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My Father and The Man in Black – Jonathan Holiff interview (exclusive)

My Father And The Man In Black

Interview by Rob Carnevale

JONATHAN Holiff talks about making the documentary My Father & The Man In Black, which chronicles the relationship between his dad, Saul Holiff, and Johnny Cash, and which also serves as an intimate and often moving look at father-son relationships.

He also reflects on why the experience of making the film proved a cathartic experience for him, what he feels the best responses to the film have been so far, and what it taught him about himself. My Father & The Man in Black is released in UK cinemas on Friday, August 2, 2013.

Q. Your film begins with your father’s suicide and, as a result, grips and startles from the beginning. Was that a conscious decision to open with something so shocking because of the impact it had on your life?
Jonathan Holiff: It was a conscious decision to open the film with my father’s suicide (which my mother witnessed) – but I can’t take credit for that decision. I never wanted to be the “storyteller”. To make a first-person documentary was to “put it out there” for the whole world to see. Impossible, I thought. And, frankly, I didn’t think anyone would be interested in the story of my family – especially as a counterweight to the Johnny Cash story.

Originally, I had the suicide at the end of my treatment – and the story was strictly about Johnny and Saul. However, writer-friends in Hollywood (Donald Martin and David Shore) urged me to tell the story from my point-of-view, which, of course, led to opening with my father’s suicide. His death triggered my journey. I suppose, in that sense, the movie is ultimately about me. And no one is more surprised about that than me.

Q. How much has making the film proved to be a cathartic experience for you?
Jonathan Holiff: Making this film changed my life – though I didn’t wake up one day a completely different person. I don’t think that happens in real life. But the experience forced me to grow up. Like many of us, I had ‘father issues’. He never showed me approval, nor did he express any affection whatsoever. I left home at 17, determined to earn his respect by bettering him professionally. I never got that respect. But then something extraordinary happened. I discovered my father had kept an audio diary from the 1960s until shortly before his death. He also had recorded his telephone calls with Johnny Cash. That material drives the movie but, more to the point, it gave me a unique opportunity to “meet” my father – as a man – both before and after he became my father.

Unlike the two-dimensional, authoritarian figure I knew as a child, I discovered a man who had a rich emotional life, which he shared only with his tape-recorder. Here was a guy who had wealth and status, but who was profoundly unhappy. To hear his laments [long absences from home]; struggles [alcoholism]; torment [Johnny Cash] and regrets [parenthood] was shocking. But I could relate to it… to him. The catharsis came from forgiveness. The fact that my father was self-aware, even if unable to change, fostered empathy in me. I had blamed him for all my ills. Now it was time to take responsibility for my life. Of course, there is nothing extraordinary about this parent/child dynamic. I have the privilege of telling an important story about fathers-and-sons – because there is a star attached.

Q. How much did you learn about your father that you didn’t know, especially in the way he thought of you? And how much more do you understand him?
Jonathan Holiff: My father’s audio diaries were revelatory, not just as a behind-the-scenes look at the business of music, but for me personally. I had a general idea about his background: he grew up in the Great Depression, enlisted during World War II, experienced anti-Semitism and became an entrepreneur. In other words, the same ‘highlight-reel’ many children of my generation were given. I knew he’d been Cash’s manager back in the day. But I had no idea what that really entailed. Indeed, I hadn’t known it was Saul who hired June and put her with Johnny. But to hear him talk about his life and work, contemporaneously on tape, was to meet the man for the first time. I had no idea he dwelled on the very things, of which I was certain he was oblivious. And I had no idea he was particularly occupied with me. It was difficult to hear him single me out so often as a ‘problem child’. But it was also enlightening.

My father was very hard on himself – you might say he was self-loathing. I think I reminded my father of him, and that’s why he didn’t like me. Was I a ‘problem child?’ I was certainly outspoken and difficult to manage. It could be said my father managed me like one of his clients. People have observed that he sought to control me just as he was losing control over Johnny – which I think is interesting. But I don’t think his approach to parenthood had anything to do with his job.

My understanding of my father came not just from examining his relationship with Johnny Cash, but by learning about my father’s own childhood. I never knew my grandparents. It never occurred to me before to look beyond my father for answers. As it turns out, he treated me like his father had treated him. Of course, this is the hallmark of dysfunctional families.

Q. And how much did you learn about yourself in the process? How will what you’ve taken away from the experience shape you going forward, especially when it comes to contemplating fatherhood yourself?
Jonathan Holiff: That was the most surprising thing of all. When I set out, I didn’t know this story about my father would lead to a real understanding of myself. It was certainly difficult, indeed painful at times, to realize how much like my father I am. On the other hand, it was equally important to understand our differences. In any event, it was a powerful wake-up call. It is clear from the recordings in the movie that my father believed he had failed as a parent (“I guess parenthood didn’t work for me,” he says). What’s not in the movie is another comment when he says he would not have children, had he “to do it again.”

Having travelled with this film, I was surprised to learn just how many people, like myself, had decided not to have children – lest they repeat the mistakes of the past. That was my position before I made the film. Now I welcome the opportunity to have children.

My Father And The Man In Black

Q. How did you view Johnny Cash when you were growing up? Did you resent him? And how has your view of the man and his celebrity changed in light of the documentary?
Jonathan Holiff: It seemed like every time I asked for my father as a child I heard the name Johnny Cash. At an early age, I thought my father’s name WAS Johnny Cash. And it is true that I resented Johnny when I was that age for “taking my father away”.

Q. How flattering is it that people have seen this film for what it is: more a reflection on fathers and sons than an examination of celebrity or Johnny Cash?
Jonathan Holiff: I am very gratified [and relieved] that people see this film, ultimately, as a story about fathers-and-sons. That was the biggest challenge I faced as a writer. I didn’t want to make a ‘Johnny Cash movie’. It was the personal story that interested me. And I was certain I had failed to tell it right up to our first festival screening. It took three years to research and write the script, during which it seemed I was writing a ‘Johnny Cash story’ one day, and a ‘family story’ the next. I fretted constantly about integrating the two, not to mention doing neither justice. This is why it took two years edit the movie!

Unlike autobiographical books and plays, audiences watch a personal doc with a built-in resistance and even resentment. I don’t know why this is. But I made it a point to only talk about what was happening story-wise in the narration. The audience will always tell themselves a better story about how you must be feeling in situations you present cinematically, than you could possibly explain to them. Thankfully, this approach worked.

Q. What has been your favourite or most moving reaction to the film, firstly from your own family, and from viewers as a whole?
Jonathan Holiff: Great question. It was paramount that my mother [her name is Barbara] approve of, not to mention enjoy the film; and not just because she’s my mother. Barbara was my father’s right-hand and business partner. She travelled with him before and after I was born; but her significant contribution to my father’s success [she designed all of Johnny’s press kits and letterhead for example] was given short shrift in the film, for practical story-telling reasons.

On top of that, and she would never admit this, my mother was very reluctant to criticize any of the rough cuts, saying only “at 80 years of age, the movie moves so quickly, I’m unable to process it”. I knew this was code for “I don’t like it, and I don’t get it”. When I finally presented her with the final cut, her reaction was one of great relief and joy.

As for viewers, I still can’t get over how the film moves people emotionally. Statistically, women rate the movie higher than men, which no one expected of a ‘Johnny Cash documentary’. Indeed, at every screening tears are shed and women ask if they can give me a hug. Hugs were not a big part of my childhood, so you can imagine how strange and wonderful an experience this can be.

My Father And The Man In Black

Q. Has this given you an appetite to make more films? And if so, more documentaries or will you branch out into features?
Jonathan Holiff: I would love to make more films. Even though this was my first effort, I think I may have a facility for writing, directing and editing. That being said, I would never produce again. It was too great a burden and I feel the movie could have been better had I not been “chief cook and bottle-washer”. I love the documentary form. The prospect of working in narratives is also seductive. But I spent 15 years of my life in Hollywood, which was quite enough. I’m not about to return there, get an agent and start chasing that dream [again]. Alas, I don’t think I will find such opportunities in Canada. But if you hear about a job, please call me!

Q. You’ve worked with the likes of Martin Scorsese and Dennis Hopper during the course of your career. What was that like for you? And did Scorsese give you an understanding of how to make films and, in particular, documentaries?
Jonathan Holiff: I got my start in Hollywood as a talent agent in Los Angeles. I had left William Morris in 1993 to start The Hollywood-Madison Group, which specialized in celebrity endorsements. I hired Martin Scorsese to help Phillips launch widescreen TVs in North America, and Dennis Hopper to promote a new camera made by Sony (among others). This work allowed me to express myself creatively for the first time [I deveoped both campaigns] but it had nothing to film.

However, and this is a funny story, I did find myself in a position to direct Martin Scorsese for the Philips’ project – and I was brilliant. Basically, I stood in the corner and kept my mouth shut.

Read our review

My Father & The Man in Black is released in UK cinemas on Friday, August 2, 2013