Music Film Web: Kurt Markus Travels With Mellencamp

The Ask
Kurt Markus: Travels with Mellencamp by Dave Watson

With John Mellencamp: It’s About You debuting theatrically this week, here’s 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 “extraordinary vision and focus.” 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 It’s About You – which Markus made with his son, Ian – 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 wasn’t a call totally out of the dark. John is really a fascinating guy, with many facets to his personality – some a little bit [laughs] abrasive, it’s fair to say. That’s no news at all. But also he’s 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, “By the way, Kurt, I expect this to be” – no offense to South by Southwest – he said, “I want this to be a Sundance film.” 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 that’s 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 who’ve played there?

Well, that’s obviously a question for him. From a distance, I would offer this, and I don’t know if it’s in direct response to your question or not, but I think he sees himself increasingly as a songwriter, and I think that his lyrics – this is my guess – are gonna be reinterpreted when he’s gone, reinterpreted by many different artists. And I think we’ll 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 Mellencamp’s 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. There’s no over-arching message here. It’s really just kind of a journey with music, and the music is the key. It’s an hour and 20 minutes with John’s music, and without that there really wouldn’t be a film. And the rest, in a sense, really is to me just a way to connect the songs. I really didn’t want to do a retrospective type film where I would give in to John’s past and see an evolution in his work or interview other people commenting on John. That’s 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?

I’m not a real fan of the digital image. I’d wanted to shoot it in Super 8 right from the very beginning. It wasn’t even a question for me. [There were] questions we had to answer, like how do we sync sound. I don’t know for sure but I’ve been told this is probably the only feature length film ever done entirely on Super 8 that’s 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 – nothing to do with my son’s eye, whether or not he’s 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 don’t expect everybody to think – they could look at it and say, Wow, what a crummy image. I look at it and I think, Wow, how beautiful. And that’s what I was hoping for, just something to look at. The music’s already there, so how do you not get in the way of the music? And if you’re gonna to show an image, can you just be in the background, in a sense, just be an impression, and let whoever’s watching the thing fill in the blanks? I didn’t really see a need to be very literal with trying to explain things. It’s just, could my son and me get out of the way, put something up on the screen that might work?

What’s it like working with your son?

[Laughs] That’s a really good question for him. He had enough of his old man. We were married for over a year. He’s a really good kid, and very valuable to me as a shit-detector. He’s very uncompromising. We had our struggles, but you know, I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything. It’s a rare treat to share something like this with your son. Or your daughter. Either way.

The title of the film is It’s About You. Who is “you”?

I love it that you’re asking the question, because that’s the desired effect. Who is it about, at this point? I don’t 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.