It really shouldn’t surprise anyone that Jonathan Demme would defy Hollywood taboos to direct a movie about AIDS, homophobia and social justice or that the movie Philadelphia would earn over $40 million dollars in its first two months and nab five Academy Award nominations.
Philadelphia was fueled by three of the director’s staunchest convictions: that helping out people who are having a hard time is less a duty than a pleasure; that bigotry is more the result of ignorance than evil; and that for all the country’s political outrages, goodness is deep in the American grain.
Despite his impeccable downtown New York credentials, Demme, who just turned 50, is less a card-carrying member of the cultural elite than a suburban product who, however astonishingly, believes what he was taught in civics – and is determined to act on it. Certainly little about Demme’s early history, first on Long Island, where he was born, and later in Florida, would indicate either his idealism or his eventual success.
His ambition to be a veterinarian evaporated when chemistry class at the University of Florida proved insurmountable. He was writing about movies for local papers when his father, then head of publicity at the Fontainebleau Hotel, in Miami Beach, introduced him to studio mogul–for once, the term can be used unironically–Joseph E. Levine. Levine glanced at some of Demme’s reviews–a rave over Zulu, one of Levine’s movies, natch–proved especially persuasive, and Demme was offered a job as a press agent in New York.
A few years later, while working in Ireland as a publicist on the set of a film by B-movie titan Roger Corman, Demme was invited to write a screenplay for Corman’s new company, New World Pictures. The result, Angels Hard As They Come (1971), a motorcycle movie based (very loosely) on Rashomon, began Demme’s film career in not exactly earnest.
He continued working for Corman, making his debut as a director in 1974 with Caged Heat, a quite literally revealing look at women behind bars, and following it up with Crazy Mama (1975) and Fighting Mad (1976). Demme’s uniquely sweet American vision began to manifest itself after he split from Corman. He directed Citizens Band (1977, retitled Handle With Care), an eccentric, bighearted exploration of CB-radio culture, and later, Melvin and Howard (1980), about Melvin Dummar, the working-class Nevadan who claimed that Howard Hughes had named him the heir to his fortune.
Demme’s baptism by fire came with Swing Shift (1984), which he conceived of as an exploration of the lives of working women in factories during World War II but which Goldie Hawn, the film’s executive producer and female lead, saw as a star vehicle for herself. Hawn played the heavy, and faced with adding 30 minutes of scenes he couldn’t stand, Demme walked. Following that debacle, Demme delivered a run of films that established him as a significant new directorial voice.
Stop Making Sense (1984), a splendid rendering of Talking Heads’ exultant 1983 tour, won a National Society of Film Critics Award for Best Documentary. Then Something Wild (1986), a comedy of urban manners that veers into a violent suspense plot, managed to capture every nuance of life in New York in the mid-’80s, from bohemianism to stockbroker paranoia – all set to a fun and friendly, if dauntingly in the know, soundtrack.
Swimming to Cambodia (1987), a documentary of performing artist Spalding Gray’s riveting monologue about his experiences in Southeast Asia on the set of The Killing Fields, seems indistinguishable from Gray onstage. All of Gray’s intelligence, neurosis, humor and sheer humanity are palpably, and somewhat eerily, present.
Married to the Mob (1988) features Michelle Pfeiffer as a mob wife looking to go straight: In its affectionate sendup of gangster movies, the film, like Something Wild, demonstrated Demme’s ability to be simultaneously parodic and unapologetically emotional. Even when his characters are cartoons, he seems to love them. Demme became an industry powerhouse himself–Goldie Hawn, beware!–with The Silence of the Lambs (1991), based on the terrifying serial-killer saga by Thomas Harris.
The film racked up five Academy Awards (including Best Director for Demme, Best Actress for Jodie Foster and Best Actor for Anthony Hopkins); particularly estimable was Hopkins’ gripping portrayal of Dr. Hannibal “the Cannibal” Lecter, which lifted the grisly character into the pantheon of American film roles. Despite criticism from gay activists over the depiction of gender-bending murderer Jame Gumb, Silence earned more than $130 million. With Philadelphia, Demme took on the story of a gay lawyer with AIDS (Tom Hanks has been nominated for an Academy Award for the role) who is fired by his firm and wins a wrongful-termination suit with the help of an initially homophobic lawyer (Denzel Washington).
The film has realized Demme’s hope of bringing a gay-oriented AIDS drama into the heartland, though again, not without generating fierce controversy. Some gay activists–most notably Larry Kramer, author of The Normal Heart–have attacked what they consider to be Philadelphia‘s avoidance of gay sexuality (between Hanks and his lover, played by Antonio Banderas) and its too rose-colored view of Hanks’ extended and supportive family. Few people with AIDS are quite so fortunate, they say.
In addition, the family of a lawyer who died from AIDS in 1987 has brought a $10 million lawsuit against the creators of Philadelphia, including Demme, for allegedly basing the movie on the lawyer’s life without acknowledgment. TriStar Pictures, the studio that produced Philadelphia, has denied the claim. Demme has refused to comment.
Both as a director and a producer (through his company Clinica Estetico, which roughly translates into Portuguese as “beauty parlor”), Demme has had a hand in a number of small-budget documentaries focused on social issues, including the ongoing series Haiti Dreams of Democracy; Cousin Bobby (about the director’s cousin Robert Castle, a radical clergyman in Harlem); and One Foot on a Banana Peel, the Other Foot in the Grave, an AIDS film directed by Demme’s late friend the artist Juan Botas.
Demme has been busy for a man who now says that he hopes to cut back his activities in order to better enjoy life with his wife, Joanne Howard, an artist, and their two children in Nyack, N.Y., where the two interviews for this story took place. His unstoppable enthusiasm, torrent of words, quick, explosive laughter and energetic engagement of any idea put in front of him suggest that any slowing down of his pace might prove undetectable to the rest of us.
Why did you want to make an AIDS movie?
My friend Juan Botas became sick. Juan was my wife Joanne’s soul mate. They had the kind of friendship that was completely without restraint. Juan and I also became good friends – you can see him in his documentary, One Foot on a Banana Peel. So when Juan said that he was HIV positive, I reacted in the only positive way I could, which was to try to work somehow. I talked to my partner Ed Saxon, who was very keen on the idea, and also to Ron Nyswaner, who had done the shooting script for Swing Shift – a wonderful writer. That Ron was gay didn’t hurt.
Anyway, the desire to do a film on AIDS was born of Juan’s sickness. We looked for a story for a long time, and we decided it would be pointless to make a film for people with AIDS. Or for their loved ones. They don’t need no movie about AIDS. They live the truth. We wanted to reach people who don’t know people with AIDS, who look down on people with AIDS.
You made a conscious decision about that?
When I read in the papers that Philadelphia was “targeted for the malls,” part of me goes, “Oh, my God, that sounds so calculated.” But we were calculated about it. We calculated what audience we aspired to.
How exactly did you do that?
We started off with angrier scripts, very politicized. Scripts that were informed with the rage I felt when confronted with society’s not only indifference but hostility to my sick, courageous friend. Ron and I were pissed, and we were not only aggressive, we were assaultive. There was a desire to just, like, stick AIDS in your face and say, “Look at it, you scumbags.”
Tom Hanks’ character displays conviction and intelligence but very little anger. Where did that aspect of the story go?
If your immune system is imperiled, the best way to stay alive is to strive for as much serenity as possible–stress is debilitating and will hasten the onslaught of the illness. We made a choice to get spiritual. We had scenes of Tom meditating to tapes, things like that. We felt this guy is so committed to staying alive, at least long enough to see his name vindicated, he is going to identify rage as a wasted emotion. Maybe we went a little too far on that side.
I find it admirable that he isn’t more actively angry. The whole time we’re talking, though, I keep picturing ACT-UP demonstrations–and I admire that, too. People who are afflicted with this disease are entitled to all the anger they feel like venting. Our choice for this particular guy was he was going to avoid rage.
What about the charge that the gay couple in the movie doesn’t get a bed scene?
We had one scene showing the guys preparing to go to sleep. It was like, “We’ve done it! They’re in bed together! And, sure enough, one of them wears pj’s, the other doesn’t. And, gosh, they’re a lot like you and me.” But then you’re back in court, and all this other shit’s happening. So we made a choice: The film was edited, finally, to tell its strongest story in the best possible way. And that was the story about the fight for vindication.
I feel the film is richly permeated by feelings of love and attachment between Tom and many people in his life, including Antonio. Their scene together toward the end of the picture in the hospital is one of the most intimate, beautiful scenes between two people I’ve seen in a long, long time. I think it’s stunning.
But didn’t Denzel Washington reportedly tell Will Smith that whether you play a gay character or not, you never kiss another man onscreen?
I wouldn’t fault Denzel for telling Will Smith that. That’s Denzel responding to the same concern that Ron, Tom, Antonio and I had. It’s a real concern. When we see two men kissing, we’re the products of our brainwashing–it knocks us back 20 feet. And with Philadelphia–I’m sorry, Larry Kramer–I didn’t want to risk knocking our audience back 20 feet with images they’re not prepared to see.
It’s just shocking imagery, and I didn’t want to shoehorn it in. Denzel ain’t a homophobic guy–he had difficulty understanding some parts of his character’s extremes. I think he was saying: “You’d better watch out, with the kind of climate that exists, you don’t want to be identified as the guy who makes out with other guys. It could work to your detriment in seeking other roles.”
It also becomes the only issue that gets discussed. The movie is two hours, but it becomes the movie in which two guys kiss.
Well, in Prelude to a Kiss, which I didn’t see, Alec Baldwin kissed an old man – wasn’t that considered the coup de grace of that movie? I think we found that there was no way people were going to pay to see that.
There was also a lot of speculation that you made Philadelphia to atone for offending the gay community, which perceived The Silence of the Lambs as homophobic. Did that whole flap have much of an impact on you?
I hadn’t been paying attention to the absence of positive gay characters all that much, so I came away from the protests enlightened–and it made me happy that I was already working on Philadelphia before Lambs came out.
By the way, maybe you can explain something. Who on earth would get the shit kicked out of them and then turn around and do something nice for the people who kicked the shit out of them? I don’t get that.
Well, the reasoning runs, “Jonathan so much wants to do the right thing, to advance the cause of people he sees as oppressed, that it would sting him to get criticism from them.”
“So whether he believed it was justified or not, he would in some way try to make up for it.”
Well, I try to be nice–but not that nice [laughs]. The thing about Philadelphia, targeting the malls and everything: I didn’t have some better version–some deeper, more complicated version–of this movie that we turned away from. We set out to make a movie dealing with AIDS discrimination, and there it is.
And I’ve got to tell you: When I sit in a theater, and Denzel says, “Let’s talk about it, our fear, our hatred, our loathing of homosexuals,” I’m like “What? An American movie is saying that? Holy shit! I love that.”
You started out making films with Roger Cormarn. What are some of the things you learned from him?
As the years slip by, my mind goes to this luncheon I had with Roger, one week before starting my directorial debut. That was Roger’s ritual–this unbelievable 60 minutes of rules. It remains quite vivid.
My favorite–because it has the word organ in it–is this one: “Jonathan, never forget what the primary organ is for the moviegoer. It’s the eye. You must keep the eye interested.” He goes: “Have a lot of foreground action. Have interesting things going on in the background. Move the camera–always find some motivation, don’t just move the camera but find motivation to move it. If you’re in a room too small to move the camera, get a lot of different angles, so you can cut a lot. And don’t forget, your actors are the greatest source of inspiration for the eye. Choose actors who look tremendously interesting.”
You’ve earned a reputation as an actor’s director. How much do looks affect your casting choices?
It’s imperative. I need to want to see their face a lot. If I can’t be interested for 15 minutes, how can an audience be expected to go with this person for two hours? Another imperative is that the actors take full responsibility for the characters.
I can’t work with actors who look to the director each morning for guidance, actors who ask historical questions – you know, “Where did my guy go to college?” I’m like “Uh-oh”.
Has anything else from the early years stayed with you?
Roger used to refer to himself–and we heard this endlessly–as being 40 percent artist and 60 percent businessman. That was soooo Roger–to have a formula, even for that.
But I’ll be damned, 20-some-odd years later, boy, he’s right. You’d better be 60 percent businessman, because if you don’t have an eye, a passionate eye, on getting the picture done at the right cost, you just ain’t going to get to make a whole lot more of them. So, the terror of going over budget remains happily with me to this day. It’s a healthy aesthetic.
Corman also stressed that movies should contain an element of social critique, something that’s obviously stayed with you. Even in a jail-girl titillaion like Caged Heat, you had a plot about the medical exploitation of prisoners.
This is before Cuckoo’s Nest came out. I thought [laughs], “It may only be showing in drive-ins, but it shows what’s going on in prisons: We are lobotomizing patients to make them nonviolent.”
It’s true, that’s Roger’s formula: Your picture must have action, nudity, humor–and a little bit of social statement, preferably from a liberal perspective. I’d love to get in deeper with Roger, as to “Is the social statement there because audiences like it? Or, finally, is that a little bit of you getting in there?” [Laughs.]
Another way that has played out for you is that you’ve always created strong roles for women.
I just admire that extra something that women bring to getting through the day, faced with all of the hassles that we males put in their face. I’m appreciative of that, and I’m glad my movies reflect that. I root for the underdog.
One of the things that made us think Philadelphia might have a chance of succeeding was that we came up with the David and Goliath one-liner: It’s the Little guy going up against the big guys. I’m much more interested in that than the eminently capable guys vanquishing their lessers. I mean, my Stallone movie would be Rocky, not Rambo. Rambo’s better armed, he’s smarter–superior firepower doesn’t interest me.
Also, as someone who’s been force-fed things European and male, I long for more variety–in my own life and in what I see onscreen. I’m not interested in boy movies, and I’m not interested in white-people movies. I want to see movies that reflect the country I live in. People have found fault with Philadelphia: “Oh, look at this. You got the noble gay guy who goes to the black lawyer and who lives with a Latin. How PC.”
Excuse me – that’s America. We got black attorneys now. We got tons of Latins. The ongoing melting pot has a lot of appeal to me.
It also makes for texture in your movies. Something like putting Michelle Pfeiffer at the center of a gangster comedy helped make Married to the Mob distinctive in an overwhelmingly male genre.
What really made me excited about Married to the Mob was the same secret theme as Silence of the Lambs. A woman wants to go straight, and the men just won’t let her. The bad guys won’t let her. The good guys won’t let her. And she is able to carve out a positive trajectory through other women. I think every picture, however light, needs to be saying something. I need that for my work – just something, just some kind of theme.
Something Wild also had that, showing how awful violence is when it occurs. It’s not fun. It’s not exciting. It’s slow and awful and tragic.
Something Wild also had that “when worlds collide” element that you seem to be drawn to. Even in Swing Shift, you have a World War II movie and a factory setting, and suddenly women are introduced into this otherwise alien environment.
My grandmother, by the way, worked on the assembly line, making fighter planes during World War II. So a story like that had great personal resonance for me.
That’s one of the reasons it was devastating to have the picture changed so much. I loved that theme of women going up against adversity and rising to the occasion. And this was true. You know, we looked at the documentary Rosie the Riveter a lot in preparing for the movie and always walked away blubbering. The goal of our fiction was to try to match the emotional impact of that documentary. And in the first version, we did a pretty good job.
That’s the sort of thing that got cut out of the picture. I was sad when it got all chopped up.There’s been talk of your version of the movie being released. Any chance of that?
The agents I work with talked to the folks at Warner Bros. to see if it would be possible. We were told that all the outtakes and supportive material of the other version had been destroyed. So the material doesn’t exist to do that.
How did the Swing Shift experience affect you?
I emerged from it exhausted and damaged, because it was a long, drawn-out fight. I wondered what it was about making films that made it worth trying again and risking a similar experience. It’s the opposite experience of what I love about making films. I thrive on collaboration. I thrive on trust. When people are trying to hurt and damage you, that’s a face of human beings you don’t really wish to see.
Luckily, I committed to Stop Making Sense before the shit hit the fan on Swing Shift, and we were too deep into preparing for Sense to not do it. It boiled down to three days where I was sort of… not directing so much as officiating these new scenes that I hated for Swing Shift. And at night, I would go to the concert and direct the cameras for Stop Making Sense. It was literally going from hell to heaven.
Oh, what a thrill it was to be doing those concerts! Even as I was having the horror of the animosity with Swing Shift, I was enjoying the intense collaboration and trust with the Talking Heads and my crew. That really helped me get through the whole thing. Then I moved back to New York–I’d been living in California–and went out to make Something Wild. It really felt like a first film. I was clean as a whistle. It was like a student film.
In situations like Stop Making Sense or Swimming to Cambodia, how do you capture a performance?
It’s a simple discipline. I know how transcendental this performance is live. With Spalding Gray, there’s no impediment to your enjoyment of what he does, that he’s just sitting in a chair, talking. In fact, it’s part of the magic. So the discipline is simple: Help the moviegoer get that whack.
And you have some added tools. You have the camera, which can provide emphasis. You can bring in sound effects. You can bring in music. The way you make it work onscreen is honoring the material and the artist, not trying to make it cinematic. Trust the source.
You’ve been inventive in your use of music. What do you see as the role of music in films?
I love manipulating the viewers’ emotions through music–and I think it’s fair. Music is such an inescapable part of reality–our lives are infused with it. We go to the cleaners, and there’s a certain aural mood there as a result of whatever’s on the radio. You go home, there’ll be a different mood. You’ve got to honor that dynamic. It’s just another tool to try to suck people into the experience.
Like you’re watching the scene between Denzel and Tom in the library. One guy is poised to extend himself, overcoming certain hurdles to do so. The other guy is daring to think that maybe someone who had rejected him is reaching out to him. I think it’s OK for a movie to now send you some musical signals to reaffirm that this is a significant moment.
Of course, there’s also the now-famous opera scene in Philadelphia, where Tom Hanks uses an aria that’s playing as a way of confronting his impending death. It’s very long, and it’s one of the most controversial scenes in the movie. Did you foresee that response?
No. It wasn’t until I watched the first cut of it after the picture was finished that I … You know, there’s two schools of thought on this. There are those who can’t believe this overly theatrical, ludicrous sequence and are completely untouched by it.
There are also those, myself included, who have a big emotional epiphany through that scene. I mean, I was devastated the first time I saw it cut together–tears coming down my face. I was so moved, I couldn’t believe it. But back in the script, I never knew. I knew nothing about opera. I wasn’t sure how it should be played. But I always trust great actors. Truthful actors will discover the truth of the scene. Tom and I never discussed how it should be played. Denzel–we didn’t talk, either. That’s Take 1 in the movie.
Was the scene in which Hanks and Banderas wear sailors’ uniforms a joke about gays in the military?
No. That was just for elegance. Having a party hosted by gays, now you’re in a minefield. Are you going to have drag or not? Then I realized, they’re an elegant couple, they would throw a swellegant, Cole Porter-type party. So the idea of the guys in dress naval–they’ll look so handsome, they’ll look so elegant. The gays in the military thing came after that, and we were chortling.
It had a timely resonance.
When we showed the picture at the White House, shortly after the shot of the guys dancing in uniform, President Clinton left the room – he had to relieve himself. But I thought that was kind of… interesting timing.
What was it like to screen the movie at the White House?
I’m greedy. It wasn’t enough that the movie was seen at the White House–I hoped that with the 50 or so guests, there would have been 10 minutes devoted to a discussion about AIDS in our country. But instead. President Clinton took the guests on a guided tour of the White House. I was disappointed by that.
The enormous success of Silence of the Lambs really put you on the map as a major director. You probably couldn’t have made Philadelphia without it. Has that success affected you in more personal ways?
At certain points, I was afraid there was something–a missing chink of skill–that was going to prevent me from having a movie that was financially successful. That frightened me. So when Silence of the Lambs became an unqualified success, I took a huge sigh of relief. I mean, I can’t tell you how wonderful that felt.
How do you account for the fear?
I didn’t go to film school; I didn’t work toward being a filmmaker. I stumbled into writing movie reviews so I could get into the movies for free. Then my father introduces me to Joseph E. Levine, and Levine offers me a job in the movie business. “A huge stroke of luck” doesn’t catch it.
Then I wind up crossing paths with Roger Corman, and Corman has just started New World Pictures and needs scripts. My best friend is Joe Viola, one of the most gifted storytellers I’ve ever known. So Joe and I write a script for Corman, and then, because Joe directs commercials, suddenly Roger wants us to make this motorcycle movie. Again, “an enormous stroke of good fortune” doesn’t fully characterize it.
I mean, people bust their butts for decades to get to make a picture, and I fell backward into it. Maybe that’s one of the reasons I work so hard, I’m still trying to justify that luck. It’s also why I’m amazed when I get to actually finish a picture, because I’m still afraid of being found out: “He can’t direct! Look! What? Look! He’s…he’s a phony!” So there’s that still, but I try to use it healthfully–”But, wait, I’ve made several pictures, now surely I’m entitled to…”
Well, before Silence of the Lambs, people were always predicting breakthroughs for you that never seemed to happen.
Yeah. Sometimes my pictures would get good notices and, with Melvin and Howard, even a lot of notoriety. That’s one picture I can go, “That is truly a good movie.” Again, luck goes into all this: Thorn Mount, who was the head of production at Universal in those days, would open his door to people who weren’t happening, such as I.
Thom had seen Citizens Band and liked it. Mike Nichols was supposed to direct Melvin and Howard, but he couldn’t cast it to his satisfaction. Thom thought of me as someone who might do a good job on Melvin and Howard. Thom went from Mike Nichols to a zero and trusted me with that picture. On such things do careers hinge.
I will never forget, I was calling Mike Medavoy, trying to persuade him to give a “go” to a little script I had found after we’d done Married to the Mob. And Medavoy goes: “Oh, gee, you in your office? I’ll call you back in five minutes.” Hang up, five minutes later, the phone rings, and Mike goes: ”I’m going to send you a book. See what you thinkof it. It’s called Silence of the Lambs.” Actually, as we sit here discussing these things, I get very terrified of the whole bizarre process [laughs].
Speaking of good fortune, how did you get Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young to write original songs for Philadelphia? [Each song has been nominated for an Academy Award] Did you expect them both to write such introspective ballads?
I thought: “Let’s reassure people. Let’s get these guys who, if anything, are identified with a testosterone, machismo kind of thing.” Like “Hey, if Bruce and Neil are part of this party, it’s going to be something for the unconverted.” I thought: “What we need is the most up-to-the-minute, guitar-dominated American-rock anthem about injustice to start this movie off. Who can do that? Neil Young can do that.”
So we edited a title sequence to “Southern Man” to help him see how his music could power the images we were working with. He said, ”I’ll try.” Six weeks later, “Hi, it’s Neil, I’m sending a tape.” So in comes this song. We were crying the first time we heard it. I went: “Oh, my God, Neil Young trusts this movie more than I do. Isn’t that pathetic?” But now we’re back to Square 1. Even as I’m going, “He trusts the movie more than I,” I still don’t trust it, because now I’m going to call Bruce Springsteen!
The same exact dialogue goes on–”So we still need to kick ass at the beginning.” Then, one day, this tape shows up. Again, it was not the guitar anthem I had appealed for. Springsteen, like Neil Young, trusted the idea of the movie much more than I was trusting it.
So, after Philadelphia, what’s ahead?
Well, the great thing about documentaries is that if you’re interested in social issues, you don’t need a $20 million dollar budget to put them onscreen. We made One Foot on a Banana Peel for less than $30,000.
It’s wonderful. It sheds light on the experience of having AIDS in a very different way than Philadelphia does. We’re also working on Haiti Dreams of Democracy, Part IV now. That’s taken away my fervor to do big-budget versions of social issues–unless they offer the possibility of making some wild magilla of an entertainment, like the project we’re working on based on Taylor Branch’s biography of Dr. Martin Luther King, Parting the Waters.
What do you have in mind for that?
I’m picturing a cross between Nashville and Battle of Algiers! But I couldn’t be more excited by anything than making the next Tom Harris book. I’m probably not as open to full-tilt entertainments, “Never mind the message, let’s just have a ball” kind of films, as I might have been five, certainly 10 years ago. I’d rather read books and be a lazy person than just make a movie anymore. That’s probably a function of age and the fact that I’ve got a family life. I don’t need to make movies.