Jonathan Demme: 1998 Interview
by Adrian Wootton
The Guardian, Tuesday, November 10, 1998
Note: regrettably, Jonathan Demme passed away from Esophageal Cancer on April 26, 2017 (age 73) in Manhattan, New York
In a few minutes I'll ask you about Beloved, and about Storefront Hitchcock, but before I do I'd just like to do a little canter over some other parts of your career. I know you've talked a lot about your time in the Corman stable in the 1970s and your development through the work you did there and the movies you made with Roger Corman. I wanted to ask you about what the single most important thing was that you learnt from Roger Corman in terms of that background that really gave you the opportunity to become a director?
quote-leftI think it was probably that it was completely understood that if you didn't complete the days work on any given day that you would be replaced. That instilled in me a very strong discipline and a sense that first and foremost your priority was to keep the movie on schedule and on budget, and that's one way you get to stay on the job. That was very valuable. Roger also said something I'll never forget. He said that as far as he was concerned the formula for a director was 40 per cent artist, 60 per cent businessman. He also had a little pat speech that he'd give you before you did your first directing job, a lot of really good rules - stuff that most movie goers know anyway - just ways to keep the eye entertained, the value of well-motivated camera movement... that kind of thing. He was great. We called it the Roger Corman school of film technique. You really did learn on the job.
That was really quite an interesting period for US independent cinema in the 1970s, were you aware at the time that it was an exciting period, with all these directors coming out of that Corman stable, the people who went on to become really major film makers?
quote-leftI was really excited during that period of time making my Hell's Angel movies and my women in prison movies...
You cashed in...
quote-leftOf course now there's the book Raging Bulls and Easy Riders that documents that period. I think sometimes in a very unflattering way. I don't know if many people have read the book, but it seems sometimes like the writer is trying to see the downside of the filmmakers he was covering. I think that a lot of the people, like Hal Ashby, were a lot more complicated and a lot more magic going on in their lives and their work than the book indicated.
But yeah, it's funny, now that you mention it I can remember going to a theatre out there and seeing an almost finished version of Apocalypse Now and Westwood and being overwhelmed with excitement. But that's just what was going on because I was a young guy in town on a fluke making a movie for Roger Corman and then a couple more, and this was all going on. It was very heady.
And then in the '70s you left the Corman stable, and made a series of critically acclaimed - though not necessarily massive box-office - movies, things like Melvyn and Harold. They established you as a renowned filmmaker - I know Melvyn won a lot of awards at that time. But then you went on from there and had your first big studio experience with Swing Shift, which didn't work out terribly well I think. Is that right?
quote-leftIt turned out very poorly, yeah. We did a film and I hope that very few people here have seen it!
It's played a lot on British television I think
quote-leftOh great! Well, an extraordinary thing happened. We made this film and it told the story a certain kind of way and it was a very different kind of movie for Goldie Hawn to make. When the picture was finished and the studio looked at it, they perceived this great chemistry that existed between Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell - who had fallen in love while making the movie. So a very high profile Hollywood writer was brought in to rewrite the movie as more of a kind of Tracy and Hepburn film, a light romance. We had this hard-nosed feminist, all women together thing, and Kurt Russell was supposed to be a bastard, and suddenly all these scenes were being rewritten, and I found myself in a very awkward position because I had to co-operate with these new scenes. I actually had to shoot them, otherwise I would have been in violation of my contract, and so in order to protect the movie that I thought we were making I had to shoot these very bad scenes.
Finally we shot the scenes and had a screening for the Warner Brothers executives. Everybody trooped in, really proud of themselves because they had sort of made me do this, and we screened the movie for them. They saw the new scenes and they came out slightly pleased but also, probably, scratching their heads because it didn't quite work.
There was a preview that night and the editors and I had gone back to the cutting room and restored our version, so they all sat down in the theatre again and saw what they hated. I lost my control after that. I was called into the office the next day for a list of changes, and I told them then that I was finished with my work.
After Swing Shift you, well I won't say retreated, but you diversified in terms of not jumping into doing another feature film. Particularly in the 1980s, but I know you've continued to do this, you started making documentaries. What led you to start making documentaries? Because I think I'm right in saying that you hadn't done that many in the 1970s.
quote-leftI don't think of Storefront Hitchcock or Stop Making Sense as documentaries, I think of them more as performance films. I went to see a Talking Heads concert with Gary Getsman, who was the producer of Stop Making Sense and the executive producer of Storefront Hitchcock. What went through my head was that there was a movie waiting to be made here, which is also what I thought when I saw Robin perform for the first time a couple of years ago. I'm a real music enthusiast and I think it's exciting beyond description to work with a musical artist that you admire, and be filming and trying to capture his magic.
When you started making performance films did you develop any general principles for how to deal with them? It's very easy to make cliched rock movies and clichéd concert documentaries that are incredibly flat and non-atmospheric. It happens a lot on tv and video, but you manage to avoid those dangers. When you started making things like Stop Making Sense, how did you approach it?
quote-leftOne of the things that was great for David Byrne when we did Stop Making Sense was that David really got to design the lighting for the show - and by extension for the movie. He hadn't got to do everything he wanted to do lighting wise with the stage show because of the limitations of technology at that point. But David got a chance to work with Jordan Cronenweth who shot Blade Runner and was a great master of American cinematography, and he could do all the little tweakings and brushstrokes that he had dreamed of doing with the stage-show. Nobody goes to concerts or performances and spends the time looking at members of the audience or going backstage, so the trick is to try as you can on film to create as close a thing to a live experience as possible.
That has been a theme throughout your movies. What seems to be the aesthetic principle is that you're always looking for a straightforward shooting style, but actually in quite an original setting. Obviously in Stop Making Sense you had that, but it's the same with the Neil Young thing, the complex sessions, in terms of setting it in a studio and now you've got a storefront with Robin Hitchcock. Is that what you're looking for? Instead of actually doing tricks with different shooting angles, to try and find an interesting setting? It seems to be very common in your work. It's also true of the New Order, the wonderful Perfect Kiss video...
quote-leftOne of my favourite things in watching any performance on film is when there isn't a lot of cutting going on and when you get a chance to become really absorbed in the artist in hand. The same way we do, hopefully, at a concert, when we get a chance to really trip in to something that's happening on stage. Whether the singer's singing, or one of the other musicians is playing, we sort of stay there instead of cutting round with our eyes a lot.
Making a film with Robin I went back to the Roger Corman idea of trying to keep the camera moving and the interest sustained. If you're in a cramped space and you can't move the camera around a lot to keep the eyeball interested, then you should be able to cut and you should try to get a lot of angles to cut. With David Byrne and Talking Heads you had a whole stage full of musicians to cut to, so you were obliged to cut to a certain extent. With Robin it was basically 'there he is' - except for when Tim and Denny joined him - and it's just one guy and one guitar. That was challenging. We didn't want to do it just in one room, in an enclosed space, because the eye might get too familiar with the surroundings.
I recalled this wonderful Dutch theatre group, called The Squat Theatre, that had been in New York in the '70s and '80s, and they did their performances in a storefront space. Often you came in and just like in our film there would be a drape, and then they would find some excuse to open this drape and reveal the street. On one amazing night they did this piece called Mr Dead and Mrs Free. In New York City traffic they had this military jeep, with four soldiers in it, do a screaming U-turn in the middle of twenty third street. The jeep goes up on the sidewalk while people are walking by, the soldiers jump out of the jeep, run into the theatre, grab one of the characters in the play, put them in the jeep and then they're gone. You never see them again, and that was the most amazing moment in live theatre I've ever seen!
So when we were trying to think of how we'd make the Robin show have more going for it visually, we thought ah! Homage to The Squat Theatre.
How did you come to work with Robin? Had you known him for a long time?
quote-leftI knew his work on disc for a long time, and I had been quite an admirer but I'd never seen him live. Then my wife noticed that he was playing at a club near where we live in upstate New York one night a couple of years ago, and we went to see him. I was completely blown away by every aspect of his show and I approached him afterwards to see if he ever needed a director for a video or something like that, and told him that I would love to do it. We started talking and both agreed that it was absurd to do videos lip-synch, and that if we were going to do a video together then it should be a live performance video. Then we realised that if we were going have all the equipment there we might as well go to the trouble of doing the whole set, since it was such a terrific piece and Robin changes his character so many times. So we were up and running.
The people at Orion pictures - who are dearly missed - were very happy because there were a lot of Robin Hitchcock fans up there and they leapt on the idea.
... Can I go back to one thing and really reveal my inner guts for one second? I'm sitting here very calmly and telling you the Swing Shift story, and about how they took it away from me. For a filmmaker, in your professional life, it's hard to imagine anything more devastating, because you haven't just had your work taken away from you. You've worked on it for more than two years, first with writers, then through pre-production, then with the editors and the composers, etc. etc., so everybody else's work is being taken away. And the director is the kind of custodian of all the collaborative artists' good work and it is his job to maximise everybody's work and present it in the best way possible. So when they took this movie away and started chopping it up I knew that this would happen, so it wasn't the usual ego thing - like my God, they're going to take my movie away - it was also this investment of everybody else's hard work.
This high priced Hollywood writer - who I've never mentioned - came in and saw this as an opportunity to really endear himself to Warner Brothers, who were mad at him for a movie he did where he went grossly over budget. So this guy came in and started writing scenes but had some difficulty writing them and was taking time, and meanwhile this one thing that we had been planning to do stopped making sense. It was scheduled for three nights in the beginning of December and September rolls by and October was rolling by, and Bob (oops, sorry!) isn't providing the scenes... He was the second person they went to actually. Originally they went to Elaine May. This is on the up side actually. This was a great moment. Elaine May came to see the movie in its original form and then came to lunch with Goldie and Goldie's partner and I to - as far as Goldie and Warner Brothers were concerned - launch into things. Elaine May who I'd never met before, God bless her, came walking into the room and said: 'are you Jonathan? What a wonderful movie, it's fabulous! Are you guys out of your mind?' And they explained to her the vision of what the film could be, you know more of this Tracy and Hepburn kind of thing. And she said: 'well all these ideas sound great for some movie, but they go completely against the ecology of this movie as it now exists, and you'll never pull it off.' (I love that, the ecology of a movie!) But anyway, we did it and then this extraordinary thing happened. Finally these pages come in and they weren't very good, and the Warner Brothers executives, God bless 'em, are going 'ah, um, well jeez'. We knew there was going to be a scene in the living room and a scene in the kitchen and a scene in the backyard, and they all involve Goldie and Ed Harris (who played her husband) and Kurt, for some other scenes, but there are no details.
The scenes come in and we're two days away from when we're meant to be shooting and now the Warner Brothers guys say: 'Jonathan, what are we going to do.' And I'm like 'are you kidding. We'll throw them out, we'll forget the re-shoot, we've got a nice movie, let's get it out there.' And they say, 'oh, God, that's just typical of you.' So they push it back another week, right into the three nights when we're shooting, and it stops making sense. So now suddenly - as if it wasn't hideous enough before - I'm not going to be able to be there during the daytime preparing the nights' shoots. There was this one day where we got the days work done. But on the second day - there's this practice when if you're a director and you object to how things are going, you put your name upside down on the slate - I put my name upside down on the slate. Directors always hear about this upside down on the slate thing and you never know if it actually happens, and then one day your name is upside down on the slate! So we did that and we finished the shooting at six o'clock and then I jumped in the car. Ed Harris came with me, and we raced to the theatre and shot it. And the next morning I got up and started getting ready to do these re-shoots, and, all I can tell you, I don't know how I got there, but I just remember finding myself sitting in the bathtub at six thirty in the morning, just crying. I was just so low. But we continue shooting that day.
By this stage, all the Warner Brothers guys hate me so much now, and they come in and they're like, 'hum, it's going rather slow today, and you're meant to shoot about six pages of work. You may have to miss your shooting tonight if things don't speed up a little round here.' I'm doing a take and the whole directing thing was horrible. I'd turn to the actors and say, 'okay, actors, what are you going to do?' And then I'd turn to the cameraman. They'd fired my cameraman, Tak Fuji Moto because he didn't make the actors look young enough or something and the whole point of the re-shoot was to make everyone look younger. So I turn to Bill Fraker, another wonderful cameraman, and say, 'well Bill, any ideas on how to shoot this?' And he'd say, 'well we could...' And I'd say, 'actors how does that sound to you? Good, okay, great, let's set it up...' And that's my job.
So finally, it's about six o'clock. We're not finished and there's a certain amount of relishing going on on the sidelines because now I'm really going to pay, I'm not going to show up on my shooting on the other thing. Ed Harris, God bless him, sees what's going on and he says, 'oh Jesus, I've got a terrible headache, I've got to rap. I've got to get out of here'. So Ed walks out the door and I'm like 'it's a rap!' And I go running out and go rushing to my car, and there's Ed Harris in the car seat and says 'let's go!' So the movie gets made and they took Swing Shift away. They trashed the score, put the new scenes in, etc, and I was really depressed about all that. As joyful as I was about how Stop Making Sense had turned out, I remember more the horror of what can happen to you in this line of work. Not so much that stuff I was talking about but just seeing how tough people can be and how mean they can be to you. I didn't want to see that again. I went on a really lonely trip to the Caribbean and walked around on my own for a couple of weeks and decided that I would hope to continue making movies, but only with people I really liked. So that's my new rule, since 1984.
And has it worked out?
quote-leftIt's worked pretty good so far. I moved back to New York and made Stop Making Sense and so on. Anyway, that was a very long story and I apologise for going on. I had to get it off my chest.
I apologise for bringing back such painful memories! Just going back to documentaries for a second, you did start making documentaries around that time? - and you've made a lot of them, and executive produced a lot. You've talked about the aesthetics of making performance movies, how different for you are the aesthetics of making documentaries compared to fiction films. Do you use a completely different mind set? Is it freer? What rational do you employ?
quote-leftWell, you're out of there with the crew, and you're all out there for a particular reason which is hopefully to capture something really fascinating about the subject that you're pursuing. But what's interesting is that when you're doing a fictional film the whole aspiration most of the time is to try and make it as real as possible, but when you're making a documentary - I've discovered - you try and make reality as entertaining as possible. I like the difference.
I also love the absence of pressure, any kind of pressure, with documentaries. I know what Roger Corman's talking about when he says that a director has to be part businessman. Obviously if you're film is overtimed then you're not going to get the investment back, and you'll probably stop getting opportunities to do that business. With documentaries it's usually very minimal pressure. Everybody knows it's a documentary. It will probably be on television. Nobody expects it to set the box office on fire. Although we made a documentary a couple of years ago, an amazing documentary directed by Joe Meadow, Mandela, that we were convinced we had made a documentary that would finally blow the roof of theatres. It wound up not making any money in the theatres, even though we thought it was such a great story and Joe, and Angus Gibson who collaborated on it, had done such a magnificent job. Anyway, at least it made it into some theatres.
You say you changed where you lived, you adopted a new principle of working, and it obviously did pay off, because apart from making some of the best concert documentaries and other kinds of documentaries, your fictional film career appears to have gone from strength to strength. You have had massive blockbuster success with Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia. Has that success changed your approach to movie making in the way you select your projects or the kinds of pressures that are now upon you? Has the box office success and critical acclaim for those movies changed things for you. How come there was such a big gap between Philadelphia coming out and your next big movie?
quote-leftI think the biggest change in my filmmaking life was when I got married and started raising a family, probably quite late in my life as a guy in my forties. I suddenly didn't want to make a movie every year. I wanted to enjoy my life more. Movies were essentially my life, in a way, the great source of joy, but now I had another thing that was making me a little lazier. When Silence of the Lambs did well commercially it was more than anything. My partner Ed Sacks and I were just so relieved that finally we had made a movie that had made some money! At a certain point you've just made a lot of movies that have come in on budget and are pretty good or whatever, so you're given another shot, but they aren't making money. You get nervous. And certainly as a filmmaker I started thinking, 'what is it I'm not understanding here? Why can't any of these things achieve?' Cos I love them and believe in them etc. So it was just a relief when Silence of the Lambs did well, and when Philadelphia did well also it was an even greater relief.
In a funny way, instead of increasing any pressure I think that it kind of alleviated it. I think that the conventional wisdom is that if you make a movie that does quite well from time to time then you're allowed some bombs. So it sort of helped. I've come to a point, or a realisation - what with the family etc - that it's such hard work for such a long time when you make a picture. It's about two years from when you get involved in it at script level to when you say goodbye to it in the theatres, and I've realised that you've got to be very enthusiastic about it. As a director, you have to be really, really glad that you're there. It's just finding something that gives me the confidence just to satisfy myself and amuse myself is the trickiest thing. I don't think it's possible for me to pick a movie just because it's going to do well at the box office. I just don't have that knack.
Were you, along with your producer and your agent, deluged with scripts after the success of Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia? Was everybody trying to get you to make the next $60 or $70m motion picture?
quote-leftI wasn't deluged necessarily, but there were certainly a lot of opportunities, especially to do movies about serial killers!
You have now made, aside from Storefront Hitchcock, a big movie which has come out in the States but which we're going to see a little later on, perhaps at the beginning of next year, and that's Beloved. Could you tell us a little bit about that. What attracted you to Tony Morrison's novel and how you got involved in it? It's an incredibly famous novel, and I know that it's been very much a personal project of Oprah Winfrey's.
quote-leftOprah bought the book shortly after it came out, which was about 10 or 11 years ago. I got involved two years ago. I know that she had talked to other directors and that there had been other drafts of the script. When it came to me, two years ago at Christmas, I find it hard to believe that such an aggressively different kind of movie was actually going to be financed. That was one reaction I had. The movie deals with a very difficult subject, and it's not a subject that America is dying for opportunities to confront and that is the unresolved, tragic subject of slavery in our country. It's arguably a subject that the entire world has to come to terms with appropriately. It's not just that we were a colonial territory where slavery, this horrendous thing between the races, was acted out. It started in other hemispheres. It's a deep, challenging piece that just, to me, had incredibly emotional rewards. And also it's a ghost story and it has a deeply suspenseful, deeply disturbing, supernatural dimension to it.
The American history books - taught in our public school system - and most of the popular literature and movies rarely look at this amazing part of American history. An entire people were set free, in the sense that slavery was abolished, and then turned out in an extraordinarily hostile environment to create lives for themselves and future generations. So this great heroic initiative began on the part of the black race in America and there's just so little about that in this period that we call reconstruction. I just think that the light Toni Morrison shed on it, and the way she dived into this fresh terrain with such imagination was just an amazing opportunity for me as a filmmaker.
What was it like working with Oprah Winfrey when it was her project and she was going to be one of the main characters in it. She was effectively going to be the producer on the project. Did that lead to tensions or was it always a plain sailing relationship?
quote-leftThere were never creative tensions. Oprah is certainly one of the credited producers, and later, especially in the editing phase, her opinions and points of view came positively into play - along with her partner Kate Fortay, Ed Sackson, Gary Getson and the rest. We had a five person producing team working on the movie. Maybe that's why it's so long. It's two hours, forty minutes long and there's a lot to produce there for us! Oprah felt and rightly so, that with such an able team working on the producing that she could concentrate on the extraordinarily difficult task of bringing her character, Sethe, to life. As Beloved is unique to cinema there's never been a character like Sethe. Oprah doesn't act that much but she's incredibly gifted and as exciting an actor as anyone I've ever worked with, both with the ideas she brings to the table and her ability to change focus, she was a joy to work with. She was just so pleased to act her part that there was never a moment's aggravation whatsoever.
Well I think that's whetted everybody's appetites to see the film, but you're going to have to wait a little bit longer. I think at this moment, as time's running out, I think that it's time to throw the floor open to the audience.
Question one: How do you work with actors to create such strong performances?
quote-leftThank you for that question. What I do is I only work with actors who take full responsibility for their characters. There's never a moment in my process where I sit down and explain the character to the actor, I figure that that's their responsibility and their job. If they have any questions about their character from what they see in the script then that we should talk about beforehand, but other than that I like to go to the set and have the actors show up and start doing whatever it is they've prepared.
I like to start filming as quickly as possible. I like to get what the blocking is going to be like and then I like to start filming, rehearsing on film. It amazes me that so many directors rehearse so much - and with great effect I have to say - but I always have this terror that 'what if your actors do it perfect and you're not filming? What if they find exactly the best way to do it and you're sitting there waiting!' Where I do collaborate with the actor has more to do with ideas about a change this way or that way, an emphasis within the body of any particular scene, or maybe perceiving that doing it the crying way isn't working so suggesting doing it the laughing way. I also have a spoken agreement with the actors that this is okay with them. I very much want the actors to feel that they get to do the character the way they have prepared it, to their satisfaction on film. And they have to allow me to express a different way that I would like to see it done and they will do that wholeheartedly for me.
One of the reasons for that is that I feel that in terms of human relations this works better. Acting is by and far and away the toughest job, in terms of filmmaking and maybe even the arts. How they do it I don't know, but they have to be allowed to get their satisfaction. Since bringing that rule in and realising that the best way to get my way is to let them get their way too, I've sometimes discovered in the cutting room that hey, they were right. So I get to get my ideas out of my system and they get to get their ideas out of their system and in the cutting room we find out what works.
Question two: How do you go about choosing composers for your films and how do you decide that you're just going to use source music?
quote-leftI was a sort of rock journalist - whatever that is - in London in the late '60s. It was a very exciting time to be a rock journalist, and because I was writing these columns in the music magazines, I got the opportunity to be a musical co-ordinator for Irving Allen, who was an American producer based in London. He was just finishing a film called Eyewitness, with Mark Lester in it, and the producer decided that he wanted a contemporary, kind of rocky, soundtrack. So he hired this stoned-out rock journalist - me - to find some musicians or bands or what have you. So I went to two of my favourite bands: Kaleidoscope, which did a very lyrical, beautiful, lush, emotion-filled music and Vandergrab Generator. My idea was for Kaleidoscope to do the more romantic sequences in the movie, and Vandergrab Generator were real freak-outs so they could do the suspenseful, terrifying schemes. Ironically, that fact is that Kaleidoscope wound up doing stuff far freakier for the suspense scenes. So I don't know.
In terms of casting a composer, well, I wanted to work with David Byrne because we had such a good time doing Stop Making Sense together. I wanted to warm him up for Bertolucci so that he could get his Oscar nomination, so he did Married to the Mob.
With Beloved, I had been in touch with Rachel Portman because I admired her work so much, and it struck me as great that I'd have a woman to score Beloved. The irony there is that this movie is very much about motherhood, in addition to the other things, and Rachel ended up doing the score while pregnant and having the child and that whole process. It's wall to wall music, and so amazing what she did.
It's interesting though because a lot of noted directors, especially those who care so passionately about music as you do, can often work with the same composer over and over and over again, but you seem to have distinctly decided not to do that. Instead you've selected a composer per film and put source music and baroque music in it. That's quite uncommon for a director in some ways, because we know big directors - depending on scheduling - often work with the same people.
quote-leftWell I love to work again with someone who I've had a great experience with. In fact, Tak Fujimoto who shot Beloved is one such person. I think this is our 13th movie together or something like that. And I do love that, but I also feel that the only thing more gratifying than working with someone who you've worked well with is working with someone new and coming up with something great. Music's tricky too. I think cameramen are always looking for something different to do, but composers seem to have some kind of musical demon out of their system and looking for ways to do this. That probably doesn't make any sense at all. In fact I don't buy it. Next question...
Question three: When you're filming do you know you're onto a good thing?
quote-leftYou finish the days work and then you go onto dailies and see what you shot yesterday. Usually you go into dailies really tired from the day's work. You got up far too early, you've been working hard and you've had a lot of strain and stress. And if the dailies perk you up again and get you all excited and looking forward to the next day's work then you know you're onto something good. So I think that that's the best gage.
Also, while it's happening, the first three or four movies I made I was always so astonished that I had made it through the process and my name was on the movie. I never had any training as a director and had never aspired to be a director and kind of fell into it in strange kinds of ways, so I didn't really understand what directors were supposed to do. Over time I've come to understand that the trick of making really great movies is to try to find a script that has potential to be a splendid movie in one way or another and then working with fantastic people in all areas. The more you get into that trip, the more the director can relax and enjoy what is going on.
When we made Beloved, more than any other time previously, we got to a certain point in the day, and the cameras rolling, and you realise that there's theatre going on. I feel that I don't even have to wait for dailies now. If you find yourself transported by what's happening then it's got to be good. Well, you've got to believe that it's got to be good anyway.
Question four: Would you call yourself an independent filmmaker or would you sign the three-picture deal with Paramount if the money were right?
quote-leftYou mean if the money was really right? Well it's complicated. I think yes, yes, yes. I mean, Storefront Hitchcock was a Clinic Aesthetico production - that's a company I'm involved with and our office is paid for, is always being paid for, by one of the big movie studios. In return for that we have to go to them first with any idea that we find interesting - whether it's a script we come across or a story in a magazine, whatever. So long as it isn't tied up elsewhere, we're obliged to take it to Universal - currently that's whom we're working with. So I do have a deal like that, but there's no pressure to make a movie because of that. The pressure is to find something that can be a successful movie to justify the investment they make in keeping the office running all the time.
I think we're very independent though. We're developing a certain amount of exciting ideas for Universal - one with Paul Thomas Anderson (director of Boogie Nights) and various other people - and we're shooting a three million dollar, extremely independent movie in New York called The Opportunist, which Christopher Walken is starring in. And hey, we did Storefront Hitchcock and we make documentaries on videotape, so we do all kinds of stuff. I think we are as independent as they get, but we're also deeply enmeshed in the bowels of the industry, as well, because they pay our bills.
Question five: I love the book Beloved, but is the movie compromised at all because it has been made by such a big company like Bonovista?
quote-leftNot in the slightest. We were allowed to make exactly the movie - to the best of our ability - we wanted to make. There are two reasons for that. One of them is that this was a cherished project for Oprah Winfrey. Even Tony Morrison told her, you'll never make a movie out of this book, and I don't know why you want to buy it. Oprah was just utterly committed both to making the movie and playing the part. She has a tremendously successful television show of course in America, and that's all very involved with ABC and Disney. So, on one level, Oprah and what she does is such a corporate asset - in the best sense - for Disney and ABC that I can imagine few people there wondering whether to back Oprah's vision here or not! That's one thing.
The other thing is that the guy who was most responsible for running Disney films is a guy called Joe Roth, and he was desperate to make this movie. The only pressure we got from him was to make sure we gave it our collective best shot. So there was no tampering. This is it.
Question six: Do you have final cut?
quote-leftYes. It's a beautiful thing to have. Let me elaborate slightly on that. Being the kind of collaborative filmmaker that I am I really do believe that it's not just one person making a movie it's a whole bunch of people. My realisation is that other people can have ideas as good as mine and sometimes even better. So it's easy to be a sponge-like open receiver of good ideas when you have final cut, because you can take and choose what you want. After having the experience that I had with Swing Shift this is very important. The next film I made after that was at Orion Pictures - who aren't around anymore - and they were noted for giving an implicit final cut to filmmakers. Orion's thing was, we're financiers, you're the filmmaker, we trust you, and we don't give notes. Starting with Something Wild I had a de facto final cut anyway. And with the success of Silence of the Lambs, that we did for Orion, my agents were able to build this final cut into the contracts.
Question seven: Why do you make films?
quote-leftHey, it's what I do... Well, gosh I don't know. I feel that I need a deep answer to that. I suppose it's because I love movies. I love humanity and I'm fascinated with the way humanity gets at each other, in good ways and bad, and as a filmmaker it gives me the opportunity to trip out on that. I love visual things. It's a very exciting job to have.
I don't have an agenda, particularly, although from movie to movie there's a momentary agenda. I really wanted to make a movie that addressed the issue of Aids. A friend of mine, who I love very much, got Aids and it really got me in a very intense way how tough life was for people with Aids. Again Ed Saxon and Ron ... who wrote it had similar motivations to say something like that, and to say something about the unspeakable discrimination that was being visited on people with Aids who were up against a very heroic, tough struggle to begin with. With Beloved, I was given the opportunity to have very intense personal feelings about race relations and the state of racial affairs in my country and indeed the world. I had very strong feelings, so the chance to make a film that deals in an imaginative way with stuff you care tremendously about is a real high. It's a really amazing thing to be able to do.
And rock and roll is the lighter side in that sense...
quote-leftOne of the most significant scenes in any movie for me is in Sullivan's Travels when the director wants to make really meaningful movies. He winds up through a series of events taking a walk on the wild side and ends up imprisoned in this hideous work camp in the South and he's there and they show a movie that night. And he sees all these tragic, broken people laughing at the comedy on the screen, and he looks around and he realises that that's what he should have been doing all the time. There's no greater gift in this kind of field than to make people laugh their socks off.
Question eight: How much artistic control do you give your editors and how do you choose your editors?
quote-leftWell until Storefront Hitchcock and Beloved, I'd only worked with one editor since Melvyn and Harold days, which was about twenty years ago. This was an incredibly gifted editor named Craig McCay who is now directing - he's decided now, damn him, to direct!
I give the editor full creative control on the first cut and by the end of the editing process I know why exactly why every single cut is exactly on what frame it's on. The 'why cut there?' is such a huge question in the making of a movie. Why not sooner or why not later? At first I tried to give the editors a lot of notes about how I wanted them to put the scene together. But once you start working with gifted editors you can always get to see it the way you want to see it - because you're the director - but you only arguably get to see a very gifted editor's first take on this material that's coming in. So I long ago stopped doing that. Now I'm dying to see what the editor is doing to it. We discuss it now, and stand side by side and get a feel for it. I feel it's a director's job to question every take, unless it's really working great.
Question nine: Will we ever get to see the director's cut of Swing Shift?
quote-leftYou must have read that article in Sight and Sound. That was great! When Swing Shift came out the critics universally trashed it, even some of those critics that I particularly admired and even some that I had previously considered almost friends. This motif was running through the reviews: this guy looked as though he had some kind of promise, but looking at this thing, forget about it. And I thought, my God, if my work is bad, then trash me, but this isn't even my work. There was nothing I could say about it. You can't go whining to the press. But then somehow a videotape of the original - the scripted movie - found its way over to Sight and Sound and an article was written saying it was very good the original way. And it went to great pains to enumerate why it was much better than what Warner Brothers had done. But it will never be seen anywhere, because now the videotape's all faded out and the Warner Brothers post-production people trashed all the out takes and our version as soon as I lost control, so you'll just have to take my word for it that it was really something!
Question ten: What advice would you give film students if they really want to become a director?
quote-leftTo get their hands on a video camera and photograph things that interest them - either make up stories or find a subject. Become a filmmaker. The more radical people would say, if you can't buy one, steal one... whatever, but just start filming, because then you're a filmmaker. And if you've got something going on then you can get these things seen by agencies and production companies and it happens every day, somebody with that particular kind of drive ends up getting a chance to do it that way.
Question eleven: Did you look at Robin's concert video from the 1980s before you made Storefront Hitchcock?
quote-leftNo, I didn't want to pollute my thing. For me it isn't good to do that kind of research. In fact, when I did Silence of the Lambs I started watching the previous Thomas Harris movie which had Hannibal Lector in it and, not that it was good or bad, ten minutes into it I suddenly felt that I shouldn't be seeing it. It was the same with Storefront Hitchcock. We diligently tracked down all of Robin's videos and I started looking at them and again I thought I don't want to see these. I wanted the memory of what he was like in performance and do it as seems best at the time.
Question twelve: Are you interested in the new multi-media technology?
quote-leftNo. I know I should be, but no!
Question thirteen: What's happening with the Silence of the Lambs sequel?
quote-leftThomas Harris, author of Silence of the Lambs, has been working on his new book for the last seven or eight years.
It's been announced that it's coming out several times hasn't it?
quote-leftEvery couple of years, though it's not necessarily true. Thomas and I have become quite good friends and he's - amazingly - a very delightful man and I don't think that he would mind me telling you this story. I went to visit him in person before shooting the last scene of the movie, because I thought it really important to be as faithful as possible to that book. I thought that the book was so powerful and I didn't want to fall into the trap of trying to improve it in the making of the movie. Now the book ends in a certain kind of way. If you've read it you'll know that it just sort of wafts away. It hits a certain kind of climax with the confrontation between Jane Gum and Cherry Starly, and then there's a series of letters that are exchanged. It ends in a very fascinating way for a book but which wouldn't work, we didn't think, on film.
I had this idea of taking what the book did, which was that in the letters there was a very serious kind of threat to Doctor Chiltern, the former keeper of Doctor Lector, from Doctor Lector, so we tried to play on that. Ted Tally, the author of the screenplay, and I came up with this idea. But I felt that I didn't want to make this major departure and shoot the ending without Tom Harris's blessing. I'd spoken with him on the phone a couple of times. During our first conversation, I'd told him that when we were having the first cut of the movie he was invited to come and look at it because I'd value the author's criticism - because he'd be likely to be the toughest critic. And he said, 'don't take this the wrong way, I'm glad you're making the movie, but I'll probably never see it.' And I asked him why and he said an interesting thing. He said that he read in an interview with John Le Carre that after Le Carre saw Alec Guinness play Smiley that he could never write Smiley again. This was a character that he thought he would write for the rest of his life, but Alec Guinness had stolen Smiley from him. And he told me this in a very salutary way, because Harris likes to revisit his characters and he didn't want something like that to happen, especially in the hands of someone like Anthony Hopkins. So he gave us his blessing and decided he probably wasn't going to see the movie.
He was very soft-spoken on the telephone, a real Southern gentleman, and finally I phoned him up and said I need to come and see you, because I need to get permission to change the ending. So my wife and I went to visit him at his house in Miami Beach. We went outside and had a little food and were chatting, and he was very soft spoken and intense and interesting. And I finally said, 'by the way Tom, I need to talk to you about a possible change to the ending to the film.' And he says. 'I tell you what John, why don't we go to the rose garden and talk about this.' And he picks up these great big shears and says, 'well, John, you know, if you're going to make a departure from the book...'
And he told me an interesting thing. I told him that I pictured Hannibal Lector going to a tropical country, not unlike Haiti and he said the greatest thing. He said, 'well Jonathan, I'll tell you, I imagine Doctor Lecture going to somewhere in Europe. My image is of him strolling round the back streets of Florence or Munich, gazing in the windows of watchmakers. But I'll tell you, if he did go to the tropics he wouldn't sweat! So if you ever see the movie, you'll notice that everybody's expiring profusely in the last scene, except Doctor Lector. Anyway, those of us who made the first movie hope that we'll get the chance to make a movie of his work in progress, which may be finished in a year or so and which we believe includes Doctor Lector. But my hunch is that it won't be a straight sequel. I don't think that he's the kind of writer to do it that way.
What a tantalising prospect. I think we've got time for one last question.
Question fourteen: When you cast Tom Hanks in Philadelphia did you think that it was a gamble?
quote-leftI guess you mean a creative gamble because he'd essentially done lighter parts thus far. We got the script to a place where we felt we could go forward. Sony Pictures were our parent company at the time and financed the development of it. They were adamant that a movie that was going to be about Aids and homophobia in some way or other - subjects that they didn't think movie goers were hungering to visualise - really needed some kind of terrific acting and star power. The part that Denzel Washington played was written very much in the hope of attracting someone like Robin Williams or Bill Murray, someone with a comedic profile. We understood what we were up against in getting an audience for a movie about Aids so we thought that if we could get someone who could send a funny signal - and this character would certainly be amusing - that would be a step in the right direction.
We started seeing actors and a number of things happened. A lot of actors didn't really want to consider playing a gay man with Aids at that stage. So two things happened. One was that our producing partner, Gary, was on a plane with Denzel. He read the script and called up and said he wanted to play the part of Joe Miller, which really thrilled me. Denzel is obviously one of the great American actors and the idea of casting a black man in that part was fantastic. I got on the phone with Denzel and said that I was very excited by his interest but that we'd really envisaged a comedian playing the part, and he said, 'Jonathan, I'm hilarious!' And I said, 'this character was written picturing a white man, do you think we have to do any work on this script if we choose to cast you, in this movie about prejudice and what have you? And he said, 'do you?' And I heard myself say no, and he said, 'good, I don't either'.
But Denzel at that point couldn't get a movie off the ground on his own - well not on that subject anyway. Then we got a phone call that Tom Hanks was going to be in New York, where we were based, and he would love to come by, just for a general meeting. So we thought, great. And we were actually in the editing room, editing our latest Hade documentary, about the quest for democracy in Hade, and Tom came in. And we chatted a little bit, and then I walked him to the elevator and he told me he'd read the script for Philadelphia. I wasn't looking for someone like Tom at that time, but he said he'd read it and he'd love to throw his hat in the ring for the part of Andrew. By the way, he said, in case I thought that he'd be appropriate, his agents had been told that the price was not the object. So he was essentially saying that he wanted to play the part and he knew that we had to keep the price down because of the subject matter. By the time I got back to the cutting room from the elevator, I was thinking, my God, we can actually get this movie made.
I trusted that Hanks would be really good, but I have to say he was even better. I thought he was magnificent in the movie, and I never imagined him being as good as he was.
I think at that point, with that very interesting answer, we're going to have to wrap. But I still haven't asked you what the significance of the traffic cones is in Storefront Hitchcock.
quote-leftThat'll be revealed in the sequel to Storefront Hitchcock...
quote-leftI'd like to thank everyone for coming out on a school night. Thank you so much.
[a] © 1984 - Photo by Palm Pictures
[b] © 1991 - MGM
[c] ©_1991 - Twentieth Century Fox
[d] © 1998 - Touchstone Pictures
[e] © 2012 - Sony Pictures Classics