The Review/ Feature/

Documentary filmmaking became Jonathan Demme’s oxygen

TIFF programmer Thom Powers tells the stories behind the late filmmaker’s most celebrated docs

Demme Pic
by Thom Powers
Apr 27, 2017

“My biggest asset as a filmmaker has always been my enthusiasm.” — Jonathan Demme

You would never guess that Jonathan Demme was in his seventies. His youthful energy masked a prolonged struggle with esophageal cancer. I heard him say that he got tired more easily, but in the several times we met last year, I rarely saw signs of it. He was brimming with plans for new work: to edit footage he shot of the Occupy Movement, to film the new one-woman show by actor/playwright Anna Deavere Smith. He was eager to engage with younger talent — collaborating with Justin Timberlake on their concert film, Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids, and gushing over Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight at TIFF. After a screening in October, I introduced him to a friend from the Audubon Society. Turns out, Jonathan was passionate about birding. Let’s make a film!

Last April, we conducted a podcast interview for Pure Nonfiction #6, focusing on his documentary portraits. Throughout the tape you can hear Jonathan’s effusiveness in his enunciation. “I thought this is the most innnteresting, coooolest guy I’ve ever seen,” he says of Jean Dominique, the Haitian reporter in his 2003 documentary The Agronomist. Jonathan had experienced plenty — from Haiti to Hollywood — that might have turned him bitter or cynical, but his emphasis was always on the upbeat.

In September at TIFF, I interviewed him before a live audience for Pure Nonfiction #23, this time focusing on his music documentaries. Re-listening to the recording, I was reminded how funny he could be. He gets the audience laughing with his mimics of David Byrne and Bruce Springsteen, and with self-deprecating tales in which he’s at a loss and his wife, Joanne, is the sage.

Over the fall, I showed six of his documentaries for a mini-retrospective at New York’s IFC Center. Normally, I’d expect a filmmaker to slip out of the screening and just show up for the Q&A. But nearly every Tuesday, Jonathan would watch the whole film with the audience and speak afterwards, only once excusing himself to fulfill another obligation.

Drawing upon our conversations, here are nuggets I took away about his documentaries:

Stop Making Sense Photo

STOP MAKING SENSE (1984): After years of journeyman work with Roger Corman, Jonathan had a breakthrough with his quirky 1980 comedy Melvin and Howard. He had been deeply impressed by a Talking Heads performance and approached David Byrne about doing a movie. Byrne asked: “What will make it different from all the other concert [films]?” Jonathan wasn’t sure how to answer, but somehow won Byrne over. What resulted felt very different from the previous era of Woodstock and The Last Waltz — as different as the Talking Heads’ music was from 1960s rock.

Although Talking Heads were rooted in New York, the film was shot in Los Angeles over four nights. On the first evening, Jonathan’s team had lighted the audience for crowd shots. “That was the one time I saw David blow his stack,” Jonathan said. The lighting had inhibited the crowd’s energy and, consequently, the band’s. After that: no lighting the audience, except during the final encore song. In the cutting room, Jonathan realized the power of keeping the camera trained on the stage. Byrne wrote this week in a posthumous tribute: “Jonathan’s skill was to see the show almost as a theatrical ensemble piece, in which the characters and their quirks would be introduced to the audience, and you’d get to know the band as people, each with their distinct personalities. They became your friends, in a sense. I was too focused on the music, the staging, and the lighting to see how important his focus on character was — it made the movies something different and special.”

In 1984, everything about the film felt fresh, including the title design. However, as Jonathan explained at our screening, the titles had a lineage dating back 20 years prior. He was inspired by the hand-drawn titles of Dr. Strangelove, so he contacted that film’s designer, Pablo Ferro, looking for something similar. Ferro said, in effect, “Why don’t I just do the same thing?”

Swimming to Cambodia Photo

SWIMMING TO CAMBODIA (1987): Spalding Gray’s monologue, created for the stage, interweaves the personal with the political. He recounts his experience of being an actor in the 1984 biopic The Killing Fields, while also discussing the film’s historical backdrop of the USA’s secret war in Cambodia. The original theatre piece lasted four hours and was presented over two nights. “What seems like a stream of consciousness was actually a very laboured project,” said Gray’s partner and producer, Renée Shafransky, who joined us for a screening in October. Gray had been performing the piece for years and was ready to move on. “I was sad then about the idea that this [would] go away,” said Shafransky. “I thought it was such a fascinating melding of the personal and political and I didn’t want it to be gone.” She reached out to Jonathan to make a film. He convinced them to shorten the length and focus the narrative thread on Gray’s search for “the perfect moment.” Shafransky said the cutting proved so effective she can “barely remember what’s not there.”

Around that time, My Dinner with Andre had caused a sensation for transfixing audiences with just two characters at a table. In Swimming to Cambodia, Jonathan relished the challenge to accomplish that with just one character. Cinematographer John Bailey created a new lighting design, Laurie Anderson wrote a score, and Jonathan interspersed clips from The Killing Fields that weren’t part of the original stage show. On a limited budget, they filmed in front of a live audience over two performances and blocked additional bits specifically for the camera.

Today, that style of personal storytelling has become so ubiquitous it may be hard for new viewers to understand how radical it was at the time. Unfortunately, the film has never been made available on iTunes or other streaming platforms. When the New York Times published Demme’s obituary, it didn’t rank on their list of his “Seven Career-Defining Movies.” But its influence shouldn’t be underestimated. Gray’s first-person style was scarcely seen before Swimming to Cambodia. That film laid the path for solo performers from Eric Bogosian to Eve Ensler, with a storytelling style that lives on in podcasts such as This American Life and The Moth. Gray went on to appear in two other monologue films: Nick Broomfield’s Monster in a Box and Steven Soderbergh’s Gray’s Anatomy.

Recently, the film even received recognition as a parody. The IFC TV spoof series Documentary Now cast Bill Hader as a Gray-like performer for the episode “Parker Gail’s Location is Everything.” Shafransky said she loved it.

The Agronomist Photo

THE AGRONOMIST (2003): In the 1980s Jonathan became enamoured with Haitian artists and started travelling to the country during a hopeful period after the fall of “Baby Doc” Duvalier. He was impressed by Haitians’ zeal to vote after years of dictatorship. “We in America have a lot to learn from these people,” he remembered thinking. In 1988, he received British TV funding to direct Haiti Dreams of Democracy, his first documentary outside of a performance.

During that project, he met Jean Dominique and his wife, Michèle Montas, who together ran Radio Haiti-Inter, the first station to broadcast in the country’s Creole language. “I went away thinking that is an amazing guy,” said Jonathan. “Maybe one day I’ll be able to cast him in a leading role in some movie I do and he’ll win an Oscar.” After Haiti’s military coup against Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1991, Dominique and Montas went into exile in New York. Jonathan started filming with Dominique, imagining a documentary that would end with his triumphant return to Haiti. Dominique did return, but was assassinated in front of his radio station in 2000.

Jonathan channeled his grief into completing a portrait of Dominique in The Agronomist. Its theatrical release in 2003 was critically embraced, but in 2010 its distributor, ThinkFilm, went bankrupt. That put the film and others in an unfinished court limbo that has held up current distribution.

In the last year, Jonathan was consulting advisors to find a pathway for re-releasing The Agronomist and his other orphaned films. Those efforts look hopeful for Cousin Bobby (1992), in which Jonathan profiles his long-lost relative, an activist preacher in Harlem. There are plans for its digital re-release later this year.

Jimmy Carter Photo

JIMMY CARTER: MAN FROM PLAINS (2007): After a bruising experience on his remake of The Manchurian Candidate, Jonathan turned away from big-budget studio movies. “I never wanted to do that again,” he told me. Documentary-making became his “oxygen,” as he put it. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, he made repeated visits to New Orleans that resulted in the films Right to Return: New Home Movies from the Lower 9th Ward and I’m Carolyn Parker.

During that time, he was invited by Participant Media to direct a film about Jimmy Carter. The former President was preparing to release a book titled Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid that would incite volatile reactions. In Jonathan’s view, “It’s not like Jimmy Carter is pro-Palestine and anti-Israel. He’s pro-peace between the two countries. And he will dare to speak out on a subject where many of us in America are afraid to speak out.”

Justin Timberlake Photo

JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE + THE TENNESSEE KIDS (2016): For anyone who came of age with Stop Making Sense, the news that Jonathan was directing a concert film of Justin Timberlake’s may have raised an eyebrow. How can the two fit in the same oeuvre? David Byrne’s lyrics are full of dark mystery in songs like “Slippery People” and “Life During Wartime.” Timberlake’s dance-floor hits hardly vary from “I gotta have you naked by the end of this song.”

Would there be room for Demme’s sensibility? The answer is delivered affirmatively in the opening sequence as Jonathan solicits band members to state their name and hometown for the camera. This group had been on the road together for two years. Now that journey was coming to an end with two final shows in Las Vegas. Timberlake had a deep devotion to Stop Making Sense and selected Jonathan accordingly. Both films share the sense of getting to know the characters on stage. They become your friends.

When Jonathan first showed me the film last April, he had hopes for it getting an IMAX release. But by the time of the film’s TIFF premiere in September, the financiers had opted to go with a fall release on Netflix instead. That meant the screenings in Toronto might be the only time the film ever played theatrically. Jonathan didn’t try to hide his disappointment. “For those who dig the theatrical experience — and that’s how I was raised — nothing can quite compare with it,” he told Variety. The Gala premiere was a red-carpet circus. But the memory I cherish is the next afternoon when its second screening was booked at the splendid Princess of Wales theatre, with its tiered balconies. Not all 1,700 seats were filled, but enough to make for a boisterous crowd.

Jonathan presented the film with his producer Gary Goetzman. They had worked together from Stop Making Sense through Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia, after which Goetzman joined Tom Hanks to co-found the company Playtone. Now, Demme and Goetzman had reunited for a work inspired by their first film together. It was the completion of a circle. Jonathan took the opportunity to watch the film again with the audience on a big screen, as he intended it to be experienced.

The last time I saw Jonathan was two days after Donald Trump’s election. The occasion was the DOC NYC Visionaries Tribute where Jonathan received a Lifetime Achievement Award. Even amidst the shock of the week, he stayed positive: “I just feel energized and I hope we all wind up feeling more like that soon.”

In accepting the award, he said, “If you’re going to be proud of any of the work you’ve done, I’m definitely proudest of the documentaries I’ve made. I’ve gotten the chance to enter worlds … maybe it’s a person or a neighborhood or, in the case of Haiti, a country that is so inspiring. It’s a great job to have.”