I’m certainly not planning to write many memorial blogs for filmmakers, but at the unexpected and very saddening news of the death of the American director Jonathan Demme, aged 73 (portrait above by Peter Hapak), I felt moved to do so. I never got to know him well or count him as a friend, but we did meet or speak over the phone a few times – usually for interviews for Time Out, sometimes less formally – and I always found him to be an unusually warm, funny, utterly charming person. I’m not alone in having considered him both extremely ‘nice’ – though I was repeatedly told at school that one should try to find another, more specific replacement for that much overused and rather vague adjective, in Demme’s case the word is appropriate, since to be in his easy-going company was highly agreeable and entertaining – and ‘a good person’: politically, ethically and artistically, he was both very astute and what one writer, mourning his demise, called ‘humanitarian’. One need only see his films – in particular, perhaps, the documentaries – to see the truth of that assessment.
Demme was an incredibly versatile filmmaker, who moved from ‘exploitation movies’ made under the aegis of Roger Corman, through a series of wonderfully wry portraits of everyday American life and a couple of idiosyncratic black comedies (Something Wild, Married to the Mob) to comparatively big but far from unambitious Hollywood movies like Philadelphia and The Manchurian Candidate, and on to later offball projects like Rachel Getting Married and Ricki and the Flash, all the while interspersing these fiction features with documentaries and music films. And given his warm, liberal humanity, it is perhaps ironic that he is probably best known for The Silence of the Lambs (though Stop Making Sense is also a favourite for many).
When it was announced that Demme was going to make a film of Thomas Harris’s novel about the hunt for a psychotic serial killer, some of us felt there was surely some mistake: the director’s gentle, generous, generally amused sensibility, so gloriously evident in films like Handle with Care, Melvin and Howard and Swing Shift (which, for all that it appears to have been hijacked by Goldie Hawn, remains a lovely piece of work), but also to be found in the subsequent black comedies, seemed to inhabit an entirely different universe from the grotesque, gothic, grand guignol realm of the sickly senses occupied by Jame Gumb and Hannibal Lecter. But Demme did make it, and the rest is history: what we remember from his take on Harris’s evil empire is not so much the psychopaths (excellent as Ted Levine and Anthony Hopkins were) as Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling: a brave, intelligent, vulnerable and profoundly independent woman getting on with her job because that, after all, is what good folks are supposed to do. So while Michael Mann’s Manhunter – the first and still in several respects the best of the film adaptations of Harris – may be a superior thriller, there is no denying that Demme and writer Ted Tally made the most richly, recognisably and sympathetically ‘human’ movie out of the novelist’s vividly inventive but generically Gothic imaginings.
I’m not going to attempt any further analysis of Demme’s considerable achievement here; I merely wanted to mark his passing, partly because he did seem to be an uncommonly nice and decent guy of very real integrity; partly because his career in film more or less coincides with my own abiding interest in movies, my own cinephilia developing just as he started directing; and partly because my own personal dealings with him were so pleasurable. (The last times we met was when he came to the BFI Southbank to present his marvellous documentary Jimmy Carter, Man from Plains, and he invited me along to a special screening a couple of nights later of Rachel Getting Married.) Plus there’s one other reason: he could have been in a film I almost made. I jest not.
As it turned out, I’ve never made a single film, but back in the 90s, at the suggestion of John Sayles’ partner and producer Maggie Renzi, I almost got around to making a rather odd low-budget documentary, to be shot in Central Park, about the mysterious but magical appeal of birdwatching. I had found out, by accident, that a couple of American indie filmmakers, like me, enjoyed birdwatching, and it was Maggie who not only suggested I make some sort of documentary on the subject of birding, but told me that Jonathan Demme was also afflicted with the passion. Though I later let my ideas for the film, quite extensively developed, simply lapse, I did gave the matter a fair bit of thought, spoke with a producer, put together a very basic ‘pitch’ and started contacting the relevant filmmakers. In Demme’s case, I sent him a letter with the pitch via my then colleague Tom Charity, who if memory serves was interviewing him for Beloved; imagine my pleasure when Demme replied that yes, he was a birder, indeed he’d been a member of the Audubon Society since he was a boy, and if he were available, he’d love to be in my film. I was thrilled; now I had three filmmakers willing to participate; all I had to do now was to find some way of contacting Terrence Malick and persuade him, somehow, to appear in front of my camera.
That wasn’t, in the end, the obstacle to the film never being made; I simply failed to find the time and energy to set about trying to get the film financed. I’m not a person prone to many regrets, but perhaps I should have gone ahead with my plans. If nothing else, I could have hung out a little more with Jonathan Demme, maybe have got to know him better. That, I’m sure, would have been very nice.
And here, for the record, is a list of my favourite Demme movies. (I confess I never saw Ricki and the Flash.) It’s a lovely legacy.
Handle with Care, 1978; Last Embrace, 1979; Melvin and Howard, 1980; Who Am I This Time? (TV), 1982; Stop Making Sense, 1984; Swing Shift, 1984; Something Wild, 1986; Married to the Mob, 1988; The Silence of the Lambs, 1991; Cousin Bobby, 1992; Philadelphia, 1993; The Agronomist, 2003; The Manchurian Candidate, 2004; Jimmy Carter, Man from Plains, 2007; Rachel Getting Married, 2008