Episode 51: Director Kent Jones On Making 'Hitchcock/Truffaut'
How a film school dropout met Martin Scorsese and started making documentaries on cinema history
Beth Accomando: Welcome back to another edition of the KPBS Cinema Junkie Podcast, I’m Beth Accomando. I don’t think you can love cinema without loving Alfred Hitchcock. The Master of Suspense to find much of the grammar and syntax or cinematic language and his influence is still felt today. As further proof of his lasting legacy, a new documentary called “Hitchcock/Truffaut” opens this weekend at Landmark’s Ken Cinema. The film brings to vivid life the famous week-long interview between Hitchcock and French New wave director and Cahier Du Cinema critic Francois Truffaut. As a film critic I see a lot films and while most are not bad, a great number are mediocre and bland, and that can wear you down and make you forget why you fell in love with movies in the first place. But there are a few surefire ways to reignite that passion, see a great movie, attend the Turner Classic Movies Film Festival, and watch any of Tony Zhou’s Every Frame a Painting YouTube videos. Kent Jones’ “Hitchcock/Truffaut Documentary” can also be added to the list. In 1962, Alfred Hitchcock agreed to be interviewed by Francois Truffaut. The result was a master class in filmmaking. A book was published featuring the entire interview and any serious film buff held that book dear. It served up a discussion between two very different but extremely talented men, and both were fueled by a passion for cinema. Truffaut had obvious respect and affection for Hitchcock, a director almost twice his age at the time of the interview. But what comes through in the interview especially when you actually hear their voices and are not just reading it is that Hitchcock takes delight in their conversation and appreciates Truffaut’s serious and thoughtful questions. Here Hitch talks about a famous tight close up of Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman kissing three times in Notorious. Alfred Hitchcock: I was giving the public the great privilege of embracing Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman together. It was a kind of temporary [indiscernible] [00:02:02] and the actors hated doing it, they felt dreadfully uncomfortable in the manner in which they had to cling to each other and I said well I don’t care how you feel I only know what it’s going to look like on the screen. Truffaut’s questions about Montgomery Clift in I Confess led to Hitchcock’s famous line about actors. Alfred Hitchcock: I had a conflict with Clift. I said Monty I want you to look up at the hotel. So he said to me, I don’t know whether I would look up to the hotel. I said why not? He said I may be occupied by the people below. I said I want you to look up to the hotel windows and please do so. Now I was telling the audience across the street is the hotel, so an actor is going to try and interfere with me organizing my geography, that’s why all actors are cattle. Beth Accomando: Director Kent Jones poured over photos from the meeting, unearthed archive footage of the two men, and listened to all 27 hours of audiotape to construct his documentary. The resulting film is as entertaining as it is enlightening. Jones also turns to contemporary directors such as David Fincher, Wes Anderson, Paul Schrader, Martin Scorsese, and Kiyoshi Kurosawa for wonderful comments not just about Hitchcock’s work but also on the impact of the “Hitchcock/Truffaut” book on them as filmmakers. The documentary also highlights moments that provide insights into Hitchcock. At one point Hitchcock explains about his move from England to Hollywood. Alfred Hitchcock: I wasn’t attracted to Hollywood as a place…. I had no interest. What had interest for me was getting inside that studio.” Beth Accomando: Jones’ film is for both the longtime fan of Hitchcock as well as a new generation of filmgoers that are growing up with the legacy of Hitchcock rather than with seeing his films as they were opening in theaters. And Jones points out the difference. Coming to “Psycho” already knowing the shower scene and Mother is very different experience from walking into a theater in 1960 and suddenly having all your expectations about the structure of a Hollywood movie brutally shattered. Jones has worked on a number of films looking to our cinematic past. He co-wrote Scorsese’s documentary on Italian cinema “My Voyage to Italy,” and directed “Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows” and “Letter to Elia” about Elia Kazan. He made these films in order to share his passion about film with new audiences and that’s a wonderful gift. “Hitchcock/Truffaut” makes you fall in love with movies all over again because it conveys not just the artistry of a popular director but also captures a passion for cinema as a way of life. Here’s my interview with director Kent Jones, who experiences reminded me of how I feel in love with movies. Interviewer: First of all I wanted to ask you, how did you first fall in love with film? Kent Jones: When I was about six years old I started getting very, very captivated by film and part of it had to do with pictured books of film of the history of film and there was a book called “The Movies” it was co-written by these guys named Richard Griffith and Arthur Mayer, and it was this beautiful pictorial history and I used to flip through it over and over and over again. This is in the days of [indiscernible] [00:05:28] video film culture and [indiscernible] [00:05:33] change your programs at some form here in New York and I talk about this a lot and you would get a few more movies down objects that were related to movies, these crazy books that were kind of combinations of scripts and frames, frames that were enlarged. You could not capture the movie yourselves at that point. That was kind of the doorway. Then I got very into certain actors, particularly [indiscernible] [00:06:03] and I really loved and still do his mannerisms his way of speaking in gestures his way of communicating because really that’s my father’s generation in many ways. And then I started getting into a TV series that was [indiscernible] [00:06:20] the movies in nearly 70s and that really opened the door to what a film director was, just to the fact that there was such a thing as a film director and that was really my first exposure of Alfred Hitchcock. Interviewer: I have to say that I had that exact same book. Kent Jones: Mm hmm. Interviewer: And did the exact same thing with it and I watched that same series of [indiscernible] [00:06:45] and all those, I don’t remember what the series was, but those books it was like frame by frame they redid the entire movie. Kent Jones: They were made by a guy names Richard J. Anobile. Interviewer: Yes. Kent Jones: And he did Casablanca and he did the [indiscernible] [00:06:58] and they were horrible. Interviewer: The Mars Brothers and… Kent Jones: Yeah, yeah, I mean they were really terrible, but they were – they had to have if you liked the movie. Interviewer: So when did you decide to go or how did you decide to move from just this love of cinema to actually making films? Kent Jones: I had always wanted to make films and I had gone to film school briefly involves the film study section and in the film making section, but that was a little bit odd to me, when I dropped out of degree at a very early age before I graduated and did a bunch of other stuff and then I started writing about film, I always did write about film but I started doing it suddenly professionally I guess at some point in the 80s. And then I started working for Martin Scorsese's office actually in 1991, [indiscernible] [00:07:57] and over the course of time, Marty asked me to start working on his documentary films and the first one that I worked on was My Voyage To Italy [indiscernible] [00:08:11] epic survey of Italian Cinema. And then we started doing other things together and we made a little film together, a couple of little films, one that was presented as part of the [indiscernible] [00:08:33] to the New York City after 9/11 and one that was made for the history channel. And then we spent quite a bit of time making this film about Elia Kazan and at the same time we opened an editing room to make a film about Zou Leiden and that was my film. Zou Leiden was a horror film that kind of [indiscernible] [00:08:54] whose work I loved. I wrote that and directed it, Marty produced it and narrated it, [indiscernible] [00:08:58] took much longer, that was years into making. And I don’t know, it was all part of the same process, that’s for sure, it worked in other people’s instruction films, it just all seems part of the same temple, the same continuing. Interviewer: So what circumstances lead to making Hitchcock Truffaut now? Kent Jones: I got a phone calls two years ago almost exactly to the day from Charles Collin who is one of the producers to the film asking me if I was interested in doing it and I just immediately said yes and it’s a book that I bought when I was 12, or it’s given to me, I don’t remember, that meant a lot to me and when he said there was a film based on the audio tapes, then I was really interested. [Background Conversation] [00:09:44] Kent Jones: I really would enter the challenge of making a film based on audio tapes and I really loved the relationship between the two of them already in the book and I had heard 11 and a half hours of the tapes which are actually available online, they were broadcast on French radio back in the late 90s, and they had been edited by a friend of mine Nicholas [indiscernible] [00:10:25]. And so, I decided that I was going to do a film that drew from the core of their discussion which is a discussion of movie making between two movie makers not between the critical film makers. So that was a crucial difference and it’s crucial to Hitchcock, that’s what really meant something to him and it allowed him to speak in a way that he wasn’t able to speak to critics, I don’t think the historians. So, yeah, that would be about two years ago and then I started thinking it through, decided to – I just wanted to make a film with film makers and expand the original enterprise. Interviewer: How did you decide on the structure that you wanted to use for the film, how did want to tell the story? Kent Jones: I knew that I wanted to find the emotional valence of the story, but I knew that it was there just in the nature of the enterprise itself need not every great film maker’s life or circumstances of life announce to a great film, a promising film material. But in this case, I knew that it did just because of the nature of these two guys who did well, as I said I had heard 11 and half hours of the tapes and then decided what I wanted to do is to go through the 27 hours of all the tapes and find where I found the energy was between them and by that what I mean is the emotional energy and also where their discussions of film had the most concession and were the most compact energy I suppose to where it came along the labor discussion of the technical practice, you know, for instance results the descriptions of how the film was made fascinating but they just [indiscernible] [00:12:17]. I wanted something that was more compact and also where you can feel emotional energy between the two of them and also [indiscernible] [00:12:32] her presence is crucial as well just [indiscernible] [00:12:35]. Alfred Hitchcock: The thing you see that I liked and felt most, when she came back from having her hair made long and it wasn’t up. This means she has stripped for both take her nickers off. She says all right and she goes into the bath and he is waiting, he is waiting for the woman to undress and come out nude. And while he was looking at that door, he was getting an erection, we will now tell a story shut the machine now. Kent Jones: And then I followed the people that I interviewed, I based my questions on the things that I had identified in the tapes and then with every successive [indiscernible] [00:13:44] and refining my question, so I built it according to where the energy lies, in other words, I built it from the middle out, we really started putting the whole cinema dreams together at first and then a structure kind of built up from the middle. Interviewer: It’s great I had that book also and it was really great. I’d never listened to the audio before and it was nice to hear them interacting. Kent Jones: It’s a very different experience from the book. When you read the book, you have the impression that Hitchcock is very dry and is [indiscernible] [00:14:23] and it’s all about let’s talk about this and get it over and move on to the next one. It’s very different from the tapes. The tapes are much more open [indiscernible] [00:14:38], he’s very funny and spontaneous and you can sense a little bit of shyness in Truffaut and that other point you can sense Truffaut trying to challenge him and Hitchcock just becoming silent. Alfred Hitchcock: [Indiscernible] [00:15:05]. Kent Jones: And I thought that was really interesting and they still do. Interviewer: How did you decide on the directors that you wanted to interview? Kent Jones: I wanted people who were going to be able to think through their answers as they spoke and who weren’t going to be sitting there and just kind of reciting, please write comments about how great they thought Alfred Hitchcock was, that was very important to me, people who actually enjoyed talking about the craft of film making, who enjoy talking about Hitchcock and the history of film making, the book and acting and how things have changed and so that meant that the only way [indiscernible] [00:15:46] going to people whose work I admired of course but also people who I knew to a certain degree and so these are all people who lives in my house some kind of relationship. In the case of Marty [indiscernible] [00:16:06] closer relationship ensuring that pretty well, James Gray pretty well, these are – there are people that are [indiscernible] [00:16:14] have known for years. Alfred Hitchcock: There was starting to be these kind of erudite conversations about the [indiscernible] [00:16:22]. But Truffaut was the first one you really thought that, they were talking about the craft in it. Kent Jones: But the people who I know would respond in a particular way and they were into the idea of participating in such [indiscernible] [00:16:43]. Interviewer: Well I have to tell to one of the things that I really enjoyed about the film is as I watching it – as a film critic sometimes you go for a long spell seeing a lot of not necessarily bad films but mediocre films and watching your documentary was so wonderful like it reminded me why I fell in love with movies, it’s the same thing like when I go to the Turner Classic Movie Festival and it was such a great feeling. Kent Jones: That’s really nice to hear, that’s great, I’m touched. And you go to Turner Classic Movie Festival, I go to that. Interviewer: Yes. Kent Jones: I’ve been there every year. Interviewer: I’ve only been twice, two years in a row I went and it was amazing. Kent Jones: Yeah, it’s a great thing, I told that to my son saying things we do every year… Interviewer: Oh that’s fabulous. Kent Jones: And everyone will love it. Interviewer: Well that’s how I fell in love with movies is for my dad, he is the one who took me and he would tell me all about movies and some of the first films I remember seeing are like the original King Kong and the Marks Brothers and that’s how I fell in love with films. Kent Jones: Yeah, my dad was 10 years older than my mom and he had been through World War II and so I associated all the films with him and then she was really into films by Robert Altman and I was really interesting to have that kind of contrast. Interviewer: Oh with the documentaries you have been doing with the Val Lewton one and Elia Kazan and this one, I mean, do you feel that you are trying to share this cinema history with a broader audience to kind of pass that on the same way that it was passed on to you? Kent Jones: Yeah, I am. I mean I’m trying to share it genuinely, I’m trying to transmit it I guess, and when I say transmit it, I mean not just transmit the knowledge, but transmit the excitement in finding what leads to the knowledge. I don’t want to just make a movie that is going to communicate to the people who already know it, I want to transmit the excitement that I feel and presumably a lot of other people feeling that presumably people who haven’t experienced it yet could feel from contacts with the movies, exactly what you are talking about, it’s why you are going to the Turner Classic Movie Festival. Interviewer: Exactly. And what I think is really well done in the film too is that, you are sharing the craft of film making but in a way that’s very accessible to I think a more mainstream audience, so they don’t feel like it’s something beyond my scope that I can’t understand. Kent Jones: Yeah, that’s really important to me. I did feel like it’s something that’s kind of lacking in some criticism, little bit of a disconnection between the way that films are written about and the way that they are made and in the sense that, you often get a sense that many critics don’t know why a director is making the choices that they’re making or for that matter what it is the director actually does in relation to all the other people who are involved in the movie, I think that’s one thing. And then also I wanted to do precisely what you’re saying which is to just communicate the things that are so basic and are somehow not really talked about that often, they’re seen as like, oh you know specialty items and you have to you really know about cinema to appreciate it well and then you don’t really know about cinema [indiscernible] [00:20:14] things that are fundamental to let cinema is, when David Fincher says… David Fincher: If you have some kind of understanding of color and design and light, directing is really three things, your editing behavior overtime and then controlling moments that should be really fast and make them slow and moment that should be really slow and making them fast. Kent Jones: That’s a very important [indiscernible] [00:20:49], that is really important to me to be communicating with audience in a way that …. David Fincher: That’s what film is for to either contract time or extend it [indiscernible] [00:21:02] your wish. Interviewer: Also what’s nice is the reminder that it took an outsider like Truffaut, I mean somebody from outside of the United States to recognize that one of our very popular mainstream directors was also this artist. Kent Jones: Yeah. Interviewer: It’s nice to remember that it’s – it was somebody – Hitchcock was the mainstream studio director and he was making all these interesting artistic choices and it took someone like Truffaut to kind of make us look back at it and say like hey, you should appreciate this more. Kent Jones: Yeah, I think that’s the way it always is. You need someone from outside to cast another eye on something and then you’re going to see something that you’re not. That’s why the editorial process is so important, working with an editor, they are seeing that something that you are not, I can think of many other examples and many other art points but Rachel Wightman edited this film and the co-producer, she and I made many movies together and we spent [indiscernible] [00:22:10] time arguing, but that’s always a great thing because she is seeing things that I am not and we’re both working at the service of the movie and I think that that’s – so I think that somebody coming from outside the familiar, outside the known the regular and the everyday is always very important [indiscernible] [00:22:30] that’s what it really is, the French seeing the [indiscernible] [00:22:39] that went into films after the occupation [indiscernible] [00:22:45] and giving them back to us, giving them to us at another pitch at another level, beautiful thing. Interviewer: So editing especially important in documentary work where it seems like the film can essentially be – is made entirely in the editing of all these different elements you have at your disposal. Kent Jones: That’s why I – I think you are absolutely right, editing is fundamentally important and that’s why I didn’t want to have like a bunch of attention getting devices that you see in a lot of documentaries film and taking up photographs and breaking up to different plains so that they are kind of separate from each other doing like we created footage so that’s like artificially [indiscernible] [00:23:38] with the backs of two heads, it might be Hitchcock and Truffaut [indiscernible] [00:23:41] Helen Scott. I didn’t want to do any of that stuff or have any animation, I wanted to all be about the binding the images and the tension between the images the words and the spoken words and the words on the page so that you’re kind of held in a state of animation [indiscernible] [00:24:01] talk to each other and you are coming out having had an experience was supposed to some kind of an audio visual primer. Interviewer: So you certainly don’t miss any of those elements because they are so compelling, the content of what you have was so compelling? Kent Jones: Yeah, I mean I think that those elements are probably finding [indiscernible] [00:24:26] themselves, they’re just elements, they’re neutral, animation and stuff like that nut they are – too often they are used for wrong reasons, if you’re employed because the film maker is anxious about bring the audience, that’s never a good reason. Interviewer: Yeah, exactly. And out of the films done, what do you feel most proud of about it? Kent Jones: Well what I feel proud of about is it’s precisely what we were just talking about, I like the way that it works as a movie, I like the rhythm of it and I like the – I was going for an emotional [indiscernible] [00:24:54] and I like that because it’s there in the material - the nature of the enterprise exchange between the two of them [indiscernible] [00:25:03], I think that that’s there and then at the same time it is about the excitement of [indiscernible] [00:25:09]. I hope I got there. Interviewer: You did. Alfred Hitchcock: My main satisfaction is the film did something to an audience, I really mean that. In many ways I feel my satisfaction achieve something of a mass emotion. It wasn’t a message, it wasn’t some great performance, it wasn’t a highly appreciated novel [indiscernible] [00:25:48] it was pure film. Interviewer: Do you have another project lined up, is there another film maker actor or something about film making that you want to explore? Kent Jones: I’m working on a couple of things, but not a film maker at the moment, it’s something else, I can’t really talk about it, and then there is a documentary [indiscernible] [00:26:11]. Interviewer: I don’t know if you are familiar with a YouTube channel called Every Frame of Painting? Kent Jones: No. Interviewer: [Indiscernible] [00:26:16] because he does these little videos about film making where he – I believe he is an editor and he looks to different things in movies like it will be how does Jackie Chan do action or something silly like how do chair appear in movies, but watching those little videos it has the same effect that your film has which is basically, I keep – like I watch these things and then I just remember how exciting film is after sometimes seeing too many bad films in a row, so you might want to check his videos out. Kent Jones: Yeah, I will, I’m going to talk it about. Interviewer: All right, well I want to thank you very much for your time and thank you very much for the film it was fabulous. Kent Jones: Thank you, I really appreciate that, thanks. Interviewer: And maybe I’ll see you at Turner Classic Movie Festival. Kent Jones: Yeah, yeah absolutely, I’m there with my son, I’ll be there. Interviewer: All right. Thanks very much. Kent Jones: Okay, thanks. Interviewer: Bye-bye. [Background Conversation] [00:27:42] Beth Accomando: That was another scene from Kent Jones’s new documentary Hitchcock Truffaut which opens this weekend at Landmark Ken Cinema. Thanks for listening to another edition of the KPBS Cinema Junkie Podcast. Please subscribe to us on iTunes and leave us a review. So until our next film-fix, I’m Beth Accomando your Resident Cinema Junkie.
Kent Jones dropped out of film school but then started working in Martin Scorsese's office. That led to a series of documentaries on movies. Now Jones talks about "Hitchcock/Truffaut" (opening at Landmark's Ken Cinema).
Jones grew up before the Internet and instant streaming put almost any movie at your fingertips. But he remembers a book called "The Movies" by Richard Griffith and Arthur Mayer that allowed him to discover movies through extensive photos. That book was the start of what's become a lifelong affair with the cinema.
Jones, after working as Scorsese's video archivist, co-wrote Scorsese's look at Italian cinema, "My Journey to Italy," and subsequently wrote and directed "Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows" and "Letter to Elia" (about Elia Kazan).
His latest documentary, "Hitchcock/Truffaut," brings to vivid life the famous 1962 interview between The Master of Suspense Alfred Hitchcock and French New Wave director and Cahiers du Cinema critic Francois Truffaut. The weeklong interview was published in book form but hearing the voices of these two very different but supremely talented men is a far more engaging way to enjoy their discussion.
Jones talks about sharing his love of cinema with new audiences and about the challenges of making "Hitchcock/Truffaut."
Here's the trailer for the documentary.