Director/screenwriter/cinematographer NOBLE JONES may be just releasing his first directorial feature, but that doesn’t mean he’s a newbie to filmmaking. Jones is a veteran behind the camera in commercials and has shot and directed music videos for such notable artists as Keith Urban, Michael Bublé, and Taylor Swift. In 2004, he was hired by David Fincher to be the second unit director of the Oscar-winning film The Social Network. He would continue to work with Fincher on other projects, and Fincher even loaned Jones his own custom RED Xenomorph camera to film his debut feature as writer/director/DP. Now that feature – the sci-fi-tinged romance THE TOMORROW MAN – is ready for release.
In The Tomorrow Man, a conspiracy-minded doomsday prepper named Ed (John Lithgow) finds love with a grief-stricken hoarder named Ronnie (Blythe Danner) in their small midwestern town. Derek Cecil and Katie Aselton co-star in the film, which premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Bleecker Street Media picked it up for distribution and will release The Tomorrow Man in select theaters starting on May 22, before expanding to more cities on May 31.
We had a chance to speak with Noble Jones about his inspiration in making the film, working as his own cinematographer, his mentorship under David Fincher, and more.
COLIN McCORMACK: What was the first spark of an idea that led to you writing The Tomorrow Man script?
NOBLE JONES: I had already known about preppers from online articles and things. I was in North Dakota, and not only was I just in shock being in North Dakota [laughs] but then I went to this sporting goods store there that’s very popular called Scheels. It’s really an incredible place with weapons and ropes and all kinds of things. It suddenly dawned on me that as a boy from New York, you ask where chicken or where meat or where food comes from, we’ll say, “It comes from the corner store,” but being in a place like that you see the tradition of people who figure it out for themselves… I’ve always been fascinated with “flyover country.” I hate to use that term, but that’s what New Yorkers use. So down there on the ground and meeting people and walking around and getting a sense of the place, I was just in awe.
I’d seen a lot of westerns growing up – or I should say they were on, but I had no interest in them. I just didn’t see why they were popular. Then I saw John Ford‘s How Green Was My Valley, which is now one of my favorite films… And I saw this Ken Burns-produced documentary called The West, and it just fascinated me. Friends of mine through the years have made the mythical drive across the United States, which I was always in my mind afraid to do. I just thought it was like Mad Max or something out there. So all these conspired together and I thought of this character that kind of represented this early John Ford-like world but in the modern age. Part of that lineage of very self-sufficient and very much American in that unique experiment of self-governance and whether or not people can make their way. I had that character; he was very extreme, and then he started talking to me. Then he ran into a woman in this store that he thought was a prepper as well. This is my process.
I actually wrote something for Landmark’s website [about how] for me, it’s a matter of characters showing up and talking, and I listen. Sometimes I’m fortunate in that they fit a theme and a pre-digested idea, but in this case, it didn’t really work that way. They started talking, I started listening, and I noticed that the contrast between a prepper and a hoarder is neatness. That was my comedic observation. Then at that moment, I began to understand who [Ronnie] was. It became an exploration of their relationship. The strangest thing is that I don’t understand when it became an octogenarian. I just don’t know. That’s not what I do. My background is in videos and commercials and stuff. I don’t understand why he ended up being an octogenarian, but he was.
CM: Did you end up doing a lot of research on the hoarding side as well? There’s a whole reality series about hoarders, but how deep did you dig into that when conceptualizing the Ronnie character?
NJ: A bit, yes. There are some very broad strokes about it. I come from a family of psychiatrists and psychologists. I had a friend growing up who came from a family of bankers and he would say, “Your table conversation at dinner is very different from ours. Ultimately, there are things you understand about people that you take for granted in the same way my family understands things about money…” Whenever I do a character, it’s a matter of looking for those familiarities that are shared across many neuroses. Being from New York, that’s just standard, everybody’s got neuroses. With [hoarding], I’ve heard it described as similar to alcoholism, and right there there’s so much material and movies and clichés. There were some specifics that could make the character repellent, in a sense of when you start looking at pictures and see how much food is around and it becomes an issue of cleanliness – so there was that kind of pragmatic research. But largely, it’s the kind of individual who refuses to believe they have an issue when they do, and that is applicable to almost anything… Ultimately, any of these neuroses can be applied to almost any human endeavor.
CM: I can’t recall seeing the online life and identity of an octogenarian in other movies. How did you make the message boards and conspiracy theories part of Ed’s life, and how deep down the rabbit hole did you go researching those types of places on the internet?
NJ: I was reading a screenplay recently [and] there was a comment that was interesting – the guy took a writing course and asked what was the most important tool for a writer, and he said, “Curiosity.” I’d probably heard that somewhere before, but it’s true. That’s the job: How far is too far? How funny? What’s a good joke? How crass can you be?
For me, I know about message boards – I’m not a member or anything – but I do find them interesting. Years ago, I had a really great camera assistant. It’s a very technical job, knowing all the different cameras and what’s coming out. Now with the electronic cameras, something changes every week. So I had an assistant, this young guy, and he knew everything and I really depended on him. And I said, “How do you find all this stuff?” And he goes, “Internet forums.” So I started to go down those. For writing, there’s this site called Script Shadow. Are you familiar with Script Shadow?
CM: I’m not, no.
NJ: You should check that out. It’s a website purely for writers – aspiring, many of them it seems like from their attitudes, but some of them work. All they do is comment about movies and talk about it in practical terms and skills. I find that is applicable in every interest area. So I took that sensibility in the world of [preppers]. I don’t even know if the blog [Ed] was on was a prepper blog; most of the commentary was kind of general. He’s a poobah, he’s a guru, and all their comments are basically, “Aren’t you smart!” They’re vague enough so you’re not quite sure what’s going on. The first comment is broad but very applicable: “Something very strange is going on.” You do that cryptic thing so people lean in and ask questions like you asked. That’s part of the idea of a film like this. I’m not [working with] a lot of money; I can’t flip cars over or any of that kind of fun stuff, so it becomes this intriguing revelation of characters. That idea of the iceberg method – I think it’s from Hemingway – that there’s something much, much deeper beneath the surface.
I did want him to be a character that’s playing with expectations. I said it would be an interesting thing to write Ed as a 17-year-old. That’s really what I did. I said, I’m going to write him as a 17-year-old played by a guy who’s 73 or 74. I used that discipline, so to speak, and created a scenario and the comedy came from those moments where it became obvious that you are not 17. For instance, jumping into a supermarket cart [laughs]. He wanted to. Wouldn’t this be fun? But oh wait, you’re not 17.
CM: Was there any difficulty in getting the film off the ground because the characters were on the older side?
NJ: I don’t know. It wasn’t the easiest thing to get started. But then John Lithgow came on board, and it wasn’t an expensive movie, and then [producer] James Schamus showed up, which was really wonderful for us. I just went to a screening of the movie in my neighborhood at the Aero, which is just so weird because it’s my neighborhood. I’m walking for coffee and they put the sign up for the movie Tuesday and I’m like, “Cool, that’s my movie!” After it was over, people seemed to really like it and they asked many different questions. But it’s kind of the point to make a movie and there are certain ambiguities to it about whether people like it or not, but it’s about whether they get it. And James came on and it was nice to have somebody of his stature get it.
In reference to the age group, John came on and [everyone] got the idea of the story and the whole package. That’s kind of how these guys look at it: What’s the movie, who’s this guy, his background, his lineage. You make your whole little package of why you should give me money [laughs]. And it made sense. We got bought sight unseen by Bleecker. They just bought it. They didn’t even see it, which was the weirdest and most flattering thing. And from that perspective as well, they did that only after we had gotten into Sundance. So he’s going, Okay, here’s the price, here are the actors, here’s the package, here’s Sundance. And I hope that doesn’t come across as arrogant or anything. I had the opportunity to speak at the Writers Guild and it was nice to sit in a room full of industry professionals. It’s our job to come up with things that sell. So you put together elements and you roll your eyes back in your head and imagine, What would be something really compelling that would make somebody go, “I’ll see that” or “I’ll pay for that?” That was it. Like I said, it was using this concept of a teen comedy but older. It’s not even really a comedy. In our initial forays into finding financing, you do these visual presentations trying to get people behind what it’s going to be. With the ending and everything, and they look at my videos, see my work with Fincher, and they didn’t know what they were going to get. Some people were scared. A lot of people flirted, but they were scared. In the end, it wasn’t as easy as I would have expected it to be, but once it got rolling it really got rolling.
Once we shot it, I didn’t know what was going to happen after we edited it. Sundance picked it up, and I’m very pleased by that, but it’s got to get sold and someone could put it on the shelf, and you just don’t know. This is show business. It’s crazy. And then suddenly, Sony bought the international [rights] and two days later Bleecker buys it and says, “It’s coming out in May.” What?! [Laughs] That was that! And as I said, I was at the theater last night. Once it came together, it came together relatively quickly. That being said, it still took four or five years from writing it to it being in theaters.
CM: Have you had time to process it at all or is it still a blur?
NJ: No. Can’t you tell? [Laughs]
CM: In terms of being your own DP, you’ve done that on your videos, but how different was it stepping onto set of your first feature wearing both those hats?
NJ: I’ve always done it and one of my heroes, when I started, was Ridley Scott. Later on, meeting Fincher, he was a big fan of Ridley Scott too when he was coming up. Someone asked me what started me as a filmmaker and I was a Star Wars kid, but the movie really for me was Alien. Strangely enough, it was for Fincher too. I gave him a gift– I stole a copy of American Cinematographer from the library because I used to work at the library as a teenager, and I gave him my copy of the Alien edition before you could get it on shelves. It was a professional magazine; you couldn’t get it [in stores] back then. I gave him that as a thank you for asking me to do The Social Network with him. So I studied everything about Ridley Scott, his approach, his graphic style. I was really in love with visuals. It’s a bit calculated, but there’s a lot you have to work against when you come from the world of music videos. It’s almost like working in porn, where you spend a lot of energy living it down in a way. Specifically, the cinematography thing was mostly pragmatic in the past because the DPs that I wanted to use I couldn’t afford, so I ended up shooting myself. Then I just continued and David hired me to shoot a TV show for him.
My producers were like, “We could put that on the screen if you [shoot] it.” Because there was some talk about getting a DP, but its budget took it off the screen. We did hire a [camera] operator, and in retrospect, I’m very happy I did that. I was going to operate myself because there’s an advantage to being right there up front with the actors. That’s how I used to do it, and Ridley Scott as well. You’re there right in front of the actors, so it’s not a matter of walking over from the monitor to the camera to talk. It’s like, boom, you’re right there, you just stick your head out and say, “Could you do it this way?” “Could you reach a little this way?” Then you can control the visuals in a way if you’re into that kind of thing. But we had an operator, and I have a thing that I learned from David really, a methodical camera blocking dance that requires an enormous amount of rehearsal. So during those rehearsals, we bring in stand-ins and the operator and they run it 20, 30 times, or however long I need it. Once we establish what it is, then I can do other things like work in lighting and watch it all come together. That was probably the only difference on this. And I don’t even know if I’m going to continue shooting for myself.
CM: No? That’s interesting. Why not?
NJ: People always make the comment, and it’s nice, and a producer friend of mine said, “Are you sure you want to give that up?” But I’m very flattered by what people say about it. Certainly, when David hired me to shoot a TV show for him, I was stunningly flattered. But [cinematographer] Jeff Cronenweth, who I met on The Social Network, we’ve talked over the years and I think I remember him saying something along the lines on set once of, “Eventually, you’re going to have to pick one. You’re going to have to compete against me or David, and we’re both going to kick your ass.” And that’s true. At a certain point, I would rather be able to tap the genius of a guy like Cronenweth as opposed to me trying to do that myself while still trying to be Sidney Lumet as far as performance and Ridley Scott as far as visual and David Fincher as far as tone, effects, and theme. Again, as you can hear I’m still processing it all as we try to figure out what the next move is, [if it] requires all three disciplines – obviously directing, but do I write and do I shoot the next thing? I don’t know. It takes a certain amount of deliberation. Maybe it will be a matter of the circumstances revealing themselves. Because that’s what I think happened in the case of this movie.
My first big moment that seemed like I was making a feature was when I did American Psycho. I was going to write and direct that. We wrote a draft, which I’m still very pleased with and people occasionally throw it around as a writing sample. And we got pretty far down the road, contract signed, the whole bit, and then it just came apart. That was an odd but interesting experience. Then several other projects – two of which Fincher was going to producer – ran into rights issues. That’s when I started writing for myself and came up with a completely original thing so I could own it and never run into that situation again.
CM: Did Fincher give any advice on how to regroup after that? It’s something he’s certainly faced when a project falls through.
NJ: Oh yeah. I use the expression – I don’t know where I heard it – “There are ten things you need to know to sing at Carnegie Hall, and one of them is how to sing.” I would say David and I always discussed the other nine things. I take it at face value, but he’s very flattering at times when he talks about what I’m capable of. And it’s tough, obviously, keeping up. We do geek out about movies and technique and other things… Now that I know him I don’t study him too much, because it would feel like stalking or something. Fanboy stuff. I very rarely know what’s going on with him, like I said we don’t talk about that stuff. But there is a bit of regrouping.
It used to be war metaphors used for filmmakers, but I’m finding more sports metaphors because anybody who’s been in a war would be really insulted. But sports metaphors, the idea that you’re suddenly in the NFL and you got taken out by a 330-pound lineman. You’re a running back and you grab that ball just thinking you’re awesome, and then suddenly you wake up in the locker room [laughs]. You’ve got to decide whether or not you really want a career in football. It’s those moments, and I’ve had several of them throughout my life. Everyone has. You’ve got to get past them. [Fincher] has been an inspiration in my life, because I know he got past Alien 3. It still stings, I know it does. There are those moments in your life where you just decide, “Is this really worth it?” And then you get back in. You have those moments where you feel like it’s the greatest job in the world and you’re proud of yourself, and then other times it’s, “What was I thinking?”
CM: You spoke a little bit about it, but do you have any immediate plans for what’s next?
NJ: I have scripts that I’ve written and that I’m hoping to get out there. I’m sending them around but I’m also fielding books and things, trying to figure out what’s the wisest thing to do. My hope is that I do something that I write and direct again, an original thing. That would be ideal and hopefully, that’s what happens.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
If you’re an independent filmmaker or know of an independent film-related topic we should write about, email firstname.lastname@example.org for consideration.