In this latest entry to my series of Director interviews, I question the wonderful Bristolian Kirk Jones- most people may know the work, but not the man behind them. Jones started off with Indie darling Waking Ned, then moved on to direct beloved family classic Nanny McPhee, and then remade the Italian drama Stanno Tutti Bene as Everybody’s Fine with the electric ensemble of Robert De Niro, Sam Rockwell, Drew Barrymore and Kate Beckinsale. Jones’ latest film was the box office smash What To Expect When You’re Expecting, once again helming a well-casted ship with the likes of Cameron Diaz, Chris Rock, Elizabeth Banks, Anna Kendrick and Dennis Quaid. Jones was courteous enough to give up his time and comment on his directing methods, his career so far, and his upcoming slate.
What inspired you to direct? Was it a desire you had from a young age?
I wasn’t one of those directors who started making movies when they were eight years old. The interest in film and directing developed much later for me. At 16 I was due to leave school but had no idea what I wanted to do. I had an interest in Film and Television and Theatre so decided to study A-Levels in Theatre and Film at Filton Technical college.
After working one summer on Weston Super Mare Pier, I saved enough money to purchase my first Super 8mm film camera and started making my own films. Initially inspired by the emerging force of Aardman animation, these were claymation films, but I then moved on to live action.
My interest was enough to inspire me to apply to Newport Film School and I was fortunate enough to be offered a place. At Newport I experimented with all aspects of film making including Writing and Directing, and this was the role in which I felt most comfortable in. I was runner-up in a national film school competition after writing and directing a TV commercial and decided that this is what I would like to strive to do as a career. I had no ambition beyond wanting to become a Commercials director.
How did you manage to get Waking Ned made? Was it an offshoot of the success of your advertising work? Did you find it was a difficult sell to investors?
After many years working as a Runner and Assistant Editor in the cutting room (but still continuing to make my own films in my spare time), I won another advertising-based competition and started to direct adverts full time. After about 5 years I started to look for an idea to make a short film. I then wrote what I thought might become a short film, i.e. 10 minutes long. It was about a mystery lottery winner in a small community who is discovered to have died from the shock of the win.
A number of people read the short film and questioned whether the idea wasn’t strong enough to turn into a full-length feature film. I kept writing, more as a hobby than any great need to make the film, and after a 5-year period I had a full length script. Investors responded to the humour and engaging story and came on board but the level of finance was of course very low. I was grateful to the cast and crew who agreed to work for reduced fees in order to get the film made. When the film was finished, we put it in the boot of a car and drove to Cannes where we screened it and sold it to Fox Searchlight in the US, where it was released later that year.
Do you think anything you learnt during your advertising days has remained now that you’re directing features?
TV commercials are made up of precious seconds of time so it is important to make every second count. It is important to structure, write and direct a TV commercial with absolute clarity because you have to tell a story in 40, 30, or sometimes even 10 seconds. You have to be focused on humour or emotion or simply strong storytelling, and I have no doubt that starting my career by working in such a short and focused format has helped me remain focused in my work in writing and directing feature films. I look at every scene in a film and make sure I am clear of its purpose within the film as a whole.
With the obvious exceptions of more money and bigger trailers, what have you found to be the major differences between directing an Independent film and working within the studio system?
There is a much greater sense of freedom working on independent films. The fact that the budgets are generally much less and that there are far fewer people involved beyond the crew and creative team means that you don’t have to justify everything that you do but can instead just trust your own instincts. With Waking Ned I literally had no one to answer to, I didn’t have to justify any decision once the casting was approved by the financiers. They were happy to trust me and to have no involvement until I was ready to present them with the finished film. Life can’t be that simple with a studio film and I understand that and embrace it. If I was trusting someone with $40m and then expected to invest another $60m in distribution and advertising I would want to know about each decision that was being made and would want to be involved in the process.
What attracts you to material? For example, where you interesting in tackling something about families when you signed up for Everybody’s Fine or What to Expect…?
I read lots of scripts and consider lots of projects and it’s a little like looking for a new house. You can look at hundreds of properties but suddenly see a house and before you have entered the front door you know its right for you. I can’t help deny that I am drawn to projects which have humour and engage audiences emotionally. I’ve always found this to be a powerful mix and enjoy making audiences laugh and then perhaps cry.
It’s natural to be drawn to scripts that you can relate to, so as a father of three I could see the attraction in a film about trying to have a baby in What To Expect just as I could see the attraction in a film about a father’s relationship with his five children in Everybody’s Fine. Family is an interesting subject because everyone can relate to it whether you get on well with your family or hate them or miss them, etc. It’s a connection that every member of the audience should be able to relate to.
What are your thoughts on the evolution of cinema- i.e. the death of celluloid, the overuse of CGI, the rise of 3D, the studios’ reliance on tentpole franchises, etc?
I learnt my trade in the cutting room handling 35mm film and I had no idea at the time that there were going to be such huge changes ahead for the film industry. I have been part of a movement that has moved away from film, and as a director I can’t help but acknowledge the advantages of digital formats. When I worked with Robert De Niro he loved to have the freedom of leaving the camera running and do multiple takes. On the same project we were able to shoot in low light without generators and lights, and all of the time and money that goes with night shoots, due to the sensitivity of the digital cameras. The smaller, often lighter cameras also require less crew and much less set-up time, so these are also welcome developments, but I don’t believe that there isn’t a role for film in the future of film making.
I am a firm believer that we should have a choice and what concerns me is the fact that laboratories and manufacturers of film stock and processing units are shutting down as though we have turned our backs on film forever. When I listen to music sometimes it is synthesised and produced by a computer or sometimes it is a recording of a live instrument played by a musician. The choice of film or digital formats should be the same.
I don’t enjoy films that rely solely on CGI. A movie has to have a believable, engaging and entertaining story- this always has to be the priority. The use of CGI should enhance the story and make the film more enjoyable/believable, never be the reason for the film being made in the first place. Increasingly, I think 3D is here to stay, especially in animation. Studios feel that they at least need to offer a 3D version of a movie and they register demand as being very strong. I think 3D is here to stay and that film makers will continue to look to technological developments with 3D or IMAX to offer audiences something that they can’t duplicate with their home cinema systems.
Tent pole films are those that hopefully make a lot of money over and over again- Spiderman, Toy Story, Harry Potter… and which a lot of people want to go and see, so they deserve to exist and to thrive for the good of movie-going and for the theatres. The upside for filmmakers who like to make smaller projects is that studios can invest in smaller films if the tent pole movies are successful because they are less concerned about making money on the smaller projects. We should also remember that most of the largest studios large studios have smaller related companies (Fox has Fox Searchlight, Sony has Screen Gems, etc.) who specialise in small, quality films and these can only exist if the major studios are financially healthy, thanks primarily to their tent pole projects.
Do you get much of a chance to go to the cinema considering how busy you are? Did any films stand out for you last year?
I watch a lot of kids’ and teenage movies in the theatre because I have children myself. I am also a member of a fantastic local art-deco cinema that was recently restored and offers a fantastic range of foreign and art house movies. I am spoilt at the end of each year because as a member of BAFTA, I get sent screeners of the best films from that year so that I can make a fair assessment of which films and departments I want to vote for. My favourite from last year was the French film ’Untouchable’ which made me laugh, and moved me. I thought it was a wonderful film and one I would have liked to have made myself.
How difficult do you find it to keep your filmmaking career, which I imagine is more all-encompassing than a lot of jobs, and your domestic life separate?
My job always sounds glamorous, but for every red carpet event or party I attend there are months of work, which often involve being away from my home and my family for months on end. There is also a certain amount of stress being ultimately responsible for a movie that costs upwards of $40m, but I am always surrounded by a great team of talented people who help share the workload. I like to mix up my time away directing with time at home writing, and in that respect I am lucky that people want me to write and to direct. I remind myself and my family when I go away to work that I am not going to patrol a War Zone in a dangerous part of the world where people are trying to attack me on a daily basis. That’s real work.
What advice, if any, could you give to all budding young filmmakers out there?
If you say you want to make films then go and make films. It’s as simple as that. There is no excuse, not to these days with everyone having access to a digital camera; I’ve even shot on a mobile phone in the past. Editing and sound software is available on your home computer, and YouTube is free and waiting to distribute your films when they are finished. Life was so much more complicated and much more expensive when I was starting to direct. Just go and make your film and stop making excuses as to why you can’t do it.
So, Mr. Jones, the customary question is, what’s next? I believe you’re signed up to adapt Ben Hatch’s Are We Nearly There Yet?…
I really liked Ben’s novel and am helping to try and get a film off the ground- I’m not sure what my involvement will be as yet, but the book moved me and made me laugh a lot, and it deserves to be taken to the next stage, which I hope will happen in the form of a script this year. I am focused on two projects at the moment- I am writing an animated feature film for DreamWorks animation which I am not sure whether I will direct, and also I am starting to work on a musical production of Waking Ned. In addition I am reading live action projects from the UK and US and still writing my own live action scripts.
Waking Ned and Everybody’s Fine are available on DVD. Nanny McPhee and What to Expect When You’re Expecting are available on DVD and Blu Ray
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