Common Name, Uncommonly Creative

An IIT Magazine online-exclusive Q&A with Steven A. Jones (DSGN '71), the movie producer and video director who continues to make his Hollywood career from Chicago

By Marcia Faye

In the late 1960s, Steven A. Jones-“a 17-year-old kid from New York City who was into rock and roll music”-was also into product design and animation, and moved to Chicago to study at IIT Institute of Design. His decision was indeed a propitious one. He became friends with future Styx guitarist James “J. Y.” Young (MAE ’70) and got the chance to play drums in the band Fawn with Young’s late brother Rick from 1977-1981. In 1977, Styx invited Jones to direct an animated television ad for the band’s The Grand Illusion album, which would launch a series of projects culminating in Jones’s production of all of the visual content used on Styx’s big screen tours. Jones and his team created the backdrop for the band’s critically acclaimed The Grand Illusion/Pieces of Eight Live tour, which was filmed for a DVD at the historic Orpheum Theater in Memphis, Tenn., on November 9, 2010.

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Michael Shannon [left], who co-stars with Samantha Morton in The Harvest, takes a break from filming with producer Steven A. Jones.
Image courtesy of Steven A. Jones

Jones’s creative mastery off-stage also led him to a lifelong producer-director relationship with Chicagoan John McNaughton. In 1985, McNaughton-then a freelance producer-met freelance designer Jones when the two were commissioned to come up with a low-budget thriller. Their idea was the cult classic Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Based on the real-life criminal Henry Lee Lucas, the controversial movie debuted at the 1986 Chicago International Film Festival. Jones and McNaughton went on to produce and direct, respectively, other feature films, including Mad Dog and Glory, starring Robert De Niro, Bill Murray, and Uma Thurman (co-produced with Martin Scorcese) and Wild Things, with Kevin Bacon, Matt Dillon, and Neve Campbell. Their latest offering, The Harvest, with Michael Shannon and Samantha Morton, about a couple whose plans to keep their sick son isolated from the outside world derail, made its debut this October at the 49th Chicago International Film Festival.

“I think what makes our partnership work is that we share a creative sensibility and almost always agree on creative/artistic issues but are quite different in terms of personality,” says McNaughton. “The simplest way to explain it is good cop/bad cop, and Steve is definitely the good cop.”

In addition to his work in music and the movies, Jones is producer-in-residence for DePaul University’s Digital Cinema program and teaches graduate courses on producing feature films.

Who or what inspired you to go into design/animation?

I studied industrial design in high school and studied product design at ID at IIT, but after two years, I switched my major to animation, mainly due to my feeling that the medium was artistically less restrained. I had a friend, fellow ID student George Eastman (DGSN ’71), who opened my eyes to the animation department and the possibilities for experimentation.

What makes your creative collaboration with John McNaughton work so well?

We have similar tastes in film, storytelling, and subject matter, and I believe we pretty much share the same worldview. These tastes have been refined over eight movies and 28 years. I tend to be a bit more of a negotiator and John somewhat more demanding, so these traits balance each other out in our work.

Many of the videos you’ve created for Styx are upbeat and ethereal yet many of the films you’ve produced with John McNaughton are gritty and dark. Which side is the real Steven A. Jones? Or is it a little bit of both?

It is a little bit of both. I think that you can also find humor and human feeling in our movie work and there is some conversely darkness to be had in some of the Styx material, but the fact is that the Styx work is non-narrative and tends to be more stream of consciousness-driven. Hence the ethereal qualities!

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[Left to right] Producer Steven A. Jones with John McNaughton, director, and Rachel Morrison, cinematographer, on the set of The Harvest
Image courtesy of Steven A. Jones

Looking back from Henry to The Harvest and The Grand Illusion toRenegade, what are a couple of the greatest technological advancements you’ve utilized in your productions that have made for a video or film with more wow-appeal? Or as Henry has shown, do a compelling storyline or meaningful song lyrics trump the latest bells-and-whistles technology each and every time?

The technical aspects of filmmaking have changed greatly since Henry was made in 1985, primarily the way that everything has gone digital (like the rest of our existence). I’m proud to say that John and I were one of the earliest users of digital samples in our film score and sound design on Henry. These days, I can create effects and layers of images in a day with one or two people that would have taken weeks and a huge expense in the past. I have to say that ultimately for me, a good story well told will win out over technique and technology every time.

Would you have any post-The Harvest projects you could share?

As a producer, one must have numerous projects in various stages of development to have any chance of sustaining a career. John and I are planning on shooting a twisted high school love story called Sweet in the spring and I’ve also been working on a project with a young director named Hamzah Jamjoom on film called Factory of Lies. The list goes on and on, but these are at the top for the moment.