Jonathan Demme: The mentor, the maestro, the model

Filmmaker Jonathan Demme died on Wednesday. I didn’t know him long, but he played a special role in my life

By Max Cea

Published April 28, 2017 11:00PM (EDT)

Jonathan Demme  (Getty/Carlos Alvarez)
Jonathan Demme (Getty/Carlos Alvarez)

Something wild

On an idyllic autumnal afternoon this past October, I walked from the tip of midtown Manhattan down Broadway with Jonathan Demme and he told me about his early days in New York. Jonathan, his lovely assistant Bonnie Yassky and I were deciding where to have lunch. Jonathan wanted to go to Carnegie Deli before it closed. He made himself laugh recalling the scene from “Broadway Danny Rose” in which a group of comics sat at Carnegie Deli trading stories about Woody Allen's hapless talent agent. But the line to get into Carnegie stretched out the door, so he looked across the street and said, “How about the Hotel Wellington?”

The Hotel Wellington, he told me, was where he had once seen a woman whose name I now can’t recall except that it sounded French. He was new to the city, and had met the woman through his job as a publicist. Midway through their dalliance, the woman’s boyfriend (whose existence I believe Jonathan was unaware of) walked in. He wanted to run. But the woman introduced them — and then Jonathan ran. He laughed at the memory and later we sat in one of the diner’s whale-colored booths and he ordered a tuna sandwich and fries.

The story of the escapade brought me back in time not to the late '60s when the story took place, but to the mid-'80s. Jonathan’s most prestigious, masterful works (“Silence of the Lambs” and “Philadelphia”) would come in the early '90s, and what he would probably call his most important works (his documentaries) predominantly in this century. But the films that, for me, are the greatest distillation of Jonathan Demme’s sui generis spirit — at once bright, quirky, empathetic and adventurous — were the ones he made from 1984 to 1988 — in particular, “Stop Making Sense,” “Something Wild,” “Swimming to Cambodia” and “Married to the Mob.”

The two features in that list (“Something Wild” and “Married to the Mob”) came to mind that day. Jonathan running out of the Hotel Wellington after being caught with another man’s lover conjured images of Charles Driggs (Jeff Daniels) and Audrey Hankel (Melanie Griffith) fleeing the menacing ex-convict Ray Sinclair (Ray Liotta) in “Something Wild” and Angela de Marco (Michelle Pfeiffer) and Mike Downey (Matthew Modine) thwarting gangsters in “Married to the Mob.”

Both films are colorful and kitschy, about conservative characters who leave or enter New York City to let go of their inhibitions and the vanilla lives into which they were born. Jonathan was a kindred character. Like Charles Driggs and Angela de Marco, Jonathan Demme had to seek out the beauty and squalor in life lurking beyond suits and ties and cul-de-sacs.

He grew up in an all-white Long Island suburb where he lamented having been “raised just on European imagery, and European books and European history.” But when he was in high school, his family moved to Florida, where he would also spend his college years. “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,” he told me when I interviewed him last year.

Don’t misinterpret: Jonathan’s love of black culture was not some form of fetishization. He was a man who was profoundly curious and earnestly infatuated with humanity in all its different forms. He wanted to spend time with the country singer and the Haitian radio broadcaster.

A story Larry Wilmore told me is illustrative. Late in his life, Jonathan began corresponding with Wilmore, whose “Nightly Show” he adored, and after the show was cancelled they got lunch at Bar Boulud near Lincoln Center. “We had the best conversation,” Wilmore told me. “Jonathan told me about his time in the early '60s when he was first starting and he struck up this friendship with this black guy."

Wilmore added, "He felt like he had kind of been sheltered his whole life. And it was kind of this introduction to the relationship that race and culture and all these things have. His heart was so on his sleeve with this stuff. I was so moved by it. It was just a bunch of love, is how I could explain it.”

I think that this love was rooted in a lifelong romance with the soul; in his fiction and nonfiction films and in his daily life Jonathan was captivated by life lived to its fullest. His wokeness was a product of how utterly awake he was. That, I think, is what led him to collect Haitian folk art, a form characterized by bright color and a human touch, a tradition that the West overlooks. It was also the line through his taste in music: the Talking Heads, the Pretenders, Neil Young, Robyn Hitchcock, Bruce Springsteen — all artists who surrender to something deeper, artists who can evoke the mystical with a riff or a glance.

Jonathan’s love of offbeat and oddball culture is what earned him the title “American cinema's king of amusing artifacts.” It was The New York Times’ Janet Maslin who described Jonathan that way in a 1988 review of “Married to the Mob”: The film, like “Something Wild,” was littered with “blinding bric-a-brac, the junkiest of jewelry, costumes so frightening they take your breath away,” Maslin wrote. All of which was not merely idiosyncratic decor; in the very next sentence Maslin seized on the importance of these objects. “Mr. Demme may joke, but he's also capable of suggesting that the very fabric of American life may be woven of such things, and that it takes a merry and adventurous spirit to make the most of them.”

That Jonathan was one such “merry and adventurous spirit” goes without saying. And yet it bears hearing it from some of his collaborators. Jodie Foster, who played Clarice in “Silence of the Lambs,” described him in a statement as “a guy so singular and dynamic you’d have to design a hurricane to contain him.” Ted Levine, who played Buffalo Bill in “Silence of the Lambs,” told The Hollywood Reporter that Jonathan "was like an 11-year-old kid," adding, "He was always really excited about what he was doing." The screenwriter Marcus Hinchey, with whom Jonathan collaborated on a film that never came to fruition called “Come Sunday,” described Jonathan to me as “a force of nature.”

“Creative work with Jonathan was always him up and pacing and walking around," Hinchey said. "He had this saying in terms of screenwriting which I had never heard; he would just pace around yelling, 'The meat! The meat! Where's the meat?' Meaning, what the hell is this scene? What's the meat of this scene? Fuck everything else," Hinchey said.

"He was just pushing and pushing for a truth in each small nook of the movie you're working on," Hinchey added. "And until you find the meat of the scene you're working on, and therefore the film, you don't have anything.”

[jwplayer file="" image=""][/jwplayer]

I never got to see Jonathan on a set, but I was fortunate enough to see him furiously searching for the figurative meat. After lunch, Bonnie, Jonathan and I walked a few blocks east to do what we had come into the city to do: show Jann Wenner and a couple of his fellow Rock & Roll Hall of Fame executives the latest cut of a video installation Jonathan was directing. (It should be said that our team also included Jonathan’s producer, Rocco Caruso; his editor, Paul Snyder; his director’s assistant, Hugo Kenzo; and his editor’s assistant, Sophie Harrari; I was a production assistant, the very least important person in the room.)

The film is a multimedia compilation of various performances culled from the 30 years of Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremonies. Wenner had a lot of feedback — “I get the most chills out of Linda Ronstadt tribute”; “The shot of Elton John is too grainy”; “I like the way you end the film” — and I was mesmerized watching Jonathan contend with it. Jonathan was always respectful. He accepted most of the feedback with a measured explanation or signal of affirmation. But the feedback he responded to was telling. Here are some tidbits from the conversation:

Wenner [responding to a clip]:  I don’t like Iggy.

Demme:  YOU DON’T!?!

Wenner:  We need to see U2.

Demme:  Let me tell you what our problem is with U2 and Bono. We haven't seen him surrender and let go.

Wenner's colleague:  St. Vincent doing Nirvana was great.

Demme: Isn’t she great? That’s rock and roll. You open your mouth as wide as you can and scream.

Jonathan was bent on delivering what the Beats referred to as “It.” “We want you to fully feel it with your BODY, not your mind,” he said. To be around Jonathan Demme at moments like these was to feel his spirit deeply. That day was a daze and I found myself wondering, How did I get to be a fly on this wall?

* * *

Subjective camera

It was my best friend’s funeral service. That was how I entered Jonathan Demme’s radar and eventually an outer ring of his orbit.

For most of my life I lived not a mile away from Jonathan in Nyack, New York, a bohemian suburb 30 miles north of New York City. He lived in an elegant Victorian house with a view of the Hudson River. If you were looking, it wasn’t hard to spot him bounding around town, sometimes with his two poodles, Kit-Kat and Milly. He was an engaged local citizen, free of pretension. But it wasn’t until my college years that I dug into his body of work and developed a real conception of who he was as a filmmaker. Not long thereafter, it happened: My friend died, I gave a speech, and a mutual friend who had been sitting next to Jonathan told me that Jonathan Demme was impressed.

The only people I wanted to please with that speech were the members of my friend's family. (I had no idea Jonathan was there until after.) And Jonathan’s secondhand compliment was one of many compliments on the speech I received. But thereafter, it was Jonathan’s words that stuck with me. I feel shameful admitting this — because as much as I love Jonathan, if I could bring my friend back at the price of never having met Jonathan I would in a heartbeat — but it felt like kismet. Jonathan helped me to give this meaningless tragedy meaning: A bona fide artist whom I admired was moved by something I had written; it was validating.

I went back to school for a final semester and I clung to that bit of encouragement — if a professor or a peer didn’t like something I’d written, well, you know who did like my writing? The best way I can describe how it felt is to liken it to Audrey Hankel telling Charles Driggs, “You’re a closet rebel.”

And then a year later at a party held for my deceased friend’s birthday, there was Jonathan, wearing his late-in-life uniform: a hoodie, cosmic joggers and basketball sneakers. (He pulled it off.) I told him I had recently watched “Married to the Mob” and loved it and he said, “You know, they say that’s the most accurate cinematic depiction of the Mafia.”

I asked him what he was working on and he told me about “Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids.” But the films he was most interested in discussing were the ones that didn’t get made or that didn’t find much of an audience. He told me about his failed effort to adapt Dave Eggers’ “Zeitoun” as an animated feature and about his trip to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina to film “I’m Carolyn Parker.” One thing led to another and I was interviewing him for a magazine I was launching with a friend — and then months and months later, working for him.

As I was working as an PA on a film that only required editing, my job consisted of little more than fetching lunch for people in the office. But Jonathan made everyone, no matter their title, feel included. When he was in the office, I would often just take a seat in the editing room and take it all in. When I did have a suggestion, he listened. He really listened. I know because he liked one of my suggestions, and he used it.

The support, encouragement and empowerment I felt from Jonathan was something countless others experienced — in many cases, redoubled. In a post on his website after Jonathan's death, David Byrne cited the same spirit of inclusiveness as inspiration for his foray into feature filmmaking.

“Jonathan was also incredibly generous during the editing and mixing," Byrne wrote. "He and producer Gary Goetzman made us in the band feel included; they wanted to hear what we had to say. That inclusion was hugely inspirational for me. Though I had directed music videos before, this mentoring of Jonathan’s emboldened me to try making a feature film.”

And Jonathan was a formative influence for many of today’s preeminent filmmakers, none more prominent than Paul Thomas Anderson. Anderson famously once responded to an interviewer asking him who his three biggest influences were with “Jonathan Demme, Jonathan Demme, Jonathan Demme.

That wasn’t hyperbole. One of Jonathan’s editors once told me that when Anderson visited Jonathan as they edited a picture, Anderson spent hours just sitting on the couch, observing.

And Hinchey had a similar experience. Hinchey accompanied Jonathan when Anderson screened a rough cut of “Inherent Vice.” “The way [Anderson] talked about Jonathan and wanting to know what Jonathan thought about the cut made me think that he saw Jonathan in a similar way I did.”

The way Hinchey saw Jonathan was as a mentor — or at least, the closest that anyone has come to being that for him. “The first time I went to meet him to work, I went to his house,” Hinchey said. “He had this tree house and we just sort of sat in his tree house and worked on the script.” Jonathan would also periodically invite Hinchey to see films by Moroccan and Central African filmmakers, “many of whom only had screenings or only made it to the U.S. because of Jonathan," Hinchey said. "He fought for movies that never would've seen the light of day. He fought for other people's movies and tried to help them get financed. He was a fierce advocate of film.”

To let people into your tree house — whether literally or figuratively — is a powerful thing; both through collaboration and representation, Jonathan was an undiscriminating champion of talent and soul. He had an uncanny ability to see both near and far; he simultaneously elevated men and women, people in his community and people on different continents. And when he did, it felt momentous.

“I think he only really got involved with projects and people that he could muster his [huge] level of enthusiasm for,” Hinchey said. “And if you were on the receiving end of that enthusiasm, it was incredibly intoxicating.”

It wasn't just Jonathan's status that made it feel special when he directed his energy in your direction; to be let into Jonathan’s tree house was to join the company of the most extraordinary characters — Jimmy Carter, Tyrone Hayes, David Byrne and on and on.

And it's easy to trace Jonathan’s ability to connect with and lift sundry people back to his favorite shot: subjective camera. Jonathan loved actors with interesting faces and he loved to point the camera directly into their faces and let the viewer operate from their point of view. “You want the audience to be in the character’s shoes,” Jonathan told Anderson two years ago during an Austin Film Festival panel. “The more deeply into the character’s shoes the audience is, the more they’re going to care about what’s going on.” Jonathan was perpetually operating in subjective camera.

I’d always loved these shots as a viewer of his films, but it wasn’t until he died that I viscerally understood the profundity of their power. It was my friend’s mother who called me to break the news of Jonathan’s death on Wednesday morning. I’d like to say that I broke down when I heard or that I couldn’t fully process it. But the opposite is true: I felt as though I’d fully processed it. Some part of me has been expecting this — enough that I had a nightmare that he had died back in December. And so when it happened, it didn’t take long for me to snap to: OK, what am I going to write?

But then I went on Facebook and I saw that a movie theater for which Jonathan had been a curator and board member had posted a album of photos of Jonathan through the years. And I lost it. I saw that wonderfully expressive face, the abundant goodness in his eyes, and everything came undone. He was just so fully alive. It's not right that that should no longer be.

Jonathan Demme's energy was unparalleled, his taste inimitable. I will always aspire to be is as inclusive and generous as he was, in life and art — to keep my eyes and heart open to the beauty lurking across the street and around the world. To always find the meat.


By Max Cea


Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Editor's Picks Film Jonathan Demme Movies Obituary Partner Video Video