The maker of Silence of the Lambs, Jonathan Demme, tells Andrew Pulver how he came to direct Beloved
The Guardian - Thursday February 18, 1999
Jonathan Demme would not be everyone's choice to direct a woman-centred movie about slavery. This 55-year-old white male is best known for making The Silence Of The Lambs, which outraged countless pressure groups with its portrayal of not one but two serial killers, one of whom slices up women to make himself a suit of human flesh. Yet when Oprah Winfrey was looking for someone to take control of Beloved, her adaptation of Toni Morrison's acclaimed novel, Demme's was the name that came up. But this shouldn't come as such a surprise. The Silence Of The Lambs may have earned Demme an Oscar for Best Director and eased him into the Hollywood super-league, but it also obscured his otherwise impeccable liberal credentials. Now Winfrey's decision may remind the world that Demme's heart is in the right place.
Although Beloved pretty much flopped in the US when it was released in October last year making only $23 million at the box-office, against a $53 million budget, no one is blaming Demme. 'Nobody has yet to say it could have been a great movie and a white man screwed it up,' he laughs.
The film was embraced thankfully by Toni Morrison, and perhaps it started there. It's much less of an issue than it would have been in the past. Five years ago, certainly 10 years ago, there would have been a lot of finger-pointing if a white film-maker tried to do black subject matter. Since then there's been a whole unleashing of African-American directors, both men and women, and there's a huge quantity of African-American subject matter on screen.
'If there had been an uproar of any kind,' he continues, 'I like to think I would not have been affected by it, because I'm someone who has been rigorous in support of the destruction of apartheid. So I don't feel you can suddenly bow to creative apartheid. The races should work together, and we should be endlessly crossing the colour and gender lines when we make films and stories.'
Demme may come across as terribly earnest, but he does put his money where his mouth is. He followed up the gruesome terrors of The Silence Of The Lambs with the breakthrough gay movie Philadelphia; his own company, Clinica Estetico, developed the Oscar-nominated documentary Mandela and made his own, brilliant documentary chronicle of ghetto life, Cousin Bobby. He has an interest in poverty-stricken Haiti; he has made a film about human-rights abuses in the country, and collects its art.
Now Demme's boundless enthusiasm appears to have foundered on a sad truism: mass audiences don't want to see films about slavery. Not Hollywood ones, anyway. The last one to try, Amistad, also fared badly, chalking up a disappointing $44 million, despite carrying a far starrier cast than Beloved. Demme, though, is resigned to the difficulties of getting the point across.
'Slavery is a very painful subject,' he says, 'but I've always felt that it's desperately in need of taking on. The response you get from white Americans is that they don't want to know the specifics of how damaging to subsequent generations our ancestors' treatment of slaves was. What I hear from black audiences is: enough of the slave thing, what we want to see portrayed are the inspiring, uplifting sides of black life. Show us black family life functioning, give us contemporary role models we can relate to. Don't give us any more chains and whips, because we got that already.'
In a sense, Demme continues, the stay-at-homes are missing his movie's point. 'Beloved doesn't even want to be about slavery; it wants to be a ghost story, about the haunting of people after slavery. It's astonishing to think that slavery was legal in our country only 150 years ago. What it was like for the slaves who had been freed is never dealt with, even in school. The period is know as 'reconstruction' because as well as the country reconstructing itself economically, those human beings who had been slaves were also desperately trying to reconstruct their humanity.'
Fortunately, Demme no longer has to prove himself to anybody. The Silence Of The Lambs is only the greatest of many successes. Demme has synthesised an apparently contradictory film-making personality, turning out a string of crowd-pleasing genre movies, while retaining a commitment to social-issue film-making considerably more intense than more openly political directors.
Demme's career began in London in the late sixties, when he was a stoned-to-the-gills music journalist living in a bedsit behind Victoria station. It was there that American producer Irving Allen asked him to find some local bands to supply soundtrack music for a Mark Lester movie, Eyewitness.
Demme pushed hippy acts Kaleidoscope and Van Der Graaf Generator Allen's way, and a new enthusiasm was born. He swiftly gravitated to Roger Corman's New World Pictures, which meshed hippy outlaw philosophy with hard-headed business discipline. There he soon found himself writing and producing exploitation micro-budgeters like biker movie Angels Hard As They Come and jungle revolution yarn The Hot Box.
Demme worked his way up to sole director credit in 1974, with a women-in-prison flick called Caged Heat, and remains grateful to the schooling he received at New World. 'It was completely understood,' he explains, 'that if you didn't complete the work on any given day you would be replaced. That instilled in me the sense that, first and foremost, your priority was to keep the movie on schedule and on budget. Roger also said something I'll never forget. He said that as far as he was concerned, the formula for a director was 40 per cent artist, 60 per cent businessman. You really did learn on the job.'
Corman graduates are legion in Hollywood - Jack Nicholson, Francis Coppola, Martin Scorsese and Monte Hellman all paid their dues - but Demme was part of a second wave of seventies acolytes, and took longer to make his mark. After directing a trio of films for Corman (the others were Crazy Mama and Fighting Mad), he was hired by Paramount in 1977 to direct an early CB exploitation effort, Handle With Care. But his first really identifiable film didn't arrive until the dawn of the eighties with the funny, idiosyncratic Melvin And Howard.
Then, even as he ran into trouble filming Swing Shift, Warner Bros' Goldie Hawn vehicle, Demme made his name with the Talking Heads performance movie, Stop Making Sense. He shot it in just three nights; by day, he was fighting off attempts to strip him of control of the Warner project.
Thereafter, prestige projects began to pile up, and Demme learned to alternate director-for-hire jobs with the idiosyncratic ones. Successful comedy Something Wild and gangster farce Married To The Mob gave him industry muscle; another low-key performance movie, Spalding Gray's Swimming To Cambodia, kept his intellectual credibility intact.
The cycle repeated itself with The Silence Of The Lambs, which was a greater success than he had ever dreamed. 'It was a great delirious shock to everybody concerned,' he recalls. 'We had no idea what we were going to experience. During the production we were consumed with trying not to screw up a great book.'
The Silence Of The Lambs remains one of the most inspired crime stories of all time - but, true to form, Demme sees a social subtext. 'I always felt that the secret weapon, and the true heart of the movie, was Jodie Foster's portrayal of Clarice Starling. She told me she saw Lambs as a story about one woman trying to save the life of another woman, against indescribable odds. There was a fascinating little feminist parable going on there, a woman on a mission encountering a whole stream of bonehead males trying to make her job difficult.'
But Demme suffered a backlash from gay pressure groups, which objected to interpretations of the killer as homosexual. 'He wasn't a gay character,' Demme now says. 'Just a tormented man who hated himself and wished he was a woman.' In a sense, Demme has been doing penance ever since. His decision to make Hollywood history with Philadelphia, and bring Aids and gay characters into the mainstream, was its main consequence.
But equally central to understanding Demme's work is the film he made immediately after The Silence Of The Lambs: a 70-minute documentary called Cousin Bobby. In a time before Boyz N The Hood altered the Hollywood map, Demme chose to film his close relative Robert Castle at work as an episcopalian minister in Harlem. 'As a moviegoer, and as a citizen, I was troubled about the absence of positive African-American subject matter.
'It seemed the only place you'd see black faces was on the evening news, in connection with shootings and drug busts. These were the images we were exporting and consuming at home, and perpetuating a fear on the part of whites of blacks. Our company set out, in whatever tiny way we could, to contribute something positive.'
Inspired by Malcolm McLaren's Duck Rock, Demme set out to make a documentary on a double-dutch skipping team, but ended up with something far more resonant after Castle got in touch. 'I went and met him, and there he was: a pastor, a fierce and fiery proclaimer of the injustices that had historically been visited on African-Americans.'
Demme's career has now come full circle, with Beloved fleshing out in dramatic form the issues that lay at the heart of Cousin Bobby. Never mind that he is gearing up to scare the pants off the planet with a sequel to The Silence Of The Lambs (entitled The Morbidity Of The Soul); there's enough of the concerned citizen in Demme to ensure that his conscience remains intact. And for that we should continue to be grateful. ? Beloved opens on March 5.
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