Jacob Perlmutter – FAULT Magazine speak with the London-based film-maker and photographer


photograph by Johnny Finch


FAULT: Tell me about your near death experiences?

Jacob: Geez, that’s a pretty intense opening question. At the forefront of everything, I suppose, the one that stands out is the tsunami that unexpectedly hit Sri Lanka in 2004. At the time my family were on vacation in Galle, and we all thought we were going to die. Well it was looking like we were going to die. We were awakened by yelling outside the hotel window, a tidal wave had engulfed the entire road. In the parking lot below a thousand tuk-tuks were submerged and buses floated on their sides: scenes of utter chaos and mayhem, we didn’t know what was going on. The hotel held an emergency meeting to inform us that another wave was coming that afternoon. We were presented with two options: to flee into the nearby jungle, a dangerous prospect to say the least [wild tigers in tune with the devastation of Mother Nature would in all likelihood eat us alive], or alternately we could stay in the Lighthouse Hotel. Which way would you rather die? In the midst of all this the hotel kept running, staff were serving, the bar was thriving, on the balcony they were serving chips, waiting for the wave to come. I had my camera with me and, when it eventually came, I just started photographing.

FAULT: Would you say shooting photographs removes you from such a situation or brings you closer to it? In such a frenzied scenario, did photographing have a cathartic effect upon you?

Jacob: I’d say so. I’d not had much prior experience of photography but it was a weirdly natural thing to turn to. Retrospectively, eight years on the only thing I can think is that it gives you a purpose and something to do. As soon as you’ve finished a roll of film and it winds back into that airtight canister, no water can get in, so even if that canister were floating or buried for a hundred years before it was found, it would still be in working order. When you’re helpless there is nothing more to occupy yourself with. Like a spider in water there is nothing to cling onto.

FAULT: Would you say photojournalism predominantly serves a didactic purpose or do you consider it an outright art form?

Jacob: At the heart of everything, photojournalism ought to be about raising awareness; it’s about documenting and informing. The reason I quickly steered away from it, and instead refer to my photographs as reportage, is that nowadays photojournalism carries the negative connotation of exploitation. William Klein, one of the best street photographers ever, led the opening talk at the photojournalism conference last year and basically slated the conceit of those telling war stories whilst swirling martinis beside big glamorous framed prints.

Sweet India 

FAULT: Since Sri Lanka you’ve travelled quite extensively, does this often provide source material?

Jacob: Even if it involves being held at gunpoint, I get a real kick out of adventure and as long as you don’t die it makes for a great story. I’ve hitchhiked with truckers across the Himalayas, watching a little swinging Buddha tied to the rear view mirror and thinking perhaps this is the time to start believing. Everyone has told you not to do it, but nonetheless it’s thrilling. Still at certain points, such as when you see the carcass of a burnt-out truck beyond the precipice, you think “I really shouldn’t have gotten myself into this…”

FAULT: Can you think of any characters that left a lasting impression on you from the excursion to India?

Jacob: In a courtyard prayer service I met a restless crazy named Denn, with an appearance funny and indistinguishable. He took us to a cabin up the foothills; even then I prophesised that everything would go wrong. By the time the sun had set, the second whiskey bottle polished off, I had little idea of what was going on, talking Tamil Tigers and reincarnation and the caste system. In a bright blue kitchen wielding knives Denn spliced up veggie omelettes. Wherever you go in India there always seems to be a lone yellow light bulb swarmed by flies. Then there was a power cut, candles shimmering in the storm, Denn squatting in the corner of our room, slurping acid droplets with a camel-pack filled with liquor. The following day I wrote him a farewell note and ducked out discretely.

FAULT: Your photographic project 88 Days was exhibited at London’s Orange Dot Gallery. Whilst there have been many iconic photographic projects portraying the Americans, it somehow doesn’t feel overly saturated.

What really impresses with this series is that each shot seems to encapsulate its own anecdote or story. The accompanying book also includes some of your own observations and diary excerpts. Are you eager to include a supplement with a photograph or are you a believer in allowing the photograph to just speak for itself?

Jacob: Both. Originally I was just going to release the main book showing the gallery selection, which is a direct homage to Robert Frank, whose photos certainly speak for themselves. With the debris book, it just felt like I had more material and I wanted to do something more personal. The former is predominantly street photography whereas the latter shows the actual people that I stayed with on route, a fuller representation of my actual journey. I’m currently cutting a ten-minute documentary out of a bunch of footage shot in the states, probably to be released later this year. It provides an abstract sense of place, entitled the debris of my 88 days.

FAULT: In what ways was film-school formative and beneficial?

Jacob: The greatest aspect of Bournemouth Arts was the people I encountered, who opened up the way that I look at film. There are so many different ways to tell a story and you get different insights whilst creative minds come together. Actually having a degree in film means nothing, it wont get you a job in the industry, but it does give you three years to collaborate and indulge your interest, without anyone telling you that your wasting your time. I’m lucky to have Tim, a man that I can confidently call my producer, and a great friend. We have a working relationship and a mutual understanding. If it weren’t for Tim I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing right now, I’d undoubtedly be back to photography.

FAULT: You’ve been involved in the making of several music videos, would you say this form is thriving?

Jacob: Since the internet generation, music videos are going through a really big revival. They have no boundaries. I’ve seen the most outrageous things, such as the Duck Sauce video for Big Bad Wolf, and I love it.

FAULT: Could you tell us about the filming for the Gideon Conn track, Wild Fire?

Jacob: Logistically it was a really difficult shoot, because we had to cover so many locations within two days shooting doorframes. Fortunately when you’re at film school there isn’t that unionized attitude and you get to work with a crew willing to work arduous hours for no money. The buzz is just amazing. Gideon has got a very loving but quirky fan-base and I think he always will. He’s an extraordinary songwriter who just does what he does. Even though Wild Fire is a slow and challenging track, it carried so much weight that the video just had to be done. As I didn’t want anything generic or gimmicky, I wrote numerous treatments, striving to really amplify the words in an intelligent way that was on par with the track whilst bringing something new to the table.

FAULT: More recently you also worked on a particularly well received, albeit quite impromptu, video for a track called L.A. How did that come about?

Jacob: Whilst I was in Peru I’d found out that a fifteen-minute short I’d directed entitled French Exchange had won an award at the Independent Filmmakers Showcase in Los Angeles. Honoured and shocked to receive the award I flew out there. Previously I’d heard that Fanzine were soon to be releasing the single, [coincidentally called L.A.], and so it seemed logical to email their manager, with whom I’d been previously acquainted, and suggest shooting a video. A simple and complicated task: I had no contacts and no resources in California but that was the great challenge.

FAULT: What does it feel like to be sat at a screening of your own work at an awards ceremony?

Jacob: I’d slightly forgotten about French Exchange, having moved on and worked on other projects in the time elapsed, so to have it suddenly revived with a theatre full of people watching your work felt brilliant, the beginning of its life as an actual product. It was totally out of the blue, I didn’t even know that we’d entered the festival. The morning of the flight to California I’d been feverish, chucking up in the taxicab on the way to the airport, so by the time I arrived, gutless and debauched, I looked very scraggy. I walked into the crappiest clothing store around to purchase a shirt and some shoes, a budget of fifty dollars a day doesn’t go far.

FAULT: So what’s the outline to the L.A. video?

Jacob: There were to be certain limitations: money, time and crew. Essentially it was the worst video camera ever and myself. As the screen was broken I relied upon the tiny viewfinder, where sunlight streaked in and everything looked far away. The rubber was all worn away so I had to tear up cigarette packets and tape them to the side to create an extended eyepiece. The track is particularly dreamy, and I tried to reflect that. It’s a story about this waif-like girl, a vacant and sexy being that emerges from the sea holding an analogue film camera. She ventures beyond the beach, wandering the streets of Los Angeles and documenting everything she sees, oddities that might otherwise seem normal. When she gets the film developed, the contact sheets are filled with pictures of fish and, realising that she actually belongs to the sea, she strips off, running back naked before diving back into the ocean, back to nature’s calling. And that’s the wrap. Shedding a false skin. You know L.A. is all about false skin.

FAULT: How much luck and how much doubt is involved?

Jacob: Doubt in every heartbeat, but it can also spur you on and it’s something you learn to live with. I’ve been fortunate to have made valuable acquaintances, but overall you make your own luck, I really think that.

French Exchange

FAULT: Whilst writing do you find it advantageous to get a second and third opinion on what you’re doing? If you were to have more people inveigh upon your projects, would that hamper your resolve, or vision, or confidence?

Jacob: I’m currently co-writing a feature-length version of French Exchange with my father. On top of that we have weekly meetings with Tim. I work with a very small group of people who are always involved: when something is ready to show they’ll be the first port of call, I’ll take feedback on board, make my changes and will keep rehashing until everyone feels positive about it. Too many cooks will spoil the broth. Aside from that I’m also incredibly hard on myself. 

FAULT: At what age did you start to film?

Jacob: Probably aged around five, alongside frequent collaborator Theo Adams, who to this day remains a great companion. Many of these transcend boundaries and are outrageous even now!! Pastiches of films we loved like Billy Elliot and Cabaret alongside intertextual references to Bay Watch. We paid homage to Plan 9 From Out Of Space, the biggest B-Movie flop of all time, heralded as the worst movie ever, in a film entitled Attack of the Killer Monster. I’ve recently found tapes and intend to get them digitized.

FAULT: Several years later you directed Bugs, featuring two enormous creatures. What was the process behind these?


Jacob: We wanted to make a film that looked like it had been shot on microscopic level, so two production designers created these puppets in which a couple of actors sat inside each bug with a third puppeteer moving the antennae and tentacles with fishing rods. My student house was covered in costume designers and painters, papier mâché through the night during the fortnight preceding the shoot, a non-stop operation.

FAULT: It’s certainly endearing how handmade they seem. Would you say established filmmakers strive to recreate that essence professionally?

Jacob: These are the good old days, and I’ve been warned many times already that if indeed I pursue this career, I will forever be looking back, craving to recreate these times when it was just me, Tim and the team. Having full control and handcrafting everything has been amazing.

FAULT: In The Science Of Sleep for instance it feels as though Michel Gondry went to great lengths to create this sense of childish abandon. Do you already feel that it’s lost upon you or is it still something you can strive to retain?

Jacob: I think I’m still in an artistic embryonic phase, at the stage where I’m so unknown that I can still do whatever I want, and whatever that is may well inform what is to come. I need to be very careful, but it’s very exciting.

FAULT: Are you an advocate of thematic continuity, even at the risk of being typecast?

Jacob: You gotta do what you gotta do. Any kind of art is about working through something, if you really care about that thing you won’t stop until you get to the bottom of it. Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, one of the Bauhaus figures, spent the final thirty years of his life painting colour combinations, abstract wheels of block colour, simply because he needed to suss it out. Everyone works in different ways. The Coen brothers choose to tackle a different genre and style in every project they undertake.

FAULT: Would you describe yourself as a dabbler?

Jacob: At the moment I’ve got no interest in science fiction or action movies and no interest in horror either, so that narrows things down somewhat…

FAULT: Who would you single out as an unsung film director?

Jacob: Kenneth Lonergan. Lately I watched Margaret at the cinema, his second direcotiral work featuring Anna Paquin and Matt Damon. It had been on the shelf for five years prior, a work of genius that plummeted in the box office. It’s unbelievably good, but the guy has a cult following, he’s an unsung hero.

FAULT: Armstrong stands out from your portfolio as a highly challenging character piece, relying very heavily on facial expressiveness and dynamic physical presence. What was your experience of this?

Jacob: I did loads of research on Neil Armstrong as a character and tried to impart that to the actor, talking him through becoming Armstrong, rather than recreating Armstrong. As a technical exercise it was really fulfilling. The character-study depicts a dream occurring the night before the mission to space: immediately as soon as you start fictionalizing a real person you have a certain responsibility, even though the story is fictional.

FAULT: Does the process of filmmaking ever go as smoothly as expected?

Jacob: Things go wrong, but you can work around them. Low budget filmmaking is about taking all of the mistakes that happen and turning them into your advantage, a happy accident. If you know the vehicle for that scene, anything can be manipulated, whereas glitches only become an inconvenience when you don’t know what you’re trying to say. Film is like snooker, it’s not just about the one shot but about what comes before it and what comes after it, building blocks that cut to the next scene. I’m a great believer in accuracy and technical precision and knowing how everything should play out.

FAULT: More recently you started writing a blog called Scenes From A Bowling Alley. What did you look to gain from the process?

Jacob: Over a period of two months I was working at a bowling alley. The idea behind the scripts explores character and place; a technical exercise. For me it’s an interesting breakaway, exercising writing skills, learning about the dynamics of scenes and dialogue.

FAULT: What’s your stance on literary adaptations in film?

Jacob: Alexander Payne springs to mind immediately. I’m a big fan. This year he picked the Oscar up for best adapted-screenplay [The Descendants] and it’s something that has become a lot more popular in the past few years because it’s a safer bet. In my humble opinion though, original screenplays are usually better, if a story is written specifically for film it has an immediate visual sensibility and it’s knowingly going to converge music and picture and performance.

FAULT: Do you have any aspirations to embark upon any adaptations further down the line?

Jacob: Yeah I’m pretty open-minded. It’s not to be disclosed, but there’s a graphic novel I’ve got in mind, and over the next decade I very much hope to bring it to the silver screen,, working on the screenplay in conjunction with the graphic novelist, who is still alive. Did you know that Alexander Payne’s next film has been co-written with Daniel Clowes, an adaptation of one of his graphic novels. Big news.