Interview with photographer, filmmaker and artist Jesse Richards

There have been a few questions I’ve been thinking about recently regarding art.  What is considered art?  “Good” art? What does it mean to be an artist and to live an artist life?

Filmmaker Jesse Richards is an artist who represents these questions for me.  He’s been challenging the standards and supporting the undiscovered artists for many years now.  I believe these are actions that continue to keep our world and culture progressing and renewing.  Anyone who knows him can easily see how dedicated and passionate he is to film; along with his resiliency in keeping his values with him through his years as an artist.  Known as the co-founder of The Remodernist Film Movement and author of the Remodernist Film Manifesto, Richards’ work is known worldwide.

We recently re-connected and I thought this would be a great opportunity to hear from him about his thoughts on the craft of film making and life as an artist.  I am excited to welcome Jesse Richards to this interviewing series.

jesse 1
photograph from:

Connie: In The Remodernist Film Manifesto, you embrace and encourage filmmakers to welcome failures, insults and criticisms; as well as being uncomfortable. Do you feel that this is the best way in learning the film making craft?  

Jesse: I think this is the best way to create, in general, if you can allow yourself to go to or be in these places. I feel like more and more we’re taught to try to go the easy way, to go with things that make us comfortable, whether while creating or while “consuming” culture. It really seems to become more extreme: trigger warnings, Dancing With the Stars, constant remakes of mediocre movies, etc etc.

You are a very honest and candid person and this shows in your recent, “An Open Letter to the Film Industry.” You mention a lot of things that people can do to revive the film industry from its current state.  What do you think caused this shift in the film culture?

Well, this shift has been in the making for a long time. Back in the 90’s, you could still see some fairly challenging work in the big multiplex cinemas. You could go to the movies in a Connecticut suburb even and see David Lynch’s “Lost Highway.” Although Lynch is a fairly mainstream filmmaker, I think even something like “Lost Highway” could never play in a multiplex now. Basically, that wave of indie type of stuff became absorbed into sort of a fake, safe Hollywood sort of indie cinema, so it shifted from David Lynch or Jim Jarmusch to stuff like Noah Baumbach and shitty films like “Frances Ha.”

rose homemade lens test
rose homemade lens test – photograph taken by Jesse Richards

In your interview with iNews, you mention about the gauge of success, whether it was defined by money or expressing yourself accurately as an artist, that you are a failure in both those terms.  How do you gauge success?

I’m not sure that I gauge personal success as an artist… maybe by whether I’ve been able to make the films I want to make… and in that case so far I’m a failure at that too, but I’m still trying to get there.

If I were to say that there would be a “Jesse Richards Film School” scheduled to open and you had control of the curriculum, what would it look like?

Well, ideally, first off, it would be government-funded, but without any interference or censorship from the government, (this is how you know this is real fantasy-land type stuff right now). I have a real problem with the way education here is now, especially art education; artists are being ripped off by huge educational costs, with generally no hope or help to make a living with their work, and the schools damn well know it, too.  They’re basically bloodsuckers of the poor, the untalented or for bourgeois posers. Anything you can learn in film school or art school, you can pretty much teach yourself instead. At least a bachelor’s in art or film is basically useless. A master’s is ok, I guess, if you want to teach and become part of the corrupt system.

Otherwise, if I were independently financially secure and could teach for free and without having to ask students to pay beyond dealing with their own costs, here’s what it would include: an emphasis on getting into a receptive head space: meditation, improvisation exercises, learning painting, photography, acting, theatre, philosophy. Being given an environment that encourages independent creative thinking (in the sense of not trying to do shit only to please a teacher), and an emphasis of taking risks with your work, making personal stuff. Abandoning the tyranny of the screenplay. Letting the whole process be more natural. Use whatever materials you have on hand to shoot with, and when that isn’t enough, teach how to find resources that you don’t have already. For things I don’t know? Bring in people that know their shit, rather than pretending and giving out wrong information or bad advice. Have actors available with some fucking guts to be in the students’ films, or even better have them be in each other’s films. The majority of the class, however, should be on actually making shit and NOT on listening to me or anyone else talk for hours on end; because really, who gives a shit what I have to say? It should be about listening to the inner voice and acting on it and seeing where you go.

low tide old saybrook ct
low tide, Old Saybrook, CT – photograph taken by Jesse Richards

You take a lot of risks personally and artistically.  Which is a greater loss and/or gain: to stay on the safe route and fear everything or to risk it all and fear nothing?

I couldn’t say honestly, because I have a certain way I like to work, so I go that route. I like to do work that puts me in unknown territory, otherwise I get bored. The difficulty with working that way as a filmmaker is finding other people, especially actors, that appreciate working that way as well. I would say though, that either direction does involve a certain amount of fear, but at least with the risky route you can meet it on your terms.

You produced the film, “In Passing.”  How did the experience change from being a director?  Have readers missed their chance to watch this film and if not, where can they expect to find it?

In Passing – to watch the whole film, click here.

The experience of producing “In Passing” made me never want to produce ever again, even for myself. If any of you reading would like to take this on for me, please get in touch. I’m still producing my own work right now because I have no other choice, and I’m able to do it, but I hate this aspect of things and it’s a huge distraction from dealing with the creative elements; not that producing isn’t creative, but it’s about being creative in a different way. Producing for others can be a seriously thankless job though. Luckily, in the case of “In Passing,” Peter Rinaldi did a ton of the work involved in the producing, but wouldn’t take the damn credit for it. Now all of that being said, Peter, Kate, Heidi and Roy made it a great experience and I’d happily work with any of them again. And all of them did things to try to make things go more smoothly. They deserved producer credits. The other three? Never, ever ever again.  At least not with me.

Based on the research I have done, it seems that you have gone through some incredibly positive and negative experiences in your life.  What keeps you grounded and true to yourself and your craft?

I don’t think I’m grounded or balanced at all. Quite the opposite. However, I have to keep on trying to make the stuff I’m trying to make. I don’t have a choice. That’s just how it is, and why it’s such a killer when I sometimes reach roadblocks on things, because it makes me absolutely insane when I have to stop or put something aside. And the main trouble is finding serious, dedicated collaborators to be in things. Luckily, I’ve found great filmmakers to collaborate with on things, but the difficulty is that all of them are hundreds or thousands of miles from me. Some has been ok when it’s something I can do alone or via internet collaboration; but lately finding real world, in person collaborations are getting harder and harder to put into motion, and lately I’ve grown bored with working alone. It’s against my nature.

field test
field test – photograph taken by Jesse Richards

Can you tell us how you define a “good” film? 

For me it’s when it resonates on a deep level and this can happen with films by people as different as Bela Tarr and Jean Rollin, but they both had been able to tap into and communicate very special things. There are many others who have as well. These are just two of them.

What would you ideally like to see in the film industry in the next ten years?

Support for the younger and lesser known filmmakers through financing for lower budget more personal and adventurous films.

You are currently working on a new project, “Journal of My Other Self,” an experimental film based on a novel by Rainer Maria Rilke.  Can you tell us what your process is like and why you chose to work in this project?  

This is my favorite novel and I’ve wanted to work on this for years. My approach is to take some elements from the novel and explore them; using notes and improvisations, but no screenplay. This requires a certain kind of performer and finding them is not easy.  Right now, I’m thinking part of it will be closer to the book, and another part will be more autobiographical, showing my own experiences that have echoed those of the characters, at least somewhat; its an intensely personal work, and it demands an intensely personal approach. Also, will have multiple actors interpreting some of the characters.

Jesse, thanks for taking the time in doing this interview.  I truly admire the honesty and thoughtfulness of your answers.  You’ve introduced me to a whole new way of seeing films and understanding the importance of depth in how they’re made.  I am excited to see your next project, Journal of My Other Self, and wish you the best of luck with all the future projects you decide to work on. 

If you want to learn more about Jesse, check out his Tumblr, Vimeo and Facebook.

Check out this short interview Jesse did at the 2011 International Film Festival Manhattan:


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