Nyack resident and Academy Award-winning Director Jonathan Demme’s concert film Justin Timberlake and the Tennessee Kids will be widely released early this fall. The Following Q&A with Demme is excerpted from the first issue of the Pink Monkey magazine, which was released in May. Read the full-length interview by ordering a copy here or by picking up a copy from the Beast With a Million Eyes booth at today’s street fair. Copies can also be found at Kiam Records, Festoon, and Pickwick Bookstore.
How did Justin Timberlake and the Tennessee Kids come about?
Justin asked me at a certain point if I thought there was a Stop Making Sense style approach that could work with his show. Obviously I’m a big Justin Timberlake fan. So I went to the 20:20 show and flipped for it and thought we could probably do something pretty amazing with that show. So, we follow them on the last five or six dates they had leading up to their final dates in Las Vegas on New Year’s 2015 where we shot two nights. It was nicely super-charged, them having been on the road together for two years, knowing this was their last performance. That they really love each other and the dancers very much, it was an emotional experience. We have that added value in the feeling of the film.
Does that happen a lot? Artists approaching to you, you having done Stop Making Sense?
It doesn’t happen very much. It happened here. And about three years ago Kenny Chesney was doing a show down at the Jersey Shore and I was invited to direct it.
Storefront Hitchcock and the Neil Young concert films, those were your ideas?
Storefront Hitchcock, yes. The Neil Young films, Neil did the song “Philadelphia” for the movie Philadelphia. We liked that experience of working together and I said, “You know, if you ever need a video director…”–though he’s a very good filmmaker himself. He invited me to shoot four songs from the “Sleeps With Angels” album–something he did with Crazy Horse, and it turned into a DVD called Neil Young: The Complex Sessions.
And then I shot this movie somewhere around the turn of the century, the remake of the Manchurian Candidate. It was a huge production, fraught with all kinds of studio politics and intrigue. It cost a lot of money to make. We came in on budget, but it was a really expensive movie to make–arduous process. And at the end of that I found myself thinking, I’m over this for a while, I don’t want to direct feature films for a while. I made good money on Manchurian Candidate so I was like, I’m going to go on sabbatical. So, I have my little office down on Cedar Hill [Avenue] here in Nyack, and I’d go in there every day and, you know, relax, have a life.
Then about a year later I started itching to shoot something. I didn’t have a documentary going on at the moment. I called Neil Young up because he had invited me, while I was in preproduction on Manchurian Candidate, to direct his movie Greendale. I loved that album so much, and I loved that concert so much, so I would have loved to have done that but I had this other gig to do with Manchurian Candidate. So I called him back to say “Hi.” I didn’t really know him that well yet. I said, “Hi, just wondering if there’s anything you need filmed?” I really hated having to pass on Greendale. Which I had subsequently seen, and I thought it was magnificent, his version of it. He told me he was working on this new album, Prairie Wind; that he had an aneurysm and thought he was perhaps in close range of death and had written all these songs in this moment of maybe I’m not going to be around too much longer. He said, “maybe we can do something with that.” I was like, “I’d love to hear them.” The songs were so moving, so fantastic, that I called back and said “Let’s film this album somewhere, maybe out on the plains of Canada.” We wound up deciding to turn the album into a Nashville stage show, taking a time warp approach, filming at the legendary Ryman Auditorium.
Those costumes are great.
Aren’t they cool? And Manuel, who, by the way, has to dream the costumes before he can design them, came up with what we see on stage there. It was really a superb experience. We were into preproduction and I suddenly did the math, like, “Neil, wait, Prairie Wind lasts about fifty-four minutes. We want to have about a ninety-minute 53 movie here. Would you be interested in doing some older songs as a part two to this film?” He said, “Sure, so long as I can choose from the Nashville songs that I’ve written, songs that fall into that mode, have been inspired, written in Nashville.”
Going back to The Manchurian Candidate, were you not satisfied with the process of making a blockbuster movie, or was it the final product that you had issues with?
I liked the way the film turned out. Although one of my fantasies is to screen it for an audience one day and then beg the audience to explain it to me. I think I understand it, but is it understandable? Especially this rogue element of the FBI or whoever they are.
Even if you don’t understand it, that’s a movie that feels relevant. Even if you don’t follow every bit of the plot, the themes are very resonant.
Good. Good. I like the way you put that. For me it’s more of a felt film than an understood film. But my problems were, it was a huge budgeted movie… though, we didn’t go over budget–again I want to stress we came in under budget. I’ve never gone over budget. That’s one of the reasons I’ve been able to stay in the game. But close to $100 million were spent to make that film. I have to say, I found myself not being super comfortable. I found myself having thoughts about what else that hundred million could have been spent on. Especially seeing Napoleon Dynamite that same summer–seeing this perfect film made for $400,000. It’s this perfect film, and I thought, You know, I’d love to make a movie like that. That’s filmmaking for you. We can gather all the experts together and all the great actors and have a strong script and spend a fortune. That’s one thing. But it doesn’t appeal to me anymore. Now I want to try. If I’m going to direct at all after my sabbatical, it’s either going to be exclusively documentaries or low budget movies.
In some strange way was Napoleon Dynamite inspiration for I’m Carolyn Parker [a DIY documentary that follows a New Orleans woman and her family post-Katrina]?
Hmm, you know, yes. In the sense that it gave me the confidence that if you have strong subject matter, even if we have never heard of the subject matter, if we can get in there in the right way and make a strong film out of it then we’ve done it. So, yes, this was confidence building.
Carolyn Parker really came from, first and foremost, probably my growing love for documentaries over the years. To this day I have loved them more and more, and it’s been very exciting to be in this era where more and more documentaries are being made. They’re even fighting for screens now.
It’s not the most aesthetically beautiful film, but she’s such an amazing character.
I’m glad you saw that. Yeah, she sure is. Specifically, Carolyn Parker was an outgrowth of me as a Northern person witnessing the horror of the plight of the people of New Orleans. And hearing about people who were going back into their homes and finding the neighborhoods had been basically devastated and abandoned. Of course, the media had left after the floods dispersed and the bodies got bagged. So I went down with [producer] Daniel Wolff, with a camera to witness. That was my excuse, to bear witness. I started meeting these extraordinary people.
That led to me wanting to do a documentary that would take the form of four seasonal visits one year after the floods so we can witness the progress and changes in these peoples’ lives, people who I met and quickly fell in love with . . . . I’m Carolyn Parker is one of five portrait documentaries set against that backdrop that I hope will become a quintet some day.
Tell me about Black Lives Matter, especially concerning race in Hollywood. Your films are very colorful and diverse. Do you encounter resistance from Hollywood when you’re trying to make a movie that has people of color who aren’t necessarily Denzel Washington? Obviously there were no Oscar nominations for Black actors this year – how does that happen?
Gosh. I, like you, have been thinking about this a lot. I wrote a little something that got put up on Deadline Hollywood. In trying to get my ideas on paper I really came to the conclusion that it is the same thing, the same race problem that we have everywhere. There has to be an interest in Black lives on behalf of the non-Black population in order to get more films made, get audiences to see them, have them win awards, make money, etcetera.
Let’s start with that brand name, Black Lives Matter. Black Stories matter! Black films matter! Watch them! You know? I’m convinced. And this isn’t putting anybody down either because we’re racist, especially my generation. 54 Not y’all’s generation, it’s much better. But we were raised just on European imagery, and European books, and European history, and more. There was no African history taught to me anywhere in my public school experience, ever. Never ever. So this is all stuff I had to learn about when I got out into the world and started meeting people. I grew up in an all-White community on the south shore of Long Island. Thank god my family moved to Florida, to Miami, and things opened up for me, working with black people, hanging out with them, going to clubs and churches with black friends in segregated Florida. But that’s the thing, how do you get people to have a desire to see and experience things outside of their comfort box?
I made this movie Beloved from the great Toni Morrison novel. We were in Chicago, my son and I, just as it was opening, and I wanted to see Beloved on the screen with a real audience, in theatres. So Brooklyn and I go to this cinema and there’s two things showing, Beloved and Rush Hour. I was like, “OHH I want to see Rush Hour! It’s a Friday night, I’m exhausted, Beloved is great, I know it, I even made it! but I want to go in that Rush Hour door and have fun.” So maybe there’s a dimension – do you think? – when we want people to dare to experience Black stories and Black films if they’re not Black themselves. Is there a dimension of we want you to take your medicine? Do you think it’s a perception that it might be too challenging?
It’s striking how present and dominant Black culture is in a lot of the arts and yet not so much in movies. Listening to rap music is not medicine but then suddenly watching Tangerine is.
You’re right. There’s just a tremendous wave of Black plays, Black themed plays, over the past couple of years. It’s incredible. It seems like there is always something very edgy, very exciting to see now. Hamilton is just one example of that.
Do you think it’s because movies are more expensive to make than plays or records? And maybe, again, it is that competition for us to make our choice to see the Black Lives Matter film instead of Mad Max – which I adore – instead of seeing The Revenant. If there are so many films around, which there are today, it makes it that much harder. I do think that’s changing. You look back two years ago, 12 Years a Slave, how did that break though? Maybe because it was such a good movie, it had to break through. But that broke through big time. Maybe people are also afraid. I was nervous about seeing Son of Saul, because it’s the holocaust. I know it’s going to be profoundly distressing, so especially if it is serious Black Lives Matter theme . . . Fruitvale Station, fantastic movie, you know, I don’t know how that did at the box office. I don’t know who the audience was, who actually showed up for that movie. But everybody should have shown up. They would have had an amazing experience; their eyes might be opened up a little more to the Black experience.
Do you think it is changing at all?
Yes, I do. I feel like these issues of Black participation, Latino participation, People of Color participation, women’s participation, in all aspects of the movie business and other business, I feel like we’re living this through now, where people can’t get away from having to make a choice. Where maybe a few years ago it wasn’t that big an issue, it wasn’t plunked on the national forum. You could just think of White males and not go, You should do due diligence here, you might come up with something much better, you could have reached a wider audience. I do feel that the widest audiences imaginable are the ones that will show up when White audiences open up to Black stories. Not just historical amazing revelations of the past, like 12 Years a Slave, but any story.
I love to cast colorblind, it’s so much fun. Rachel’s husband in Rachel Getting Married was not scripted as an African-American character, but when I started working with our casting directors in that movie… you know, none of the characters in this movie are particularly likeable, the character of Kim especially is kind of irritating. I know that Anne Hathaway, by playing this very naturalistically and bringing herself to the piece, will get people on her side. Jenny [Lumet]’s script was very stealthily cast that way… I just wanted to cast likeable, excellent actors in that movie so that the audience can have fun being with this group of people from the leads down through the whole gang. I asked Bernie Telsey and Tiffany Little-Canfield, our casting directors, to bring in their favorite actors, we didn’t care about gender, we didn’t care about age, race, etcetera. We just had everybody read a bunch of stuff. Tunde came in and was a fabulous naturalistic actor and I was like, “I like him more than anyone else who came in as a person. He’s the husband.” We went that way.
Anyway, I do feel more and more the trend is shifting. At night if you watch The Daily Show and The Nightly Show, you have back-to-back hosts of color and their guests are frequently guests of color. It’s all mixed up; but I think those shows are doing really well. TV is probably breaking down more barriers over the past few years. Key and Peele. It’s great stuff going on.
Are there other ways that you navigate that besides colorblind casting? We’re just thinking –
I know what you mean. That is the core question we’ve been nibbling around.
So, there’s a script, a beautiful, beautiful script written by Marcus Hinchey for a film called Come Sunday. It’s a true story, amazing story about a great Evangelical preacher named Carlton Pearson, who decided there was no hell and at the peak of his popularity – peak of his popularity! – he had an enormous, eight thousand strong congregation. But he kinda lost everything because he renounced the notion of Hell, saying God would not make a Hell.
So anyway, Marcus worked on this script, I worked with him for almost a year, and we sent it to Jeffrey Wright, and Jeffrey loved it. Jeffrey came on board but we were quickly hearing from the West Coast financiers, “Black picture, no superstars in the cast, budget is maximum five or six million dollars.” Now that is a lot of money. But in terms of the way you spend money to make movies, to make period movies with large crowds, that’s not going to be enough. In the olden days if I had been one of the producers I would have done many things to the end of getting that film made. The studio heads really responded well to the script but they didn’t know how to sell this Black film without a big star in the lead. Jeffrey Wright, who has had such a formidable career so far, this is going to put Jeffery right over the top. He’s going to put us over the top, and we’re going to put him over the top.
But the West Coast people said, “This is all we can get, the studios have passed.” Everything is done by agents. The producers find out that the studios passed because their agent calls up to tell them. In the olden days we were talking to the people at the studio and if they loved the script but didn’t know how to sell it that’s when we jumped in our cars, went roaring over, to convince them and capitalize on their enthusiasm, to try and get them to share the dream. It’s not done like that any more. Studios pass: Okay, we need to depend on foreign sales. They pre-sell the foreign sales on the basis of a script, not a movie. The little tiny commitments come in from all the countries, Okay that’s going to be your budget. Then out of the money that comes from these foreign sales, the foreign sales agents take a huge cut of that off the top, so if they can get, let’s say, six million dollars to make your movie, now you’ve got four million dollars because the foreign sales agent has taken the rest. It is something that has happened to me a couple of times. It illustrates the wall you can hit.
In the spirit of Come Sunday, we wanted to talk about some other projects that never got made. Can you speak to what happened with Zeitoun?
Zeitoun is, of course, an extraordinary story. It’s an extraordinary story of heroism; it’s an extraordinary story of suppression and racism. A gripping book, did great, people love it, it’s assigned in schools. There’s one problem, though, with Zeitoun for a movie audience: Its hero is a Muslim. The hero family is a Muslim family. Who is going to go see that? I believe that the story is so rich that we can do it in such a way that we could reach a huge audience, change some hearts and minds for the better. I like the idea of animating Zeitoun; instead of hiring actors and stunt people to float around in the water as the floods are sweeping New Orleans, let’s draw it.
Because of the power of [Dave] Eggers’s book, people were interested. But again it’s the same thing with Come Sunday with Jeffrey Wright, Yeah but… People didn’t come out and say it, but this idea of Gosh, we’re Islamophobic here in America and this movie has a Muslim as a hero and it’s going to take 15 million dollars to make as an animated film. There were those who believe this could actually make a difference in that regard, that’s one of the great reasons to make this film. Not only is it a great story, not only does it shed light on the horrendous behavior of security personnel after Katrina but it is a great human story and [Abdulrahman] Zeitoun emerges redeemed. It has a happy ending. He goes through all this stuff.
I started working with Charlie Griak, an animator/illustrator from Minneapolis who was doing amazing story boards; and I was writing the script, the story boards are going in, we’re really growing. We went from an outline to a very strong script, and finally a multimillionaire from Houston, Texas who wanted to get into the movie business says “I’m going to finance this”–by the way, he is a Muslim–and he is putting this company together that is going to be his movie company. He’s going to do it. We have a deal. We have a celebration in New York, the Zeitoun’s come up from New Orleans, Eggers comes from L.A., Curious Pictures, the animation studios, we’re all there. We have this great meal. Amir El Saffar, who is a fantastic jazz musician here in New York–he’s in Rachel Getting Married – he’s there doing incredible Syrian music. It’s all there, and then a week or so later the guy from Houston wants to make a couple of changes, some protections in the deal, and it goes away. The people he had brought into his company are telling him, Who knows if people are going to see it? You should have ‘this’ way to get out, ‘that’ way to get out. We had a completely locked in deal. Money, financing at the end of the day killed Zeitoun in the same way it did Come Sunday.
So prior to the interview, you said that you’d be interested in talking about “projects that never came to be and the many roads that sometimes lead to nowhere,” which is really interesting, but raises the question: Is there a reason that projects that didn’t get made were interesting to you right now? Has there been something recently that made you want to talk about this?
What folks don’t realize is that filmmakers put a lot of work into ideas they love that never see the light of day. Now, that’s probably not true of Steven Spielberg and certain others. But for me, for us to be able to talk a little bit about Zeitoun, it feels good because I’m proud of Zeitoun even though I didn’t get to make it.
And I’m very proud of the time I spent on Come Sunday, working with Marcus Hinchey, Carlton and some of the producers. And I worked for a year on a wonderful script by Heather McGowan, called Old Fires; and again, we didn’t have big stars–I wanted Bryan Cranston, coming in fairly freshly off of Breaking Bad, and Jennifer Ehle, and Elle Fanning to be the leads. And those are all amazing actors, capable of attracting audiences, but none of them were box office draws. So once again, great compliments from the studios on the script, but this definitely had an indie feeling; it wanted to be an indie. And again, producers on the west coast get their foreign sales reps together and find out–it’s all done by computer by the way–so literally, for Bulgaria or the UK or Peru, they’ll feed the elements into a computer–actors, genre, director equals ‘this much box office in that country’, and ‘this is how your budget gets raised.’
What I said, because I’m so old school–I’ve been making movies since the 1970s, when I started out with Roger Corman–“Why try to sell a script to distributors when you might just make a great movie out of it that they can see and really want, and move beyond the computer print-out way of doing things?”
Are there any filmmakers that are young and not many people know of that you really like?
Yes. I just saw a film by a young Brazilian director named Gabriel Mascaro called The Neon Bull. It was BRILLIANT! And this guy’s going to explode. The work of young filmmakers interests me a lot more than the work of older filmmakers. There’s a documentary filmmaker named Sean Gallagher who I’ve met at the Jacob Burns Film Center. He does fantastic documentaries. I’m always excited to see what Sean does next.
But the answer I want to give to that is that I’ve become completely obsessed with the Duplass brothers. Anything with their name on it. Whatever side of the camera they’re on, I know it’s going to be good. It’s unbelievable. Where did these guys come from? When will they stop? I think my fantasy would be to find myself working on a Duplass movie. One way or the other.
In 1994 you told Rolling Stone in that your three greatest convictions were “helping people having a hard time is less a duty than a pleasure,” “bigotry is more the result of ignorance than evil,” and “goodness is deep in the American grain.” I’m wondering if you still feel that way.
I do. That’s why I’m not upset about Donald Trump. Sometimes it takes the greatest negative provocation to bring out the best in us, and I see that happening again. And especially on these issues. Let’s do fight it out about immigration. Let’s do fight it out about Islamophobia, transgender equality, racism and institutionalized sexism. Let’s really get it on. In the same way things exploded in the late ‘60s, which I was very much front and center for. So this is a good thing. I have confidence in the outcome.
Pink Monkey magazine co-editors Max Cea and Sam Schieren spoke with Director Jonathan Demme last Spring.