INTERVIEW: Not Looking Back; Sam Jones And His Wilco Doc "I Am Trying To Break Your Heart"
by Wendy Mitchell
(indieWIRE/ 07.23.02) — In this age of “Behind the Music” and “Making the Band,” real rock documentaries are few and far between. That didn’t stop first-time director Sam Jones from making “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” a feature-length doc about the Chicago-based pop band Wilco recording their fourth album, “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.” Jones may have set out to capture the artistic process of a Great American Band making a Great American Album, but he ended up with big drama (and 86 hours of footage) as key band members parted ways with the group and Wilco‘s record label, Reprise, refused to release the album. (As Wilco fans know, the story has a happy ending — Nonesuch Records released the album in April to critical acclaim. “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” debuted on the Billboard charts at number 13.)
In addition to plenty of studio and live recordings, the doc includes interviews with Wilco’s manager, Tony Margherita, who guides the label-less group; Howie Klein, the former head of Reprise who was sad to see the band dropped after his retirement, and Rolling Stone senior editor David Fricke, who Jones says becomes the film’s “moral conscience” because he insists that great music doesn’t always fit into the corporate financial system.
Jones, a commercial director and magazine photographer, has long been a music lover (and also a musician whose former band even toured with Weezer). He financed the film with his own savings before getting more funding from his commercial producer Peter Abraham and Plexifilm, for a total budget of $400,000-$500,000. Jones spoke to indieWIRE about record label politics, the joys of black and white, and classic rock documentaries. Cowboy Pictures releases “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” on Friday.
indieWIRE: I wanted to start by talking about your background and how you decided to make a full-length documentary. And why you chose Wilco as a subject.
Sam Jones: Well, I’m a photographer and that led to commercials, which gave me enough confidence that a moving camera wasn’t that different from a still camera.
I’ve been a musician all my life, in various forms, whether it’s been in bands, or home recording or making records. I’ve been around a lot of studios, I’m a music geek. So I think that the impetus for making the movie was not to become a documentary filmmaker, but it was because I really felt Wilco was a band that deserved a film. There are not a lot of bands like them, kind of making music they way that they do. They remind me of The Band, in the way they record. One of my life-long dreams, if there was a time machine, I would go back to those sessions for “Exile on Main Street” or the sessions for “The Basement Tapes.”
iW: Was Wilco your favorite band? Are you an Uncle Tupelo fan?
Jones: No, I wasn’t a huge Uncle Tupelo fan. I appreciated them, and I liked some of their stuff. I got into Wilco’s “AM” record, but then I was blown away by “Being There.” Wilco is one of the bands that I always kept coming back to; their records didn’t wear out. And I always heard something new in them, and they struck as me as whole pieces. It’s almost like you can’t play one song for somebody by Wilco and try to say, “This is what they’re like.” That’s really a true artist: someone who can visit all their influences, and want to take you on a path. And then “Summerteeth” really did it for me because it sounded like its own soundtrack. I even had this thought, “Gosh, someone should write a script to this.”
iW: Obviously part of you is happy you got all of this drama with Jay [Bennett] getting kicked out of the band and the label dropping them. But is any part of you sad that the record label politics thread of the film may overshadow the purer story of the band and its art?
Jones: Not at all. I specifically set out not to do all the history of Wilco, to make it a greatest hits of Wilco. I specifically set out be like the first day of filming was the first day of history. I did not want to go backwards. And that comes from my love of “Don’t Look Back.” It doesn’t attempt to make you love Dylan or to make you realize how important he is, or to educate you about his influence. It’s just like you’re with him for three weeks, make up your own mind.
When I started this project I didn’t know I would have to do things in kind of an investigative reporting kind of way. For a while I thought, “Gosh, this is overpowering.” But then I realized I set out to document the creative process, and this is almost the biggest part of the process. How do you get your work out there without it being bastardized by whoever put up the money? That, to me, is one of the biggest parts of the creative process.
iW: Why did you do a lot of the camerawork yourself?
Money. But more than that — I realized that I got way better stuff when it was just me. I know how to hang out in recording studios. When to talk, when not to talk. How to respond to something. So the band was really comfortable with me right off because I had all of that from being in recording studios. And so they didn’t see me as a fan.
The big argument that happens in the recording studio wouldn’t have happened [on film] if there had been lots of people in the room. The only people in the room were me and Roger the soundman, and he had been around since the beginning too. So they knew Roger and I really well. And I don’t think they would have had that conversation if there was someone else there.
iW: And that’s how you were allowed to film Jeff [Tweedy, Wilco’s frontman] puking?
Jones: That was just me and Roger running after him. That was all chronological. It’s almost like you get to the point with someone where they’re around you all the time. You don’t ever stop the process. So when he ran to throw up, he was not going to stop and say, “No.”
iW: I wanted to see that conversation between Jeff and Jay when Jay was asked to leave the band. But I’m sure you didn’t get a phone call saying, “Hey I’m about to kick Jay out of the band, do you want to come over and film it?”
Jones: Which they would never do. I think it happened really spontaneously. The way it happened was one night in the parking lot at night.
iW: Are you disappointed that you didn’t get that?
Jones: No. I think it would take away from the credibility of the film if I had that on film. I’m not disappointed in that at all. I’m really happy that Jay decided to tell me the truth only three weeks after he got fired. He went around to several journalists to say, “I quit” or “It was mutual.” But how could he sit on camera and lie to me when I already knew the truth?
iW: I was really impressed with the performance footage that you shot in the their rehearsal space. Have you done any music video work?
Jones: No, I’ve never done a music video. But I think again it comes down to having been a photographer for a long time. I come from a different school than someone who is trained to be a camera man who maybe learns all the rules, like this is a two-shot, this is a close-up, this is a master, this is a turnaround. So maybe they are not thinking solely about composition. I was just trying to see what looks cool.
iW: Why did you decide to shoot in black and white?
Jones: Well I’ve always loved black-and-white photography. It’s always such just a clear, tonally spacious medium to work in. It takes you out of time. It makes you look at the subject. In hindsight, that’s kind off like what the record is like too. It has a lot of space on it.
Also, their loft was kind of a messy space, and in color it would look like someone’s home video. But I think it just came down, selfishly, to wanting to see a black-and-white film on the big screen. I love them. It was definitely a more expensive idea but it more than makes up for it, and it really worked out.
iW: You mentioned “Don’t Look Back,” but what other rock documentaries influenced you? What are some of your favorites?
Jones: “Don’t Look Back” and “Gimme Shelter.” And then two that really helped me get my head around the idea of mixing standard documentary form with cinema verite were these CBC documentaries on Leonard Cohen and Glenn Gould. They were great at combining the two forms. They had cameramen hanging out with Leonard Cohen, and then there would be these interviews, but they went chronologically. They would film him at a college speaking about his book, and you felt like you were on a book tour with him. And then he would go and visit his mother, then you were in his mother’s house. I thought, “Wow, You can use these great interview pieces if you put them in chronologically.” Because when you have talking heads in a documentary, and they are talking about the subject, they make it feel like someone went back in the end and did those things. And they feel educational. And I didn’t want to do that.
I deliberately tried to pace this film not like a VH1 special, or “Moulin Rouge.” I tried to pace it a little slow, and put a lot of whole music into it. Because its almost like that’s [what] the whole film is saying. It’s not something that’s going to be delivered to you really quickly.