Jon Elston: A Brief Interview With A Hideous Man

By Tom Waters
July 16th, 2002

Jon Elston is not, in actuality, a hideous man, but he's a big fan of David Foster Wallace, a very funny writer with a book that has a very similar name. Jon Elston is also a very talented director in Buffalo, New York. A year and a half ago he released a film that he co-wrote, produced and directed called Lemkin's Last $ale to a surprising outbreak of local critical and public praise. It went over very well, went to video, and unfortunately, disappeared. After coaxing Jon a bit, he manages to get me a copy of his first effort and it's very funny.

Lemkin's Last $ale is about a rather large man who learns how to attract and entice women with skills he's picked up from the movie Glenngary/Glennross. It's not perfect by any means, but one can see the promise and the potential that the film holds much in the same way you can tell that Woody Allen is going somewhere after Take The Money And Run. The universe in Lemkin (aside from being filmed entirely in Buffalo and starring local talents) is populated with large men that women find attractive and women who have one hair color: red. I like that universe, but it's a bit slanted. And for a romantic comedy it is a tad long, but taken in small doses, it was very entertaining. Jon is terribly embarrassed with it (in the same way that I'm embarrassed with the final result of my first book) and would rather discuss his new project, Infinity Wind, which is two weeks into production. Mr.Elston is looking to have the shooting completed by late fall and take it from there. I'm sure that Buffalo would love to see one of their own come up with a sophomore effort.

At 25, Jon is a tall, lean man. He looks like he's lost a lot of weight since his last press junket. He pauses frequently so that he can deliver or conjure up the perfect response to every addle brained question I fire at him, and he continues on in most cases undaunted and unaffected during the interview. We're sitting out on the patio at Otto's on Union in Cheektowaga on one of the hottest days yet this summer and the sun is finally starting to give us all a break. Every time either of us mentions the word 'film' or 'book', a woman cranes her neck over and works her neurons to the hilt trying to figure out if either of us are important. Jon points this out to me, and I would prefer to think that he is the important one. After all, the interview is about him. I space out the rest of my pitcher while he nurses something that appears to be a Jack and Coke while his friend basically stares off into the distance and laughs occasionally. Jon is the sort of artist who lives in his creations and occasionally peaks his head out to let the rest of us in on the world he's fleshing out at the moment. He's focused, but guarded. A tough challenge.

How has managing a local theater affected your technique?

 Managing a local theater has confronted me with the face of the audience. Of the viewer, the capital V Viewer, and it has been a crash course in really getting a front row seat as to what the mass market is looking for, what they want from their cinematic entertainment. And therefore it has been a great education. A sobering education, let's say.

Which film influenced Lemkin's Last $ale the most?

 (Laughs) Clearly the greatest influence on Lemkin's Last $ale was the play and subsequent film Glenngary/Glennross by David Mamet, which is referenced intermittently within Lemkin's Last $ale. The lead character of Lemkin's Last $ale is in fact overwhelmed by the philosophies that he discovers in Glenngary/Glennross and internalizes these philosophies and begins to live his life accordingly. And likewise the co-writer and producer of Lemkin's Last $ale, Scott Behrend, really did encounter and internalize the philosophies in Glenngary/Glennross. So the film is, I would say, semi-autobiographical.

Do you think Quentin Tarantino has burned out, or that he's developing his next unconventional blockbuster?

Tarantino's next film is Kill Billand he's already made a big misstep in my estimation by casting David Carradine as the heavy. (At this point I interject with the fact that he's made great hits out of films with no-names and washed up has-beens before). He has, but yet David Carradine does not even register on the same level of a Robert Forster or a Travolta. Not even close in my opinion. Luckily, as a mitigating factor, Michael Madsen does have a reportedly juicy role in Kill Bill. In Tarantino's next project after Kill Bill, Madsen's supposed to be the lead, so, I'll just be holding out for that. I'm waiting on Four Rooms 2 (laughs) Don't hold your breath on that one, Tom.

How has the advent of digital camcorders influenced independent cinema?

In a way, it sort of made film making a far more.(at this point, a plane flies overhead and we all shake our heads, used to being at the end of the runway out in Cheektowaga and Clarence) accessible endeavor for a lot wider range of potential film makers. Physical celluloid, 16 mm, 35 mm, is extremely costly and prohibitive for most independent, underground filmmakers working out of their own pockets. So DV can be much cheaper and at least semi comparable in quality. It's a really appealing option that allows people to create a product that's tolerable looking and cheap and easy to work with. I think it really puts the emphasis on the stories that people want to tell and the ideas that people want to communicate rather than purely the bottom line. The financial bottom line.

What was the last great North American Film?

 The last great film made in North America was Memento. (Now, Jon and I start making fun of David Foster Wallace by referring to modern film as meta and belletristic). The original belletristic meta-film was Memento and I would throw in Waking Life as a very close second. It's an outstanding film. Behind that I would say Rushmore from '98.

Kubrick,. (Jon goes for a quick gulp of his mixed drink and looks as if he's being stretched out on the rack. I assure him that this isn't going to be a painful exercise and he says that he heard Kubrick and he had to take a drink.) Kubrick, Scorcese, or Fincher?

What's the question? Who's the sexiest? Too soon to tell. My gut response is David Fincher but it's too soon to tell. After Panic Room, I may have to reconsider my thoughts. I would say that Fight Club points out Fincher as a visionary stylist and storyteller, but then obviously he could turn it around and deliver pure, populist entertainment. (Now we discuss the fact that Steven Soderburgh has a knack for doing commercial trash like Erin Brockovich and Ocean's Eleven while walking a tight rope and directing very non-commercial films like The Limey and Traffic.) Kubrick and Scorcese represent a generation past.

Things you learned shooting Lemkin's Last $ale that will streamline the production of Infinity Wind?

Pre-production is key, and a director needs to walk onto a set confident that his approach is going to be the most pure, honest, and direct approach, and not necessarily the only approach. You've got to keep yourself open to possibilities but you also need to be open to knowing what you want to do and what you want to accomplish and knowing how to make it happen. (I bring up the outlandish shooting schedules of Oliver Stone and Jon declines to comment).

Which genre is the most obnoxious; romantic comedies, teen movies or documentaries with a grossly deceptive slant?

 I'm going to say that both romantic comedies and teen movies are a tie for the most insidiously subversive because documentaries are not a genre that reach a great enough number of people to make any significant impact upon public consciousness whereas romantic comedies and teen movies hit everyone where they live and destroy our culture from within.

If you had an unlimited budget, what sort of movie would you make?

 I would make a classic celluloid mind roaster in the style of a great Alejandro Jordorowski masterpiece. In the style of The Holy Mountain which, no film in thirty years has come closer than Fight Club, and Fight Club clearly lost a lot of money. So if money was not an object I would do unbelievable, colossal, brain-cooking, gigantic, insane epics. Particularly if it screwed the studios. Thank you, Robert Altman. No, no, no, don't say that, please.

What film made you want to go into the business?

Not a film, it was Twin Peaks on T.V., but it was David Lynch. Twin Peaks made me wake up and recognize that film making was art and not just advertising. It was on t.v. and it was totally singular and you're never gonna see that again. Unless it was a live action, Real World type reality based show. (laughs) Wasn't that Murder in Small Town X?

Is Buffalo a prime shooting location for the big movie studios to utilize?

  If major studios are interested in extremely cheap, enthusiastic and dedicated labor and local business owners and politicians willing to bend over backwards to facilitate them, then I think Buffalo is the #1 most opportune location in America. Way to walk the tight rope on that answer! You know, there is not a single person in Buffalo who does not want to make a movie or be part of a movie, and Hollywood should wake up to that. 40,000 people in Buffalo would show up to a movie starring Jim Carrey's t-shirt. That Jim Carrey movie is a go, you know.

Are there too many award ceremonies (in film) these days?

There will not be enough awards in Hollywood until there's at least one ready to go to me. I have no idea what that means. Outstanding.

Do you think that the creative boom of directors and films from the '70s can ever be duplicated?

 I think that question presupposes that every one of those films and every one of those film makers live up to their press and their legend. And I think every year we see premieres by promising new talents that are out there for the exploiting and it is only for the industry to take note of them and give them the means to work. And to help them sell out. (laughs) Jump right on them and force them to whore themselves as quickly as possible.

You're known as an avid David Byrne (Talking Heads) fan. How would you critique True Stories from a director's standpoint?

A brilliant, reckless experiment. If you read David Byrne's book on the making of True Stories, it becomes clear that the man, and this is a running theme tonight, the man is not just a brilliant musician and artist but probably a brilliant film maker waiting for another opportunity to actualize a brilliant film. I think he's got a lot of incredibly original, unique and exciting ideas for cinematic storytelling, only some of which ended up in the film. But it's a.very good film. I just look forward to hopefully at least one more feature before he dies. (We then talk about the latest solo album from David Byrne, Look Into The Eyeball, and how we're both grossly underpaid for our talents at our legitimate jobs.)

Do you like Yoda now that he's a badass?

 I must admit that I have not yet seen Episode II, not even on the internet, but I hear that he kicks Christopher Lee's ass and Christopher Lee has got to be pushing 80, so how much of a badass can Yoda really be if he's beating up an 80 year old man?

Which is the most important element to making a financially and artistically successful film; script, direction, or production?

 The easy answer is direction because any good director will make damn sure that his script is perfect before he goes into production and then he'll ride production hard like an insane, hopped up task master but your question is troublesome (interviewer laughs and agrees) because there is no guarantee of both financial and artistic success. Do you really need to pin one or the other? If you go for financial you need to be prepared for the artistry to go right out the window and if you go for the artistry, you need to trust your instincts and trust that the results will be a film that people want to see, people respect, and people will be interested in. (I bring up Steven Spielberg's Amistad as a joke example) No, not like anything Steven Spielberg has done since maybe 1941. By the way, you can put this in the interview if you like. Steven Spielberg's best film was Empire Of The Sun, close second: 1941.

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