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

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MM: As you went into the shoot, did you have a sense of the sort of visual take you wanted to employ? Or did you choose your camera angles and so forth as you went along?

JD: It depends. I work a lot—and have for the past several pictures—with storyboard artists as much as possible up-front for any scenes with action or any kind of visual complexity to them. I love to have a plan going in. We may stick to the plan or we may [stray] from it, but at least we have a plan. If it’s other kinds of scenes—stuff not involving complicated visuals—then I love to go out and watch rehearsals and come up with the angles on the spot.

We went back and looked at tones of the Truffaut movies, especially A Woman Is A Woman, and there we saw something that we really loved: exterior scenes that look like news reels, like documentaries. There’s the real Paris, real Parisians on the street—no extras; a fantastic sense of the city. Also, we looked at the Wong Kar-Wai movies which are films that have obviously been inspired, in their way, by the New Wave, especially Godard. And we looked at Run Lola Run a lot; we were really excited by the use of subliminal flashes in that movie. So our picture has its own motif of impressions of what people are thinking.

MM: As part of a long list of directors who got their start with Roger Corman, do you still put the principles you learned from him to use?

JD: Roger’s golden rules, once they’re in your head (for me anyway) become just the way you think when you get out on the floor. So on the visual side of things, yes. All of Corman’s golden rules are exploited to a maximum in the New Wave films.

MM: What are his golden rules?

JD: Always be seeking ways to move the camera, because that keeps the viewer’s eye stimulated. He stresses that you make sure that the movement is well motivated… and if you’re in a situation where you can’t move the camera, get a variety of angles so that you can cut and keep the eye engaged through editing.

MM: You got to direct by producing films for Corman first?

JD: I produced two movies that Joe Viola directed: Angels: Hard As They Come, which was the motorcycle movie. Then we went to the Philippines and made The Hot Box. That was a deeply committed film about American nurses being kidnapped by a revolutionary movement and coming back radicalized and joining the revolution—and having lots of shower scenes along the way!

JD: When we were shooting The Hot Box we had really bad weather and fell very far behind schedule. It became necessary to have a second unit and I became the de facto second unit director. I went out with this wonderful young Filipino cameraman and a bunch of soldiers to do some battle shots and instantly fell in love with this process of making my own shots up.

When we returned to California, I asked Roger if I could have an opportunity to direct one myself and he said, ‘Okay, write a prison movie and we’ll see how that works out.’ And I wrote one, and that became Caged Heat. I did two other pictures for Roger: Crazy Mama and Fighting Mad, starring Peter Fonda.

It was a fantastic experience, working with Roger. Obviously he’s presenting you with these opportunities that would not have presented themselves under any other circumstances. I think he was a brilliant teacher and a great encourager. And also an honorable guy. I love Roger, for a myriad of reasons.

MM: Melvin and Howard came soon after that, did it not?

JD: Yes. I got a chance to do a non-exploitation movie with Citizens Band, which was a movie they were doing at Paramount. One day I saw the list of the 23 directors that had turned the script down. Paramount really wanted to make the movie because they thought that, with the CB craze at full steam, a CB movie could do very well.

Paul Brickman had written a really charming script, the conceit of which was that there were no car chases—none of the things you would expect from a CB movie. Instead it was very character-driven, with people talking to each other on their citizens band radios. Smokey and The Bandit made a billion dollars and we made nothing. [laughs] But it was a great chance to get into non-action material. I had fallen in love with the idea of directing actors and hungered to work much more with actors instead of action. It was a great cast. We had a great time doing it and we were invited to the New York Film Festival, despite the fact that the film tanked horrendously—and famously—at the box office.

MM: Then was Melvin and Howard your way to show that you could make a hit?

JD: In those days—and I don’t know if I’m talking about myself or the business—it seemed like if you had a chance to direct a good script and you did your best and it turned out well that, regardless of the outcome, you’d be okay. I still believe that the only way to advance your work is to seek out ways of doing good work. So with a screenplay like Melvin and Howard, I just wouldn’t have been concerned about ‘then one day it will be in movie theaters and people will have to go out and see it.’ [laughs] For me, it was just a great opportunity to go out and film a great script.

Melvin and Howard did better than Citizens Band did, but then again all movies have done better than Citizens Band! [laughs] But Melvin and Howard got a lot of notoriety: it won a lot of awards and was in different film festivals; it was good for everybody concerned.

MM: To me, Melvin and Howard is one of the classic films of the ’70s: it has the kind of pacing and very natural performances we saw much of then. The 1970s seemed to be a period when a certain type of film was being made, where a lot more of America’s story was being told.

JD: I know what you mean. That was when Five Easy Pieces was made. It was a time when there was a belief within the industry that any good picture—any really good picture—had the possibility of doing well at the box office. That’s why it was an exciting time.

I feel that there were two occasions where I had uniquely good luck in being able to make movies that, certainly on paper, were hard sells in terms of [generating] high end results: Melvin and Howard was one of them—the story of this very poor family in pursuit of the American Dream. The other one was Beloved, which is this harrowing look at our country’s legacy of slavery.

In both situations, I just thought I was so lucky to make them. With either of those pictures, it was never being made because it clearly has the makings of a blockbuster. They were both made because the material was unusually rich and there were important relationships involved in both situations.

MM: Were you surprised by the reception that Beloved received? It didn’t do as well as hoped for at the box office.

JD: It had a complicated reception. It’s funny, because I feel that what we’ve read about Beloved in magazines and the newspapers may present one perspective on how the movie fared and what the movie’s story was. But, the thing is, I love the movie and I’m so proud of it and I thank God and Walt Disney—and Oprah—that I was able to make that picture. I love that it’s part of our American movie literature, but I think that we ended up selling that picture with an evident degree of ‘it’s take your medicine time, America.’ I think the intentions behind that attitude were pure, but it probably just wasn’t a smart approach.

Also, the picture probably opened much too wide. If we had the opportunity to market it again, we would have been much more low-key about it: open it up smaller and give it a chance to find its audience.

MM: You moved back to New York after making Swing Shift in 1984. Was the move a result of your studio experience with that film, or something more complicated?

JD: Yes, I was laid very low by the turmoil of Swing Shift and I wanted to go home. [laughs] I guess
I needed to get out of town and freshen up a bit.

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