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Music Film Web: Kurt Markus Travels With Mellencamp
01.03.2012 - The Ask
Kurt Markus: Travels with Mellencamp by Dave Watson

With John 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 at South 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 film?

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 there?

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 photography background?

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.

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