Filmmaker and documentarian Sam Jones has worked both behind the scenes and in front of the camera to elicit stories from some of pop-culture’s more fascinating figures. From his work on his podcast series Off Camera, to previous documentaries I Am Trying to Break Your Heart: A Film About Wilco (2002) and Tony Hawk: Until the Wheels Fall Off (2022), to his photojournalism and career directing music videos, there’s a clear incentive to peeling back the mask of what motivates artists.
In his most recent film for HBO, Running with Our Eyes Closed, he follows the recording of Reunions, the 2020 album from Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit. As part of the Music Box series, the documentary is a revealing look not just at the creative process that went into the making of the album, but a deep dive of Isbell himself, his sobriety, near divorce, and upbringing that lead him to the revered musician he is today.
We spoke to Jones about the inspiration for the documentary, the greatest lesson he’s learned as a filmmaker, and the significance of listening.
There’s a throwaway line in the documentary that references the film Almost Famous (2000), which was the film that inspired me to pursue writing. As someone who reportedly watched a lot of music docs growing up, was there one in particular that was your “I want to do this” moment?
Funny enough I think Don’t Look Back (1967), the Bob Dylan movie, and then the first version of what we saw for eight hours recently by Peter Jackson (2021’s The Beatles: Get Back) which was Let It Be (1970). I think I devoured obsessively any music documentary that showed the band’s recording the songs. Any time where they were doing their craft or behind the scenes. Don’t Look Back is a “concert film” but that film taught me all about verite and what you can get when you’re following someone around with a camera on tour.
So I love that film for the access that it provided and I loved any film that showed me musicians recording in the studio because I’m a musician and I made records and loved being in the studio, loved home recording and all that so anything I could get my hands on which would get me that feeling. That inspired feeling that makes you want to go out and make things. Documentary films about music were kind of my engine for getting my own creative juices flowing.
I’d assume that there’s a lot of footage that needs to be left on the cutting room floor so to speak and while watching I thought if it were me I’d be most pressed in letting go of that rehearsal footage. Was there a scene or specific element toughest for you to part with in the final cut?
Oh for sure. It doesn’t happen all at once. It’s a slow march of disappointment of all the other stories that are like little children and you want to let them come to the party too but you can’t invite them all and some of them have to stay home. It happens over time. What happens is you start assembling the stories you want to tell and scenes that don’t support those stories fall away naturally. Sometimes the editor will know months before I can accept it.
Sometimes it’s even funny, and I’ll leave a scene in forever and know it’s coming out but I just don’t want to let it go just yet. That happens with every film it’s sort of the nature of the beast especially with a verite film where you shoot so much footage. We had three cameras going for the full time Jason was in the studio. What Peter Jackson accepted was that your job isn’t to be a completest and an archivist when you’re doing something like this. Your job is to find a story and tell it in a way that people can connect with. That’s always the driver.
I know you’d interviewed Jason Isbell for your podcast series Off Camera – is this how this project came to be, or did someone come to you with the idea?
That was exactly it. I’d had him on the show and I liked his music but I didn’t know much about his backstory aside from that he was in the Drive by Truckers. I didn’t know the depths of his struggles with alcoholism and drugs and I didn’t know his history of hitting Amanda [Shires] and I obviously didn’t know about his upbringing and his religious grandparents or that his parents were so young when they had him, his mom was 16. So when he came on my show and started telling me his story and not just what he told me but how he told me. He has a way of telling his own story that draws you right in. After that it was sort of in the back of my mind for about a year and then I realized, that’s a documentary.
What happens with me every time — it happened with Tony Hawk, it happened with Wilco — I just assume someone is already making it because it’s too good of a person to not make a film about. In all three of those cases I called and they were not at that time making a documentary. Once he said he was interested we jumped on it pretty quick.
Obviously quarantine comes into play while shooting but you’d clearly been working on it for a while before that started. So how long had you been filming prior to and how drastically did the pandemic impact it?
We shot the whole recording of the album before the pandemic hit and had that done and started digging into Jason’s story and his parents and trying to figure out how I was going to mix the verite footage of the making of the album while telling Jason’s broader story and upbringing and past. Coincidentally enough, we were in Nashville, staying down the street from Jason’s house when the pandemic officially hit. It was the day that schools closed and the NBA stopped their games.
It was wild because it was sort of like the lead up to it and then when it happened we were shooting interviews with Jason and his father in Jason’s barn and we stayed an extra two days and kept doing interviews. Then people started to worry about getting flights out and some of the crew drove back to LA and I got onto one of the last flights before things changed so it happened right then and from then on we were dealing with it.
You mentioned the Wilco documentary, I Am Trying to Break Free of Your Heart: A Film about Wilco, and I’m curious how your process has changed as a filmmaker and documentarian in the twenty years since that film?
I’ve been thinking about this. I was so naïve when I made the Wilco movie. But I think that naivete also helped me be such an observer. And since then I’ve done other projects and I’ve had various levels — I often operate a camera but on ‘Wilco’ I was often the only camera operator because we had no money. So on this film I decided I was going to operate the whole time because that’s how I can stay closest to what’s happening.
On this one, there was almost a desire to go back a little bit to being hands on because I knew that I didn’t want many crew members in the studio and that was part of the deal I’d made with Jason. We were really trying to stay out of his way and let him do his thing, which is difficult. But in general I think I’ve learned over the years that I can’t control what’s happening on a documentary and when unexpected things come up I just need to follow those threads and I don’t know if they’re going to bear fruit or not. I think on the ‘Wilco’ film I really rejected all of the drama that was first going on and thought it was a disservice to the film I wanted to make. It took me a while to understand that I had to pivot and tell more of the record company story and then that turned out to be a great thing and I learned so much.
On this one I think I was more open to the idea that if something happens, okay, I have to follow it and not know where it’s leading and just wait until I get back into the editing to decide what this film is going to be. When you’re a filmmaker and a camera operator at the same time you’re kind of editing the movie in your head — or editing the film you think it will be — and you have to make those decisions. But at the same time you have to be open to try and gather as much as you can and figure it out later. The big one I learned is that letting go of control is sometimes very helpful in the documentary world.
In turn does that also make it difficult to stop yourself from following too many threads? I have to imagine as a music fan there’s plenty you could’ve explored further about Drive by Truckers or Amanda Shires career and involvement in The Highwomen? I assume it could be easy to get scattered by too many elements.
You can really get in the weeds. You see some films where it was like twelve years of shooting and they’re great but I do think you have to be able to make decisions on the fly. You do have to be able to say, okay I’m not doing that. I think more of what I’m talking about is that when something comes up that is unexpected you have to give it equal weight in your mind and think if this is something I’m learning that is adding to the things I’m curious about or is this giving me more information that will help me rethink my film. You have to consider all of that stuff rather than try and fight to keep it in the lane that it’s in.
That happens as an interviewer too. If you’re fighting too hard to keep your interview in a lane you’re going to miss some really interesting things. I said control but I think the other real thing I learned as a filmmaker is listening. You can be in the same room with someone and miss the entire conversation and what was important about it if you’re too rigid about what you’re trying to make happen. You can listen visually too and when you’re operating a camera or orchestrating several camera operators — I make all the camera operators wear headphones the whole time and they’re plugged into the microphones of all of our subjects so that they’re tuned in to what’s happening. Listening is the most important skill in filmmaking.
What do you think is the lasting effect of music documentaries or even just stories about music? From something like Almost Famous for me versus Don’t Look Back?
I think it’s validation and connection. When I was a kid I would get this really wonderful feeling when I was involved in something creative or saw something creative. When you make a music documentary or make a film about anything creative, hopefully you are validating people who see this thing that if they want to do that kind of thing, that it’s important and it has value. It’s the best thing you could be doing with your time on earth is to take the uniqueness inside of you and try to put it out there in some form, whatever it is.
To have that engine to watch a film that inspires you, there’s sort of this energy source that you get to use from other people’s work and then that fuels your work and you get to pass it on to other people. Like Jason said in the movie, it helps you not feel weird. When you find that one person out there that cares as much about something as you do, you don’t feel as weird.
I think that was the point of Almost Famous. At the end, the last question Patrick Fugit asks Billy Crudup is “What do you really love about music.” And he’s just looking to ask if all this love that he has for this thing is valid? For me that’s what these films are for. They shed light on something that’s very mysterious and if they connect with people then they’ve invited others into the mystery.
Running With Our Eyes Closed is available now on HBO Max. Watch the trailer below.
Featured Image Courtesy of HBO Max