British screenwriter-director Kirk Jones, 45, looks startlingly like Russell Crowe, but with a demeanor far gentler than the legendarily ferocious actor’s. Jones is thoughtful, reflective, and bursting with a self-aware sense of humor. Those are the qualities that make his films so utterly delightful.
Jones’ first feature, 1998’s Waking Ned (aka, Waking Ned Devine), was a charming sleeper about how a lottery windfall strikes a small Irish town. It cost only $3 million to produce but earned $55 million worldwide, making it the year’s second highest earning film. But, the choosy Jones didn’t take over the big screen again until 2005, when he brought us Nanny McPhee, a wonderfully Grimm fairy tale about naughty children and the naughtier parents who allow them to run feral. It made a tidy mint, too: $122 million worldwide over a reported budget of $25 million.
Now Jones is back with the hugely moving dramedy Everybody’s Fine, a nominal remake of the 1990 Italian film Stanno Tutti Bene, starring Robert DeNiro as a widower traveling across America to visit his four adult children in farflung locales, and discovering new things about himself and his offspring in the process. Jones speaks with AWFJ’s MaryAnn Johanson about making movies in the U.S., working with an icon like DeNiro, and instincts.
JOHANSON: You’ve said you’d spent a fair amount of time looking for a project to do in the U.S. What made you want to work in America?
JONES: I’m very realistic about the fact that most movies are here, and that if I wanted to extend my career beyond making films just in the U.K., I needed to be here. To be honest, the U.K. film industry is not in a good state at the moment, and I’ve grown up with films from America, so I always kinda knew that it was something I needed to do.
Thanks to Waking Ned Devine, I’ve always had scripts coming in from studios. My second film was quite a success as well, actually. So I think studios think that I’m able to put a project together which people will want to go and see. But I didn’t want to attach myself to a subject that I wasn’t really connected to. I could have gone off and done a high school comedy, and it probably would have been a script that had passed through maybe 10 writers before it got to me, and I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to do what I did with Waking Ned Devine, which is find an idea, write it myself, direct it myself, and fully have charge of it. And then if people liked it, great, and if they didn’t like it, at least I could sit back and think, Well, at least it was a bit of me. It was my film, and I’ve got no excuses. I often hear directors say, “I was really unhappy because I didn’t want that cast, or the studio wanted this, or there wasn’t enough money, or there wasn’t enough time to shoot.” I didn’t want to find myself in a situation where I had all these excuses as to why I wasn’t proud of it. I desperately wanted to find a project that I managed to keep control of.
JOHANSON: Do you consider that you’ve been lucky in that aspect? Because so many actors and filmmakers come from England intending to do the Hollywood thing, and then they find out that they lose control. But you’ve actually managed to maintain control — you didn’t get sucked into the whole studio thing. Was that hard to do?
JONES: No. It’s never a difficult dilemma for me, because I think I’m always quite honest about the things that I don’t think I would be very good at. I think sometimes directors think, Right, I’ve established myself with this kind of movie, but now I’m gonna go off and show everyone that I can do this kind of movie. I just wanna keep making the films that I think I would be good at making, rather than trying to dominate and work across all genres and all movies. I know there are some movies that I wouldn’t be very good at making. As a writer-director, right from the start, I’ve got more control, because if the studio give me any notes, I can say, “Well, instinctively, I feel this.” At the end of the day, all it is about is our instinct. That’s why I’m being employed. As a writer and director, if you say, “Instinctively, I think this is the right way to do it,” it’s very difficult for people to argue against that, because it’s the reason why they brought you in in the first place.
JOHANSON: Hollywood tends to be focus-group driven, test-screening driven…
JONES: Yeah, and I think that’s dangerous. I’ve worked in advertising now and again, and I’m not embarrassed by that, because it allows me to make the films that I really wanna make, rather than feeling that I have to go from one film to the next. So I can wait till I find my projects. But advertising is the same. Advertising in the 60s, 70s, 80s was amazing: it was creative and it was effective, and people still talk about it now. But in modern advertising, they research everything to pieces. If you’ve got a focus group — with films or with commercials — and one person says something, that comment gets taken onboard, and you think, But hang on… There were 300 people saw the movie, we selected 50 for focus group, one person that we know of didn’t understand something in the film, and everyone says, “You’ve gotta change it, you’ve gotta change it!” Which is crazy.
I think at the end of the day, you just need to let common sense prevail with films. And you have to accept some creative freedom and an escape from the world that we live in, which is about figures and crunching numbers and getting everything to add up, which can be unhealthy. I think the balance has swung the wrong way, to be honest. But people take comfort from all the figures and the facts, and they can always look back and say, “Well, it wasn’t my fault, we scored 72 percent in that screening.”
I think people are out of touch with their instincts. I can tell when I meet people, sometimes, in some studios, that they’re working from a point of fear. They’re worrying about whether they’re gonna have their job next week, they’re worrying about their car-park space, they’re worrying about how other people are seeing them. They’re worrying about making decisions about making films that they might later get in trouble for. And you can’t work from a place of fear. You have to accept that you’re in a creative medium, you have to take risks, you have to be open, and you have to be in touch with your instincts. And I’m not convinced that a lot of people are.
JOHANSON: It seems that English filmmakers are better able to balance humor and sentimentality, make it all work together and not create jarring shifts in tone. A lot of Hollywood films end up making you feel like you’re on a roller coaster, getting jerked around. Do you see a difference between English and American comedies in the tone and in how successful they are in pulling off tone shifts?
JONES: I think so. I’m very aware of the pitfalls and the dangers and I’m very aware of how many movies don’t quite get it right. All I can do is go back to my instincts and try to keep things real and natural and believable. And it’s tough in a film like Everybody’s Fine. I love movies that switch between humor and emotion constantly because that’s what real life is about. But it can be quite a sophisticated challenge, and I don’t claim to be any better at it than anyone else, or any worse. But I’m perhaps more aware of it than most.
I was very sensitive on the shoot, Bob [DeNiro] was very sensitive to the fact. I remember him saying that we have to be careful, it’s like dynamite, and it is. A tear in someone’s eyes could absolutely be taken the wrong way and could cause the audience to just laugh instead of have sympathy for a character. I remember when I made Waking Ned Devine, there’s a scene there where [actor David Kelly] is kind of attending his own funeral, and he listens to a tribute from his great friend, who’s played by Ian Bannen. So we shot the scene and afterward David Kelly said, “Do you want a tear?” And I said, “That’s amazing. You can actually give me a tear?” And he said, “Oh yeah, not to worry, I can give you one.” So I said, “Okay, let’s do it again.”
So I’m pushing in [with the camera] and the tear just came up and rolled down his cheek, and I walked away from that setup thinking, That’s the shot of the movie. That is unbelievable — it’s gonna be so powerful. But when I put it into the context of the whole film, the tear was too much. I put it together, and I thought, It’s just too sweet and it feels like we’re asking for a reaction from the audience. So I used the first take, which had very little reaction at all; we just see that man’s face and his eyes and sense what he is feeling, which was plenty enough.
I think often what people forget is that you’re telling a story over an hour and a half or an hour and three-quarters, and though a scene might feel like it needs to be funnier or it needs to be sadder, on the day you’re shooting or in the script itself, there has to be a balance to the whole movie. It’s like a recipe: you put too much salt, and people spit it out.
JOHANSON: You mentioned Robert DeNiro. Was there something intimidating about working with this iconic actor? He’s such an overwhelming screen presence and cultural presence — how did you approach working with him on such an intimate basis, and as his boss?
JONES: He is an exceptional man. And I’d like to think I know him well enough now to know he’s an exceptional man who I admire offscreen and outside of all the roles that he’s played — I know him as a human being now. And he’s just a wonderful, wonderful man.
But I was very, very nervous about meeting him. You can pick out moments in your life or in your career, and you know they’ve got the potential to change everything. I was in a cab going to see him for my very first meeting where I had to pitch him the idea for the film, and I knew it was one of those moments. This was my time. All the hard work I’d done over the years had come down to this one meeting. So I was very nervous, not just because of who he was and the body of work that went before him, which is as impressive as anyone I can think on the planet at the moment. But also because I knew it was a really important meeting and I had to just get it right and I had to convince him that he should be involved in this film. I don’t think he would have known how nervous I was because over the years I’ve got quite good at covering it up, but inside I wanted to run out. That was more to do with the image of him that I’d built up in my head. Because he’s also a director as well, and you ask any director, and the last thing they want to do is work with an actor who has directed. There’s a threat that you feel there. [laughs] You always assume that they know more than you, so that can be a problem.
But within a couple of minutes I felt really comfortable with him, and I feel really comfortable with him now. I would love to work with him again, and we were talking about how to find other projects.
I made a decision to not watch any of his movies. I actually ordered all of his movies from Amazon on DVD and they all arrived bit by bit over a couple of weeks, and my intention was to watch them all and to really see if there was anything I could discover about him that I might be able to use. And then I thought, That would be such a disaster. I would turn up and I wouldn’t be able to speak — I’d probably burst into tears. [laughs] So I didn’t watch any of his previous movies — of course I’m aware of them, but I didn’t revisit any of them. I just decided to turn up as a fresh start with an actor who needed as much care and attention as any other actor. And it seemed to work out.
I also tried to be really honest with him as well. I kinda had an inkling that people who achieve as much as he does probably more often than most of us come into contact with people who are just saying yes to him all the time. And I’m sure any decent human being doesn’t really want that, and doesn’t really respond to that — it’s quite unhealthy. So I decided that I’d be really honest with him about everything and anything, and just speak my mind, and he was the same with me, and I think for that reason, the relationship turned out quite well.
JOHANSON: This movie feels very American, at least in the geographic sense: the wide open spaces, the landscape. Do you think that you brought something to that story because you were seeing America as an outsider?
JONES: Because I’m not American, I’m not sure, because I can’t look at it from the other side. All I know is that I traveled across the country [in preparation for making the film] and I just saw the most amazing beauty in everything. I knew America was dramatic and stunning, but until you actually see it with your own eyes, you think, Oh, yeah, I know what the Grand Canyon looks like or I know what the Rockies look like because I’ve seen the pictures. But driving through was just unbelievable. I would photograph very regular, ordinary things. I guess when you come in as an outsider, everything is new to you, whereas as an American I would have grown up with certain things, so I would have looked at them very differently.
JOHANSON: Did you learn something about the U.S. that surprised you, or that you weren’t expecting to find on that trip?
JONES: It wasn’t a good time for the U.S. I could sense that there was a fine veil of depression over the country. This was about two or three years ago, so it was a year or two before Bush left. Things were not going well in the Middle East and people were really quite depressed and fed up about things. But I was also aware of how the U.S. is perceived outside of the U.S., and most of what we saw in the news was Bush and was the war, and then Bush was voted back in again. I’ve got no view on whether that was a good thing or a bad thing, but people were perceiving America in a certain way. But I traveled around and found people to be funny and smart. I think Americans have come to the realization that this isn’t the world, and I think that people outside America are changing as well.