”, which makes him sound distant from his actors or other people.
Kent Jones: Yeah but that's not to be taken literally. I don't like to underline things. I think to leave things there for people to find, so the actors are cattle line, all you have to do is watch the movies and know that a line like that is not true.
AMG.COM: I do think he is making a point that being a director is a dictatorship, is it not?
Kent Jones: Well for him it is. I think in other words, you can't get what Carey Grant did in Notorious and not be collaborative with him. You can't say, "okay Carey I want you to lift your eyebrows and have this type of chemistry on the screen with Louis Calhern", I mean forget it. It's not possible. He was deeply, deeply engaged with his actors. As Marty says, when Hitchcock worked with Montgomery Clift, there was a shift in the actor/director relationship.
AMG.COM: I felt an immediate urge to go and buy the Hitchcock/Truffaut book or to go and study their films, is that the type of reaction you hope to evoke from your audience?
Kent Jones: Yes, of course it is, but the other reaction that I want is for people to say that they had an experience. I feel like it is surprising to me that film history needs to be remembered again. You think in the 90's it felt like we arrived, that people understood film preservation, but that is not the way things are. You need to stand by it and protect it.