Welcome to Ways of Seeing, a series in which two creatives sit down to discuss the nuances of their work, trade industry secrets, and fill each other in on their latest projects. The only catch? One of them is on staff at W magazine. In this week’s edition, visuals editor Michael Beckert chats with musician-slash-director Topaz Jones, and directors Jason Filmore Sondock and Simon Davis—who work together under the name Rubberband. The three created the new film Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Momma, which won the Best Non-fiction Short Award at the Sundance Film Festival this year.
When I first saw Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Momma, I had two reactions: that this must have been filmed over a long period of time, and it feels totally genreless.
Jason Filmore Sondock: Actually, we shot the entire film in about six days total. The planning process, though, was a year long, as is the case whenever we make something together [laughs]. It’s funny, a representative from Sundance reached out to us about whether or not we consider the film non-fiction, because they wanted to give us this award even though they had us in the fiction category. We stepped back and had the same realization that you did: we don’t really know how to define the film in a genre. We actually think that’s one of the strongest things about the film—it’s about Topaz and his microcosm of black identity and how he relates to the macrocosm of black identity in America. That concept really came together through Topaz, who was trying to figure out what he was going to do for his album. He kept sending us all this amazing graphic imagery of Black America, predominantly from the ‘70s. Among the references was this graphic of alphabet cards. We realized they were this teaching aid called the “Black ABCs” that came to prominence in Chicago in the 1970s by the Black Educators Association. Their goal was to combat overwhelmingly white depictions in school materials, whether in textbooks or flashcards.
How did you decide to structure the film around the Black ABCs?
Topaz Jones: I spent a lot of time in my young adulthood focusing on who I wanted to be. In my mid 20s, I began to have a reckoning with who I truly was. Now that I’m entering my late twenties, a lot of my focus is on, how did I become this person? Why am I this way? A lot of that comes back to the things we grow up with, how we’re socialized, and what we’re taught.
I just finished watching the show The Wire. They spend all this time setting up the different elements: the docks, the cops, etc. But in the third or fourth season they go to the schools and show you how people become corner boys, drug addicts, criminals, policemen, and so on. So much of it is based on people’s education—not just what’s happening within the walls of a school, but what’s happening outside of it. What we saw in the Black ABCs was an opportunity to interrogate what messages those kids were seeing outside of the classroom. That’s a sentiment shared in my new album as well.
Your new album, which accompanies the short film, is out today! When you were making this film, was the album already done?
Topaz Jones: The songs were there, but we were still mixing it. I finished it toward the beginning of 2020. That process was exhaustingly transformative. There’s just so much energy and history that I learned about my own family that went into it. All the things that we’re doing in the film and examining are things I examined in real life and in making this music.
Does the album feel particularly self-reflective?
Topaz Jones: Both the film and the album ended up hitting the same emotional target. They’re both talking about these greater issues through mining my own personal experience. I’ve always wanted to share more of my personal story, but in my music I’ve historically been a lot more guarded. In the past, I’ve done a lot more of dressing up a story to make it more appealing and to create what I thought people wanted from me, but now I’m finally far enough from some of the more impactful moments of my life to speak on them without fear or ego.
How did you three meet?
Topaz Jones: Freshman year, myself and Simon were both living in Rubin Hall at NYU. Just by virtue of us knowing some of the same people, we started hanging out. At the same time, through another friend of ours, a musician, we ended up meeting Jason. We’ve been collaborating since 2011 or 2012. We’ve even spent some of those years living together.
Simon Davis: We’ve developed a shorthand throughout our friendship with one another that’s unparalleled elsewhere in our career. We’ve spent so much time together that we’ve really found this complete trust built on our history. This bond allowed us to really trust each other as we questioned everything.
Jason and Simon, you’ve shot work for Calvin Klein, Moncler, Pyer Moss, Reebock, Audi... the list goes on. You both have this ability to create a commercial that’s about, say, a pair of sneakers and you still make it feel so personal. Are you finding yourself more interested in creating work that is even more personal and vulnerable?
Jason Filmore Sondock: I’ve been working on this script for a bit that’s very personal. I had an affair with a married woman in Los Angeles, and I moved out there for a period of time on a whim for this person. It ended really badly. I’m writing a feature which examines that situation almost like you would an addiction. Beyond that, all the narrative work I’m doing right now is incredibly personal. I think it’s likely not coincidental that we made Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Momma with Topaz around the same time—seeing someone who is so close to me open up and become more vulnerable, and live inside that discomfort, motivated me to be more open about this stuff. The only thing any of us can work with is our truth, and if you’re not working with that, you’re probably making something pretty hollow.
Simon Davis: This project is entirely from and centered around Topaz and who he is. In terms of your own involvement in a project like that, all you truly have to offer is yourself. That’s all you can really bring—it’s an exercise in empathy. Our two-step process for all projects is to audit ourselves, and make sure that our intentions are true and coming from the right place. If that’s the case, we think about what we can bring to a piece.
Topaz, you’re directing on this project, but you’re also in a lot of the shots. How did that work?
Topaz Jones: The vision was a collaborative process, and the execution came from a lot of planning and conversations ahead of time. [Simon and Jason] were really good about helping me understand the process of making a film a bit more as I was learning on the job. If something on set wasn’t working, we’d just go back to the roots of our friendship and trust that we could troubleshoot anything. So much of our development as three artists has happened in tandem.
When you look back at your older works, like Arcade for example, do you think, “I wish I could change this or that,” or are you at peace with past projects?
Simon Davis: With older creative projects, at a certain point, you abandon them. I don’t think you ever hit that mark where you’re 100 percent satisfied. You’re a different person every day, so your relationship to something you made previously will forever be in flux.
Topaz Jones: The more I look back at older work, the more I want to change it. But I view the last five years as gradual alignment with the things we want. So I see Arcade, for example, or the Motion Sickness video, or the Toothache video, and I see the seeds that were planted there that have grown and brought us to this point. You really can’t go back and erase everything that brought you here. You can’t erase the history—it’s part of the sauce.
I end each interview by asking artists what they’re most proud of in their careers thus far.
Jason Filmore Sondock: I get to do what I love, with people I love. I read in the New York Times the other day that, for most people, after the age of 30, you don’t end up meeting many new people. I’m proud to say that I’m constantly meeting new people all of the time, and I’ll continue to be able to do that in this field. I’m also so proud that these two guys who I met when I was 17 are now my closest friends, and we’re still working together.
Simon Davis: I heard someone say once that one of the best things you can ever do is help someone feel less alone. To be able to connect with other people and create these really meaningful relationships predicated on passionate pursuits is, as Jason said, the most humbling feeling. The three of us are speaking about our involvement in this project, but making a film is truly a team sport. There are certain people in certain positions who get the lion’s share of the credit, but this film really was the result of a village of people coming together, dedicating their own artistry, time, and energy. It’s important to give an immense shout out to our creative director and costume designer, Eric McNeal. Also a huge shout out to our cinematographer, Chayse Irvin, who brought so much talent, sensitivity, and poetry to the project. Producing is a very thankless job, but our producer Luigi Rossi, is just the man. Our editors Nate and JM as well, were so fantastic. Also a massive shoutout to SMUGGLER, BWGTBLD, and Frenzy, our production companies.
Topaz Jones: There’s so much to be proud of. I’m more proud of this film and album than anything I’ve ever touched. I’m proud that I was able to document and create a permanent record of a lot of things from my childhood, and the childhoods of the people I grew up with, that otherwise would have faded away. My grandmother is in this film, and she’s 94 years old. I remember a time when a lot of the people I came up with were struggling to figure out how to make money with what we’re doing, and also meaning with what we’re making. I’m proud of us all for not stopping.