'Diane' Captures A Western Massachusetts Not Usually Seen On Screen

Jun 24, 2019

The film "Diane," set in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, is about the mundane and extremely generous measures a woman takes to help her friends and family. 

Screenwriter and director Kent Jones is better known for film criticism and his work with the New York and Berkshire international film festivals.

Jones's mother was from Springfield. His father, a DJ, became known for decades as the "voice of the Berkshires" on WBEC.

Jones grew up in Pittsfield as an only child — but his grandmother was one of 10. His large family visited each other a lot, often around his aunt's kitchen table in Belchertown.

In an early scene in "Diane," cousins from different generations sit or stand around such a table. Their banter is filled with outrage — or feigned outrage — as they tell and retell their stories.

A scene from Kent Jones's film "Diane."
Credit IFC Films

The scene is based on a mix of memories from Jones’s childhood, but the movie is not a memoir, Jones insists. In the editing room, though, he did see a connection between Diane, played by Mary Kay Place, and his mother, who died in 2014.

"It came very naturally to me to write a movie about someone who lives with guilt,” Jones said, “and for whom guilt seems like it always has to be there.”

But his mother also had a sense of duty, Jones said — much like the character Diane, who is driven by her search for forgiveness for a variety of "sins."

“Diane” is Jones’s first feature film, and Martin Scorsese is an executive producer on the project.

The movie sets out to give viewers a sense of Pittsfield and surrounding towns as Jones remembers them, getting at qualities just beneath the surface, or in the way people speak.

"I have a very close friend who read the script, and her first reaction was, 'I don't know anybody who talks like this,'" Jones said. "I got what she meant, because people don't tend to talk like that that much anymore. But also it's very specific to a particular part of the country."

Deirdre O'Connell as Donna, at left, and Mary Kay Place as Diane in Kent Jones's film.
Credit IFC Films

An example of that comes in a scene with the actress Estelle Parsons, who plays Mary, Diane's older cousin. They've just left the hospital where Mary's daughter is dying from cancer. Diane is behind the wheel, and asks Mary how she got to the hospital.

“Eleanor drove me,” Mary says.

“Well, how's she doing?” Diane asks.

“Poor Eleanor's as dumb as a box of rocks, but she's always been a good friend to me,” Mary says.

Using phrases he heard his family saying when he was a kid, as well as memories of scenes in kitchens and churches, Jones said he's showing what other New England movies haven't quite captured, with their typical panning of Harvard Yard or maple-dotted hillsides.

"You know, there's the popular image of the foliage," he said. "But when you live there, living with the foliage is another matter. Autumn light versus winter light versus summer, spring."

The story is also about Diane's relationship with her son, who is struggling with drugs. In different scenes, each mentions a pine forest that's shown a few times on screen. The forest was inspired by one Jones is fond of along the Pittsfield-Lenox Road.

But those scenes, and the entire movie, were filmed in New York state, which Jones said offered better tax incentives than Massachusetts. 

“Diane” touches on the current opioid crisis, and Jones also doesn’t shy away from a big part of Pittsfield's recent history — the legacy of General Electric.

In one restaurant scene, Diane and a friend tick off the list of names of people they know who've died in a short period of time.

"You’ve heard about Tom O'Connell?" the actress Andrea Martin, as Bobby, asks Diane. "Goddamn PCBs."

"I know it, I can't believe it," Diane says, adding more names.

The EPA calls PCBs "likely carcinogens." The chemical was left behind by General Electric and is still in parts of the Housatonic River, which runs through Pittsfield.

There is a lot of dying in this film, but Jones didn't set out to make a movie about the inevitability of death, he said. He set out to make a movie about an era when families like his lived near each other, and factories and industry were leaving places like Pittsfield.

"And I remember watching 'Nightline' — someone from the Clinton Administration was on there talking about factory closings, and they just wouldn't address it," Jones said.

As an adult, Jones took the bus back and forth between the Berkshires and New York, and he saw those closings in a lot of towns. He was horrified, he said, and thought to himself, "What are the consequences of all of this?" And that, too, is what "Diane" is about.

Correction: An earlier version of this report erroneously referred to an "Aunt Dotty" of Kent Jones. Dottie is the name of a character in the film.