Jonathan Demme: Making Movies for Love, Not Money

In 1988, the director spoke with Rolling Stone about his humanistic approach to filmmaking

This story originally appeared in the May 19th, 1988 issue.

Jonathan Demme is taking questions from a couple hundred film buffs in a cramped downtown-Manhattan auditorium. He's rummaged up a funky-but-chic coat and tie for this occasion, the first evening of the Global Village Documentary Festival. The audience has just seen his 1987 videotape piece Haiti Dreams of Democracy. One fellow naively asks where the earnings will go. "We're a long way from profits on it," says Demme carefully. Then he flashes a kooky sideways grin and adds, "We sold it in Iceland for $632 recently."

This is definitely the same guy who bragged to The New York Times in 1977 his film Citizens Band had grossed $1.50 one afternoon in a Denver movie house. His career has given him every reason to feel that art is hard and commerce nearly impossible, yet he's hovered for some 10 years now as many people's Next Big Thing. His tender examination of American characters on the edge (like sad old Howard Hughes and his unlucky would-be heir in Melvin and Howard), his use of a vaudevillian parade of street performers and eccentrics, his almost unparalleled knack for infusing his soundtracks with apt pop music and his telling camera moves have established him as a contemporary master in the making. Even as he watched fellow originals (and pals) like Martin Scorsese and James McBride take a ride in the mainstream, Demme has been aiming for the hit that will give him more room to operate. His time may come this summer with the release of his screwball comedy Married to the Mob. Orion Pictures is plotting a broad nationwide release for it, despite having foundered with that strategy on Demme's 1986 film Something Wild – a critics' darling that only broke even. Whatever happens at the ticket windows, Married should reinforce Demme's status as someone special – a filmmaker who counts, and is counted among the very best contemporary directors.

He also stands apart in his demonstrated commitment to causes. It's virtually a Directors Guild bylaw that members should be able to talk a good game, but Demme backs up his near obsession with Haiti with his own time and sweat. Four days after the festival screening, he is off to Port-au-Prince, stealing time from Married's postproduction work to spend a week scouting topics and locales for another, more ambitious documentary. Another project is an organization called Filmmakers United Against Apartheid, which he and Scorsese founded last year. They have been joined by a long roster that includes Woody Allen, Bernardo Bertolucci and Paul Newman, all of whom have pledged to resist distribution of their films in South Africa. 

Haiti Dreams of Democracy, codirected with the veteran documentarian Jo Menell, was shown on Britain's Channel 4, but PBS executives reportedly found it too eccentric for American viewers. (The Bravo channel aired it in February.) Music, politics, voodoo and peasant life mingle in Dreams, interspersed with footage of scary street action around the time of Baby Doc Duvalier's hasty flight, in 1986. Much of the latter was shot by the Haitian filmmaker Jean Fabius, who is also present at the Global Village screening. When Demme ushers him to the microphone during the question-and-answer session, Fabius is not shy about describing present-day Haiti as a country "run by a bunch of thugs backed by the Reagan administration." Demme doesn't interrupt this preaching to the converted, but as soon as he's asked a question, he rounds off the session with the deft irony that so often stamps his films. The "hero" of the next documentary, he says, may well be the hardy indigenous Haitian pig, which is currently being eradicated as a side effect of U.S. aid programs – "the cochon créole, this incredible little pig that has been almost completely exterminated down there to be replaced by our wonderful, fat, pink Iowa pigs that have to live in concrete houses and have five showers a day and an air-conditioning system." It's the kind of emblematic absurdity Demme uses to fuel his modern-day parables, and it demonstrates another of Demme the craftsman's talents. It gets a laugh.

It's providential that Jonathan Demme chose the frenetic trade of directing films, because his personal manner would be shamefully wasted in a milieu that didn't permit full expression of his fits and bouts of jazzed enthusiasm. His gleefully untidy movies, antidotes to our sour epoch, sprout directly from his personality. Stalking his gaily painted Manhattan office, five stories over Broadway, or race-walking across the street to his editing room, he italicizes at least one word per sentence when he's describing the people and things dear to him – and these are many. His brush-cut hair and cockeyed buoyancy make him seem considerably younger than his 44 years, and though there's no questioning his sincerity, one recognizes in his affability a slight distancing factor. His movies suggest that there's a sick-grinning demon somewhere in the attic of most psyches, and certainly with a person of Demme's almost Nabokovian articulateness and wit, there are interesting private chambers on the second story. But acquaintances and even colleagues admit they may never get beyond that big, sunlit, colorful ground floor. All this makes Demme an exemplary co-worker. "He delivers everything with a large dose of sugar," says frequent collaborator David Byrne. "Then he slips in whatever criticism or whatever might be more unpleasant. His enthusiasm is really contagious."

"He delivers everything with a large dose of sugar," says David Byrne. "Then he slips in whatever criticism or whatever might be more unpleasant. His enthusiasm is really contagious."

Demme spent 10 years of married life with filmmaking colleague Evelyn Purcell, eating and drinking cinema, so it's interesting that Joanne Howard, the artist he married last July, came from well outside the business. Demme has revealed that they met at a preview screening of Scorsese's film The Color of Money, so upon meeting her, one asks if she frequently went to such screenings. She's an attractive blonde with an easy, sweet laugh, a laugh that mixes in with her answer: "I had never been to one before." Unlike, say, 99.5 percent of those attending the preview that night, she had never heard her future husband's name. Demme the suitor presumably having approximately the same wattage as Demme the filmmaker, their marriage, in upstate New York, came nine months later. Their daughter, Ramona, was born in January 1988. "I had probably thought, without a lot of remorse or anything, I'd miss the boat – and wasn't that interesting, one of those people who never will have a kid," Demme says. "And then suddenly this comes into my life. You get a great thrill out of making a picture, but …" He sweeps a hand and does one of his big-eyed takes to show his contentment. 

The overstuffed suite Demme keeps as an office is dubbed Clinica Estetico (what we gringos call a beauty shop), painted in a riot of Haitian motifs and equipped with outsize, knock-kneed, low-slung furniture that Joanne (whose own somber nature studies compete with "tons" of Haitian paintings in their lower-Manhattan loft) figures to be suited to either giants or midgets. Ed Saxon, the coproducer of Married, is next door finagling permissions for another eclectic soundtrack, and there is desk space for two upcoming projects: Continental Drift, an adaptation of the Russell Banks novel wherein the fate of Haitian refugees is intertwined with one man's American tragedy, and King of the Cannibal Islands, an adaptation of Herman Melville's Typee, renamed after a popular ditty of the period. 

But Demme's current fixation is Married to the Mob. What's got him both elated and jumpy, as he labors on the matching of sound and image called the scratch mix, is that it smells like a hit. Hollywood may actually be rooting him on by now; when five foreign-born directors take the Best Picture Oscar nominations, you start to ask what we're doing wrong with our homegrown talent. 

Demme works his long daily shifts on nicotine and seltzer. Beseeched to order lunch as he and two sound editors lean in on a tiny movie screen, he turns his full friendly voltage on an assistant holding the menu from a local deli. "Give me one of their fabulous tuna sandwiches," he says, italicizing once again. Then he leans back in, and it's clear from the almost mournful way the assistant asks the followup sourdough-pita-or-rye question that the answer is not expected in this lifetime. 

"I don't love the tango as much I thought I would," Demme says to music editor Suzana Peric as they watch Tony, the likable mobster played by Dean Stockwell, parade down a courthouse corridor with the press in tow. "Maybe we should bring in Tony's theme," he adds, referring to a synthesized saxophone melody composed by Byrne, part of a score in progress. 

That choice made, Demme virtually skates around the corner to the big electronic console where film editor Craig McKay (a creative partner since Melvin and Howard) is at work, updates him on the change, methodically if distractedly carries an ashtray to the garbage can and empties it, asks a second assistant to seek out a fresh six-pack of seltzer (he whispers the request with a chaste, apologetic hug, as if he's asked her to fetch six cinder blocks) and sits alongside McKay to take another look at the scene in question. "David will design something truly spectacular for the final mix," he says. 

As often happens with greatly talented but independent artists, Demme has been discovered – and covered back over – several times. He was a twenty-seven-year-old freelance film publicist when B-movie king Roger Corman set him to work scripting a biker pic called Angels Hard as They Come, then quickly moved him into producing and directing (Caged Heat). Studio execs at Paramount saw promise in Demme, and they hired him to direct 1977's Citizens Band, which stiffed, got re-released as Handle with Care and stiffed again so mightily that Demme became a hard-core unemployable. (Albeit a critics' favorite. "I'm convinced it was the public that flopped," wrote Vincent Canby of The New York Times.) The meetings he'd been having after his Corman successes, he says, "dwindled to practically zero, and the few I had were from people fascinated to know what it was like to have made such a flop." 

He rolled another gutter ball in 1979 with a Roy Scheider suspense vehicle called Last Embrace, but Thom Mount, who was then head of Universal, had already signed him for Melvin and Howard. The lyrical 1980 fable about billionaire Howard Hughes and the man who claimed to be his chief heir has nudged its way in among American classics – "an almost flawless act of sympathetic imagination," wrote New Yorker critic Pauline Kael. Paul Le-Mat and Jason Robards, playing the movie's title characters, were heart-warming, and Mary Steenburgen, who played Melvin's sweetly anguished wife Lynda, won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar. 

Various ill-fated development deals meant that it took four years for Demme's next project to emerge – the hugely troubled Swing Shift. The movie that opened in 1984 was a hybrid version whose last third was mainly composed of material added according to the specifications of its star and executive producer, Goldie Hawn, who, backed by the studio, insisted on a more emphatic love story between her and costar Kurt Russell. By the time that picture lurched into the marketplace, Demme had filmed Stop Making Sense, an innovative 90 minutes of Talking Heads in concert that brought critics, fans and hip Hollywood-establishment types to simultaneous orgasm. Demme brought Orion the script for Something Wild, in which Melanie Griffith's psychopathic vamp drags Jeff Daniels's befuddled businessman into a confrontation with the violent ex-con played by Ray Liotta, who gave one of the most talked-about performances of the year. Box office was just fair. But as far as critics and the growing cult were concerned, Demme had hit bingo again. (They also loved his subsequent crafty job with Spalding Gray's Swimming to Cambodia, which was aimed straight at the art houses.) 

Married to the Mob now bids to be the pivotal film in Demme's career; word from early screenings is that Michelle Pfeiffer's turn as a Mob wife in flight from her past life clicks nicely with Matthew Modine's role as the young FBI man thrown together with her. A look at a couple of work reels reveals Dean Stockwell to be the paragon of reptilian charm as a mobster, and little-known Mercedes Ruehl, alternately yowling and purring as Stockwell's wife, should steal her share of scenes.

This all adds up to more acting glory than an offbeat auteur is expected to provide, but those who know Demme best seem to agree that one of the secrets of his talent is that he's an appallingly nice man. "This is a guy who got burnt – you know? – got burnt a number of times," says Orion executive vice-president Mike Medavoy. "He could have wound up very bitter. And yet he's not that kind of person. He's a very gentle, kind human being." 

Joe Viola, executive story editor of Cagney and Lacey, worked with Demme on three Corman flicks and has been a buddy for nearly 20 years. He says that when "the thumbscrews were being applied" to Demme during editing battles on Swing Shift, the two would take long walks around L.A. parking lots. "He was just trying to keep a perspective – which he always does anyway," Viola says. "Intellectual simplicity and honesty has always been the motor. He's always had the quality of basic, extraordinary goodness, and whimsy. It's hard to think of anybody who really knows him who has anything other than these embarrassingly warm feelings about him." 

Jonathan Demme was born on February 22nd, 1944, in Rockville Centre, New York, at Mercy Hospital (in that quieter era on Long Island, the hospital's nuns raised vegetables for their patients on a plot out back). Thanks to his father's publicity job with an airline, his parents could indulge their shared wanderlust, which young Demme caught. His parents, says Demme, "traveled a lot in the Caribbean. They loved it – took me on a trip to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands when I was seven. I remember when they would come back talking about Haiti, so I think that [his current fixation] may have something to do with seeds planted long, long ago." His father got a job doing publicity for the Fontainebleau Hotel, and the family moved to Miami for Jonathan's high-school years, after which he enrolled at the University of Florida at Gainesville. He planned to become a veterinarian until he crashed and burned in his science courses. He'd been writing film reviews for the college paper, and upon dropping out, he began doing them for a local weekly. Something like luck took over when his father showed Jonathan's rave review of Zulu to the movie's producer, Joseph E. Levine, who gave the lad a job in Embassy Pictures' publicity department in Manhattan. 

By the mid-Sixties, Demme was subsisting in Manhattan on various hustles – doing publicity, writing movie and music reviews, working in film distribution and making his own short subjects. When Joe Viola's brother Al began a business repping American commercial directors in London, Demme went to work for him there, while continuing to do P.R. for United Artists. The next year he was assigned to be the publicist on Roger Corman's film Von Richthofen and Brown. Hungry for scripts for his fledgling New World Pictures, Corman invited Demme to write a biker story, and when Demme and co-writer Joe Viola dropped the story off at the London Hilton, where Corman was staying, Corman asked Demme to produce and Viola to direct the movie. Released in 1971, Angels Hard as They Come, which was loosely based on Kurosawa's classic Rashomon, numbered Scott Glenn and Gary Busey among its cast and took a critical scolding from Variety for its "violence, gutter language and sex." But it made Demme a favored Corman protégé. "I've always been impressed with the vitality Jonathan brings to his work," says Corman. "There's an honesty, and he seems to very much understand American mores in the second half of the 20th Century." 

Though Demme and Viola were on a career roll, their friendship was well tested, says Viola, when Corman set them loose in the Philippines to make a picture called The Hot Box. "Ostensibly about revolution," says Viola, "but really about four fabulous-looking young ladies we'd brought from L.A. We'd get them out of their clothes so they could speak about revolution and wet themselves in streams – and in other naked ablutions." (Though he was briefly the tool of B-movie exploitation, Demme would, in time, be reformed into a virtual feminist.) 

Demme's eye for the telling oddity will always be with him, says Viola. He remembers the day Demme turned up with a dwarf at The Hot Box shoot. "We needed a guy to be the victim of tyrannical cops," says Viola. "We wrote it as a kind of older guy, traditional victim. And here we were literally in the middle of the jungle, this car pulls up, and out steps this wonderful, very profane little guy. Jon proceeds to tell me how he saw the guy standing at the side of the road with a big grin on his face and a minute later he was offering him a part in the movie – and he was wonderful. Jonathan's instincts are always so correct in that he sees in people that sense of character and knows exactly where to place that – usually in a whimsical moment. Something Wild is the perfect example. That trip is so full of revelation and whimsy ... moments that seemingly have nothing to do with the plot but everything to do with defining the mentality of the character. Married to the Mob is a distillation of that style. He refuses not to be able to make these comments about how rich the tapestry always is." 

In 1974, Demme asked Corman for the chance to direct. "In typical Corman fashion," says Demme, "he said, 'OK, write a women's-prison script.' It turned out to be Caged Heat. At the end of the first day, I couldn't believe I had made it through a day of directing." He brought the picture in for $181,000; by the end of its first weekend, it had grossed a million and a half dollars and was soon a monster drive-in hit. Demme's first wife, Australian-born Evelyn Purcell, was producer. "We functioned incredibly well as a producing-directing team," Demme says, then drops the only the only hint he'll offer as to why they later divorced: "May have functioned too well as a directing-producing team." 

With Caged Heat, Demme the activist appeared. Rife though it may be with gratuitous shots of female inmates in the showers, the picture portrays, with grim wit, a series of psychosurgical operations performed by a crackpot prison doctor under the direction of the female warden, Pinter. "I can't tell you," says Demme, "how passionate we were about this idea of exposing to kids in drive-ins the kind of stuff that was happening in American correctional institutions – the behavior modification through surgery." 

The next film Demme was slated to direct was Fighting Mad, in which Peter Fonda goes up against strip miners, but Corman cajoled Demme into first taking over Crazy Mama 10 days before shooting was to start. Demme took the job (on the condition Purcell be allowed to shoot second-unit footage) and winged it. 

By the time he branched off from Corman in 1977 to do Citizens Band, Demme was seasoned, with a maturing vision of heartland America that his mentor Corman still admires for its uniqueness. Corman hints that certain of his protégés, after early success, have readily bought into the industry ethos Demme still skirts: "Jonathan has stayed, I believe deliberately, a little bit away from the mainstream," he says. 

Citizens Band balances a certain titillation with keen vignettes about small-town America, with Paul LeMat at the center of it all as a good Samaritan called Spider. The mix of whimsy and revelation Viola saw early on in Demme had finally been tuned to the pitch that has since marked his work, bringing up frequent references in reviews to Preston Sturges' classic screwball comedies. Married keeps the viewer on the rails in true screwball style. Demme is very aware that one problem audiences had with Something Wild was its sharp right turn, late in the picture, to a witty but luridly threatening scenario enacted by Liotta's loose-cannon greaser. "I wanted it to be an escapist movie, wanted it to play like a hybrid of a screwball comedy and a film noir, two of my favorite genres," says Demme. "I think a lot of people took it at that level, but then there are those who simply got distressed. I learned something from that. Married has death and mayhem in it ... but we scrupulously avoided goriness and sustained anxiety-provoking situations – again trying to find the true nature of escapism." 

If Demme sounds like a man ducking any attempt to draft him as the savior of American art cinema, it's important to recognize his unspoken devotion to character, to the nuts-and-bolts emotional involvement that so elevated Melvin and Howard's central trio. 

Demme has an extraordinary affinity for the people on the other side of the camera (neatly demonstrated in his 1982 film for public television, Who Am I This Time?, an allegory of an actor's life). For Married, Demme knew early on he wanted Matthew Modine – "I just sensed this kind of total get-down, loose appeal behind the guy's face" – and the actor found himself stripped of his usual caution when he first met with Demme at a restaurant in downtown Manhattan. "I'm usually a little bit trepidatious about going to work, real particular," says Modine, "and he just was so convinced that I should be doing it, I don't think I ever once questioned it." 

Modine had a second meeting in Los Angeles with Demme and other people working on the film. "I met with them in another restaurant," says Modine, "and you had the feeling that somebody was putting a little party together and they wanted to have a real good time." 

"I have a lot of fun with Jonathan," says editor McKay. "We're like kids – serious about making the movie, but there's joy in it, and I think that reads onscreen. You don't make movies about people unless you love people, and I think that caring shows. I sort of go around gauging directors that way, and it's obvious with Jonathan how he feels about his characters." 

"You don't make movies about people unless you love people, and I think that caring shows," says film editor Craig McKay.

McKay and Demme have been working together for 10 years, and cinematographer Tak Fujimoto has been with the director since his debut in 1974 with Caged Heat. "When you work in the movie business," says Demme, "you wind up spending a lot more time with the people you work with than the other people in your life – short of family. You better love 'em, right?" 

If McKay were in the game not for love but for money, he could find any number of technically easier collaborators than Demme, whose singularly active camera and profusion of "source cues" (songs and snatches of sound that turn up in scenes via jukeboxes, radios, et cetera) are an integral but problematic part of his rich directorial style. "Jonathan's stuff challenges me because he doesn't treat a scene in a traditional sense – right in the middle of a dialogue scene, he'll pan to one character for his reaction. There are points of view, hand-held cameras, reverse master shots, pans. ... I looked at the dailies [for the frenetic Married] and said, 'How the fuck am I gonna put this together?' But generally, I'll say to him, 'What is it you're after?' and then we go for it. I think that happens with Tak, too – we pick up the spirit of Jonathan's vision." 

In the editing room above Broadway, Demme plays both referee and combatant in an arbitration over elements in the scratch mix. The dialogue track fights for space with Byrne's musical sketches (augmented for the work session with fragments of Eno's Music for Films), sound effects (a veteran editor is adjusting their volume at the console) and the notorious source cues. Demme, a one-time rock critic for Fusion magazine, let his omnivorous taste drive the compilation of the exemplary Something Wild soundtrack album. For Married, Demme has grabbed a couple of songs from pop funkster Jane Child and the wacky Martini Ranch; Sinéad O'Connor was invited to an early screening with the idea of commissioning a tune from her. But no one bats an eye if Demme (as he does today) turns to producer Saxon with a sudden feverish urge to test a cut from Killing Joke's first LP. 

What's whipping back and forth on the reel at this moment is Stockwell and Pfeiffer's entry to a lavish Miami hotel lobby, where an Asian girl at the piano bar is singing an oddly inflected cover of "Don't Let the Sun Catch You Crying." Demme wants it boosted in volume: "Gotta have a sense of life, right?" 

"Gotta have a sense of dialogue, too," grumbles McKay. Compromises are made on the console, and then the reel is backed up to a striking shot of the couple's jetliner surging down the Miami shoreline on its way in, engines sighing. "Whoa!" says Demme, not open to debate on this one. "Music over effects here." A Jane Child track comes up strong. Further back in the reel, Mercedes Ruehl savages an airline clerk to good effect. "Boost the dialogue here," says Demme. This is such an atypical move on Demme's part that he must pay up on an ongoing wager with McKay and the effects man. Demme mimes a man whom these colleagues have already robbed of his pocket money, frisking himself and cackling like Woody Woodpecker. "You take Visa?" he asks. Turning back to the console, they all chortle at a line from Ruehl. Demme shakes his head in not entirely humble admiration of the way the scene works: "Better watch out," he says. "This may get commercial."

The unconventional heroine set loose on an uncomprehending world is a rich strain in screwball comedy, and Michelle Pfeiffer's Angela is just such a heroine in Married: "If ya boil it all down to the inevitable TV Guide oneliner," says Demme, "it's about a woman who ... I think that's gonna be one of its secret weapons, or a problem – that it's gonna be a gangster movie very much from a woman's approach." 

Demme, who sought Pfeiffer for the role with the encouragement of Orion's Medavoy, has no doubts about her performance. "She just stomps it all over the place," he says, and he's seconded by Modine, who says, "She's a very, very clever actress." Byrne, too, warmed to Pfeiffer's performance, and the track he made for her theme music is nicely evocative, a stately melody taken down a carnival midway. "I think a lot of times the score gives you the audience's emotions," says Byrne. "I was hoping I could do something to get inside the characters' emotions so it wasn't that objective." 

His loping rhythms for Modine and dulcet sax lines for Stockwell are equally appropriate and inspired. As the director of True Stories, Byrne showed his own affinity for the naive heart of America. What is it, he is asked, that he shares with Demme? "His enthusiasm and affection," Byrne says. "I have the affection, but I'm by nature less outwardly enthusiastic, and it's nice for me to catch a little bit of that from Jonathan." He might be speaking for many a moviegoer when he adds, "A little bit of that rubs off – I really appreciate that."