SXSW 2021 Interview: Alexandria Jackson and Sophie Kipner on Following the Feeling in “Sophie and the Baron”

There’s a point in “Sophie and the Baron” where the legendary photographer Baron Wolman recalls how he was drawn to taking pictures in the first place, finding that with all the chaos going on as he came to age in the 1960s, he was able to give it shape through his camera, informally trained to capture the craziness of Woodstock as the first Chief Photographer for Rolling Stone from a tour of duty with Army military intelligence in West Berlin. It was a moment synchronicity then that he would meet Sophie Kipner, an artist who first charmed him with a vodka tonic when she was working a day job as a bartender in London, but soon would reveal a similar gift for turning disarray into beauty with her skill at blind contouring, an exercise in sketching without ever looking at the canvas that others use to get loose that she has perfected into a form unto itself.

While Kipner often entertained guests at dinner parties with her uncanny ability to take squiggly lines and capture the spirit of what she was seeing before her, it was only a matter of time before Wolman invited her over to his home in Santa Fe for inspiration, going through the drawers of his studio for work of his that might spark her imagination. Thankfully, Kipner had a filmmaker in the family to record what unfolded and her cousin Alexandria Jackson’s resulting half-hour documentary, premiering online this week as part of SXSW, would be special if only to spend some time in the company of the two artists who find a unique way to collaborate, but it becomes something more as one does to see how they bond over being guided by their passion, beautifully actualizing their instincts of where to look or when to put a paintbrush to paper an extension of their feeling in the moment.

Naturally, “Sophie and the Baron” honors its subjects by being a bit freeform in terms of its own structure, but it evolves into a lovely portrait of both Kipner gathering confidence in her unique style as she is starting out her career and Wolman, who sadly passed away not long after filming from ALS, looking back at his, recognizing what an incredible legacy he leaves behind as Kipner breathes new life into one of his Woodstock photos for her painting of a crowd scene. Shortly before its debut, Jackson and Kipner spoke about what it means to have the film now as a memory of Wolman and how “Sophie and the Baron” itself proved how rewarding it could be to follow one’s instincts as its subjects have.

How did this come about?

Alexandria Jackson: Sophie actually was already in the process of doing a collaboration with Baron. As you [see] from the film, they met at a bar in London and became fast friends. And Sophie is also an incredible writer, and she actually was having writer’s block, using blind contour to get out of her head, so she came back [to the States] and they started this collaboration. Both of us have a background in music, so I obviously knew Baron’s work and was a huge fan.

Sophie Kipner: Yeah, I couldn’t wait for them to meet when we came out.

Alexandria Jackson: She introduced us, and I just had to start shooting it. I saw how sweet they were together and how encouraging they were of each other and just realized, “Wow, their dynamic is so awesome. I need to film it.”

Sophie Kipner: There was never a plan at the beginning for anything necessarily to happen, but Alex being a natural filmmaker and photographer, she can’t help but shoot all the time and she’s always been that way. It was actually really cool to all be together and not know what would happen.

Did you know this would have as much of a biographical element as it ends up having? It forms a really nice parallel as far as an artist’s development.

Alexandria Jackson: Once I started to see a film in it, I never wanted to do a normal biography, in general. I think all of us wonder about the past, and to have access to the Summer of Love and Woodstock era in 1968 through Baron’s iconic images and the man himself, it was cool, but there’s been lots of pieces on Baron. He’s so prolific and incredible. I just found an artist validating another artist is hugely impactful and beautiful and what can come of that and trusting someone. It should be celebrated, and the story couldn’t just be a biography on one of them. It had to be about what they were making together.

Sophie, was there anything that drew you to that particular picture to paint? This is like your “Guernica.”

Sophie Kipner: I know, right? It was a very special photo to me. I collect photography that inspires me, and I realized after we met that so much of what I had saved were Baron’s photos. So picking that initial photo was difficult because there’s so many amazing ones that he’s done and when we were there [in his home in Santa Fe] and going through his archives, I’m so drawn to people’s faces [generally] — more than who it is, I just love a face. The crowd is so interesting, and Baron had shot so many of those people on stage performing for Rolling Stone that he was interested in the crowd — and I was also interested in who are these people? Something about blind contouring allows you to meet these people on the page because you can’t plan it and they start coming alive, just like when you take a photo and you see all these people who are in that moment captured forever. That’s the beautiful thing about photography.

Alexandria Jackson: That’s something that really unifies Sophie and Baron too is [how] she does her initial blind contouring is really divorcing her visual sense from the act of drawing itself, which is very much how a photojournalist shoots. You’re shooting without consciously framing, necessarily. You’re taking the picture more than making it. And that really binds them together as artists, really being in the moment. Also how I shot this also was very in the moment. This wasn’t planned, so it’s all three of us doing our thing in and collaborating in this really fun way.

Sophie Kipner: And that photo is special because there’s so much to work with. There was just energy in it that you had to get into.

I felt that from the film, and Alexandria, with the way that you shot this, you have those beautiful gliding shots into Baron’s home in Santa Fe, but then it feels like you’re dancing around Sophie as she’s painting. What it was like figuring out how to shoot this?

Alexandria Jackson: It was so organic. I’m always with a camera in hand, and because we’re cousins and so close, Sophie has said that she was really able to be herself because it was me shooting it…

Sophie Kipner: Only Alex could’ve made this doc the way it is, because we joked that I could ignore her because she’s like family. [laughs] I can just have her get in my space and it doesn’t even bother me, so she was able to capture a dynamic and my internal dialogue because I’m so comfortable with her. And I think someone else I might have felt them around.

Alexandria Jackson: And it was while she was doing her thing, I was just doing mine. It was a dance — and we cut out the parts where I tripped over a wire. [laughs]

From what I understand this was a real family affair – Sophie’s brother contributed music?

Alexandria Jackson: He sure did. Harrison Kipner and his band, Rackets, had two of their amazing songs in the film, and our other friend, Jen Hirsh, [also known as] Monogem, gave us a song. The Rolling Stones gave us a song, which was incredible, and our amazing composer Joel Taylor, just killed it, emulating a lot of the sounds and vibe of the ’60s and then the more modern, whimsical scenes with Sophie, so music was a huge, important part of this film.

The animation really pulls this together as well. What was it like to find the right artist for it?

Alexandria Jackson: That’s Andrew Stenson, who’s amazing, and Lauren Brown, who I edited the film with, had worked with him before and brought him on board. I always had this vision when I was shooting that I’m going to bring these these characters to life and have them walk around…it keeps the doc fun. And because Sophie and Baron are almost different species in the best way — Sophie is lighthearted and whimsical, and then Baron is just this prolific genius— to have the animation join them and bind their stories was helpful.

Sophie Kipner: Yeah, I remember [when Alexandria said], “If you’re bringing them to life, then let’s really bring them to life.” The whole movie was so cool for me to watch. I’m not shocked because Alex is such a great filmmaker, so I knew it was in good hands, but she just took it to a whole other level. It’s weird to watch yourself, obviously, in a creative process, but also I’m so proud to be a part of it and the way she captured it, it’s 100% me.

Alexandria Jackson: Also, Baron really loved it too, which was just the biggest compliment for both of us. He was really involved in the editing process and watched a lot of the cuts.

Sophie Kipner: Yeah, he loved seeing it come alive, not only how the painting reinterpreted his work, but then how Alex brought everything together.

Of course, Baron sadly passed away before this is making its premiere. Does it mean something different now that it can serve as this wonderful tribute?

Alexandria Jackson: We didn’t know about Baron’s ALS until very late into filming, so it was always just about their friendship and collaboration. But when I last was in Santa Fe shooting Baron in March 2020, the world shut down right after I left, due to COVID. About a week after he completely lost his ability to speak from his ALS, but he was very much himself still. If you don’t know much about ALS, it’s one of the horrifying, brutal diseases I’ve ever encountered, but we were texting almost every day, and he told me many times that [it was meaningful] having this movie to look forward to and to be involved with and having Sophie having breathe life into his work again. He gave me shit about misspelling Jimi Hendrix. [laughs]

We had such a fun banter, and became even closer by constantly speaking through this process. Before he passed, he said that he considers this film the bookend to his life as a photographer and friend, which breaks out hearts, but also is the most beautiful thing, and his friend that was looking after him just said that every time he watched the film — and he watched literally every cut — he would cry at the end of the song, Joel Taylor’s song, and Sophie and Baron walking off into the light. Now I see it as her walking him off into heaven, so, to me, no matter what happens with this film, the fact that Sophie’s so happy with it and that Baron loved it, what more can you ask for?

Sophie Kipner: It’s really beautiful that he was so involved with it and we knew that he was so proud of it. And we feel like he knows what’s going on.

“Sophie and the Baron” will screen at SXSW on March 16th at 10 am CST.