Jonathan Demme: Odd man out

Jonathan Demme's films are warm, compassionate, fun. Yes, The Silence of the Lambs thrust him into the Hollywood super league. But don't be fooled, says Ryan Gilbey. He loves people above all things and his new remake of a Sixties classic is a bit special...
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The Independent Culture

When the time comes, in 30 years or so, for the American director Jonathan Demme to receive his Lifetime Achievement Oscar, the show-reel of clips from his movies will be hard to match for sheer eclecticism. There will be his 1990 Hollywood breakthrough, The Silence of the Lambs, not to mention the kooky confections that he had been knocking out for years before the world began reciting Hannibal Lecter's recipe for human liver and fava beans with a nice chianti.

There was Demme's screwball adventure Something Wild (1986) and his Mafia farce Married to the Mob (1988), as well as documentaries like The Agronomist (2003) and Cousin Bobby (1992) that took him off the beaten track; the witty blue-collar comedy Melvin and Howard (1980), and David Byrne in an outsized suit in Stop Making Sense (1984). It's pleasing to report that the director's latest picture, a dark but playful updating of John Frankenheimer's 1962 thriller The Manchurian Candidate (with the action transferred to the first Gulf War), is as idiosyncratic as anything he has done. There are star names above the title - Denzel Washington gives a nervy performance as a US sergeant struggling with nightmares, while Meryl Streep is the domineering senator who may be implicated in them - but you'll have to look elsewhere for your Hollywood gloss, your happy endings.

One film that will be missing from that far-off Oscar night, just as it is absent from Demme's CV and from the press-notes for The Manchurian Candidate, is the first project on which he yelled "Action!", in a tatty London studio way back in 1973. Yes, from the director who brought you Philadelphia (1994), the first Hollywood movie to confront Aids, and Beloved (1998), a tasteful adaptation of Toni Morrison's cherished novel, it's... Secrets of a Door-to-Door Salesman.

"That film was part of a time-honoured genre," says Demme. "Or maybe that should be time-warped." Despite flecks of grey in his spiky hair and stubble, he looks a good decade shy of his 60 years; his black-and-red pullover would allow him to fit in nicely on the USS Enterprise. If he is feeling any embarrassment about discussing his less-than-illustrious debut as a director, he isn't showing it.

"I was living in London in the early 1970s, and had written and produced a couple of films for Roger Corman. I was contacted by a producer who wanted me to audition to direct this sexploitation film. I was given one scene to direct, though for some reason I was rejected for the rest of the film. But they kept my scene in the finished movie - it's still there!" I press him on the content of the scene. "Well, a young man and woman are in bed," he explains patiently. "The man leaves, and the camera stays on the young woman as she, uh, gets dressed for the day." He makes it sound as tasteful as a Merchant-Ivory garden party.

But why wouldn't he? One quality that has characterised Demme's films is his unconditional acceptance of all human life. You would search long and hard for a callous or judgemental frame in his work. Plainly put, he loves people.

"I do!" he trills in his infectious, gee-whiz manner. "That's one of the joyful aspects of the work, and I also feel it's part of my responsibility as a film-maker. You have to remember that the behaviour you visualise on screen will be witnessed by thousands or millions of people, and will ultimately say something about us as a species. That's why it gets harder for me to have pure villains in my films. When people tell me, 'Oh, Meryl Streep's great in The Manchurian Candidate, I hated her so much!' - well, I don't wanna hear the 'hated' part, because I see her as a fully fledged, emotional person."

His conscientiousness is no put-on. Discussing The Manchurian Candidate, with its focus on the distortion of war by media and government alike, leads inevitably to the current war in Iraq. "Surely more than ever before, the lies of leaders are evident if you dare to see the truth," he observes. "I've been watching all the developments very closely - the deployment of the Black Watch, the question of whether Tony Blair knew that was a foregone conclusion - and I sense that here and certainly in the US people feel a strong sense of disenfranchisement from the democratic process."

Look as far back as his first two films and you'll find a film-maker whose liberal concerns shone through his material. On Caged Heat (1974), he insisted that the tearaway heroines be allowed to survive, contrary to genre specifications. He tried the same trick on the follow-up, Crazy Mama (1975), and fell foul of Roger Corman, who complained: "They escaped! You've got no ending!" Characteristically, Demme shot a final scene in which the outlaw heroes are shown happily running a hot-dog stand. More than 20 years later, he was promoting pacifism again in The Truth About Charlie (2001). "I thought: Wouldn't it be interesting if, instead of the standard good guy/bad guy shoot-out, the hero gets everyone to put their guns down? Married To The Mob had gun-fights as fun, and at some point I looked at it and thought: I just don't feel right about this anymore."

It is hard to fault Demme's compassion. When he discusses The Silence of the Lambs, he refers to the film's supposed villain, Jame Gumb, as a "bad guy who is, in fact, a terribly damaged guy whose life has been a disaster". That film does end with a shoot-out, though he is quick to point out that if the audience cheers, he hasn't done his job properly. "There's nothing to cheer about when someone is shot dead," he says sagely. You may hear his words resonate during the climax of The Manchurian Candidate, in which the weight of the entire film rests on a single bullet. "To whatever extent the glamorisation of gun violence helps in some way in my country to continue the acceptance of guns, I want to remove myself from that equation."

I wonder if it was difficult, given the emphasis he places on humanistic filmmaking, to be accused of homophobia by gay activists who picketed The Silence of the Lambs. "It's complicated," he says pensively. "The film very clearly says that Jame Gumb spends his life altering himself to escape from the terrible fact of who he is, and how he's been abused. So it makes sense that if he's heterosexual, he'll try being homosexual, and vice versa. But people heard the line about him having a male lover, and saw him looking effeminate, which was enough for some audiences. But I knew in my heart of hearts that Gumb wasn't gay, so I was happy that the film opened the door on discussing negative portrayals. I welcomed that other viewpoint."

There may not be a subject on earth about which the film-maker is not either democratic or enthusiastic. It was his initial passion for movies that got him into the film industry in the first place. In his home town of Miami, he talked himself into the post of film critic on the college newspaper. The producer Joseph E Levine chanced upon his reviews, and was so impressed - particularly with his glowing assessment of the Levine-produced Zulu - that he hired him as a publicity writer. In time, Demme ran into Roger Corman, the legendary one-man movie industry under whom Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Peter Bogdanovich served their apprenticeship. Before long Demme was toiling in the Corman stable writing exploitation quickies, before being entrusted with furthering the then-lucrative women-in-prison genre in the seedy but sweet Caged Heat.

When I ask if the Corman family was a warm place to be, he gently disabuses me of that notion. "I was in such a frightened state when I directed that movie," he shudders. "I didn't feel underqualified - I was underqualified. Every day I was full of anxiety, waiting to be exposed as the poseur I knew I was and yanked off the set. There was a very competitive feeling. The vast majority of people on those Corman productions were newcomers desperately trying to prove they'd earned the right to be on a professional film." The atmosphere on Demme's next feature for Corman, the garish crime romp Crazy Mama, was no less tense. "On the day I screened the first cut, one of the film's editors handed over to Roger a set of notes detailing what he would have done with the movie. I didn't think particularly poorly of him for that, I just thought: Wow, it's really ruthless out there, isn't it?"

After bashing out one last genre piece for Corman - Fighting Mad (1976), with Peter Fonda battling low-down property developers - Demme signed up to direct Citizens Band, his first movie for a major studio. The film is a hoot, full of the skew-whiff gags and affectionate characterisation present in Demme's most endearing work, though its production represented the first of the director's two Hollywood nightmares. Uber-agent-turned-producer Freddie Fields interfered in every aspect of the film, eventually firing Demme, until Roman Polanski heard about the incident from a mutual friend and demanded that Fields reinstate the young director. Even once Demme finished Citizens Band, no one but the usherette was there to see it. Not for the last time, he wondered: where did I go wrong?

It was a pattern that continued throughout the 1970s and 1980s. No matter how unique or lovable the movie, the audience rarely extended beyond Pauline Kael (the New Yorker critic who championed Demme) and the director's immediate family. He made the witty Hitchcock homage The Last Embrace (1979); he unravelled lovingly the story of Howard Hughes' encounter with an unassuming milkman in Melvin And Howard; he effortlessly encapsulated the 1980s in his delirious masterpiece Something Wild. It didn't matter. Nobody came.

There was some success with the Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense, which reinvented the shape of the rock'n'roll movie. And there was another Hollywood headache in the shape of Swing Shift (1983), a wartime melodrama that was whipped away from Demme and recut by Warner Bros and the film's star, Goldie Hawn, who felt that the picture wasn't sufficiently flattering to her. But these distractions aside, Demme was plagued by a growing concern. "I wondered if I was missing some commercial gene," he sighs. "Or if I had a curse. I think if you want a blockbuster, you have to put the effort into finding one if that's your goal, and it wasn't mine. When George Lucas, who had not hitherto known great success, sat down to conceive of Star Wars, he was probably going for the gold rather than unleashing some deep love of science fiction. I didn't have that instinct. I was just finding good scripts and doing the best job I could."

When Demme talks about the film that broke his run of box-office flops, he lends it the air of a freak accident. "I had just done what I always did," he says, sounding almost suspicious of the phenomenon that The Silence of the Lambs became. "Only this time it worked." The vein of pulp horror running through this otherwise respectable psychological thriller gives it a low-rent sleaziness that links it to the world of Roger Corman. But Demme, unlike Scorsese and Coppola, has never severed those ties to his earliest employee; perhaps his insistence on giving cameos to Corman (he's even there in The Manchurian Candidate, shaking hands with Meryl Streep) is Demme's way of saying that, despite the Best Director Oscar (for The Silence of the Lambs), he's still the movie-mad chatterbox he was when biker movies and cat-fights in the slammer were his stock-in trade.

He is promising to leave behind gargantuan budgets for now. Partly this is a response to the films that inspire him. He executive-produced Spike Jonze's Adaptation, invited Paul Thomas Anderson to help him prepare The Truth About Charlie, and is currently raving about the new no-budget hit Napoleon Dynamite. "I hope that the next thing I do will be more adventurous, less calculated to reach a wider audience," he says. Mainstream popularity, he seems to feel, has done little to improve him as a director. "Most of your time is spent trying to fashion something with the widest possible appeal." But surely some good has come out of his success? "Without a doubt," he admits. "Now I've got creative control. And you should see how easy it is to get a table in restaurants."

'The Manchurian Candidate' (15) is released on Friday