Arguably one of the most important books about film in the last 100 years is François Truffaut’s 1967 long-form interview with Alfred Hitchcock, HITCHCOCK/TRUFFAUT, in which the master and hero to many in the French New Wave at the time goes film by film with the French upstart in such a way that, at times, it feels like you’re listening in a a private conversation between two kindred spirits of great filmmaking and storytelling. It’s a rare film interview book that is both inspirational and educational. Director Ken Jones (who has previously made the terrific docs VAL LEWTON: THE MAN IN THE SHADOWS and A LETTER TO ELIA, about Elia Kazan) has made a documentary of the same name that not only goes through the process that resulted in the book, but the impact the book has had on many generations of future filmmakers who read it at critical times in their lives.
Currently director of programming of the New York Film Festival, Jones has been a long-time staple of the film community, has incredible access to a host of directors willing to speak at length about the significance of HITCHCOCK/TRUFFAUT as a guide to style and the visual language of film. Interviews with the likes of Martin Scorsese, Wes Anderson, Peter Bogdanovich, Olivier Assayas, James Gray, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Richard Linklater, Paul Schrader, and Arnaud Desplechin, are all enlightening, especially since many of these folks are as known for their knowledge of film history as they are for being great directors. Wait until you get a look at how chatty David Fincher can be about something he’s so passionate.
I chatted with Jones in October when he was in town for the Chicago International Film Festival, and it was great to go through the process of piecing this film together and gathering these incredible modern-day interviews as well. And if you want to hear excerpts from the fascinating interviews, here’s a good site that has hours of material. Please enjoy my conversation with Ken Jones…
Capone: Hi, Kent. How are you?
Kent Jones: Hey, how are you doing?
Capone: Good. It’s funny, I was just at a 24-hour horror movie marathon last night here in Chicago, and there was a vendor in the lobby selling books, and he had a copy of the HITCHCOCK/TRUFFAUT book, so I got to flip through it again. It’s a while since I’ve read it.
KJ: Wow. Was it a vintage copy?
Capone: It looked brand new. It was slightly oversized. I think it was one of the newer editions.
KJ: So it was like a silver copy with orange lettering?
Capone: Yes, exactly.
KJ: Yeah, that’s the updated edition. I don’t know how many printings it’s gone through, but it’s incredible.
Capone: You premiered this at Cannes, correct? Which seems completely appropriate. Was that important to you to have it debut there?
KJ: No. I mean, it was great.
KJ: No, I mean, was it important? It was great to have it debut there. It was great to go to Cannes, it was great to have a movie invited to Cannes, but the most important thing to me was to just make a movie.
Capone: Of all the directors you interview here, I was genuinely surprised how personable David Fincher comes across. I know just that he’s difficult sometimes to get him to talk about his own movies, so to hear him talk about Hitchcock’s films at length is wonderful. You had to realize at some point when you were talking to him that this was gold. He’s the highlight of that part of the film. How did you get him to sit down for this and talk for so long?
KJ: I’ve heard from some people that they’d had these encounters with David where he’s difficult, taciturn, and doesn’t really wanna talk. I’ve known him for eight years, and I’ve never had that experience. As a matter of fact, when Aaron Sorkin won the Oscar for THE SOCIAL NETWORK, he talked about David and said he’s a rare thing in the movie business in that he’s a really good human being and a great artist. That to me was the Fincher that I know. I know that he can be extremely tough; he has absolutely no patience for Hollywood bullshit. He doesn’t have an agent. When he doesn't want to do something, he doesn’t do it. When he has an opinion about something, he voices it. He has real scorn for that side of the business, but most filmmakers do. They just handle it in a more diplomatic way.
Also, some people appear to enjoy talking about their work, and others don’t. I don’t think he likes dopey questions about his work. That I know. It’s like, “What was your intension in choosing Brad Pitt for the role?” That kind of thing. I don’t think he has any patience in doing the publicity around it, and who could blame him? Actually, just as an aside, once I was doing a thing with him around the time of BENJAMIN BUTTON, and we showed some movies and picked some films from other people to go along side them. And this guy raised his hand and is talking in the audience and goes, “I heard some rumors that there’s a sequel to SE7EN in the works and I was wondering if you knew about that and if you were interested in directing it yourself?” And David said, “Well, I’ve heard about it. I’m not sure how real it is, but I have heard about it. As for me directing it, I think that I would rather stub lit cigarettes out on my eyelids.” That kind of thing I think is what people are referring to. I’ve never had that experience with him.
Most filmmakers I think don’t want to talk about their work. They’ll talk about it up to a certain point. Marty [Scorsese] is really, he talks a lot, but if you really listen carefully to what he’s saying, he’s taking it to a certain point and then leaving you to work it out or experience it yourself, because what are you going to talk about? You’ve made the movie, you can’t talk about the movie; you made it. But when it comes to talking about other people’s work, that’s a different story. I think with David, I guess that I was a little surprised. When I asked him, “Hey, have you ever read that book?” I really honestly was expecting him to say no, honestly. And he said, “Not much, just a couple of hundred times as a kid.” I was like, “Wow! Would you do this?” And he was like, “Oh yeah. Absolutely.”
As far as being surprised that what he said was gold, that I wasn’t because I must say he’s one of the few people I know who everything he says are words to remember. Any conversation I’ve ever had with him, I learned more than I do in weeks with other human beings. He’s also really funny. In a sense, he’s generous. He wants to share how movies are made and break down barriers of mystification about them. To say, “Yeah, we have the trucks and makeup and stars and the preparation, but really that stuff is window dressing. You can dispense a lot of it. But some of it, you have to put up with.” That’s something he’s really articulate about and generous about. You can feel it in this movie.
Capone: Let’s go back a second and talk about the steps you took towards putting this interview in its proper historical context and diving into both the filmmakers’ individual histories and also what was going on with film at the time. How deep did you want to get with that before you even tackled the interview part of it?
KJ: I had to feel my way into the kind of movie I wanted to make, so I felt my way into it by obviously starting with the book again, then just going through the tapes, all 27 hours of them. Transcribing a lot of it, most of it, actually, which is quite different from the book, by the way. So that was interesting—maybe not that surprising, but interesting. I had heard some of it before. You can go online and download about 11 and a half hours from the broadcast version done back in the ’90s.
I guess that I didn’t want to make a movie that was just for you and me. In other words, I wanted to contextualize things in a very basic way without spending a lot of time on it. I figured at a certain point that the book is about directing. That’s what the book is. It’s an investigation of how you direct movies, what it is to direct movies, what it is to be an individual, specifically an individual like Alfred Hitchcock and Francois Truffaut to direct a movie. And so then I thought the place that should live shouldn’t be interviews with experts or biographers or people who worked with Truffaut, because the enterprise of the book is about Hitchcock’s film. So then I was like well, I want to work with filmmakers. It’s a book about filmmaking, so I want to make a film about filmmaking and open up the conversation, bring it into the present, and have other film makers participate in it. That was the idea.
Capone: Were the tapes remastered any way to improve the sound, or was there anything done with the stuff you chose to actually put in the film?
KJ: When we were working on the movie, we were thinking about— and when I say we, I mean specifically me and Rachel Reichman, the editor and co-producer. We made a few films together, and we were thinking about how to deal with the Hellen Scott, the presence of Helen Scott [of the French Film Office in New York, who acted as the translator for the interviews]. At first we were like, “Well, that’s going to be real cumbersome.” And then the producers were worried about that, and thinking “How is that going to work?” And then at a certain point, I think we just thought, “Actually, she’s part of the process, so obviously she has a presence.” We weren’t just going to eliminate her. But we also were thinking about different ways of editing things, and we were like, “She’s there. She’s part of this conversation.” Apart from that, apart from the nuts and bolts stuff, it’s just editing and eliminating breaths, mouth swallows, that kind of stuff. There’s a little bit of shuffling here and there, but that’s just standard stuff.
Capone: Actually, Helen really was a part of this process, and they clearly embraced her as a part of this process, so I think it was right to do what you could to include her in this. Her voice was very important to them.
KJ: Yeah, well like I say, we were never going to eliminate her from the movie. We were thinking of minimizing her, but we dispensed with that quickly.
Capone: It seems like Truffaut is pointing out things to Hitchcock that either he had never considered or he had never said out loud. Did you get a sense of that one way or another, that this was a discovery for Hitchcock as well to a certain degree?
KJ: Yes and no. This gets back to the question of directors talking about their own work. I was thinking about this last night when I was doing the Q&A with the audience. If somebody were to say, “Can you talk about the end of VERTIGO?” What would I say? What is there to say about that? I don’t even know what to say about it. It’s something that is so overwhelming and staggers me every time I see it. I would never have dreamed of putting it in the movie. When Truffaut starts talking about dreams, yeah, I’m sure Hitchcock didn’t spend a lot of time sitting around and accessing his dream life as an exercise, the way that say Luis Buñuel might have—to name a director who he admired a lot. On the other hand, yes, I think that’s something that definitely is present for him. I don’t know if it’s a revelation, but it’s like “Well, if other people see this, it means I’m accessing my inner world, and they’re feeling it.” I guess that a lot of what he had read didn’t reflect that, at least in American criticism.
And then I suppose that when Truffaut is saying what he’s saying at the end, which is kind of two statements bolted together, but they’re complementary. Truffaut is saying when you’re in your work, people nine times out of 10, someone has a secret and the atmosphere becomes more and more oppressive, and people liberate themselves. I think you film moral dilemmas within the guides of a suspense story. I think that relates to Hitchcock’s worry about whether he was actually creating work that would last and that had enough meat on the bone, artistically speaking. I think that, to a degree, Truffaut helped him to feel “Maybe I did do really great work and I will do something lasting.” I think it is interesting that that was a worry for him.
Capone: You break from the history lesson about this interview to allow these guest filmmakers to dig deep into VERTIGO and PSYCHO. Did you set out to do that, or did the individual interviews take you there?
KJ: By bringing these guys into things, I was interested in extending things historically into the present. And so by bringing things historically into the present, that means touching on the history of VERTIGO and how it was seen and not seen for such a long time, or touching on the history of how PSYCHO has affected people over the years and what it opened up in movies. The thing is, we’re making a movie, so we have to compress in order to keep the energy working, flowing. So there’s a lot of stuff that’s not in the movie, but that’s alluded to through things. VERTIGO and PSYCHO contain a lot—the phenomenon of the movie, how they are received, what they are in relation to his whole career, where they sit in his body of work, and where they are in relation to each other. That’s a very interesting thing too. So I guess by the same token, the I CONFESS thing in there because it’s interesting and funny, but also because it’s something that’s very real that he had to cope with. It’s a shift in movies. I think Marty’s quite right about that. People don’t make movies the way Hitchcock did anymore. Same with THE WRONG MAN.
Capone: Was part of the reason you wanted to make this film to be instructional in the way the book was too? By having all of these directors talk about Hitchcock, it serves as a master class in filmmaking.
KJ: With these guys, I took it for granted. These are all people I know, some a little bit less well than others. I don’t know Kiyoshi or Peter as well as I know the other people in the movie, and there were some other people who I asked to be in the movie who were either unable or declined for different reasons. But this was the core group that I was interested in, and I took it for granted that there would be a master class aspect to things, particularly with Fincher, Marty and Arnaud. James and I talk a lot about movies, but the detail that he went into was really beautiful, especially when he’s talking about VERTIGO: “If it were me, I probably would have shot her from the front, and so would everybody else I know, but we don’t have that kind of trust in the image that Hitchcock had.” That’s an important point. So in that sense, yeah.
What’s instructive about it is—it’s not necessarily secondary but it’s instructive because it’s people speaking out because they’re madly in love with what they do. They’re speaking out of a desire to share it. The solidarity between Truffaut and Hitchcock, these guys from different generations with very different sensibilities, it’s something that I also wanted to extent, even though these guys are solitary, relatively. I think that when you’re talking about filmmaking, and protecting what’s most important about cinema, then there is this kind of solidarity across generations.
Capone: I didn’t realize before watching this film what you’re day job was. As someone who dabbles slightly in film programing here in Chicago, I have to know, how did you find the time to make this film?
KJ: Well, first of all, my access doesn’t come from the New York Film Festival. I’ve known these guys for a long time. Marty and I have known each other for 23 years and done a lot of work together. Fincher and I have known each other for a while. As far as like, it’s just a question of like…it’s not like a job. I mean, it is a job, of course. I have to earn a living and get health insurance and stuff. I feel like I do what I’m drawn to. That’s where I go. It goes in different directions. I write criticism too. I don’t feel overtasked or anything like that because it all flows out of the same well of energy, I guess.
Capone: Kent, thank you so much for talking and best of luck with this.