Hey, folks. I know I've kept you waiting a long time for this one, so I've brought you something especially fresh: an interview with young director Clay Jeter, whose feature debut Jess + Moss is ripping through the festival circuit as we speak. The film tells the story about two second cousins, post-high-schooler Jess (Sarah Hagan) and ten-year-old Moss (Austin Vickers), who have grown up together in rural Kentucky primarily in each other's company. It was seen at the festivals in Sundance, Berlin, Hong Kong, Beijing, Nashville, and Seattle, and for those who have seen the film it's not hard to understand why: the sweeping, atmospheric cinematography (most of the movie was shot on expired film stock) captures an almost otherworldly portrait of rural Kentucky, chock full of luscious greens and tawny pinks and dusty tans; the accompanying soundscape is rich, layering cassette-tape voiceovers from the actors with haunting melodies from the 1940s. Jeter, a graduate of the USC School of Cinematic Arts, has pulled off what some might call the impossible—he has made an experimental film that moves its audience not to profuse eye-rolling but to tears and melancholy. Here I speak with the director about his feature.
How are you? How’s Los Angeles?
I’m good. Yeah, Los Angeles seems to be doing just fine.
And you’re from Kentucky, right?
Well, actually, I was born in Clarksville, TN, near to Kentucky. It’s just on the, on the border of western Kentucky. But my family on both sides is in western Kentucky, so we just moved across the border, basically.
To what extent did you draw on your childhood in Tennessee and Kentucky as inspiration for the film, or to help develop the meat of the film?
Yeah, no, I definitely drew on my childhood experiences. Also, my sister was helping me brainstorm and come up with stuff, my older sister, so she was drawing from hers, so both of ours together, and same with my mom, who grew up in western Kentucky specifically around the farm where we shot the film. Also, my granddad grew up on that same farm with his brother and sister, so there were generations of stories about childhood that we all kind of drew upon. None of the actual characters are super autobiographical for anyone; luckily no one had to grow up without parents in their lives or with a terrible mother who abandoned them or stuff like that, so we don’t have that going on. Fortunately. But a lot of the little things, like shooting BB guns and shooting off fireworks, all that sort of stuff, there’s a lot there that we did draw upon.
I know you’ve mentioned that a lot of the story developed as the film was being made. I was wondering whether you had a more concrete idea of what you wanted to get across, or whether you just had some guidelines and let the movie take you where it led.
I will say that I didn’t set off at the very beginning with a specific thing that I wanted to get across, really. It wasn’t a movie that was trying to make some kind of statement or anything like that. I mean, I think that I knew I wanted to shoot something in western Kentucky, specifically on my family’s tobacco farm and around that old country house that had belonged to my great-grandmother, where she lived until she passed away in 1998. So that was the main inspiration for the movie. I wanted to document this place, this landscape, this house that’s filled with all of these, these artifacts of a life and generations that had gone before there in this house that’s kind of been taken back by nature. So I wanted to go and document the place, and I knew I wanted to shoot something with Sarah, so she was also involved with the project from the very beginning. These are the two main things that we were working with when we decided that we wanted to make a movie.
But, as far as the actual story goes, my sister and my mom and I were the three who were kind of coming up with the basic idea, which makes sense, considering the location and the fact that we all kind of grew up in that area. Once it started to become time to figure out what we would actually shoot, you know, there was the basic arc of the story. We knew, from the very beginning, the basic shape of the movie and the fact that they spend so much time together that they’re basically all each other has in the world. We knew that the movie was ultimately going to be about the nature of their relationship, especially in that setting of isolation, where there aren’t a lot of other characters involved and there aren’t a lot of adults involved in their lives. And we kind of knew what the end was gonna be and where it was gonna go, but we just had the basic shape, and between my mom and myself, we wrote pages and pages of, you know, scene ideas and even specific dialogue moments and stuff just to figure out how the characters would talk to each other, how they’d interact, what it sounds like when they get into a fight with each other, and what it sounds like when they make up, and that sort of thing. That being said, once we wrote all those pages and pages and pages, we pretty much, in a way, kind of threw them out. It was really just to get to know our characters, get to know the story a little bit better.
Right. And to help the actors get to know their characters, I imagine.
And to go through this specific dialogue in the scenes with the actors—we actually used some of them in the auditions when we were trying to find who was going to be Moss. We used some of the little scenes that ended up not actually being in the movie at all. But when we actually went out, all of that was just really good preparation for us being able to go out there and know that we were shooting the right movie no matter what we were shooting, because Sarah knew a lot about her character just from being around me and the process, and Austin, who plays Moss, is the kid who grew up in a rural kind of area in Tennessee, and it was a very natural fit for him to kick around the old house and shoot guns and stuff like that.
So we kind of, once we made all these decisions about the specific nature of the relationship in terms of who his parents were and how they were related and how they were friends and who the house belonged to and whom they’re living with at the current time and how that all came about, we didn’t necessarily reveal all those details in the movie because ultimately it’s not important that the viewer come away with that knowledge. That’s not the big secret, how they’re related. That’s not what the movie’s about. We wanted to put them in a situation where their relationship is sometimes almost like mother-son and sometimes best friend and sometimes there’s almost sexual tension there and sometimes it’s brother-sister. It’s all these different types of relationships; they all kind of blend into one sometimes and take different forms, different shapes. So that was the main thing, just to show that and the fact that really all they have in the world is each other, and that’s what’s so important. That’s especially what’s so important for the ending of the movie to be powerful, and that was kind of our goal.
So we went out there knowing a lot about their backstories, knowing a lot about the kinds of things that kids do during the summer on that property, knowing how these kids would talk to each other, what a fight would look like, what making up would look like, that sort of thing. So we went out there with all this knowledge between just a few of us, really. We went out and shot—for a few days—a bunch of this stuff, and we kind of thought we had something there, so we’d come back and see what we really had once we put it into the form of a full-on movie. There were seven days of shooting in July 2009, and we came back and gave it to the editor, and five months later after finishing all his other jobs or whatever he sat down and put together a cut that was 45 minutes long that became what is still the basic shape of the movie. A lot of what he did, as far as what the very beginning of the movie was and the very end of the movie, hasn’t actually changed that much. It gave us a chance to see what beats were really missing and where we needed to go in order to allow the characters and the story to really breathe in a feature-length space, so we went back in May of 2010 with a bit more of a plan this time as far as what types of scenes we needed, what tone we needed. A lot of the scenes that have darker elements that you see in the movie. And again, in July in 2010 for three more days, and then there was a lot of editing going on. I spent a lot of time with Isaac, the editor, in his room. We had all the scenes written out on postcards and they were on one wall in his office, and we would shuffle them around and move different scenes so we could try to figure out how to make the flow of the movie more organic.
Did anything about the development of the story or the characters surprise you?
Yeah, you know, I guess there’s all the specifics of character things that I couldn’t necessarily foresee. It took putting Sarah and Austin in this space to kind of see how certain things would work. Austin is a very, he’s a very curious kinda kid, you know? He’s hard to handle sometimes; he’s got a lot of stuff going on, and sometimes, yeah, the things that he’ll want to talk about or he’ll bring up or that he’ll know about, you won’t necessarily expect. It’ll be weird; it’ll throw you off a little bit. Like, there’s a scene in the movie where he asks Jess what a dildo is, because clearly he knows, he’s heard of a dildo, he knows that it’s something adult or grown-up, and he’s not really sure in what capacity it works, but he’s heard about it, and it was just a really funny moment. That’s an audio voiceover thing; I had Sarah and Austin record tons, hours and hours and hours of voiceover stuff, which sometimes was on the regular boom microphone and sometimes I wanted to do it on the cassette tape recorder. And this was one that, you know, he just came out of left field with, which we didn’t set up. He was calling her “Jess” instead of “Sarah” but he really wanted to know, “What’s a dildo?” I think I came to find out that he’d been playing this video game, Grand Theft Auto, and you run around this world and it’s like, “What’s there on the ground that I can pick up? Oh, I can pick a gun up and shoot somebody with it!” Well, I guess in this world there’s a, you know, some kind of plastic crap that you can pick up and beat people with, and it’s called a dildo, and that’s why he asked, “Hey, Jess, what’s a dildo?” and Sarah just started laughing, and he’s like “Come on, what is it? I know it’s not a gun; it’s just some kind of plastic crap. What is it?!” There are little moments like that that were hilarious that we hadn’t really planned.