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Q&A: Jonathan Demme on the Making of 'Neil Young Journeys'

'It became an opportunity to do something completely different from what we'd done before'

Jonathan Demme and Neil Young in Park City, Utah.
Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for Best Events
June 27, 2012 3:10 PM ET

Jonathan Demme can't get enough of Neil Young. The Academy Award-winning director recently completed Neil Young Journeys, his third feature-length documentary on the iconic folk-rocker, which mingles footage of Young alone onstage at Toronto's Massey hall with moving scenes of him driving through his childhood home of Omeeme, Ontario. It opens on Friday, June 29th, in New York and Los Angeles, then rolls out across the country all summer.

Demme is the acclaimed director of a long list of dramatic films, including 1991's horrific Silence of the Lambs and 2008's Rachel Getting Married – but music is never far from his mind. He collaborated with David Byrne on the classic Talking Heads concert film, Stop Making Sense, in 1984, and music is a crucial part of his dramatic movies, including 1993's Philadelphia, which features deeply emotional original songs from Young and Bruce Springsteen.

In 1995, Demme and Young followed their Philadelphia collaboration with The Complex Sessions, a five-song short film with Crazy Horse. Between 2006's Heart of Gold, 2009's Neil Young Trunk Show and now, Journeys, they've completed a trilogy of feature-length films that capture different phases of Young's work.

Demme, who just finished shooting an adaptation of Henrick Ibsen's The Master Builder with Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory (My Dinner With Andre), spoke to Rolling Stone about his love of music, Young's film director alter-ego Bernard Shakey and his long journey through the past with Young.

When did you first become aware of Neil Young and his music?
In the Sixties, when Buffalo Springfield came out. Like most young people, I was very engaged with contemporary music, especially because of the Beatles, which made everybody listen that much closer to everything. It was such a thrilling moment in popular music. And now, here's Buffalo Springfield, and they're great. And there's one particular individual in there – he wasn't singing too many of the songs, but he was writing these amazing songs, singing a little bit. I remember the Neil Young brand hitting me very hard immediately. He wasn't an acquired taste. I loved him immediately.

Buffalo Springfield broke up pretty fast.
They only put out three albums. I kind of despaired a little bit: "Oh, what, no more Springfield?" Then, bam, here comes the solo album, which was so amazing. I was a rock critic at that point. I lived in London and was a writer for a Boston-based alternative newspaper called Fusion. I reviewed Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young at the Albert Hall in '69. I read that [review] fairly recently, and I was very turned off by David Crosby talking too much, but then I was very turned on by Neil Young.

It seems like the last 20 years of his career are the most documented ones. Journeys is your third feature-length film with him.
The first one we did, Heart of Gold, really turned out well, and we got to know each other aesthetically and personally quite well. Trunk Show was not conceived as a movie. He had a great tour going, great lighting, great set, great song list, great band. That's a concert film. I don't think Journeys is a concert film – it's a performance film with a strong documentary component to it.

A couple of years later, he's touring with the [Le Noise] show. I was struck immediately by the magnitude of the sound in the context of one man, this grizzled maestro with electric guitars and other things, filling up these halls with this amazing music. And I thought, "There's never been a performance film like that before." So it became an opportunity to do something completely different from what we'd done before. And maybe we can add this other travel dimension to it. He's a great artist, a great entertainer, and endlessly desirable to see and hear.

Are you a fan of Bernard Shakey's work as a filmmaker?
I have a lot of respect for Bernard Shakey. I love Greendale. It's a wonderful American independent movie. It's fantastic. When David Byrne and I were getting ready to do Stop Making Sense, we were looking at concert films and trying to figure out how we could do a film that was different from all the rest, and also would be really good. For David, Rust Never Sleeps was the one he wanted to be as good as.

You do a lot of driving with Young in Journeys. How is he behind the wheel?
He's good. I don't know if you've driven a pre-power steering car lately, but those things are hard, man. They're physically demanding, and they don't respond really well. We started in little towns with serene back roads. We wound up on the freeway, and what was cute and charming in a Crown Victoria back in Omeeme, now becomes this bizarre relic amidst a stream of modern speeding cars. It wound up kind of poignant. I never thought I'd say to myself, "Oh, poor Neil." By the time he's in downtown Toronto in his charming old car, he looked really vulnerable.

For anyone who has listened to Neil Young's music, to actually see the "town in North Ontario" that he sings about in "Helpless" was fascinating.
I know! Whenever you heard that line, didn't you always picture something? It was very beautiful, whatever it was. And it was kind of amazing to get to that town in North Ontario and see, what do you know, it is gorgeous. It is dreamlike. And, amazingly, it's still here.

There is also a scene where you go to a childhood home of his, and all that's left is the lawn.
Yeah, and the symbolism of actually seeing the earthmovers right at work even as he's driving away. It's almost like, "You better get out of there, Neil, before they gobble you up like that old house."

How do you explain the powerful connection between film and music?
We're raised on these two incredible treats. We hear music coming over the radio first; we fall in love with music. We see television, and we fall in love with the moving image. A music film is what takes these two separate, wonderful experiences and marries them. I felt from time to time that shooting live music is the most purely cinematic thing you can do. Ideally, the cinema is becoming one with the music. There is little artifice involved. There's no acting. I love it.

It's also a big part in your dramatic films, like your use of the song "Goodbye Horses" in Silence of the Lambs, when the serial killer Buffalo Bill is primping in the mirror.
That song wasn't in the script. The first time I heard that song, I was doing the final mix on a "Sun City" video with Little Steven and [producer] Arthur Baker. We finished it up, and there was a blizzard going on in New York. Arthur and I got in a cab, and after we drop him off, the driver says to me, "Are you in the music business?" "Uh, not really." So she puts on "Goodbye Horses" going through a blizzard, and, "Oh my God, what is this and who are you?" She was an unsigned singer Q Lazzarus, and that song ended up in Silence of the Lambs. And I asked her to sing David Byrne's song "Heaven" at a party scene in Philadelphia.

It added so much depth to the moment.
Music has that potential. It can be like something that saves you in a scene that isn't working that great – the right music can make a weak scene acceptable. It can also add a whole other dimension to a scene. It can send it right into the ozone.

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