AFF panel: Jonathan Demme in conversation with Paul Thomas Anderson
Saturday afternoon at AFF featured one of the biggest conversations in the festival’s history. Not just in terms of the filmmaker being featured in conversation, but for the person moderating the conversation. Outstanding Contribution to Filmmaking (direction) Jonathan Demme was the featured guest, but the man asking him the questions probably drew just as many attendees to the packed room at the Stephen F. Austin as the “The Silence of the Lambs”director. Paul Thomas Anderson entered the room to loud applause and the usually-reserved-for-rock-star shrieks from one female attendee.
Anderson came to the fest explicitly to hang with Demme, with whom he is presenting Robert Downey Sr.’s “Greaser’s Palace” Sunday. Arguably the greatest living American director, Anderson introduced Demme as his “favorite filmmaker.” The humble Demme, who several times noted Anderson’s brilliance and told the audience they could ask questions of the “Magnolia” director, in turn called Anderson “the most exciting filmmaker on the planet.” No argument here.
After the introductions and paying of respects, the mop-topped Anderson started a conversation heavy in the language of cinema that touched on all of Demme’s career.
Demme said that enthusiasm is the most important thing to him. In order to good work, he said he has to have enthusiasm about a project. Demme talked briefly about his early days with Roger Corman, a filmmaker who required sex, violence and humor in all of his films, before getting into a conversation with Anderson about “subjective camera work,” having the audience see things from the perspective of a character, and in turn having the actors also speak directly to the lens. And, in case you thought Anderson was just being nice early on with his praise, he cited the first time Demme ever used the technique in one of his films. Yea, dude is a fan.
Demme, who just shot a pilot for AMC of a show called “Line of Sight,” talked about the influence of the Dogme films on his shooting of “Rachel Getting Married,” which he said he approached like a documentary. He also talked about some of his more famous documentaries, like the Talking Heads’ “Stop Making Sense.” Demme did a nice little David Byrne impersonation in recounting the da he pitched the idea for the film to the Heads frontman poolside in the Hollywood Hills.
The two filmmakers spent quite a bit of time talking about “The Silence of the Lambs,” and Anderson busted Demme’s chops for his Oscar speech that may have set a record for “ums.” Demme said that before Anthony Hopkins, he had approached Sean Connery for the role of Hannibal Lecter, spurred by the idea of turning this great doctor from “The Elephant Man” into a monster. But Connery said the character/movie was “revolting.” So fortunately he got Hopkins.
And Demme was very funny in talking about how Jodie Foster came to the project. He never wanted her for the role. He first wanted Michelle Pfeiffer, who starred in Demme’s 1988 film “Married to the Mob.” But she too was concerned about the darkness of the piece. Foster had set up a meeting because she really loved the book on which the movie was based. But Demme wasn’t interested. He hadn’t liked her Boston accent in her Oscar-winning turn in “The Accused” and didn’t think she could pull off the part of FBI agent Starling.
But Foster did give Demme something he could use — a theme for the film. Demme says he always needs a theme to connect to, in addition to the story, and Foster saw the movie as being about one woman going to great lengths to save another woman in the face of all of these terrible men. After meeting with Foster, Demme decided he was going to use that as his theme. But he wouldn’t use Foster. So he went to Meg Ryan. She passed. Foster set up another meeting hoping to convince Demme she was right for the part. He still didn’t want her. But as Foster was walking down the hallway leaving Demme’s office, the filmmaker had a sudden change of heart. He had found his star. He ended up falling madly in love with her (as an actress) and ended up calling the production company for that film Strong Heart Productions in honor of the courageous and powerful woman at the heart of the film. And the rest is history.
It was really fun to watch a director of Anderson’s stature picking the brain of a filmmaker he so admires. Anderson asked Demme how he handles insecurity and indecision while working. Demme responded that he doesn’t really battle it. In a description that sounded very Zen, Demme said of the “collective invention” of making a movie, “If it’s not working yet, it’s not my fault; it’s not anybody’s fault,” and he’s ok with the fact that he just doesn’t have the answer in that moment. It blew Anderson’s mind, and the look of the “Boogie Nights” director running his hand through his hair with a look of awe and bemusement will certainly be a festival highlight for many.