Interview with Director Justin John Doherty
In 2013 the Chain NYC Film Festival had a special screening of John Cassavetes Shadows with a special talkback with the lead actress Lelia Goldoni. After watching your film, it was exciting to hear that his work was an inspiration for this piece as it was evident in the style and topic. What about his work speaks most to you? And what about this specific story made you want to create a film harkening to Shadows?
He was very much an inspiration, and Neil Fox (Writer) and I wore the inspiration on our sleeves up front in conversations with the cast and crew about the messy, convoluted but honest work we wanted this to be. In fact, it was ‘Opening Night’ that was very much in Neil’s thoughts as inspiration. We weren’t intending to pay tribute, or emulate, but we wanted to approach method in the same way, knowing that if we got performances and story on tape, the rest would follow. What I love about those early Cassavetes films is that shots can be out of focus and not the best take technically, but it is the right take for the film, so in it goes.
We also wanted to follow lessons in simplicity. Neil essentially wrote ten scenes and set himself the challenge of telling the story within those confines, set on the coast, where he lives, and where we knew we would shoot. At that early stage, jazz was not a part of the film, that came later, so 'Shadows’ was not a direct influence there, but more the example overall that Cassavetes set.
We then knew that if we could shoot a scene a day for ten days, we would have our film. That skeleton is still there in terms of the ten scenes, but we did spend 13 days making it altogether. I think JC would let us off for that though.
What other filmmakers do you look to for inspiration and why?
Through everything, there is an undeniable force of inspiration that comes from Nicolas Roeg. ‘Don’t Look Now’ shaped me at that crucial point when I was learning what films could really do. To this day, that film is constant in my mind, and along with it, all the films from that progressive period in the late 60s and 70s. I’m an indie kid from the Rodriguez decade, so that’s always going to be a thing, and then there are the contemporary makers that just constantly inspire, the likes of Paul Thomas Anderson and James Gray. Saying that, recently I’ve been going backward into the Russian cinema of the 60’s (thank you Criterion), and having just re-watched ‘Letter’s Never Sent’ and 'I Am Cuba', I wonder if anything can ever compare to what Mikhail Kalatozov and Sergey Urusevsky created.
Finally, from a production perspective, though I have read about more than I have seen, the Duplass method of small scale, small community collaboration is very akin to how Neil and I have worked, on our shorts, our theatre work, on our festival and on ‘Wilderness’, and I’m very inspired when I hear them talk about their creative factory.
Do you have a favorite genre that you like to cover as a filmmaker?
As a hungry consumer since childhood, and then with my experience making a festival happen for ten years, being subject to all forms and genres, good and bad, easy and hard, I can honestly say that there is no genre that I would not like to go to bat for. I’m perhaps less interested these days in making (and certainly watching) the giganta-movies that require a crew the size of a small city to make, and mostly in post. I’m much more at home in the small collaborative creative process; let’s make a film, have dinner, get up, and do it all again. Always on top are the pulp films and the westerns, but at the heart of all of those, it’s still the story that drives isn’t it? So I’m sure that like many filmmakers, with the right story inspiration, you can and want to apply it to all forms and genres. However, that said, I’ll only feel like I’ve really made it, when I get to make my long-planned Muppet film. Seriously!
Are there currently any other projects in the works?
Always. Neil and I have two films, a sort of double-bill of pulp crime films, one East Coast USA and one West Coast. Very different from ‘Wilderness', in tone and budget. So we’ll see. ‘Wilderness’ just sort of happened because time and place was right, and money, so we’re open to what the next film will be. But for now, enjoying this part of the process, screening at festivals, enjoying the debate around what people engaged with, and what they didn’t. The latter often being the best for you, long term.
The sound track in your film plays an integral part in the story. How important is the score for you when telling a story?
I love music in film, but I’m all in favor of not having it too. For this, we felt a score was not going to be the best placement of music, and we wanted to infuse the film with jazz music, because that is the part of John’s life that we don’t see. It’s a jazz film without jazz played in it, but with some carefully placed moments of music, most notably our opening music, Ornette Coleman’s Lonely Woman, which we re-recorded with the amazing Tony Kofi Quartet.
It’s fortunate, that I also run a jazz club, so the source of great talent was on tap for us, and much of the music is contributed by artists that I work closely with at The Bear Club in the UK. Lonely Woman was the perfect, fractious composition that sets out the dueling tone of the film from the start in our ‘old-fashioned’ credit sequence. It’s uncomfortable, and it’s the statement that says to an audience; this is the the ride… are you coming?