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10 Directors to Watch: Film Champion Kent Jones Puts His Taste to the Test With ‘Diane’

The New York Film Festival leader gained a greater appreciation for the challenges directors face after making exceptional Tribeca-winning 'Diane.'

A respected aesthete best known as head of the New York Film Festival, Kent Jones now finds himself identifying as a different sort of director — the kind who operates behind the camera, as opposed to exercising his power before a projector.

“As a critic, I became more and more interested in the nuts and bolts of filmmaking,” says the soft-spoken 58-year-old, an editor-at-large for Film Comment who made a handful of documentaries over two decades, including a pair he co-directed with Martin Scorsese, followed by films about Val Lewton and the legendary Hitchcock/Truffaut interviews.

As Jones gained production experience, the act of passing judgment on other people’s work has become more painful. Most critics, he finds, know scandalously little about how movies are actually made. But Jones was driven to find out, so he learned about acting from legendary theater director Ulu Grosbard. In the early ’90s, he landed a job as video archivist for Scorsese, adopting the master as a mentor. And he befriended other filmmakers — including Olivier Assayas, Claire Denis and the Dardenne brothers — who encouraged him.

Still, for the longest time, he lacked the confidence to tackle his first narrative feature. “I was waiting until I understood that there was no such thing as it feeling right, and I just had to go ahead and do it,” Jones says.

The resulting debut, “Diane,” is an incredibly personal film, inspired by the women in his family and focused, in Jones’ words, on the place “where inner experience and outer experience merge and become pretty much the same thing.” He wrote the title role for actress Mary Kay Place and shot the film in 20 days — “I really like having that kind of pressure,” he says — relying on the crew to teach him what he didn’t already know.

And then came the moment to submit to festivals, when Jones found himself on the receiving end of rejections — which had always been his least favorite part of his job programming for NYFF. Finally, it was his hometown Tribeca festival that invited the film, which went on to win its top prize.

Jones may have gotten a late start, but he is dedicated to directing. “It’s where I’ve always been going,” he says. As Assayas told him, “Nobody’s going to make your movie but you.”

Influences: Claire Denis, Monte Hellman, Martin Scorsese, Orson Welles
Agency: United Talent Agency

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