Interview with director Kent Jones, “Hitchcock/Truffaut”
I have a confession to make. I’ve only seen one film by acclaimed French New Wave auteur, Francois Truffaut and I haven’t seen every film by Alfred Hitchcock. That certainly doesn’t make me a cinephile or a film expert, but then again, I’ve never claimed to be either of those. On this site and on the card that I hand out to promote this site, I call myself a film enthusiast. That’s exactly what I am and I’m fine with that. I consider my passion for film a learning process, one that will hopefully always grow in my knowledge and understanding of all aspects of film and especially the ways of film criticism. That’s why getting the opportunity this past October to sit down and chat with film Kent Jones about his new film “Hitchcock/Truffaut”, a fine documentary he directed, was an honor and an education. In essence, I was sitting down with a film critic/director to discuss his movie, which is about a landmark interview conducted by a film critic/director. Truffaut had sent Hitchcock a letter praising his work and asking if he would participate in a recorded discussion of his films. All I did was text Jones and ask if he’d like to discuss “Hitchcock/Truffaut”.
Thankfully, he obliged, without knowing who I am or what I’m about. We met up on a Sunday afternoon in front of the Art Institute of Chicago and made our way across the street to The Artist Cafe. Jones was in town to promote his documentary about the time a young Francois Truffaut interviewed veteran filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock.
Truffaut would go on to publish a transcribed book about the interviews, entitled Hitchcock/Truffaut, which went on to become a book that was used in many film school classes. Jones’ documentary has since received a limited theatrical release this month and should expand wider in the coming weeks.
This was a very relaxed and informative interview and I can’t thank Jones enough for his graciousness. Without further ado, here is my conversation with Kent Jones….
David J. Fowlie: So, after viewing the film, one thing I was wondering about is your approach to the subject material. Obviously, the book is dog-eared and well-used for many film studies and film enthusiasts – what was the idea behind taking the book, the interviews and bringing it to the big screen?
Kent Jones: Somebody asked me to. However, I get asked to do stuff now and then that I don’t always want to do. I mean, I’m in a position where I can choose. So, I want to do – you know this is like the fourth film I did about filmmakers – the last one I made was with Marty Scorsese and we did that together and that’s more from his point of view about Elia Kazan. But this one – I always feel like it’s nice to make movies about filmmakers, but I also wanted to make a movie.
So, there has to be something there and by ‘something there’, I mean – I’m not into doing historical surveys – I’m just into doing something where there’s a core of energy there. You know, an emotional exchange or an actual story as opposed to just like – Alfred Hitchcock was a great director and here’s a bunch of clips from his movies and a bunch of people talking about how great they are. So, with this, there was going to be another film made by a woman named Gail Levin (this movie is dedicated to her), based on these tapes – and that’s twenty-seven hours of tapes.
She passed away and it was a co-production that was set-up originally and she was doing it with a company called Artline in France. So, they went to an American company, Charles Cohen Media – and I know Charles and he called me and he said, “Are you interested in this?” and I said, “Fuck yeah.” And then, I thought about – how would do it? Because, it’s audiotapes. So, you know, I’m not into animating photographs and making them look like they’re 3D or, you know, giving them a phony impression or movement or some footage of people that looks like it’s shot like a reenactment.
There was thought about doing animation and then I thought about it and I felt – this book is a discussion of Hitchcock’s work, so the minute that we put something else on the screen, nobody’s going to pay attention to it. I mean, in other words – if it’s created. Photographs that were taken, that’s something different. So, then I just realized as I was going through the book, actually what I wanted to was make a film about filmmaking since it’s a book about filmmaking.
So, I didn’t want to go to experts or actors or family members – you know, because that kind of interview always results in people editing themselves – and I just wasn’t into that. I wanted people who were just as interested in talking about filmmaking and what it is to be a film director and who knew the book.
And there were people who I knew and some of them I’ve known a while – like I’ve known Marty for twenty-three years and I’ve worked really closely with him. Fincher, I know really well. James (Gray) – and Olivier (Assayas) is one of my oldest friends. I went to people I knew.
Some people I asked who didn’t do it – for different reasons. Brian DePalma wanted to save his thoughts on Alfred Hitchcock for Noah Baumbauch and Jake Paltrow’s movie about him – which is great. And they’re very complimentary, the two movies. And some other filmmakers were in preproduction and different things, but actually these were the people I’m really happy with that make up the film. So, that’s how it worked out.
DJF: And it was just a matter of scheduling time with these guys?
KJ: Um…yeah. But, everything worked out pretty well. I mean, I think the last person I shot was Rick (Linklater), because he was in town, you know, during the awards circuit for “Boyhood”. So, that was cool. Kiyoshi Kurosawa did not interview with me, my friend Nabi Sakamoto did, in Tokyo. I flew out to L.A. to interview Fincher and James Gray and (Peter) Bogdanovich.
Marty, I had to wait for a little bit, because he was shooting “Vinyl” and a commercial. DJF: It’s always interesting for me to watch or listen to director’s talk about other filmmakers and those who’ve influenced them. I think here it really adds to the film – because, not only are many of the viewers watching the movie fans of Truffaut, but so are the directors that we’re already fans of. So, was the intent to bring in their perspectives on a subject – the book and the interviews – that may be already familiar to viewers?
KJ: You mean to make it knew, to freshen it up?
KJ: You know, here’s the thing – obviously there are a lot of documentaries that are made with interviews, film clips, letters, photographs, etc. Right? Home movies, promotional material and stuff like that….
KJ: But, you know, those are just elements. And there are a lot of DVD extras that are made that way too – tons of them. You can get them by the yard. So, I guess, you know, to me – you can make a movie out of any kind of element. It doesn’t really matter as long as you consider the internal mechanisms of making it. That’s what counts. Where’s the energy?
And so, when I was putting it together, I just listened to all the tapes and transcribed a lot of them myself and then I the interviews I did myself – and I asked, “where’s the energy?” Sometimes when you’re talking it’s really interesting, but it’s just like – this, then that, then this – sometimes it’s interesting, but you have to really – well, it’s a long process to see where it’s interesting. Because something happens between them and Truffaut will say something and Hitchcock will not want to talk about it.
But you can’t really, that’s not something you can really build into a movie. When he says, “let’s turn the tape off”, that’s different. So, where there’s something where you’re digging into dreams or just he’s talking about “Vertigo” and he’s just like, “yeah, I enjoyed it.” It’s just amazing to me to refer to “Vertigo” and say, “yeah, I enjoyed it.” So, that’s interesting.
DJF: I did feel that your film is giving an added dimension to what we already know about Hitchcock. Usually with the interviews either going to be cagey or dismissive or sarcastic or witty….
KJ: ….or he trots out stories….
DJF: Right. Yeah, he deflects, in a way. It’s like he still wants to direct the interview. And there’s a little bit of that here, where you can you can tell he wants to direct what’s being recorded between him and Truffaut. It did seem though that there was something about Truffaut that I think brought out a different side to Hitchcock. Maybe a vulnerability and a chance to be reflective – maybe for the first time – about his own work. What do you think about that?
KJ: It’s rare. Yeah, it’s true. Because to think that he was at a moment in his career where when even though he had just made “Psycho”, he was actually near the end, relatively speaking. He had just finished “The Birds”, then there was “Marnie” and “Torn Curtain” and “Topaz” and “Frenzy” and “Family Plot” and that was it. I think he understood that the world around him was changing. And that, like when he saw “Blow Up”, he said, “this guy’s a hundred years of all of us. It’s a great film.” I think that he really loved “Masculin Féminin” by Jean-Luc Godard.
He was a guy who really paid close attention to things, but then he was in a certain era and that’s the poignance of him always saying, “I wish I’d have done something more character-based”, that kind of thing – which also has to do with the respectability question. You know, “do people take me seriously as an artist?” I think that Truffaut was – to have that kind of attention from a younger man, who was not just a younger man, but a younger filmmaker who has just been anointed all around the world. It’s like Olivier says in the movie – it’s not just a book about Hitchcock, it’s a major work.
DJF: It’s an event!
KJ: Yeah, it was the first book of its time, really. So, I think, in that sense – and also because Truffaut, he’s very, he sticks with something.
DJF: It definitely felt like, although you’re covering a lot about Hitchcock – what was new to me was it felt like a real passion project for Truffaut. And especially the fact that, like you mentioned in the movie, he basically took to transcribing his recordings as if he was directing a movie, taking as much time and consideration for this book as he would a movie. I guess I never really thought about it like that. What do you think it was about Tuffaut that made Hitchcock agree to these recorded interviews?
KJ: Well, it’s a filmmaker. It’s not a critic. I think he did a lot of interview with people. But, it’s all, you know, “when I was three years old I was locked up in a police station…”, I mean, you know, we were thinking about fitting that story in and then every version of it felt like, “…and then, my father…”, he just had an act, you know?
DJF: Right. It was a script.
KJ: Yeah. And so, I think, look this is a guy who says “this is a film for filmmakers”. He takes the art of cinema really seriously. There’s a moment in the tapes – and some of it’s in the book – where he’s talking about “Rope” and the shooting of “Rope” and he says, “the cameraman just gave me this thing that was unacceptable and I said, look, we’re not shooting in black and white anymore, we’re shooting in color. You have to change the way that you work. You can’t just give me the standard – I don’t want all that light – we don’t need it. We have color now. Because it defines the people in a way that you don’t need edge lighting”. You know?
And the guy took off and he wound up shooting the movie with the Technicolor cameraman. And he said, you know, “the thing about the cameraman’s union is, you know, the members move up and they get jobs as grips and they slowly work their way up in the union” and he said, “but what the cameraman’s union should really do is send their members out to museums to go and look at paintings by Vermeer and other painters, so that they would understand the logic of light. That would be the greatest service that they could do to them.”
This is a guy who cared about the art of cinema and he cared – in the section of the movie where he’s talking about space with “The Birds” – there’s a part that we wanted to include but we really couldn’t. It was about establishing shots. And he said, “I don’t do establishing shots. They don’t do anything. Because you may need to save that viewpoint for later in the scene when it’ll have more emotional impact. So, never establish with an establishing shot.”
He really really cared and, I think, he cared about cinema as an art form as opposed to just his own proper thing, even though he wasn’t very – he didn’t go on a lot about other people’s movies. You know, he cared about it as an art form. So, I think that when Truffaut wrote to him – I think that letter really appealed to him in a very particular way.
DJF: Okay. It wasn’t just his ego. It was, “here’s somebody who connecting to me in a way that I can….”
KJ: Yeah, I think it was his ego, but…
DJF: But, hey,whatever works, right?
KJ: …why not? I mean, if you’re used to reading reviews of you, that refer to you as The Master of Suspense – you know, audiences were a twitter when they saw “Psycho” and that kind of crap – then getting that kind of letter must have meant something. But then the other side of it is that Truffaut was also responding to what he thought was the overly abstract direction in which the Cahiers critics took through discussions of Hitchcock. So, he was doing two things – he was looking at both sides of the Atlantic. To the French, “let’s talk nuts and bolts” and get out of abstraction and then to the Americans, it’s like “this guy’s a great artist. here’s why….”
But I also think – just to refer back to something you said earlier – I think all those guys from that generation and I think film director’s in general – don’t really talk about their work. Some of them appear to talk about it more than others do – like Marty.
DJF: I feel like it’s because, maybe, distance helps?
KJ: Yeah. There’s only so much you can – I mean, they make the movies. They don’t make them to talk about them. They make them to make them and show them.
DJF: They make them for people to experience them.
KJ: Yeah. And that’s why Stanley Kubrick’s interviews are so interesting. He’s talking around a lot of things, but he’s preserving the core of the experience. I think that’s what Hitchcock was doing, John Ford was doing. Howard Hawks did that.
DJF: It’s funny how, at times, Hitchcock comes across as somewhat detached and doesn’t really care about what the viewer thinks….
KJ: Well, not what the viewer thinks. I think what he portrays in his version of himself that he gave in interviews – it wasn’t the viewer so much as it was the actor.
KJ: Like, he would claim that he was bored on the set. He just set the set-ups according to the drawings that he had done beforehand, that kind of thing.
DJF: Well, that’s true. I would say then – to correct myself – it would be more like the opposite – he does care what the viewer thinks and he almost, is there to guide us. I love that quote early on in the film, where it says, “an actor’s face doesn’t exist until there’s light on it.” To some, that might come across as some kind of film god, like “the actor doesn’t exist until I shine light on him”. But it’s more, I think, of just an artist’s approach. Whether or not Hitchcock considered himself as an artist – I’m not totally certain – but up to that point, before Truffaut’s interviews – I don’t think the American populace really saw him as an artist. It wasn’t until somebody from overseas – Truffaut – sitting him down, having these interviews and once the book was published and people could read it, that people thought, “wow, this guy is appreciated”.
KJ: I think that, in general, people weren’t primed to consider Hollywood directors as artists: period. John Ford, when he directed “Grapes of Wrath” and “How Green Is My Valley” – Orson Welles and, I don’t know, Wilder – different people here and there. It had more to do with the attitude toward cinema in general. And I think, real movies with real cinema was made in Russia, in the 20s by Eisenstein. Real cinema was made in Sweden by Ingmar Bergman.
Meanwhile, who had the greatest influence, who was the director that Bergman admired? John Ford. Who was the director that Akira Kurosawa admired? John Ford. Who was French New Wave looking at? Hitchcock and Hawks.
If you read James Agee on Hitchcock – he’s very complimentary about his films – but, he says things like, “well, he made all his great films before he was softened in America.” You know, he has a lot of respect for him. But, it’s a matter of changing the attitude towards movies in general. That’s really what this book did. It changed it towards Hitchcock and it changed it toward film in general.
DJF: I think with this movie, it’s probably going to be most beneficial to those who never even knew that this event took place. Obviously, those who studied film know about the book and the interviews, but I appreciate the fact that the movie is like a capsule in time. It’s capturing something that few know about nor do they know about the importance of it. So, it was a reminder for me that it happened. At times, I felt like a fly on the wall, listening in on something was a personal project for Truffaut. I think the movie is a success in that sense, where you as the director is saying, “viewer, listen in on this.” Sure those tapes are available to anyone, but the way you set it all up here with this energy, it’s successful in providing another perspective of what happened.
KJ: In the end, when something is a documentary or something is a work of fiction, in the end, you’ve got to make a movie. The mistake in a lot of documentaries is that the go into the direction of informational or wanting to include everything. Every movie the man made was good – some of them are great – but they’re all good. I’ve never seen a bad Alfred Hitchcock film.
DJF: I think what opened me up to Hitchcock was, well, growing up I knew Hitchcock as a horror director due to “Psycho” and “The Birds” – which is kind of odd since he made so many films before these two. But these are the films that earned him the largest audiences….
KJ: Well, that and the TV show.
DJF: That’s true. Because, let’s see, “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” was just before “Psycho”….
KJ: It started in ’55.
DJF: So, five years before. Yeah so, growing up, I knew him as this horror director. But then I began to realize how he would take actors and offer them roles that played against type – like Sean Connery in “Marnie”, where he plays kind of a pervy character – a role which came right after his first Bond sequel, “From Russia With Love”. You probably know the story behind how Connery gets cast in such a film, but I assume it’s an actor signing up with Hitchcock because he’s Hitchcock, but it’s always fascinating for an actor to play against type. Even though he often worked with Stewart and Grant, I feel that each role they took was something different.
KJ: I’ll say. I don’t think it’s true thought that people jumped at the chance to work with him. That’s actually not true, You know, William Holden read for “Strangers on the Train”, he had to use Farley Granger. He wanted Gary Cooper for “Foreign Correspondent” and he couldn’t get him, so he had to use Joel McCrea. He wanted somebody else for “Saboteur”. He always complained that so many people didn’t take his movies serious enough. They didn’t think the suspense genre gave him the kind of legitimacy – it was beneath them. That’s what he said.
DJF: Do you think it’s because of his reputation?
KJ: No. I think it’s just because of the genre he was working in. Gary Cooper just made “Sergeant York” and what the hell would he want to do “Foreign Correspondent” for? William Holden was doing “Born Yesterday” and “Sunset Boulevard”, so he didn’t really need to do “Strangers on a Train”.
The thing that I felt was really important, in terms of bringing the conversation into the present, was probably the two most important – the two most important aspects of are, the thing that Marty and Fincher bring up, is just how we’re so saturated with stories and images – that it’s harder to make a dent. No one really directed movies that way he directed them. They just don’t do it. And the reason is, because, as Marty says, “the center of gravity started shifting around that time”. It’s just a different way of working. It’s not better or worse.
But, for the same reasons that Paul Thomas Anderson never could’ve made “There Will be Blood” in 1945. Alfred Hitchcock couldn’t make “Rear Window” in 2015. It just wouldn’t happen. And it’s interesting that Fincher is the one who brings that up, because he’s the one who gets accused of that by actors. You know, Jake Gyllenhaal gave all these interviews where he said, “I didn’t like being a color in Fincher’s palette.” And stuff like that…
DJF: Well, you’re there at the service of the film, aren’t you? (both laugh)
KJ: Well, anyway….
DJF: After filming this movie, did you come away with a different angle on this whole Hitchcock/Truffaut interview? Is there anything you were surprised by?
KJ: You know, I had heard that I heard the ten-and-a-half-hour France radio broadcast version of the tapes and they were amazing. You know, Arnaud Desplechin told me that he and his wife were in a car, when they were broadcast and that they were so hypnotized by what they were listening to, there was ten more minutes to go and they got to a doctor’s appointment and they just sat there in the car with the motor running.
But, I think that it wasn’t until I listened to all twenty-seven hours of the tapes that I really realized just how different they are from the book. And that’s because the book – he (Truffaut) really did not speak English – so she did the on the spot translation and that was kind of amended back in France and then he edited it very heavily and then that was re-translated back into English. So, Hitchcock’s spontaneity and his sense of humor are kind of not there in the book.
DJF: Lost in translation.
KJ: And he never said that to Truffaut. He never wrote to Truffaut and expressed his disappointment with that, but he did to other people. There’s a thought that I had about, well – time to do another book – but, on the other hand, maybe not. Because Truffaut – despite the fact that it’s not really Hitchcock’s voice strictly speaking in the book – it’s not the grain of his voice. So, it’s a work that Truffaut did. Maybe not tampering with it – it would be like showing somebody’s rushes or something. I also learned just from a purely factual point of view, that the conversation that they have in the book about “Saboteur” and the knife, just is not there.
KJ: It’s possible that they talked about it later, when they met to talk about “Marnie” and “Torn Curtain”.
DJF: But, it’s in the book?
KJ: Yeah. At length. And they talk about “Saboteur” in the tapes. They just don’t talk about that scene. It’s very interesting.
DJF: I wonder if that’s just Truffaut wanting to embellish or add a bit more….
KJ: Well, that’d be quite an embellishment, because it’s a long paragraph from Hitchcock saying that the knife is like a magnet and she’s magnetized. I think it’s maybe something that they discussed and that – she didn’t – the tape recorder didn’t work or she lost the tape or something. I don’t know. It’s very interesting. But I guess, just on a more basic level. I don’t know. When I started looking at the letters – a lot of people that I know.
A lot of cinephiles that I know, who have a very dismissive attitude toward Truffaut and there are all those people who think of him like – there still into that Lennon/McCartney with him and Godard. That happens a lot. I think for me, as I’ve gotten older, the more I look at his films. I don’t go back to his films the way I do with Hitchcock, but when I look at his film’s again, I realize he was a much – he just seems, not just to grow as a filmmaker for me – but also, he’s much more complex and odd than he seemed when he was alive.
DJF: I definitely walked away after watching your film with a greater curiosity for Truffaut. I found it very interesting how, here’s this guy, essentially starting his career and reaching out to – I think it’s something we can all relate to, like when you’re starting out your career and your reaching out to someone who has been at it longer, someone with more experience. You never know what their response is going to be like. I think that’s something that we can all relate to. And I think that, in a way, Truffaut becomes our gateway to the whole event. I left wanting to know a lot more about Truffaut.
KJ: Well, he was a really complex guy. He was adopted. His mother was his real mother, but his father was Jewish and he found out later it was a one-night stand. And he was very sick as a child and he was more raised by his grandmother, I think. Most of “The 400 Blows” is pretty on the nose. He wasn’t just thrown into jail. He was in the army and then he was more or less adopted by André Bazin. He was a very very ambitious guy. He married a woman whose father was a producer, which helped him launch his filmmaking career.
But he was very – he has this reputation for this kid of sweetness and humanism or something like that – it’s not that it’s not there in his movies, it’s just like there’s something else too. It’s a real toughness. And also, as Olivier says in the movie – concision. He wasn’t a stylist. It’s true, he’s right. He’s like – boom boom boom boom boom.
What’s interesting, Arnaud was in New York with his new movie – which is easily one of the best films playing in this festival too, “My Golden Days”. When he’s working, you know, I wrote a movie with Arnaud and when he’s working, you know, he thinks a lot about Truffaut – about how he worked. And what I mean by that is, when he’s constructing scenes he’s thinking – there was an exchange that he was quoted on onstage, between Truffaut and one of his screenwriters and he said, “you know, I’m not Antonioni. I don’t want one idea every 4 minutes. I want 4 ideas every minute. I wanna keep things, you know….”
DJF: That’s kind of like how the mind works.
KJ: Yeah, I think that that’s true. So, you know, when I was growing up, Antonioni was considered the greater filmmaker and a far more profound artist. And now it’s very much the reverse. I have a hard time sitting through a lot of his movies, but Truffaut’s seem very surprising, very troubling – there’s something about his movies. He gets into things that are very, very uncomfortable.
DJF: So, the movie has been screened once already at this festival and it’ll be screening tomorrow as well. What was the response to yesterday’s screening?
KJ: It was great. It was a packed house. People loved it. It was a good Q&A. I mean, I’ve had really – the film premiered in Cannes – for some reason, that was a madhouse. It was crazy. It was in a theatre that’s got some of the weirdest sight lines ever. If you’re sitting on the edges, if you’re not dead center in this theatre, you’ll be blocked out.
DJF: Is it an old theatre?
KJ: It’s a theatre where they show older films and documentaries about cinema.
DJF: Does it have an angle to it?
KJ: It’s got an angle to it. It’s just that it’s wider than it is deep. So, it’s a weird experience if you’re not there in the center. For some reason, I don’t know. It was just crazy out. I couldn’t believe it.
DJF: For your film?
KJ: Yeah, I don’t know. They were letting people in a weird order. It was a bizarre thing. The director of the festival was there and he was flipping out. Journalists were screaming at him. (laughs)
DJF: (laughs) You never know with Cannes, I guess.
KJ: Yeah, go figure. You never know. So, it was also in Telluride, which was really good. It opens theatrically on the 2nd of December in New York and L.A.
DJF: Alright. Well on that note I want to say I appreciate your time this afternoon.
KJ: Thank you.
“Hitchcock/Truffaut” opens on December 25th in Chicago at the Music Box theatre.