Mr. Demme's Holiday
The Oscar-winning director takes a trip to the city of lights, love, Tati, and Truffaut
Jonathan Demme seems like a director who takes enthusiastically to the promotional circuit. He accepts the chores involved with selling a film as an inherent part of the job. But more to the point, Demme is a person who enjoys people in all their many manifestations, who enjoys making connections with people and the locales to which he travels. You can imagine that wherever he is, he is there with vim and joie de vivre, even if it's inside a hotel interview suite being questioned by college journalists-in-training, slightly scary Silence of the Lambs freaks, or jaded old entertainment-beat pros looking for a current sound bite from an erstwhile Oscar winner.
But when the Austin Film Festival and Austin Film Society brought Demme and his traveling crew came to Austin earlier this month to present The Truth About Charlie at the Paramount Theatre, it was like they had come home. Demme has been to Austin several times over the years, beginning in the late Seventies (and including pre-production here on his Talking Heads concert film, Stop Making Sense, in the Eighties). He has lots of first-hand knowledge of the Austin filmmaking scene (he was probably the first to select and present a package of Austin-made film shorts to New York audiences in 1981), and has also been a longtime fan of our cornucopia of music, food, and people. On the stage of the Paramount during the post-screening Q&A, Demme completely won over the audience with his openness, charm, and good humor. The highlight of the evening, however, came later, at the afterparty at Antone's. Ray Benson and his band were pounding out their patented Texas Swing, while Demme and his traveling group were dancing the night away in between chatting with one and all. The band broke into the old Marty Robbins standard "El Paso," and, before you knew it, Demme sat down dead-center on the apron of the stage and started swaying and singing along with the music. He knew all the words, had no inhibitions, and looked, for all intents and purposes, like a man who might never find greater happiness than he had at that particular moment. And don't be surprised if you see Ray Benson, one of the newfound joys of Demme's life, pop up in some future movie. Demme's path through Hollywood has never traveled a direct line.
His new movie, The Truth About Charlie, is a remake of Stanley Donen's thriller Charade. Demme discussed with me the process of making this film in an interview published in our Oct. 4 issue (Something Wild). We talked some more while he was in town, although in addition to discussing the movie, we spoke in more general ways about his career and approach to filmmaking. Demme has made studio films and documentaries, directed some TV and numerous music videos. He cut his chops as a director under the tutelage of exploitation king Roger Corman, and has gone on to work with everyone from Oprah Winfrey to Tom Hanks. His constant -- an immense compassion for his characters and their predicaments -- is evident in Charlie. In fact, particles from his entire career are on display in this new work, beginning with the film's opening shot -- a half-naked woman getting dressed after sex, no doubt a holdover from the Corman school of reeling in viewers as assuredly as possible. But like a good Jean Renoir movie, The Truth About Charlie has no hateful characters -- not even the villains. Every character has his or her reasons for behaving as they do. It's the untangling of their motivations that provides the movie's thrill.
Austin Chronicle: When we talked recently about the genesis of The Truth About Charlie, you described your desire to create a contemporary vehicle for Thandie Newton. Looking at your career as a whole, you've created so many great roles for women: The Silence of the Lambs, Married to the Mob, Beloved, and Crazy Mama, to name a few. Has this been a conscious choice on your part?
Jonathan Demme: I guess my antenna is definitely out. I'm much more receptive to stories with women as central characters. And maybe that's a response to as a kid not being interested in that -- seeking war movies and Westerns and just anything with guys in it and the stuff you'd watch on television, Maverick and Cheyenne when you're my age, just guy, guy, guy, guy, guy, guy. Maybe it's being glutted with male-driven movies as a child consumer. Then, as you grow up, you start paying more attention to the relative quality of behavior of the two genders, and you start admiring the female gender more and more and more, and recognizing that women do indeed have numerous obstacles that are placed in their way. This is so doctrinaire, but we do live in a patriarchal society still in many ways, and even if it isn't, a lot of men still think it is, and even some women think it is. Anyway, the jams that women get themselves into always have an opportunity to have an extra dimension of conflict, whether it's Jodie [Foster] fighting her way through all these overbearing, pompous men or crazy killers to save another woman in The Silence of the Lambs, or whether it's here: Thandie being confronted with all these guys that really want something out of her, and even though they are responsive to her decency and what have you, they're undeterred. They're going to keep lying to her and manipulating her, and Thandie is driven more and more to bond and find interesting support relationships with women. I like that kind of subtext. I don't think it's anything that's like, "Oh, that movie was about women bonding or anything," but I like it, it just interests me and inspires me.
AC: For me, one of the first adjectives that comes to mind when describing your work is the word "American," whether you're telling such distinctly American stories as Melvin and Howard or Beloved, or tapping into the American zeitgeist in films like Philadelphia, Something Wild, or Citizens Band. Your films are also so full of American kitsch and iconography and music. So I'm wondering what it was like for you to shoot in Paris?
JD: It was awesome. It's the city where so many of my favorite movies were filmed. And I shot for the first time in CinemaScope. You'll see, this is a blatant cry for help to the New Wave -- homages everywhere -- thefts everywhere -- oh, my god. I have been a French movie nut since I was little and my parents took me to Mr. Hulot's Holiday, and then the New Wave and the Sixties. I started going to them when I was a young man and grew up with the French New Wave in New York and saw every movie that came. So this is a chance for me to totally regurgitate my 30-year love of French cinema. And there is no effort to try to capture Stanley Donen's incredibly elegant Hitchcockian thing from Charade. This is completely hand-held, ragged, New-Wave whatever.
The crews over there are phenomenal. They're really engaged and it was a really young crew. A lot of enthusiasm. I actually learned a little bit of French. And drank a lot of wine after work with the crew. Oh boy, that was an education. I though Napa Valley was it.
AC: Music selection is always so essential to the construct of your movies. You've even made a couple of music documentaries: Talking Heads in Stop Making Sense and Robyn Hitchcock in Storefront Hitchcock. The soundtrack for The Truth About Charlie is an outstanding blend of music from all over the world, and the music also provides a constancy and urgency that helps propel the narrative. Since Henry Mancini's music for Charade is so classic and memorable, it must have been hard to devise a soundtrack that diverged from it so radically.
JD: Mancini's score was great. In it, literally every musical cue was a variation of the same theme played in a different way. But in Charlie, you never hear the same thing twice. We went nuts with the music. It's a crazed, completely out-of-control soundtrack with 40 different songs and a ton of [composer] Rachel Portman's music. So, it's different. We used a lot of rai music on the soundtrack and all sorts of different stuff because Paris is the hotbed of world music. All the big Middle Eastern bands record there, and the West African bands record there. For the scoring sessions, Rachel Portman brought in all these amazing players with their weird and exotic instruments and stuff. It's a very United Nations soundtrack.
AC: In our previous interview, you discussed your reasons for wanting to remake Charade. What is your response, however, to the people who are fearful about your decision to remake such a beloved classic?
JD: It's very funny because what you're going to see is -- and this isn't a qualitative thing -- but it's such a remake of Charade on the one hand, but so much of it is not blue but red. The picture's the same, it's just very, very different. There are new characters, and a lot of the story of Charade that took place in the background of the original is now up front in this movie. There are parts of Charlie that wind up very much the way they went in the first one. There are things that wind up completely different than they did in the original. For those who are familiar with the original, that's cool, too, because the whole point of Charade is to keep the audience guessing. So if you saw Charade in the past and liked it, part of the fun when watching The Truth About Charlie will be guessing if it's gonna work out the same way or if certain characters are still guilty.
AC: Throughout your career you've worked with many of the same people from project to project. You've told me that you had been working with Thandie Newton for a while on Beloved before you realized that she had become a friend to your children. And cameraman Tak Fujimoto has shot the majority of your films.
JD: You work with people you can depend on, right? This community can be a communal love fest. I am in love with Tak Fujimoto, and this is how we get to see each other and spend time together. We make pictures together.
AC: Has having children and a family changed your approach to filmmaking in any way?
JD: Oh my, yes. Starting to have kids at the age of 44 -- it was kind of an unexpected thing. I'm no longer the "anything goes" type of filmmaker. I'm more conscious of the impact of content on young viewers. I'm also cynical of the ratings system. When I started in the business [in the Seventies with the Roger Corman productions], we were bold young people who didn't have a clue.
AC: I've become increasingly interested in your role as a producer for other directors' projects in recent years. Your name has been attached to some of the freshest films of the last decade: Household Saints, Devil in a Blue Dress, That Thing You Do!, Ulee's Gold ...
JD: That's a thing of the past now. There was a time when my company Clinica Estetico was in the business of producing movies that I and also other directors would make. And that was exciting. I produced Tom Hanks' movie, That Thing You Do!, Carl Franklin's Devil in a Blue Dress, I was one of the producers on Ulee's Gold, Miami Blues, and stuff -- and that's gratifying and that was fun, but it also sucked an enormous amount of the company's energy and also my energy into other people's pictures. I felt like I wanted, for better or for worse, to devote my energies on trying to get movies I wanted to do off the ground. So I split up with partners in the company. They went and formed a new company called Magnet, and The Truth About Charlie was the last movie we did together. And Adaptation, the new film by Spike Jonze that's about to be released, is the other last movie we did together with a different director.
AC: Does not producing mean you're consequently going to be directing with more frequency?
JD: I hope so. I would like to do that. And I always seem to have a documentary going on as well. If I'm not doing a feature film, I'll be able to focus that much more on whatever documentary is at hand. I'm just finishing up this one now about a Haitian radio journalist named Jean Leopold Dominique who was a brilliant radio personality, courageous, fabulous human rights crusader, and he was assassinated two years ago on the steps of his radio station with the day's editorial in his hand. Magnificent guy. Because I knew of him from an earlier documentary I had made called Haiti Dreams of Democracy, when he was in exile in the early Nineties in New York I contacted him and he agreed to sit for a bunch of video testimonials. So I got from him his life story, the story of Haiti, the story of U.S. involvement in Haiti, but never did anything with it. So when he was killed, I was able to take his story and shoot some new material. So that's almost finished. I'm hoping that I might be able to bring that down here in March and show it in Austin at SXSW.
It's tough with documentaries. You make them because you're passionate about the subject matter. But you never find an audience. It does make me realize -- and this isn't good or bad -- that I really am a filmmaker. It amazes me that I do that in my life. I make films, and the proof of that is the documentaries more than the attempts at mainstream movies, or what have you. That's a slightly different kind of pursuit in a way. Ultimately, it's impossible to know how other folks are going to respond to it. That's the freaky thing about being a director: You must do only what really turns you on and pray that it's going to turn someone else on.