Q&A: Jon Fox on the Enigmatic Man at the Center of ‘Newman’

Orphan. Entrepreneur. Recluse. Genius. Megalomaniac. Inventor Joseph Newman is all of the above. A controversial figure in the scientific community, Newman rose to notoriety with “The Newman Device,” an electromagnetic machine that he claimed produced more energy than it took to power it. What should have been a revolutionary discovery was stopped by a lengthy and disheartening legal battle with the United States Patent Office. In his enthralling debut NEWMAN, filmmaker Jon Fox deftly seeks to understand the enigmatic inventor—through intimate discussions with Newman’s colleagues and, surprisingly, with the man himself.


Please tell us about NEWMAN in your own words. Your main character is quite an enigma.

Jon Fox: Newman was always an inspiration and exhausting at the same time. Our first phone call, over a dozen years ago, lasted 3 hours. Our first interview lasted 7 hours. During that interview, he never took even a 5-minute break, and he left his chair only once for a peanut butter-on-white bread sandwich and a glass of milk.

Newman had an unbridled genius and a stamina that inspired many over the years to help him in any way they could. In coming to know him better and investing my own energy in trying to help him, I came to see his story as an Aristotelian tragedy about a man who lacked the ability to assimilate into a harsh world he desperately wanted to help and be a part of.

How did Joseph Newman come to your attention, and when? From what I can tell, he hasn’t been in the news for quite some time.  

Jon Fox: In 2000, my brother and I liked ordering VHS tapes of shows about conspiracies and farfetched science. We watched tapes like “The Monuments of Mars” by Richard Hoagland, and one of the tapes we ordered was of an A&E show called “Conspiracies.” It had a 10-minute segment on Newman, and somehow it hooked both of us. My brother met him later that year and did his best to help him with a few political contacts. I always thought that when I became a filmmaker I would tell his story, but how to tell his story was not so apparent to me until years later, when I found all this footage.

Can you walk us through your filmmaking process? How did you connect with your interview subjects? How long did it take to make the film in total?

Jon Fox: This film was on the back burner for a very long time. I met Joe around 2000, but it wasn’t until a few years later that I connected with a stringer who had shot a lot of footage of him in the 80s. It was mostly boring, but there was 10 minutes of footage inside the National Bureau of Standards, where they were testing the motor, that I found riveting. I edited the speeches together into a narrative. It was 4 hours long, but it told a compelling story.


At this time, I was teaching myself to edit while running a business by day. It became a low-level obsession that I never gave my full attention to until 2013, when I decided I would start making the film and not stop until it was finished. Only problem was, I wasn’t sure how to make a movie.

Within a week of making that decision, my phone rang. It was the producers from Sunset Pictures, who knew about the project. They wanted to introduce me to the executive producers of BLACKFISH, a film I had seen a few days earlier and loved. We all teamed up, and the support of a great team gave me a huge amount of confidence that I could pull this off. I rented an office and started cold calling everyone I could think of. What I came to learn quickly is that if you are willing to get on the phone and ask people to do something, they will often times say yes. I spent a year tracking down every interview and piece of footage I could.

The whole journey had a steep learning curve for me. My first interview was with a reporter from the Washington Post (that eventually ended up on the cutting room floor), and the entire process of that interview was nerve-wracking for me. My last interview was with a 30-year congressman, and by then interviewing had become something I had come to love. The entire process took two years in total. It was harder than I imagined it could be, but I found that if I kept pushing until something good happened, that we would inevitably get there.

The editor who did the final cut perhaps said it best when I dumped a hundred hours of footage on him and told him what to do with it. “I’m going to edit the film you meant to make,” he said, and then promptly locked me out of the editing room for the better part of 5 months. While starting this film was exciting and felt destined to work out, I think it’s endemic to the process for a director to feel he is constantly failing, even halfway through the edit. It was really only towards the end of the whole process that I was able to see that we had done a good job.

Now that your world premiere is upon us, do you feel a responsibility to give Newman the recognition he may or may not be due?

Jon Fox: I don’t think it’s in my hands to create recognition or praise for Newman, although I believe he deserves some of both. My job was to tell his story, and his story involves the possibility that we have had a nonpolluting fuel source in our hands for over 30 years that we have chosen as a society to disregard. My sole goal was to have the audience know what I knew about him and his story—the excitement, the disappointment, and of course, the sympathy for a man who was potentially broken by a governmental process ill-suited to find innovation. After 15 years of knowing this man well, every thought or feeling I ever had about him is intimated or told in this 78-minute film.


Your feature film debut is behind you. So do you have one piece of advice for aspiring filmmakers?

Jon Fox: Just start. Planning is for second-time filmmakers. For the first time you don’t have the knowledge to know if you are being unrealistic or practical, so just start. Set a deadline you will probably miss and don’t give up until you’re done. When you finish the film, if it’s good, you’ll know how to do the next one. If you finish the film and it’s not what you hoped, throw out the edit and start again.

Directing a documentary is the process of learning how to have opinions about controlled chaos. For me, it was difficult to have these opinions until I started making mistakes and having successes and began to be able to identify which was which. A long time ago I read an article that listed 3 rules to being a successful entrepreneur, and I think they apply here. 1. Ready, Fire, Aim. 2. When you’re wrong, admit it and do an about-face. 3. Always be optimistic.

What would you like HIFF audiences to take away from the film?

Jon Fox: I really just hope they enjoy the ride as much as my team did making it.

What are you most looking forward to about being in Competition at HIFF 2015?

Jon Fox: I think it’s incredible that we celebrate films the way we do. Becoming a filmmaker is partly the process of claiming the mantle of storyteller and recognizing the importance in our culture of sharing ideas and stories through the arts. But I always wondered and looked forward to finding out: who am I telling this story for? The process of making a film, particularly a documentary, is a lonely one—driven by the need to create, and the need to do things one would regret not having done. Finishing a film is more exhausting than triumphant. To then be greeted by teams of people who have been looking for a film like ours to celebrate is an amazing icing on this arduously baked cake. I’m looking forward to finding out what the best part of the ride is—making the film, or seeing others enjoy it?

NEWMAN will have its World Premiere in Competition at HIFF 2015. Find tickets.

newman-jon-foxJon Fox is making his directorial debut with the documentary film, NEWMAN. Although he studied filmmaking at Sarah Lawrence and at the New School, Fox’s first career was in business. During his years working outside the arts world, he became fascinated with the story of Joseph Newman, an inventor who battled both the scientific establishment and his own demons. When Fox ultimately turned his attention to filmmaking, he knew his first project would be telling that story.