"It's where I've always been aimed," Jones said with the certainty of a compass while sitting in a Park Slope cafe on a recent morning in Brooklyn. Such aspirations, of course, do not always make sound life goals. Proximity to moviemaking can cloud even the most level-headed of thinkers. The New Yorker critic Pauline Kael infamously flamed out in Hollywood after Warren Beatty lured her to Los Angeles to work on James Toback's "Love & Money."
Jones has carved out a career, and a sensibility, far different than Kael's. But if anyone was skeptical when Jones, 58, went off to make his first fiction film, he understands. "More than one person has been like, 'I was very nervous about watching your movie and then I was relieved that I liked it as much as I did,'" said Jones. "That's been a common thread. I think people were kind of like, 'He's going to make a movie?' But from the inside, it was always about moving in that direction. I just took" — and here Jones roars with laughter — "a different route."
The result is "Diane," a modest and raw character study starring Mary Kay Place as a selfless widower in wintery Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where she spends guilt-ridden days always on the move: visiting her addicted and overbearing son (Jake Lacy), a soup kitchen, her diminishing community of friends and family.
Shot on a meager budget over 20 days in upstate New York (Place calls it "a 59-cent movie"), "Diane," which is in limited release Friday, has been hailed for its clear-eyed intimacy, for the bracingly honest performance of its 71-year-old veteran actress and for its singular rhythm in which life passes, perplexedly, in fits and starts, through pain and grace. It won three awards, including best narrative film, at last year's Tribeca Film Festival, the downtown New York festival alternative to the one overseen by Jones at Lincoln Center.
Jones wrote it specifically for Place, the "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman" star, inspired by her performance in Francis Ford Coppola's 1997 drama "The Rainmaker." They first met while serving as jurors at the Berkshire Film Festival. Jones grew up in nearby Pittsfield, the small, blue-collar city in western Massachusetts. Place was flattered but skeptical.
"I had no hope that it would ever get financed. I said to him, 'You will not a get a penny from me. I am not a bank.' But he never seemed daunted or even seemed to think much about it," said Place, speaking by phone from Los Angeles. "I said I believe I'll jump on that faith train myself. I still find it a miracle."
When the script finally arrived years later, Place recognized, she says, "the part of a lifetime." "It was one of the great gifts of my life," said Place. "I read that thing straight through in a zip. It seemed to flow like honey dripping out of a bottle."
Jones was once Martin Scorsese's video archivist, and the two remain close. (Scorsese is an executive producer on "Diane.") As a critic, he's shied away from regular week-to-week reviewing to craft a more varied relationship to cinema. He's made documentaries on film history about filmmakers with unique interactions with movies, including the B-movie producer Val Lewton and the critic-turned-filmmaker Francois Truffaut's storied interviews with Alfred Hitchcock. Jones has also written some scripts, including 2013's "Jimmy P.," with French director Arnaud Desplechin.
"I kind of created my own idea of criticism," said Jones. "The deeper I got, the more my thinking about movies became oriented on the divergence between the way they're thought about in writing and what they actually are — what the filmmaking process is for filmmakers as opposed to what the filmmaking process is imaged to be. And it's really different. That became more and more apparent to me."
"It has to live," adds Jones. "That's a very different kind of enterprise from what criticism tends to be aimed at." Film history is rife with critics who crossed over into filmmaking, from Jean-Luc Godard to Paul Schrader, James Agee to Frank Nugent. In making his first narrative film, Jones pulled from both his study of cinema and from his friends. Scorsese twice went frame by frame through an unfinished cut with Jones. In the credits, Jones thanks David Fincher, Jim Jarmusch, James Gray and Olivier Assayas, who gave Jones several key bits of advice.
"He said, 'Look, nobody's going to get your movie made but you. You're going to have to be the driving force,'" recalls Jones. Filmmaker Oren Moverman ("Time Out of Mind," ''The Messenger") came aboard early on as a producer, struck by Jones' screenplay and drawn by what he called a "dangerous" enterprise.
"For so many years as a critic and programmer, he criticized films and praised others, rejected films and accepted others. So it's an incredible act of bravery to completely expose yourself and open yourself up to criticism," said Moverman. "I thought, wow, you better make a really great film. Otherwise it would be a feeding frenzy."
While "Diane" makes plenty of nods, allusions and departures from film history, it might surprise some by its simple poetry. It's a kind of rough-hewn gem, and a deeply personal movie to Jones based on the landscape of his upbringing and the lives of his great aunts and grandmother.
"They were just the firmament. They were the North Star for everybody," said Jones. "They all lived to be pretty old and so it seemed like they would go on forever, but of course they didn't. And when they didn't, they went very quickly."
The production was, it's clear, a long-awaited thrill for Jones, and a life-changing one, too. He and the film's costume designer, Carisa Kelly, were wed last October in the Berkshires — one more happy result of "Diane."
"It was," says Jones understatedly, "a lot of things at the same time."
Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP