When he was still a teenager, Kent Jones had the idea to make a movie about a 70-year old woman living a pretty unremarkable life. It’s the kind existence devoted to faith and family, and a kind of relentless do-gooding that helps keep the demons at bay.
Several decades and a stint as the director of the New York Film Festival later, and Jones is making his narrative feature film debut with “Diane.” It’s a drama about an altruistic septagenarian (Mary Kay Place), who is coming to terms with the deaths of several family members and dealing with a son (Jack Lacy) who is in-and-out of rehab. The film is a powerful meditation on guilt and loneliness, and a picture of a kind of factory town life that is frequently ignored by Hollywood films.
“It’s semi-autobiographical,” said Jones. “It’s not just about the atmosphere of a small town living. It’s about the configurations it takes. How people are always lending each other casserole dishes or cooking for each other when they get sick. It’s about capturing the way people speak and what they say.”
After receiving rave reviews and picking up several top prizes at the Tribeca Film Festival including best narrative feature, “Diane” will screen this weekend at the Locarno Film Festival. IFC has purchased distribution rights for the film and will release it theatrically in early 2019.
The idea for the movie may have dated back to Jones’ days as a pre-adolescent in Pittsfield, Mass., but they didn’t start to crystallize until he saw Place’s performance as the mother of a boy with cancer in 1997’s “The Rainmaker.”
“I just knew she was the one,” said Jones. “She had a soulful quality.”
As luck would have it, five years ago, Jones and Place found themselves on the jury of the Berkshires Film Festival. Jones used the opportunity to tell Place he wanted to write a film for her, but the actress says she didn’t really think much of the offer.
“People say that all the time that they’re going to write a script for you,” said Place. “Most of the time you never get one or if you get one it’s not quite professional or not that good.”
Not so with “Diane.” Place responded to the central character and the setting, which reminded her of time spent with family in rural Texas. The story resonated in her bones, she said.
“Life is a struggle,” said Place. “We’re living, we’re dying, we’re changing. Diane has no inner life at the beginning of the movie and begins to develop one as it proceeds. She’s a person who’s busy doing all the time and doesn’t know how to just be. That’s kind of like our culture, where we’re all so crazy that we don’t have time for reflection.”
“Diane” was shot on a shoestring budget in upstate New York over a brisk 20 days. Jones had to juggle directing and editing the film with his demanding job running the New York Film Festival. Place, who has directed for television, said she was amazed that he didn’t seem to show the strain, noting that Jones kept the set running “like a zen garden.”
“I keep telling him he needs to take a vacation,” said Place. “He’s always so busy, busy, busy. He’s on the phone or he’s running to a meeting.”
It took years to get the funding for “Diane” and even Place and Jones acknowledge they weren’t always certain the money would arrive for a film that doesn’t fit neatly into a genre bubble. Plus, Place, although respected for her work in “The Big Chill” and “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” isn’t a box office powerhouse.
That kind of uncertainty isn’t unique to a small drama like “Diane.” The industry has changed dramatically in recent years. The kind of films that New York Film Festival champions or that helped Place make a name for herself are no longer being released by major studios. They’re being cobbled together by indie players and are lucky to score a Netflix release. All this change seems to be threatening the cultural primacy of cinema.
“I don’t think it’s very romantic to be a director any more,” said Jones. “People don’t want to make films the way they used to. The business model sort of disappeared. I think people are sort of throwing stuff up against the wall to see if it sticks.”
Place agrees, noting that the convenience of streaming services is imperiling the theatrical experience.
“I’m worried about not being able to go into a dark theater and experience something with a bunch of people,” she said. “There’s an energy that happens in those places.”
But Jones isn’t ready to write the obituary for the art form that he loves. He notes that cinema has often been under threat.
“Art is always going to be in danger,” said Jones. “It can always be co-opted or marginalized. I don’t see it disappearing, but the people who love it have to take care of it.”