by Carlos Clarens
Jonathan Demme, not to be confused with Jacques Demy, shares nonetheless two of the most winsome qualities of his Gallic near-namesake: a penchant for fluid, elaborate camera movements which often ensnare some runaway character back to the relaxed narrative, and a fair-play conviction that each of these tangential characters is worth a movie all to him/herself. It is this obsessional concern with character rather than plot that allows Demme (and the viewer) to string along with some rootless people through their minor crises in tacky motels, trailer camps and crossroad towns in backwater America.
There are usually two stories in a Demme picture, a duality which unless happily resolved leads to such a disorienting failure as Last Embrace. When properly licked, the result is the exhilarating redneck diptych of Citizens Band and Melvin and Howard. Demme's style and fresh eye for some of the least spectacular locations in the Southwest were already well in evidence in Crazy Mama, which he directed for Roger Corman: in fact, Demme is the quirkiest graduate from the Corman College of Quick and Punchy Movies. In 1977, Citizens Band broke new ground in the subgenre by omitting entirely the ugly violence that usually attends redneck dramaturgy and discovering instead a humor and sensibility as foreign to citified viewers as those exhibited in a Eric Rohmer talk-fest, and just as welcome.
Best of all, Demme's people are capable of improbably offbeat arrangements with life and each other. In Citizens Band, the two wives of a bigamist trucker (who also keeps a mobile mistress on the side) realize their touchy situation as they board the same bus. "Does this mean we're related?", wonders Wife One (Marcia Rodd) to Wife Two (Ann Wedgeworth) having just discovered they share the same husband. (By the way, the ladies also shared a Best Supporting Actress Award from the New York Society of Film Critics.) The trucker - played by Charles Napier, the Fearless Fosdick of Soft Core and one of Demme's regulars - has what it takes to make them both happy, and he braves out the inevitable confrontation with common sense: "Basically I think we have a communication problem here." There is a feeling here for bonds of affection unfettered by legalities, and for people willing to make absurd concessions not to lose each other - Demme's most personal theme, one surmises, and already adumbrated in the menage a trois of Crazy Mama.
The twin-story structure is even better articulated in Melvin and Howard, which is the richest slice of Americana since small towns became redneck hell-holes in the Sixties. The main tale belongs to recent history: it deals with the semi-mythical encounter (and subsequent effects) between an injured old-timer (Jason Robards) who may or may not be Howard Hughes, and a jack-of-all-trades who could be none other than Melvin Dummar (Paul Le Mat). This recedes to the background as the plot concentrates on Melvin's domestic and vocational problems. His wife Linda (Mary Steenburgen) leaves him for another man, taking their child with her; Melvin has to rescue her, against her will, from a topless bar in Reno. They divorce, remarry, have another child. Linda wins a prize in a TV game show, and finally walks out on Melvin, who then marries a tough Mormon chick (Pamela Reed) and settles in Utah. All of a sudden, he finds himself named as a beneficiary in Hughes' famous Mormon will. The old prospector he picked up one night in the desert and forced to sing "Bye Bye Blackbird" for his transportation (not to mention Melvin's own "Santa's Souped-up Sleigh" which, alas, will never make the charts) has the posthumous power to change Melvin's life. Or has he?
The film that first attracted critical attention to your work is a very
unstable one. The title was changed from Citizens Band to Handle With Care;
the name of the producer, Freddie Fields, was missing in the first release
prints; and for a time it was shown without the final sequence, a freeway
wedding conducted through CB radio. I believe it was only after the picture
had played at the New York Film Festival in 1977 and got good notices that
Fields had his name restored. And that it was only after Pauline Kael in The
New Yorker and Richard Goldstein in The Village Voice complained about the
missing ending that it was reinstated. Let's flashback a little.
Freddie Fields was shown an article in The Village Voice by Paul Brickman. The idea intrigued Freddie so he commissioned Paul to write a screenplay about CB radios and the people who're obsessed with them. They finally had a script that Freddie liked but which Paramount felt ambivalent about. It was sent to practically every director in town, and it was always turned down. I finally received a copy and became involved. I worked with Paul in a rewrite that was accepted by the Paramount hierarchy, which at the time included David Picker and Richard Sylbert, both of whom liked it a lot, and they put the film into production. By the time we finished shooting there was now a regime that did not like the movie and couldn't understand why it was made in the first place.
It's curious that Brickman also wrote The Bad News Bears in Breaking
Training around that time and which now seems much more disappointing.
Prior to Citizens Band, Paul had written a script for 20th Century-Fox that was highly regarded but never filmed. Ask me how we worked together.
How did you work together?
Paul and I didn't work together at all well. First of all, he was horrified that a Roger Corman director was being attached to his screenplay. I was so taken by the script that I had a natural inclination to want to get along, but this was not possible because of Paul's views on me. Unfortunately, after two days of shooting on location it became necessary for me to insist that Paul leave town - because after the takes, as passionate writers will, he would go to actors and interrogate them as to why they acted the scene this or that way. And then the actors would come to me and say, "I'm getting confused, the writer is asking about such and such." So he had to leave the production, which did not enhance our relationship at all.
There are two main story lines in Citizens Band, but they never really
mesh together. All they have in common is the locale.
I felt that one problem with the final picture is that the screenplay was unwilling to explore alternatives, that Paul was unable to refocus. One story is perfect as far as I'm concerned: the characters of the bigamist trucker and his mistress and wives are set up in a wonderful way, they go through changes. But the other story, which theoretically concerns the hero, didn't have nearly the same depth. Brickman was unwilling to come up with new material, the actors and myself were unable to fill in the missing chunks while we were shooting, and as a result the film is weighed in favor of the subtext.
People assumed, when Citizens Band came out, that it was laid in Texas,
which is funny because it's never stated in the dialogue and the locations
were in California. Redneck America could very well be a country of the mind.
One of the things that attracted me to it in the first place was the absence of arbitrary violence. There was no heavy police presence, no gunfights or car crashes. I thought, "How marvelous! A rural film with rural characters that doesn't resort to exploitation devices." Which I think turned out to be to the picture's detriment. It would have done much better had we thrown in a couple of good fight scenes. A more exploitable trailer could have been cut for it. As it was, it was a film without a hook.
It seemed as if you couldn't give it away, good notices and all.
Only one other picture I can think of was shown for free at the time of its original release: Ermanno Olmi's The Sound of Trumpets [Il Posto], which Don Rugoff liked so much he decided not to charge admission for a day or two. In that case, as with Citizens Band later, paying customers stayed away in droves.
Do you think that it could be the rural locale and characters that kept
city viewers away?
That might have been the case - except that it bombed in the suburbs and rural areas with equal impact. There are, to my way of thinking, two peripheral reasons for the film not doing well. One was that the advertising and publicity material wasn't ready when it opened in 700 theaters: there was a black one-sheet with the name of Citizens Band unsupported by any sort of interpretative art. Also, there were no stills available to the theaters. Another reason, other than the lack of promotional material for the opening, was a tremendous hostility toward the picture from Paramount, which spread from the promotion people to the sales department to the regional exchanges to the exhibitors. But I think that the bottom-line reason for its commercial failure was that it was about CB radios and the people who use them, which was not a subject of sufficient interest to attract moviegoers.
But you're no stranger to violence in your own films. Look at Crazy Mama.
Although I enjoy violence in movies, I don't like doing it that much anymore. There was quite a bit of violence in the first three films I directed. I can enjoy it when I see it, but it's not what interests me when directing.
Last Embrace, which followed Citizens Band, has four or five violent sequences.
It's a schizoid film, which starts out as the story of a government operative
who, in the course of his violent line of work, suffers a nervous breakdown -
violence finally intrudes in his personal life when his wife is accidentally
killed - and then it picks up a heroine with a psychotic approach to life who
goes on a killing spree.
I was sent the script by the producers, Mike Taylor and Dan Wigatow, who had worked for United Artists in various executive capacities and who had decided to go into independent production. They had bought a book, The Thirteenth Man by Murray Bloom, and hired David Shaber to write a script. There was an idea for a movie in the novel, that was all, and David took it and virtually wrote an original screenplay from it. It seemed like a modern film noir. David and I worked on a couple of rewrites together and were getting to the point where it was beginning to work and we were licking the problems inherent in the idea. Then, suddenly, we found ourselves going into production. We would have liked to work on the script for another month, but Roy Scheider was available and UA thought it was a viable project.
The new regime had to keep the production flow, after the top
five executives left to form Orion.
We shot the film hoping to lick the remaining story problems and we didn't. I was sorry to see David take a lot of abuse in the reviews for his "incoherent" script, because that was a shared blame. What turned me on about the script was the historical revelation - new to me but one with a basis in fact - that New York at the turn of the century was an active center of white slavery, masterminded by religious groups and camouflaged by socially concerned organizations. It was a revelation like that in Chinatown, where you're gaining a startling historical insight as the theme of of a detective thriller. But the impact of such a revelation in Last Embrace is not to be found in the finished picture. People didn't come out astounded at this historical fact, which in the film comes across as mere plot information without the whack it should have.
The film noir in the Forties usually had a preposterous premise but it
was presented with such style and it moved so swift that the viewer got caught
up in it. The premise in Last Embrace is even more farfetched and extreme.
There were scenes in the script which were never shot, due to shooting schedules and commitments for locations, and which would have tied up the CIA subplot with the story of the Jewish brothels. At the time, they were judged not worth the expense of going back and shooting them. The film suffers from their absence.
The Princeton Tower sequence was mostly shot in studio, and this hyper-realistic
set, added to the Miklos Rozsa score, makes it the only one of your films
in the Hitchcock vein, a rite of passage nowadays among young American directors.
I hadn't thought of Rozsa until I saw Providence and heard the exquisite score. We sent him the script and he answered that he couldn't commit on the basis of it, that he had to see the rough cut. When he did, he agreed. It was a joyful collaboration that I hope to repeat some day. We had a picture taken together and I asked Miklos to smile for the camera. When he refused, I asked him why. "Jonathan," he said, "have you ever seen a picture of Beethoven smiling?"
In all The Last Embrace was a delightful experience, much more so than making Citizens Band. We were all on the same wavelength. I had a chance to work again with Tak Fujimoto, a cinematographer I started out with. He was not in the union and therefore unable to work with me on Fighting Mad, Citizen's Band, and the Columbo episode, which were studio pictures bound by I.A. contracts. Tak also photographed Melvin and Howard, of course.
It seems unusual, to say the least, that a film project on the Melvin
Dummar-Howard Hughes story would have been undertaken before the hearing
in which the "Mormon" will was thrown out of court. I wonder what the film
would have been like, had the will been acknowledged as legitimate.
I wonder, too. Yet the script had been in the works long before. I remember waking up and reading DUMMAR WILL THROWN OUT OF COURT, and thinking "Oh, my God, does this mean the film is dead? But it didn't even become a dispute point? It didn't bother anybody in the least.
It was the producer, Don Phillips, who had the original idea to make a film based on the extraordinary events in Melvin Dummar's life. Don and his sometime partner, Art Linson, approached Universal, and Universal was intrigued enough to back the development and allow Bo Goldman to write a script. Mike Nichols also became involved in the project, but apparently could not cast the film to his satisfaction; after three rewrites he ceased to be involved. At that point, Universal sent me the script.
There is a certain similarity between the locales and the characters in both
Citizens Band and Melvin and Howard.
When Bo became involved, he met Melvin, traveled with him all over the locations where the events happened, talked to his co-workers at the magnesium plant and at the dairy, spent time with Melvin's ex-wife and his second wife and his parents. Bo did a tremendous amount of research on that level, which to me helps account for the fact that the characters in his script are so rich.
I eventually met Melvin myself. When we were shooting, Melvin was a driver for Coors beer: in order to play a small role in the Reno sequence [the counterman at the bus station], he had to get leave from Coors. He is now the West Coast representative for an Alaskan king crab wholesaler. He would like very much to be an actor and have his songs become popular. He actually wrote the songs that you hear Paul Le Mat sing in the movie. I think they're pretty good.
For once, the credits don't carry the disclaimer that all characters in the film
are fictitious. Was there any flack from Suma, the Hughes corporation?
We had no interference whatsoever, but I've been told that there was a spy in one of our crowd scenes who would report to Suma about the movie. Melvin and Howard placed Suma in a potentially awkward situation because it shows how much Suma stood to lose in the event that the "Mormon" will was proven to be the true will. It was implicit in the "Mormon" will that Suma be dissolved, and that all of Suma's holdings be divided among the sixteen named beneficiaries, which is why the case was finally thrown out of court. The other beneficiaries - the Boy Scouts of America, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, etc. - all hired lawyers to defend the will at the beginning of the hearings, but Suma doubled and tripled the efforts to invalidate the "Mormon" will. Slowly but surely, all the beneficiaries dropped out of the case, since they recognized that Suma was fighting for its life and would use every penny in their bank accounts to fight the will in the courts forever.
One realizes that the high point in Melvin Dummar's life came earlier in the
story: in the meeting with the old-timer in the desert, and possibly in the first
flush of excitement when the contents of the "Mormon" will are made public and
Melvin finds himself a national hero of sorts. It's such a breathless sequence
in the film that no recognition of Melvin as legal heir could match it: a series
of elating crane shots that stop with a zoom on Melvin hiding on a tree from the
crowd of well-wishers, spongers, and just plain curiosity freaks.
It was a desire to create an epic feeling, the one epic moment in the person's life. A crane is a very expressive tool, especially if you're after a certain effect. I met the late Delmer Daves in Los Angeles about six years ago: he told me he had designed his own personal crane which A Summer Place paid for. After that, he always had the camera on the crane, crane shot or not. "Get a crane, stick your camera on it, do your close-ups with it." It's like a special paint brush for a big stroke. The crane takes up a certain amount of physical space, but all it really needs is an artist to move it, and we had George Schrader as dolly grip. In fact, with a great guy on the crane, you're freer than you'd be with the dolly. Spontaneous adjustments are more possible.
I find the final sequence in Melvin and Howard extremely bold, moving,
and open-ended. Perish the thought that a director should try to spell out
the meaning of his film, but do you have any personal conviction as to why the
scene had to be done in that certain way? Why do Melvin and Howard switch
roles, with Howard taking the wheel this time?
I think it's valuable that they should switch. It has something to do with the fact that when they first meet in the story they fight and bicker for the first five minutes. They are very antagonistic but gradually they reach an accord: Howard Hughes forgets that he's the richest man in America, Melvin forgets that he's the poorest man in America, and a friendship is struck. And to have Howard take the wheel and Melvin go to sleep in the final sequence articulates a dimension of trust that resulted from that encounter.
Of course, the scene gains from having been shot at "magic hour" - the half-hour between the moment when the tip of the sun vanishes and before it gets dark, which gets a very special kind of side light, the light that Tak Fujimoto wanted to shoot any of the daylight scenes in which Hughes appeared. So, Jason Robards had to go through two-and-a-half hours of makeup to shoot for half an hour, and never a grumble. He was fabulous. This was the last stuff we shot for the movie, and everybody was exhausted from locations in Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, Reno, and Las Vegas. Jason came like a breath of fresh air.
Maybe the great reward for Melvin is that he will replay in his mind - with
infinite variations, for the rest of his life - that encounter with Howard
Actually, I wanted to play the final sequence - in which Howard Hughes returns as a remembrance - in two different ways. One would be done in the truck as a straight flashback, and the other would be vaguely experimental: the memory of what happened in the pick-up truck would now occur in a different vehicle, in a new car that Melvin drives. It could become "unlabelable," a subjective flashback. To my surprise, Paul Le Mat refused to act the scene in two different vehicles: his reasoning was that, as an actor of integrity, having enacted the scene in one vehicle it would be dishonest of him to perform it in another. I didn't understand that thinking at the time, and I still don't. It was a great disappointment for me, because even though we would have wound up using the version in the truck, nevertheless it would have been great fun to try it the other way.
But that's the good thing about movies: if you don't get a chance to use it in one, if the idea has any merit you can use it at some point in a subsequent movie.