THE ARTIST TOOLBOX's John Jacobsen on Talking with America's Great Talents - Give Me My Remote : Give Me My Remote

THE ARTIST TOOLBOX’s John Jacobsen on Talking with America’s Great Talents

March 9, 2011 by  

Has anyone checked out the PBS series THE ARTIST TOOLBOX?

It’s really a fascinating series where host John Jacobsen travels across the country talking to the leading American artists — everyone from well-known stars like John Legend or brilliant people you may not be familiar with like Massimo Vignelli — and talking in-depth with them about their process.

I went a little meta and chatted with Jacobsen about talking with some of the great artists of our time…

I’ve watched several episodes of the show and I find myself so fascinated by it. What drew you to this project?
John Jacobsen: Well, thank you for saying those nice words. You know, I’ve been involved in the arts all my life, and I was fortunate enough to grow up with my parents who [are artistic] —my dad is a great major architect, “Architectural Digest” calls him one of the top 50 architects in the world. And I’m the oldest boy, so he was just sort of beginning his career when I was little. He practices architecture with a capital “A.” Art is really important to him, and the art of architecture is really important.

So the people at the dining room table for his parties were incredible artists of all fields: writers and sculptors and painters and poets. So I sort of grew up so inspired by those people. And then I sort of made my foray into the world, and I’ve been working in the movie business for most of my life, and you sure see commerce overtaking art. And we even watch television going down the tubes to such a great extent, and more and more reality shows — even PBS, which used to hold the mantel of the arts, is really dropping that ball, I think. And so my business partner and I, we were making movies, and I said, “You know what, why aren’t we talking to artists? They’re the most fascinating people, they’re totally inspirational and there is no one else on TV doing it.” And so we sort of came up with the idea from there.

Did you have full control over who was interviewed in this first season? It’s quite an eclectic list that was just fantastic.
JJ: I did, I did. I have a great partner, Greg Moga, and he sure just made it all financially so we could make this show, and he gave me great freedom. And you know to be honest, it was our first season and so it was like “Well, who can we get? Who can we get that meets the standard we’re trying to set?” And then it sort of became that they loved the format of the show so much that they started recommending us to some of their friends, and then we got WBTW in Chicago to pick us up, and then we got an air date on PBS, and then we had a lot of credibility, and now that we’re going into the second season we have a lot more credibility. So my whole design for the first season — and now I can design more in the second season — is diversity. Diversity in art, diversity in gender, diversity in race, diversity in geography. I don’t want to keep going back to New York, as much as I love New York. I want to go all over the country. There’s just such great richness in art all over, and I want to touch the whole country. And the definition is “masters in their field, leaders in their craft.” They have to be masters.

There are some amazing people you’re interviewing in season one. Was there any interview that was particularly memorable for you?
JJ: Well, like you said, they’re all amazing, and I love the diversity of them, and I love that we have some well-known people like John Legend and Jason Alexander, but I love that we have some people that maybe aren’t household names, like Massimo Vignelli or Sam Gilliam, but they’re still incredibly leaders in their field, and frankly some of the smartest people I’ve talked to were those people. I mean, yeah, I love them. Everybody has some gems, but Isabelle Allende really touched me a lot. She’s just so strong and so vulnerable at the exact same moment. And she really is a story-teller, so when she tells you something, it’s very moving.

How much time do you actually spend with each person? Was it a day that you spent with them, was it a week?
JJ: A day. We’re about five or six hours with each guest, and then we cut that down to about 25 minutes, so there’s a lot of material to pick from.

Is there anything you wish you could have kept in, or will potential DVDs have extra bonus footage?
JJ: Oh, definitely. I mean, with Isabelle Allende, she was the hardest of all to cut because every moment was so good. She’s the daughter of President Allende of Chile, who was overthrown by the American government, essentially. The only democratically elected socialist in history, and the American government overthrew him, and then essentially he was murdered. And then she was put on a death list and had to flee the country, so that story alone is so fascinating, but in the end I had to cut that because it didn’t fit with the format of the show. But all of these artists have seen such incredible diversity, so they all bring such inspirational stories to the table.

I have to say, I wasn’t really familiar with Isabelle before I watched the episode, but I left it wanting to know more about her, wanting to read her work. Is that something that you guys intended for those artists who weren’t household names?
JJ: Yes, completely. I’m so happy to hear you say that, because I do a lot of research before we decided who to do, and then we do a lot of research just to decide what I want to talk to them about, but I leave so inspired by each one of these people. Really, every one of them.

It’s like you were saying, I could listen to her talk all day — you just get wrapped up in her voice and in her words.
JJ: Yeah, completely. And Massimo Vignelli is probably the most influential graphic designer in the world of the 20th Century. Every time you use helvetica typeface, you have to think of Massimo Vignelli and plus so many other things. And when I landed in New York to interview him, there was American Airlines and then there was the FedEx jet, and then there was an assortment of advertisements. And he designed all those graphics. He is truly iconic. And he’s Italian, which makes him incredibly charming. And he has this beautiful quote, which I love. He says [Jacobson puts on an Italian accent], “Well you know, in America, the word ambiguity means the meaning is not clear. But in Italy the meaning of ambiguity is many possible meanings.” And I just love the way he sees that, that that’s what art wants to do: to have many possible meanings, and you and I get to pick our own meanings that resonate with us. Whereas Americans often define ambiguity as something that doesn’t have a lot of meaning at all.

That’s a nice way of sort of rephrasing the situation to make things look more positive.
JJ: Yeah, and we have a lot of hope that our viewers will turn around for more information on these artists. And on our websites we have more footage, like ten minutes of extra footage we put up there, and so I’m hoping that they then realize that artists are very inspirational people and then continue to watch our show even if they don’t know the artist. David Garrett got a lot of views and we sold a lot of DVDs. And John Legend will get a lot of views, because [he’s] famous, really famous. But as interesting as they are, the other guests will bring a lot to the table, too.

And I also hope people will remember how important the arts are. And we’re losing that importance — we’re losing it in our schools, we’re losing it on television, and losing it everyplace. And the arts are critical to our society, and so we’re hoping they’ll be inspired to go read the works of Isabel Allende, or go look up Massimo’s work, or go to the museums.

It’s sad how much art is overlooked. Did you find it easier to interview the people who aren’t huge “stars”? I’m sure John Legend and Jason Alexander have done thousands upon thousands upon thousands of interviews, so was it a little bit easier to chat with the “lesser known” artists?
JJ: That’s an interesting question. One of the ways I research, of course, is to go to the internet and read all the previous interviews I can find on the guests and watch the videos that have been done on them. You’re right with John — not so much with Jason, but with John, for sure, and maybe a couple of others, there is quite a bit of material — and you see similar questions being asked of them, of course. And you start to recognize the pat answers they give because they’ve been interviewed out so they just start to give the same answers. So you sort of learn not to ask those questions, because one, I’m not interested in asking the same questions that everybody else asked.

And our show is very different, it’s not about “Who’s your latest girlfriend” or “Talk about your pop album,” it’s about talking about the process of art. But I don’t know if I’d define either one of them hard or easy. They’re all interesting because they’re artists in process. And they’re all so happy to talk about their process because no one else ever asks them about that. It’s almost like this unattainable or out-of-reach thing, to understand the process of artists, because no one really talks about it. I love art and I spent my life in the middle of the process of it all. And I’m truly interested in hearing what they have to say, and I think that’s what makes all the interviewees, if you will, open right up about it and really want to talk about it.

Was anyone closed off about anything? Were there any questions that you thought would be sort of easy answers that they were a little bit more hesitant to talk about?
JJ: No, I haven’t found that. You know, sometimes I’ll ask a question that is hard for them to answer because they never thought of it that way before. Like, “why are you a songwriter?” It sounds like such a simple question, but it can be very challenging sometimes because it’s so general. Or if art was another form, what would that form be? I asked John Legend how he would describe music to a person that couldn’t hear, and that was a very challenging question for him. And I work with that question a lot because I was really genuinely interested in his answer. And he actually came up with a good answer, eventually.

But, you know, it’s not that different than what you and I are doing here. Because I’m in the room with him for a long period of time, so I have my questions I want to ask, but nine times out of ten I don’t get to ask them. Nine times out of ten it’s like a cocktail party, and I’m lucky enough to corner John Legend and we’re able to talk. The conversation just goes places. And I’d like to believe because I’m so genuinely interested in what they’re talking about, that I’m so lucky to be there, that my questions are very emotionally charged.

Is there anything ever that you look back on in these interviews and think “Oh, I wish I had asked something differently?” or “I wish I had gone about this a certain way”?
JJ: All the time you do that, because they’re such talents and they’re so generally deep that you’re always asking “Oh, why didn’t I do that?” or “Why didn’t I form it that way?” But, you know, we can’t live backwards. And I’m so happy and proud with the content we did get.

I figured that was probably the case, because as I do these interviews there’s always that moment where you’re listening back later and you’re going “Why didn’t I ask that question?”
JJ: You know, I’ve always cursed because I’ve always known I could have done it better, but that’s no way to live. Always in hindsight it’s easy to come up with that. So we’ve gotta cut ourselves some slack, okay?

We’re humans, we gotta remember that.
JJ: Yeah, let’s not forget that.

Were you star struck by any of these people? Because there are some huge names here, some legitimate legends, no pun intended.
JJ: You know, I don’t want to say I wasn’t, because it makes me sounds like I wasn’t impressed by any of them; I’m impressed by all of them. I’ve been around a lot of major people in my life, and I don’t really like the notion of “stars” to begin with; I don’t like what it does to people and I don’t like how we worship stars, I don’t like how we worship celebrity in our culture. I’m just looking for good people, and so far I’ve been lucky that they’ve all been good people. We’ve already started shooting season two and I talked with Steve Tyrell for that, the great jazz singer. They’re all different, and they all have their egos, of course. I don’t think you can be a great artist without some arrogance that you’re better than everybody else. It takes that sort of myopic belief in order to move ahead.

But they’re all incredibly nice to me, and to my crew. I loved Daniel Boulud so much, the chef. When we were shooting with him, he’d just had us in his kitchens the night before, shooting, and it was such an incredible experience. And then, the day I was interviewing him I said “Okay, we’ve gotta take a break, I’ve gotta get my crew lunch,” and he said, “Where are you eating?” and I said, “Oh, we’ll just go to a coffee shop across the street,” and he said, “Absolutely not, I will treat your crew in the restaurant”—you know, where lunch costs $200 a piece, and he’s just, “No, no, no, I make the food for you.” And then he has Gavin, his cuisine chef, make this incredible three-course meal for my crew. And you know, they haven’t been in such a massively beautiful restaurant like that before. And then Daniel Boulud came and sat down with us and talked with the PA, and the gaffer that I had on the shoot, and it just was so human and real to me, and I really admire him for that.

It really is nice when you see people who are these big “stars” and they have these moments of absolute…humanity, for lack of a better word. They don’t pretend that they’re better than everyone else, because—yeah, of course they need to have that mindset in order to get ahead, because there are so many “no”s that they have to face in order to get where they are, but it’s always nice to see that softer side of them.
JJ: Well, when you have a twenty-minute interview they can keep up that façade pretty easily for twenty minutes, but after a long amount of time, when we’ve spent hours—you know, we walk in their neighborhood, we go to their studio, we go to the kitchen, we go to rehearsal, we go to their place of living—they tend to sort of drop that [facade] after a while and you get to really see the person.

Was there anyone who really surprised you? Because you said you did all this research, and you do have familiarity with all these people, but was there anyone who just shocked you when you met them?
JJ: You know who really shocked me was Jason Alexander. Because Jason’s a pretty big star, and he has a lot of people around him who are protecting him — publicists, who are guarding him and protecting him, and they’re very good at their job, and so you sort of think “Eh, I’m gonna get a little attitude from here, and all that Hollywood stuff.” But he is the most down-to-Earth guy. And then, most of us only know him from SEINFELD, but I knew he had won a Tony on Broadway and had a pretty good musical career going, but he really could talk the craft of acting very, very well. And I know that because I teach acting, and so I really take that seriously. You know, I’m a director, and so I really love that process of working with actors and watching how actors put their characters together. And he could talk that inside and out as good as any great instructor in the country, and so that really surprised me, too. He’s a very, very serious performer.

I’m sure his fans will get really excited to get to see that different side of him, because so much of his public persona has been SEINFELD.
JJ: Exactly, that’s how most of us know him.

I know you mentioned you are filming season two right now. Is there anyone you can talk about that you have set so far?
JJ: We’ve only shot two season two episodes so far, and one of them is Steve Tyrell, and the other is the architect Tom Kundig, who just won yet another huge architecture honor award. He’s really brilliant. But on the list are Helen Mirren, Angela Lansbury, the great cartoonist Jules Feiffer, the great photographer Sally Mann, Anne Coates, who edited LAWRENCE OF ARABIA and won an Academy Award, she’s just fascinating. Jeff Leatham, a floral designer. Sylvia Weinstock, the cake designer. These are all people we’re lining up. Trying again to have as diverse a culture as we can.

Wow. That definitely sounds like a diverse and high-caliber list, too. I mean, Helen Mirren is a pretty huge name.
JJ: Yeah. Once we were on the air people started paying a little more attention. And again, we don’t want the show to be a Barbara Walters show, as good as that show is. We want it to be not celebrity-driven, although we feel the need to have the balance of well-known names that keep people paying attention to us.

Right, which is unfortunate that people are naturally drawn to that.
JJ: Celebrity sells, you know?

Yeah, it’s sad to see how much celebrity sells, but it does.
JJ: Well, and my arguments with PBS was get bigger names if you can, and I was like “Well, I’m sure we could get Lindsey Lohan on the show, but I just don’t think she’s appropriate.” You know, it’s like you’ve got to be so careful. And I don’t mind them if they’re celebrities if they really are masters. It’s just you want to be careful and not take someone on just because of their celebrity name status.

I’m glad you’re making that distinction.
JJ: Yeah, and publicists often give us names of their clients, who albeit are obviously working and everybody know them, but they’re just not to our set standard. And I think that’s gonna be hard, to keep that standard correctly, and I think that’s what we’re hoping with the branding of our show, we want to have integrity in our guests so that when our viewers turn us on they know that these are real artists.

Is there anything you learned in season one that you want to implement in season two? Something you want to do more of?
JJ: Yeah, I hope that as you continue with a show you get hopefully better at it. You certainly learn. And one of the things we want to do is actually show more of the process and make it less of sit-at-the-table-and-do-the-interview. I mean, we still want that as part of the show, but to take the sit-down part and put it into voice-over over the process. If I could show them the belly-dancers dancing more, if I could show the architects at the site more, these are the things that most of us don’t get the chance to do is go backstage and watch John Legend work with his band at composing a song or watch David Garrett working on a violin concerto to try to master that hard part. That’s really kind of interesting, and so if we could have good conversation and then show that as well, and then try to talk about it as well, that’s somewhere we’re trying to push the show.

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