Music Film Web: Kurt Markus Travels With Mellencamp
Kurt Markus: Travels with Mellencamp by Dave
Mellencamp: Itís About You debuting theatrically this week, hereís an encore
presentation of our interview with co-director Kurt Markus, originally posted
last March when the music documentary had it world premiere at SXSW. The movie
opens January 4 at the IFC Center in New
York and January 6 at the
Laemmle Music Hall 3
in Los Angeles.
Kurt Markus is an internationally renowned photographer whose work has graced
both gallery walls and the pages of publications like Vanity Fair, Rolling
Stone, and Conde Nast Traveler and been critically praised for its
ďextraordinary vision and focus.Ē How did this master of the still image end up
devoting a year of his life to filming John Mellencamp in the studio and on the
road? With Itís About You Ė which Markus made with his son, Ian Ė set to debut
by Southwest, MFW talked to the novice director about switching from
photography to film, and about working with both the famously prickly performer
and his own kin.
MFW: How long have you known John Mellencamp? How did you get involved in the
Kurt Markus: Over 20 years. He first asked me to do some portraits of him. I
already knew John and John knew something about me, so it wasnít a call totally
out of the dark. John is really a fascinating guy, with many facets to his
personality Ė some a little bit [laughs] abrasive, itís fair to say. Thatís no
news at all. But also heís got an admirable sense, I believe, of his legacy. I
think he really believes in his work, which is essential for an artist to have,
even if you hold it just privately rather than announce it to the world. I think
he felt pretty strongly that what he was about to do on tour and recording,
mainly the recording, was something that he wanted documented. And I think he
threw a bigger wrench at it perhaps than maybe he intended, in a sense. He joked
with me when he said he wanted me to do this film, he said, ďBy the way, Kurt, I
expect this to beĒ Ė no offense to South by Southwest Ė he said, ďI want this to
be a Sundance film.Ē I took him seriously, that he wanted something out of this
other than just footage here and there that he could archive and use bit and
pieces of it for whatever he needed. But thatís really the genesis. It was his
thing from the start.
You shoot and record in some iconic places, like Sun Studios in Memphis. Do you
think Mellencamp sees himself in the same tradition as the greats whoíve played
Well, thatís obviously a question for him. From a distance, I would offer this,
and I donít know if itís in direct response to your question or not, but I think
he sees himself increasingly as a songwriter, and I think that his lyrics Ė this
is my guess Ė are gonna be reinterpreted when heís gone, reinterpreted by many
different artists. And I think weíll get a different sense of him as a
songwriter, apart from his delivery. I think that that may be his hallmark.
Is it a film about Mellencampís relationship with America, or a movie about
America with music by Mellencamp?
My intention was basically very, very simple and that was just to entertain.
Thereís no over-arching message here. Itís really just kind of a journey with
music, and the music is the key. Itís an hour and 20 minutes with Johnís music,
and without that there really wouldnít be a film. And the rest, in a sense,
really is to me just a way to connect the songs. I really didnít want to do a
retrospective type film where I would give in to Johnís past and see an
evolution in his work or interview other people commenting on John. Thatís for
another day. I really wanted it to be [an] of-the-moment type film.
Why did you decide to shoot in Super 8? Were you more comfortable given your
Iím not a real fan of the digital image. Iíd wanted to shoot it in Super 8 right
from the very beginning. It wasnít even a question for me. [There were]
questions we had to answer, like how do we sync sound. I donít know for sure but
Iíve been told this is probably the only feature length film ever done entirely
on Super 8 thatís been synced sound. It proved a real challenge. Basically my
son shot with the Sony EX3, and we tried to marry the two images after we got
back and started editing, and there was no way this digital image was gonna
work. Just by comparison, visually Ė nothing to do with my sonís eye, whether or
not heís a skilled filmmaker visually. It was just the quality of the image.
The film feels like a home movie. Were you going for that type of intimacy?
I think that Super 8 inherently is a much richer image. There are some
complicating factors using it, for sure, but it is gorgeous to me. I donít
expect everybody to think Ė they could look at it and say, Wow, what a crummy
image. I look at it and I think, Wow, how beautiful. And thatís what I was
hoping for, just something to look at. The musicís already there, so how do you
not get in the way of the music? And if youíre gonna to show an image, can you
just be in the background, in a sense, just be an impression, and let whoeverís
watching the thing fill in the blanks? I didnít really see a need to be very
literal with trying to explain things. Itís just, could my son and me get out of
the way, put something up on the screen that might work?
Whatís it like working with your son?
[Laughs] Thatís a really good question for him. He had enough of his old man. We
were married for over a year. Heís a really good kid, and very valuable to me as
a shit-detector. Heís very uncompromising. We had our struggles, but you know, I
wouldnít trade this experience for anything. Itís a rare treat to share
something like this with your son. Or your daughter. Either way.
The title of the film is Itís About You. Who is ďyouĒ?
I love it that youíre asking the question, because thatís the desired effect.
Who is it about, at this point? I donít think either John or I knew at the end.
He was very disingenuous when he told me he wanted this film to be about me, and
I knew why he did it. At the same time, it is a smokescreen in front of us that
was laid out there. If I wanted to clear the smoke, it was about John Mellencamp,
and he knew it, and I knew it.