December 1, 2002|An accomplished photographer whose work has been featured in ESQUIRE, GQ, VANITY FAIR, and ROLLING STONE, Sam Jones makes his directorial debut with the raw, fantastic music documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, which follows alt-country band Wilco as they complete their album "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot." Shot in Super16 and resembling such seminal rock-docs as Don't Look Back, Jones's debut is a superbly-crafted, expertly-paced piece that details the band as they're dropped by their record label, lose a key member, and struggle through the agonies and ecstasies of creation and commerce. The picture impresses most with the universality of its themes, hitting narrative highs and lows that have nothing to do with a familiarity with the band in question. All the same, fans should be well pleased with Jones's photographer's eye as he captures the musicians at work in their small loft and from behind the mixing board.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL was lucky enough to catch this rising star recently. After reminding Mr. Jones that Kubrick had his start as a rather accomplished still photographer, I asked him about his own days playing in a band and opening for Weezer.
SAM JONES: (laughs) Well, back before Weezer was Weezer, I guess--I mean, they were Weezer, but this was back before they had their first record deal. We used to play a lot of shows together.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: What kind of music did you play and did that experience inform some of your approaches in your film?
It was sort of Replacements-ish type of garage rock. I'd been in bands for a long time and I still play and record music so I think that the thing that helped the most was that when I was around the band in the recording studio, having had some experience in that environment, I wasn't too intrusive and I knew where to point the camera. I think someone who'd never been in a recording studio would probably stick out like a sore thumb but I was able to blend in pretty quickly. Sonically, too, I was able to make the movie sound better on a day-to-day basis because I was able to make some decisions again based on that musical background, and that was important to me that the movie sound good.
|I AM TRYING TO BREAK YOUR HEART
directed by Sam Jones
Recalling in look and theme DA Pennebaker's Don't Look Back, Richard Lester's A Hard Days Night, Scorsese's The Last Waltz,and even Jim Jarmusch's Year of the Horse, commercial photographer Sam Jones's tremendous feature-length documentary debut I Am Trying to Break Your Heart is a beautifully-lensed, brilliantly focused piece detailing the making of alternative band Wilco's "Yankee Foxtrot Hotel" album. It is that rare documentary that recognizes the necessity for traditional narrative structure, character development, and point-of-view even though the subject is real and the players merely players in their own dramas. To that end, as the band's record deal falls through (dropped by Reprise before being picked up by Nonesuch six months later--both labels owned, oddly enough, by Time/Warner) and a key bandmate jumps ship after a particularly contentious (and peculiar) argument, Jones crafts a clear tale of the different kinds of torture endured by artists for their creations. Most impressively, one leaves the piece with a better appreciation for the creation itself as a product of depths and blood, echoes and, in the film's most remarkable and human moment, vomit, and a documentarian stepping from behind the camera in a human pose.
I Am Trying to Break Your Heart's quiet Chicago, captured in stark Super16, reminds favourably of Claude Atget's Paris streets and, by extension, of Raoul Cotard's work with Godard. Shades of melancholy and bleak overlay a heart of native ambition; ultimately more about the alchemical nature of movies than about the band or their music, the picture is among the very best of the year.-WC
Tell me about how a movie like Don't Look Back might have leaked into your film.
The big thing I got from Don't Look Back was not feeling as though I had to put a sense of history into the movie as far as feeling like I needed to tell everybody the importance of Wilco or the importance of Uncle Tupelo--where they came from, and so on. I just wanted to let the music do the talking and let the film be very much about the present, very much about that one year. All that information is out there for people to find, but I think Don't Look Back freed me from the responsibility to tell the "Wilco Story." I don't think that's necessary in the film--a history just wouldn't have moved at the right pace and, really, I didn't think it'd be very entertaining unless you were just this diehard fan already. Don't Look Back was really casual about Bob Dylan, y'know, it didn't preach to you about his importance.
Talk a little about the narrative structure of I Am Trying to Break Your Heart.
We tried really hard to make a film that followed cinematic rules: that there be character development, that there's rising suspense, and, finally, that there be plenty of music so we knew what we were talking about here, but that people would leave feeling as though they'd seen a movie that could belong in any genre: feature or documentary.
The most talked-about scene in your film is that pivotal fight and lead singer Jeff Tweedy's subsequent vomiting scene in the bathroom--how'd you acquire that kind of trust and intimacy with the band?
Just being around a lot and then the more I shot, the less money we had, so there was a smaller crew each time. By that stage there were just two of us in the room, the soundman and I. I think that was the fourth or fifth day into that week--when they showed up at the studio I was there, when they left I was there and, again, it was really like I was part of the crew and I don't think they even thought about having a camera there. It's not like a video camera where you film a little bit and then everybody gathers around the little screen and sees what you just shot--it's a very odd thing, the camera's running all the time but no one gets to see that footage so I think they stopped thinking about it in terms of, "Oh, how did that look?"
You were able to view dailies but didn't let the band see them?
Right, right--I didn't let the guys look at it until it was finished.
That intimacy goes both ways--did you ever feel too close to the subject to maintain your objectivity?
No, because I had a bunch of times to step back. I'd be there for a week, away for a couple of weeks, so all along the line I was able to make adjustments to how I wanted to approach them and the subject matter and I was able to digest what I'd seen in the dailies and things like that.
The cameras were lighter and you could get eleven minutes on a four-hundred-foot roll instead of four minutes on 35mm, so I had more of a chance with whole songs getting performed not having the film run out. Basically, too, I wanted to handle the whole thing and handling that 35mm roll's just impossible. Still, it was really important to me to shoot in film: that it be a real film in that sense as well.
How many cameras did you have running?
Sometimes one, sometimes two--but never more than two.
Why this song title as your film title?
The title just kind of came up and I think on the one hand it sort of encapsulates Wilco's music, but on the other hand it's one of those weird statements a lot of artists can relate to on some level. It's like anytime you make something or do something creatively that's unexpected, a lot of people around you will tell you "that's a stupid thing to do." If you do anything that isn't "normal" you'll get a lot of negativity--it just seemed to fit the film really well--almost serendipitously given all the problems that cropped up after the album was actually in the can.
The only time we hear your voice on screen is during that scene we've talked about--why then?
You can't deny the fact that when you bring a camera into a situation you change it and that you're a part of it. To pretend you're not there is sort of disturbing and ultimately unrealistic but I decided from the start to do the interviews and cut my voice out of it and not use any of the questions that I was asking--but in that instance it seemed natural and, really, a human moment to say something.
How much footage did you shoot and was it tough on you in the editing room?
About ninety hours. The DVD should be cool, there's at least another movie's worth of performance that we had to leave out. Yeah--it was really tough to pare it down, especially since it was my first time and also there was just so much stuff. But it was important to me to sort of write a script in reverse, y'know, to find the story in there. I watched all the footage six or seven times, made a lot of notes on note cards--all the quotes, pretty much everything. So I did all that prep work but it was still really hard. It's one thing to say, "Okay, I'm gonna show the process in the first act, and the evil record company in the second act," and another thing to find the thread. You really have to just rough it for a few weeks until you start to see how the film ends--things that don't seem that interesting during dailies suddenly become really important in the editing process.
Tell me about the look of the film--the composition.
I think if you go to film school to be a cinematographer you learn a lot about the right way to do things: "This is a two-shot," and "this is a master and this is a turnaround"--but I don't think like that, I've got no experience in that y'know, so I was always thinking, "What's the coolest picture in the viewfinder?" I really paid more attention to composition than storytelling and really, the most important thing I learned from this experience is probably that I wouldn't want to change that philosophy too much. I think there's always a danger of getting in your own way when you stop seeing visually. When you film you've got to think about composition--"Am I getting the feeling of the subject."
Expand on that in terms of the melancholy and loneliness with which you capture Chicago.
I really wanted to make Chicago seem empty because I felt like Wilco's music on "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" had a lot of noises on there like subway break-sounding things, a lot of space, a lot of empty atmosphere, and I tried to make the city I was shooting look like that. The first time I heard some of those demo tapes for the album, Jeff drove me around with Chicago late, late at night with nobody on the street. The whole time you're working on something as an artist, it's yours until you give it to somebody else to sell it and then your fans take it, or the critics take it, and it becomes something that's not yours anymore. Those experiences are so different and I also wanted the look of the film to reflect how those two things rub against each other--to show how something so very personal becomes something so broad and impersonal.
Is a feature film next for you?
I hope so, I'm looking for a script. This picture was sort of like film school for me--I made a ton of mistakes, wasted a lot of money--but what I discovered was that I really liked telling a story in the editing room. This whole process seemed so magical and foreign to me and after being involved in the editing and learning how to tell a story, it's just really made me want to do something fictional where you can build a story from scratch. It's hard to find a script that's original, I'm finding, but I want to wait for something that really fits my sensibility.