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Looking for Jones: An Interview with Writer-Director Preston Miller

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Looking for <em>Jones</em>: An Interview with Writer-Director Preston Miller

Shot in real time, we observe a pleasant young man (Trey Albright) in a nondescript hotel room changing out of his business attire into a more casual jeans and T-shirt, all the while having a non-conversation with his pregnant wife—“I’m just getting in the door,” he says. The conversation never seems to advance, instead circling around in genial banalities. The top of the frame cuts off his head, or his back is to us, for several minutes of this extended take. The next shot follows this stranger in a strange land as he moseys through the neon-lit nighttime playground of Times Square, towering metropolis buildings forming a vast urban canyon. There’s a sense of adventure, but also of a world much bigger than he is.

The title of the film, and the lead character’s name, is Jones. “It’s the name of your standard everyman,” says writer-director Preston Miller, “and a ’jones’ is something you pursue. It was a nice catch-all term, with a double meaning.” As far as we know, this guy doesn’t even have a first name. That’s appropriate, considering he seems to have been dropped into a slightly more naturalistic variation of a Samuel Beckett play, a clown desiring new sensations and experiencing miscommunications. On his two nights in the Big Apple, he tries to indulge in Asian prostitutes and this leads to him passing out on the subway and taking a drunken taxi ride into the netherworld of the outer boroughs.

When he does find sexual gratification, the scenes are explicit and drawn-out in unbroken wide shots. Again, they last several minutes at a time, with full nudity, as Jones desperately wrangles the prostitute’s body. These unblinking shots don’t arouse discomfort so much as they reveal character, and though Jones clearly fetishizes and objectifies call girls, his need to romanticize these business transactions creates a strange empathy. Maybe it’s because the long take has the viewer experience each activity with Jones, without being told how to feel about his behavior.

It’s a strong no-budget debut from Miller, shot on video with naturalistic lighting and an ear for the faltering rhythms of everyday speech. Jones also recalls the rhythms of slow-take cinema we associate with foreign directors (Abbas Kiarostami, Béla Tarr or Tsai Ming-liang). Each image is rigorously composed, and even when a tracking shot looks somewhat rough around the edges—perhaps filmed through the widow of a moving car—it has a sense of commitment. But Jones doesn’t feel heavy or downbeat. What’s astonishing is how much of life’s bounty is present in the film, and if we truly examine it’s themes of sex, fatherhood and exploration, how could it not be?

On the DVD of Jones, the extras include an absurd little comedy Miller directed in 1996 entitled The Mole. Not to be confused with Alejandro Jodorowsky’s acid western El Topo, this is more of a tip of the hat to Buñuel at his most stylized and gregarious. A self-proclaimed super villain (played by Miller himself) attends the reunion of his pre-school class, all the while curdling himself into a self-loathing, hostile bundle of raw nerves. Miller shows his first tentative interest in long-take cinema by following our anti-hero from one gaggle of yammering socialites to the next, all the while desperately seeking their attention by proclaiming, “I am The Mole!” It all ends with a bit of gallows humor where this ticking time bomb finally, literally, explodes.

Miller’s work has grown subtler since then, and he also shares an audio production of a yet-to-be-produced screenplay called God’s Land, based on the true story of a Taiwanese cult in suburban Texas. These freaks from bizarre-o-land are decked out in white jumpsuits and full-brimmed cowboy hats, on a madcap quest involving God, flying saucers and astral planes. As with Jones, there’s more to these intense provocateurs than meets the eye, and Miller expands the scope of his argument from the individual in Jones to the many in God’s Land, showing the multitudinous belief systems that can encompass communal faith.

After sampling these various offerings from Miller, I had the opportunity to sit down with the filmmaker for an in-depth chat about Jones and his other film work. For more information on how to order Jones on DVD, visit Miller’s production company Web site, Vindaloo Philm-Wallah, here.

You’re originally from North Carolina. How many times had you visited New York before moving here?

The first time I came to New York, I was a kid, with my family as a tourist. Later on, just toward the end of my second year of college at Appalachian State University, I met some former students who had just graduated and moved to the East Village. They were more artists and musicians than filmmakers, but they invited us to come up and visit anytime. My friends and I took them up on that, and drove up every other weekend for a couple of months. We’d cut classes early on Friday, take that nine or ten hour drive to New York, try to find some parking—and then you’d have the whole weekend until late afternoon Sunday, when you’d get in around 3am, sleep for a few hours, and then go to class.

I really loved the energy. My friends had hooked into an arts scene, and were getting more into cinema. I enjoyed having such a variety of films to see. There used to be more retro houses in Tribeca, SoHo and Greenwich Village. It was so much fun to see a Bertolucci or Truffaut double feature, which was something I otherwise couldn’t do. And, of course, three minutes shy of being 21, you wouldn’t get carded going into bars. You could see movies, then go to bars and talk about them. Eventually, I decided to transfer to City College in Harlem—a very smooth transition. Been here in the city since 1992.

Can you paint me a picture of what college life was like?

I was getting an education in life and living in New York. At the same time, I was getting a film education, gaining a greater sense of film history, film theory—as well as the production classes. They taught you how to make something with nothing, necessity being the mother of invention. We actually received AVID editing systems a whole semester before NYU, through some sort of clerical mess up. In my production courses, I was learning how to cut film on a Steenbeck as well as edit non-linear, which was a wonderful synthesis. I’m really glad I went there, as opposed to NYU and Columbia, because there wasn’t the hard competition between students, many of whom are still my close friends.

You were exposed to quite a bit of foreign cinema, and that influence can be felt on your films. Can you trace the path for me?

At City College, there was a great theory and history professor named Dennis DeNitto. He had a great love of historical cinema, and its role in art, politics and religion in various countries, right from the birth of cinema. Even from Appalachian State, I was familiar with who the modern stars of foreign cinema were, like Almodóvar. The masters were well represented: Bergman, Kurosawa, Buñuel, and I always had a great fascination with silent cinema, like Chaplin and Keaton. I also got into early German silent film, Fritz Lang in particular. What intrigued me the most was comparing German Cinema versus Russian Cinema during the first 30 years of this century.

Germany had the money to create these fabulous sets and amazing visions onscreen, whereas in Russia they didn’t even have cameras. They would have to put in orders and wait. But they did have smuggled copies of D.W. Griffith films. There’s a great story—I assume it’s true, but visually it’s astounding. In a football stadium in Russia, they unspooled the entire film on little racks that would go around the track, and walk around and took notes on how long each shot took. That gave them an advanced look at the power of editing and montage. Once the Russians got to shoot, it was editing more than set direction that really set it apart. That kept me on a path of looking forward, and seeing what’s coming out now, but also looking back and seeing what happened before, and how it got to what it is today. Nobody’s ever going to know it all, but being a student of film is a wonderful lifelong excursion.

The Mole was made in 1996. Was this made at City College, or right after?

I could have graduated in 1994, but I went one extra year for a BFA, which essentially means you get an entire extra year to make my thesis film. My best friend Leif Fortlouis and I have always been big fans of comic books. We saw some lady in a Burger King who had a long face and a big nose, and thought it was funny because she resembled a character in The Fantastic Four called The Mole-Man. So we called her The Mole, and developed an entire backstory of someone who gets no respect. In this fictitious pre-school reunion, everyone grew up and became wildly famous except for him. Determined to make a mark, The Mole, in his delusions of grandeur brings a bomb to the reunion. It was a little funnier back then, before 9/11 and our current fear of terrorism.

He seems fascinated in The Other, creating this entire super villain alter ego of himself as The Mole. But he also says things like, “I’m not white” when attempting to converse with black supremacists. There’s such a fascination of us creating our own identities, even our own universes, for ourselves.

The Mole is one of these deranged fellows who probably has way too many stacks of newspapers in their tiny apartment. Everything is from his viewpoint, and he’s delusional, so does this pre-school destiny even exist or is it just some fever dream?

Also included on your DVD is a 2006 audio production of a screenplay you wrote entitled God’s Land.

God’s Land is based on a true story. I’m fascinated by what people will believe, accept, or buy into, especially when dealing in religion. Who’s to say a belief system is right or wrong, no matter how Marx Brothers religion can be? People remain completely devout to it. It goes beyond the idea of an entity speaking to you from the beyond. It’s your own self, and what you choose to believe against better evidence. Even within the same religion or cult, everyone has a different reason for believing. I had the idea of telling this story as a documentary, which didn’t pan out because I couldn’t get in touch with any of the real people. So I decided, hey, I have some friends and a few of them are voice artists. All I need is a camera and a microphone. It was a cheap way of getting that story told, and hopefully building some interest. I’m happy to have some version of it existing, as opposed to just a script.

It is fun to watch The Mole, then listen to God’s Land. There are connections between these two projects, even though they were made ten years apart. The Mole wishes to have been born an alien and the characters in God’s Land, like cult members, desire to jump onto an imaginary space ship into another astral plane.

Something I enjoy in filmmakers, musicians and artists is to see the arc of their careers, or works, starting when they were toddling around in early pieces through to what has evolved into through the lens of their life experiences. Watching Godard from Breathless to the present, we see how he changed. It doesn’t have to be an autobiographical change, either. My favorite band is Jethro Tull, and every two or three years they change their style completely.

It must be interesting for you to view yourself in that way as well, since you chose to include The Mole and God’s Land on your DVD for Jones. You put yourself in this context we’re talking about.

Absolutely. This DVD was made for next to nothing, because right now there’s nobody out there interested in distributing it. Nobody feels they’re going to make any money, which is fair enough. Since I’m self-distributing, I decided to put on the DVD as much content as possible; to make it a compilation of everything up till now. Hopefully, it will pique some interest, and people will want to see more—or join me on this little trip.

You didn’t do a commentary track on Jones, but included a series of audio tracks about how the project developed. You tell an interesting story of a conversation you overheard during the film festival South by Southwest, which became an impetus.

I was at South by Southwest in 2003 to stir up interest in God’s Land, which is set in that area. I didn’t have any films there, but had always heard Austin was a fun place, so I went down there to see some films and meet some people. I was having a drink one evening at the hotel, and overheard these two guys having a conversation. They were probably from some other convention at the hotel—these loud, brash, rich white assholes going on and on about how they tried to cheaply buy a prostitute who had just delivered a baby. These guys were upset that she’d even have the gall to try and take their money, saying things like, “Why was she even working? The prostitutes here suck!”

Now, I had been trying to raise money for other projects, and was getting tired of trying to take a meeting. Most of my time was spent trying to create press kits for things that hadn’t been developed, so I was restless. I figured if I found the germ of a good idea, I’d make a nice, tight 15-minute short using the shooting style I had in mind for God’s Land. When I heard these guys talking, I thought, “That’s great—a story with a beginning, middle and an end.” I wrote it down, book-ending their prostitute story with our character at a bar talking to somebody, and we started to shoot.

Somehow this 15-minute short expanded into a full feature.

Once we shot and assembled the first prostitution scene, we already had 15 minutes and hadn’t even touched the story. The reason is because Jones has very long takes. From this 12-page script, like a piece of dough, we kept lengthening it until our cut was an hour and twenty minutes. I was trying for years to raise money to make a film, and wound up accidentally stumbling into creating a feature.

What fascinated you about these two men?

I’ve always enjoyed being a fly on the wall, observing conversations and interactions. What upset me about these guys was their blatant disregard for this other human being’s life. They could only focus on how it impacted them. But nobody is black and white. Jones is an attempt to see this person in full. We see him, walk with him, spend time with him, and nothing is hidden. Sometimes he’s a nice guy and sometimes he’s not, which is true of everybody. We follow him in a logical and empathetic way to figure out how he got to this point. What [lead actor] Trey Albright brought to it was this tremendous likeability. In real life, he is a very warm and genuine person, and he makes the role more ambiguous. My wife and other women who have seen the film were initially repulsed by the idea of even shooting something like this, but afterwards they felt conflicted because he’s kind of a nice guy, even if what he is doing is horrible.

Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr says he makes films to get closer to people. Like him, you make frequent use of the extended long take, where a shot can run for several minutes. One could argue that the minute you decide to film a long take on someone, the style becomes existential. Let’s talk about the opening image, which is very confident. The camera is locked down, and we see Jones walking back and forth in his hotel room, talking on his cellphone. In the image, the top of his head and the bottom of his legs are cut off.

Yes, it’s a slow reveal. It’s definitely existential from the point of view of how movies are cut today, with cutting being the collapse in time. If you film someone hearing a doorbell, then watch him get up and go down the stairs, you have the choice of cutting from the sound of the doorbell to him at the door. But in the long take, you observe an actor’s body language change, you see them moving within a space and it creates a context for them. This creates a mental rhythm for the viewer, but you’ll notice in the final brothel scene we cut to Jones’s face when he says, “I don’t even want to think about it.” When you finally make a cut to a close-up, it can feel abrupt and also highlight a moment.

By using the long take during a fairly explicit sex scene, it becomes less about titillation and more about us watching an incident, and revealing character through behavior. How did you discuss this scene with Amy Chiang, the actress who plays the first prostitute?

I explained to her, right up front, what was going to happen—this was a simulated sex scene with complete nudity. She said, “I don’t really have a problem with that. But what might be a little bizarre is that I’m cut.” I said, “What?” And she said, “I’m cut. I really work out.” She claimed a lot of prostitutes aren’t cut, but I didn’t see that as a problem. We spoke to what this person’s backstory would be, even though it’s never displayed onscreen. The character is an immigrant, perhaps illegal, who works out of a brothel that is essentially someone’s home where multiple groups live and work. They don’t get to keep much or any of the money they earn, and continue in the hope of getting papers or whatever they were promised. Amy Chiang is here from Taiwan completely legally, but she has known people or heard stories where this happens.

When she comes into the room, it’s business first. The money has to change hands. She has to feel comfortable in these surroundings, then they do their business and she immediately leaves. There’s not a lot of exchange. Since Jones is interested in Asian “things”, a woman being a “thing”, he tries to talk her up. But the prostitute knows she will be paid the same whether she’s here an hour or ten minutes, so let’s make this quick as possible. Amy completely understood the role. It’s a very important character, because of how Jones is reflected by the experience, and from her.

The second brothel scene has a different dynamic. There’s still an element of business, but the characters are in a different place.

That was actually shot in my friend Leif’s house, in Queens. I wanted to show the banality of hot sex. You go to a brothel and it’s nothing like you would imagine from the movies. Jones doesn’t know what he’s getting into, but he has some courage in him from drinking. He’s never even been to New York before, but he’s going all the way out to Queens. He goes there, exchanges his money, and it’s just a bed and a room. There’s nothing elegant, no fancy lights or anything that would put you into a mood of any sort. It’s a place of business, let’s get it over with as quickly as possible, and that’s that. This isn’t terribly arousing, but these people have to eat and live. (In fact we see someone cooking the food for the girls there.) Then Jones has the conversation with the woman, which gets to everything I wanted to say in Jones. This moment reflects back on him and his background, with having a child on the way, so he’s finally able, for the first time, to get broken out of his objectivity.

Meeting this woman, who had just delivered a baby, changes him in some small way.

My son Nikhil was just born, so when I made Jones I still had fresh, vivid memories of being in the delivery room, seeing my child for the first time, and how that impacts you. Jones feels this anxiety, which gives him the impetus to go ahead and make that leap. But it’s important for me to not have that be the last word. In the ending on the train, he still has an eye for Asian women. It may take him longer to go the distance that he went in New York, but whatever’s inside of him won’t get snuffed out like a candle. He still, physically or psychologically, enjoys this particular desire.

How would you describe the difference between what Jones is doing, this fetishization of Asian women or culture, and your own interest in foreign cultures? The name of your company is Vindaloo Philm-Wallah. What is the difference between these two points of view?

In the scenes where Jones is talking about Haruki Murakami’s book Underground, even though he has read the book he still has a huge naïveté about Japanese culture. He talks out of his ass a little bit, like a drunk person who is really into a movie or a ball game. You can tell he has a passion for it, but he doesn’t yet fully understand what he’s talking about. I wanted him as a dilettante. By lumping pieces of literature with the objectification of women, it’s linking the way this guy needs to grow up a little more. And he probably will. As I said, I have a child, and having children changes you. Myself, I have always been interested in cultures other than my own white, southern upbringing. I have always been fascinated with different foods, different types of literature and art. It broadens what I could have created by myself without any influence. I also love languages, and study Bengali (my wife’s family is Bengali), and Japanese and Spanish. I enjoy the way people communicate through visual and aural mediums, and try to see as many viewpoints as possible. The origin of my film company Vindaloo Philm-Wallah is that it’s my favorite food in the world, and I can cook a really damn good Vindaloo too.

The festival life for Jones, as described on your DVD, sounded grueling, but eventually you had a theatrical run at the Pioneer Theater here in New York.

I started sending it out to festivals in 2005. Of the fifty or so, it didn’t get into any but one, which was evidently a fly-by-night festival called the Ethics of Entertainment Film Festival, located in Arizona. I didn’t have the money to go out there and attend, and received no feedback since they closed up shop right after and their email was dead. I was curious if it was a positive or negative experience for audiences. Before our week-long run at the Pioneer, I was accepted into the New Filmmakers film series that is held at Anthology Film Archives. It is seasonal, and from the films they receive they try to cull together some sort of theme. Every Wednesday night, they show new filmmakers’ work. It’s an excellent series. Bill Woods and Barney Oldfeld, [the programmers], are great guys. Now that we were screening in a theater, I had something I could invite people to.

It sounds like you reached out to critics on the Internet.

We got two or three critics of note to come to the New Filmmakers screening, which was last August. Others were kind enough to say that they couldn’t attend, but please send a copy. These critics were kind enough to share their insights with others, and created some interest. When I continued approaching people, some had heard of Jones by that point. Keith Uhlich gave us a nice write up for The House Next Door, an essay that was also the liner notes for the DVD. That alone got other people interested, because of his writing. We got a generally favorable critique in The New York Sun, and Amy Taubin gave us a very positive review in the March/April issue of Film Comment, featuring Meryl Streep on the cover. These things seem to build, and I hope we can use this as a stepping-stone to something else.

So what’s next?

I have the God’s Land script, which I am very eager to shoot at some point, and another script that is set in a motel run by Indian-Americans. It was a fun exercise in writing something for an audience which was more commercial. My mother, for one, loves it—and she doesn’t love everything I do. I’m out trying to raise some money for this. There are a number of short films I’d be interested in making, just to keep working, and ideas for other scripts. I’m looking forward to working on new projects. Now that Jones is done, it’s time to move on.

Jeremiah Kipp’s writing has appeared in Slant Magazine, Filmmaker, Fangoria and other publications.