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A Band's Drama, a Director's Dream

Switching to moving pictures, a photographer documents Wilco's difficult transition

July 28, 2002|KEVIN CRUST

Filmmaker Sam Jones and a soundman were hunkered down last year in a Chicago recording studio shooting footage of the band Wilco. At the time, the band was mixing the album that would be released nearly a year later under the title "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot." The footage is for "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart," a documentary chronicling the making of the band's most recent record.

In the scene, members of the band are engaged in an awkward disagreement over the sound mix. The subtlety of their strained jabs could be the exchanges of a couple that has stayed together too long. Under the watchful eye of Jones' camera, the musicians attempt a retreat to a shadowy recess, but remote microphones captured every word.

"I think if that argument had taken place earlier in the movie, earlier in the shooting, they would've taken it outside, taken it somewhere else," Jones says. Instead, it occurred well into the shoot, when Jones had sufficiently bonded with the band and his money had nearly dried up so that the filmmaker was down to a skeleton crew. Many times in the course of making the movie, adversity has worked in its favor. The scene, which has the nuance of fine drama, would provide ample foreshadowing for a longtime member's rancorous departure from the band.

Personnel turnover was not the only dramatic flair presented to Jones' cameras during the making of the film, which opens Friday in Los Angeles. The experimental nature of the album led to a much-publicized rift between Wilco and its record label, Reprise, the band's switch to another arm of the Warner Music Group, Nonesuch, and a 10-month delay in the album's release.

This kind of drama was far from Jones' mind in October 2000 when he wrote a letter to Wilco's manager, Tony Margherita, explaining his idea to make a film about the band. Jones, a successful magazine photographer whose work appears regularly in publications such as Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone, Esquire, GQ and Premiere, wanted to make a movie.

"I specifically wanted to do an artist, a musician at the height of [his] creative power. I always imagined what it was like to be in France during the making of [the Rolling Stones'] 'Exile on Main Street' and really see what was going on at the time, not in hindsight," Jones says. "Kind of like 'Let It Be,' which is one of my favorite movies, even though it's really hard to watch in some parts. It was an attempt to see people do what they do at work without faking it."

Jones believed Wilco would be prime material for a film. "What I really wanted to do was be around a band, and when I saw Wilco in '99, I thought, 'This is it.' Their visual profile isn't too large, no one really knows it. They're fairly naive about the camera, yet they're making the best work of their career, right now. I thought if the timing worked out, that would be the cool thing to watch, the making of the record."

Jones won over Margherita and the band's leader, Jeff Tweedy, over dinner in an Italian restaurant in north Chicago.

"My first reaction was, probably, I didn't take it very seriously," Tweedy recalls. "From time to time, people suggest some things and it seems they don't have quite all their mental faculties working. We get propositioned all the time by lunatics, and it seemed like it might be one of those things except Sam sent his book, which was probably a pretty smart thing since looking at his portfolio of photographs showed that he was at least a successful and accomplished photographer. He was interested in working with us, and I got a good feeling that he was the kind of guy who does what he says he's going to do."

Tweedy took Jones for a drive around Chicago that November night, playing for him the demos of the album, including what would wind up being the opening track, "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart." "One of us said, 'This would be a great title for the movie,' and guess what?" Jones wrote in his online filmmaker's diary.

The pair struck a deal granting Jones complete creative control over the movie.

"The only thing I asked for," Jones says, "was that I get to do it, you guys don't come in the editing room, you don't tell me I can't shoot something. I think you've got to give a lot of credit to Jeff for thinking, 'This is the kind of film I would like to see.' "

The band never regretted placing its trust in Jones, and his experience behind the camera made for a mutually beneficial experience. "We were pretty comfortable when we were doing what we were supposed to be doing, like making music or playing shows, then the cameras really disappeared," Tweedy says. "There were moments throughout the process where I thought, 'This movie has gotten a lot more interesting in spite of ourselves.' "

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