SXSW Q&A: John Mellencamp Doc Director Kurt Markus

Director Kurt Markus with John Mellencamp

Sought-after still photographer segues to Super 8 for 'It's About You,' chronicling Mellencamp's T-Bone Burnett-produced 2009 album 'No Better than This.'

Kurt Markus may have 35 years of experience behind a camera, but when an old friend called one day to ask if he was interested in collaborating on a film, Markus wondered if he was the right man for the job. Sure, he’s one of the most sought after still photographers in the world, regularly winning awards for his work in everything form Vanity Fair to Vogue and Rolling Stone. But helming a feature-length documentary without any prior experience? It sounded a little too risky, even for an adventurous spirit like the Montana-based Markus.

As it happens, he didn’t have much choice. The friend in question was veteran songwriter John Mellencamp, who told Markus he wanted a visual chronicle of his back-to-basics 2009 release No Better Than This, the T-Bone Burnett-produced album recorded at three historic locations utilizing a single microphone and a mono tape recorder more than a half-century-old. 
 
It was an offer a purist like Markus couldn’t refuse. Throwing caution to the wind, he enlisted his film student son Ian to handle sound duties and set out on the road with Mellencamp to learn documentary filmmaking on the fly. The result is It’s About You, an intimate, moody music doc that premiered March 12 at South by Southwest as an American Documentary Showcase selection.
 
Employing a Maysles Brothers-like verite style combined with introspective ruminations on everything from the state of small town America to his relationship with his son, Markus’ film is anything but your typical rock n roll vanity project. In fact, Mellencamp remains an enigmatic figure throughout thanks to the fact that Markus chose to avoid direct interviews as much as possible. Instead, through the use of grainy super 8 film stock, still photography and natural lighting, the film provides a fly-on-the-wall glimpse at recording sessions in such hallowed spots as Memphis’ Sun Studios and San Antonio’s Gunter Hotel, where blues legend Robert Johnson cut some of his most memorable songs. 
 
Markus recently talked to The Hollywood Reporter about the perils of learning filmmaking from scratch and how, as the title suggests, It’s About You is as much about his journey as it is Mellencamp’s.
 
THR: You discuss this a little in the film itself, but can you talk about how this originated and how you became involved?
 
Markus: Over the years I’ve been connected and reconnected with John Mellencamp. We go back over 20 years. I wouldn’t call us necessarily the best of friends, but more than just a kind of acquaintance for sure. And John, I think, had a sense that this new album that he was going to do would be kind of a unique opportunity to look at him and his music in a different way. It’s kind of strange at how he arrived at having me do it and to document it.
 
Especially because you have never done anything like this before right?
 
Markus: Yeah, exactly. I worked with John on a previous music video and John will throw you very quickly into situations you had never been before. I think he has a real knack for it and he’s done it over and over - giving people jobs they have never done before. His son, Hud, had been boxing and was really quite accomplished for this young kid. I had done a book on boxers and I had sent it to Hud and John had taken a look at it and strangely enough he really liked the book and some of the things I had written in it. He said, “You know, I got the book that you sent Hud and I want you to do this film.” He really kind of, I don’t know if inspired is the right word, but I think something in it gave him confidence that he would get something not entirely expected in this film.
 
What was your reaction? Were you on board immediately or were you reluctant or nervous?
 
Markus: Well, John very quickly said, “You know, Kurt, I expect this to be a Sundance Film.”
 
So no pressure.
 
Markus: Exactly. But I took him at his word that he wanted my best effort. I think I also knew that we were shooting a little high for someone who had never made a film before.
 
Outside of that did he give you a lot of input into how he wanted it to look or sound or feel or anything?
 
Markus: That’s the craziness of it. He gave me almost no input at all, like, from beginning to end. I have had people who work their whole careers in the film business tell me “you know how remarkable that is?”
 
Is that just how he is or was that a conscious decision on his part?
 
Markus: I think it was conscious. I don’t think it’s unfair to say that he commissioned the film and it could either be a vanity piece or it could have some other soul to it. I think he was very smart and courageous in recognizing he had to let go.
 
Why did you decide to shoot it in super 8? I was curious while watching it if that presented any problems in terms of the sound?
 
Markus: Yeah, that was a huge issue. When John and I decided, OK, we are going to do this, I had a couple months to try to prepare myself for it. Syncing sound was going to be an issue. There wasn’t really a manual that I could find or anything else that was going to tell me how to do this with super 8. It has a unique set of problems to it, but I was looking at D.A. Pennebaker and the Maysles’ Brothers, and from what I learned, they were the pioneers of syncing sound with 16mm film. In the way they did it, and this was in the 1960s, was to have a sound person they were with and in both cases there was like a two-person operation, which suited us perfectly: Myself and my son. One person doing sound and the other person basically operating the camera. It was a particular look, I think, that also really when I saw these films I thought that’s the style [I wanted]. The sound person would hold a card with a number on it and tap the microphone, which the cameramen would shoot and they used that as the method of syncing the sound.
 
You really could have made it a lot easier on yourself by shooting digitally…
 
Markus: You make it easier, but then you make it more difficult, I think, in the editing because I think that this film is really beautiful.
 
Had you ever edited Super 8 before?
 
Markus: Yes and no. I’ve been in the editing bay with an accomplished avid operator. This was on music videos – so my editing was limited to the three or four music videos. Two things struck me: One was when I looked at the avid operator I thought, holy shit, I’m never going to be able to do this because even as quickly as they did it they never made it look simple. And the other thing was that the few experiences that I had kind of gave me this, perhaps, false confidence that I could do it. That I could make a decision and say this goes here and that goes there. Do this and do that. I had a confidence that some way, somehow we could edit it. It was the technical aspect that really hung like a dark cloud over this.
 
You mean throughout the filming?
 
Markus: Yeah. I mean, because I didn’t see anything until we actually totally finished and I went to Los Angeles. I wanted to be there when they transferred the film to digital because I knew that’s a big thing - the color correcting and the color timing. We operated basically in the blind for a month and a half, the entire time while we shot.
 
John knew all this, right? He knew that since this was your first time that these were the things you were dealing with?
 
Markus: We only said a few words to us the whole time. He would say, “well, how’s your film coming Kurt?”
 
Really, that was it?
 
Markus: That’s about it.
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Most people would just want to point a camera at him and just let him go and just follow him around everywhere. But you took a totally different approach. At what point did you make the decision to make it like that?
 
Markus: Well, John did push me on one thing, which is he kept saying “Kurt, I want more about you in this film.” I kind of kept pushing it back because I would say, “come on John, no one is interested in what I think.” John is a complicated guy. … I was not really anxious to get John talking in the course of doing the tour or the recordings because John can be combative and I didn’t want that kind of mood. He can very quickly throw something back at you and I though it would be more interesting to wait until the tour was over when I would compile a list of questions and then I go to Indiana and interview him about the tour and the recording and that would be the soundtrack. I did all the research. I wrote all the questions. I read the books and by that time I put myself into the movie where I couldn’t get myself out of it.
 
What went into the decision to involve your son?
 
Markus: One: he was handy and he’s assisted me in my career as a still photographer and both my sons and my daughter served as assistants over the years. He is really a good kid and smart and he’d be cheap, which would be the other part of it. He was interested in film as a career potentially and I think that everything pointed to him. But for me, I valued the idea that I had to have a shit detector on board at all times. If I hired someone I didn’t know… if I thought I could’ve hired a sound person I would have to know the right sound person and they would also have to work for cheap. But also the personality was going to be a big deal. I was going to have to live with them for a month and a half. 
 
Is it something that both of you will pursue from here on out?
 
Markus: As much as I love some documentaries, I’m more of a fan of Hollywood filmmaking. I think the doc genre, and in particular now, with the advent of everything digital it’s less interesting visually to me. I don’t really think the act of filmmaking is really revered and respected in doc filmmaking the way it could or should be. It’s a visual medium, but I think what passes off for visual is not handled… I don’t know quite how to say this…
 
A philosophy of some kind is going to direct anybody in whatever it is they do and I think both my son and I, because he shoots still pictures and stuff, we both said: Let’s do a lot of still photographs because Ken Burns can make a film out of nothing but still pictures. Why can’t we shoot stills instead? Why do we think that everything has to be shot on film. Why put anything up there unless it really marries to whatever sound is happening? So it was kind of a knuckleheaded point of view, but I thought what the fuck? It’s going to be a funky film regardless. We couldn’t help ourselves. We might as well embrace the funkiness of it.
 
The title itself kind of begs the question: Who is this thing about? Ultimately, did it end up being about you?
 
Markus: Yeah, pretty much. … I think I got so lucky with the fact that John’s music is so good. If that album had stunk there would be no film, really. I got to cherry pick John’s music, which really put it through another filter because I took it away from John in a senseSo what you are hearing on the soundtrack is John’s music as I interpret it.
 
So you were like the music supervisor as well. Any input from him as to which songs?
 
Markus:  Nope. When I got back Ian and I were looking for some sort of structure for it and I said well, how about just the playlist because John had thought about the playlist obviously and thought of it as this ‘song kicks off the concert and this song ends it.’ But of those songs he played on tour, I kind of cherry picked them. There are some that are not my favorites, if you will. So I didn’t deal. I just ignored those. I don’t know that I did anybody any favors, it just made it easier for me because I’m going to spend all this time with this film. I want a soundtrack that I love. I thought there were a few songs that were just killer and I loved the way that T-Bone had brought in a couple session players. I had never seen that before and I thought that was really cool and these guys were amazing. I thought at the end of it, boy, if I’m going to do another film I’d love to do one of the session players. That’s a crowd there.
 
That comes through in the way the camera lingers on certain players.
 
Markus: Good. I have a lot of respect for them. You don’t realize what goes into the making of an album. 
 
If I could summarize, I think the music really isn’t about me. Yes I’m the filter, I tried to provide a context to really listen to John’s music. In that sense I’m the background and John is the heart and soul of it with his music.
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