This is a story that so old it predates Film Threat. This is a story that so old a lot of it is kind of hazy. This is my story about several memorable times I spent with recently deceased director Jonathan Demme. My story. Not a grand overview of his (very) long and prolific career, but instead, me running into him at a time when his professional career was pivoting.
Basically his cinematic story is broken into four sections; 1) His drive-in/grindhouse beginnings (fare like Caged Heat, Crazy Mama and Fighting Mad), 2) His ‘80s cult favorites as he found his uniquely human and humorous voice (Handle With Care, Melvin and Howard, Something Wild and Married to the Mob), and 3) Oscar winning prestige projects (Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia and Beloved) and 4) Big budget oblivion (ill-fated remakes of Charade and The Manchurian Candidate, Ricki and the Flash).
Running concurrent is his music documentaries which ran from the ‘80s right up until last years’ Justin Timberlake and the Tennessee Kids live show spectacle. Others included Talking Heads, Neil Young, Kenny Chesney and Bruce Springsteen. The man loved music.
That’s the short version, he also did several political documentaries, TV work and much more. Warning: Massive name dropping ahead.
“Demme was immediately taken with the Super-8 films of The Boners and its lead singer Jerry Vile…”
DINNER #1: THE MEMORY
In 1980 Detroit pal and fellow punk rocker David A. Keeps got a call from film director Jonathan Demme. He was a huge punk/new wave fan and was putting together a compilation of bands to be featured called Urgh! A Music War. The idea was to feature all unsigned bands and he found out Keeps was the manager for an unsigned Detroit band named Destroy All Monsters. They talked for awhile and then Demme invited him to come to Chicago for a test screening of his latest film Melvin and Howard.
Melvin and Howard was a rambling comedy-drama about a sad sack named Melvin Dummar who claimed Howard Hughes had him his fortune because he’d given Hughes a ride in the desert. Paul Le Mat, who hadn’t had a great part since his greaser with a heart of gold part in American Graffiti, played Melvin and relative newcomer Mary Steenburgen played his wife.
I tagged along, met Demme at the screening and we all agreed to meet the next morning for Bloody Marys and brunch. The studio had put him up on the top floor in the presidential suite and this was a day of firsts for me; first penthouse suite, first bagels and lox, first Bloody Marys and oh yeah, first time sitting down with a Hollywood director. Between the eating and drinking we asked him endless film questions and he asked us endless music questions.
Demme’s knowledge of punk and new wave music was immense and he spoke with the breathless passion of a true fan. At one point we mentioned that the Ramones were playing the next night in Detroit. He looked to his friend and asked “Is Detroit east or west of here? Is it on the way back home?” (True New Yorker.) He also asked if we’d introduce him to the band, naturally he assumed we must all know each other just like we assumed everyone in Hollywood must know each other.
Demme told us his idea was this take all the unsigned bands, put them on a revolving stage and as one would perform the other would set up and then you would rotate the stage. In addition to aforementioned Destroy All Monsters we described the many other bands we knew from Detroit who were also unsigned.
When we returned to Detroit Keeps put together a package and sent local band singles, Super 8 films of several bands live show and copies of the punk magazine I co-created White Noise. Demme was immediately taken with the Super-8 films of The Boners and its lead singer Jerry Vile (my housemate and co-creator of White Noise).The wildly satirical band dressed in a variety of costumes including Vile suspended from a stage in a Flying Nun outfit. Demme invited us to the New York Film Festival where Melvin and Howard was have its premiere. I packed the four of us (Vile, Keeps, pal Rick Metcalf and myself) into my Plymouth Volare and drove from Detroit to New York.
THE TAKEAWAY: Demme would go on to make a slew of music related documentaries and music videos. This was only the beginning.
“When they say ‘I’ll call you’ that means ‘f**k you’.”
DINNER #2: THE MEMORY
The Lincoln Center Premier of Melvin and Howard was everything you’d expect. Red carpet, snazzy outfits and plenty of stars. (And four, clearly out of place punk types.) Demme made an impassioned introduction and the film played well. Since we were punks too poor to even stay at the famous/sleazy Chelsea hotel we opted for a cheaper, little dive just off 42nd Street. This is not to be confused with the 42nd Street that safe and clean now. Indeed after the Lincoln Center premiere we strolled back the dump pausing at 42nd Street where we were seen laughing and cutting up. Two grizzled peep show doormen yelled “Show some goddamned respect, this is 42nd Street!”
The next afternoon we went to Demme’s Tribeca loft for lunch. (Brunch?!?! Lunch!?! I know, I know, this is called “My Dinners With…” but work with me, I had to use the headline play on My Dinner With Andre.) Demme was with his girlfriend Sandy McLeod and actor John Glover who’d co-starred in Demme’s previous film The Last Embrace. As we entered they were discussing what had gone wrong with the 1979 psycho sexual thriller starring Roy Scheider and Janet Margolin. Behind them was a full sized hand painted prop billboard from the climatic scenes filmed in Niagara Falls. (Yes, this loft was quite lofty.)
“The problem was,” Demme explained, “I was falling in love at the time with Sandy. I wasn’t fully committed to the film.” McLeod laughed, she’d been a script supervisor and in the opening of The Last Embrace had played Scheider’s ill fated wife. “It was supposed to be my tribute to Hitchcock,” Demme sighed, “but it didn’t quite work.” We mentioned we liked the bathtub scene where the femme fatale climaxed while making love to a man she then drowned.
”It’s Jonathan’s trademark ‘coming and going’ scene,” Glover cracked. Demme also explained they’d wanted to put in a scene of Glover’s character spying on the leads making love while hiding in a closet but the producers were horrified at the idea. (This sort of scene would make its famous debut six years later in Blue Velvet.)
McLoud had started her Hollywood career doing continuity for pornographic films. “You can just imagine,” she explained, “’Now in the last shot he orgasmed and it shot off to the right of the bed so…’” She laughed and didn’t seem to scared by the experience.
We spoke more about Detroit bands and Demme said the three of them had read one of the White Noise stories out loud. We were flabbergasted and flattered beyond belief. The piece had been an interview with a Chicago band called Wazmo Nariz. The lead singer’s shtick was to sing wearing a suit with two neckties. In our interview (written up like a one act play), a half of dozen of us entered the interview one at a time with each wearing more and more neckties. Glover smiled and nodded that he’d indeed participated in the reading.
Demme said the response to Melvin and Howard the night before had been overwhelmingly positive. “But you need to know two rules about Hollywood,” Demme explained. “When they say ‘I’ll call you’ that means ‘f**k you’. And when they say ‘Let’s do lunch’ that really means ‘f**k you’ too.”
I told Demme I liked the naturalism and generosity of his actor’s performances. Someone asked if Melvin might have forged the so called Hughes’ will. “He wasn’t bright enough quite honestly,” he said, “We saw the actual contested document and it’s too involved.”
“Yeah,” McLoud interrupted, “but his wife is very bright, so you just don’t know.” When talk turned to Steenburgen McLoud dryly said, “Oh, you mean The Bitch?” Demme didn’t get into details but confirmed she’d been more than a handful while shooting Melvin and Howard. McLeod and Demme had just returned from a vacation and he set up a projector and proceeded to show us a few numbing hours of their travelog. Fighting to stay awake, Vile leaned over and whispered, “Good thing he’s got a great editor.”
We went home and continued mail and phone correspondences. Some months later Demme said the producers of Urgh! insisted on having signed bands only. He would stay on in some advising capacity but he was going to drop out as director. Urgh! came out in 1981 with well known bands like The Police, Wall of Voodoo and UB40.
THE TAKEAWAY: Demme clearly loved hanging out with some actors (like Glover) and not others (so much). Years later he mended fences with Steenburgen and gave her a showy small part in his critically acclaimed 1993 film Philadelphia. The Last Embrace is still not a cult favorite but Melvin and Howard won a number of awards including Best Original screenplay Oscar for Bo Goldman and Best Supporting Actress Academy Award and Golden Globe for Steenburgen. In 1984 Demme would have such a hard time with Goldie Hawn in Swing Shift that she had him removed from the editing room (she was also a producer on the romantic comedy set in an American military factory during World War II). He disavowed he subsequent cut of the film.
“Demme’s style was to laugh at the right takes, offer one on one encouragement and get the proper coverage.”
DINNER #3: THE MEMORY
Demme had become such a fan of Jerry Vile that he offered him the third male lead part in his next film even though he had no real acting experience, (the stuff he’d done in my awful student films is best left buried). The film was Who Am I This Time?, a PBS one hour feature based on a short story by Kurt Vonnegut about a painfully shy hardware store clerk who comes to life only when he acts in the local amateur theater productions. The two romantic leads were to be played by Christopher Walken and Susan Sarandon.
Shot on 16 millimeter the film was a modest production and Walken and Sarandon worked for far less than their usual fee. Demme had convinced Velvet Underground veteran John Cale to do the soundtrack, they had worked together in 1974 on the low budget prison picture Caged Heat. Shooting was set in Evanston, Illinois, an affluent suburb north of Chicago. The production would utilize the quaint downtown, several sets and the high school auditorium.
The production invited myself and my wife-to-be Lisa to hang out on set for several days. As anyone who’s been on a film set knows (if they’re not actually working), its fascinating at first and then later tedious. Day one we watched them shoot the scene where the characters were doing a production of Streetcar Named Desire. The characters playing other characters meant Sarandon also was playing Streetcar’s Stella, Walken was Stanley and Vile was Stanley’s best friend Mitch. The scene was to start slow, Walken was to pick up speed, get furious, flip over a poker table and stalk off. Vile’s character would close it out by bellowing (in his best Karl Malden voice) “Poker should not be played in a house with women!”
Demme’s style was to laugh at the right takes, offer one on one encouragement and get the proper coverage. He knew this wasn’t like has last two features and worked fast and efficiently. Walken was coming off the Steve Martin depression musical Pennies From Heaven and between takes he’d warm up by dancing. He also carried around a cup of coffee. When someone finally asked him how he could drink coffee all day he said, “I can’t. This isn’t coffee, it’s wine. Want some?”
That night we all went to dinner with Sarandon, Walken, Demme, Sandy McCloud, co-star Robert Ridgely, Vile and his girlfriend Kati. I got seated across from Walken and was able to ask him several questions about working Demme on The Last Embrace, The Deer Hunter and the 1980 mercenary auctioneer Dogs of War. Walken admitted the film was “brutal but accurate” then laughed, “I’m not sure what the film was about, but it was fun, shooting all those different kinds of guns.” Ridgely had been in Melvin and Howard and was a regular of Mel Brooks’s (you probably remember him as the lisping, hunch-backed executioner in Blazing Saddles).
Walken and Sarandon were the bigger stars but no one was having more fun and garnering attention than Ridgely. Ridley cracked up the whole table with a stream of consciousness that was Don Rickles-eque. And he’d include everyone. One moment he’d be ribbing Walken about the unique way he speaks, another Demme for some unknown past discretion. He took a shine to Vile and teased him like a favorite nephew. Turning our way he just addressed us as Detroit. “So what do you think there, Detroit?” he grinned, “You like hanging out with a big time director and big time movie stars?” Sarandon took it for as long as she could. Ridgely could be hilarious one moment and just straight up crude the next. When all else would fail he was given to twisting his (own) nipples for a laugh. “Enough, Bob!” Sarandon finally said exasperated. Later Sarandon would pull Vile aside and offer advice on acting and volunteer to give him more wisdom down the road should he decide to continue.
Demme explained that the current film was kind of a cleansing of the palette and he was excited as his next film was to be something called Extreme Prejudice. With a full throttled, action packed script by John Milius, Demme envisioned Robert Mitchum as the aging lawman fighting along the Texas Mexican border. “It’s a modern day western really,” Demme explained, “And I’ve always wanted to do a western and who could be better in a western than Mitchum?”
THE TAKEAWAY: Extreme Prejudice would not be Demme’s next film (that would be Swing Shift). Prejudice would eventually be made in 1987 with Walter Hill directing Nick Nolte in the Mitchum part. Demme clearly loved all genres (except probably sci-fi) and would find mastery in horror genre with 1991’s Silence of the Lambs. He’d always aim high with either a smashing success (like 1986 cult favorite Something Wild) or smashing crash (like remaking The Manchurian Candidate in 2004).
“Can you hear that? Can you hear that? They love it, they still love it after all these years!”
DINNER #4: THE MEMORY
One day later the same group convened in a large restaurant in Evanston. Ridgely was up to his usual antics but now Vile was starting to make the crowd laugh a lot too. Walken, it turned out, was a very appreciative, egoless audience. Halfway through our dinner Ridgely explained how he spend his off days. Apparently his three great loves were movies, food and his wife. So he had two reclining hospital beds installed into their bedroom and ordered in food.
Halfway through the meal a waiter informed us that one of the city’s mucky-mucks was also in attendance and wanted Walken to come over and say hello. Walken cut him off quickly saying, “Either we all go or none of us go.” After the meal we all piled into the street to get into awaiting cars. When it was discovered it was too full, Lisa and I volunteered to stay back and wait for another car. Walken and Sarandon would have none of that and instead piled onto our laps for the ride back to the hotel.
Demme would finish the film with a climax where all the other supporting characters would gather around the romantic leads and applaud. The film appeared on PBS’s American Playhouse series, Season One, Episode four in 1982.
THE TAKEAWAY: The applauding the happy ending bit would be repeated at the end of 1988’s Married to the Mob. A favorite of Demme’s, Mob predated Goodfellas and The Sopranos by several years and similarly satirized Jersey mob troupes to great effect. Who Am I This Time? scored good reviews and then faded into the ether. In the mid 1990s Walken starred in a number of horror films as devilish character Gabriel in The Prophecy I and II. Capitalizing on these cult hits Who Am I This Time? was re-released with an ominous black and red cover that implied it was a horror film. Imagine the horror film fanatics had after they bought was instead a gentle sweet every man fable by Demme. Ridgely would go on to voice hundreds of hours of animated TV show and movies, get a memorably smarmy small part in Philadelphia and play The Colonel in Boogie Nights. Ridgely died in 1997 at age 65. Demme would continue to cast rock lead singers in his films, most notably Chris Isaak who had sizable parts in Married to the Mob (mostly cut out and teased at in the end credits) and Silence of the Lambs. Jerry Vile would turn to publishing and curating huge alternative art shows in Detroit and never act again. Walken and Sarandon? They did just fine.
In the early 2000s I was sent by Spin Magazine to San Francisco to interview the band Talking Heads for the re-release of the Demme directed, instant classic from 1984, Stop Making Sense. All of the Talking Heads had reassembled with lead singer David Byrne insisting on being interviewed separately from the other three band members. Demme did not participate but Byrne and I talked at length about Demme and the way he was in the 1980s. Byrne explained that the thin distinctive hand written film title on the movie poster and credits were lifted directly from the Dr. Strangelove title sequence.
That night I went to dinner with Crumb director Terry Zwigoff who has lived in San Francisco for decades (he truly hates LA). After catching up on old times (including him explaining how Ghost World almost was made with Adam Sandler in the Steve Buscemi role), I invited him to come to the Castro Theatre as Demme would be screening the film re-release. The confirmed curmudgeon demurred saying something to the effect of he’d rather have needles stuck in his ears. (He proudly hates any music post-1930.)
The film had already begun as Zwigoff dropped me off at the theater. I entered the Castro lobby just as Demme emerged from theater auditorium. He spun about yelling and pumping his arms, “Can you hear that? Can you hear that?” The crowd was yelling and singing along with the film. “They love it,” he beamed, “they still love it after all these years!” I spoke with Jonathan, who I hadn’t seen since the 1980s. We talked briefly about Who Am I This Time?, his continued passion for music and excused himself to go back into the theater. Halfway into the double doors he turned and shook his finger my way and yelled, “When you see that Jerry Vile, you see him hello for me! Tell him hello for me!”
I left Detroit in 1994 to move to LA when I got an offer to executive edit Film Threat Magazine. Chris Gore gets the credit for making that offer but I don’t think I would have taken him up on it if Demme hadn’t been so nice to me all those years before.