Celebrity interviews are usually as deep as a puddle. But Sam Jones is trying to change that. The LA-based photographer, who began his career at the Associated Press and has worked for Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair, is stepping into the questioner’s seat with his self-made venture Off Camera, an interview series that’s changing the game. For each episode, Sam delves into his extensive contact book and produces a single interview as a video, podcast and long-form piece of writing published both online and as a magazine. So far, he’s had people like Robert Downey Jr., Blake Mills and Aimee Mann come in for questioning. Here, he tells us why he started asking questions, and where Off Camera is going next.
I’ve had a career of being in the room with various interesting people. Sometimes the conversations that I have with them are the things I remember most about the shoot – not the end product, but the connections we made.
I like talking to people who are restless in the artistic sense. They can’t just do one thing… It’s much more interesting for me to interview an ac- tor who also directs and writes, than just an actor who doesn’t do any of that. Robert Downey Jr. contradicts that, but I think his methods and the way he works is fascinating. I know, based on the conversations we have, that he’s somebody who approaches his work in a very unique way. Seeing someone develop that process and those working methods is interesting.
We’ve created a setup where you don’t see all the cameras in the room and there’s nobody really monitoring them. After about the first ten minutes, you feel like you’re just chatting. You forget about the cameras. We pretty much run the whole conversation – although we’ve just done Dave Grohl, who can talk forever, so we are going to have to edit that one down a bit!
It’s gotta be my own thing. People have to want to do it on my terms. There aren’t going to be any pre-questions, or anything like that. Right now, I have to explain to people what Off Camera is, and I have to lean on my relationships a little bit. I don’t want to call the publicist and make a cold request. I’d rather connect with somebody I already know, through a photoshoot or whatever. I have a long list of people I want to do who I’ve already worked with. Judd Apatow is totally into doing it. We’ve talked about it for six months, and we haven’t found a day that works yet. And then Stacey Peralta is gonna come do one in a few weeks. And Matt Damon has said he wants to do one.
No one’s selling anything. They’re not on there to flog their projects. And they don’t feel like they have to be ‘on’ or entertaining or funny. I don’t think there’s another forum like this where people get to be lowkey and have a long, relaxed conversation. And until I started doing it, I didn’t realise there was nothing like it out there. It doesn’t feel like they’re celebrities – they’re artists talking about their craft.
Obviously, it’s great to have a big, famous ac- tor on there, because it gets people tuning in and maybe they fall in love with it. If someone goes on and sees Robert Downey, and then through the other episodes they hear about Blake Mills for the first time, that’s a total success for me.
Thrasher magazine was a huge influence on me and on Off Camera. I was a big skater in high school and college. I had the first issue of Thrasher ever published. In my first year of college, I went off to a snowbound school in Eastern Washington, and it was a black hole of skating out there – no ramps or anything – so Thrasher saved me. I looked forward to the UPS man arriving with boards and wheels and Thrasher coming in the mail, those were the best days. I’d read issues cover to cover, five or six times. I loved the style of journalism – the really gonzo journalism applied to skateboarding. Stories about skaters getting to the contests, where they slept, what they ate – I loved it.
Peter Bogdanovich did a book of interviews called Who The Devil Made It?, where he interviewed all his favourite directors. He wanted to learn more about his craft. They kind of stand as the official interview for a lot of those directors. If you want to know about John Ford, for example, you go and read his interview. Eventually, I’d like Off Camera to be like that. I want them to stand [as archival interviews], not just be of-the-moment. In ten years I want people, if they’re going to go find one interview of Robert Downey, to hopefully find the one I’ve done.
Check out Off Camera.