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One of Roger Corman's star apprentices, Jonathan Demme was a critic and publicist before he got involved with the legendary producer's New World Pictures, where he wrote and produced such lowdown fare as 1971's Angels As Hard As They Come and 1972's Black Mama, White Mama. Demme's quirky humanist touch was evident in his directorial debut, the 1974 women-in-prison classic Caged Heat, which brought humor, warmth, and a surprisingly progressive attitude to a sordid subgenre. But his critical and commercial breakthrough came in 1980, with the masterpiece Melvin And Howard, which turned the life of Howard Hughes beneficiary Melvin Dummar into a rich slice of Americana. Demme stumbled with the 1984 Hollywood comedy Swing Shift, which was notoriously mistreated and recut by Warner Bros., reportedly at the insistence of star Goldie Hawn. But he rebounded the same year with the groundbreaking Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense, the first of his superb performance documentaries, which also include 1987's Swimming To Cambodia (on Spalding Gray) and 1998's Storefront Hitchcock (on Robyn Hitchcock). Demme finished the '80s with two flavorful mid-budget comedies, 1986's Something Wild and 1988's Married To The Mob, but neither anticipated the scope and cultural impact of his work in the following decade. An unlikely choice to adapt Thomas Harris' grisly serial-killer thriller The Silence Of The Lambs, Demme steered the 1991 project to enormous success, but his next major film, 1993's Philadelphia, invited controversy from all sides by being the first big studio movie to openly address the AIDS crisis. Demme returned to adaptation in 1998 with his faithful rendering of Toni Morrison's Beloved. His latest project, The Truth About Charlie, is a remake of Charade, a classically elegant 1963 thriller that paired Audrey Hepburn with Cary Grant. Thandie Newton stars as a young American in Paris who's beset by thieves and secret agents when her mysterious husband is killed, leaving a hidden fortune behind. The Onion A.V. Club recently spoke to Demme about the Corman years, the French New Wave, and making movies for mass consumption.
The Onion: How did you come to work for Roger Corman? How did you convince him to give you a chance to direct a film?
Jonathan Demme: I was a publicist back in those days for United Artists, and they needed a unit publicist for a picture that Roger was going to direct called Von Richthofen And Brown [later known as 1971's The Red Baron –ed.]. I got the job, and as fate would have it, this was the exact moment in time when Roger was forming New World Pictures. This movie was being shot in Ireland, and he was desperately in need of scripts set in America. And there I was, this young American in Ireland. I remember him saying, "You write pretty good press material. Perhaps you could write a script for me." [Laughs.] So I teamed up with my friend Joe Viola, who was a commercial director, and we basically took Rashomon and rewrote it as a motorcycle movie. We showed it to Roger, who said to us, "Well, this is pretty good. Joe, you direct commercials. Jonathan, you're a bright young man. Why don't you guys come over and direct and produce it?" Three months later, I was in California, making my first movie [Angels As Hard As They Come]. It was never something I aspired to do, but he offered me that opportunity.
O: People always talk about the experience as attending the "Roger Corman School Of Filmmaking." What were the most important things you learned from him?
JD: He gave you kind of a visual credo–the importance of imaginative editing and imaginative camerawork in order to keep the eye involved, because if you lose the viewer's eye, you're going to lose the viewer's interest. He also stressed the importance of having as many characters as possible that are in every way just as interesting as your main characters, even if they get less screen time. He had his tried-and-true formula for audience success, which was equal parts action, sex, and comedy, with a little bit of social commentary thrown in for good measure, preferably from the left side of the coin.
O: How do you direct actors?
JD: I choose actors who are guaranteed to take full responsibility for their characters. Then I act as their accomplice, or guide, through the shooting of the story. I'm not a puppetmaster. I'm a collaborator. I don't like to rehearse in advance. I like to rehearse for the first time on the set, with the cameras rolling, because I believe in the potential of first discovery being the most magical take of any particular moment. And I have a lot of fun working with actors. I love it.
O: Does your philosophy about responsibility extend to other collaborators?
JD: Oh, absolutely. I need to know that everyone I'm involved with on a project is smarter and more imaginative than me in their given area.
O: Your films often have a lot of memorable faces on the fringes. Could you talk about the casting process, particularly how you cast the smaller roles?
JD: When we cast The Truth About Charlie, for example, we hired a casting director in France. But instead of casting specific people for specific parts, I requested that for my first two weeks in France, I wanted the casting director to bring her favorite actors in. These actors had to be willing to come in for a general meeting, with no particular part in mind, just so I could see what a lot of people looked like and when they would be available. As I met people, I started making notes to have such-and-such an actor come back to read for such-and-such a part. In two instances, actors came in, and I liked them so much that I actually invented parts for them. The French commandant's mustachioed sidekick... There was no such character in the script. But I met Simon Abkarian, that actor, and I was so galvanized by his presence that I asked if he would participate in a fun experiment: If he could show up for every scene that the commandant was in, we would find a nice place for him in that scene. Over the course of the film, hopefully we could develop a very interesting character. The other made-up role was the Mysterious Woman In Black, the widow, which didn't exist in the script and which is an even more difficult character to explain. But I met Magali Noël, who is a woman of extraordinary radiance and presence, someone we recognize from many Fellini movies and from Rififi, and who's been a well-established stage and screen actor for about 60 years in France. So I met her and was completely enchanted by her, and felt that it would be wonderful to have a character in the story by which we could judge Thandie's progress to finding the truth about Charlie.
O: Your work is so strongly associated with the American landscape that The Truth About Charlie seems like a bit of a curveball. How much did you know about Paris when you started shooting?
JD: Probably 80 to 90 percent of my impressions of Paris entering the picture came from a lifetime of watching French movies. [Laughs.] In that regard, The Truth About Charlie is an opportunity for me to acknowledge the incredibly important part that French movies have played in my movie-going life. My parents, God bless 'em, took me to French movies when I was a little kid. Even at 7 or 8, they'd take me to movies like Mr. Hulot's Holiday. During my brief moment in college, I discovered New Wave films and devoured years and years of the stuff. There was a period of my life when I was obsessed with Brigitte Bardot. I had a relationship with her. I missed Brigitte Bardot between Brigitte Bardot movies the way one misses a live person that you've got a crush on. All of these transitions of my life were marked with attachments to different kinds of French movies. So once I got over there, I was confronted with the "real" Paris of today, which is tremendously stimulating–it's as visual a city as exists anywhere. But also, the picture became a receptacle for all this love I have for French cinema and French culture and French folkways as perceived through the movies. [Laughs.]
O: The film has a complicated storyline, but the style seems very on-the-fly and New Wave-influenced, as you say. Was it difficult for you to find that balance?
JD: The way we approached shooting the picture was very much off-the-cuff in a certain sense. However, aspects of the visual side of the film, especially as it pertains to the presentation of the past, were scrupulously designed up front in concert with the cameraman, the production designer, a terrific French storyboard artist, a costume designer... An enormous amount of work went into how we were going to present the past, and this fundamental choice of shooting all the past in digital, so we could make a textual distinction between people's memories of events as they might have happened and the so-called reality of the present. But we did shoot very off-the-cuff, because we wanted to have a freewheeling, New Wave style. I enjoy that as a consumer. I love that approach, and I think it's underexploited when it comes to more mainstream projects. In terms of the complicated story, one of the differences between The Truth About Charlie and Charade is that our film chooses to give more screen time to the past, and even [Newton's character's] dead husband Charlie, who in the original is only seen once as a body tumbling off the train at the very beginning. Not even at his open-casket funeral, which is one of the classic scenes... It was one of the scenes in the original film that was so great, we couldn't begin to know how to redo it. That's the interesting thing about remaking a great picture: You find yourself saying, "No, we can't do that. It was too perfect. We have to do something different here." [Laughs.] We took a different approach to the cadaver, and we took a different approach to the orange-passing scene, which turns into a tango in our movie. Instead of seeing Cary Grant take a shower in his suit, we get to see Thandie Newton take a shower with no suit. [Laughs.]
O: Both the editing and the music cues are a lot more rapid-fire than your past work.
JD: I was really inspired by three pictures: Run Lola Run, Doug Liman's Go, and a Chinese movie called Suzhou River. I wanted to emulate the energy of certain pictures that had turned me on in many regards. I had the desire to tell a complicated story at a fast pace, which can be really entertaining. Also, our first cut of the film was muuuch longer and contained a muuuch more complicated story, told at a more traditional pace. In the editing, [editor] Carol Littleton and I would look at the movie and keep saying, "That's good, but it just ain't fast enough." We were allowing people a little too much time to think about this stuff. Finally, we arrived at what seemed to be the most exciting tempo for the movie. I also wanted it to have the feeling of a rock concert. We had an enormous amount of music, a lot of it rhythm-driven, in the movie. In the cutting room, I started to think of the story like a concert, which builds in momentum, then finds a place for a slower number, and then builds up again in intensity.
O: Since this is a major studio film, do you still have to go through the test-screening process?
JD: I think it would be foolish not to. This is intended to be a mass-consumption movie. It's a corporate product that's been designed, ultimately, to cater to "the masses." So we extensively tested it with preview audiences, and learned a lot from that process. We did show a longer version in three situations, and it played okay, but it clearly had some areas that we liked more than the audience did. I have final cut, so in theory, I could put out any version I want. But I want a lot of people to see the movie, and one terrific way of finding out how much folks are going to like it is to show it to recruited audiences. So I embrace that part of the process very much.
O: In your adaptations of books like Beloved or The Silence Of The Lambs, how do you remain faithful to the material while still asserting your personality? Where do you get the impulse to bring these books to film?
JD: I don't necessarily think it's the filmmaker's job to assert their personality. It's going to be reflected one way or another by how they choose to adapt it. I loved both of those books. I thought The Silence Of The Lambs was an absolutely brilliant book. The easiest way for me to understand the huge success of the movie starts with what a great book Thomas Harris wrote to begin with. He created those characters for Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins and Ted Levine to bring to life. As a filmmaker, I had the delicious job of being the moviegoing audience's representative at the place where the film version was now going to happen. Of course, I had my own ideas about the strengths of the book and how best to visualize them for the screen. Same thing with Beloved. In Beloved, there was zero invention: We didn't have to fix anything in the book, no gaping holes, no problems that had to be solved. The film is very faithful to the book, because we were all so inspired by the book that we simply transferred that inspiration to the screen. Silence Of The Lambs was essentially the same situation, except for the ending. Thomas Harris ended the book in a very meditative, poetic sort of way. This being a movie, we needed something a little bit more galvanizing as a sign-off, so we came up with the phone call and a glimpse of Dr. Lecter following Dr. Chilton off into the Caribbean sunset.
O: In the past, you've been heavily involved in Haiti, both in appreciating its cultural richness and in exposing its human-rights abuses. Are you still active there?
JD: I just finished cutting a documentary I've been working on for years called The Agronomist. It's a portrait of a great Haitian radio journalist and human-rights activist named Jean Dominique, who was assassinated on the steps of his radio station on April 3, 2000. He's a guy I met when I was making another documentary back in the '80s, and we became very good friends. When he was in exile in New York, I used to do extended video sessions with him, in which he'd tell his life story and the story of Haiti. After he was assassinated, I went back down in May of 2000 and shot a lot of footage with his family and friends, and I had been working on shaping this portrait of him while making The Truth About Charlie. His murder hasn't been solved yet. Incidentally, the police commandant in the film is named Jean Dominique, and the lieutenant with the mustache I told you about earlier is named Lt. Dessalines in honor of Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who was one of the great revolutionary heroes of Haiti. So my connection to Haiti remains very active. [Laughs.]