Jon Jacobs: The Boy with the Hungry Eyes
by Jeff Ulmer
He describes himself in the title of his new novel, The Book of Omens, as a "self-made movie star," and while he may not be a household name, that hasn't stopped the multi-talented Jon Jacobs from taking his future in the film industry into his own hands. His do-it-yourself approach has built him an impressive body of work in the past seven years—starring roles in twenty independent features, a handful of directorial credits, writing five screenplays and a novel.
Jacobs has just released a number of his films to DVD through his own Golden Shadow Pictures. digitallyOBSESSED caught up with Jon in Miami, where he is finishing post production on his latest film, Hey D.J., and attending the Miami Film Festival.
dOc: You have followed a very unconventional path in your career. How and when did you decide to start making movies independently?
JJ: When I was about sixteen a friend of mine asked me, '"What kind of actor do you want to be, what kind of parts do you want to play? Macbeth? Hamlet?" I said '"No, I want play this character in this book." My friend said "Why don't you make it into a film then?" I thought that was a great idea and so I optioned the book. After researching the lives of people like Chaplin, Orson Welles and Clint Eastwood, I realized this route was viable.
dOc: What initially motivated you to pursue a career in the movies, and has that factor changed since you began?
Jon Jacobs: I guess some of us are just not content to watch movies, but feel we have to be in them. I remember watching The Vikings with Kirk Douglas on TV when I was a kid and wanting to be a Viking. Since that was impractical, the next best solution was to be a Viking in a movie. Nothing has changed for me, I'm still driven by exactly the same desire—to star in movies! [laughs]
dOc: So is acting your primary interest?
JJ: Acting in movies, yes, stage no. It very much involves the alchemy of projecting oneself onto the big screen.
dOc: You have managed to play a pretty broad range of characters in the first collection of your films released to DVD—the reluctant hero (Hero, Lover Fool), a psychopath (Prometheus Bound), a reclusive outsider (Dogstar), western gunslinger (The Wooden Gun), flamboyant First Horn (Lucinda's Spell). If you were to introduce someone to your work, what films would you start with? What do you feel is your strongest work?
JJ: If you are a film lover, then I think The Wooden Gun pays tribute to a genre everyone is familiar with. It also is one of only a handful of independent Westerns made in the 1990s and possibly the only "no budget" one. I think it has a unique quality to it, and I'm very proud of its strength and its flaws. If you are a regular movie kind of a person, I would probably recommend Dogstar. It's still a little quirky, but I think it's a very human drama. If you only like big budget, high quality escapist stuff, I'd suggest Lucinda's Spell, because that is my best attempt at an event picture, even though it's whacked out! What's the strongest work? The new film, Hey D.J..
dOc: How did you first hook up with Michael Kastenbaum, and what was the catalyst behind Zero Pictures?
JJ: Craig Robins had introduced Michael and I back in 1985 and it was clear to me that Michael had an uncanny gift for getting into places and charming people. I knew immediately we would work together, because I lacked those skills. Zero grew out of Michael's desire to be work without formulas, to not be restricted by budgets, to be Zen in the face of corporate filmmaking. I just happened to be right at the same point. I was not having any success playing the Hollywood development game: I didn't want to cast stars in my movies, I wanted to star in them—wrong answer in tinseltown! I had just written a movie we could make for no budget and so I embraced Michael's desire to build a studio from scratch and did my best to bring him projects and encourage other filmmakers to be fearless in their approach. The payoff for me was I got to be the lead in so many of the films.
dOc: Let's talk a bit about how this all started. While you had previously released a version of Lucinda's Spell through ADV, the new Special Edition features your first self-produced films, the shorts Metropolis Apocalypse, Moonlight Resurrection, and Sleepwalker, which according to the IMDb, were the bulk of cinematographer David Tattersall's early work before landing the Young Indiana Jones Chronicles and ultimately the Star Wars prequels. Could you tell us a bit about these films came to be?
JJ: I came to America first in 1987. I had only acted in one short film, but I thought I could maybe get started. I arrived in Hollywood [and] I realized it was a jungle that I had no idea how to navigate. But I was kind of struck by an epiphany, I realized that Hollywood was essentially a town made up of different groups of friends making movies together. On my return to London after a couple of months, I decided on the plane I will simply put my friends together and make my own movies. I called David Tattersall, who had shot the film I had acted in (Salette). I called Paul Inder, a great musician, and then I took a great poem written by friend Randala (who is the same person that asked me the fateful question [mentioned above] and recently wrote and directed Phoenix Point), and then I just went out and made Metropolis Apocalypse. I rented the biggest cameras I could get my hands on, 35mmm anamorphic lenses, and lo and behold we were invited to the Cannes film festival. It was really that simple. The trouble began when I started trying to raise millions needed for feature films.
dOc: Metropolis Apocalypse is a very interesting film, and has an almost Koyaanisqatsi-ish feel to it. What inspired you to write this, and how did you choose to use Randala's poetry for it?
JJ: I loved Koyaanisqatsi and the reason I chose Randala's poem is that she was the only real writer amongst my little circle of artist friends. Her poem is very Koyaanisqatsi-like, and London was my home, in many ways that movie is the London I grew up in, Central London. Also, David suggested I start off with a film that didn't really involve actors, so I could develop an understanding of filmmaking. This seemed like a perfect vehicle.
dOc: It certainly has a very distinct atmosphere to it. While a very different feel, did Moonlight Resurrection follow the same basic idea in its development, from a talent perspective?
JJ: Pretty much, but Randala wasn't too happy about having her poems interpreted visually—she felt it took away from the language—so I had to write my own poem. I really didn't have any real understanding of screenwriting, so Moonlight is quite an impressionistic film. Fellini-inspired.
dOc: With those two black-and-white films under your belt, you moved to color for Sleepwalker, and had Terry Rawlings (whose credits already included Alien, Blade Runner, Chariots of Fire, and Legend) do the editing. How did he become involved in the project?
JJ: The lab were so blown away with the quality of the footage, they said, We know this great editor. I think David's cinematography was clearly A-list!
dOc: I would have to agree.
JJ: Terry Rawlings was amazing. He edited the film in one day, standing up at a Movieola as opposed to a flatbed Steenbeck.
dOc: The new special edition of Lucind'a Spell is also available with your novel, The Book of Omens. How did you come up with the idea of writing a novel on your path to making that film?
JJ: There were so many intriguing moments of synchronicity going on in my life that I wasn't documenting. I felt I was ignoring something important. Also, I wanted to be able to see clearly with hindsight if that stuff would actually amount to anything, so writing a book was the best way to do it. I'm not disciplined to keep a diary or a journal. I like sharing my adventures.
dOc: It is quite interesting to see what did and didn't pan out as planned through the course of the book. It is also pretty personal at times.
JJ: Yeah, somedays nothing magical was happening, so I just wrote about my love life. In the end, I'm glad that it's a real story. It touches upon the creative process and how that is affected by one's personal life. I think people can identify with it on a lot of levels, beyond simply the occult or the story of the making of a movie. Perhaps most importantly it is about setting out to accomplish something against the odds, and people need those stories, especially when they're true and they have happy endings. [laughs]
dOc: The running theme in the book is your hopes of raising enough money to make Lucinda's Spell.
JJ: Yeah, funny enough, in the end we raised over $2 million for Lucinda's Spell, much of it went into marketing. It took a lot longer than expected, so in fact I got more than the $1.5 million I set out to raise. That's the thing about wishing and dreaming—you have to be very specific about what you want, otherwise it'll come to you ass backwards.
dOc: Your feature directorial debut was The Girl with the Hungry Eyes. Where did the idea for this film come from, and was there a reason you didn't cast yourself in a more prominent role?
JJ: A good friend, Craig Robins, a young and highly successful property developer in Miami, suggested we do a film. I stumbled on the Fritz Lieber story [The Girl with Hungry Eyes - 1949] in a flea market and thought it would transpose really well from San Francisco to Miami. Plus, it was not just a vampire story, but a metaphorical tale. I worked into the story all the Art Deco hotels that Craig was renovating, and wrote the lead for myself. It turned out Craig had no interest in genre films, so it ended up getting financed in Hollywood via Michael Kastenbaum and Cassian Elwes, now head of William Morris Indie Film division. Unfortunately, they wouldn't let me act in it. This movie was a tribute to Roman Polanski's Fearless Vampire Killers, my favorite vampire movie and one of my top five movies. I think my love of Polanski has something to do with my present cult status.
dOc: Was Christina Fulton your first choice for the lead?
JJ: Yes. Christina auditioned for the movie, and I don't think I'd ever met such a powerfully beautiful and exotic woman. Also, she claimed that she could fully identify with the character, she was incredibly passionate. I had no idea she was going to be such an interesting actor, but I knew she was right for the part. Halfway through pre-production, Cassian told me I would have to cast a bigger name, but I was so certain she was right for the part, I said I wouldn't do the movie without her. Cassian was afraid to work with an actor/ director and since I had just finished filming Welcome Says the Angel, I figured I could afford to let this one go. So I took the small, really gnarly role of the serial rapist, but I wasn't happy not playing the lead—that was what I was doing all this for—so I promised myself I wouldn't let go again.
dOc: You've released a couple of different versions of The Girl with the Hungry Eyes to DVD. Can you tell us some of the differences between them?
JJ: The first version, the shorter one, was for Columbia Tri-Star. They didn't like all the ambiguous humor in the director's cut. Also, they felt it was too slow to market as a horror film. So they chopped out 15 minutes and got rid of my eclectic score done by Paul Inder and Oscar Olochlain. They also replaced a haunting voice over with a schlocky voice over. Now, in some ways, perhaps they were correct, my version was very slow. The reason I've put both out on the DVD is so that people can make their own choice and at least have access to the original vision. Cinefanatastique voted the schlocky version "Best Horror Film of the Year," so who knows, maybe the studio was right.
dOc: I think DVD audiences appreciate having as many versions of a film available as possible.
JJ: That is certainly one of the beauties of it.
dOc: With the astronomical budgets that seem to be routinely coming out of Hollywood these days, it is hard to imagine how a film can be made for the types of budgets you are often working under. How do you make a film for under $10,000 dollars?
JJ: I think the biggest pitfall is not taking yourself seriously enough to get a great cast or to refine the script. The raw materials, camera, lights, film are actually affordable.
dOc: What would be your advice to an aspiring filmmaker when approaching a project? What is your biggest challenge going into a new film project, specifically one where you are doing the principle development work?
JJ: Sometimes, as a novice, it is really hard to perfect a script. I think in many instances, I just didn't have the experience to craft and develop great material, and therefore, I would reach a point where I felt I had to just go out and make the best movie I could, rather than abandon it at script stage. I would recommend before even starting a script, find a great story, tell the story to people. Does it engage them, does it move them? Make sure the story is in fact a story—something special. Then, as you start to develop the script, you are going to find that you are measuring the script by the story—is the script doing the story justice?
As far as getting it off the ground, here are a couple of simple approaches: Either write something you are going to make with the resources available to you, or write something that you are going to shop around indefinitely, until you find support and backing. Choose your path clearly. That way, you know what to expect. If you chose to make it with your own resources, then you can expect to have a complete filmmaking experience, but you may not find distribution. The other route you may continue to develop the material until it's good enough to attract serious players, or you may be in development indefinitely. [One] route requires patience, the other requires bravado. Go to film festivals and check out other indie movies, that's a good way to find a cast for a low budget project.
dOc: Of writing, directing, producing or acting, which do you find the most challenging?
JJ: They are all equally challenging, they all require a tremendous commitment to excellence, they also all benefit from talent. As far as writing is concerned, I think I have a good imagination, but lack the patience for creating a great script by myself. With regard to direction, I have a good sense of where I'm going, and can retain that even in a fog. I'm good at keeping people inspired and allowing them to find and nurture their own creativity. I have fun when I direct, which is conducive for spontaneity—pre-planning camera angles can send me into a spiral. The camera is not an extension of myself, like it is with some directors. Directing is a mighty challenge.
Producing? There are so many facets to producing. Developing good material can also fall into the director's category or writer's category, so let's start with raising money—it's not my department, it's a special skill. I work with a venture capitalist who is a genius. Line producing—organizing a production, crew etc.—not my department either. It requires a love of order, anal retentiveness, etc. I haven't the inclination. Selling to distributors, this is where I have a transcendental experience, and without realizing it I become the distributor. I actually enjoy selling my movies, because I believe in them. Making money at it? Now there lies the challenge!
Acting—man, when I started out, I was very stiff, I don't think I exhibited any talent whatsoever. What I had was the passion to pursue my dream. When I discovered techniques for building a character I actually started to get good results, and when I get really into a character, I can surprise myself and find the process immensely rewarding. I would love to take on the challenge of a very powerful role and see if I'm up to it. I think, after 20 years, I have laid the foundation and developed the confidence. The challenge now is to find the right major role and make it my own. To be as solid as DeNiro, or committed as Daniel Day-Lewis, or as imaginative as Nick Cage, that is the ultimate challenge for me!
dOc: What are you working on now, and what do you have in the pipeline as far as DVD releases go?
JJ: I just finished some pick-ups for the new movie, Hey D.J.! I'm really optimistic about this film, it's incredibly sexy and funny. A real taste of the Miami club scene... with a touch of Elvis. On the DVD front, Johnny Famous is now translated back into English. Some problems with the picture quality, but I did my best. Also, The Invisibles Special Edition is also ready, with interviews with Gordjian and Noah Stern. We are mixing the sound on Phoenix Point as we speak. I just have to catch up financially before I send the new ones to the DVD duplicator, probably another month or two.
dOc: You've recorded a single...
JJ: Yeah, Did I Say That? featuring Elvis Presley. Imagine, I got to make a record with Elvis. How's that for ingenious indie filmmaking! [laughs]
dOc: That's a bit of a feat.
JJ: I bought a lost roll of newsreel on Ebay. When I do the DVD I'll put the entire newsreel in the extras section with music videos and tons of stuff.
dOc: Do you have plans for any more commentaries?
JJ: For Hey D.J., yes, because there will be lots of fun stories to tell...
dOc: What is your ultimate goal?
JJ: A role as vital and gritty as Kirk Douglas in a modern day big budget adventure flick. Wait, that's half true. I actually have in mind the exact role in a story that has yet to be filmed, so the ultimate goal is to have the freedom to be able to make big films, but I'm not preoccupied with directing everything.