Jonathan Demme

Jonathan Demme seems like a better fit for a concert movie than most feature directors. Music has always played a crucial role in his films, and he’s been known to stop the plot to take in a choice live performance—or, in the case of Rachel Getting Married, half a dozen performances. From Stop Making Sense (1984), which remains one of the most influential performance films ever made, to Neil Young: Heart Of Gold (2006), Demme has balanced fidelity to the live performance with a cinematic eye, which is another way of saying that his concert movies are actual movies.

Neil Young Trunk Show marks the third time Demme has turned his cameras on Young, counting 1994’s promo-only Complex Sessions. Trunk Show comes only a few years after Heart Of Gold, but the former’s approach is vastly different from the latter’s cozy elegance. Touring behind Chrome Dreams II, the sequel to an album that has only been released in bootleg form, Young took the opportunity to exhume rarities he hadn’t played onstage in decades, and some he’d never even recorded. Demme matches his spontaneity, capturing two nights at Philadelphia’s Tower Theater with a minimum of fuss. The 82-minute movie covers fewer than a dozen songs, but it belies its brevity with a middle section that covers epic workouts of “Spirit Road” and “No Hidden Path.” Demme recently called The A.V. Club from his home in New York to talk about his newfound passion for documentaries, the side of Neil Young he didn’t capture with Heart Of Gold, and why he’s dying to use a dolly again.

The A.V. Club: It’s only been four years since Heart Of Gold. What drew you to filming Neil Young again in such a short time span?

Jonathan Demme: As much as I love acoustic Neil Young—and I do deeply—I may be more passionate about the electric. Luckily it’s not a contest, and we never have to make that choice. But Neil Young on an electric guitar—I feel like I’ve never seen or heard anything like it. So it was odd for me, given that predilection, to do the acoustic Neil Young movie. It doesn’t quite fit, as much as I adore it. So there’s a logic of this happening. For me, personally, it’s like, “Okay, yes! Beautiful! Now look at this.” The opportunity presented itself because they went on tour with that show. When we saw it in Philadelphia, it was probably two months or six weeks into the tour. And Elliot Roberts, Neil’s partner, called me up from Washington D.C. the night of the first show and said, “You should really come look at this, because it looks to me like we ought to film it.” So I went racing down, saw what he saw, and agreed it’d be insane not to film that. The visuals are so rich. The band is cooking it up so hot. So we filmed it. It wasn’t part of a plan. It wasn’t so we could edit from this month or that month. We shot it. Then we started cutting it, and I was doing lots of other things, so it took a while. Then we finally finished it, and at that stage of the game, we were like, “We should really try to release this.” And now, amazingly, we’re going into some nice movie theaters. I can’t believe it in this day and age: getting into cinemas with a music film.

AVC: All your concert films have strong visual elements. In the case of Stop Making Sense, they’re very much in line with what Talking Heads were doing at the time, but in Storefront Hitchcock, it’s a departure from Robyn Hitchcock’s live shows, which tend to be fairly bare-bones. Were the theatrical elements of Neil Young Trunk Show part of the picture before you got involved?

JD: They were. The lighting, that was designed by Peggy Eisenhauer, who is someone Neil found whose résumé was very much [in] Broadway musicals. That stuff never got onto a computer board. Those lighting cues, whatever we saw and filmed, was human-operated. Humans were making analog switches on the lights in response to the way it was playing. That’s so different. That’s got a real magic lurking in there somewhere, that vivid, old-fashioned Technicolor palette she was using. That struck me, and I sort of feel—as I look at the finished film now, I think there’s colors in the performance film that you don’t see on the screen. It’s extremely retro, in that regard, a certain kind of purity and richness, especially the reds. The reds are insane, aren’t they?

AVC: You said when the film premièred that you’d done as little as possible to alter the image in postproduction, including bypassing what can be a very extensive color-correction process.

JD: Two things happened. One was, on the visual side, this picture almost cut itself. We had a lot of great coverage of every song, and a wonderful editor. There was very little re-editing. We would do a pass and make a couple tweaks, and the song-by-song would never change. The order changed; what was in and out never changed. I just wanted the editing to be as spontaneous as the show felt. I thought what we wound up with in our Avid looked great. So the whole idea of deconstructing it all and doing an elaborate online [edit] and then transferring it to [film] negative… I thought, “I don’t even know what the future of music films in theaters is anyway. Why should we even bother making negatives and print transfer negatives and prints out of this thing? This is the digital age. It’s an analog theme, analog performance in a digital age. Let’s try to mess with this as little as possible.” Also, it was cheaper, frankly. That said, at the end of the day, [cinematographer] Declan Quinn persevered, went in, and did some incredible color correction. It really brought it closer to the exact beauty of what Peggy Eisenhauer had done, without losing the from-the-hip feeling that I had fallen in love with from our uncorrected dailies.

Musically, by the way, we also didn’t do a movie mix on this picture, like we did with Heart Of Gold. You cut usually to whatever the board mix was from the performance, and then you boil it down to guitar here, bass there, vocal there, and you literally start from scratch, and then you do your movie mix. And I didn’t want to do that here, either. Guys like Tim Mulligan, guys that have mixed the live shows, they’ve been working with Neil for a thousand years. They capture something that’s really fantastic there in the room. I didn’t want to mess with that. Neil did a pass where he did a tiny bit of tweaking or something, but the soundtrack that accompanies the movie is very much a live mix, and I think that’s really exciting too.

AVC: One of the best illustrations of how much sound mixing can change the feel of a film is the Blu-ray of Stop Making Sense, which offers both a live and a studio soundtrack. The difference is transformative in some places.

JD: I know Jerry Harrison had a big hand in doing all that for the Blu-ray. I was invited to participate, but I just thought “I don’t know what I would have to contribute to that kind of stuff.” It must be very odd to see it with the “improved mix” or whatever it was.

AVC: You’ve made several other performance films, including not just the concert movies, but also your film of Spalding Gray’s one-man stage show Swimming To Cambodia, and each one is distinct in terms of its approach to the material. How much does your vision come from your own experience in watching and listening to the artist, and how much is you approaching the artist and saying, “I want to film you. What do you want it to look like?”

JD: These pieces are all intensely collaborative, even if we wind up not talking about what we’re doing so much. The authorship of these things is utterly either Talking Heads or Spalding or Robyn Hitchcock, and I’m the one that gets to come in. I feel the aesthetic is, “How can a film compete with a great live performance?” You’re doomed to finish second. You just can’t, as best you try. But given that, how do you justify making a film of a live performance, and people watching that instead of or in addition to [the original]? Then you ask, “Why are we here?” We’re here for what’s coming out of their mouths, so we’re going to have a lot of close-ups. When you go to these performances, we get lost in the people. We get lost in Spalding Gray. We get lost in Neil, David [Byrne], and Robyn. So hopefully you’re not going to cut a lot. When we go to these performances, we don’t look at other people in the audience. We haven’t come to look at that. So when we film it, let’s not remind the movie viewer that there was also a live audience, because we’re trying to make them think “This performance was exclusively for your convenience on the screen.” So you wind up with a basic boilerplate aesthetic that I think probably applies—maybe slightly looser with Trunk Show, but not really. That’s my theory. Try to lose as gracefully as possible to the winning live performance.

AVC: At the time, the fact that Stop Making Sense doesn’t show the audience was greatly remarked upon.

JD: I know. That was groundbreaking at the time. I think it’s inarguably of value, reinforced, again—we’re trying to create an intense flow between you the viewer and the artist onstage. You mean that cutaway to that person in the audience was more interesting than what was going on onstage? Especially with a whole band to choose from, you never have enough screen time to spend on, say, Rick Rosas, Neil’s bass player. You wish you could cut to Rick more, but you can’t because you have to be on Neil a lot. So now you’re going to start cutting to the audience? I don’t think so. [Laughs.]

AVC: You could just do an entire Rick Rosas movie.

JD: [Laughs.] I like it. I like it.

AVC: Trunk Show features some shots of the audience, but they’re from the band’s perspective, rather than the conventional insert shots that are meant to indicate how the audience should be feeling at a given moment.

JD: There are audience shots. Luckily, there’s always going to be a musician in the foreground, but there’s probably more audience in Trunk Show than all my other performance [films] put together. And it’s funny, too, because I think another reason I think those who don’t like to use audience shots is that the enthusiasm level, the involvement level of the audience has to be really supreme to show that. That’s another reason not to cut to the audience, because you have to fight to find that thing that feels at one with what’s onstage. Here, in the audience shots, it doesn’t feel like everybody’s jumping around and stuff. I think some of the shots—I know at the end of “No Hidden Path,” I think you see a group of people by the stage staring in dumbfounded amazement during the last couple of seconds.

AVC: Going back at least as far as the Rust Never Sleeps tour, Neil Young has always had a very strong theatrical component to his stage shows, one that’s too eccentric to fit with his classic-rock image.

JD: It’s dramatic elements. And on his Trunk Show tour, he was using equipment as dramatic elements. It wasn’t strange, strange, cloaked monk-like figures in Rust Never Sleeps. By the way, when David Byrne did his research on concert movies, the concert movie he really loved was Rust Never Sleeps.

AVC: In the last decade or so, you’ve been alternating regularly between fiction and documentary films. What draws you back to shooting documentaries?

JD: I love the idea of documentaries. I love seeing documentaries, and I love making them. Documentaries are incredibly easy to shoot. The ease with which you can hear something’s going on, somebody’s going to be somewhere: That sounds so interesting. Pick up your camera and go. It may wind up being a little shaky, but you don’t even need a crew anymore. I feel like in this day and age, when good, in-depth information on any subject is harder and harder to come by, by virtue of where so much of journalism has gone, especially audiovisual journalism, I feel like I need to shoot documentaries about things that interest us. And maybe someday there will be a whole database where we can, in the watching, create our own documentary by watching footage that was shot and not edited.

I don’t really know what I’m talking about, but there’s going to be more and more ways to partake of documentary footage. So I love doing it. I’ve been shooting down in New Orleans since January ’06. I’ve been going down each season, and what started out as an academic, bearing-witness kind of idea of a year’s visits of people who were moving back to the hardest-hit neighborhoods has turned into now five years’ worth of footage on a dozen extraordinary Americans, who have done this amazing thing in the wake of the floods and gone back to the neighborhoods in spite of the differences, difficulties put in their way by the government at all levels. The more time you spend with anybody, the more interesting they get. It’s such a rich experience when you enter into a subject from a documentary point of view. It’s hard for fiction to compete with that.

AVC: Even in bad documentaries, you learn something. You can’t say that about poorly made feature films.

JD: It’s true, it’s true. And one day, the Internet will capitalize on the outtakes of great documentaries. Since we’re so interested in that, we’re so moved and enlightened by it, we can now tap into the outtakes and stuff. I love that idea, and it’s something I’m trying to get going with the Jacob Burns Film Center. It’s a great place. They show amazing movies, and they also have a very aggressive outreach into the schools. The people behind that place see film and filmmaking and learning film as a tremendous opportunity provider, especially for kids in budgetarily challenged schools. So there’s a lot of stuff going on, and one of the things I’m trying to do with my New Orleans footage is to have all the footage from—the Right To Return project is the overlaying thing—and let students come in and pick a character, pick a time frame, pick a theme, do whatever they want, and make their own documentary out of somebody else’s documentary footage. The Internet will provide that someday, I hope.

AVC: Even before Trunk Show was shown to the public, you were talking about the extra songs that were going to be on the DVD. Does having that extra outlet, knowing that when you cut things from the film, they can still find their way to an audience, affect the way you treat the theatrical film as a discrete object?

JD: Very much so. Those scenes, like in a fiction film, or in the case of a performance film, songs, scenes… There’s a scene, you just love it. And you want people to see it, but it’s not working to the benefit of the movie. You’re going to have to take it out. When I made Melvin And Howard, that was a classic example for me. We had such a long Melvin And Howard, and there were so many great scenes that we took out of there, and that was it. Nobody was ever going to see them. Now, there’s this extraordinary thing that in case people like the movie, and if they’re curious enough, they can see terrific work that everybody did. I think about that for the actors a lot, especially. I know on Manchurian Candidate, there were a lot of wonderful actors whose scenes got cut. They thought their scenes weren’t good, but it’s pacing, pacing, pacing. So now the deleted scenes, or bonus features, whatever you call it… To me, that’s the dearest friend a filmmaker ever had. It makes it easy to pull it out.

If it’s slowing the movie down, you’ve got to pull it out. It’s almost… It’s not a different version of the movie. I think this is very much the case with Trunk Show, which is very short. It’s that length because, as far as I’m concerned and as far as Glenn Allen, the editor, is concerned, we think this is a fantastic musical experience. There’s an implied narrative. There’s something guiding it. It’s jumping around too much, it’s not honoring the set list; it must be honoring something else. What it’s honoring is the experience. At the end of the day, “No Hidden Path,” the 20-minute song, the only place you can put that is in the center of the movie. You can’t start with it. You certainly can’t end a movie where people have been sitting there for an hour, and now they have to start at the beginning of “No Hidden Path.” We have an amazing chance to have that in the film, something unique. So you put it in the middle, and now all the song selections that precede “No Hidden Path” are designed to put you in just the right mood to accept, embrace, and get lost in “No Hidden Path.” Now, we kind of rush to your assistance, because this is like an arduous electric-guitar journey that you go on. So now we’re very anxious to get you on the right song to come down a little bit, and we’ll start to build up later so you can unleash for “Like A Hurricane,” which is where it ought to be, very close to the end. 

But it was easy to take stuff out. I gotta tell you, it’s not one of my favorite Neil songs, but his performance on “A Man Needs A Maid” that we have is just astonishing. He’s sitting there and he’s got whatever that really deep organ is on top of his piano. So he’s stacked keyboards, and he’s sitting there and playing one part of the song on the keyboard, and the other part of the song on this extraordinary organ with Phantom Of The Opera riffs. It’s mind-blowing. People must see that, if they like Neil, if they enjoy Trunk Show, then they get to see the other stuff too.

AVC: With concert films, the perception is that the real audience is on DVD in any case. The assumption is that they won’t do much business in theaters, but that most of the people who would buy a Neil Young album will buy a Neil Young DVD.

JD: Now, with DVD viewing, I guess people are still watching them as much, but they’re buying them less or something. I came to understand that all movies were seen—well, pre-Avatar—that the vast majority of people who watched any movie ultimately watched them on DVD. And nothing’s come along yet to replace DVD, has it? It’s all very strange.

AVC: The experience of making documentaries carried over to Rachel Getting Married, which was shot in a very offhanded, improvisational style. Was it a case of just wanting to work with a smaller and more flexible crew? There are so many characters in that movie, it seems like there must have been more people in front of the camera than behind it.

JD: Yes. It was indeed. The difference between that and the previous fiction film I did, which was The Manchurian Candidate, was just amazing. It was like a skeleton crew, but that said, there were a lot of people on the crew. There is a lot of help there. That was a procedural change. The fun there was to shoot a fiction while pretending we were shooting a documentary. That meant no rehearsal, no planned shots… You can only say “action” without any planned shot at all when you’ve got Declan Quinn’s eye on the eyepiece, because he’s going to do something great in the moment. He loves to shoot documentaries, and he knows dramatic film as well as anyone. So that was excellent, and it was very interesting too, because I loved certain of the Dogme films, and that amazing feeling you get from films like Dancer In The Dark, that extraordinary, unrehearsed feeling that you get on behalf of really strong drama. I love that, and I feel like with Rachel Getting Married, I’m kind of in the mood—I’m not sure what fiction may come my way if I have an opportunity to do that again, but I sort of feel like it’d be fun to get all stylish again and use a dolly and things.

AVC: You’ve talked about doing adapting Dave Eggers’ novel Zeitoun as an animated film, which would be the polar opposite in terms of style. 

JD: The plan to do Zeitoun, I think we will. That’s going to have the most stylish photography, with no limits on what you can shoot. The shot can be anything. I’m also working with Walter Mosley on what would be a 12-episode series based on his recent book, The Long Fall. When we do that, that’d be a chance to get the dolly out again. It’s really interesting for me how you shoot these things, what you’re trying to do, and what’s going on here. There’s a desire to make everything look really different. Every film deserves its own unique look. “What’s that going to be like, and what approach do you want to take?” I just, again, started with Dogme and independent American movies, and started to respect that off-handed—by the time we did Manchurian, we could have a lighting complement and an equipment complement, anything we wanted. Okay, now you can’t have them. Can you do something terrific without that stuff? Hope so. Now it’s kind of exciting. I’m open to anything, which is what I’m babbling about, I guess.

AVC: Silence Of The Lambs was a commercial watershed for you, but in retrospect, it also seems to have been the beginning of a more stylized period in your movies. Those screen-filling close-ups of Anthony Hopkins are unlike anything you’d done before. Was it a turning point for you to realize you could successfully shoot a movie in that style?

JD: As a film buff, like so many of us, I had always loved… One of the reasons I fell in love with Sam Fuller so quickly was the subjective camera. One of the things you love about Hitchcock: subjective camera, those high-styled scenes. So I liked that idea. As an on-the-job training filmmaker… I didn’t go to film school, so I’m still learning in public. If it worked for Hitchcock, maybe it could work for us. And there’s something very cool about taking from Hitchcock and Fuller. So we started playing around with subjective cameras with Melvin And Howard, and a little bit here and a little bit there. Then along came Silence Of The Lambs, and that seemed like, “This is why we’ve been playing with subjective camera. Let’s go for it.” Because they go inside each other’s heads. So we went for it. That, in a certain way, was a fulfilling experience. We had been pursuing a certain kind of style, a classic style: Roger Corman meets classic Hollywood shooting with a strong dose of subjective camera and a little seasoning of Martin Scorsese hand-held.

At that point, for Tak [Fujimoto] and me, things started getting a little more experimental. We started Beloved. We did a tremendous amount of subjective camera, but we wanted to make it more daring, or whatever I mean by that. By the time we got to Manchurian Candidate, we had a certain amount, but we started to move away from that more and more and more and try and get edgier somehow, and see what kind of energy we get from that. Because if you love a certain style, and you get to feel like, “Wow we really did it well that time,” then you want to do something different.

AVC: And now you feel like you’ve bounced back from Rachel Getting Married to a more stylized feel?

JD: Yeah, and I think there’s probably room for a really nice combo. A place where those feelings of the more throwaway style get combined with the other stuff. It’s so much fun to shoot these things. You have wonderful actors and gifted techs. It’s just really fantastic.

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