Photo by Barbara Anastacio

When FilmLinc initially asked to sit down with New York Film Festival director Kent Jones, the goal was to look back at the fest's 52nd edition. And while that certainly came up, the conversation evolved into something much larger. NYFF formed a backdrop for topics ranging from how he approaches interviews with personalities like David Fincher and Kristen Stewart, recent (and not-so-recent) film history, and the ever-present question of “themes” that tie films together in a lineup. 

Jones has consistently said that when programming the NYFF, he and the selection committee select individual films regardless of how they may or may not relate to each other. Now in retrospect, he sees some consistencies as well as, perhaps, a coincidence or two. In Part 1 of the interview, Jones also delves into the sometimes muddy topic of the intersection of art and commerce. 

FilmLinc: In reflection, what have been some of your favorite moments of this year's New York Film Festival?

Kent Jones: I’m really happy with the mix of films in the festival. I’m really happy with the feeling of the festival. I’m really happy with the fact that we’re playing entrance music. I guess the people in the booth might not be as happy, because I’m getting them the music like 10 seconds beforehand. You know, I think it’s welcoming. I like that.

For me personally… Olivier Assayas and I have known each other for 20 years now. We actually met here at the film festival when he was showing Cold Water. Cold Water was shot by Denis Lenoir, who also shot [Mia Hansen-Løve's] Eden. [Both are] films about kids that have a strong music component—or based in love of music, love of art. And Mia is Olivier’s partner in life. It’s cool to see all that. 

And it’s nice to see audiences. Ron, the subject from Debra Granik's doc Stray Dogs came with his stepsons who are also part of the movie. It was a film that people were bowled over by. Seeing him there and having a back and forth [following the screening] meant a lot to people, and it meant a lot to him as well. Same thing with Seymour Bernstein in Ethan Hawke's Seymour: An Introduction. Those are things I could point to.

FL: I’ve seen you frequently at the festival leading panels and discussions on stage. How do you go about getting artists and performers to open up about their work?

KJ: You know, everyone is different. Everyone’s mind works differently. Every individual’s response to being in public is different in how they approach discussing their work. People [convey messages] with their demeanor and body language as well as hesitations and articulations. So that’s a human thing. Then there are people that I know really well, like Olivier or Paul, Fincher. They're different in the sense that we already know each other well.

But Kristen Stewart and I had never met and she did the press conference [for Assayas's Clouds of Sils Maria]. She was not just articulate but eager and excited by the idea of talking about the making of the movie. The movie is really very special to her. She doesn’t have the chance to work that way with American filmmakers. And that was great. 

[The other night Foxcatcher director] Bennett Miller and I did a thing across the street and Bennett takes his time thinking about things. He closes his eyes the way Marty Scorsese does, thinking through his answers. It’s a matter of listening. When it’s a conversation between me and someone else as two individuals who are supposed to contribute to a discussion, that’s one thing. But when I’m interviewing someone, what I say isn’t that important. It’s a matter of listening. 

Photo by Adele Major

FL: I know you don’t select films around themes, and that “theme” is a sort of inevitable question. But there are so many films, maybe 10 or 13 this year, which deal with the artistic process in some manner. Did that topic come up at all during the selection process? Do you think something’s in the air right now?

KJ: You would have to flip it. Because there are so many films about the artistic process then maybe there’s something in the air. I mean, NYFF takes a relatively small number of films compared to other festivals. As we were going through the selection process it’s not like these things… sometimes they occur to us, but they’re extremely secondary. It has nothing to do with the selection process. And then afterwards, you can look at it and say, “Interesting.” [For example,] Clouds of Sils Maria is about a middle-aged actress and Birdman is about a middle-aged actor. 

FL: They're both dealing with plays…</p>

KJ: Yeah, and the Joseph L. Mankiewicz retrospective screened The Barefoot Contessa [1954]—that would ratchet things up to 15. It’s just the way that it works. Last year we had comedies, this year we mostly didn't. Our surprise screening was a comedy [Noah Baumbach's While We're Young], and a really good one, but mostly they just weren’t there. 

Also there was the amazing convergence of films by the generation of doc filmmakers known for cinema vérité. Albert Maysles's Iris, Frederick Wiseman's National Gallery, Les Blank’s How to Smell a Rose: A Visit with Ricky Leacock in Normandy, and Ed Pincus’s final film, One Cut, One Life

We also had the two Flaherty films screening in our revivals [sidebar], Moana with Sound and A Night of Storytelling. Flaherty figures prominently in [Les Blank's] film about Ricky Leacock because [Leacock] shot Flaherty's Louisiana Story [1948] and Leacock gave him a job when he was young, which was an inspiration to people. Those films were [coincidentally] just there in the festival, so that’s always interesting. You can tell me about the themes just as much as I can tell you. 

FL: That’s interesting, because it seems as if the industry is in an uncertain period or a stage of flux maybe in part because of shifts in distribution and financing. There are also questions of equality and representation with various groups in relation to Hollywood in particular… Is the broader topic of introspection symptomatic of bigger seismic shifts that are on the minds of filmmakers? 

KJ: Well, I mean. Equal representation…

Photo by Silvia Saponaro

FL: I don’t want to over-emphasize…

KJ: No, no, I mean that’s an old one. It reminds me of two things. One thing is, [the other night] at our on-stage conversation with [this year's NYFF] Director in Residence Lisandro Alonso, someone said, “I’m from Cuba. We have a hard time marketing our films. How do you think we should market our films?” 

Well, you know, what does that mean? Lisandro Alonso’s a great filmmaker. So the question of marketing for him is beside the point. Yes he has Viggo Mortensen in his movie, but that’s the first time he’s worked with [a known actor] and possibly the last. For Lisandro, it’s like, “I just make the movies, you market them.” Maybe he would take an interest in marketing his movies. Some filmmakers do, like Shane Carruth, in the way that he handled Upstream Color. Fincher takes a very, very active interest in how his films are marketed. But other people less so and Lisandro not really. 

When you pose the question like that, then you’re not talking about filmmaking anymore. You’re not talking about this film and you’re not talking about this artist. You’re just talking about marketing. “I made a movie so how do I market it?” Well, what does that mean? What did your movie mean to you?

I’m saying this not to be brutal, but then it is brutal. Just because he made a movie doesn’t mean that everybody has to like it.I don’t want to single him out. That’s a very common kind of question. But of course, this is a real question and for people coming from a country like Cuba, “marketing” presents its own difficulties. I’m not saying those don’t exist. Nonetheless, the question has no bearing on Lisandro, his movie, or his identity as an artist.  

Here’s the second thing. I heard Helen Mirren giving an interview on the radio, and the interviewer said to her, “You’ve often talked about the representation of women in film.” She said, “No, I haven’t often talked about it. People have often asked me about it. I always give the same answer and the answer is: there will be an equal representation of roles for women in movies, and behind the camera as well, when women have more jobs in every other corner, niche, and cranny of society. Then you’ll see more.” 

Photo by Sean Diserio

The idea that the entertainment industry's representations of social problems should come first is a dubious assertion to begin with. And the idea that positive representations [of particular social groups] will lead to positive effects on society I personally think is nonsense. Having been around Marty Scorsese for such a long time, [I’d see him] get all this crap like, “You’re reflecting the worst in Italian-American culture…” And he'd say, “Look, this is what I grew up with. This is the way it was. These people exist. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to see it. It’s not a comment on Italian-American culture.” I think that’s absolutely the truth.

That’s not to say that there aren’t films that don’t ruthlessly exploit stereotypes, and perpetuate them in order to create a workable suspense plot, or that don’t evoke sexist stereotypes. But you know, there are all kinds of stereotypes. There are stereotypes that are sexist. There are stereotypes that are racist. There are also stereotypes that are just on another level… It’s pretty simple. You don’t need a degree in marketing to understand that. 

In terms of the question of flux, in distribution and financing, I would say that financing for ambitious films is always precarious. I think it always has been and I think it always will be. I know that there are these moments people always point to [as “golden ages”] like the ’70s, and yes, that’s true. There were a lot of movies during that time after The Graduate and Easy Rider that were artistically ambitious and large-scale. No one can make a movie like Chinatown now. It could not happen. No one can make a movie like Raging Bull now. It just wouldn’t happen. 

It is also true that after the failure of Heaven’s Gate and Raging Bull, which were very expensive movies at the time—they were critical successes, but commercial failures—things did change. There were movies like Jaws, Star Wars, and Rocky…[but] to me Ghostbusters was the one that set the template. 

Quentin Tarantino is a real artist, makes real movies, and [also] wants to entertain people. Ultimately, he doesn’t have it every way. He sticks to his guns, and I may not be the biggest fan of revenge as an ultimate theme. But like a lot of people I feel that Jackie Brown is one of his best movies, and one of the best movies anybody has made in 20 or 30 years. All the same, there’s this illusion that you can have everything, that you can entertain critics and audiences and make a lot of money [at the same time].

On the other hand, I guess since the writers’ strike there has been a little bit of a sea change in what the big money’s going to tolerate and what they’re not going to tolerate. Witness the success of the Transformers series, where it’s more of the same, announcing itself as more of the same, presenting itself as more of the same, and really being nothing but more of the same—all hats off to Michael Bay, and he would probably say as much. That does create a climate where it’s sort of like, “Oh those bothersome artists, with their personal tics and their idiosyncrasies and their commitments to artistic uniformity, we’re trying to make a dollar, an honest living!” All that crap is something that Fincher can address head-on. He’s a guy who’s trying to negotiate all that stuff.

And yeah, distribution is in flux and financing is in flux. Filmmaking itself is in flux, and the labs are closing. 35mm still exists by a thread because it was saved at the last minute. Kodak is still barely hanging on. It’s true, all those things feel very precarious and at one point maybe 15 years ago they didn’t. 

Photo by Alystre Julian

FL: I don’t know that there’s an easy answer. Not that we should want easy answers.

KJ: Yeah, that’s why the answer is so long-winded! The fact is that there are a lot of great filmmakers working today and they do get their projects made. Sometimes they adapt in order to realize those projects, or give it up and say they can’t do it. It’s always precarious.

[In Part 2 of this interview, Kent Jones takes on the sexism debate about Gone Girl, whether J.K. Simmons’s character in Whiplash was too nice, and what we don’t talk about when we talk about acting.]

Interviewer Tim Wainwright is a writer and member of this year's Critics Academy.