Friday 24 September 2021

"Hidden reservoirs and incredible dramas" - Tom Ryan talks to Jonathan Demme (Part 2) - On working across all forms of film-making, Hollywood, radical documentary, working with young directors and lifelong cinephilia

Editor's Note: This is a second part of an interview with the American film-maker Jonathan Demme. It was recorded by Melbourne film critic Tom Ryan in 2005 as the basis of a feature article for The Age. The first part devoted to Haiti and documentary film-making can be found IF YOU CLICK HERE


LisaGay Hamilton says of you, “The first thing I learned from Jonathan Demme is that you can never plan a documentary. I mean, you just kinda go with it.” Is this a fair description of how you’ve approached your documentaries over the years?

 Yes, it is, especially if it’s about an individual. But I feel that if you the filmmaker find a person or a situation of exceptional interest to you, if you’re beyond fascinated, if it’s easy for you to get consumed by the subject, if you don’t know how it’s gonna end, you don’t know how it’s even gonna begin really, you just wade in, you start filming, and your footage begins to speak. 


When we did the Mandela documentary [Mandela, 1996, directed by Angus Gibson and Jo Menell], we had the framework of an upcoming election. So, in that situation, we did have a final scene: he was either gonna win or lose the election. We were confident he was gonna win. But there was a wonderful clock ticking…

With the other ones, though, especially with the portrait ones that aren’t about someone running for office, you just enter their world and you learn more about their world. You’re learning on film and one situation triggers another. You also have to know when to stop filming and walk away from it for a while until something interesting happens again. 


When I did the portrait of my cousin who’s a radical minister in Harlem [Cousin Bobby, 1992], we didn’t know where the heck that was gonna go. And the more we talked to him, the more he revealed aspects of his previous life. It led us to hidden reservoirs and incredible dramas about his involvement with the Black Panthers and the police murder of a Black Panther who he’d become very close with. So you just gotta start diggin’. 

Beah Richards, Beah: A Black Woman Speaks
Dir: LisaGay Hamilton

I mean with Beah Richards [Beah: A Black Woman Speaks, 2003, directed by LisaGay Hamilton], that was amazing because the reason I gave LisaGay a camera was because she said to me, “Jonathan, when I visit Beah, she’s saying the most extraordinary things and it’s a tragedy that this woman’s wisdom isn’t being captured for posterity.” And so I said, “Well, go ahead. I’ll give you a camera and you go ahead and do it.”

Little did any of us know that while the filming was proceeding over the course of several months Beah’s health would decline, that she would choose to sell her home and return to the state of her birth, that she would have her final acting opportunity and win an Emmy. These were things that, had we known them, it would have been a different thing. You have to have faith in your subject.


Who is Patricia Benoit and how did she finish up making the documentaries on Haiti that you produced? I know she also directed a segment of Subway Stories, on which you were involved. I read somewhere that she’s 78.


Patricia Benoit

No, no, no (laughing). That statistic is wrong. Patricia’s probably 45, and she’s a very, very gifted Haitian filmmaker on the activist circuit. I looked at some of the things she’d filmed and thought they were terrific, and it was exciting for me to help create opportunities for a younger director, especially a Haitian director, especially a woman director. It was great to meet someone who I thought was very, very gifted and with whom I could collaborate on expanding the audio-visual literature on Haiti, which is pretty scant.


I understand that you’re a founding member of the Organisation of Artists for Democracy in Haiti as well.




Which was established when?


Well, that was established at the time of Aristide’s coup. And I guess I pretty much started that. I took the initiative and reached out to many people because I was convinced that many, many people in the arts, in film, in music, if they knew what was going on in Haiti, would be concerned. So I felt that an organisation like this could help people who would care about this to form a sort of ad hoc lobbying group. We all wrote letters first to Bush and then to Clinton, and to the coup leaders. And we let the people who were calling the shots know that we knew what was going on in Haiti. That we knew that the United States foreign policy was corrupt in Haiti, and we demanded that that foreign policy be changed. And we were quite relentless. 

I’m not sure how much this works any more with our current President [in 2005, that was George W. Bush] because this guy seems to be just a stone wall. Actually I’m being too cynical, because I do believe that the process continues, that it does have an effect if enough people call up, if enough people write letters. They have to respond one way or the other. They have to acknowledge at least the situation and explain themselves. So that was exciting: I really enjoyed calling up Bob Dylan and telling him that we still hadn’t received his signature yet. 

I saw him last night, by the way, in concert at the Beacon Theatre here in New York. I think he’s coming to Australia.


I loved his book [‘Chronicles, Volume One’].


Me too.


Anyway, do you feel like “a man who leads parallel lives” (as a number of commentators have described you), or do you see there being a continuum between your Hollywood films and the documentaries you make and produce?


Melanie Griffith, Jeff Daniels, Something Wild

I’m gonna think out loud because I was actually musing a little bit on that, when I knew we were gonna speak. I feel that when I started directing in the mid-’70s through the mid-’80s I was a director trying to establish himself. Up to Something Wild in ’86 or ’87. 

And then my little tiny company expanded and it gave me the opportunity to do two kinds of things at once. The company could be actively involved in the motion-picture industry and produce films that I directed or helped produce, and meanwhile we could always be making documentaries. And, from the mid-’80s to the mid-’90s, that was what I was all about: having a company that provided me the opportunity to do all that. 

Then I started wanting to scale down in the late-’90s and to not produce any more and only to direct and I think what I’ve turned into, Tom, is… I like to see myself today as an independent filmmaker who, from time to time, gets the chance to do a Hollywood script of very special interest. Like The Manchurian Candidate, which I think is a unique Hollywood project and I’m thrilled that I had the chance to go to Hollywood and make that. 

Denzel Washington, Liev Schreiber
The Manchurian Candidate

And previously, it was not entirely successful on a number of levels but I felt I had a unique opportunity to go to Paris, France, and do a film that was a homage to the nouvelle vague [The Truth About Charlie, 2002]… If only that film had starred Will Smith, as had been originally envisioned, instead of Mark Wahlberg, who’s a good actor and has done good work on certain kinds of things but didn’t provide what that film really needed to succeed. 

And before that I did Beloved, another extraordinarily unexpected Hollywood film. 

I’ve taken a year off to reflect on all this stuff, so that’s why I’m able to glance back to do this kind of analysis, spend time with my kids and empty my big old office and shrink down to the tiny one that I entered today. And I’m planning this summer, if all goes well, to shoot a concert film with Neil Young performing live with an exceptional band of country musicians at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee… [that turned out to be Neil Young: Heart of Gold, 2006]


Which’ll be the second time you’ve worked with him.


Third, actually. In the sense that he provided a very, very beautiful song for the ending of Philadelphia. And I also did a short performance piece called The Complex Sessions with him. But, yes, this is the third and for me it’s a kind of fulfilment because the Grand Ole Opry is a very special American institution and Neil Young is, as far as I’m concerned, one of the giant American songwriters – North American, of course, because he’s from Canada – of all time. Right along with Cole Porter and Stephen Foster and whoever else, he has got to be in the Top 10 all-time songwriters, composers. 

So it’s an incredible opportunity to do something very, very special with his new body of songs which he’s just completed, which is called “Prairie Wind”, very much in the “Harvest” frame of mind, beautiful country-and-western songs, evocations of his childhood and of transitions in North American culture over the past century and reflections on mortality. Emmylou Harris is on many of the tracks and the music’s phenomenal.


I realise I’m taking a lot of your time. I’ve just got a few more questions...


You’re gonna have to wake up soon [it’s about 12.30am, my time].


This is a pleasure for me, so…. (laughing)


Thank you so much (laughing).


And this is not intended as a loaded question, but, now, which of your films are the ones that matter to you the most?


Oprah Winfrey, Danny Glover, Beloved

Um, Beloved matters to me beyond calculation. Racism, the legacy of slavery in our country, is such an overwhelmingly important fact about America, in the country’s life, that to be able to make a film that shamelessly addresses that in a very creative way was a phenomenal opportunity. It was great to work with Oprah Winfrey. It was a perfect filmmaking experience. So that stands out very, very strongly.

Stop Making Sense also stands out in a very, very strong way. That was the first time that I worked directly with music on film and I had the good fortune of that experience enabling me to work with arguably the finest band of the moment with the most exciting singer/songwriter of the day: David Byrne. That was a very, very thrilling thing.

And Philadelphia stands out for me as well as a very, very special thing. We wanted to make a film that would contribute to getting the country behind a concerted effort to vanquish AIDS and we got to make that film and that was incredible. 

I also treasure working with the great actors that I’ve worked with: Jodie Foster, Denzel Washington, Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep. The joy of working with people like that is, in a way, bigger than the films that the work was done on.


Tell me, is it difficult to be an artist working in America at the moment?


I don’t think it’s any more difficult… On the one hand, it would seem to be a little more difficult to work on material that strays from predictable formulas. On the other hand, with the opening up to digital and through documentaries becoming films that are actually shown in the cinemas now – which has been a movement that I think Michael Moore has been responsible for – now the possibility to make your own film however you want to make it outside the confines of the corporately mandated filmmaking is probably greater than ever before. 

Until the film was done, there was never any corporate involvement in The Agronomist. Nobody was making any money – it was a labour of love for everybody. The digital technology permitted me to shoot very, very inexpensively and I was able to make that film exactly the way I wanted to outside the corporate realm. And then finally we entered the corporate realm a little bit, or at least the business realm, by getting advances from distributors that helped us pay for the very high price tag on the archival footage that’s in the film. 

So I can start making a new film this afternoon if I’ve got a subject that interests me.


Just a couple of other quick ones. Is there any truth to the story that there’s a bootleg copy of your version of Swing Shift floating around?


Goldie Hawn, Kurt Russell, Swing Shift

Well, you know, there did exist some videotapes of the original version of Swing Shift. One copy even fell into the hands of Sight and Sound magazine who did a wonderful review of it to set the record straight [see Steve Vineberg,  “Swing Shift– A Tale of Hollywood”, Sight and Sound, Winter 1990/91, pp. 8 – 13]. And there were a couple of other things too. But, you know, these were tapes made in the ’80s and if any of them are still around I don’t know where they are. It was famously re-edited and re-conceived, and it was a movie that was famously taken away from the director and chopped to ribbons and there was all this new stuff imposed on it. So there certainly wouldn’t be any interest on Warner Bros.’ part in (laughs) participating in the restoration of a film that would prove they’d made a horrendous blunder previously. 


Is it water under the bridge for you or do you still have hard feelings about it?


No, it’s finally… When you raise it, I note that I don’t have any of that spontaneous adrenaline in my chest because that whole thing has been conjured up…  No I’ve made my peace with it and, you know, it’s very interesting because my experience on making Swing Shift really made me a very tough guy. From that moment forward, if I wasn’t gonna get final cut I wasn’t gonna do it. If I could work with exactly who I wanted to, and if I didn’t have complete trust in every single person participant on either side of the desk in the making of a film, I wasn’t gonna do it. If I smelled the slightest aroma of any disruptive force that might threaten the integrity of the film, I was all over it. 

So they say that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, or something like that. That’s what happened there, although, that said, I was profoundly depressed at the time and wondered if I had the courage to actually go back through that process. And you know, come to think of it, Stop Making Sense was made at exactly the time of the Swing Shift debacle, so that, even as I was experiencing the lowest possible experience that can happen to a filmmaker, I was also experiencing the highest possible one, working with a bunch of brilliant people and making the film the way we wanted to. So that kept me in the ball game.


So you’ve actually had final cut ever since?


For better or worse, I’ve had final cut from Something Wild on.


Are you still as hooked on the movies as you were earlier in your life? I know you started off writing reviews…


I did and I am. Yes, I’ve been a movie nut since I saw Treasure Island  in 1954 at age 10. And now I get to see films with my kids and I get to see crappy stuff at the mall in the guilty pleasure realm that I would never waste my time on but I get to be with my kids so I go. And I get to drag them to films that I have loved previously or found incredibly interesting. That’s the price they must pay. If they go to the mall to see the crap, they’ve gotta balance it by seeing something they otherwise might not see.


Fair enough too. (laughter)


In fact, we’ve got a wonderful, wonderful film centre in a community about 15 miles from where I live that’s called the Jacob Burns Film Center in the amusingly named community of Pleasantville in New York [at 364 Manville Road in Pleasantville, NY, in fact, centrally located in the heart of Westchester County]. They have great, great stuff there. I’ve got to know the people there and next month will be the beginning of Demme’s Rarely Seen Film Festival.

I get to pick something that’s really off-the-radar and whoever dares to show up will watch it and then we’ll talk about if afterwards.


Well, your off-the-radar work for me is Who Am I This Time? which turned up here on TV 20 years ago. I happened to tape it and I just loved it.


Hey, that’s a Kurt Vonnegut concept. Kurt Vonnegut wrote that and Susan (Sarandon) and Chris (Walken) were so charming. That was really fun.

But I want to clarify something: the Demme’s Rarely Seen Film Festival aren’t rarely seen films made by me. They’re rarely seen films that I have loved made by other people.


Tell me what they are.


Chappaqua, (Conrad Rooks, 1966)

Well the lead-off is a film called Chappaqua made by Conrad Rooks back in the late ’60s, photographed by Robert Frank. A very independent American film that’s for some inexplicable reason sort of just vanished and they’ve tracked down a print for me. Then we’re gonna show Alain Resnais’ Muriel, a film by Glauber Rocha, Antonio Das Mortes, from Brazil.


That’s your favourite film of all time according to the ‘Sight and Sound’ poll in 1992.


Have you seen it?


Oh, yes.


It’s dazzling, isn’t it?


It is. 


And in America nobody has seen it any more…


That whole ‘cinema novo’ movement was just so exciting…


So exciting. There’s a little section in The Agronomist where we show about a minute of a film that was very important to Jean Dominique called Anita that was directed by Rassoul Labuchin. That is gonna be our second film in the Rarely Seen Film Festival and I’m gonna bring Labuchin up from Haiti to talk about the film with us. 

I’m sure you know, there’s that thing where at a certain point in your life you’re always trying to get your friends to come back to your place to play them the new music you’ve discovered. This is a version of that. (laughter) It’s just like: come to this movie theatre and look at a film that I think is worth rediscovering.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.