The director and chair of the selection committee at NYFF talks to Jeremy Kay about why world premieres aren’t the name of the game, Martin Scorsese and a certain Edward Snowden documentary.

Jones worked at the festival from 1998-2009 as associate director of programming at the Film Society Of Lincoln Center before taking a break from 2009-12 to work as executive director of the World Cinema Foundation, part of film preservation non-profit The Film Foundation founded by Martin Scorsese.

He returned as festival director in 2012. The 52nd New York Film Festival runs from September 26-October 12.

Festivals scramble for world premieres. NYFF’s prestige in this area has been climbing steadily and went up another notch this year when you landed opener Gone Girl and centrepiece gala selection Inherent Vice. Yet world premieres are still not part of your ethos. Why?
I’m really happy with the entire selection. Every year is different and for us our mission is simple and clear: we don’t have a market and we don’t have awards or juries. We have a tradition that goes back onver 50 years now and we select the best films from around the world in that given year. We do world premieres now in two or three gala slots, which was instituted about three or four years ago. We’ve stuck to the clarity of the mission and that’s what makes the festival attractive to people – we’re not courting something for world premiere. We court it because it’s a great movie, like Gone Girl, Inherent Vice or Citizenfour.

Programmers and journalists often play this parlour game of picking out themes. Do you select films with themes in mind?
It’s the road to perdition if you try that. Obviously you’re trumping the question of quality and you’re checking your instincts at the door. It’s interesting to look at it after the fact – what you say about the themes is as interesting as what I say. There are production cycles through different economic levels of filmmaking. A lot of films are made of the times in which people live.

On that note, what areas of common interest have struck you as you look at the selection?
Every year brings raw material … and after it’s done you look at it and see convergences. It never occurred to me that we had three movies from Argentina – The Princess Of France (La Princesa De Francia), Two Shots Fired (Dos Disparos) and Jauja. They’re very different films from filmmakers hailing from three distinct generations. It doesn’t mean there’s a new wave of Argentinian cinema; they just made movies at the same time.

Matías Piñeiro is a young guy and The Princess Of France is made with this boundless, youthful energy. That’s also true of Heaven Knows What, Whiplash and this beautiful movie by Mia Hansen-Løve, Eden. These are films only young people could have made. And then there’s Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye To Language, which also has this youthful energy.

We also have this abundance of New York movies: Heaven Knows What, Time Out Of Mind, Whiplash and Marty’s movie [co-directed with David Tedeschi, The 50 Year Argument]. And of course the closing night movie is this great Broadway movie, Birdman. 

You mentioned Los Angeles, too
When you put together Inherent Vice and Tales Of The Grim Sleeper you’re talking about deep LA movies. Tales is an unbelievable story – tragic, heartbreaking. Inherent Vice is LA, but also 1971 LA. The minute the film started I was back in the era, so that’s a sweet point of convergence.

The selection is broad. Do you wrestle with how some of the films might sit alongside each other?
No, not at all. Last year in the festival Claire Denis spoke [during an on-stage conversation] about Bastards and someone asked her about the differences between making small movies and big movies and she said, ‘This distinction means nothing to me. I make my films and make them happily. James Cameron makes films in different circumstances and that’s great. We’re all working under the same flag.’ To me, that’s the way it is with the selections: Jean-Luc Godard, David Fincher and Paul Thomas Anderson are all part of the same team. They may not think of it that way, but they are. I’m just as proud having The Princess Of France as I am a doc like Stray Dog or Tales Of The Grim Sleeper or Gone Girl, Inherent Vice or Citizenfour. And the variety between these movies is astonishing.

What influence does the inveterate New Yorker Martin Scorsese have over the festival and your work?
In terms of Marty as a spirit of cinema and someone who’s devoted to evoking the memory of cinema… even when Marty isn’t there he’s there. So when he is there in person it’s wonderful. This year we will show The Tales Of Hoffman by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, which was overseen by the Foundation and Thelma Schoonmaker (Scorsese’s regular editor, who was married to the late Powell) and Sergei Parajanov’s The Color Of Pomegranates – that’s another restoration that was done by Marty’s organisation.

Marty and I have known each for 23 years now and we’ve worked together extremely closely for a long, creative time. I co-wrote a documentary on Italian cinema and he and I talk about a lot of different stuff, but that’s a personal relationship.

Will there be a secret screening this year?
We didn’t do one last year and this year we’re having a surprise screening, but it’s not a world premiere. The reason we didn’t do it last year was because everybody thought it would be The Wolf Of Wall Street and Marty and I talked about it and he said he’d love to do it but it wasn’t ready. But that was last year and this year he has a doc [The 50 Year Argument, co-directed with David Tedeschi.]

On to Laura Poitras’ unprecedented late addition to the festival, the Edward Snowden documentary Citizenfour. Screendaily understands Tom Quinn of US distributor RADiUS got involved after he was told to attend a meeting that he went into completely blind. How did the festival come on board?
Seen early, announced later. I’d rather not talk about the process.

What can you tell us about the film itself?
It’s going to contribute to a lot of different conversations. It’s a sui generis film – there will never be another movie like it. That’s what’s great about documentary – you grab a moment and fashion a film out of it. Then there’s the question of talent: anyone can turn up with a camera, but to craft it into a film like that is something else. It’s absolutely riveting.

[Poitras] was there and shapes it into a cinematic experience. On another level it’s also an incredible character study of Edward Snowden. All this stuff is known and was revealed in [Glenn] Greenwald’s articles, but to hear him talk about it on camera and to see the pressure bearing down on him as the minutes go by in that hotel room – that’s something different. It adds a whole other level.