GI Alum Talks Augustine, Aristotle, and the Art of Filmmaking

February 26, 2019 | By Kimberly Uslin

Jonathan Green (AGI07) is the director of the documentary Social Animals.

Jonathan Ignatius Green (AGI07) is a director and producer whose most recent film, Social Animals, recently debuted at South by Southwest to critical acclaim. Here, he talks about the importance of the liberal arts to filmmaking and offers perspectives on Virginia Woolf, the future of social media, and what it takes to make a good movie.

What led you to the Graduate Institute?

I was always interested in philosophy and theology and the bigger kind of transcendental questions. I had a really good undergraduate experience; I went to the Savannah College of Art and Design, which had amazing facilities and great teachers. It was an important part of my journey, but it was incomplete. In the art school environment, I didn’t really get to do any of the liberal arts. I learned the how, but hadn’t really examined the why. I learned all the tools, and the craft, and how powerful the medium was, but I hadn’t really, in an organized way, examined what I wanted to say.

My interest in St. John’s was to have this dedicated time to formulate my own point of view as an artist and learn how to think—learn the craft of thinking in the way I’d learned the craft of making.

What impact did the St. John’s GI program have on your craft?

I had written my entrance essay on Aristotle’s Poetics, but it was probably the Ethics that stuck out to me the most because it’s so much about human behavior. The building blocks of storytelling are human behavior. I read the Joe Sachs translation, and his essay at the beginning was just like, gospel.

Tocqueville’s Democracy in America blew my mind, because I was connecting the dots between how society shapes the soul and value systems for the first time. It was like I was reading a book about myself and why I think the things I do. I’m a very driven person, and I got a sense of how American ideal and experiment had shaped me as a person. My other big one was Augustine’s Confessions. There are so many big ideas in that book, but it’s all embedded within his personal narrative of conversion. Reading it was so personal. It felt so vulnerable and intimate, and just being able to embed all of these huge ideas into a narrative was really profound for me.

I wanted to learn how to think in terms of philosophy and formulating my ideas, but I also wanted to engage with lots of other storytelling. Almost all of my preceptorials were focused on literature. I’d never actually been that much of a reader of fiction, but I remember reading Virginia Woolf and being so transported into the psyche of Mrs. Dalloway. I still remember where I was in this coffee shop downtown, and I was crying reading this book. I couldn’t remember an experience reading fiction where I was that emotionally connected to the interior space of the character before.

At the toast, I was asked to write the speech for my class and I remember the line I wrote. I was comparing going to art school and being very focused on training and being focused on intellectual formation and how that was also a kind of training—training for being human, training for being alive.

What inspired you to create Social Animals?

I have two business partners, and we’d been working with Nike for a long time on their Instagram account back when the platform was really young. When we started working with Nike, I think they had under 100,000 followers, and now they have [85 million]. They’re one of the top brands on Instagram. And that’s definitely not as a result of us alone, but we were definitely there at the ground level to work with them. This was before a brand could just buy ads on Instagram, so in order to get in front of those audiences, they really had to use influencers, and that’s how influencer culture really started. So we were at the infancy of the digital marketing evolution on Instagram, seeing the influencer culture rise.

We always wanted to do long-form content, and were looking for our first documentary. So we started making a documentary that was more about the rise of influencers and photographers on Instagram and how the platform changed that. We shot all this footage, but when we got in the editing room, I was like, ‘This isn’t interesting to the level of being a movie.’ There wasn’t a through-line or emotional stakes, so we regrouped and completely started over.

In the process, we’d interviewed this guy who’s credited with having invented the camera phone in 1997, and we [thought], ‘What if we made a movie that was only about people who had been born after 1997, who had only known a world where you have a camera and social platform in your pocket at all times?’

There’s a lot of hand-wringing about that, but the documentary seems nonjudgmental.

My first responsibility as a storyteller is to tell a good story. I wanted to make a film that was topical, but it had to be rooted in character and in personal journeys, because that’s what makes something interesting—that’s what makes us empathize and be entertained, to want to watch to the end. Obviously, the film’s called Social Animals, which is a quote from Aristotle that [references] that there’s nothing new about how we behave, in some sense. It’s just going to express itself differently in different environments.

I think there are a lot of hazards to how we use social media, but I wanted to show the positives as well. Social media is obviously a massively powerful thing in our culture, social, and personal lives now, and we’re never putting the cat back in the bag. Some sort of version or expression of social media will be around forever, so it’s like, how do we look at the whole thing and not just the alarmist negatives? How do we look at how it’s influencing us, and how we’re behaving on it? That was more interesting to me than trying to warn people about anything.

Do you think social media will die down and give way to more basic human interactions?

I think the interactions that happen on social media are basic human interactions. Are people going to stop hanging out in coffee shops and having conversations face-to-face? Of course not. It’s not like we’re running to this apocalyptic future where we never talk to each other. I do think the interactions we’re having digitally are an extension of basic human interactions, but the thing that’s different, the thing that’s challenging, is that now so many of those [interactions] are disembodied. They’re not in real time. They’re more reduced to data exchanges.

I think there is already a reaction where people are realizing the distinctions between those things, because it’s been around long enough, and we’re seeing some of what [disembodied interaction] can compromise. The longer it’s around, people are going to realize the cost of these things. It’s already happening. Teenagers of their own volition are going to go get pizza, and everyone will just agree: “Hey, let’s put our phones in the middle of the table.”

Any advice for Johnnies who may want to pursue filmmaking?

In storytelling and filmmaking especially, you have to make. You can’t just talk about making and about ideas—you have to make. Don’t expend energy on things that aren’t worth making, but you just have to do it and do it and do it and do it before you get any good at it.

It’s such a mountain to climb to get a crew together and get the equipment that I think sometimes we think we have to have the screenplay done before we go out and do it. It literally took my business partner, who’s just a man of action, to say ‘Hey, let’s do a documentary about this.’ And I was the artist in the corner that said, ‘I don’t know.’ And he was like, ‘Let’s just go do it.’ Two years later, we were premiering at South by Southwest and showing the movie to Netflix.

Storytelling and filmmaking is not first and foremost about ideas. It’s about feeling. It’s an emotional medium, and you have to engage people emotionally. But once you do that, like Augustine, you can embed a lot of ideas inside of the emotional journey.

It’s not just making a movie because it’s cool to make a movie. In this generation, there are so many roadblocks that aren’t there that were there 15-20 years ago. It’s so accessible now. Don’t just move to LA. Make good stuff until you can’t not move to LA, and then maybe never move to LA.