by Michael Dare
Jonathan Demme has ancestors that trace back to Alsace Lorraine, and his films are pure Americana. Though he started out as a film critic for a Miami paper and the Canadian film magazine Take One, he eventually worked with Roger Corman directing such potboilers as Caged Heat, Crazy Mama, and Fighting Mad. He left Corman to direct a film for Paramount, and since then he's matured enormously. His grasp of the day-to-day realities of American life is simple, wise, and as whimsical as it is understanding. Only he and Hal Ashby seem capable of infusing comedies with an authentic sense of inner life. In a Demme film, humor comes from a deep recognition of the truth behind each character's idiosyncrasies.
Handle with Care/Citizen's Band was a Capraesque parable of a working-class American community united by their CB's. It died at the box office. After directing an episode of Columbo, he made Melvin and Howard; in it, Melvin Dummar epitomized the American dream, where a simple act of kindness (to billionaire recluse Howard Hughes) brings fame if not fortune to our hapless hero. It's a film of such understated beauty that it was totally ignored by the Motion Picture Academy for Oscar consideration, while picking up three New York Film Critic's awards, plus the award for Best Film of the Year by the National Society of Film Critics.
His next film, Swing Shift, is problematic to say the least. It was taken away from him, reshot, and re-edited in a bitter dispute with the film's star, Goldie Hawn. (We talked about the film for an hour, and somehow her name never came up). The film was refashioned to such a degree that he had "A Jonathan Demme Film" removed from all prints. Tell Demme you liked the film, and he'll thank you. Tell him you didn't like it and he'll agree with you. It's a subject he prefers to avoid, and he vows never to become involved in another project with the slightest hint of a prima donna problem.
Compared to Swing Shift, Stop Making Sense was a free ride, and as much a joy to make as it is to watch. He brings to the Talking Heads' performance film the same sense of wonderment he's brought to his fictional films. We talked at his offices at Raleigh Studios with a cassette of Hawaiian guitars playing in the background.
L.A. WEEKLY: Have you known David Byrne long?
JONATHAN DEMME: No, I met David when I approached him last summer to see if he'd be interested in putting a film together of the concert.
You just saw the concert and decided to shoot it?
Yes. I go to a lot of concerts. This was the one time I came out thinking obsessively about getting this thing on film.
What was there about the concert that seemed cinematic to you?
There were a number of things that attracted me to it. The visual design of the show itself is obviously highly cinematic. I think all the members of the band are unusually charismatic, hard-working, and exciting to watch. Beyond that, I thought the show had a funny kind of narrative feeling to me, one that I can't describe - one that I don't even care to TRY to describe - but I had a feeling I was seeing some kind of story, that I was meeting a group of characters as David attacked each new song. I came away feeling very moved, very exhilarated, very entertained. I thought it was a lot more than just another wonderful rock & roll show. There was an underlying sensibility - all the humor that's in it, and all these little surprises. I hadn't seen the Talking Heads live since 1978 in Central Park. Those were the days when they stood there like four robots and just played. So part of the thrill of the show at the Greek was seeing the expansion of the band on every level.
And you shot that exact concert?
We made some changes. We dropped about four or five numbers because the show ran for two hours and fifteen minutes and we knew the picture couldn't, and shouldn't, play that long. We lost some great stuff like "Big Blue Plymouth" and "Houses in Motion." We talked a lot about how to build it just right, to give little dips in just the right places. In order to help the momentum, we also cut out two songs from the film, including some of my favorites: the "Big Business/I Zimbra" medley and "Cities." We're going to put them back on the videocassette. I'd also like to clarify that this isn't a concert film; it's a performance film.
What's the difference?
A concert film may intend, like The Last Waltz did so effectively, to give you a sense of what it was like to be at an event, the focal point of which was the music. In Stop Making Sense, I'd just as soon it didn't occur to people that they're watching a concert, but rather a band performing without the distancing factor of it being an event that happened once. That's why there's no audience in the film until the very end. I thought it was important if the film was to be as effective for filmgoers as it was for me watching the concert. I wanted to capture the energy and the flow and that unrelenting progression of music.
What was it like working with cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth?
We'd worked together once before, when we did Handle with Care together in '77. It's great working with him because he's an absolute tight-ass perfectionist. You can't get Jordan to back away from anything he's doing until he's got it perfect, and that can be exasperating because you've got one eye on the clock and you're desperate to get moving. But then when you get to see the dailies and you see the extra level Jordan was taking it to when he was driving you nuts, you go "Thank God he did it." He's a painstaking artist.
Had he ever shot a concert before?
He had shot a Joni Mitchell concert. I wasn't sure how Jordan was going to respond to this. I had hoped that the lighting would have the obvious appeal that it did to him. David enjoyed working with him enormously because David conceived the lighting for the stage show.
Did it have to be redesigned for the film?
No, the big challenge for Jordy was the fact that certain songs had 20 to 30 lighting changes per number, so his film lighting had to keep up with that. There's no such thing as "take two" when you're shooting a concert, so it was really high-tension activity.
Does that mean there's an integrity to the songs as a sequence? Is it all one performance
from beginning to end?
Almost entirely. We shot most of our extremely wide angles in one night, so those are interpolated throughout. We didn't mind having a little bit of camera presence. We thought it would be fun to see cameras occasionally. Since the show itself utilizes the actual stagehands coming on, in the movie you get to see a little bit of the camera team. But for our wide shots, we wanted to play to the graphics and the lighting without intruding on it by showing cameras floating across in the foreground. So one particular night we pulled everything way back and shot the wide angles.
You worked from a video booth in the back?
Yes, it was so exciting. I was standing in the back with Jordy and Sandy McLeod, the visual consultant. We stood there at this bank of monitors seeing what each of the eight cameras was getting at any given moment. I had an audio hookup to talk to camera operators and request adjustments.
Was this any different from the way concerts are normally shot for television?
I don't know. Perhaps this included another generation of design preparation. I went out on tour with the band a couple of times and I had a shooting script, shot by shot, that I was constantly revising and streamlining. I had a very strong sense of how I wanted to attack the different songs. I went over it all in great detail with the camera operators before the show, and during the show itself I'd be able to say, "Okay, here comes that movement we were talking about, Camera D, get ready to dolly left and tighten in on the conga player..." That sort of thing. I'm not sure, but maybe we had more preparation than normal.
Have you ever worked in television?
I did a Columbo, but that was shot on film just like a movie. This was the first multiple-camera situation I'd ever been in. The first night was pretty disastrous. Suddenly it was all happening, and all the preparation and planning was put up against the reality of the show. Cameras ran out of film, the band was real nervous and uptight having cameras stuck in their faces. We kept getting each other in the background of the shots too much. It was a mess, but a superb camera rehearsal. The next three nights were spectacular.
All with an audience?
We talked about duplicating the Pantages stage on a film soundstage in order to do more complicated shots, but the band got nervous because the sense of feedback from the audience is so much a part of their work that they were doubtful about doing their best without one. We put ourselves on a very tight six week picture cutting schedule with an equally tight two week mix. We had a finished picture 90 days after we finished photography, which I'm very pleased with.
Inside the soundtrack album, there's a booklet, and on the last page there is a series of
questions. I want to ask you a few of them.
Why no special effects in the movie?
I thought that any special cinematic effects would intrude on the richness of the pure performance. Therefore I didn't want to get into that, and didn't.
Why a big suit?
In order to make his head look smaller.
Where do the odd movements come from?
These are good questions. Where DO the odd movements come from?
Why stop making sense?
That's a good question.