Some stories take longer to tell than others, but the good ones are always worth waiting for. Crown Chimp Founder and Director Nickolas Duarte’s (last seen on DN here) Jay is such a project. This surprising film about Jay Kyle Peterson, a man who paints soul energy, began life as a quick three minute profile documentary only to become an epic five-year exploration for the correct cinematic form in which to tell the harrowing story of Jay’s early life as an intersex man forced to grow up as female, whilst also suffering horrific abuse. An aspect of Jay’s life only revealed to Duarte during their first interview. It’s a film which first astounded us back in 2017 and has now made its way online and into the deserved spotlight of Vimeo’s Staff Picks. We sat down with Duarte to unravel the shifting journey behind this glimpse into the extraordinary and complex life of an abstract artist with an abstract past.
What begins as a seemingly light portrait of a kooky guy who paints souls, surprisingly shifts into the tragic history of Jay’s life which is the real heart of the documentary. How did Jay’s story reveal itself to you?
Almost exactly how it presents in the documentary to be honest with you. Jay had acted for me in a project we did for Adidas – I cast him because I liked his look and I thought he was an interesting guy. I found out he painted people’s souls and that is very different than my personal beliefs. I’m not one of those folks that would necessarily go full-hearted believing in that sort of thing however I thought it was an interesting idea and at the time I was looking just to make a 2-3 minute doc peace on something.
Throughout the pre-interview and the actual interview I found out all the other stuff. I had no idea about any of the other things beyond the painting and the soul components, so it presented itself to me in a pretty similar way, at least chronologically, to how it presents in the documentary.
As an interviewer, if you go in knowing that there are these deep scars within your participant’s background you can couch your approach when talking to them, but how did you handle discovering that on the fly mid-interview?
That’s a really good question. I think some of it is that my wife is a social worker and does a lot of therapeutic counselling so I’m pretty aware of that world and general rapport building and decorum. In those types of interviews you can let moments sit as you collect your thoughts. You don’t have to immediately react. You can try to control emotions, guide the narrative and be inquisitive along the way, while of course being empathic to what’s going on with the subject.
How much of what Jay reveals stemmed from him really wanting to get this out? Once you were aware of the situation what did you do to help him feel comfortable about digging deeper into those memories?
The first thing that I did with Jay when I discovered some of his past was to let him know that he didn’t need to answer any questions he didn’t want to. That he wasn’t beholden to me or anybody else. If I asked him a question that he was uncomfortable with he could just tell me that and we’d move on. This wasn’t gotcha journalism or anything like that, I wanted to respect what he was offering to us.
At the end of the day it’s not my life story, it’s not even my likeness that’s on camera, it’s his.
And the second part was that if he answered something and later decided he really didn’t want that to be released in the documentary or if he felt that he was being portrayed in any way he felt wasn’t true with who he was, he could voice it and I would respect that and do everything I could to make sure he was comfortable with it. At the end of the day it’s not my life story, it’s not even my likeness that’s on camera, it’s his. I wanted to be really aware of that going into it.
Did you have any concerns that Jay’s claims and beliefs which open the documentary and may seem rather fanciful to some viewers could have the effect of undermining the deeply painful experiences he conveys later in the film?
Yeah, this also ties back to your previous question. There were certain things that he was more willing to talk about. Things that would perhaps be considered more fanciful such as the satanic abuse, whereas he was less willing to talk about the family abuse and trauma. However, he presented both of those pieces of information, so I wanted to honor both pieces of information in telling his story.
Balancing it was difficult. That was a big part of what took this piece so long to put together. Trying to find that balance and determining what my place was as the director telling this person’s story. Especially when the story is really only told from his point of view. It’s not necessarily a journalistic piece by any means so it was me trying to figure out the best approach to not censor or mold and to really be careful of how much of my fingerprint is on this man’s story.
After the revelations of the pre-interview how did you set things up for the interview proper, i.e. question order, people in the room, etc.?
We basically broke it up into sections of his life. The film has a very specific aesthetic style and it was important to me to make it feel like every composition really mattered, especially the interview compositions. I believe there were six to seven core topics and we really only focused on one topic with one camera setup and tried to dial in and keep the conversation there. Of course, it’s unscripted and a documentary so the conversation goes all over the place but we would try to keep it isolated as much as we could to that one section.
In terms of crew, Jay was pretty open as long as everybody was respectful. So we had our location audio, DoP, AC, 1st and producer right there in the same space as Jay and I.
What did you shoot on?
The first collection of interviews were shot on a RED Scarlet and the reenactment footage was shot on a RED Epic. We picked up some additional interview and b-roll with a 5D Mark III.
There’s a surreal unreality to the film’s reenactments, how did you arrive at that stylistic portrayal of the past?
Initially, I was planning on doing the reenactments through stop motion animation. I always wanted there to be something that was a bit removed from portraying those events completely realistically. I wanted there to be a secondary quality there. I toyed with the idea and went fairly far down some animation routes but then decided that felt disingenuous. I toyed with the idea of presenting it as some sort of stage/theatre presentation given Jay’s interest in acting but there was something about that I wasn’t digging either.
Finally, we settled on this idea of doing it in a place that resembled his home, really exploring the concept of Jay walking back through his life. The idea was to portray the journey into his mind in a more literal sense of physically seeing Jay taking this tour and interacting with some of those memories.
This is a project which over the years it took to complete has morphed into a variety of lengths and forms. In hindsight how much of that exploration do you feel was necessary to lead you to the place you eventually arrived at?
I honestly think all of it was necessary. I try to be as pragmatic about things as possible. We do fairly extensive debriefs after our projects to figure out what we could have done better and what could have been stronger, but this was one where I think every step was necessary. Maybe a different director would have been able to get to where they needed much quicker but for me, I think I had to explore all of those options. I also think that part of it came from the life experiences I had over the course of the film and maturing and developing as a human being let alone as a filmmaker. I think all of that was really necessary.
There was a period of time where we were really really lost with what this was going to be.
As I said, initially the first iteration was going to be a three minute piece. Then after that interview, I started looking at grants and financing for doing a hybrid animation component and explored that for about a year. From there, we explored the idea of doing a feature, we have a couple of feature cuts but when you have a single subject and you’re not bringing in any other people to talk to, it does become grating just listening to the same person talk over and over. It also lost some of its intrigue and engagement. We toyed around with a version that was say maybe 12 minutes and that felt like it was just going way too fast. We did a full-on experimental version that was around five minutes that just took all the strange and bizarre elements and had a really weird musical thing happening.
There was a period of time where we were really really lost with what this was going to be. Ultimately it ended up being very simply: we’ll just tell the story of Jay telling his story. Once we ended up on that path, it still took about a year of sharing it and getting notes and feedback from different people. Versions of it went much darker. Versions of it felt like it was exploitative. Versions of it were kind of sappy and sentimental. But I believed the version we landed on blends everything in the strongest way and hopefully leaves the viewer with something.
I know that there have been other stories you’ve worked which you’ve abandoned so what made you stick with this one?
Any type of creative person always has a notebook full of things they would like to do or things they started doing. But then you end up just honing in on the stuff that really matters to you for whatever reason. This was one where I felt there was something really special in his story. I thought it was really unique, and I hadn’t heard anything like it. Any time I would tell people about this particular project, folks seem genuinely interested. Then aesthetically, once I honed in on what the visuals were I thought there would be a really unique visual and tonal approach to the piece as well. Style and substance came together in a nice way that made me say, this isn’t a project we’re going to drop.
Did you get Jay to sign off on the doc before you showed it outside of the core team?
Jay was the last person that I showed before we officially said it was done. I wanted to make sure that I was good with the edit and also prepared to make my case for the decisions we made. We shared it to a mix of folks in the industry and people who are interested in documentary or these types of stories, maybe 20 people total. When I felt it was in a really good place, and before moving on to the color grade and sound mix, I went over to Jay’s, we watched it twice and talked through the whole thing.
Style and substance came together in a nice way that made me say, this isn’t a project we’re going to drop.
It was really important to me to make sure that he was comfortable with the final film and that he did sign off on it. As much as I care about this project the last thing I would want is the person who this project is about, and I genuinely feel is a kind, good, loving man, to have negative feelings about our collaboration and making it.
Did he have any notes?
He actually had a couple of really strong technical notes. There was a piece towards the end which was about 15 seconds long that he thought we should get rid of. It was kind of saying the same thing that already been said and he felt that it killed the momentum so that was a really good technical narrative note.
He did have concerns about what people would think of him. He pretty much asked me, “Nick are people going to think that I’m crazy?” That was a difficult moment. I tried to answer him as honestly as possible, that everybody’s going to have their own thoughts. I truly feel there are as many people that believe and experience every component of his story as there are people who will doubt the majority of it. That’s the risk that he takes that nobody else with the project takes.
For me as someone who doesn’t share Jay’s perspective on spirituality I found myself mentally chuckling at him initially, so when the narrative switched to what he’s had to endure it completely knocked the breath out of me and in some way, made me more receptive to that side of his story because of dismissive air that I had at the beginning.
I think that’s quite honestly a similar experience to what I had when first learning the story. I’m not one for the crystals and astrology type of spirituality so I probably initially went through a very similar thing that you went through with it. But once you hear his story and learned about the tragedy he went through, it reframes it in a completely different way. To the point that it’s interesting and it doesn’t matter if it’s true or not. It’s true for him and I think that’s the most important thing about that aspect.
This is an extract from a longer podcast interview which you can listen to in full here.