Jena Malone, Henry Wolfe, & Benjamin Kutsko Talk Life, Art, Music, and Film


Jena Malone, Henry Wolfe, & Benjamin Kutsko Talk Life, Art, Music, and Film


Before she resumes her rebellion against the Capitol alongside Katniss in this November’s The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Jena Malone, one of our favorites, stars in the new video for the first single of off Henry Wolfe’s fourth coming EP, Encino (due this November). Friends for nearly a decade, the two worked with Director Benjamin Kutsko to create a James Turrell-inspired lightscape filled with religion, angst and the death of dreams. The following is a Google conversation between Wolfe, Malone and Kutsko about life, art, music, film and friendship.

Jena: I wanted to ask you both a question to start this out. I know I was brought on after the video concept was already created, but I want to know more about how you both came up with this idea and also how long you have been friends/collaborators?

Ben: The first time I worked with Henry was actually when I met you Jena, when we all worked on the Harper Simon “Berkeley Girl” video 4 or 5 years ago. I remember I cast both of you without realizing that you knew each other. For Encino we had talked about themes and a mood for the world we wanted this video to live in, and then I imagined this scene with you dancing with a vending machine at night. That’s when we asked if you’d want to work with us on this project, then everything grew from there. We were very inspired by James Turrell and David Lynch and just the world of Los Angeles when the lights go out.

Jena:  I LOVED the idea of a woman dancing with a vending machine, being drawn in to the neon. I loved it so much. And I had almost forgotten we worked together on Harper Simon’s video! I can’t believe you didn’t know we knew each other! Henry and I met like 9 years ago I think.

Henry: Yeah, we’ve known each other for a long time. I think Jena, when we met you were just starting to work on your own music. Making improvisatory, free-associative music, Or at least, first starting to share it with people, no?

Jena:  Yes, that was the beginning of all things music for me, when I was 20, 21.  It was a super exciting time … and thank you for always being kind and listening to my weird and wild demos.  We have both used Ben’s heart and eyes to help build visual narratives for our music, which is cool. Now,you have to be in one of MY music videos…

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Jena:  Henry, can you tell me more about the song, how you wrote it, what it means to you?

Henry: During the time I was working on the album I ended a long relationship and started a new one that prompted me to relocate from LA to a beach town on the central coast (my girlfriend was living in Big Sur at the time). Other than her I didn’t really know anybody and I was homesick for LA. The two landscapes, the urban sprawl of my old home and scenic grandeur of my new one mirrored the experience falling out of, and then into love. These contradictions and the insecurity and ecstasy of a new relationship informed the lyrics and the sound of the record as a whole. But for the music videos for this album I’ve wanted to be less visible. Have the story told by other actors, so it is clear that the song is about a character and not me.

Jena:  Yeah, build yourself a narrative!! Create a character!  It doesn’t have to be you!

Ben: Maybe I’ll star in all the videos from now on.

Jena: Yes!!  We need you to act in them from now on! Have you ever wanted to act and direct in a piece?

Ben: Same time, no, I’ll leave that to Woody Allen. You both have really interesting live performances that you have been cultivating recently, where are you going with that?

Jena:  I just want to keep exploring how to express narrative and collective experiences thru live music.  I want to keep changing things up.

Henry: Well, Jena’s shows preformed in non-traditional spaces have inspired me. I haven’t seen too many other musician/artists taking a more adventurous approach to performing live. Recently, I did an experimental show in that vein. I performed in a small theater, like 99 seats. I wanted to create a space where I could control as many aspects of the production as possible: the sound, the imagery and the environment in which you experience the music. Cause I think the music is just one aspect of the live experience. The context in which you’re listening influences how you listen.

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Ben: The Encino video premiered on MOCAtv, so maybe the next step is to perform art through music? A musical collaboration between the two of you that explores the relationship between the stage and the audience…

Henry: I’m down.

Jena: So true. I’ve actually become so bored by the live music scene and music for me is the most inspiring thing in my life. Henry, I’m sooooo glad to hear you’re pushing yourself and your live shows and that some part of my strange forays in live music have inspired anything.

Jena:  Ok new thought: This video felt like an experimentation of narrative in music videos, something I’ve never seen before.  Ben, can you talk me through a little about how you approached it?  What inspired you?

Ben: Henry didn’t want to feature himself in the foreground, so I liked the idea of the song existing as a dialogue between characters, letting go of the spotlight forced upon the lead singer typically. From there I wanted to follow a character, but not in a traditional linear form, to create a sort of fever dream that exists slightly grounded in the real world. I had seen the James Turrell exhibit and was really taken with the idea of how color affects emotion and vise versa. I thought of a person that would be so overtaken by life around them that it would manifest itself into the world in colorscapes, a sort of advanced synesthesia! We shot the video with these light panels that are controlled through an Ipad, so we were able to create these colorscapes on set and allow everyone to react to the actual environment, to let the colors actual wash over them.

Jena:  I love that, as an audience member I felt a lot of those influences without letting them become too overpowering.  It still felt like your own voice. I’m really proud of the video you guys and I love that this is such a love fest! Henry, there are themes of waiting for love, or being held in a sort of wasteland waiting for “someone” to come in the song Encino.  I wonder does Los Angeles have this purgatory quality to it for you or does it just make sense in Encino?

Henry: That is pretty much exactly what I had in mind when I was coming up with the lyrics of the song, this city as a state of mind, as a utopia and dystopia. It’s a garden surrounded by mountains on one side and ocean on the other. And it’s also this mind-numbing, flat suburban wasteland where the weather never changes and time stands still. I like that contradiction. The character in the song is in a state of limbo, emotionally. And the setting, the San Fernando Valley, reflects that place of transition. It’s a hollow valley, an in between place, neither in heaven or hell, but both at the same time.

Ben: Amen!

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Henry: But the song could take place in any neighborhood in the valley really. ‘Encino’ just happened to rhyme with ‘Golden Coast’. Jena, when you approach making videos for your songs do you have an overarching visual aesthetic that you want to communicate or do you let the director kind of shape the imagery?

Jena:  I have an idea for sure, but it’s not all or nothing.  I have more seed-like ideas that I want to plant into other visual artists brains and see what grows and if I can nourish them in anyway I do.  But of course some times in the edit I can’t help but have ideas about how things should flow. I was really lucky with all the videos I did for my album.  I was just constantly surprised and stoked to see what dreams came.

And thank you for breaking down LA for me, Henry.  I have so many ideas about the heaven and hell of Los Angeles its nice to hear from another artists p.o.v. I’ve never gotten to work with so many friends in Los Angeles.  I love that it’s such a safe harbor for creativity and also for collaboration.  I think Los Angeles is unique in that way, more so then any other city I’ve worked in.

Ben: I love the fact that we are surrounded by so many talented people here, whether it’s musicians or cinematographers or makeup artist or choreographers, I’m constantly blown away by the amazing things I see people I know accomplishing. The Encino shoot was like a family and by the end of the night it was all of us drinking Mezcal and floating in the pool together before sunrise. So, what’s coming up next for the both of you?

Jena: Well geez, I don’t know how, but I made 6 films this year so lots of stuff coming out…Inherent Vice in Dec.  Mocking Jay in Nov.  I’m working on my first photo show that’s gonna open on my birthday, at this rad new gallery.  I’m turning 30!  And I’m releasing a solo record for free in Dec…

Henry: I’ll been on tour in California through October 14th, and then performing at a score for a silent film by Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Then the EP comes out in November so there will be a release show for that.