Jon Jost's All the Vermeers in New York is exclusively showing on MUBI starting December 28, 2020 in the series Rediscovered.
I lived in New York for a year before shooting this film, observing, nosing around, and researching. While much of the research is present in the film, fortunately it is nearly invisible—the tulip proffered by Mark on meeting Anna at a café, the mere conjunction of choosing Vermeer as a topic in a city once called, in his time, New Amsterdam—each carries a submerged bit of information utterly unnecessary for the viewer.
But the research was needed for me as a kind of invisible spine on which to place a totally improvised film, which from its formalistic appearance, and the seeming exactitude of its talk, its images and its structure, would seem to have been highly calculated. But there was never a word of dialog on paper, nor was there even a structural outline as I normally had had in previous improvised work. With the exception of a visually clear conception of the last shot of the film, to which everything needed to arrive somehow, it was all (carefully in a fashion) made up in front of the camera, sometimes the outfall of considerable work and thought on the part of the actors, as in Mark’s stockbroker talks, but as often as not the result of carefully orchestrated serendipity.
While in New York I did very casually probe the business side of the film world, to be told that I had not a chance in the world there, and I should not even try. Jim Stark, whom I’d known a while—he was Jim Jarmusch’s first producer—told me I would be wasting my time to even ask of American Playhouse, which was one of the few viable options at the time. The advice was well-intended, and probably accurate as AP had a well-known record and in it was that it was rather literary and script-driven in its output.
Despite this advice I did, though, write to Lindsay Law at AP, and after a rebuff or two, having made very clear that I was interested in improvising, had no script, and so on, I got an appointment. Lindsay and I talked for 30 minutes, had a beer, and agreed to meet again. We did, and another 30 minutes and another beer later, we had a deal—no script, just a vague “It’ll be about the stock market, the arts world, and New York, and Vermeer.” $240,000 which was their bottom of the barrel, lowest conceivable.
I chose to shoot in 35mm for the first time, feeling there was adequate enough money for the additional costs. I was immediately asked if I would, as I had before, do the cinematography myself—something I had not thought about at all. I was told that 35mm was somehow very, very different from 16mm and I would need “professionals.” In fact, the only difference is in the size of the equipment and the optics, which offer less depth of field. I disregarded the advice and shot it myself. I was also informed that 35mm required lighting, which I never use. I ignored that advice as well and used no lights.
Once the cast was gathered, and the time frame set, a camera package was rented for a month, and the actors were on call for that month. Some places to shoot in had been lined up—a loft, Gracie’s gallery, and as they appeared needed, the WTC, the Met, et cetera. The crew was myself, a camera assistant, a sound recordist, John Murphy, and a general helper.
As, quite literally there was no “story,” not even an outline—though I had in mind many things I wished to convey, but in another manner—getting started proved a bit difficult. We had a stockbroker’s gorgeous Soho loft for a week, and we gathered there on a Monday, looking around, discussing the characters, and I left a blank for the three actresses, who fictionally shared this loft. I asked them, well, how do we start? We did not shoot on Monday. We tried again on Tuesday. We did not shoot then either. On Wednesday, with the same tabula rasa, and confronted with the fact that Friday was our last agreed use of the loft, I intervened, and said that since we couldn’t figure out how to begin, we would begin with reality. And so the first words said in the film, said in the first shot, are, Anna to Nicole: “Have you seen my lines?” Once this simple hurdle was surmounted, things snowballed very rapidly, and within the day we’d shot the first entire scene, and managed to finish with the loft in time—though if I remember correctly we went back for one last scene, once we knew, very much later, how the film concluded.
On completion of shooting, I was frankly unsure that I had a film—the “story” was so gentle and un-literary in its form that initial looks at editing confirmed that it was peculiarly beautiful, and that the performances by and large were lively and convincing, yet it was not clear this could be formed into a compelling and coherent unity. The reason for this uncertainty was that there were large sections which had been shot—knowingly, purposefully—which were to function as movements as in music, and in this case with music. And so the film was edited, largely to completion, absent this major component. I then began working with Jon A. English, who had done the music for me in a number of previous films, though nothing so ambitious. In this case we were able to afford the eighteen-piece Bay Area Jazz Composer's orchestra with whom Jon worked, and the time and care to compose very carefully for the film. And then, via the strange circumstances of the film world and a few connections, for a garage studio rate of a few hundred dollars a day, we were able to record the music at George Lucas' Skywalker Ranch facilities to the north of San Francisco: one of the world’s best (and biggest) recording facilities, state of the art, with a space to accommodate—Star Wars scale—two full symphony orchestras. Our ensemble was dwarfed by the space, but the acoustics were adjustable, and we had the pleasure of the best for the musicians and Jon. The results were well worth it, and once the music, done in close collaboration, was slipped in to accompany the images, everything came firmly together, clean, precise and as aurally and visually calculated as a Vermeer.