It’s often only following an IMDB visit that you identify a Jonathan Demme film, so dramatic are his shapeshifting abilities in genre, from documentary to crime comedy to political caper. Unlike Steven Soderbergh’s signature aesthetic touches to his output, Demme fashions a deep dive into characters and their complex dynamics instead. Since his schooling under Roger Corman and his first film “Caged Heat” in 1974, the director has helmed a string of classics –“Something Wild,” “Silence of the Lambs,” “Married To The Mob”–as well as remakes (“The Manchurian Candidate”), documentaries, and concert films (“Stop Making Sense”).
Those career peaks kept to the edges of Demme’s talk with fest curator Elvis Mitchell last week at this year’s LA Film Festival, though. Rather, the occasion–titled “Jonathan Demme: American Iconoclast”–touched on Demme’s social documentaries following both Occupy Wall Street and biologist-whistleblower Tyrone Hayes, and also his recent Henrik Ibsen adaptation “A Master Builder.” Just the last 15 minutes were dedicated to his latest mainstream offering, the Diablo Cody-penned, Meryl Streep-starring “Ricki and the Flash” that sees Streep playing a struggling rock musician trying to patch the relationship with her family.
To start off Mitchell provided his view of Demme’s standout signature, though: a straightforward, intimate look at “people making their way in the middle class.” Demme agreed with Mitchell, stating “I had a lot of tough jobs when I got out of high school, and I looked at people I was working with and discovered the dignity of labor,” he said. “As a moviegoer I love rooting for the underdog; in our patriarchal society if women are divided into underdogs and overlords, the patriarchy is still functioning very powerfully. So with women’s stories, I think we need to try that much harder, because they’re up against shit that men aren’t.”
The director pointed to “Silence of the Lambs” specifically as a prime example: “In order for this one young woman to save the life of another young woman, [Jodie Foster’s character] has to traverse a landscape filled with every kind of asshole man on the planet, including killers and bosses and cops. So that’s a big part of what makes that movie for me very special.”
Demme also said the ability to blend social awareness and research into his narratives has remained important. It was a technique that he learned from Corman, although “the requisite amount of nudity, humor, and violence” had to be included with the auteur first.
“With doing a prison movie [‘Caged Heat’] and finding out about lobotomies being performed for real, the whole idea of being able to put that into a movie meant a lot to me at the time. Now all these years later, as we’ve learned so many more of the details of just the horrendous state of affairs in American prisons and the penal industrial complex… as my son Brooklyn says, ‘It’s not about prison reform, what we need is a prison abolition.’ I’m proud that I made ‘Caged Heat’ but now I probably feel it a lot more,” Demme explained.
With such a focus on performance in front of these charged environments, casting a Demme film is absolutely key–down to the extra that’s glimpsed on-camera for two seconds. “It’s my favorite, favorite part,” the director said of the process. “It’s the mystical part of it…regardless of the size, if you’re going to cut to either the doctor for a moment or the guy pumping gas, [that character] for that moment own the movie.”
Demme also recounted a few interactions with his high-profile collaborators, and how they shaped his perspective of working with actors. On “Philadelphia,” Demme learned to trust Denzel Washington’s word after the actor convinced him to play Joe Miller, which was originally meant for a comedic actor like Robin Williams or Bill Murray specifically. And then, while working with Christopher Walken and finding trouble with his performance, Demme let Walken explain his acting style over drinks at a Holiday Inn bar.
“[Walken] said, ‘Here’s something you gotta understand about me: I’m Harry Hambone. I don’t act; I imitate people. So when I’m in my persona today, I’m Wally Cox. And when we do me in ‘Streetcar’ I will be Brando, and when we do ‘Importance of Being Earnest’ I will be Olivier.’ “
“I was like, ‘Oh…I can swing with that,’ ” Demme said. “[I realized to] just shut up and let the actors act. Create an atmosphere where they can really try everything out that they want to try. So by the time I got to Christopher it was an easy adjustment to make. I thought he was doing bad acting, but he had something in mind and it turned out to be a rich idea.”
As a finale Demme screened a scene from “Ricki and the Flash,” and it encapsulated much of what the director discussed about actors over the 90-minute talk. Featuring Meryl Streep onstage in a New York bar, singing a full rock-n-roll tune (captured live, no less), it instantly pulled us into the world of Streep’s character. “She fashioned all the songs to her vocal interpretation, there was nobody talking to her about that,” Demme said. “Her moves onstage are all what she wanted to do, and it thrills me to watch her play the character.” The clip made us firmly psyched for what’s to come when it’s released in August, but until then, a quick IMDB search should reveal about ten previously unknown projects of Demme’s to explore.