The Truth About Jonathan Demme: The Director Reflects on His Recent Films, Lessons From Roger Corman and More

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Oscar-winning director Jonathan Demme has never shied away from exploring the often shadowy and troubled contours of the American story landscape.

He’s been equally successful at revealing a rich universe of uniquely American eccentrics who engender both laughter and compassion, covering the nation’s story in sunshine and in rain as well as anyone. His latest picture, The Truth About Charlie—a loose reshaping of Stanley Donen’s 1963 film, Charade—reveals Demme’s playful side.

Demme’s own story of how he “fell backwards into this business” is a gem not to be skipped over. After a stint in London as a rock journalist in the late ‘60s, Demme launched his career with Roger Corman, where he learned the basics of moviemaking from the godfather of B movies himself: always get your day’s coverage and keep the audience entertained.

“I’d been a publicist in New York before moving to London,” recalls Demme. “Roger Corman made Von Richthofen and Brown for UA in Ireland, and they called me up to see if I would go over to be the unit publicist. As fate would have it, that was just at the moment that Roger was starting up New World Pictures, and he was in desperate need of screenplays. He was stuck over there in Ireland and suddenly here was this avid film buff, who could write press releases, in his office. And he asks, ‘Wait a minute, you want to write a script? I’m starting up this company…’ And I said, ‘Sure.’ (laughing). He said, ‘Do you like motorcycle movies?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, especially your The Wild Angels’. So he said, ‘Okay, why don’t you take a crack at it?’

Collaborating with friend Joe Viola, who had a career directing commercials in London, Demme cranked out a motorcycle flick based on Kurosawa’s Rashomon. After a cursive read through their first draft, Corman immediately proposed that the two come to California and make the picture, with Joe directing and Jonathan producing. A couple of years later, Demme was tackling directing duties himself, steering several Corman releases through the pipeline: Caged Heat, Crazy Mama and Fighting Mad.

Not surprisingly, Jonathan Demme has encountered his share of setbacks over the years, including the 1984 release Swing Shift, a film which was disastrously retooled by the studio. Still, the general arc of his career—which includes celebrated performance films like Stop Making Sense and Storefront Hitchcock—has been marked by an enviable marriage of commercial successes and personal milestones.

In part framed as an homage to the films of the French New Wave, The Truth About Charlie saw the director take on a less formal style of directing—an approach very much in tune with the guerilla aesthetic in vogue during the Paris of the early 1960s. “Stanley Donen shot Charade in Paris in 1963,” notes Demme. “Three blocks away, Claude Chabrol was shooting something. François Truffaut was a couple of blocks in the other direction. They were all out there with their handheld
cameras grabbing it, cinema verite style. We wanted to do that. So we thought: let’s pretend that we are doing the New Wave version of Charade.”

The Truth About Charlie stars Mark Wahlberg—a likeable, streetwise counterpoint to Cary Grant’s urbane, silver-haired fox—and the gifted Thandie Newton, taking a much deserved break from tight corsets and long gowns to play, as Demme puts it, “a fully-rounded, modern person.” With Tim Robbins and a devilish Stephen Dillane rounding out the cast, the picture also contains delightful cameos by such New Wave alum as Charles Aznavour (Shoot The Piano Player) and Ana Karina, Godard’s frequent muse.

Though cut from new cloth, Demme’s film embraces Charade’s penchant for blending and bending genres. At its core, however, it is a romance which depends heavily on the audience’s investment in the relationship between Wahlberg and Newton. In his first interview with MM, Demme gives us the lowdown on Charlie, Roger Corman’s golden rules and what made Beloved the medicine audiences didn’t want to take.

Phillip Williams, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): What attracted you to The Truth About Charlie? Why do a remake of Charade?

Jonathan Demme (JD): I had finished Beloved and was working on a couple of scripts, and we screened Charade at the office one night for fun. As the picture unfolded, I thought what a splendid opportunity [it would be] to go to Paris and make a fresh, entertaining piece based on this movie. I knew that Universal held the rights to Charade and my working relationship has been with them for the last couple of years. The more I pictured Thandie Newton in situations like [the ones in the picture], the more excited I became.

I wanted to work with Thandie very badly after having such an exciting experience with her on Beloved. I think she is a brilliant, brilliant actress, and also a very extraordinary person. Those were the triggers: Thandie, Paris, and also the mixing of genres. I love mixing moods in movies. It’s one of the things that made Something Wild so enjoyable to me.

MM: There are a few playful links between Something Wild and Charlie. In both cases, of course, the lead character is named Charlie, and in both cases you actually brought your soundtrack playfully into the film by having the performer on-screen for the end credits. Were you thinking about Something Wild while making The Truth About Charlie?

JD: I wasn’t thinking about Something Wild much, but I was thinking about Shoot The Piano Player, which is a film I am madly in love with. It’s a film that I saw for the first time in 1965, when I was madly in love with movies already. It just turned me on my head. There was a particular moment where that happened, even: the two bad guys that are following Charlie, they get pulled over and one of them is put on the spot—the question is put to him, ‘Are you telling the truth?’ And he says, ‘I’m telling the truth, so help me God. And if I’m lying, may my mother fall dead.’ And the movie cuts to an old woman, clutching her chest and collapsing to the floor. I just thought, oh my God, look at what movies can do! In this kind of serious, tough, gripping, romantic melodrama, suddenly there’s a moment such as this!

I guess, by extension, that’s one of the things that made the New Wave movies so exciting to young cineastes like myself back in the ’60s when I was seeing them. [They had] this outrageous mixture of moods and genres. Charade is like that—I’m talking about the Stanley Donen one, which really did manage to be a terrific mystery, a terrific romance and a terrific black comedy… One of the things that I did want to emulate in The Truth About Charlie is that way that Charade, early on in the movie, signals that this is going to be a movie that will be one thing one minute and something else the next. In Charade a dead body comes rolling down the hill in the opening sequence and it cuts to a gun being aimed at Audrey Hepburn—with heavy, melodramatic music—and then a stream of water comes out…

MM:from a toy gun!

JD: We borrowed heavily from the original there. We have Charlie with the look of growing fear on his face backing away from the camera, and we cut to Thandie, apparently in a situation of jeopardy. She falls out of frame and is underwater, [when in fact] a little kid was backing her up to the swimming pool; she was playing with him.

MM: Were you concerned about being criticized for remaking a classic film?

JD: I’m not too concerned about that. Charade is Charade. We can see it at retrospectives for all times. We haven’t done anything to Charade; it’s just as fabulous as [it was] the year that Stanley Donen made it. Now there’s this other picture that would not have existed were it not for Charade—hopefully [one which] has a life all its own and is a pleasurable experience, too.

MM: Was there anything about the film you knew you wanted to change?

JD: The funny thing is that, as I watched the movie that night and we were all sitting around, I thought: what a cakewalk. You could just take this script and run out and shoot it. But you don’t want it to be a cakewalk by trying to duplicate everything the original did. I wanted to capture the spirit of Charade and have that same kind of playfulness, but I wanted to see if we could come up with our own fun way of treating certain aspects of Charade.

More than anything, I didn’t want to duplicate the relationship between Reggie (Audrey Hepburn) and Joshua (Cary Grant) at all. I thought, first of all, there’s no such thing as another Cary Grant, so I wanted to try and turn that totally upside down. [I wanted] to make the guy not elegant—make him a rough-edged, street smart, maybe boy-next-door type. Or maybe bad boy next door. And I wanted to have him be the one who quickly falls for her.

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