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SxSW 2015 Interview: THE JONES FAMILY WILL MAKE A WAY director Alan Berg

by Jason Whyte

"The movie is about the oddest of allies, a Pentecostal priest and a jaded atheistic music critic, who bond over their shared love of old-school gospel music. As their relationship deepens the critic helps bring the Jones Family Singers into worlds they never thought they would ever enter, including SXSW." Director Alan Berg on THE JONES FAMILY WILL MAKE A WAY which screens at the 2015 South By Southwest Film Festival.

Is this your first SxSW/Austin experience and are you going to attend your screenings?

I directed the documentary OUTSIDE INDUSTRY about the history of the festival which premiered at the 2011 SXSW. I will be attending all three screenings, along with Michael Corcoran and members of the Jones Family Singers.

Your favorite barbecue/food in the city?

Franklin's barbecue is great if you don't mind waiting in line forever, but it'll be a circus during SXSW. Try La Barbeque or John Mueller's on the East Side as they'll be slightly less crowded. Uchi and Uchiko produce Japanese cuisine and sushi that can compete with anyplace in the world. Go to Enoteca and/or Vespaio on South Congress for great Italian and pizza. Also make sure you get some breakfast tacos. I love Taco Deli, but pretty much any locally-owned Mexican food joint here can produce a good taco.

Your favorite beer in Austin?

Shiner Bock. It is made 80 miles from here, and was the alternative to the mainstream beers when I first came to Austin in 1981.

What do you love the most about showing movies in Austin and Austin in general?

I live here and raised my family here so I am a bit biased, but the bottom line is you'll find an audience and they'll be film-savvy without the pretension you sometimes find in other settings.

Tell me a bit about your background and how you became a filmmaker.

I spent the first fifteen years of my career as a political reporter, then got a PBS grant in 2000 and began making documentaries. I also started a local film production company, Arts+Labor, to help creatives find paying gigs to support their movie habit. This is my third feature-length documentary. A PLACE TO DANCE premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival in 2006, and OUTSIDE INDUSTRY premiered at SXSW in 2011. In addition to my docs, Arts+Labor had two co-productions premiere at Sundance last year, one this year, and we have four other co-productions premiering at SXSW 2015. So the creative community here has been developing some cool content.

How did this particular movie come together from your perspective?

Michael Corcoran and I have known each other 20 years, and he turned me on to the Jones Family Singers at SXSW 2012. I saw them, was blown away, and decided to go to their hometown, Bay City, and shoot for a few days to develop a short. But things kept happening with the band, and we kept documenting them, and ultimately, three years later, we ended up with a feature film.

This evolved over three years. We would shoot, and editor Lauren Sanders would edit assemblies of scenes. After the Jones Family broke through in 2014, we knew we had a pretty compelling story of folks being rediscovered after decades in the wilderness. So we focused on creating a narrative out of what we'd captured. Arts+Labor is a collaborative environment, and both Lauren and co-writer Jason Wehling were instrumental in refining the film. Our artist-in-residence this past summer, Kyle Henry, played a critical role in developing the narrative arc. As we moved into post-production, Anastasiya Bulavkina defined the look for segments using motion graphics. Curtis Heath created a score, and Eric Friend did a tremendous job with the sound mix. If I've named a lot of people, and I have, it's just meant to underscore that a key reason our productions work is because there are a ton of talented contributors working towards a common goal.

What was your most significant challeng with this movie and how did you over-come it?

With three years of footage, as you may imagine, it becomes pretty tough determining what to cut and what to keep. We also had to make tough decisions on which characters to develop; the band has 12-13 members and they're all interesting, but we felt the audience would more strongly connect with the band if we let them get to know a couple folks on a deeper level. To overcome the challenges we advocated, and argued, a lot. There's a saying that when steel hits steel each blade's a little sharper and that's certainly the case at Arts+Labor. I think that's healthy. We want to justify what we're doing in a small room before we make an audience sit with us in a large room.

If you had to pick a single favourite moment out of the entire production, what would it be?

Without giving a way a spoiler, the breakthrough moment this summer quite literally brought tears to my eyes. We've been following the Jones Family for three years, and we've witnessed countless hurdles and disappointments. So to see them succeed was tremendously powerful, especially as a fellow creative. It's affirming, and I felt quite simply that we could create a film that left people feeling better when they left than when they arrived.

What keeps you going while making a movie? What drives you as a filmmaker?

There is a point in editing that I liken to jumping off a cliff. It triggers the obsessive part of my personality, and I am constantly thinking about the scenes, the story, how to go from point A to point B....all that stuff. What drives me is the desire to share something that's moved me with others. The desire to get the story right. And to remind us that just because someone didn't pursue a traditional career (insert 9-5 job description here) it doesn't mean they're a failure. All three of my features focus on creatives bucking the conventional wisdom and finding reward because of that courage.

For the aspiring filmmakers who read our site, I would love to know about the technical side of the film and how it was photographed.

I think it is KEY to work with other talented folks and to give them the space to practice their craft. I call it "staying within your game." So I know, for example, that my training is as a journalist. I focus on story. I talk with the cinematographer and others involved in the film about the story I'm trying to tell, and then rely on them to help me visualize it. In THIS movie, for example, there's a visually unique way of covering the Bishop's sermons and internal dialogue. This came about from me simply asking Jason Wehling and cinematographer Kyle Cockayne to think about how we might show a sermon without simply cutting to a talking head behind a pulpit. I can't emphasize strongly enough how important it is to give creatives latitude. If you don't they'll just shut down and punch the buttons and the film will suffer...which I have seen happen.

What are you looking forward to the most about showing your movie at SxSW and in Austin?

Just sharing our film with an audience.

After the film screens at South By Southwest, where is the film going to show next? Anywhere you would like it to screen? Any dream locations if money was no object?

We hope it develops some momentum and makes the festival rounds. I sincerely hope it screens in Australia since I have loved my two visits to the country, and in fact there is a scene in the documentary where the band leader says he wants to take his music to Australia and New Zealand. I hope it screens at the Lincoln Center in NYC, for reasons that will become clear to those who see the film.

What would you say or do to someone who is talking, texting or being generally disruptive during a screening of your film?

I can only control what I can control, and I'm not really into trying to police the room during a screening. I also know, however, that I don't really have to because in Austin someone else is going to clock 'em.

There are a lot of up and coming filmmakers both at SxSW and reading our site. What would you want to tell them if they are aspiring to become a filmmaker?

Get a camera, mic, and editing software and go to work. Write what you know and don't talk about it... just do it. The most important lessons I have learned have come through experience.

And finally, what is the single, greatest movie that you have ever seen?


We hope you enjoyed this SxSW filmmaker interview in our 35+ filmmaker interview series. We will have interviews posted all throughout the festival so be sure to visit us often for more coverage!

This is one of the many films screening at the 2015 SXSW in Austin, Texas between March 13-21. For more information on this film screening times, point your browser to or use the SxSW GO App for Android and iOS.

Jason Whyte,
Twitter: @jasonwhyte / Facebook: jasonwhyte / Instagram: jason.whyte

link directly to this feature at
originally posted: 03/13/15 04:15:57
last updated: 03/13/15 04:19:09
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