Kent Jones on 'Surprising Himself' with Tribeca-Winning, Scorsese-Produced 'Diane'
Kent Jones, the director of the New York Film Festival, brings his stirring narrative debut to Tribeca.
Kent Jones is a bona fide cinephile. Since 2013, he has served as director of the New York Film Festival, where his curatorial sensibilities have helped shape one of the nation's preeminent film showcases. Before that, as a critic, he wrote about and interviewed many of contemporary cinema's great auteurs; his 2007 book Physical Evidence: Selected Film Criticism is a testament to his deep understanding of—and reverence for—the art of film. In 2015, Jones took the director's chair for the first time with the documentary Hitchcock/Truffaut, an engaging slice of cinema history that may as well be required viewing for film lovers.
But as the saying goes, film theory does not a great filmmaker make. When Jones announced he would premiere his narrative debut, Diane, at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival, the film community held its breath. Could this erudite man translate his knowledge into the living, breathing characters that populate great cinema?
Turns out, he could—and more. Jones stunned festivalgoers with his compassionate portrait of a 70-year-old woman in rural Massachusetts. The film won three awards; in addition to the coveted Best Narrative Feature prize, Diane also garnered Best Cinematography and Best Screenplay (written by Jones).
"Diane is a character study, but up to a point. Then, I wanted it to be a film that followed the rhythm of living."
Diane stars Mary Kay Place as the titular character, a widow whose unselfish nature has eclipsed her ability to enjoy life on her own terms. She spends her days serving others, from her obstinate, heroin-addicted son (Jake Lacy) to the homeless to a cousin in the hospital. She visits a rotating cast of ailing friends and relatives. (Jones's dialogue has a keen ear for the subtle ways in which other people can reveal you to yourself.) Though she's not without spark—Diane is, in fact, full of grit and acerbic charm—she has lost her agency, or else displaced it among her loved ones. Diane fills her days with people, yet she's unmistakably alone.
Then, people start dying. As in the E.E. Cummings poem, "Spring is Like a Perhaps Hand," death comes "carefully out of Nowhere," indeed changing everything. Here, in the film's second and third acts, time becomes an accordion, contracting and expanding, with only musical interludes and shots of a dark road from the driver's seat of a car to demarcate its passage. Diane's final scenes call to mind the finale of Six Feet Under or David Lowery's A Ghost Story as they depict the human being's struggle with transcendence: after all, forever is only as long as you live. Though it is made from the stuff of everyday life, Diane touches on the cosmic.
No Film School sat down with Jones following the premiere of Diane at Tribeca to discuss transitioning from cinephile to filmmaker, the most important quality in a director, what to do when feelings get in the way of takes, the analysis that's often left out of good film criticism, and more.
"Olivier Assayas said, 'Look, nobody's gonna push your movie forward but you.'"
No Film School: I'm actually familiar with your work in its different capacities. I saw Hitchcock/Truffaut and I've been to the New York Film Festival. So, why was now the time that you decided to make a narrative film and what was it about this story?
Kent Jones: There was a narrative film that I almost got off the ground a few years back, and I didn't for a variety of reasons. Maybe it was a script that I'd written too long and I'd just lived with for too long, and there was a part of me that didn't really wanna make it.
Diane was a very different kind of story. It took place where I grew up. I keep things in mind for a very long time and when they feel like they've really jelled, I write them. I had it in my head for many years to write something that took place in the world of my Great Aunt. When I was like a teenager, I remember making notes about it and calling it The Aunt. My grandmother was the oldest of 11. They lived through the Depression. [Like that line in the film], my grandmother really was born in a log cabin.
In the '90s, I saw The Rainmaker, which is a Coppola movie based on a John Grisham novel. Coppola's not very proud of it. I don't know why; he should be. It's a very good movie. Mary Kay played the mother of a boy who died of cancer, and I thought, "Okay, that's what I remember growing up. Somebody who's very tough, very soulful. Stoic, pragmatic. Taking care of all the people around her." And so, I always had that in mind. I liked Mary Kay's work in Starting Over and The Big Chill and New York, New York, and Mary Hartmand. But when I saw that, I was like, "Oh, that's something different."
Jones: [Mary Kay] and I met up in the Berkshires, where I'm from, about five years ago. I told her what I had in mind. I stayed in touch, and we got to be friends, and she read the other script that I wrote and loved it. She would just check in with me periodically: "Where do you think you're at?" I would say, "I don't know."
And then she wrote to me when my mother was dying. She said, "I'm wondering where the script's at." I just said to myself, "I'm not going to write back to her until I have a draft." I don't think I could have written it until my mother had passed away. I wrote it in Paris when I was finishing Hitchcock/Truffaut.
I have a lot of friends that are filmmakers. Marty Scorsese was always behind me. He's the executive producer of the film. There are other friends who just encouraged me the whole way. Olivier Assayas, at one point, said, "Look, nobody's gonna push your movie forward but you."
NFS: Once you had a first draft written, what was your process of getting feedback or revising it?
Jones: Well, I worked on it with Mary Kay. I showed it to her. We didn't sit in a room together; we just went through it, and we talked through certain things that seemed like they were a little spongy. For example, there was one scene... I liked the way that it read, but there was something about it that wasn't quite right.
"Acting is a blind spot in a lot of film criticism. Actors bring much more than the cinephile world gives them credit for."
I showed the script to very few other people. I didn't really feel the need to. I just wanted to live with it. I kept going back to it. It was a while before the money came through, so that's the other factor. You go through a certain number of meetings that are like, "We're almost there, but not quite."
Caroline Kaplan was the first person that I went to. Caroline brought [producers] Luca [Borghese] and Ben [Howe] on, and she also brought Lauren Mirman. Lauren was the one who was like, "Okay, now we have the money."
At that point, I refined the character of Brian quite a bit. We had a tight shooting schedule, and I wanted to make sure that I had everything in place. But as Alexander Mackendrick said, "Scripts aren't written; they're rewritten."
NFS: Did you feel somewhat uniquely prepared to engage with actors based on your extent of cinephile education?
Jones: That's a really interesting question. The answer would be yes and no.
My cinephile education is a self-education that started when I was a kid. I've been thinking a lot lately about the fact that getting interested in movies attuned me to the behavior around me, and being attuned to the behavior around me attuned me to movies. It was a sort of hand-in-hand thing.
My father was older than my mother. He came out of World War II, so that was older movies. Bogart was very important to me when I was younger. My mom grew up in the '70s so she loved Altan and stuff like that. I really became tuned into the differences between actors in movies in different eras.
When I started reading and writing film criticism, I realized that acting is a blind spot in a lot of criticism. I don't read a lot now, but I think a lot of the criticism that I read—the major exception being Manny Farber and Pauline Kael—people would talk about [acting] in terms of iconography. They would talk about it in terms of how people looked visually within the shot, or in very general terms. But the way that acting worked in relation to the cinema... actors bring much more than the cinephile world gives them credit for.
NFS: It's interesting to hear you talk about your interest in human behavior because Diane is very much a character study. I don't think it would have worked without extreme attention to subtlety in human interaction. How did you create the environment on set, or between Mary Kay and her other actors, where behavioral nuance could flourish?
Jones: It's not even about just the actors—it's about the whole environment and working with the whole crew. We shot it in Kingston, but it's more or less the same part of the world, spiritually and geographically, as the Berkshires in central Massachusetts, which is where the film really takes place. We didn't have a lot of time, but I didn't stop until I found the right locations. There's nothing like the drudgery of location scouting. I can't even tell you. But you have to go see the place—you can't look at photographs. It doesn't work.
"There's nothing like the drudgery of location scouting. But you have to do it."
So, finding that kitchen [we shot in], for instance. We had a kitchen that was sort of okay, but then it was like, "Oh, that's the kitchen. Then, we can use the outside of the house, et cetera. Then, it's working really closely with the production designer and the costume designer. And the costume designer and the production designer go hand-in-hand.
People do not know what costume designers do. They really don't. They see the words "costume designer" and they think, "Oh, they sew clothes and they make costumes." It's just like, that is just not it. I interviewed a few production designers, and I wasn't really liking what was happening. Then, we interviewed a few costume designers, and they were all really tuned in. Carisa Kelly, the person who designed the costumes, and the film is dedicated to, was something different.
NFS: What was different about Carisa's approach to costume design?
Jones: She showed me a lookbook, and suddenly I was looking at a Mark Rothko painting. (In the script, there was a Mark Rothko painting, and it was going to be pinned up to the refrigerator. But then, that was expensive, and so we went with another painting.) But, I saw the Mark Rothko, and I was like, "Okay. This is somebody who really paid attention, and who really gets this world [of the film]."
In the middle of the shoot, somebody said, "I'm just not used to directors talking to me." I can't even understand how that could possibly work. That just seems like craziness to me. It's a matter of letting a whole environment develop organically. Not to be pretentious about it.
NFS: Can you remember what kind of conversations you might have had with specific crew members to foster that synergy?
Jones: With the gaffer, Abi [Sala], I'd just say, "Take a look at this and let me know what you think." We'd make small adjustments as we went along, in concert with the DP, Wyatt [Garfield]. You know, just to work out how much meat was going to be on the tray that Mary Kay spilled in church—that kind of thing.
"The whole idea is to surprise yourself. I don't know of any filmmaker who's not interested in that."
NFS: Although this is your first narrative feature, I can imagine you've visited many sets before. Was there anything about the process of production that surprised you?
Jones: The first thing that we shot was in the hospital. By some miracle, there was a deserted wing in the hospital in Kingston. So, we got to this point where there was a moment just before the death scene, and I was just like, "Oh my god, I don't know if I'm prepared, and I'm not sure if I'm really doing this right." And then it was like a light bulb went on in my head and I'm like, "Actually, that doesn't matter. I just have to do it. It doesn't matter how I feel. And P.S., if I feel like it's not right, I've got to pretend that I don't."
It reminds me of something that [David] Fincher told me about actors. He said that when actors say, "That didn't feel right; can I do another one?" he'll be like, "Well, the take was good, the light was good, it hit the power lines in a particular way that's not going to happen again. So I don't know if it felt right, but it looked right and I'm going to take it, and we've got to move on."
With directing, it's just a matter of doing, it's not a matter of feeling. It becomes a matter of feeling once you're doing it, but it's like life. If you're making sure that everything feels right, then you wouldn't get much done.
NFS: Is there any other good advice that people gave you along the way that you think contributed to the outcome of the film?
Jones: With Olivier [Assayas], it was a very pragmatic thing. He said, "When you get [to set], you're just answering people's questions. You're just responding to everything. That's what it is." And he's right.
Marty [Scorsese] was nothing but encouraging over the years. He was always checking in with me: "Where is it at? When are you going to make your film? Don't hesitate!" For my birthday last year, he gave me a neutral density filter.
And then, James Gray was like, "Look, I just know that you're going to make a good movie. You just have to go make it."
I also interviewed Elia Kazan, who's gone now. He said, "The most important thing, as a director, is you have to be relaxed on the set—even though the clock is ticking, even though money is just pouring out the window." Even though you could be up against it every fucking day, when you're there, it's like, guess what? It's 7:30 and if you don't stop now, we're going to incur meal penalties and it will eat into tomorrow's time. I had that situation a few times: "My precious setup has got to go." But to convey the sense of relaxation and focus, that's the important thing.
NFS: How have you begun to think about criticism differently, if at all, after going through the process of making a narrative film?
Jones: Well, my evolution was that I started as an intern for Andrew Saras, a long time ago. I was writing criticism very much in the manner of an auteurist. The whole time, Manny Farber was really a guiding light for me. He was really interested in how movies tick. Most critics aren't, to be brutally honest about it. Through time, I started to see the divergence between the way that people talked about movies and the way that movies are actually made. There's a conventional way to talk about that. Like, "Oh, it takes a lot of people to make a movie." That kind of anti-artistic bullshit. But that's not what I'm talking about.
"Over time, I started to see the divergence between the way that people talked about movies and the way that movies are actually made."
Even in elevated criticism, people think of the director as somebody who has an idea and then sort of fills in the blank. I don't know of any director who does that. You have to have a plan, obviously, and you're trying to create something, but the whole idea is to surprise yourself. I don't know of any filmmaker who's not interested in that. The only filmmakers who I know who are not interested in surprising themselves are filmmakers I don't care about very much.
As a critic, over the years, I became increasingly interested in that: "How does a movie work?" Not, "What isn't it," but, "What is it?"
NFS: One of the most interesting things about this film was the structural shift that happens during the third act. It was a very bold move to warp our sense of time—or at least bring us into a different experience of it—more than halfway through the film. How did you originally think about that choice?
Jones: I thought about it in terms of just the way it feels to be alive. It's a very personal thing, but I remember the way my mother felt when her aunts were dying. For her, death was sort of an affront. It would make her angry that people were dying. She was very childish that way, but I think a lot of people are.
There are also moments when things just happen in the blink of an eye. Time dilates. Things that happened long ago make themselves present in different ways. Very old emotions are just there. I'm sure you've had that experience. In Buddhism, they're called runaway horses.
So, Diane is a character study, but up to a point. Then, I wanted it to be a film that followed the rhythm of living—as I experience it, and as loved ones that I've had experienced it.
I didn't have the idea of making a big structural shift in the middle of the movie. I wanted it to happen incrementally, and the driving in the script is sort of what [that] is. I knew that I wanted to music to work in a certain way. I based that on Kid With a Bike by the Dardenne brothers, with that Beethoven piece. But that's a very complex piece of music. I was working with a Von Williams hymn, and it doesn't really have a lot of complexity to it—it just had variations. And then, I guess the John Cage piano piece in the middle of the movie does kind of drop you into another time... I guess you're right.
NFS: How has it been having the film at Tribeca after having run a festival for so long?
Jones: Somebody was asking me the other day, "Why did you decide not to put [Diane] in the New York Film Festival?" I was like, "Well, that never would have occurred to me!" Being here at Tribeca with everyone has been great. And the reviews have been great. So, it's good to be understood.
For more, see our complete coverage of the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival.