An Interview with Jonathan Robinson – By Philip Smolen

 

Jonathan Robinson is a busy man. Working in the film industry as a camera assistant, Jonathan has worked on many major films and TV shows including “The Butler” (2013) and “The Mist” (2007). But recently, Jonathan had an opportunity to direct his first film, a documentary about the making of Steven Spielberg’s classic sci-fi flick “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977). However, Jonathan’s film is very special.  (See the review here.)  That’s because instead of focusing on Spielberg, Richard Dreyfuss or any other member of the film crew, Robinson focuses on what the film meant to the citizens of Mobile, Alabama (where the movie was filmed). This point of view transforms the film from a typical documentary into a very special film. I had to know more about how this magical movie came together, so I reached out to Jonathan and he graciously took time out from his packed schedule to answer my questions.

RC: Jonathan, who or what were your primary cinematic influences growing up?

JR: As a kid I was heavily influenced by Disney and Looney Toons. I want to believe that they shaped my sense of childlike wonderment and curiosity that I would later develop toward history and the minutiae because I would often question when these shorts were made and who made them. As I became a movie goer, I gravitated in the direction of Spielberg and Zemeckis. “Twilight Zone” reruns and other weird anthology type stories tended to enthrall me, so I felt a desire to watch more films that had a sci-fi theme as opposed to traditional westerns or dramas

RC: What approach did you take for getting into the industry?

JR: Being from the south, I always felt that “getting into the industry” would be a lost cause, and therefore I started with the endeavor to enter a practical career once the college phase of my life began. But in 1997 I met a local student by the name of David Lay. He was working on his own 16mm opus every weekend and was asking those of us in the Communications Department to volunteer our time in exchange for a chance to learn the basic processes of film making. Mr. Lay took the time to show me how to load and shoot with an Arriflex 16mm M model camera. He also let me in on a secret of where he procured the equipment for free. This led to me checking out the equipment and getting more time with it on a personal level. Instead of shooting with video cameras for class, I used Bolexes and Arris. This led to my first loading gig on a 35mm music video and subsequently to a feature film a few weeks later. I have been a camera assistant since 2000 and have to say it has been a blessing of which I am undeserving.

RC: How did you wind up working together with (film maker) Drew Hall on this project?

JR: Drew and I have known each other since private school in the ’80’s. We come from the same home town and have a love of cinema. Once I screened the first edit of my documentary, Drew told me he wanted to help me improve it regarding the effects and editing. He made the project so much more enjoyable and tolerable than what it started out as. He improved it so much. I am not as ashamed of it now as I initially was before he joined in.

RC: Working with Drew, did you find that you both had a similar approach to films?

JR: Drew and I have always been at opposite ends of the film making spectrum. That’s not to say that we are at odds, but our approach to the same end has tended to take different paths. When we were both in college, our projects were both graded highly even though the subject matter and style of shooting weren’t the same. I tended to proceed from the conventional and safe trajectory whereas Drew was always more of a risk taker whose results netted him more acclaim. Therefore, having these two different mindsets has afforded us the advantage of bouncing ideas off of one another and eventually coming up with a compromise that really worked best for the documentary.

RC: “Who are you People” is your directorial debut. But the perspective of the film is so unique. How did you decide to focus on the Mobile, Alabama population who helped to make the film and not take the traditional documentary approach interviewing the creators of the film? Where did the idea for the film come from?

JR: I was watching CE3K one night at the beginning of 2010 and started thinking to myself, “I wonder where all of these locations were in Mobile, Alabama in 1976.”  I remembered as a child my mother would quip about the fact that several of the scenes from the movie took place around west Mobile. When I pressed her further about the subject she always came up empty handed. I thought that surely the internet would reveal all of the answers but I found very little in the way of hard evidence. So this all started out as a selfish quest. I wanted to satisfy my desire for answers. As I dug further and further, making phone calls and scouring newspaper articles, it became apparent that there were still several individuals that were around to tell me their personal stories in how they were connected to the production process of the film.  And that is where everything shifted gears. I had seen several documentaries that accompanied DVD releases of the film in every iteration. But I had not seen an example that showed the everyday common John Q. Public’s aspect of the industry and what it meant to them. There was no point to walking in the same footprints of those that went before me by interviewing the talent or creative personalities associated with the film.

RC: Did you ever consider making a traditional type of documentary about “CE3K”?

JR: Honestly, no. Maybe the same format, but the approach once again had to be unique in order to grab the audiences’ attention. Even the visual aides had to be something never before shown as well as the anecdotes.

RC: Did you encounter any problems with rights or clearances from Columbia Pictures while you were making “Who are you People”?

JR: All of the content seen within the documentary came from the personal collections of those involved and interviewed. And as the documentary is conducted in the journalistic spirit, there are certain laws that further protect me from any litigation by the studio. But as the documentary has been screened by more and more individuals, the idea has been conveyed to me that additional clips from the movie in regards to deleted scenes would be a great addition and would further support what the interviewees are speaking about. I wholeheartedly agree but that is where the studios come back into the picture and their asking price for such clips far exceed anything I am able to cover financially. By omitting these clips, I feel that the documentary lacks the punch it could really have if included.

RC: All the Mobile people interviewed in the film are so charming and their humanity shines right through and they were so eager to talk about their experience. Were you surprised that a camera had this effect on them?

JR: I don’t feel that the camera had any effect on them. I believe what surprised them was the fact that there was somebody 30 years later that wanted to know more about their experiences that had a profound effect in their lives. Indeed these memories were so vivid to them, that as they spoke, it was as if they had just occurred the day before. And that speaks to the testament of what impact this experience had on them then and now. When you take someone out of their ordinary rotation of life and place them in a different vocation or locale that is going to leave an indelible mark on their conscious. Out of the 50 plus individuals that I contacted, only one declined an interview.

RC: It’s amazing to discover just how important filming “Close Encounters” was to the Mobile economy. Do you know if there was a long term economic effect for the area even after the CE3K film crew went back to Hollywood?

JR: After CE3K closed its production doors in September of ’76, the movies continued to pour into the state of Alabama thanks to the efforts of CineTel which preceded the Alabama Film Office. It was through their solicitation of film makers from California that they were able to attract other shows to come in and shoot within a state that could offer various locations and make their production dollars stretch.  This boom would last until the early 90’s with “Under Siege” (1992).

RC: The sheer number of people you interviewed for the film was amazing. Did you leave a lot of interviews on the cutting room floor?

JR: Only a couple of interviews did not survive due to the moderate running time I was striving to achieve. There are several more stories that hit the floor that I have compiled into a sort of deleted material listing destined for a future release.

RC: What makes you proudest about the film?

JR:  I have been humbled by the experience as it has shown me that nothing good is accomplished hastily. With that being said I am proud that I just finished it. It has taken five years of my life. I didn’t have to do this. No one bent my arm back until I screamed “Uncle, okay I’ll do it!” I know it’s not the most polished thing out there; I know it sucks in certain areas and shows my amateur side at times. But I mainly did it for those that took the time to sit with me and just talked with me; a complete stranger with a camera. And now some of those people are no longer with us. And again I say I am so glad I just finished this project.

RC: What’s next for Jonathan Robinson?

JR: Next is more family time, more of my career as a camera assistant in the film industry, and more husbandry around the house. No more documentaries. This was a fluke. I only did it because it was a subject dear to my heart; a labor of love for those Mobilians who now have their name associated with the making of a great motion picture.

RC: How can our readers find out more about you and your projects?

JR: I have a Facebook group page devoted to the documentary.  People can search for “Who Are You People?” if they want.

RC: Thank you Jonathan and good luck. I know we’ll be hearing a lot more from you!

JR: Thanks a lot Phil!

For more information on Jonathan Robinson and “Who are you People?”, please visit: https://www.facebook.com/groups/Whoareyoupeople