Jonathan Demme on Gaza, Transphobia in ‘The Silence of the Lambs,’ and Meryl Streep as a Rock Star
The Oscar winning filmmaker behind the celebrated films Stop Making Sense, Married to the Mob, The Silence of the Lambs, and more discussed his first feature in six years, A Master Builder, and much more.
Only three films in movie history have ever won the “Big Five”—the Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Screenplay: It Happened One Night, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and lastly, The Silence of the Lambs.
The latter film, released in 1991, was directed by Jonathan Demme. After graduating from the Roger Corman school of filmmaking, whose prestigious alumni include Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, James Cameron, and countless others, he helmed the classic Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense, as well as a series of scintillating screwball comedies, including Something Wild and Married to the Mob, before hitting pay dirt with Silence.
A Master Builder, a film adaptation of the Henrik Ibsen play, marks Demme’s first feature film in six years—since his acclaimed ensemble drama Rachel Getting Married. It centers on Halvard Solness (Wallace Shawn, also screenwriter), a miserly megalomaniac—and renowned architect—who, on his death bed, drifts off into a fantasyland wherein the fetching young Hilde (Lisa Joyce) leads him to temptation.
I wanted to talk with you about some of the comments you made about the situation in Gaza the other day, calling Israel’s offensive “a horrendous use of force.”
I think there is no more important subject in the world than the need for a two-state solution to what’s going on there. We Americans are so woefully unaware when it comes to the history, and the specifics. The media has not done a great job in fulfilling their role—journalism’s role in a democracy is to provide information on profoundly important subjects so we’re an informed citizenry. Especially after the Twin Towers, we’re so terrified of “Arabic” people. And talk about stereotypical negative portrayals of people of certain groups, if you look at the portrayal of Arabic people in Hollywood films, it’s just appalling. They’ve always been just the easiest of targets—along with native Africans, and what have you. They’re just portrayed as the “other,” so it’s OK to kill them and it’s OK to take their land.
To play devil’s advocate, how would you propose to deal with an organization like Hamas that is, by most accounts, a terrorist organization whose very mission is the annihilation of the Jewish people.
Here’s what I think: I feel that the wall is illegal. The occupied territories and the movement of settlements—moving people today off of their property and claiming it—is illegal. A great way to continue to restore the dialogue with Hamas would be to honor the original dictates. I’m not an expert, but that’s a start.
OK, let’s talk movies. Stop Making Sense is, in my opinion, the greatest concert film of all-time. And it turned 30 this year. I heard David Byrne had quite a few stipulations regarding the final product.
When we were preparing to make the film, from time to time, David would pose a question that honestly terrified me because it was a fair question, but arose from an academic perspective. He’d say, “How is this concert film going to be different from all other concert films?” I didn’t really know! All I knew was the band was going to be Talking Heads, and I was going to be directing it. David worked very closely with the cinematographer on the lighting. I loved the lighting concept that David had created for the stage show, so I knew that putting him together with one of the great lighting cameramen of all-time, Jordan Crononweth, he could finally see the lighting he saw in his head. David was very, very involved.
Do you have favorite memories from the making of the film?
Today is also, I think, a golden age of contemporary music. There are seemingly endless terrific bands coming up and doing incredibly high-quality work. But that was a true, true golden age. It was the first full-force onslaught of new wave, punk, import, and indie, and if you were a New Yorker, every night of the week you could go someplace, not have to spend a fortune, and see a fabulous current act. Of all the artists I loved in those days, Talking Heads was my favorite. I saw their show at The Greek Theatre in Los Angeles, and saw a movie just waiting to be filmed. We shot those concerts with a lot of well-placed cameras, and there’s always something far more interesting going on onstage than what’s happening with the audience. Every time you change angles, you terminate the reality of what was going on in the previous shot, so we realized that if we were able to hang in on a terrific shot, and let the reality of that sustained moment come to the fore, it would be a lot more thrilling to viewers than cutting around a lot. I saw the film a couple of weeks ago at a 30th anniversary thing up in Pleasantville and though, “Wow, man! This film looks as fresh as a daisy!”
I enjoy both The Silence of the Lambs and NBC’s Hannibal. What are your thoughts on the TV show?
I haven’t watched Hannibal and I’d like to, so I don’t have a good reference point yet. I’m very curious. I’ve heard good things about the TV show, though!
You’ve directed a couple of documentaries and an episode of The Killing, but it’s still been six years since your last feature film, Rachel Getting Married. Is it just tougher to get films made these days?
It probably was the longest gap between feature films in my career. I wanted to do another feature film, because that’s how a director earns their living. You can go right through whatever you’ve got in the bank if you do too many of these wonderful little labors of love back-to-back. It’s hard to get financing for the kinds of story-driven, character-driven pictures that I’d like to make. I had some very frustrating experiences over the course of that time getting involved with producers I didn’t know, and working with wonderful writers on scripts that were marvelous and gathering together a terrific cast, only to discover that the way these projects were going to get financed—because they were non-studio films—was to take the package to the foreign investment world, and whatever advances come in from future foreign sales, that’s your budget. That means you can fall way short of what I would have thought would be the minimal amount of money needed on the projects at hand. Now, I’m in heightened pre-production on a feature film, Ricki and the Flash, which we’re going to start shooting on Oct. 1. It’s a great script by Diablo Cody, and Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, and Mamie Gummer are in the cast. It’s a rock ’n’ roll driven family drama/comedy.
So Meryl plays a rocker? Who did you model her character on?
Meryl plays Ricki and she’s the rocker. Kevin is the ex—the abandoned husband who lost Ricki to rock ’n’ roll. In our story, they come back together again under grave family circumstances. There’s another part we’re looking to cast of the guitarist who really wants to be Meryl’s boyfriend. Meryl, who is as we know a terrific singer, is a rock ’n’ roller. She loves rock ’n’ roll, and is taking a very personally-crafted approach to Ricki. Ricki’s of a generation of people like Joan Jett and Chrissie Hynde, but I think this is going to be a very unique act.
How did Master Builder come to fruition?
I got an email one day to see a workshop presentation of a production that Andre Gregory was directing of Master Builder and was really blown away by it. In talking with Wally and Andre afterwards, the idea of making a film of this piece came up, and I got very excited, and we raised a little bit of money and just did it. It was a “labor of love,” but also a thrilling directorial experience.
Was it your take on the play? Many view it as a man drawn to his doom by his infatuation for a younger woman, and youth in general. How do you see Ibsen’s play?
I see it as an amends film. In real life, somebody gets old, they’re threatened with death, they reflect on their life, and might start focusing on things they regret or feel guilt about. Solness has much to regret, and yet, we meet him on his deathbed in this moment of deep, profound reflection. Wally turned the piece into a fever dream, so we see what’s going through Solness’s mind before dying.
I love Married to the Mob. That film introduced me to New Order when I was a kid.
We had so much fun making that movie. That was the second film I directed for Orion, this independent financier that existed in the ’80s and early ’90s—The Silence of the Lambs was one of their last movies—and it felt what it must have been like in the old studio days where a filmmaker made movies for a studio. It was a great underdog story of a decent woman trying to break from the patriarchy, and finds it’s not all that easy. Michelle Pfeiffer was thrilled to play a part she’d never done before. Once we got that big hair on her, she found her inner Italian; her inner Long Island gal. I would love to team up with Michelle again. She’s underutilized.
I read that Michelle Pfeiffer turned down Clarice Starling in Silence, is that true?
I did. I went right to Michelle because we’d had such a great experience on Mob, and I felt that she could do anything. But it was way too dark for her, so Michelle ran away from that part, I’m happy to say, because that road led to Jodie Foster and working with Jodie was one of the great highs I’ve ever experienced working. I went to Meg Ryan after Michelle, because I thought she’d be terrific, but she too found it way too dark and terrifying. Only one person got offered the part of Lecter before Anthony Hopkins. Every male actor wanted that part. I loved Tony Hopkins from the beginning, but I was trying to be diligent and get a more commercial actor for the part because Tony didn’t have the box office allure that he later gained, so I went to Sean Connery, who found the piece “repugnant.” That’s what he said. So I felt, great, I went to James Bond and he said no, so I can now go to the doctor from The Elephant Man. Gene Hackman was going to direct the movie, and his daughter apparently talked him out of directing the movie because she felt it was too dark and could destroy his career.
The Silence of the Lambs was criticized for being anti-gay and transphobic at the time of its release, and even more so since.
Well, Jame Gumb isn’t gay. And this is my directorial failing in making The Silence of the Lambs—that I didn’t find ways to emphasize the fact that Gumb wasn’t gay, but more importantly, that his whole thing is that Lecter’s profile on Gumb was that he was someone who was terribly abused as a child, and as a result of the abuse he suffered as a child, had extreme self-loathing, and whose life had become a series of efforts to not be himself anymore. The idea is that by turning himself into a female, then surely Gumb can feel like he has escaped himself. He’s not a traditional “cross-dresser,” “transvestite,” or “drag queen”—the various labels that respectfully come up for people who love to don the clothing of the opposite gender. So, Gumb is not gay, but there is a reference to a homosexual experience he had which is attributed to this quest. We were all banking a little too much on the metaphor of the Death’s-head moth—that Gumb is trying to achieve a metamorphosis through making his human suit. We didn’t fortify and clarify that enough.
That said, when the film was accused of continuing a history of stereotypical negative portrayals of gay characters, that was a wake-up call for me as a filmmaker, and as a person. My gay friends who loved Silence of the Lambs, including my friend Juan Botas, who was one of the inspirations for Philadelphia, said, “You can’t imagine what it’s like to be a 12-year-old gay kid, and you go to the movies all the time and whenever you see a gay character, they’re either a ridiculous comic-relief caricature, or a demented killer. It’s very hard growing up gay and being exposed to all these stereotypes.” That registered with me in a big way. That year, we got a number of awards from the New York Film Critics Circle, and at a certain point in the awards ceremony, a dozen young people came into the room with fliers and put them on all the tables and they said, “STOP NEGATIVE PORTRAYALS OF GAYS ON FILM.” I thought, “This is such a bonus.” Because the film is this big success, and it’s now become a part of the dialogue on stereotypical portrayals of gays in movies.
So did you do Philadelphia after Silence to create a more positive portrayal of the gay community?
That came because so many of my loved ones were getting sick, including Juan Botas, and my producing partner’s dear friend had AIDS, and we went to Marc Platt, a studio executive who was tremendously concerned with the AIDS epidemic, and we decided to make a movie that would try very hard to introduce new ideas and new perspectives of people with AIDS into the national consciousness. Ron Nyswaner worked meticulously on the script, and then Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington wanted to be in it before even being offered it. On the strength of their involvement, the studio felt they’d go ahead and finance this risky film with gay characters as the heroes. But it didn’t have anything to do with The Silence of the Lambs situation. I see the linkage, and on a certain level, lucky me to have the opportunity to do a very positive gay film on the heels of being accused of making a film that had very stereotypical gay characters.
It was very much ahead of its time. Just a month ago we had The Normal Heart premiere on HBO, and late last year, we had The Dallas Buyer’s Club last year. And now, gay marriage is finally being accepted in America.
I think that Philadelphia was very much of its time. Ronald Reagan was president when we made that movie, and he was scornful and just openly had all these vile attitudes. He didn’t give a shit. “AIDS cures them” was the mentality amongst most of the power brokers, so we felt like we were doing an intensely agitprop piece that was totally wedded to the moment. When we started out making an AIDS film, we realized that in order to get to the roots of AIDS discrimination, you had to unpack homophobia in America—which was how Denzel Washington’s character came so deeply into play. He becomes a case study in a homophobe becoming sensitized to the humanity of gay people through his contact with one. By the way, I’m doing a documentary on a friend of mine over time who’s a pre-op transsexual. Now, we realize that transgendered Americans are the ones who are most in need of acknowledgement and support, and integration into the “mainstream”—whatever the heck that is.