After the silence: Maverick film-maker Jonathan Demme finally returns to the Hollywood fold

Jonathan Demme has done his best to avoid Tinseltown since 'The Silence of the Lambs'. So why has a wedding flick lured this renegade film-maker back to the fold?

This month the young American actress Anne Hathaway appears in two films about weddings. The first, Bride Wars, is the nadir of a run of risible Hollywood wedding comedies, from 27 Dresses to Made of Honor. The other, Rachel Getting Married, is a coruscating celebration of family dysfunction, and is expected to earn her a well-deserved Oscar nomination this week – it also happens to have been directed by the irreplaceable Jonathan Demme.

Demme is a class act among contemporary directors. The maker of such memorable films as The Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia and Melvin and Howard, not to mention two of the best concert films ever made – the Talking Heads masterpiece Stop Making Sense and Neil Young: Heart of Gold – he is one of that rare breed able to imbue popular films with an artful, independent sensibility, and also a man who has lost none of his integrity, humour or maverick spirit after 30-odd years of making movies.

It might seem strange to call Demme a maverick: as he himself points out, the success in 1991 of The Silence of the Lambs – one of the few films to win all five principal Oscars, and a cash cow for its studio – gained him lifetime membership to the elite club of directors guaranteed "final cut", whose president, he suggests with a chuckle, is "Spiely".

But ever since his tutelage under the famed exploitation producer Roger Corman – who gave the then-film publicist his first opportunity to write and direct in the mid-1970s – Demme has had an individualist streak that manifests itself not in the scale or financing of his movies, but in the way he subverts genre and content. He is attracted by scripts, he says, that "play against traditional story expectations". He once described The Silence of the Lambs as "a suspense movie with a female protagonist who is never in sexual peril. It's a slasher movie that's devoid not only of slasher scenes, but of the anticipation of seeing them."

That said, recently Demme has found himself moving away from both the studios and features by indulging his career-long love of documentaries with films on the Haitian journalist and free-speech campaigner Jean Dominique (The Agronomist, 2003), and the former US president Jimmy Carter (Jimmy Carter Man from Plains, 2007). "I love making documentaries now," he says. "I made films within the system for years and I don't enjoy the corporate journey any more. Too many people put their opinions into every aspect of the film. It's too complicated and too exhausting. So I don't long to make a Hollywood movie again. It's stressful, it's life-shortening. I don't miss it. I'm satisfied."

Why, then, has he made his first feature since 2004's The Manchurian Candidate? "I got a phone call from Sidney Lumet – a totally great film-maker – saying, 'My daughter Jenny wants you to direct her film.' I agreed to read her script and I fell in love with it. So I took it to Sony Pictures Classics, the only company I would make a fiction film with any more."

In Rachel Getting Married, Hathaway plays Kym, a drug addict who checks out of rehab to attend her sister's wedding, only to find that her status as the family's bad apple, and the accompanying bitterness over a family tragedy, are as pronounced as ever. What ensues veers between wedding-party exuberance and familial rancour.

"I just loved the chances the script takes," recalls Demme. "The one-liner on this would be, 'The bad sister comes home in time to ruin the wedding!' But the wedding isn't the disaster you expect. It's beautiful. There are cataclysmic events, but they are cataclysmic events of the heart, behind closed doors. And at the end, when the film heads towards rapprochement, it doesn't happen. To me, that's shocking and, in its way, incredibly moving, because it makes me go, 'Shit, life is like that, we don't make up all the time, we do go through life with unhealed wounds.' I love the truth of that. This script offered me the chance to move away from the formula and try to do a truthful film about character."

He also found an opportunity to bring his documentary experiences to a feature. "I made an effort to imagine we were making a documentary. I never planned or repeated shots; I tried to forget it was scripted, responding to what was happening in the moment. And I gave [cinematographer] Declan Quinn freedom to film any character he wanted to.

"That was the most exciting thing – pretending we were making a documentary – and I know the actors felt very liberated by it. One hundred per cent of the screenplay is in the film, but there is another 10 per cent of material that happened because they were improvising as we kept the camera going. The result is very blurry; it seems so real.

"I've always been in awe of Robert Altman and Lars Von Trier's films, and as you get older, you start wondering, 'If you love those kinds of films so much, if that approach affects you in such a positive way, how come you don't try to do that? Are you afraid?' And the answer is, 'Yes.' So it was time to try."

When I meet Demme, during the San Sebastian film festival in Spain, the 64-year-old is energetically multi-tasking: acting as president of the festival jury, screening both Rachel Getting Married and a rough cut of his new Neil Young concert film, Neil Young Trunk Show, and at the same time constantly mulling over his new project, a documentary on another of his musical heroes, Bob Marley.

"There have been two very good, very straightforward Bob Marley documentaries" he says. "That means mine can't be straightforward, can't be the career analysis; it has to be different. I agreed to do this when I was told there was a TREMENDOUS amount of archival footage" – Demme is a man who often talks in upper case – "of Marley that hasn't been seen, hundreds of hours of stuff in a vault in London. So there's a real chance here to make a film that would be from Marley's point of view, where we can hopefully find live performances that will get people listening to the lyrics again. We want to be a vessel for the spirituality and social concerns of Bob Marley through non-stop music."

A few weeks later Demme phones me from New York, where he is editing his Marley footage. "I'm deep into the documentary, which is going incredibly well," he enthuses. "I'll tell you what, there is so MUCH great footage. Too much. I could be making three Marley films now. It's going to be a portrait film like no other. I'm ecstatic about it.

"There's no one like Bob Marley. NO ONE. The way this guy meets in the crossroads of spirituality and music is mind-blowing. I had full respect for Bob Marley, but I didn't have a clue." He sounds like a teenager, discovering music, and film, for the first time. "I really think this is going to be quite something."

Demme's delights: The maverick directors who get away with it

George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh

"They constantly get the most preposterously off-formula movies made with corporate funding," says Demme. "How do they do it? They also keep making enormously lucrative pictures for the same people."

JJ Abrams

"He and the other producers of Lost have seamlessly woven into their constantly rule-breaking hit TV series an Iraqi Muslim former-torturer, and made him one of the all-time most sympathetic leading male characters."

Bob Rafelson

"He made being intellectual hot and sexy with Five Easy Pieces."

Catherine Hardwicke

"There's no predicting what she is going to do next, but it won't be the sequel to [2008 vampire film] Twilight, as the suits she made rich with the artistry of the original have found a controllable, less individualistic film-maker whose creativity they will smother."

'Rachel Getting Married' is released on Friday

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