Possibly one of the finest rock documentaries ever made, celebrates its 10th anniversary in 2012. I Am Trying To Break Your Heart, the brilliant film by Sam Jones, documents the journey of Wilco's landmark album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Watch the trailer below:
Part of the beauty of this film was the sheer intuition Jones had when choosing Wilco as his subjects. In I am Trying To Break Your Heart, Jones finds himself in the right place at the right time, capturing the creative paradox between band and record label, the inner struggles between bandmates trying to surpass the traditional norms of commercial radio, and produce something that will ultimately stand the test of time. It's a lasting archive of boundless imagination, sonic experimentation, and Wilco creating tremendous music/not allowing a major label to compromise their spirit.
Earlier in October Sam Jones spoke with FYM Art Director Jesse Codling, about the anniversary of his first film. Below Jones reflects on how his relationship with Wilco came to be, his decision to shoot on black and white 16mm, the Pure Imagination soundtrack choice, and the big break between Jay Bennett and Jeff Tweedy.
for Young Moderns: This past July marked the 10th Anniversary of your first documentary called 'I Am Trying To Break Your Heart' about Wilco recording their pinnacle album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. To start off, I was wondering how you initially crossed paths with Wilco, and how your relationship formed with them to document this recording process?
Sam Jones: Well, I've known about them from the Uncle Tupelo days, and I really liked Being There and Summer Teeth. I thought they were really good records, and I went to see a show, I think at the Bowery Ballroom, for Summer Teeth.
for Young Moderns: Oh beautiful!
Sam Jones: When I saw them at the Bowery Ballroom I had been thinking about who my contemporaries were age-wise... my generation of people that might have a chance of sticking around and being songwriters that are considered in future generations. Much like The Band... Neil Young, or the Stones or whatever.. and because you know, I wanted to make a music documentary. But I didn't want to make it about someone who wasn't in my generation. I wanted to make it about someone who was my contemporary.
That's a hard thing... it's something you can't see in the future and know who's going to stick around and have those things. Although he was still maturing, Jeff was a songwriter that you could tell back then, that really kinda had that rock lineage thing going.
for Young Moderns: Absolutely Being There for me back then, really stuck out in my mind as a band making a real statement... that they could be around for a long time, if they could keep the thing going.
Sam Jones: Right! And I wanted a collaborative band. I wanted a band that definitely wanted to experiment in the studio... and just from the sound of those records, I just felt like that was the case. So I just wrote them a letter, and I didn't know anybody, but I sent the letter to the publicity director at Reprise, Bill Bentley... who is in the film. And I said look, you don't know me from Adam, but I'd like to see if you could pass on this letter to band management.
I wrote a pretty heartfelt three page letter, straight to Jeff and the band... and luckily for me, when Bill forwarded it on... he knew my work as a photographer. So he put a little note in it and said, look this guy isn't just some fan.
for Young Moderns: Yeah, to show that you were established.
Sam Jones: So that was helpful, and I got a call from their manager and he said, why don't you come out to Chicago and sit down and have dinner with Jeff and I. So I did, I thought ok, what the hell, I'll fly out there and have a dinner.
And it just turned out to be this really long dinner. Jeff and I hit it off right away, and at some point Tony left to go back home. Jeff and I stayed at the restaurant and Jeff said do you wanna hear some demos... and he drove me around Chicago for like, an hour, listening to demos. Which was kinda my first exposure to some of those songs off Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. And then he said do you wanna see the loft? We went up to the loft at 2 in the morning. And we jammed a little bit...
for Young Moderns: Nice!
Sam Jones: I saw the loft and said well... this place looks like hell. At the time it just looked like more of a storage place. It didn't look all pretty like it does now (laughs)... I brought in... and painted those walls and brought in those lights, that they still have in there, in their rehearsal space. They had these dirty white walls that wouldn't be a good background, so I said can we buy a can of gray paint? Paint these walls... and hang some lights back here because there's no light... and basically by the time the evening ended, Jeff was like Yeah you should do it. And I was like yeah! He seemed good with it.
I said look, if I am going to do this, I'm not going to ask your record company for money. I'm not going to ask you guys for money, but... you have to agree to let me make my own film. -And have you not be a part of the creative process of it at all.
for Young Moderns: That's amazing, to get final cut!
Sam Jones: I just said, let me come into your space and make my film, and luckily Jeff is the kind of guy... he really does yearn for the time when things were a lot more free. And the creative people did their thing and the record company did there thing. So he was all about that. In fact, I think he saw it as a way to distance himself from the film... if it didn't turn out good.
for Young Moderns: Right, no worries.
Sam Jones: Then he could say Hey I just let this guy hang around... he made the film he wanted to make, and we had no say in it. Which I think really helped... given what ended up happening with Jay and everything... He was able to distance himself from it, and was able to say the photographer told the story of what he saw. Of you know... the break-up.
for Young Moderns: Were they ever against you (Jay or Jeff), releasing that ending story? Were they fully on board to show how it really went down?
Sam Jones: They stuck to their deal, and I didn't show it to them until it was locked. So that was kinda the deal and to their credit...
for Young Moderns: They didn't give you any flak?
Sam Jones: No, and also they didn't go around the country touting it. It was a very interesting time for the band, there was a lot of upheaval and a lot of not knowing where things were going... and then the film came out. It wasn't all a rosy picture. So it wasn't like they thought, hey we see this as an opportunity to promote ourselves, or anything, and there was a ton of press at the time about the record... which we kind of became part of the story. So it was a funny time, and it was timely, it came out quickly enough that it was still timely. I think the movie came out right around the same time as the record.
for Young Moderns: It was definitely a perfect moment in time.
Sam Jones: That's the thing, the documentaries that I'm always drawn to are the ones that didn't have the luxury of perspective or hindsight. If you can catch something while it is happening... there's a different kind of unfolding of that story, it's more narrative. And I like those stories better.
for Young Moderns: Absolutely. One of the most perfect moments in your film for me, was the ending with Pure Imagination, the old Willy Wonka song... in this black and white scene, creating this triumphant ending.
Sam Jones: Maybe one little tour that the band did... they were playing that song, as one of the songs before the band came out... it stuck in my head, cause I hadn't heard it for some many years since I had seen that movie... and I started playing with it as a credits scene, and a couple other places in the film. And I really liked it. We got nowhere with the song because it's in another film, and Warner wasn't just going to even touch it.
for Young Moderns: Right.
Sam Jones: Then as it turns out, I had photographed the writer's son. The guy who wrote it was Anthony Newley. And he has this son whose name is Sacha Newley who's a painter. Years and years ago I photographed him and remained casual acquaintances, but about maybe a year before all that came up (the song on the credits). Sacha was over at my house, we're having a beer, and a woman knocked at my door. And she had my dead cat in her arms. Who had just been hanging out with us like five minutes before, rubbing up against our legs, and the cat went outside, and then the woman went and hit it with her car. And killed my cat.
for Young Moderns: Ohhhhhh!
Sam Jones: It was traumatic! And I felt terrible. Yeah poor Sacha came over for a beer, and then he had to console me over my dead cat. We buried it and the whole thing. He stuck around, and was like I'm not leaving... and it was just the oddest night.
for Young Moderns: I can't imagine!
Sam Jones: So I called him shortly there after, and said listen, I'm making this film, I wonder if you would ask your dad, if he would give me permission for the song to put in the credits. And he gave his blessing, and Warner Chappell came along, and their like yeah, but it's going to cost you sooo... we still got a great rate on it. But actually, I think that cost almost as much as all the Wilco music in that film.
for Young Moderns: Wow, well it definitely made for a perfect ending of the documentary.
Sam Jones: The short version is, my cat had to die for us to have that song in at the end of the film.
for Young Moderns: Wow, what a crazy series of events... So when you were filming them did it take long before the guys tuned you out?
Sam Jones: First off it was already weird because they called me in December and were like ok you can come, our recording session is set for January 13th 2000. And they kind of called my bluff, because I was like Oh god no, I gotta go do this thing... you know? But right after that, they fired Ken Coomer. So I showed up and it was Glen's (Kotche) first day in the studio. So Glen's first day in Wilco, and my first day in the studio, were the first day.
They had done other stuff, but the actual recording session for the record... But that was pretty wild, I don't even think that Leroy (Bach) had played with Glen before. I don't think that Jay maybe hadn't played with Glen before. So it was already weird enough.
for Young Moderns: Weird energy I'm sure.
Sam Jones: We put up a bunch of lights in that place. It was weird for everybody, they came in and were like oh we are really making a film. Cause we had come up with this lighting plan to make everything a little more filmable.
But I think the most helpful thing was that we shot on film. And we shot on 16mm so... there's no monitors, there's no video feed, there's no anything. Your shooting very blind, which I'm very used to, because I've been a photographer for 20 years, and I'm used to committing to an exposure and just looking at my stuff later.
So the most interesting thing about that whole process was they saw cameras all the time, but they never saw themselves on film. And this was before iPhones had cameras in them, this was before anyone carrying a camera around. So I think even though it was obviously weird that we were making a film, they never saw any kind of results from it. They never altered who they were.
for Young Moderns: It was never in their consciousness...
Sam Jones: It would have been more distracting if we had put up a full-length mirror, that would have changed their behavior more than the cameras in there.
for Young Moderns: Could you tell me a little bit about your decision to film in black and white?
Sam Jones: Well it was two-fold, first off, some of my favorite music documentaries. Like the Glenn Gould film... there was a Canadian Broadcasting documentary on Glenn Gould. It was in that same kinda time period of Don't Look Back. And the idea of the pure documentarian, you know the go out, load up your 16mm and film your movie. I always loved that look.
And there's a mystery to it. There's definitely a mystery to grainy black and white. But also after seeing that loft, there was such a cacophony of color. Blue tarps over some of the guitars, and there was a big red tool chest... whatever it was, it was a mess, and...
for Young Moderns: It just made more sense sure.
Sam Jones: I knew I was going to be able to tell this story a whole lot better in black and white. And I think there is a timeless quality.
for Young Moderns: Oh absolutely there is..
Sam Jones: It's interesting because it kind of not only became the look for the documentary, but kind of for that whole period of the band... cause I did the album cover for Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.
So it was one of those things where it was the right decision, but it was also kind of an opportunity where no one told me not to shoot it in black and white. When you're making your own project and are paying for it... You want to do it exactly how you want to do it.
A couple years before, The Man Who Wasn't There came out, which was a Coen Brothers film, it was a big deal in the cinematographers world... and was shot on color and transferred. And it came along with kind of the whole is this going to be the death of black and white film stock?
So we had to find a lab that could process it. We found this lab, and the last two films that they had done were Schindler's List and Rattle and Hum—The last two full-length black and white feature productions.. The best thing about it, this lovely nice lady at Kodak, who we asked if we could get film stock, and donate it to our little project, and once she found out it was in black and white, she was able to unload a bunch of film stock on us. Because, I just don't think it was in as much use anymore.
So actually economically it turned out much better.
for Young Moderns: Do you happen to have a favorite track on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot?
Sam Jones: You know it's funny I saw those songs really change... I saw them turn from little acoustic songs, to full-on studio experiments. There's certainly some that stick out to me—The connection with the (documentary) title track I Am Trying To Break Your Heart, —such an incredible little acoustic song when Jeff first played it for me. And I just loved that one, and I loved what they did with it.
I love Poor Places. Those two songs for me are pretty personal, and they are very original compositions.
for Young Moderns: Yeah, I completely agree.
Sam Jones: You know I think Jay had a big part of that too. Jay had a big part of pushing the experimental side of that, as well as Jeff. And I think that gets forgotten about sometimes. I think relationships definitely run their course in some cases, or people get together for certain things. Sometimes people get together so one person can learn a bunch of stuff from the other one.
And then once they've kind of passed that point, maybe there's not so much of a need...
for Young Moderns: Time to move on...
Sam Jones: I'm the last person to say why that relationship didn't work out, but there's very very few bands that exist peacefully with more than one leader... more than one songwriter you know? A relationship like the Edge and Bono for instance is extremely rare, and is the exception.