New York flmmaker Jonathan Demme is showing at LAFF the latest film in his Neil Young concert trilogy, "Neil Young Journeys" (June 29), which debuted at Toronto. Demme likes alternating the long gestation and production periods necessary for fiction films with micro-budget documentaries. But good features are hard to find. "I can't dream up tentpole movies," he says. "I see these movies, many of them wonderful, like 'Iron Man.' I could never do that! It's a question of the necessity and passion for filming real life."
His latest music doc, picked up before Toronto by Sony PIctures Classics, follows 2006's "Heart of Gold" and "Neil Young Trunk Show" in 2009. SPC also released Demme's "Jimmy Carter: Man from Plains" and "Rachel Getting Married." "I've known them since the Orion days," says Demme, with such films as "Married to the Mob" and "Miami Blues."
Later Young called Demme and told him he was finishing his album "Prairie Wind," which became the basis of their moving Nashville concert movie "Heart of Gold." "That show was never performed anywhere else, only the two nights," says Demme. "The whole thing was hand-crafted. It was just magic." The costumes and backdrops in the show were custom-made. Demme also shot four shows of the 40-city Chrome Dreams world tour for "Trunk Show." Warners has yet to release the DVD, says Demme: "It's frustrating."
Demme and Young reunited at Toronto's Massey Hall in May 2011. Young performed a mix of old and new songs solo with an acoustic and an electric guitar and three keyboard songs. "There was no nobody," says Demme.
But the director wanted to shoot more than a concert doc, so he took Young on the road in his 1956 Ford Crown Victoria from his home town of Omemee, Ontario to Toronto. "He makes me think of what wandering troubadors must have been like," says Demme. "Like a Shakespeare company going around with new material by the same author. He has an amazing team of people who make it possible. He's an authentic creator, confident performing; he doesn't censor himself."
Young is also a Lionel train enthusiast and an inventor on the side; he's inventing a new automobile as well as various sound systems. The WB CD for "Neil Young Journeys" includes eight songs from the Daniel Lanois-produced Le Noise album, and six are reworkings of classic songs.
Demme premiered another doc at Toronto last fall, POV doc "I'm Carolyn Parker." It came about after Demme had gone down to New Orleans four months after Hurricane Katrina to shoot portraits of several people coping in the hardest hit Holy Cross neighborhood in the lower 9th Ward, which was threatened with demolition by bulldozers. But some denizens insisted on moving back in, including Carolyn Parker, who Demme considers a true hero. "It's human and visual ecology," he says.
A 9th Ward priest introduced Demme to Parker (see clip below), bringing the filmmaker to her home. "She welcomes me into the house and that was it," he recalls.
It took a while for most people to move back into their neighborhoods. "There was little mobilization," says Demme. Over five years he got close to six families and "kept going until everyone was back in their houses." Demme was tracking them all, sometimes operating one of several digital cameras (one acquired at Walgreen's), sometimes with an extra cameraman. "It's very home-move-style," he says.
But Parker was ahead of the curve–so he focused on her "because she's the one who did it first, by herself. She did not have a strong family network. She's hilarious, profoundly spiritual, outrageous. She's a damned movie star." Parker had double knee replacements as she was rebuilding her home, living out of a Fema trailer, and was ripped off by contractors–but "she got justice," says Demme. "These are real life heroics."
Also on hand was Parker's 19-year-old daughter Kyra, who was on scholarship at Syracuse University and came home post-Katrina to help her mother rebuild. She ended up going to Tulane. Demme cast her as Anne Hathaway's sister-in-law in "Rachel Getting Married."
The editing of the POV documentary was "massive," admits Demme, who also fashioned five twenty minute segments for "New Home Movies" on the Tavis Smiley Show. He has no idea how much he spent on the movie, he says: "It's all written down somewhere."
Like many directors these days, Demme has ventured into television, shooting the excellent pilot for the recent CBS TV series "A Gifted Man," starring Patrick Wilson and Jennifer Ehle, which swiftly went downhill from there. And he has acquired the rights to a Stephen King's forthcoming Kennedy assassination novel "11/22/63."
[Photo courtesy of TIFF]