“Doing a Shot List is One Thing, Bringing It Alive is Something Else”: Kent Jones on Diane, Understanding Costume Design and Tax Incentives
Best known as a critic and programmer, Kent Jones has also made documentaries for years, but Diane is his first narrative feature. Written specifically for Mary Kay Place, Diane begins as a seemingly modest, naturalistic, one-day-at-a-time portrait of a woman grounded in her family life. Volunteering gives her days structure, while trying to take care of her drug addict son undermines that structure; walking that fine line is a challenge. The centerpiece of this hard-earned naturalism is a scene with Diane, friends and family in a kitchen—a long exchange that feels intensely lived in. In its last third, Diane goes in a different, totally direction that, among other things, interrogates and destabilizes the idea of what low-budget, low-key naturalism looks like. I spoke to Jones about his step up to the narrative plate.
Filmmaker: How did you assemble your materials for pitching and investing?
Jones: I didn’t really have to pitch. I went to Caroline Kaplan, an old, old friend. First she brought Luca Borghese and Ben Howe aboard, then Oren Moverman, and Oren formed Sight Unseen with Eddie Vaisman and Julia Lebedev. It became the first Sight Unseen movie. I don’t know whether I had a lookbook. I don’t think I really did. I mean, I gave images to my DP of places where I grew up in the Berkshires. We didn’t shoot in the Berkshires. We shot close-by there, because of the tax breaks in New York—Kingston, Saugerties, Palenville and places like that. But when my DP and I sat down, we talked over a few things. One main thing was, I said, “I’m going to call Jarmusch and ask him what he did for Paterson. That’s the texture that I want in terms of warmth.” At first, when I saw Paterson, I thought it was shot on film. The way that the digital image looks changes so much. You can do so much more. Jarmusch said, “Fred Elmes shot with the Alexa Mini pro res. We didn’t feel like we needed to shoot RAW.” I didn’t feel like I needed to shoot RAW. That’s very expensive, too. Also, he said, “We got Cooke Prime lenses,” the lenses from the ’70s that a lot of people use. Noah Baumbach used them for Margot at the Wedding. I think we actually got the same set that they used—I wonder how many sets there are. [Also for Paterson], Fred Elmes bought pieces of old hosiery, cut pieces of it and put it over the back element of the lens, so that gives it this diffused look. My DP [Wyatt Garfield] really got into that.
Filmmaker: I think the Cookes are a common strategy to soften the image.
Jones: Of course. I wanted to use the Red Weapon brain because of the helium sensor, but it would’ve been an extra expense. It was a very low-budget movie. We only had 20 shooting days, and I was fine using the Alexa Mini and just doing it. But the Weapon brain can give you a different kind of softness, hyper clarity and softness. I’d like to explore that the next time.
Filmmaker: How much lead time did you have when you actually knew when the window would be?
Jones: We found out that the movie was going to setup in August/September, something like that. We were going to shoot in April, then Mary Kay said, “I can’t do it because I can’t get out of this TV series.” There was a window that would’ve opened up around the holidays, like between Thanksgiving and Christmas, but nobody wanted to do that. That just seemed suicidal: a) it was too close b) it’s the holidays. So then, somebody said, “How about January 9th?”
Filmmaker: Was she the only performer with a TV series to work around?
Jones: Oh no. My god. Andrea Martin works constantly. Dede O’Connell’s on TV all the time. Joyce Van Patten does a lot of TV, Estelle [Parsons] maybe not so much anymore. I mean, she was 89 when we shot and she’s 91 now. It is part of the reality of low-budget filmmaking, but it’s part of the reality of filmmaking, period.
Filmmaker: I think the Hudson Valley triangle area had a specific incentives program for being upstate. I’m not sure if it was still in existence by the time you got there.
Jones: I don’t know. All I know is that the further upstate you get, the bigger the incentive. Kingston’s not that far upstate, but we got enough of an incentive so that it was meaningful. As it turns out now, we could probably shoot in Massachusetts because the tax breaks are getting better. But it’s close enough, it’s the same part of the world. The story properly takes place in some kind of mixture of the Berkshires and central Massachusetts. I was just telling somebody else that for the forest scene, I had a place in mind that I used to go to all the time. I figured, “Well, I’ll just find another forest in the Kingston, Rhinecliff, Palenville area that’s got pine trees.” And I couldn’t. It was nuts. It was just like, where the fuck are the pine trees? Finally, we found this place that was the perfect place to shoot, but even there, there weren’t that many pine trees.
Filmmaker: You had an incentive to cheat the location a little bit, but presumably the landscape is similar enough?
Jones: It’s not the same as the Berkshires, obviously. The geology, the topography’s kind of different. If you know the area really well, you’re going to know that it’s not [the Berkshires], but if you don’t, it’s roughly the same kind of atmosphere. Within the confines of this particular story, it’s fine. There’s another film that I want to make that needs to be shot in Massachusetts. It’s possible that I could think about doing it elsewhere, but I really feel like it needs to live there. To take a really extreme, obscure example [of cheating locations], I believe that Superman IV, which was a Cannon movie, is supposed to take place in some simulacrum of New York like the other Superman movies, but they shot it in Toronto and it looks like Toronto.
Filmmaker: The New York/Toronto thing is always—
Jones: The New York/Toronto thing is a drag. There was a period in the ’80s when I remember there was a strike in New York or something happened. So, Sidney Lumet shot Family Business in Cincinnati, Garry Marshall shot Frankie & Johnny in Cincinnati, I think. I thought Garry Marshall did a pretty good job of it. Anyway.
Filmmaker: So, shooting inside houses—not a lot of space. I don’t know if it was cold also.
Jones: It was really cold. It was January. It was very, very important to me that I find exactly the right kitchen for that, because it’s modeled on my memory of an actual place. The son’s apartment is pretty much exactly what it looks like. We shot there for a few days and there was one day when the producer wanted to get out the door and he couldn’t. But it wasn’t super tight—you know, we worked it out, and planned it out pretty carefully. My DP was very, very good with dimensions, looking at a room and getting measurements and then be able to pretty much gauge it correctly. We rehearsed a little bit.
Filmmaker: How precisely did you choreograph people’s movement around the table?
Jones: Pretty precisely. I don’t think that there’s much room in that tight a space for that kind of improv. I think the way that a lot of people shoot now is light the scene in a general way, fix it later, and let the actors—not all the time, but there are a lot of movies where you feel like it’s worked out as they’re going. Some of them are movies that I really love, I just didn’t have that luxury on this because we had a tight shooting schedule, so I wanted to be able to get what I needed without having one of those situations where I just needed to take the time to work it out in the middle of the moment. That’s something that I’d definitely be interested in exploring next time. Explaining to everybody who they were in relation to each other was a more involved process, in a way. It’s not specified in the script exactly who’s what to who, so I spent a good chunk of time orienting everybody so that they knew who they were in relation to each other, all the people who were basically day players. Because for a lot of those actors, that’s the only scene they’re in.
Filmmaker: Are you more comfortable now than when you started with speaking different acting languages on a performer by performer basis?
Jones: I’m comfortable with that. Writing a movie and doing a shot list is one thing, bringing it alive is something else. You have to get people to surprise themselves, you know? Sometimes you can’t, but the point is trying to create an environment. I read that interview with Christopher Plummer, I guess, where he was talking about making The New World, and Terrence Malick [went] up to Colin Farrell and [said], “You’re an osprey.” And Colin Farrell [said], “I have no idea what the fuck that means.” If the actor doesn’t know what something means, then it’s incumbent on the director to put it in another language, and to figure out another way of saying it so that they can get on the same wavelength with the actor. I don’t think it should be the actor’s job to get on the wavelength of the director. I think different people do it different ways. William Wyler just kept doing take after take after take until he saw what it was that he had. I think what he was really waiting for was being surprised. I think that’s what everybody wants.
Filmmaker: Did you have an average shot count per day?
Jones: Every scene was different. The kitchen scene was the only only two-day, two-camera scene, because it was so complicated with all of the people. But no, I couldn’t give you a shot count. I think every day was different. I liked the pressure, to tell you the truth. You’re like, “OK, if I haven’t gotten what I need by this time, then I go into meal penalties and I might cut into time for the next day. So can I afford to do that or do I cut setups?” There were a couple of times when I cut some setups, when I thought “I can get what I need from what I have, and I don’t really need this setup.
Filmmaker: Do you set the frame or do you let the DP do that?
Jones: I always looked at the frame, always. I had an interesting experience on this movie. I was talking to the gaffer—who was great, I loved him—and he said, “I’m really not used to talking to the director.” That really struck me. It never occurred to me to not talk to absolutely everybody, and I mean everybody. I had never made a feature before, so I couldn’t waste time pretending I knew something that I didn’t. I got a great education from my costume designer, which continues since we got married in October. I got a great education from my production designer as we were going. So, if I thought that there was something in the lighting that seemed like I wanted to fix it, I would talk to the gaffer and I would talk to the DP. I was as close to the action as I could be within whatever given space we were in with my own video village. I wasn’t sitting around with a group of people looking at it. I had my own portable screen, so that I could look at the take as it was happening if I wasn’t right there. Even when I was right there, I wanted to see how it was in the frame. Wyatt operated himself most of the time, including using the gimbal, which he referred to as the humiliator. We had a steadicam guy come in for two separate scenes. I wanted a gimbal for a couple of scenes and the steadicam for another one. It’s a different feeling.
Filmmaker; In terms of your on-set education, you mentioned your production designer, you mentioned your costume designer.
Jones: I think a lot of people don’t know what production designers do, and a lot of people really don’t know what costume designers do. And they don’t know the distinction between production designer and the art director, that’s a big one. But I also think that people can’t quite get their head around—if you’re talking about the palette of a movie, yes, you’re talking about the DP, but they’ve got to photograph something. With a production designer, people can say, “It’s the space.” But with costume design, because it’s called costume design, as opposed to clothing design, I think people think it involves a lot of sewing. Nothing could be further from the truth—unless you’re making The Favourite, then you’re sewing. But it’s like, you’re working out how much time has passed, you’re working out a color palette in relation to the production designer. If the costume designer and the production designer are friends, that’s great, because they’re working hand-in-hand.
Filmmaker: What was something that you learned from your costume designer that you didn’t know?
Jones: In the script, I would have a scene end, start a scene [with] interior night, and then I would have the next scene be exterior day. And she would say, “Great. How much time has passed between this scene and that scene?” I’m like, “I don’t know.” And she would say, “Okay, here’s why I need to know.” And you go, “Ah. Of course you do.”
Filmmaker: Color correction also seems like a language in and of itself. You’d probably done it before on the nonfiction films, but probably to a much greater extent on this?
Jones: Yeah, I’ve been around people doing color correction, too. Obviously it’s a very different question doing it with something like Hitchcock/Truffaut. Although, look, when you’re making a documentary with other people’s images, you have a talking head, it has to be more than a talking head. Even with a clip—you’re making your own movie, so it’s all got to function as a movie. There’s another way movies just take clips from Citizen Kane or Gene Kelly doing Singin’ in the Rain and act as if you’re looking at the movie, but you’re not. You’re looking at this movie, it’s part of a different experience. So the uniformity of the color and moving from Vertigo to whoever’s face, those are things that are definitely nuanced. With this, obviously, it’s a whole other ballgame. I think we worked out our palette in advance quite a bit so that we weren’t making big, radical changes in the color correct.