by Patrick D. Jennings
"Don't just stand there,...c'mon in!"
Jonathan Demme, the Academy Award winning director of The Silence of the Lambs, as well as such varied movies as Beloved, Philadelphia and Something Wild, apparently wanted a new challenge. The idea: take one of his all-time favorite movies, the 1963 thriller Charade, as inspiration for a semi-faithful, semi-revisioned new version. Teaming up once again with Beloved herself, Thandie Newton, Demme is proud of the result: The Truth About Charlie, a stylish, unconventional, thrilling and all-out fun romp through the streets of Paris.
Dustin (TheMovieBoy) and I attended a special screening of The Truth About Charlie in Washington, DC. The movie was, indeed, the fun thriller it was advertised to be. I enjoyed it much more than Dustin, who found some of its characterizations lacking and the end product empty. This being my first article for themovieboy.com and my first counterpoint "review," I have to ask that you to forgive me if my style isn't what you've come to expect from our site. I'm a rookie, I admit it. Normally I just do the publishing and design work for this site, but following my experiences surrounding this movie I couldn't help but try my hand at writing about it.
Throughout this piece, I'll be mentioning some specific scenes and plot devices in The Truth About Charlie, but nothing that could really be called a "spoiler." I won't be giving anything away, but if you'd prefer to not know ANYTHING about this movie prior to seeing it, skip this article until you come home from the theater. I'm not as verbose as Dustin, but I'll say in short that I really enjoyed this movie and would highly recommend it. Some of Dustin's points are indeed valid, but I don't feel that they detract from the enjoyment of the movie. Following themovieboy.com rating scale, I'd give it a solid 3-stars.
The advanced screening of the movie was a special one, in that it was to be followed by a Q&A session with Jonathan Demme and Thandie Newton. That alone was going to be a huge treat—to be in the same theater with the Oscar winning director of one of my favorite movies (The Silence of the Lambs) and the actress who delivered one of my favorite performances (Beloved). Talk about starstruck! But, the treat didn't stop there. Themovieboy.com was subsequently invited to attend a roundtable interview session downtown the following day. Dustin was unable to attend, but we weren't going to let such an opportunity go to waste, so I (more than willingly) went in his place.
On the day of the interview, my instructions were to be in the lobby of the prestigious St. Regis hotel in downtown Washington, DC at 4:30pm. Located just steps from the White House, the St. Regis is the epitome of posh. Entering the lobby, I almost felt like I was walking onto a movie set. Gold-trimmed crystal chandeliers and all. Needless to say, by this point, I couldn't tell if I was sweating from the unseasonable October heat outside or from my growing case of nervousness. I've never really met any sort of celebrity before, other than a passing autograph moment from the likes of Rufus Wainwright or my beloved Tori Amos. The thought of meeting two in one afternoon (and two that I've genuinely admired for so long) is close to sending me into fanboyshock.
As 4:30 comes and goes, I start to have "I knew it was too good to be true" thoughts. There are a couple other people in the lobby that I recognize from last night's screening, so at least I know I'm not the only one waiting. It was just moments later that a cheerful publicist popped out of the elevator and began collecting us. Turns out that we are the last group of the day, and we're "in for a great time". The group is comprised of myself, Dan from American University's student newspaper, and Trey from Howard University's student newspaper. Up to the eighth floor in the tiny, ornate elevator and down the gold-trimmed hallway (is everything gold in this place?), the publicist tells us to wait outside until she's sure that everyone is ready.
A couple moments pass in which the three of us introduce ourselves and make nervous smalltalk. Apparently, my colleagues are just as new at this as I am. Good, I don't feel quite so nervous now. My nerves are jarred and then calmed completely as Jonathan Demme literally leaps out of the hotel room door and says "Don't just stand there,...c'mon in!" He's smiling and jovial, and looks like a man who doesn't mind the press circuit a bit. We introduce ourselves in turn as we enter the room, and I shake the hand of the man who brought cinematic life to Hannibal Lecter.
After offers of drinks and snacks, and a brief discussion about the merits of different chocolate varieties, we're seated in the suite's living room. Posters for Charlie are on easels in all corners, a handful of publicists are buzzing around, and I'm sitting in a fluffy armchair two feet away from Jonathan Demme, and...he's talking to me. I start off my explaining that Dustin could not make it and that I was the webmaster for themovieboy.com. I almost jump as Thandie Newton suddenly shows up in front of me, offering a hand. I didn't even see her come from the bedroom. We all introduce ourselves to Thandie and she takes the remaining armchair. Jonathan tells Thandie "Patrick's a webmaster!" Thandie cutely goes "Oh my gawwwd!" in playful feigned awe.
Both are cheerful and relaxed, just a bit tired looking. They've apparently been at this all day. I have to hide the smile when I notice that Jonathan is wearing black socks with cartoon puppies and dog-bones stitched on them. This guy is just cool. Thandie is so tiny and cute. Her hand felt so small placed in mine. They play off each other very well when answering questions. One will finish the other's thoughts at times. You can tell these two are more than colleagues, more than director and actress: they're genuine friends.
Seated and introduced, with a small platter of the aforementioned chocolate on the coffee table, Jonathan asks "What can we tell you?" Dan starts things off properly by asking if it would be okay to record our conversation. The okay given, he starts with a question about The Truth About Charlie, asking about the film's three standout cameos: Agnès Varda, Anna Karina, & Charles Aznavour. How did they come about?
Jonathan Demme: "I met Agnès on my way to Paris through a mutual friend, and she very sweetly invited us all over to her house to welcome us to Paris before we started shooting. At that dinner, I just thought 'This lady is so charismatic,' and of course, she's appeared briefly in a couple of her own films. Anyway, I asked her if she would honor us with a cameo because having arrived in Paris I was progressively more aware that this was the city that had birthed countless movies that I'd loved so much and it was irresistible to me to want to fertilize this movie with things that I love from French movies. Not wanting to be intrusive but just kind of 'gettin' it in there.' It would seem 'churlish' to do otherwise.
"Agnès showed up with a camera crew, her own camera man, everything. At a certain point she explained 'he films everything I do.' When I said it was a little awkward for me."
"She had about 45 minutes to do her shots because she had a plane to catch to some Asian film festival that was honoring her. She didn't give any 'tips' and she did exactly what was required of her before blasting off.
"Charles Aznavour was very, not intimidating, 'cause he's as low key and adorable a man as you could ever hope to come across. But, for me, he really is a living legend. He's the French Frank Sinatra. He's a genius singer and a very, very gifted actor.
"So I wanted to have a salute to Shoot The Piano Player, which is the movie that initially triggered my love and awareness of the new wave. So I thought a cool way to get that in without being distracting would be when Mark [Wahlberg] comes over to seduce Thandie, that he would very astutely bring a Charles Aznavour song to set the mood and mellow her out so that he could get all the information he needed. We sent the scene over to Mr. Aznavour's manager's office to get his permission to use one of his songs and I was told that I need to meet him to get the permission, in person. So I'm sitting there and he's so cute and so neat. He said 'Of course you can use the song.' So then I was, like 'Do you think you could actually come sing the song?' He said 'You mean in the room singing the song?' And I said 'Yeah, because the mood of your song is so rich that it would be as though they were having a very private concert in their room, for them only, with you in the room.' And he goes "Well, that's droll. Okay. If my schedule works, I'll do that.'
"So he showed up and I felt really vulnerable. I felt like I didn't know how to direct anymore. I was desperate to look professional in his eyes. But he was so cool that it didn't matter. So he did it and he's really singing that song. He walked into that room and gave that vocal performance. It looked so good in dailies that I thought 'You know, I think this is gonna work.' Then we invited him to come back at the end of the movie and become the movie's kind of 'cupid figure,' more or less. So he agreed to do that, too. I felt really blessed by his participation.
"And Anna Karina...I just thought that if you're going to take an old high-style movie and redefine it in a new wave vernacular, and Anna Karina is alive and working in Paris, then it'd be real missed opportunity to not get her spirit involved in the movie. We sent her the script and showed her there's a scene in a tango palace and asked her if she'd write a tango song and sing it for us. She agreed and we were off and running."
I comment about the Aznavour scene (which really is quite fun): "In the Aznavour scene, when you pan over and he's there singing, that's when you know that 'This movie is here for fun.' And you are going to have fun. You kind of say to yourself 'Ok, I get it now.' and you go with it."
Jonathan says "Good, good!" and I continue "It was a definite high point with the crowd last night. You could hear that it was well received."
"Were you familiar with Aznavour before?" Jonathan asks me.
"No, not really. But you didn't really need to know who it was to enjoy it because you see him on the cover of the CD before Mark (Wahlberg) plays it so when it shows him you still get it," I answer.
Jonathan smiles and says, "Well good, good, good! I think that speaks well of the audience if they're willing to embrace something like that."
Trey asks about the aforementioned tango scene. "I just loved that [scene]. [to Thandie] You're in conflict with all of these other characters and suddenly you're dancing with them. It really hit the nail on the head. [to Jonathan] How did you come up with that scene?"
Jonathan Demme: "In the original movie, Charade, there's a scene where all the characters wind up in a nightclub, where a magician or somebody is encouraging them all to play a game where they pass an orange back and forth. So they're all doing that and the Reggie character, played in that movie by Audrey Hepburn, passes the orange and suddenly there's one of the bad guys receiving the orange and spirits her away. It was one the stylistic, funny high-points of that movie. So I realized we couldn't do the orange passing thing 'cause they did it perfect in the other one. So the idea of a tango sequence just kinda came up and it seemed like a fun 'Parisian' thing to do. When I look at that, Thandie, it's so funny cuz there's no evidence of the weeks and hundreds of hours of rehearsing and preparation that took. All that stuff was very carefully choreographed out."
Thandie Newton: "The tango is so great. I can't think of another type of dancing that would have been appropriate in that scene. The tango's got the passion and that sort of aggression. It's got so many different emotions running through it. It's just so right for all of the characters. And it changes everytime they change partners. It's perfect.
"I'd met Mark (Wahlberg) once before, very briefly in New York and when he arrived in Paris, it was about a week after we'd started shooting. So the first time I met him, properly, to begin work, it was at a tango rehearsal. Within minutes we were, like, up close clutching each other, groin to groin, my leg literally wrapped around his back. I have some dance experience and wasn't so good so he's just kinda standing there and I'm doing all this stuff around him. I'd been practicing for a week already and I'm sort of nervous and want to show how good I am. So I'm just goin' all over the place [spastically demonstrates] around him. And that was the first time we met each other but that was probably quite good because it broke the ice rather quickly. Shattered the ice, really. I'm glad you liked the scene. It was a fun way of putting across all that information. There's a lot of information in that scene."
Trey follows up, "It really seemed like a fun movie to make. I remember reading somewhere that you wanted to 'make the fun come out of the screen.' It totally happened. You can just tell these guys are having fun. Especially when the end credits are coming on."
Jonathan is positively beaming at this point. I say "Speaking of the end credits, I loved the subtle nod to The Silence of the Lambs, with [ACTOR'S NAME, as not to give anything away] standing in the middle of the cell."
Jonathan Demme: "Ha! Subtle. [laughs] That's all [ACTOR'S NAME], man. We had the camera down, and I can't remember what he was supposed to be doing, but we got there and that's what he was doing. I was just like, 'This scene is so crazed anyway, why not!' I also thought it wasn't going to make it into the movie.
"I'm so glad to hear you say that about the reaction to Aznavour scene and to hear you say that about the tango scene because the tango scene is a fantasy. There's no way on earth that that could happen. We had this aspiration to yes, be a proper, sincere mystery because we do have a mystery and it's very, very carefully plotted out and it's complicated and it does have a little theme about trust and we took all that very seriously BUT, almost in response to that, I really did want this to be a fun movie-movie. Instead of trying to break down that 4th wall and make people forget, we thought, let's let folks remember that it's movie and see if there's some extra pleasure, in fact, to be had from that. So we're not taking ourselves all too deadly serious here with our murder-mystery-romance-set-in-Paris. So it's wonderful to know that some of that stuff, for some viewers anyway, can work in there and be part of the fun. That's really great to hear because we thought it was a little bit of a gamble."
Thandie chimes in, "Well, yes, but there's also nothing nicer than being in on the joke, in any situation, and that's kind of what it's like."
In my preparation for doing this interview, I asked around a bit as to what I should ask. The best response I got to that was "Just ask him questions as if he were just any other movie fan." I liked that. So I decided to move away from The Truth About Charlie for a bit. I explained this to Jonathan and said "It's always fascinated me to hear what other movies a director enjoys or what other artists a musician enjoys. So what's out there now that you've really enjoyed? Anything that leaps out?"
Jonathan Demme: "Well, the two pictures that I've seen most recently that I just adored The Good Girl, which I think is just a fantastic American picture and further evidence that we've really got a 'Golden Age of American Cinema' going on here now with a whole generation of phenomenal young filmmakers. I saw Paul Thomas Anderson's new picture Punch-Drunk Love. It's phenomenal. I've never seen anything like it. Talk about European films. I mean, this thing is like...amazing. The very thought of The Royal Tenenbaums still makes me kinda come out of my chair. I love that movie. I love that movie! So those are three things that come immediately to mind."
Trey begins, "When you say Hollywood is in a Golden Age of..."
Jonathan Demme: "Now, I didn't say Hollywood. I really don't think of any of those movies as Hollywood. I feel that Hollywood's job is to churn out formulaic movies with tried-and-true formulas and what have you. I think of these other pictures as existing in another part of the ocean. I don't know where the financing comes from, exactly, but I don't think of The Royal Tenenbaums or of Paul Thomas Anderson or Miguel Arteta's movie as being Hollywood. I think there is a very thriving, independent-minded, American Cinema now that may or may not be funded by Hollywood money."
Trey follows up, "What do you consider yourself? I mean, you're an extremely talented filmmaker and you've won awards. Do you consider yourself more mainstream or do you consider yourself in that other ocean?"
Jonathan Demme: "Well, I aspire to the mainstream, on the one hand, very much so. As soon as you sign up to do a movie for Universal or Sony...OH GOSH. SHOOT. Another movie! I'm glad I mentioned Sony. Another movie that I'm actually one of the producers of, that's now finished and is absolutely brilliant is Spike Jonze's Adaptation. Unbelievable! Nicolas Cage should win two Oscars for that movie. This movie is phenomenal. Spike Jonze is one-of-a-kind anyway but I guess it's a Hollywood movie. It's Sony Pictures and financed by Sony Corporation but it's the most independent-minded movie you could ever hope to see. It's extraordinary. I'm so glad I remembered that, for a variety of reasons.
"I've definitely got mainstream aspirations and I also have other aspirations. I'm always, always making a documentary. I'm just finishing one up now about a Haitian radio journalist who was assassinated down in Haiti 2 years ago. A guy who I actually knew quite well and had done a lot of filming on. And I'm producing a documentary that Lisa Gay Hamilton has been directing, a portrait of Beah Richards, the actress who played Baby Suggs in Beloved, who we had the high honor of working with. I saw Lisa Gay's cut on that two weeks ago, and it's phenomenal. It's probably going to win awards. It's a great portrait of a great American artist, Beah, and it's also an amazing portrait of a relationship, Beah & Lisa Gay's. It's a chronicle of the last year of Beah's life. It's just stunning.
"I make movies where you may or may not get to show it anywhere and I think the fact that I do these other little movies, that I pay for myself and we shoot on digital, really helps me maintain full enthusiasm for when I do attempt a Hollywood movie. I don't feel tied to the Hollywood system. I feel like I'm privileged to enter into it every once in a while and take a shot at something."
At this point, we've been given the "wrap-it-up" signal, so Dan comments about the wide variety of movies that both Jonathan and Thandie have been involved in. More to Thandie than to Jonathan, he asks, "They're all very different. I'm wondering what is there that's left for you to do? What haven't you explored?"
Thandie Newton: "For me, I feel like it's not so much what haven't I explored, but what am I going to be allowed to explore because, as an actor, it's limiting. You don't want to make plans because it would be very frustrating, because you don't really have that strong a say unless you become a producer. I'd love to be able to do that, to maybe be able to create situations for myself, as an actor, roles, etc. But I don't really have that kind of mentality. I'm not ambitious enough or something. So it's really just about trying to be around when a script comes along that has a great story or has a wonderful director attached, or is about something important. Just the usual stuff, really. Along side of that, keeping the family comfortable and trying to be happy as well along the way. But there aren't any big plans."
Jonathan follows up...
Jonathan Demme: "I can give you a perspective on that, too, because I think Thandie has done some truly remarkable work and different kinds of work. As effortless as the part of Reggie is, that's very, very complicated. That sort of effortlessness isn't arrived at easily. The portrayal of Beloved is a singular interpretation by an actress of an unprecedented part. That said, the surface has not even been scratched yet, in regards to what this young woman is capable of doing. You've got to go immediately to Meryl Streep, Denzel, people with big bodies of work that have now shown over a lot of time with a lot of big, meaty parts the depth and breadth of what they can do. She's going to wind up with a body of work that will match up against anybody's. She's just beginning to skim the surface."
At this point, it's time to get moving. I ask if we can get some autographs from them and they're more than willing. I brought my Criterion Collection Silence of the Lambs and Beloved DVDs. They both signed them for me (check 'em out!). While signing, I asked Jonathan if he'd done anything special in preparation for the DVD release of The Truth About Charlie: "Not really, but there are a lot of good scenes we cut out in the interest of pacing that I'm really looking forward to putting on there," he answers. Better than nothing, eh?
We say our good-bye's, our nice-to-meet-you's, and as suddenly as it began, it's over. My two colleagues and I are in the tiny elevator on our way back down to the lobby, in something of a stunned silence. Did that just happen? Did we just spend the last 25 minutes "hangin' out" with Jonathan Demme and Thandie Newton? Damn...we sure did.
Out of the St. Regis, through the city, to my car, and out of town, I don't think the smile left my face once. That afternoon is truly one of the most unique experiences of my life. Whenever I watch The Silence of the Lambs, Beloved, or more so, The Truth About Charlie, there's going to be so much more meaning to me, as a movie fan. This was more than attending a concert by your favorite musician, or a book reading by your favorite author. This was something that movie fans dream of and I got to live it, if only for 25 minutes.
My thanks to Universal & Maggie at Allied for the opportunity, to Jonathan and Thandie for having us and, of course, to Dustin for being busy that day. Ha ha ha. Seriously, themovieboy.com is just an empty website without Dustin, so it's his hard work that has gotten the site where it is today, and is getting it recognized as a real voice in the movie media.