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Byron Jones

About this film

If there is something that characterises contemporary “Slow Cinema” in particular, then it is the directors’ focus on the everyday. They hold a mirror in front of us, in front of our pains, our joys. Ashish Pant’s Byron Jones belongs to this category of filmmakers., but he stands out, taking the focus on the ordinary everyday further than other directors do. Byron Jones is a two-hour long portrait of an elderly man. We see him sleeping, showering, preparing meals, eating. In particular the last two daily habits might evoke in some viewers the memories of Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman; the almost hyper-real depiction of a woman’s day-to-day going ons. Jones, a widow perhaps, lives alone, which the director enhances with an almost oppressive silence that characterises the man’s solitude. With his insistence on showing Jones’ daily activities in detail through the use of almost extreme long-takes, Pant has created a hyper-real portrait not only of Byron Jones, but of most of us.

Nadin Mai (tao films)

Interview with the Director
Byron Jones is an almost two-hour long portrait of an elderly man’s daily life, of his habits, of life’s going-ons, of things we do everyday without being really aware of it anymore. You film everything in detail, you allow the events to unfold. It seems hyper-real even. Can you please explain your decision behind the use of such hyper-real temporal aesthetics?

I grew up in a family which bottled its emotions. The only time I saw my father cry bitterly and laugh heartily was when he watched the big Bollywood melodramas. He watched them and I watched him. This is how I discovered the power of films as child and this experience has impacted my filmmaking. For me film is a chance to raise numerous questions that I have about life, from the mundane to the philosophical.

A few years back as part of social work that I had done, I spent a lot of time with senior citizens who live alone in New York. This experience was the genesis for Byron Jones. I realised that their mundane lives were laden with drama. Things that might not concern younger people, such as walking through a dark room to get to a light switch is a treacherous activity for a lonely old. A slip may lead to death through starvation. I decided to make a film about this drama present in the mundane.

I was determined to find this drama rather than just recreating it and that is what made Byron Jones both experimental and exciting for me. The script was about ten pages long. Gwen Tiernan, the art director, scouted local flea markets to populate Byron's apartment with articles that weren't just props but characters in his life's drama. Then as we rolled the camera we prayed for accidents. The scene where Byron makes popcorn is a good example of this. The old popcorn maker declaring “war” on Byron was such an accident. Bill didn't skip a beat and stayed in character; Byron wouldn't begin eating before he had cleaned all the rogue popcorn. The scene where Byron struggles with a tin of Spam ham is another example of this accidental drama.

For some reason I had to think of Akerman’s Jeanne Dielmann when Byron sits in the kitchen having breakfast or when he prepares dinner. Your camera keeps recording regardless of how long the actual eating or the meal preparation takes. A lot of other filmmakers would have cut after twenty seconds at most.

This is also the reason behind the long take observational camera. Chantal Ackerman has certainly been an influence on me but I'd like to make one point when it comes to the question of why I filmed eating scenes in real time (actually some of them were cut because the camera we were filming with would switch off after 11 minutes). In some films the scene might have been cut after a few seconds because the purpose of the scene might be to provide a transition or just information that the character then has a meal. In Byron Jones the purpose was to share a meal with Byron and observe how he scoops the soup with a piece of bread and wipes everything clean and this contrasts with his last meal that he does not complete (we got Bill the one dish he doesn't like to eat for that one!). Obviously the duration of a shot depends on the purpose; is it to inform the audience or to make them experience? Byron Jones is about getting into the rhythm of Byron's life to experience his daily struggles and that is what determined shot duration. Despite being entirely indoors, we experience the hours of a day through lighting that David Rodberg created on a shoestring budget. Andrew Heyduk edited the film several different ways and we finally settled on the form that best achieved this effect.

The audience reaction to the film has been interesting. Most people have told me that in the first fifteen to twenty minutes they are waiting for a conventional narrative to unfold. When that expectation isn't met their attention wanders away or they get bored, but if they stick around then they slowly give in to observing and experiencing time and with that their empathy for Byron grows. In this case the empathy is achieved through experience and not through identification with character psychology.

Apart from your film’s aesthetics, I’m also very interested in your protagonist. Who is Byron Jones (played by Bill Weeden), and how long did it take you to film him in his environment? I would imagine that it took some time before the right degree of trust was there to film Byron’s every step, even in the bathroom.

The shoot was really challenging for Bill Weeden who is a very experienced comedic actor. The long takes, there are only about 50 cuts in the film, were choreographed and any slips meant retakes. I gave Bill no backstory or character psychology. I wanted him to just be and to physically react to what was going on. Bill was not allowed to watch any television or read news during the shoot (this was really hard for him given that the US elections were in full swing). Bill was not shown the script. We shot chronologically. So there was no way for Bill to bring any psychology or purpose to the character's action except for physical reaction to simple mundane challenges.

The shower scene is an example of Bill's spontaneity. We had planned to shoot only the beginning of the shower and I had told Bill to continue on showering (I had requested him to not bathe that day before we shoot). However, when he started to shower, the guttural sounds that he made were strangely met with similar sounds by the rusty old drain of the bathing tub. So we just kept rolling. When Bill came out of the shower he was totally unaware that we had been filming but he didn't miss a beat. That is the only single take scene in the film.

In some ways, the film is perhaps one of waiting for the viewer. I personally didn’t wait for something to happen, because, in fact, there is a lot happening. Byron Jones shows an ordinary life. But what I waited for was the spoken word, bits of dialogue or even a monologue. Even when Byron shares a meal with someone else, it is eerily quiet, even almost uncomfortable.

I had actually written one line of dialogue, that of Byron ordering food on the phone. However, as we shot I realised that that line would attain unnecessary importance if I included it. The silent lunches with the house cleaner added to the drama. Anjali did a great job revealing their relationship entirely through behaviour. Her boredom is clear, so when she doesn't show up on day three we wonder whether his disengagement drove her away.

I have often had the feeling that dialogue speeds up a film. It might be an illusion to think that because there was dialogue, there is more happening in the film. But this isn’t really the case. What is your take on this?

Your point about dialogue speeding up the film is a great one. I'd just add that narrative speeds up the film and to the extent dialogue advances the narrative it does perhaps help speed up the film. I also wanted to mention the importance of sound design in this context. A shot without dialogue or dramatic action can grow through camera movement that reveals more within the frame as time passes. Sound designer Luigi Porto’s goal was to grow the shot through off-screen sound since we weren't moving the camera to follow Byron. Even in an empty frame we heard Byron and by day three we knew what he was up to. All this served to make the audience experience the rhythm of Byron's daily life.

Are you currently working on a new project?

I have been very busy. I recently shot three short films that are observations about contemporary lives of South Asian Muslim American in New York City. The first of them has recently played at various festivals and I am shortly going to release the second one. I am also preparing to shoot a feature next summer in India that deals with class structure in the Indian society.

Thank you very much for this interview.