Getting Direct With Directors...
Jonathan Demme on the set of The Manchurian Candidate
No.23: Jonathan Demme

A former film critic and publicist, Jonathan Demme got his big break writing and producing for prolific producer Roger Corman. After rave reviews but tiny takings at the box office with his own projects such as Last Embrace and Melvin & Howard, commercial success - and the Best Director Oscar - finally arrived in the shape of Hannibal Lecter and the outstanding Silence Of The Lambs in 1991. The equally impressive AIDS drama Philadelphia followed and after disappointing film fans with Beloved and The Truth about Charlie, Demme's back on engaging form with a glossy remake of cold war classic The Manchurian Candidate.

Why did you become a director?

I became a director through a series of fortunate accidents. I was a young movie critic and my father introduced me to Joseph E. Levine, a man who ran a film distribution company. He read my reviews and said: "Would you like to come write publicity releases for me?" Which I did, and then I got the opportunity to be the film publicist on a Roger Corman movie. On my first encounter with him he said: "I've just started a distribution company and I need scripts. Will you write a motorcycle movie for me?" Which I did [Angels Hard As They Come, 1971], and then he said, "Will you produce it?" So suddenly I fell backwards into filmmaking.

If you weren't a filmmaker, what what you be?

In a perfect world I'd be a veterinarian because that was my original desire and because I love animals so much.

What other director would you like to see at work?

Bernardo Bertolucci because he's such a brilliant genius.

Napoleon Dynamite

What was the last movie that you paid to see?

It was Napoleon Dynamite and I loved it. I think what's great about it is that it illustrates how enormously entertaining originality can be in a movie.

What was the last movie you walked out of?

Oh, dear. You know what? Just in the unlikely event that whoever made that film might one day read this, I'm going to have to abstain from answering that question.

Can you say why you walked out?

I don't stay watching a film that I'm not enjoying. I'm not a "completist" in that arena. I'd rather exit the cinema and sneak into an adjoining cinema at the multiplex or go back to the box office and pay for a ticket to see something that I might enjoy. A bad film is not worth two hours of my time.

Do you believe in God?

I believe in spirituality.

Who's the most famous person in your contacts book?

Oh, golly. That would have to be my dear friend Oprah Winfrey.

Meet The Parents

What's your favourite movie quote?

OK, let me get it straight: "And If I find out that you've been lying to me Focker, I will take you down - take you down to Chinatown." from Meet The Parents.

Which filmmaker do you consider the most underrated?

Apart from myself? Just kidding. Gosh, that's such a good question. You know, even though he's highly rated by critics, I would have to say Ousmane Sembene, the great, great Senegalese master filmmaker. His new film, which I saw at the New York Film Festival, is called Moolaade. It's an incredible film about a rejection of female genital mutilation in a remote Senegalese village. But he's done innumerable great films like Ceddo and Xala. You should check him out.

And which filmmaker do you consider the most overrated?

I could hurl a name out here but it would probably be because I'm jealous of his vast audience. You know that's a very dangerous, subversive question capable of hurting people's feelings.

Who's the biggest pain in the arse you've ever worked with?


What's the dumbest question you've ever been asked?

Who is the most overrated director?

A scene from The Manchurian Candidate, with Liev Schreiber as Raymond Shaw

Do you believe in test screenings?

I do believe in test screenings; I don't believe in all the technology and written data sheets that attend a lot of test screenings now. But I think showing your film in progress to viewers to see how it plays is as vital a part of editing as actually making the cuts. No ifs about it. There's a phrase you used to hear a lot more - and with the proliferation of the scientific, data-driven dimension to these screenings it's gone by the boards - but what I do is sit with the audience to see how the film plays. You can feel how a film is doing, you can tell by the sounds the audience makes when you're getting a little too boring or going a little too fast.

How seriously do you take reviews?

You know, I take the reviews of certain critics very seriously indeed. There are a handful of critics I have a tremendous admiration for because of the way they write and the world view they bring to the films that they review. But I'm fairly impervious to reviews; I prefer a good review to a bad review but I'm no more elated by a good review than I am hurt by a bad review.

What's the best piece of advice you've ever been given?

Ah. When I was working on the screenplay for the first film that I had the opportunity to direct - which was for Roger Corman - I received a long list of script notes in response to the last draft that I had sent and the nature of the notes made me very angry. I wrote back from my London home to Roger Corman in Los Angeles, essentially a "Get stuffed, you're so wrong!" kind of letter, stamped it and took it down to the mailbox. But I didn't mail it because a fortune-teller at the Kensington Street market that I had visited a couple of days earlier had told me that I had to beware of overreacting to my father some time in the future. Although Roger Corman wasn't my biological father, he certainly was a father figure to me at that moment in my career and I remember standing there poised to drop the letter in the slot and thinking, "Maybe I'll wait 24 hours in light of what the fortune-teller said." Well of course I woke up the next day feeling a little better about the notes and wrote a more reasoned response and ultimately got to direct the movie. So there it is; I got good advice from a fortune-teller.

And the worst?

I'm not sure. I guess I'm more in touch with the fact that the decisions I come to within my own mind are probably more injurious to my goals than me responding in any way to received advice.

What's your biggest regret?

My biggest regret... hmm. I mean I deeply regret the epidemic proliferation of man's inhumanity to man in today's world but I don't think that's the level you're talking on, is it?

Nick Nolte

No. It's not.

Oh, OK. Well certainly a deep regret that comes to mind as I sit here is the fact that I could never get Nick Nolte to read the brilliant screenplay that Ron Nyswaner had written called Love Hurts [1991, dir. Budd Yorkin]. The fact is without Nick Nolte - who would've been great as the central character in what would've been a wonderful film that I would have directed after Melvin & Howard - I was unable to get the film off the ground. I never got to make this film that I was passionately desirous to make and so I really regret my inability to get that actor to read it.

There are five minutes left till the end of the world - what do you do?

Get as close as possible to one's loved ones.

Which performer would you love to work with?

Brigitte Bardot! I think that would've been an extremely heady experience.

What film makes you want to spit?

I can't answer that question. I don't think in those terms. Sorry!

What are your three favourite films and why?

Well, I think it's impossible to have a favourite film but The Conformist is a favourite film because it's such a brilliantly, emotionally effective motion picture that is so informed by the brilliance of Bertolucci's visual, directorial style and his magnificent handling of actors. In addition to being a film that I cherish the memory of viewing so much, it provides a never-ending source of ideas to turn to when faced with having to come up with an approach to a scene in a film that I'm doing. I think also [Shohei] Imamura's Legends From A Southern Island, which is a brilliant three-and-half hour, totally engrossing masterpiece that achieves something really extraordinary in cinema, is another great favourite of mine. You should see it. The third choice would be... gosh, these are difficult questions, aren't they?

What do you think of Norman Wisdom?

Very funny.

The Manchurian Candidate is released in UK cinemas on Friday 19th November 2004.

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