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Hitchcock/Truffaut – An Interview with Kent Jones

Kent Jones [click to Enlarge] photo by GODLIS

Kent Jones [click to Enlarge] photo by GODLIS

Kent Jones’ documentary Hitchcock/Truffaut (2015)  is in theaters now. It tells the story of a monumental interview with Alfred Hitchcock conducted by François Truffaut in 1962 and the subsequent book that would inspire countless filmmakers since. Diabolique has reviewed the film, but considering the relevance that Hitchcock’s legacy has for fans of horror, suspense, and film in general, we wanted to sit down with director Kent Jones to get more of the story.

Jones, who is the current Director of Programming for the New York Film Festival, has worked a multitude of film-related jobs from archivist and curator to critic and filmmaker.

In this interview Jones discusses his hopes for the documentary, his thoughts about Hitchcock and Truffaut’s relationship, and the lasting effects Hitchcock’s films have had on the industry.

Diabolique: It’s difficult to find a place to begin with a figure like Alfred Hitchcock, with this film, this discussion. I guess the first question would be whether this was a project that came to you or if you sought it out?

Jones: The project came to me, someone asked if I wanted to do the tapes. I immediately said yes.

Diabolique: When you started to seek out filmmakers to interview did you find that it was the same thing for them, that it was easy to get people to talk about Hitchcock and his legacy?

Jones: I specifically went to people—most of whom I know very well—that would be able to think on camera and respond as opposed to recite. I’m sure we’ve all seen interviews where people just say things that you know they’ve said a million times before. There were people that I went to that were unable to or just didn’t know anything to say about Hitchcock. Brian De Palma was a different case, he wanted to save his thoughts for Jake Paltrow and Noah Baumbach’s movie (De Palma [2015]).

Diabolique: I think the sincerity that you’re describing definitely comes through. You get a strong sense that these are people who were profoundly influenced by Hitchcock, this discussion with Truffaut, and Truffaut’s subsequent book.

Jones: Yeah, in fact I was prepared for David Fincher to say: “Sorry, I just never read that book, I don’t really know.” I never had a conversation with him about Hitchcock, he generally doesn’t do that, it’s just not his orientation. When he is talking about other filmmakers he’s generally talking about people from the 70s. So when he said: “Yeah I read it several hundred times,” I thought that was great because he was into it.

Diabolique: There’s an element of this legacy that stretches beyond just having read Truffaut’s book, something very prevalent about Hitchcock’s legacy and its pervasiveness in popular culture. With that said, this interview was certainly an early step in the line of thinking that we should be interested in a person’s thoughts about their own films. Was that something you wanted to get across?

Jones: I also think that the important thing is not necessarily that it’s a person talking about his own films, but that he’s in conversation with another filmmaker. That’s the thing that’s so crucial here. It’s not the same thing as Hitchcock’s conversation with Peter Bogdanovich a couple years earlier—before Peter became a filmmaker. It’s not the same thing as Jon Halliday interviewing Douglas Sirk. It’s different.

Diabolique: The relationship between Hitchcock and Truffaut is definitely foregrounded in this film as one that would spread far beyond this one interview, this book. Was that something that you were aware of and wanted to stress, or that emerged from looking at these letters between the two of them in the years to follow?

Jones: Well it’s something that is very touching, that’s for sure. I knew it already from reading the biographies, but yes it’s there in the letters, it’s there in all of the correspondences between those guys. I think that there’s a tendency in film culture to want to read subtexts everywhere. There has been a tendency to look at the relationship between the two of them and say that Truffaut was in a veiled way kind of condescending to Hitchcock. I don’t think that’s the case, he just wasn’t. There are moments when Truffaut is harping on and on with Godard about British cinema and another when he goes on about The Wrong Man (1956) and how it might have been a better film if someone else had directed it, but he’s not being condescending to anybody. He’s just very straight forward and doing what he set out to do. That is, to explain to people why Hitchcock was not just great, but foundational. So I think that’s present in the film.

Diabolique: Beyond these conversations amongst critics and film scholars, what hopes do you have for this documentary in terms of what it can offer more casual movie goes, fans of genre film for example?

Jones: This is a question that comes up. I remember when I was working on My Voyage to Italy (1999) with Marty [Martin Scorsese] and Thelma [Schoonmaker] and I was working on the narration, writing that this film was the basis of modern cinema. Thelma made a point that I have never forgotten, she said something like: “I know what you mean, Marty knows what you mean, we all understand what we’re all talking about here, but for most people—let’s be honest—modern cinema is Independence Day (1996)”—or whatever was around at that point. Her point was very well taken.

That brings up the other point, which is why bother trying to orient people who aren’t interested. But I’m talking to everybody, not just people who know. I’m talking to people who don’t know, people who might have an inkling about film history and don’t have access to everything. This gets to the idea about what audience is out there watching it, which is a great mysterious thing—it’s always going to be mysterious. The point is, I wanted to make it so that there was some kind of orientation for people who didn’t know about la politique des auteurs, Cahiers du cinéma, Godard, Rivette, all of it. At the same time, I didn’t want to spend too much time on that stuff and end up making an audio-visual historical guide—I wanted to make a movie. Making a movie means thinking about the constituent parts and assembling it and thinking about it as an experience. In this way—for me—documentary and fiction are not much different. They’re both about construction, binding images, and tinkering with rhythm until you get it right, concision as Olivier Assayas. Basically I’m saying that I don’t know whether I have any hopes beyond just connecting with people. That’s all. I’m hoping that people get an experience out of it.

Alfred Hitchcock and François Truffaut [click to enlarge] photo by Philippe Halsman

Alfred Hitchcock and François Truffaut [click to enlarge] photo by Philippe Halsman

Diabolique: It’s probably normal that the film would focus most on Psycho (1960) and Vertigo (1958), but were there any films that you were hoping people would talk about more?

Jones: Everybody talked a lot about Notorious (1946). Quite a few people talked about Rope (1948). The problem was that the discussion of Notorious was mostly a bunch of people saying that it is great. Psycho and Vertigo both stand in for a lot of different things, they’re the points at which a lot of things converge. Yes, we could have gone on about Notorious, Rope, and The Wrong Man, but that brings us back to the question of the movie and creating an experience and concision, intention, pace, and drive. So while I was fond of what we did with Rope and what we were planning to do with Notorious, it just didn’t find its way into the movie.

Diabolique: To get back to genre film, what about the effect Hitchcock had on subsequent horror psychological thrillers, really across the spectrum? I’m thinking mainly of the memorable twist in Psycho or the apocalyptic imagery in The Birds (1963).

Jones: These things kind of fan out. Obviously Psycho had a vast effect on cinema, in a lot of different ways. There’s Psycho, then there are William Castle’s rip-offs of Psycho. Then there’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Halloween (1978)—and all of the films that are offshoots of that, Friday the 13th (1980), Prom Night (1980), Terror Train (1980)—and all of the Halloween sequels. I could point to Pulp Fiction (1994) or Mean Streets (1973) as similar examples. With Mean Streets I can’t even count the number of movies that went down that road. A guy with a weaker, crazier guy who he’s protecting and he winds up being his own and the other guy’s downfall. He thinks he’s doing the right thing and he really isn’t. From Laws of Gravity (1992) and Amongst Friends (1993) to As Tears Go By (1988) and Goodbye South Goodbye (1996) to the second season of The Wire (2002-2008), it’s just a template. At a certain point the influence fans off and goes in its own direction. The degree to which all of this has to do with the greatness of Psycho is debatable.

Diabolique: Any thoughts on the precedent set by killing off the protagonist so early on?

Jones: The killing of the protagonist is a different question. The shower scene is one thing, where it sits in the movie is something else. That’s almost eternally shocking, but a different kind of shock. In the same way, you have in the movie when Marty is talking about the overhead angle when Norman Bates stabs Arbogast. The suspense is already there in the walk up the stairs, and as Marty says, you know he’s going to get it, you’re filled with dread. The cut to the high-angle is something else. Suddenly, you’re back at a point of view that you know is mysterious and undefined but that’s always there.

Diabolique: That’s something else that Hitchcock loves to discuss—the way that he could guide the viewer and enrapture them, control their attention.

Jones: He’s talking about guiding the viewer in the case of the camera movement up and over in the case of Psycho and he’s also talking about avoiding showing Mrs. Bates, but you know I can think of about fifty ways that you could do that much more simply than the way he did. He does that a lot. For example, when he says that he put the camera high in The Birds so viewers wouldn’t have to see people getting out fire hoses. It’s like, sure, but there are other ways to not show people getting out fire hoses. Which is why when Truffaut asks: “would you consider yourself a Catholic filmmaker?” the response is “go off the record.” It’s not being a Catholic filmmaker, it’s responding to the sense that one can inherit or intuit—in Catholicism or any other religion—the omnipresent, constantly present POV.

Diabolique: In the documentary most of the filmmakers you interview (e.g., David Fincher, Wes Anderson, Martin Scorsese, Richard Linklater) are household names at this point, do you think that now is an especially good time for a documentary like this, when you have people aware of and talking about filmmakers and the production?

Jones:  I think that we’re at a moment when it is extremely common to walk into a movie theater and see a movie that might have been made by someone that had never seen a movie before. Not that there are fewer great films, in fact I think that there are a lot of really great artists working in American cinema in particular right now, but the real measure is how good are the ordinary films. When I was a kid—the 70s— there were a lot of good movies and there were also a lot of crummy movies, but the average movies were better then they are now. The reason is that there was a continuum in film history in as much as it seemed like something was being passed on.

You could say one break was in the early 80s when Electric Dreams (1984) was made, which was sort of the first movie that was like rock video cutting. Then you started to see people making action movies with a conscious effort to blur geography. Next you started to see films like Blair Witch Project (1999) and the Dogme 95 movies that were made with early digital cameras with a very crude image and a particular type of editing. Then a very conscious sense of films where people were not composing shots but they were kind of centering them. Now we’re in a situation where that has become more and more prevalent, or that’s the general sense of things, and you wind up going to a movie like Bridge of Spies (2015) and it winds up looking exotic and absolutely out of the ordinary, or Inherent Vice (2014) or The Revenant (2015).

There is a sense—not unfounded—that the connection with the craft of the filmmaking is loose now. That it is very profitable to make movies—as Marty says—that are very loud and have a climax every three seconds. Within this context I think you’re seeing more and more films about filmmaking. You’re seeing Noah and Jake’s movie, my movie, Nancy Buirski’s movie about Sydney Lumet, and Walter Salles’ movie about Jia Zhangke. There is a sense of the drama of filmmaking itself that is being spoken of almost as an artisanal practice that could be lost, in the same way that you see films about people who are engaged in a certain kind of wine or cheese making that could be lost. I’m not saying that it’s going to happen that way, it may not. I do know that it’s getting harder and harder for people to make a certain kind of movie, at a certain level. I don’t see it getting easier in the foreseeable future. What I do see getting easier is the ability to make very very small films. And that’s great, but there are a lot of them that aren’t so good. For every Tangerine (2014) there are ten not-Tangerines. I think that’s the context that you’re alluding to, and I feel it very keenly.

You can see Hitchcock/Truffaut in select cities now. 

About Jake Whritner

Jake Whritner is the former Web Editor for Diabolique Magazine and a graduate of the Cinema Studies department at NYU. As a postgraduate film student at the University of Kent, Jake specializes in cognitive media studies and works in the interstices between film theory and cognitive neuroscience. In particular, Jake is interested in questions of narrative comprehension and emotional engagement.

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