Diversity in Film: Jon Jones
BY Gina Hackett, October 16, 2019
Diversity in Film is a bi-weekly series covering underrepresented groups in Film.
This week, we sat down with current student Jon Jones.
Jon Jones is a fourth-year film student who from a young age was drawn to science fiction films like Jurassic Park, and he continues to write and direct them today, with the aim to join the ranks of such luminaries as Steven Spielberg and James Cameron. In addition to serving as a Teaching Assistant for the film course Genre Study: Blockbuster, taught by Professor Ronald Gregg, Jones is currently interning at Saturday Night Live (SNL).
You are a song. What song are you?
JJ: The thing that’s really coming through is that my mom used to play Sade on vinyl when I was growing up. And my favorite song is “Your Love is King,” by Sade. I think that would be my song.
That sounds so aesthetic and glamorous, your mother playing Sade on vinyl.
JJ: Yeah, there’s one song that I still don’t know because the record was scratched, so it always jumped. I’ve never heard the end of that song. But yes, otherwise, aesthetic and classy and glamorous.
How would you describe your background and how it’s influenced you as a filmmaker?
JJ: I guess in terms of storytelling, even before I came into understanding what filmmaking was, as a kid I was really thrilled with illusionists or show people. I was always fascinated by TV shows and films that felt like a magic trick to me, where there was some mystery about how it was made. I think the curiosity came with trying to deconstruct what the magic trick really was. That naturally draws me to people like Steven Spielberg or James Cameron.
When you watch a magician, the most thrilling thing about them is that it doesn’t matter that you know there’s a trick coming. It still hits you and is powerful. When I was little—and I grew up super poor, like, in the projects of Queensbridge, and then we moved to Philly, and it was not an improvement—we didn’t get to go to the movies often. But we did have those VHS cassettes that are eight hours long, and you could record movies from cable TV. In our community we would have people, you know, record one movie, then I’d record another, then we’d exchange. So there was a small cinematic culture going on, even though that’s not what people perceive it as.
We would have a huge library of movies that I had access to. And what’s interesting is, I think a certain vernacular of film was embedded into me at a young age because my mom (again, not being a person who made a lot of money) was very precious about the things that we did have. So we had a VCR, but my mom did not allow me to fast forward or rewind for fear of breaking the tapes or breaking the VCR. So I was allowed to push play, and I was allowed to press stop. And the VHS would auto-rewind at the end of the cassette, which meant I had to sit through a lot of movies to get to the movies I really wanted to see. And if I wanted to repeat view, I had to watch all the movies that preceded that film. And the good side of this is that I had to develop this visual memory, this affinity for recognizing what images do. I would remember camera moves or people behaving in a very physical way, and I wouldn’t realize until later that this was me studying film.
There were a few event films that I remember, the product of a school trip or a day camp trip. And in ’93, Jurassic Park came out, and the whole world was talking about it. But again, because my mom was a single mom that, at that time, was raising three kids and working, going to the movies or even carfare was out of the question. But it just so happened that this was a movie that, culturally, you couldn’t ignore. So we saw it on the second week, when it was just nonstop society frothing at the mouth over real dinosaurs on screen. I begged her to see it, of course.
So we get there, and it’s just her, me, and my two younger siblings. From the very beginning, we’re enraptured. And what’s funny is that this movie is the one that made me decide I wanted to make films, and I don’t think it was because of dinosaurs or anything. It was the first time that I saw that adults were amazed. For me, adults had seen it all and heard it all, and all the discovery was left to the kids. And to see people with their mouths agape watching this film was something that really ignited my excitement about wanting to be a part of doing that.
I went home after the movie, and I decided to draw myself making a film. And I didn’t know who was in charge on a film set. So I went to my mom and asked her, “Hey, who’s the person who makes a film?” And she’s like, “A producer?” And I said, “I don’t know, whoever yells action.” And she said, “A director.” And I said great, and I went upstairs and drew a picture of myself saying action to dinosaurs.
Wow, do you still have that drawing?
JJ: No, I don’t. I drew a lot when I was a kid, and there was a point when I kept them, but even before I graduated from high school, I was pretty emancipated and living on my own and I didn’t take those things, and my mom didn’t keep them. I used to have a picture of me directing the Power Rangers too.
You cite Steven Spielberg and James Cameron as key influences growing up, but these are two white men. How did you combat not seeing black directors represented in the kind of filmmaking you aspire to? What made you believe you could do this even though there wasn’t a roadmap?
JJ: Look, I’m super stubborn and pretty relentless when it comes to getting something that I really want. And even though there wasn’t representation, I thought, “I’m going to be the first.” There’s been a lot of history and legacy in the African-American community about people who were the first. And I felt inspired by that. I had this thing in my mind that I was going to be the first black director to win Best Director at the 100th Annual Academy Awards. So, while there was never really a roadmap and things seemed unrealistic for me to pursue, and very challenging to get involved in, I always just felt like if I kept trying, even with minimal effort, I would open some sort of door for myself.
And those things continue to happen. I was never wrong about that. The only thing I had was to just get closer and closer to movies. Everything is a staircase to some extent, where if you can reach one level, you can reach the next.
Wow. I was at your house when Barry Jenkins won, and in retrospect, I’m thinking, that must have been an insane night. I mean, it was for everyone, for so many reasons, but it must’ve been an insane night for you having dreamt of that as a kid.
JJ: Well, obviously, along with everybody else, I was decidedly unhappy that La La Land won initially, and then when they corrected it, I definitely didn’t feel like anything had been taken away from me. The more I get on the inside of things, the less I weight recognition and awards, and the more I start to think that, especially in recent years, even occupying these predominantly white spaces is an act of protest and defiance in itself. The idea that just being present and working and recognized, whether it be with a reward or box office or general receptivity from an audience, is the thing that I was really getting at with the Academy Award fantasy—occupying the space that up until now, people had decided was not for me. And there are still many barriers to break. There are still many spaces that are not occupied by people of color, and I have ambitions for all of them. So it’s not something that’s faded, and it’s made me proud to know that there are people [like me] entering this sphere.
You mentioned earlier that you’re at SNL, and you don’t always feel like you have a right to be on that set. Most people think of that as imposter syndrome, which I suffer from as well. When do you feel that most and how do you deal with it?
JJ: I do want to clarify: it isn’t that I feel like I don’t have a right to be there. The imposter syndrome really comes from [SNL] being such an institution that I grew up watching. In high school, I would record the shows on VHS and then play them in the A/V room with my friends. We’d play them every week, and I grew up connecting with the show, and so to be...just today, we were walking through, and my supervisor was saying, “sometimes you’ll need office supplies, or sometimes we’ll need you to run onstage..” And I’m walking around doing things and it’s like Studio 8H, and it’s just such a weird, full circle, impossible moment that I almost feel reluctant to participate in because it’s so surreal.
You know, it almost seems like I’m going to wake up in a second and it will have not been true. And I think that’s why I’ve been reluctant to talk about it [amongst peers], you know, some people know, some don’t, but most don’t. It feels like it is the right path, like every single thing that happened...as much as I thought that I’m not on the right path and there’s no roadmap, more and more I can look back and see that everything I’ve done has been the roadmap, and I think this is just the next landmark in that roadmap.
At this moment, what feels most limiting in the industry, what feels liberating, what’s keeping you going?
JJ: Liberating? There’s a part of me that feels like, with everything that’s going on in the world, that this career choice is indulgent and self-serving somehow. There’s this sneaky, filmy, mildewy feeling that if I’m smart and capable, I should be using those things to do something about what’s happening in the world. And then I remember that all of this is a public service, that I’m not making films for me. I’m making films, at least I intend to make films for everyone who feels like they should be more politically active or feels overwhelmed by what’s going on, not just now but always. Interpersonally, they feel stressed, terrified, excluded, isolated. And those people go to the movies and they get to be a part of a community anonymously, where they’re laughing at the same things and no matter who you are or what you believe, you’re experiencing that with other people and I think that’s a really genuine communal feeling, and I would love to be the facilitator of that. I really think of it, in those times of doubt where I feel like “what am I doing? I should get a community coalition together or run for city council or be a teacher,” that this is the way, a calling I’ve been gifted that may be personal or opportunities that are allowing me to fulfill that function in the world in the way that other filmmakers have done it for me. And I take that very, very seriously.
When I’m tired or dejected or feel like it’ll never happen. In those moments of darkness, that’s what liberates me. It’s not just about me, it’s not about the awards, it’s about the impact you’re having when strangers get together in the dark and commune around your story.
What are you working on that’s keeping you excited?
JJ: I’m in the process of revising Streetlights, a feature I wrote at Columbia, and I’m doing that for my thesis short meant to be a proof of concept.
I’m also a Sloan Production Grant mentee, so the school has placed me in a group of students that they’re mentoring towards the Sloan Production Grants. I’m working on this really amazing short about Lewis Latimer, who was an African-American engineer and inventor and fought in the Civil War.He moved to Boston, Massachusetts, where he became an office boy in a print firm near the turn of the 20th century, and they had a room full of people who drafted art and copy. He was a talented artist, so he asked the office manager if he could submit his portfolio for consideration, and it was so good that they made him lead draftsman. And around the corner, Alexander Graham Bell had a school for deaf children, and he came in and said I need patent drawings done, give me your best person, and obviously Louis was the best, so he went and did the patent drafts for Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone and later did the drafts for Thomas Edison’s lightbulb. But that’s not all! He was a poet as well, and in one of his poems, he says something like, “Other men want eyes of blue, but I only want the ebon hue,” talking about the majesty of black women. So I’m writing a love story surrounding Lewis Latimer that really is just about how loving he is in his relationship with his wife that becomes strained the more demanding Edison becomes, as he was known to be.
What’s really great is, most male inventors, there’s some sort of inborn glory thing, like I want to be remembered for the rest of eternity, like machismo thing. But what I’m trying to allude to is that his dedication to working on stringing this filament bulb was so that he could see his wife better at night. His commitment to her is what led to the scientific advancement, not his own hubris.
Describe a day in the life when you’ve “made it.”
JJ: Which day? Ha I love the idea that George Lucas has Skywalker Ranch, and that’s the place he lives and works, and all kinds of artists come through there and it’s like a functioning extension of his own creative output. I kind of want something the same, though it doesn’t need to be as on steroids as that is. Just some place where when I want to collaborate, whether they be other writers or producers or directors or actors or painters or any person who I’m interested in or inspired by, to have a place that’s sort of serene and secluded and personal that I can invite them to, and we can just have a sort of think tank-style...essentially, like a cook off. And you’re surrounded by three dogs and whatever family members happen to be in town, but also when people who I admire want to collaborate, they can and they can do it in peace and without interruption and we can do it, dare I say, luxuriously. That sounds a little nerdy, but I don't really think about [grander] stuff that much.
And I also just want a french bulldog, an english bulldog, and a great dane, all the same color.
What would you call your ranch? If it’s not Skywalker Ranch, what is it?
JJ: Isla Nublar (it’s the island from Jurassic Park).