Interview: Director Sam Jones on his Jason Isbell documentary | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Thursday, December 7th, 2023  

Sam Jones reflects on his new Jason Isbell documentary

A Different Kind of Connection

Apr 10, 2023 Web Exclusive
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Twenty years have passed since Sam Jones launched the documentarian side of an already accomplished career when he directed the acclaimed Wilco documentary, I Am Trying to Break Your Heart. From there, the celebrated photographer has become a moving filmmaker with a real gift for intimate storytelling—as seen in recent films on Tony Hawk (2022’s Until the Wheels Come Off) or Jason Isbell (Running With Our Eyes Closed, out now on HBO).

For Jones, the art of the documentary isn’t just about the subject itself but about the personal connection that can be made with that subject. Something fascinating can still feel distant, but Jones’ passion for drawing in the viewer (and for getting close himself) is what drives him to pursue his subjects. It’s why his films hold the power they do and why we’ll always pay attention to what he’s working on next.

We recently sat down with Jones to hear more about his creative process and what it was like to cover Isbell’s life and music for HBO’s Music Box series.

Under the Radar (Matt Conner): I want to start with the selection of a subject for you. Is it as simple as appreciating an artist like Jason Isbell and then going from there?

Sam Jones: There have to be two things for me to climb into a project like this because they are such involved projects that can take over your life and take several years. You’re alone a lot of the time pushing it to the finish line, and ultimately if you don’t push it, it will go away.

There’s certainly an appreciation I have to have, but I also have to feel that there’s something within this person’s story that I am also relating to or a problem I’m trying to work out in my own mind or a theme I want to explore that relates to me. That’s what makes it an artistic endeavor for me is relating to or trying to discover that thing that I’m also trying to figure out.

With Wilco, it was more about the creative process and how creativity runs up against commerce, which was a good education for me when I did that film, since I was much younger. For this film, it was about how being so personal with your art can lead to a different kind of connection with people who listen to your music. It made me curious about what Jason went through with his parents’ divorce and his own marriage and all those things that were topical and areas I wanted to explore because my own life was in a similar place.

There has to be both of those things that make you want to dive in.

So is the assumption that if there’s connective tissue to the artist then that will be what resonates with a general audience?

I think that’s the case in most anything you make. I do agree with that.

By the way, what I’m talking about is more of a gut feeling than it is a calculation. It’s not like you sit down and do a spreadsheet on the pros and cons of making a film. It’s more about getting a feeling that you really want to tell this story or get some answers or scratch this itch. So it is more visceral and gut feeling. You feel like you want to get ahold of a story and tell it before someone else because you can do it better than anyone else. You know you’re in the right place where you think if anyone else gets ahold of it, they might screw it up. You feel like you have to tell it. That’s how I felt with Jason.

And yet, I do think if your heart is in the right place when you make anything, that does transfer to the audience whether they’re listening or viewing or whatever it is. I do believe that. I also believe it goes the other way, that you can really sniff a rat when something is made for an impure reason artistically.

There are some obvious chapters to Jason’s music—the exit from the Truckers, how he got started, his battle with addiction, his relationship with Amanda [Shires]. How much do you pre-plan those chapters and how much do you discover in the midst of the process?

I definitely knew his general story. I’d had him on my show, which I used to have this show called Off Camera on Netflix and DirecTV, and that’s where I got a window into his upbringing and his history with the Truckers and his addiction. So I knew those basic chapter headings, but I didn’t know how that material would relate to the material he was currently working on.

One of the first things I did was look at his notebook full of lyrics and realized how autobiographical a lot of the songs were on the album, Reunions. It was interesting because it gave me more context within the things I was filming to connect those to the chapters in his life. Ultimately, in the edit room, that provided the structure of the film. There were certainly moments in the current songs that touched on those chapters that I was able to transition out of his past and back into the present. It ended up being a good way to demonstrate how an artist uses their own autobiographical information in a way that connects with the listener.

So yeah, I think those connections kept getting stronger the longer I spent time with him, so I knew we were on the right path.

Because you just said it that way, about the “right path,” were there moments filming this where you thought you were on the wrong path?

Well, I’ve learned some things over the years. The Wilco experience was very young in my career and I think I learned the hard way that you can’t be so rigid when you’re making a documentary because you just don’t know where the story would lead you.

So when you’re out shooting, your job is to follow and cover as much of what’s happening in front of you and then trust it later in the edit room that you’ll find your story. However, you also sort of have to have an eye on that, too, because you can’t follow everything. But yeah, you have to be willing to course correct or let your expectations or perceptions be changed as things unfold. If you hold on too rigidly and decide that you’re not going to ask that or film that because it’s not what your movie is about, then you’re missing an opportunity.

Unlike a narrative feature with is 100 people working together on a story, a documentary can be a single person or a few people trying to find a story and tell it. There’s a joy in the discovery or in being surprised that doesn’t happen if you have a plan that’s very rigid or a script you’re working from. To me, that’s the art itself is that we’re still building the plane when it’s already in the air and you hopefully will figure it out before it lands. [Laughs]


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