Slamdance 2013 Interview: Director J.R. Hughto & Star Sonja Kinski Talk DIAMOND ON VINYL

Ben Umstead, East Coast Editor
J.R. Hughto's second feature Diamond On Vinyl premiered today at Slamdance. In my review I called the film a "SoCal-set Noir that effortlessly weaves genre into a naturalistic story of a man who is just trying to gain some semblance of a normal life." I then surmised that "at it's core the film challenges and uproots the perceptions and roles deemed fit for society, giving us an intimate, ultimately empathetic, but no less easy to handle character study."

Just prior to the fest's start I was able to chat with both Hughto and star Sonja Kinski on the unique relationship in the film between Henry, a voyeuristic audiophile, and Kinski's Charlie, a young photographer. When Henry's fiancee, Beth, leaves him, Charlie steps in as a strange surrogate, and in other ways, a mirror for Henry. In some of the films most crackling scenes Charlie and Henry rehearse, construct and record conversations that Henry would like to have in real life. But where do you draw the line between playing, practice and real life? Or is there a line at all? Hughto and Kinski fill me in.  


Diamond On Vinyl plays as this inverted Southern California Noir. J.R., How much of that was in the building blocks of the idea -- even before you wrote the script -- or did that blossom as the project moved ahead?

J.R. Hughto: I love working with genre in general. One of the things I'm always interested in trying to do is how I can imbue genre elements, in particular noir elements, in my work, and finding ways to have both the naturalistic feel to the film and yet also have this kind of noir going on. Not that quite on the surface but there's always this thing in the background. Henry in someways is a P.I, in other ways he's the villain.

Well, that's one thing that certainly struck me. You have Charlie as a Femme Fatale of sorts, and Henry even as the P.I., but those roles that they play... it's all interchangeable.

Sonja Kinski: I think these characters are both extremely weird and extremely different... and complicated. I think Brian McGuire's character is an odd one. So is mine. There is a lot of shit that went down in both of their lives. They recognize that within each other. And there's comfort in that. I also think there's something that's chemical too. Personal to each character, and to each other.
 
They bring out the other within themselves, absolutely. Sonja, as the film was being prepped did you and J.R. talk about Charlie in terms of that Femme Fatale archetype?

SK: No, not really. He showed me ideas for the locations and the sets, and he had music to listen to, but I think he wanted us to bring our own sort of voice to the characters, and he directed that personal voice. I don't think there was one specific model. There was this attitude of "Let's see what comes along and play with it."

JRH: Those roles that they play are very interchangeable. And that was part of the idea in these kinds of revisions and rehearsals that they're doing. These conversations that they're working out. They're both looking for identity; their own identity and what identities they might prefer to their own. In working that out, in the writing process, it was thinking about the first half of the film being Henry's moment of seeing and moving forward, and being the hero. Then there's a certain point handing that baton off to Charlie, where in a way she becomes the investigator, where she starts listening, principally right around the scene where she's listening to the entire recording of Henry and Beth from the beginning of the film. So she starts taking over the film... in a certain way. So for me it was always about having these three characters, their interaction, this triangle, but also thinking about ways that it can transition from Henry to Charlie.

SK: They're trying to create their own reality and their own destiny. It's almost like trying to not be here, ya know?

Yet their ultimate desire is to be here, so there is that paradox.

SK: Right! But with those obsessions it's kind of like you're not here, because you're not here if you're filming everything all the time. If you're with someone and you're taking their picture all the time, you're not really with them, are you?

Well you put up a filter in someway or another. You put up a wall. Although at the same time, and it seems like for both of them in the film, these are extensions, almost like bullhorns, shouting out "see me world."

SK: With Charlie, I wasn't really trying to do anything outside of really trying to be myself and commenting on that free spirit, and not really having any filters. So in that one moment where I'm with Brian in the hotel room, I put myself in his fiancee's position and I realize what was going on and how that felt inside.

In regards to those critical moments where they're constructing and reconstructing these conversations, J.R. did you map these scenes out completely word for word in the script, or was that an area that you left open so you could play with Sonja and Brian in the moment?

JRH: t was really both. That was really tightly scripted. If you were to read a scene where they were constructing and rehearsing and then watched the scene... it's sort of... they have a skeleton where they can always go back to, and so there's a lot of dialog that is in the final film that is straight from the script. But of course it was really about pushing it out in these longs takes, to see where it went. I was really upfront with them, even at the auditions I was like "we don't have to stick to the script. We need the beats. We don't need the lines." Some of my favorite things in those scenes are things that Sonja and Brian brought... you know they're in a rhythm and they're feeling it. All of a sudden they  have a whole new avenue that really makes it work. And that's true of the entire cast. If you were to read this on the page it can feel very cold and very calculating. These characters are really shut off from each other. It's very cerebral. So I knew that in casting I really needed to find those people who could allow the audience in and have a sense of empathy. Even though they're doing bad things you're still gonna like them. You're gonna find reason why you don't think they're bad people.

And that's the thing, there are no antagonists in the film, and in that regard there are certainly no heroes, at least, I mean you have these protagonists, sure. And that was something that was exciting to see, to watch unfold. I'm excited to see how folks react to that at the festival 'cause I think that narrative is so potent.

So, you have this triangle between Beth and Henry and Charlie. The fourth character, in a way, feels like Henry's recording device.


JRH: Yeah.

It's such an important piece to the film in how it's handled. It feels far more intimate because it's a hand-held device rather than the devices that Travolta used in BLOW OUT or Hackman used in THE CONVERSATION -- those are far more cumbersome pieces of audo equipment.

JRH: Well The Conversation may be the big thing in the room for me, in terms of thinking about ways to work with audio in an original way, even though there's some homage... I hope homage... I hope not total theft. One of the things I was really interested in doing was thinking about ways that you can have both nostalgia and ephemerality and not necessarily in conflict, but that they're calling out to each other, that they're echoes of each other. It's very important for me to think of ways like how Walter Murch in The Conversation sets it up in his editing, to where the recording is not objective. That was something that I felt that has been going on for as long as we've had these kinds of recording devices, but also as a unique problem in the way we're currently mediating our own images through things like instagram, all of this stuff... we're constantly generating versions of ourselves that are filtered in so many ways. So thinking about that kind of immediacy of having a hand-held device, and what that does in terms of the genre convention too... and how you work with sound in a way that becomes visual as well... Henry doesn't have a gun, he has a recorder.
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