BY JONATHAN VALANIA In honor of you-know-who playing the Tower tonight (look for pix tomorrow, and an Inquirer review up Monday) and the Oscars on Sunday, I give you this Q&A with Sam Jones, the director of I Am Trying To Break Your Heart and photographer to the stars. Sam recently called out of the blue to tell me how excited he was about this band he was working with from Chambersburg, PA, called The Shackeltons. I told him I would check out these Shackeltons if he would sit for an interview, because that’s the way show biz works, Sammy. I say that in jest, because Sam knows how show biz works. He recently published The Here And Now (Harper Collins), a collection of his stunning celebrity portraiture, with foreward by George Clooney. Speaking of which, Sam shot Clooney on Monday for this week’s TIME cover story. Small world.
PHAWKER: So I saw your movie, I Am Trying To Break Your Heart, and I thought it was pretty good. For a first-time director, anyway. To be honest, I thought it was gong to be a little more about me and less about Wilco. I remember paying you good money to be in that film. Did everyone have to pay? How much did you charge Wilco? It seems like it’s playing all the time on IFC. Seems like everyone I know and run into along the way tells me they have seen it on there.
SAM JONES: Yeah, it’s kinda taken on a life of its own, it kinda lives in the cultural ether. Obviously that is very gratifying. I am always pleasantly surprised how many people I shoot tell me they are big fans of the movie and the band.
PHAWKER: Names, please.
SAM JONES: Hmmm, George Clooney is a great fan of the documentary, very supportive. It was all Joaquin Phoenix wanted to talk about when I shot him [around the release of Walk The Line].
PHAWKER: I think I have a man crush on George Clooney, and I’m not even gay. He is to movie stars what Sinatra was to saloon singers. My girlfriend is a little jealous. So any other film projects in the works?
SAM JONES: Well, two actually. One is a screenplay I wrote and hope to direct, and the other is a film version of [David Foster Wallace‘s] Infinite Jest, which I am attached to direct.
PHAWKER: Holy shit! That is awesome. And INSANE.
SAM JONES: I know, I know. But we have a script that everyone likes. We are looking at casting right now. But whether or not it ever gets made is up to the movie gods.
PHAWKER: What about another fly-on-the-wall-for-a-year music documentary?
SAM JONES: Definitely, if the right subject comes along, but right now I’ve got an eight-month-old and a 22-month-old to look after.
PHAWKER: So how did this TIME cover come about?
SAM JONES: I think George actually requested me, we get on well, I have shot him many times.
PHAWKER: TIME magazine, that is pretty HUGE, man.
SAM JONES: Actually, I have shot four or five other covers for them: Bono, Tom Cruise, Heather Graham…
PHAWKER: You know, you should think about doing this for a living.
SAM JONES: What was nice about the TIME shoot was that the magazine trusted me enough not to send someone to look over my shoulder the whole time, which is often the case with big shoots. And George is just great. He is not vain. He does not require that a bunch of conditions be met before he agrees to the shoot and he doesn’t take himself too seriously. Great practical joker. [On the TIME shoot] there was no hair or make-up people, no airbrushing. That’s just him as he is. And more power to him for keeping it real. I get annoyed when there is a lot of unnecessary artifice. I have always liked photos that put very little between the camera and the subject.
PHAWKER: Let’s run through some of the photos in the book. We’ll play word association, I’ll say the subject’s name and you tell me whatever comes to mind about that shoot, OK? Heath Ledger…
SAM JONES: Really nice guy. I caught him at a very happy time in his life. He had just moved to New York with Michelle and they just had a kid. All I remember was he was really into cooking healthy, whole food meals for his family and really into being a new father. He was in what I call ‘new child bliss’.
PHAWKER: Barenaked Ladies?
SAM JONES: It was THEIR idea to get naked. I thought that was pretty cool, first time on the cover of Rolling Stone and these guys wanna get naked. I went into that shoot thinking these guys aren’t my thing, but I walked away really, really liking those guys.
PHAWKER: What is the number one priority when you shoot Tom Cruise?
SAM JONES: Be on time, he’s very prompt.
PHAWKER: Do you ever feel intimidated?
SAM JONES: Maybe at the very beginning, but never by my subjects. The problem is always a handler getting in the way, a publicist running interference or the magazine being fussy. To me it is no different than shooting a dentist or a housekeeper: Try to make them comfortable.
PHAWKER: Jack Nicholson.
SAM JONES: Really smart guy, not so worried about social graces or what comes out of his mouth. Tom Cruise likes you to tell him what to do, he likes to be directed. Jack gets bored with that real quick. It’s best not to tell him what to do. I just try to be a fly on the wall and capture some natural moments.
PHAWKER: Matt Damon. Those Bourne movies are the shit!
SAM JONES: Again, great guy. Totally up for anything. We did this Boys Life shoot for Premier, a day that any guy would love: we had a dock, we had mud, we had a raft, we had a train.
PHAWKER: Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson.
SAM JONES: We shot that in New York for Rolling Stone, the idea was that we were these imaginary French New Wave filmmakers running around the city shooting on the fly with all natural light. They loved it. It’s always so great shooting people that are friends.
PHAWKER: Joaquin Phoenix.
SAM JONES: Another fan of the Wilco movie. When I shot him he had just directed a music video for his friend’s band and he wanted to talk shop.
PHAWKER: And in addition to all of this, you are a partner in a record label called Loveless, which, just let the reader in on the back story is how you and I got back in touch. You called me out of the blue to tell me about this band from Chambersburg, PA, that you were working with called the Shackeltons. Tell me why they are special.
SAM JONES: They are young, full of punkish energy and sound like a band that loves Television even though they never actually heard Television, if that makes sense. Very rudimentary, with these incredible moments of accidental brilliance.
PHAKWER: One last question, tell me something scandalous about Renee Zellweger.
SAM JONES: She is John Cougar Mellencamp’s biggest fan.