During the Marrakech Film Festival earlier this month we had a brief chat with director Jonathan Demme (“Stop Making Sense,” “The Silence of the Lambs,” “Rachel Getting Married,” “Neil Young Journeys,” etc.), who was in town to give one of the festival’s Masterclasses (Darren Aronofsky was among the other filmmakers to give one, you can read our coverage of his masterclass here). The first thing that struck us about Demme, however, was just how enthusiastic of a cinepile the veteran director is — it’s unusual to come across a person being so honored who is actually spending most of his time at the festival watching the films. As he said, “I’m a hardcore film buff and [love] going to a festival and just immersing myself in as many films as possible, especially films you may not get to see at the multiplex.”
He went on pretty much to school us, in his very affable way, in our own admittedly spotty knowledge of the festival lineup, especially its Moroccan showcase, before we regretfully realised that we were just kind of having a chat about movies and in fact not doing our job. Having asked about his now sadly defunct participation in the Stephen King adaptation “11/22/63″ (read about that here) we asked him about the next thing that, distribution allowing, we should see from him — the “My Dinner With Andre” sorta-reunion “This House We Live In,” which was, spoiler alert, formerly titled “Wally And Andre Shoot Ibsen.” In it, Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory reteam in a retelling of an Ibsen play (“The Master Builder” we guess, from the character names).
What stage is your “Wally and Andre“ project at now?
We’re in the thick of editing it right now. Tim Squires is editing it, I worked with him on “Rachel Getting Married“ and he just finished the “Life of Pi.” It will be done probably in March or April. It’s independently financed and we haven’t talked to any distributors yet, so it’s kind of this love child that is growing day by day.
With your recent focus on performance films, both concert movies and very performance-driven narrative pieces like “Rachel Getting Married“ — it seems like this might be a natural fit. Did it feel, for want of a better word, ‘easy’ to do?
It did feel easy — it’s a very New York phenomenon, the whole Andre Gregory/Wallace Shawn thing. Whether it’s “My Dinner With Andre” or “Vanya on 42nd Street,” this is a defining New York thread, so now I get to come and play with those guys.
So to me it feels in a line with “Swimming to Cambodia” and other pieces. At first we thought we might be filming the play, but it turned out we wanted to make a movie out of it. We also wanted to make that much more of a distinction between this piece and “Vanya on 42nd Street” which brilliantly filmed a play. So now we’re playing on film.
So it’s not about the play; the story of the film is the story of the play?
Yes, we’re immersed in the story. Our joke was it’s a little bit like the kind of low-budget horror movie that used to be filmed all in one house, and in fact there is something spooky about this piece. Declan Quinn shot it, who I’ve worked [with] on many things, we shot it on wide, widescreen to add… millions of dollars to the budget (or it seems to).
And how about “Old Fires” which is slated to be your next directorial outing?
That is the other thing I’m doing nowadays — working with the very gifted Heather McGowan (“Tadpole”) on her screenplay. It’s something that we’re hoping that we’ll have a script that we can go forward with in the next couple of months, with an eye towards making the film hopefully next year.
We hear it described as a “family drama”?
It is very much a family drama that centers around a middle-aged guy who emerges from a coma that he’s been in for many months and discovers that his family have kind of moved on from him, and he wants them back. He’s both the same person he was before the accident but he’s also in the lucky-to-be-alive club, and he’s fillled with a sense of wonder and is ready to change profoundly.
It sounds like a very juicy central role – have you anyone in mind for it?
No one specific yet, but it’s a great part. There are many great parts, but first we’re getting the script finished and then we have a very alluring list of candidates.
How about “Zeitoun,” based on the Dave Eggers novel?
I’ve been working on that for a couple of years as an animated film. It’s one that we have had difficulty getting development money for, and therefore we’ve taken the path of developing it ourselves, which means that we do it when we’re not working on paying things. But there’s an amazing animator named Charlie Griak from Minneapolis who’s developed a tremendous amount of extraordinary imagery based on the script that I’ve been writing, and so we continue to work on that and hopefully at some point it will all come together.
You’re also slated to produce a film called “Song One” with Anne Hathaway?
Well, I’m executive producing it, it’s written and directed by Kate Barker, a fantastic young filmmaker of short films prior to this. And it’s gonna be shot sometime next year and yes, it will star Anne Hathaway. It was kind of a wonderful thing because I was told by Anne and her partner Adam Shulman that they were interested in producing low-budget movies together, and I said “I know a really good script for you.” And Adam called back [immediately] and said “we’d love to produce this and by the way Annie would love to be in it, do you think Kate would consider her?”
That’s kind of a dream for a first-time feature director, especially considering next year it may well be “Oscar-winner Anne Hathaway”
I wouldn’t be surprised — just from what one sees in the trailer [for “Les Miserables“]. She’s a genius, she has the pipes… she’s a brilliant human being.
At this stage, you’ve shot so many concert movies and music videos that the musical aspect of your back catalogue almost matches the narrative. Can you tell us a little of your philosophy for shooting performance films?
Nothing beats a live performance. Nothing. If I film guys [performing live] and do really nice shots I think people might look at it and go “oh wow, I wish I’d been there” and I think that’s what concert films are up against — to somehow make the viewer NOT find themselves saying “I wish I had been there,” you want them saying “I’m thrilled to be here watching your movie.” But we [the filmmakers] can’t win [against the performance]. But we try our hardest to make films that at least beat the “wish I’d been there” syndrome. That’s why I never show audience shots. What you’re seeing on screen is for you, moviegoer.
Incidentally, some of the Marrakech films Demme gave his vociferous approval of were: “The Attack” reviewed here, Moroccan film “Horses of God,” which we did not catch up with yet, and “Mushrooming,” an Estonian film reviewed here.