Interview: Stephen Wilkes on Looking at Life in a New Way with “Jay Myself”

Recently when “Jay Myself” opened at Film Forum in New York, just a few blocks away from where Jay Maisel used to live at 190 Bowery, the photographer could walk inside the theater for the surreal experience of stepping back inside his home for 50 years, a six-story, 35,000 former bank where a collection of anything that drew his eye over the years had accrued.

“He’s seen it about eight times now and he said, ‘Every time I see it, I never thought there was any story there for me – I never thought I was that interesting. Where’s the tension?’” says Stephen Wilkes, the film’s director and a fellow photographer who was once an apprentice to Maisel. “But the truth is he’s a fascinating guy and I wanted to just capture him in that way. I’ve described it to people like I wanted to bottle Jay, his whole personality and the bank all together and it’s like a genie in a bottle. Every time you to look at the movie, he comes out and you get your three wishes in terms of what you want to discover today.”

There is considerable wish fulfillment in “Jay Myself” as you enter the bank which Maisel purchased for a song during the 1960s. (An ad campaign for RCA afforded the $25,000 down payment on the place when lower Manhattan real estate was in free fall.) As big business and pricey condominiums built up around the area, the bank remained an oasis — full of intriguing odds and ends, but carefully curated in such a way that every corner appears as if it were a piece of art, an extension of Maisel’s ability to turn every day scenes into profound images as a photographer. Yet any pretense is cut immediately by Jay’s salty demeanor – his daughter jokes that she like to think of him as more of a “strange uncle,” and even Jay jests as he brings Wilkes inside the cavernous bank that he’s giving a tour of “the inner workings of a troubled mind.”

Still, Wilkes can’t help but craft a warm, engaging portrait of his mentor, set amidst a particularly frenzied time as Maisel finally decides to move out after the considerable costs of upkeep at such a residence make it the right time to sell. While he comes to terms with leaving the extraordinary place he built behind, Wilkes captures it for posterity as well as celebrating Maisel’s unique way of seeing the world, dipping in and out of his spirited body of work as a photographer. With the film now opening theatrically outside of New York beginning this week in Los Angeles, there is an opportunity for everyone to step inside the world Maisel created and recently Wilkes spoke about how he pinned down his wily mentor for access, balancing the needs of the film versus the massive cleanup effort at hand and reconnecting audiences with what they see every day.

Besides the impending move, what made you pull the trigger on making a film about Jay?

It’s a fun thing how that happened. I’ve known Jay for 42 years, so it’s a long friendship and over the years as I spent more and more time at the bank, I used to always tease him that if he ever moved, I was going to have to film [it] because this was going to be the mother of all moves. But I never thought he was actually going to move. The idea of extricating him out of that building just seemed impossible. It was never going to happen. Then Jay called me and was like, “Hey, man, I’ve got to sell it.” I go, “What are you talking about?” He’s like, “I can’t afford to keep it anymore.”

We had an amazing history in the bank itself, but then the fact it was going to disappear and Jay occupied the bank in such a total way, at that moment suddenly the thing I had been teasing about [with] this place where I had spent so much time – my formative years, really as a young photographer and I met my wife [there] — intersected with this opportunity to use the move as a vehicle to tell Jay’s life story through this epic move. So I slowly began to work on him to allow me to do this because Jay is a very, very private person — he describes me as a slow-dripping water torturer [laughs] — and I knew this was going to be an enormously stressful situation.

The other motivation for me was Jay was my friend and my mentor for 42 years, so I wanted to be there for him physically during this process because I felt as a friend I could comfort him. Even if he vented at me or whatever it was, there’s a saying one of my dear friends said to me, “Stephen,” he says, “Sharing good news makes it twice as good and sharing bad news makes it half as bad.” So I really wanted to make it half as bad for Jay. And in that process, [he could] really tell all the wonderful things he taught me over the years, share the history that we have together and also capture the changing of New York. We’ll never see anything like the bank ever again in lower Manhattan, so this was an opportunity to capture that before it disappeared.

One of the greatest compliments I can pay is that I felt like I was physically there myself – what did you do to get that tactile quality to what you were filming?

One of the things I wanted to do from the get-go was to have a lot of the cinematography be off of a steadicam, very fluid and very flowing because the way I would go through the bank is I would float and it plays right into the idea of how Jay sees the world. He describes it in the film. Things are just constantly coming at him and sometimes he gets it and sometimes he doesn’t. It’s this idea that [in] the act of looking, you don’t really know what you’re going for. You’re getting lost a little bit, so I felt like the camera had to do that. I was lucky, I had a great young cinematographer Jason Greene, who did all of the steadicam work and it was the combination of a floating camera and then the ability to go into the scene.

One of the big moments for me was at the beginning of the film [asking myself] “How do I give you a taste of just what the scale is going to be of what you’re about to witness?” Because when people describe, “Oh, he has a building on Spring Street in the Bowery,” they don’t really understand what 72 rooms looks like, especially a guy who’s a compulsive collector with 4500 file cabinets. There’s just a scale to Jay that is almost incomprehensible for most human beings. Obviously, he’s one of the most prolific photographers of the 20th century, and over the years of knowing him, I knew exactly the scale of the body of work he created and [I knew] he had all these slides. Years ago, somebody started stealing some of his transparencies on the Bowery where he would throw them out and [this person] actually started using some of Jay’s work as his work, and so once Jay found out about that, he essentially never threw out another slide out. But he shot millions of rolls of Kodachrome film and all the outtakes that he’d deem weren’t up to his standards, even though by anyone else’s standards they’d probably be top selections for portfolios, he’d stick in plastic bags that he’d keep underneath in the vault area of the bank.

After he had the deal and knew he was going to have to move out of the building, he had to suddenly get rid of this stuff. So what ended up happening was they brought in Iron Mountain to shred these millions of slides in huge containers and Jay figured with his assistant if they could flatten them and jump up and down on them a little bit, they could get a third more slides into these containers. [laughs] Very efficient. The problem is once you start jumping up and down on slides, it’s like a liquid – it starts to overflow, so this is the first night of the filming and I walked from the balcony to look out and see his assistant Matt, [who’s] been doing this all day long and the residual overflow was all over the floor to the point where he was sweeping it up with a broom. I instantly knew that was the opening title credits. I said, “Oh my God, that’s it.” Look at the scale of that. So that’s how that shot happened. And I looked down at Matt, I said, “Stop what you’re doing! Leave everything – we need all those slides! Do not shred anymore of those slides!” [laughs] But I wanted to take your breath away with that shot and I think that sets you up for what you’re about to go into, which is Jay’s world. It’s like walking into the Oz of photography.

The film’s structure really eases you into things, so you’re not overwhelmed at first. Was it a challenge to introduce people to this place and to him in such a way?

As the story started to unfold, one of the things that was really important for me artistically was trying to create this dimensional portrait of this man that I knew for 42 years who was really childlike and incredibly complex at the same time. Two things needed to happen – one was you to really fall in love with Jay, his quirkiness and his personality and then I really needed you to fall in love with the bank because then I think you can really begin to empathize with what he’s about to experience.

So I had a great team to help us really shape the story – Josh Alexander, my writer, and [my editors] Armando Croda and Daniel Haworth, and it all starts with a great producer – [we had] Henry Jacobson and Emma Tammi at Mindhive and my wife Bette [Wilkes], and we all came together to really use the vehicle of this move, [which] became almost the tension point in the film because we have this clock, this five-month window. How do you think about getting out 35 truckloads of stuff? It’s really insurmountable and to give you an idea of what a typical filming day was like, we’d go in there and Jay’s assistant would look at me like, “Guys, he doesn’t want to see you right now. You’ve got to go into the president’s office. He’s not ready for you.” And we’d go into the president’s office, and basically, I’d sit in there one hour, sometimes two or three and then Jay would call us and say, “Okay, you can come up now.”

Jay’s artistic aesthetic is he likes to get lost and to see what’s in front of him — and he likes to move that way too. So even though he’d have these general ideas about what he’s going to do on any given day, the ideas were quite general, and it was a fluid situation. It was challenging, but once we got him mic’d and the movers were in and things started happening, we became somewhat invisible, which was great because he just had so much to focus on. But he described me as the toothache that wouldn’t go away. But in the end, he’s also said to me it was really comforting having me there.

Is there anything that comes as a surprise to you as you’re unearthing all this material?

Our relationship in the film is this mentor/mentee relationship and as I began to explore deeper into Jay’s history and who he taught, who his teachers were, who his mentor was, when we started talking about [his mentor] Albert, that was kind of an “A-Ha” moment — I don’t want to spoil it for [audiences] since it’s one of the funnier things in the film — but there were things about that gave credence to me about why Jay is who he is in a lot of ways. Mentors push you and they were pushed by their mentor, so the way you mentor sometimes is based on the way you were mentored and I discovered that through the process of making the film.

Also, I realized the single thing that we share the most, and probably is the basis for why we have the relationship and the friendship that we have, is the act of photographing and the joy of that and what that means, just to be able to see things, look at things and photograph. What people come away with, I hope, when they see the film is this wonderful escape, the power that the act of seeing is, what a wonderful gift it is, the way it can transform your mind and it allows you to escape to a place where you can look at something that’s quite beautiful and how it feeds your soul. We live in kind of a dark and challenging time right now and I think the act of looking is something we all can do. It’s like breathing. Unfortunately we’re so distracted nowadays that with the cell phone, the act of sharing has become more important than the experience itself and I feel to a certain degree, this idea of looking has become an endangered human experience. So I hope the film can inspire people to start looking again.

“Jay Myself” opens in Los Angeles on August 16th at the Laemmle Royal. A full schedule of cities and dates is here.