Grace Jones has been a force of nature throughout her entire career. Whether acting, singing or as an artist, she has always taking chances but it is also about the journey within and out of the spotlight. Jones and the director of the documentary Sophie Fiennes sat down at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival to discuss personal style, body confidence, the influence of Jamaica and flying amongst the stars.
What was the intention doing this movie?
Grace Jones: It was for sure a “rencontre”, a get together between Sophie Fiennes the director and through my brother. She had done a movie with my brother [Noel] who is a preacher in Los Angeles and I was invited to the screening. And this is how I fell in love with Sophie’s work…
Sophie Fiennes: I like to say we met in Church! Haha!
GJ: She is so funny. And in a way Sophie and my brother have the same mind and vision of life. And I do have deep discussion about the meaning of life with my brother. We love to dig into various philosophical ideas and twist them around. And it’s never an argument but a sharing of various ways of believing such and such things. Sometimes it’s a mirror image of opposite thoughts but it’s always stimulating and enlightening to talk with my brother. This way you learn more about each other. And this is the way your mind expands. And I do have a similar relationship with Sophie in that way. Our minds expands with our deep conversations. It’s funny because Sophie and my brother are born the same month. They are both Aquarius. Sophie is an Artist like me…she is very visual. She is about the depth of what you see and what you hear.
Where does your visual style come from?
GJ: It is for sure a combination of many things. First it’s about Jamaica! There were tough rough days [growing up] in Jamaica with no electricity most of the time. So I think this immediately informed me with a specific sense of lighting…a very organic and natural approach. We used oil lamps and this gives a very deep sense of lighting instead of these awful neons. I hate neon light.
SF: And I did try to bring a sense of this rich visual sense you only get in Jamaica. And this was truly amazing to film over there. And I always try to show Grace’s point of view. I wanted people to see what she is looking at.
GJ: And my visual style comes also from my pure imagination…from what is there in my mind. I also learned at an early age to do crochet and to sew thanks to my mother and my aunt. And this nourished my fashion style for sure. You do develop a sense of detail when you start at that age and working from scratch.
SF: And also working with all these great creators such as [Jean-Paul] Gaultier and [issey] Miyake certainly helped you develop your own style…
GJ: Absolutely! And when I started to model they were attracted to me and the way I would present myself…a total stranger way back, with only the equivalent of 5 euros!! I believe there are magnets in the world we don’t see. And certainly we are attracted each other with these various designers…like the opposite sides of magnets do. It’s simply mesmerizing how you are drawn to somebody at a certain time. I remember a place where I used to shop called The Drag Queen and I would buy very old antics for nothing and put myself together an amazing look. And people would go crazy for it. It was a very instinctive process. It’s funny how people would find accessories and clothes for me just based on how I look physically. I’m lucky to have a body that talks to people and makes them see what I should wear or not.
Where is the balance of difficulty to reveal enough of yourself in this film without totally lifting the veil of mystery of Grace Jones?
GJ: it was a difficult task to go far enough to explain where I come from and who I am without exposing everything and all of my secret gardens. There is so much more about me beyond what this film is showing. Yes…there is still a mystery about myself that even as myself I don’t know! I trusted Sophie a lot to show what she wanted to show without fully getting me “naked”…even so I’m quite naked in the movie! Haha!
You did full frontal!
GJ: Did you notice that?! I didn’t! Haha! I’m surprised there was no more frontal nudity as I’m a nudist and I am always naked at home! Everything sees me naked all the time!
Were you always that much at ease with you body?
GJ: Not at all! Are you kidding?! I had a very tight church upbringing and therefore nudity was out of the question! But little by little I freed myself from this upbringing. I revealed to myself my true nature, and it is the one of being a nudist! Haha! I joined a nudist colony and this is how it freed me from being so tight with my body. I had a hippy boyfriend and I was even with a Hell’s Angel at time. But yes, I was surprised that there wasn’t more shots of me being naked in this film. And this is not about sex…this is just about the organic pure beauty of the body BEING. Being naked and being FREE.
It’s also quite amazing how the music structures the movie?
GJ: Right! I love it as music is me and I am music! My music is like my beautiful children. I love to play with them and I don’t feel I sing them. I live them and perform them in so many different ways. Sometimes I even rap them because my voice is not where it should be. I’m very playful and it’s amazing to be able to do this with your Art. I love also going to the opera style and I learned it from Pavarotti. It was amazing to sing with him and it taught me so much…
What did you discover about yourself that you didn’t before and why do you think Grace Jones is so relevant today?
GJ: It’s a mystery to me but I’m amazed how anybody is still in love with my music. I’m still in the present and I’m still vibrant. I never look back and live in the past. I think people love this ALIVE aspect of me. Maybe I give them a sense of energy…a sense of fully “alive and kicking”. I surprise myself after all these years to still never be bored with my life and performing my songs…!
Is it true nobody knows really your age?
GJ: I’m ageless! I don’t age! It’s in the genes of my family! Only the FBI knows my age because lately they asked me to come in to renew my passport. I don’t know why, they were saying I’m under the radar. And they checked my age and they couldn’t believe it! I guess I have been blessed. It’s the land of Jamaica. It makes you immortal, ! Haha! My dad passed at 84 and he didn’t have a single line! And it’s amazing I’m still going strong, especially after everything I’ve taken and drunk! But of course when I was very young I was super healthy and I still swim. I love to swim as I feel out of space. This is where I have always wanted to go: in space. Do a concert with Michael Jackson and David Bowie and sing in outer space. Well, I guess that plan is slightly compromised for now! I guess at the end it’s all about balancing your gravity and keep the floating going in your mind…in your inner world. Just saying…!
Interview By Emmanuel Itier
Produced & Interviewed By Tim Wassberg
The essence of the Toronto International Film Festival is debated by the vivacity of its films and the late nights of its parties. Like many festivals of its ilk, the Midnight selection seems to shine by knowing a balance between art and commerce. Of course, celebrating in the right way doesn’t hurt. while a limited amount was screened because of an influx of other pressing commitments, an interesting cross section was discovered, as always comes about.
Hardcore Anything that has Russian director Timor Bekmambetov’s name on it always deserves a second chance. He is very much behind trying to help establish a new Russian voice in action cinema. The thing with something like “Black Lightning” which I saw at Fantasia Film Festival a couple years back is that it was mostly in Russian. Unfortunately you need to have at least a balance of English to allow it to play worldwide or at least keep the dialogue to a minimum. Here different aspects up the ante. This is basically a live action, first person shooter…pretty much “Grand Theft Auto”. But here you never see our protagonist’s face except once…usually only his hands. It is non stop but sitting in the third row, the motion sickness of it all has possibility. That said, you couldn’t have made this film a few years ago but, using Go Pro technology, it has become an interactive possibility. The director Ilya Naishuller mentioned at the Q&A that they couldn’t shoot at 48fps because at the standard they needed the extra frames to add in CG. The acting though is interesting because it offers an interesting section of possibility. Sharlto Copley has started to distinctify taking chances on certain genre possibilities with first time directors which can go either way. He was part of the very interesting “Europa Report” and here he plays a mixture of characters that only become clear towards the final third of the film. At times it is a tour de force because it is very fluid and yet specifically on take. Tim Roth is credited in the film but unless he is the villain I can’t see him and, if that is true, his craft is only getting better. He was unbelievable in “Planet OF The Apes”. People talk about Andy Serkis and Serkis is great but he had CG. Roth only had prosthetics. Different processes and both brilliant. In terms of style, the use of some humor and music including a Queen song is placed well well but not to ultimate effect. That is a very small critique because this movie takes aspects of RPGs, “City Of Lost Children”, “Blade Runner” and anime to create a very visceral uninterrupted barrage of precise yet loose genre filmmaking. It took 147 days to film but looks like it took place in 2 hours…and that is the ultimate trick.
Office Director Johnnie To tries to find back doors of convention and usually it functions within the crime or action genre. Turning the view on the corporate structure of China per se in an interesting exercise. Now the actual space in the film is not really specified but the characters keep referring to the Mainland China. The actual structure and construct here as the basis is what is interesting. Akin to someone like Peter Greenaway, To does something different in creating a setting that is all an illusion and transparent literally in that function. The arrival to work on a train, the elevators, the offices, the roof…almost all of it is in a transparent, almost architectural baseline construct. Everything should be obvious but like many of To’s films, it is about power and betrayal. What is interesting even more so here is that it is built as a musical but one, despite having some pop sensibilities, that more has the identity of an understated rock opera. What works well is the level of relationships which only becomes clear now by reflection. The first is one of the older couple which is the CEO (played by Chow Yun Fat) and his first in charge (Sylvia Chang) who is also his mistress. The CEO’s wife is in a coma…possibility because of the shame of his infidelity. The betrayal is the game and they understand it. The couple at the end other end of the spectrum is two new brand new recruits in the office looking to make their bones. One is secretly the CEO’s daughter and he wants her to learn. The other is a bright fresh protege who loves his work but eventually loves her more. They don’t have the foresight to see what will entice and ultimately destroy them later in life. The middle couple is the most volatile. So obsessed with work. So obsessed with money. But unable to recognize what is important right in front of them. Not all of these metaphors and characterizations work all the time but it is an interesting experiment not just in acting approach but just in sheer staging. Ultimately it all comes undone in the aspect of Shakespeare. Plus add the fact that he shot it in 3D. “Office” is interesting on all counts but you must be open to the experience and interpret it in your own way.
Born To Dance Like “Step Up”, each country has the right to see their dance identity in their own way. This film does not take that structure any further but, in many ways, outdoes its predecessors on significantly smaller budget. The basis of the story is a worker who has his own local dance crew but after posting one of his videos on You Tube attracts the attention of a big time money crew with endorsement deals. Normal West Side Story set up without the violence, just stealing of creativity. There are some good dances and, of course, a morality play at stake but that is accepted and expected. However there are some points that the dance scenes just pop and show that adrenalin rush that some of these movies miss. One specifically is staged at this down and dirty club with eight female dancers led by a big boned blond haired African girl that is kinetic. They writhe their bodies but with a power and strength that is undeniable. I could watch a music based dance action movie with them as assassins all day. This is what Tarantino meant when he described Fox Force Force through Uma Thurman’s lips in “Pulp Fiction”. These are the girls he would have had in mind. Ultimately, the film turns in the end into a competition like “Glee’ or “Pitch Perfect”. It is expected but no less commercial. It just was an interesting selection for the festival but even independents want to make crowd pleasing movies. It doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom.
The Girl In The Photograph This Midnight Madness selection uses the serial killer basis of a psychopath obsessed with his muse. What it tries to balance itself with is the narcissism of modern life. The metaphor here is the capture or diluting of self. A pretentious celebrated photographer played with annoying relevance by Kal Penn returns to his home town when a serial killer starts matching up his killings to photographs of modelsb that Penn’s character creates. So this photographer returns to his hometown in South Dakota where the killings are happening. He brings along his assistant, his model girlfriend and two other models to this nowhere town to discover creativity again and try to outdo the serial killer with his “vision”. Of course, it kicks them all in the ass and the slasher mayhem begins. It just ultimately feels like an exercise. This is all done for effect and, of course, the local sharp blonde, bushy tailed female lead who is the muse for the killers is the one we are supposed to identify with. The problem is that there lack of consequence and, by extension, sensibility that seems to be lost in the proceedings. The ode to John Carpenter in the music is distinctly noticeable and welcome. Wes Craven was an executive producer on the picture before he died so his touch is definitely on the film as well. But the movie is neither classic horror nor has a truly modern twist. The ending actually ends too late as one scene earlier would have effectively done the possibilities justice without spelling it out. That said, it is a perfectly interesting if not gothically gory approach to the genre but there is nothing really character wise to sustain it.
Toronto International Film Festival again allows your humble narrator a brief interaction of film aside from the general elements of press commitments and scheduling mayhem. But what this small selection of films shows is both the standard and experimental approach inherent n the current marketplace but the key is finding the one that exists in the middle for the greatest success, both creatively and monetarily.
By Tim Wassberg