Filmmaker Jonathan Demme

Originally aired on June 29, 2012

The Oscar-winning filmmaker explains the backstory of his projects with rock icon Neil Young and his post-Hurricane Katrina documentary, I Am Carolyn Parker.

Jonathan Demme is among Hollywood's first rank of filmmakers, with credits that include Philadelphia, Beloved, The Silence of the Lambs, for which he won an Oscar, and a trilogy of Neil Young documentaries. Tackling challenging and controversial subjects, he's directed eight different actors in Oscar-nominated performances. Demme is also an activist, whose concern is reflected in such projects as Artists for Democracy in Haiti, the documentary Right to Return on post-Katrina residents of New Orleans and its follow-up, the portrait documentary I’m Carolyn Parker: The Good, the Mad, and the Beautiful.


Tavis: Always pleased to welcome Jonathan Demme to this program. The Oscar-winning filmmaker has not one but two projects out soon, the first, a rare look at the life of rock icon, Neil Young. The new film is called “Neil Young Journeys” and opens in theaters June 29. So here now a scene from “Neil Young Journeys.”


Tavis: I have a photo in my house. In my office, there’s a photo of Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp, Dave Matthews, Neil Young and me at the 25th anniversary of Farm Aid.

Jonathan Demme: Right.

Tavis: I was honored that year to be asked by Mellencamp and Nelson to be the host of the big 25th anniversary TV special. So I went to Milwaukee – don’t know why I was asked – but went and had a blast, but this photo of me sitting next to Neil Young is just unbelievable.

But why your fascination all these years? You’ve done three projects now with Neil Young.

Demme: Yeah. We did a country and western version of Neil Young in Nashville first. You know, “Heart of Gold” and that was a valentine to Nashville and country music in the Grand Ole Opry tradition and Hank Williams. That was a beautiful kind of handcrafted elegant piece we did just for film.

This piece, he was on tour with his show and, you know, here it is, one man in a huge concert hall on stage with, let’s say, his electric guitar, as is often the case here, filling up Massey Hall with this extraordinary sound.

When I saw the show, I thought we’ve got to film this. There’s never been anything like this before.

Tavis: The way you shot this – and this is so inside, you know, Hollywood – but the way you shot this is part of what makes it so beautiful and the viewer just got a chance to see some of that just a moment ago.

But tell me about the treatment that you gave to the subject in this particular piece.

Demme: Well, it’s interesting because the two previous films we did, “Heart of Gold” and “Neil Young Trunk Show,” he’s up there with a lot of other musicians. In “Heart of Gold,” at one point, there were 23 players on the stage with him.

Part of what’s magic about Neil is the way he interacts with the other musicians. We really capitalized on that with “Heart of Gold.” And then with a smaller band, we capitalized on this tremendous kinship and interplay in “Neil Young Trunk Show.”

Now here we go on this tour and it’s him alone. So now, uh-oh, we’ve lost one of our cornerstones which is this intimate interplay, but now what we’ve gained is we can just give our undivided focus on Neil Young.

We can dedicate a camera to his guitar every moment of the concert. We can have three beautiful close-ups that don’t depend on tying him in with anybody else.

Our goal was to make the film become a cinematic expression of the stories he’s telling, the songs he’s singing. I crawled right up inside his thing, and we did it, you know. I think that this is one of the most intimate pieces that’s been done yet.

Tavis: You know the thing that always fascinates me about you and I – we’ll talk more about the Carolyn Parker project in just a moment here. But I’m honored over the course of my career to spend a great deal of time with this guy working on projects.

I mean, who knew as a kid born in Mississippi and raised in Indiana that I’d be hanging out and working on projects with Jonathan Demme one day, so I’m always honored to be in your presence.

Demme: I can feel the very same way, Tavis, please.

Tavis: I adore you, as you well know. But I raise my experience with you because getting to know you and not just having you on the show as a guest, I know that so much of what you do, almost all of it, is driven by a love, a passion, a connection to humanity.

You’ve done a lot of stuff that’s made a lot of money, a blockbuster stuff that’s made Hollywood very happy. I’m sure there’s a lot more in the future for you in that regard, but so much of what you do, the majority of your corpus, isn’t the blockbuster stuff. You really do follow your heart as a filmmaker.

Demme: Well, that’s one of the big appeals to me for Neil Young because this is what his music’s all about. You know, he’s a 99 percent artist. He’s singing, like one of his great songs is called “Ordinary People.” It’s an epic story that’s kind of like a Studs Terkel novel.

The songs that he does here, one of which is “Ohio.” I saw that man who was as I was, you know, like early 20s at the time of Kent State. He was so moved by what happened that he wrote a song that became an American classic, “Ohio.”

Now it’s many decades later and he’s up there on the stage and in front of our cameras singing with tremendous passion and heartache and rage about four dead in Ohio.

I’m thinking like do we even know who he’s singing about now? The way he does the day is much more passionate than the kind of beautiful, lyrical Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young version that came out 10 days after the shootings.

So I thought, you know, in this film, we have to really live up to Neil Young’s passion here. So that’s why we tracked down the families of the four tragic victims of the Kent State shootings. We asked their permission to show what these young people looked like.

The pictures came in and we were devastated because here are these four great young Americans. They looked like all the kids we know now. They looked like the kids you see, you know, down at Occupy Wall Street.

I feel like what Neil’s doing with that song and what I wanted to do with the film was say, yes, we’re paying tribute to these young Americans who were shot down by our National Guard, but it’s also a cautionary moment.

I think Neil is saying we’ve got to be careful here because we’ve got young people today here in California at UC Davis being pepper-sprayed blatantly by security people. How big a gap is it before we turn guns on the young people that are protesting?

So I feel there’s a tremendous ongoing, profound pertinence to Neil’s work because that humanism really endures.

Tavis: So protest, to your point now, protest is cyclical and we see that happening on the part of young people in various parts across the country today.

What I’m curious about, though, is where are the Neil Youngs of today? Thankfully, Neil Young is still around doing what he does very well, so Neil Young is the Neil Young of today. You know what I’m getting at here.

I’m trying to figure out whether or not or where in fact those kinds of artists who were speaking out like Young and others were back in the day, where they are today to match up with these young people in the streets. Does that make sense?

Demme: Yeah, it does and it makes me wonder. You know, there was a tremendous emergence of this kind of musical thematic storytelling in the golden age, the early days of hip-hop. Grandmaster Flash, there was a tremendous social awareness going on. I don’t see that so much there anymore. I don’t hear enough nowadays either. It’s like too much to listen to nowadays.

But you’re right. You know, it’s hard to find someone to go like – no; actually, Steve Earle is still doing it. Especially at this moment in time, there’s a lot of good material to be had.

Tavis: I mean, there’s some artists out there and I could call some names. I mean, I had some of them on the show. They are out there, but with the kind of conviction that the folk in the 60s had, it’s a different kind of thing.

I got a kick out of just watching you say Grandmaster Flash. Watching that come out of your mouth was what tickled me [laugh].

Demme: Now I know you’re young, but I know you’ve…

Tavis: I love hearing you say Grandmaster Flash.

Demme: You know, the other thing I would say about Neil and in this vein that you’re talking about, Tavis, is he did that album shortly after the invasion of Iraq.

It was a “Living with War” album which is, for me, a brilliant masterpiece musically, narratively, thematically, but a tremendously political album, if being against war is political. By the way, is it? I mean, is that a political position?

Tavis: I think it’s a moral position.

Demme: I do too. So Neil had to write that. You’re right. I feel like we’ve got so many gifted musicians today and it’d be wonderful if they would come forth and give us stuff to relate to.

Tavis: One could look at your corpus and come to the conclusion that you are a lover of music and that your music tastes are eclectic. One the one hand, you’ve done Neil Young work, on the other hand, Bob Marley stuff. You really do love music that much?

Demme: Very, very much. You know, my generation’s early days of television, so I’ve been thinking about this lately. My two flashes of me as a little boy, one, I’m standing in front of the radio freaking out that Nat King Cole’s singing “Lady of Spain,” just this stuff coming out of the radio, and Guy Williams singing “Wild Horses” coming out of the radio. It was magic, that introduction. I think I’m not the only one.

Meanwhile, you go in the other room and there’s a tiny little TV screen and here’s “King Kong” and “Yankee Doodle Dandy” coming over. You know, I was inoculated. Maybe I was a lonely kid and I’d spent too much time by the radio [laugh] and in front of the TV, but I was inoculated with that.

As a filmmaker now that I get the opportunity to film Neil Young, to have a chance to marry great music with hopefully terrific cinematic approach, it’s heaven for me. I love it.

Tavis: I’ll come back to Carolyn Parker in a second, this other project of yours. To your point about your childhood, when, where, how did you connect with your calling as a filmmaker?

Demme: I went to the movies all of the time as a kid on Long Island. I’d get the papers. I used to cut out the movie ads. I was obsessed with movies. I’d save stacks of movies. I used to go into the basements of apartment buildings, Tavis, to see if they had any old newspapers that had some movie ads that I didn’t have in my collection.

So I used to go to the movies all the time, all the time, all the time. Then I had the opportunity to become a film critic on a campus newspaper because I didn’t have enough money to feed my movie habit, so I knew I could get in for free.

Then I met Roger Corman and he said, you know, your reviews are good. Do you want to write a screenplay? I was like, okay. So I wrote a screenplay with my friend and partner, Joe Viola, and we gave Roger Corman the screenplay. This was back in 1970, something like that.

Roger Corman says, “This is pretty good, fellas. Joe, you’re a good commercial director. Jonathan, you’re a bright guy. You could produce it. Joe could direct it. Why don’t you guys come out to Los Angeles and make this movie for us? You guys can split $3,000. It’ll take you about a year to do it. I’ll give you $125,000 to make the movie with.”

We were so thrilled to be writing a screenplay, the whole idea of now making a movie, so I kicked Joe under the table and said, “Sure, we’ll do it.”

So without aspiring to be a filmmaker, I wound up learning how to make films in public. We say that Roger Corman, back in those days, you’re conducting your education in public [laugh].

Tavis: That’s a great story, though. He was on this show and I recall him talking about the fact that you were one of his young protégés he’s proud of even to this very day, yeah. So this other project that you have coming out is the Carolyn Parker project.

I’ll let you talk about it, but again, I will always be humbled and honored to have spent time with you in New Orleans shooting this week-long special that we aired here a couple of years ago on PBS called “Right to Return.”

So this audience got introduced to Carolyn Parker through that special some years ago, but now you have a film about Carolyn Parker.

Demme: That’s right. Because you had the vision – I remember, we met each other and we were talking about various things and we started talking about New Orleans and I told you that Daniel Wolfe and I were making these trips down to New Orleans and filming people who had had the courage to demand their right to return to their neighborhoods, to not see the neighborhoods leveled and turned into green space or condos or whatever they wanted to do. You said, well, if you want to cut together some of these portraits, maybe we could put them on the show.

That is the first step in making these films. You know, after the five nights on the Tavis Smiley Show, we took those five episodes; one was Carolyn Parker, the other was Cherice Harrison, Pastor Mel.

Tavis: Pastor Mel, yeah.

Demme: You know, we turned that into an instant movie. Hey, wait a minute. We have 100 minutes of film here, so that became “New Home Movies from the Lower 9th Ward” which became kind of a pilot for the Dream Project which “I’m Carolyn Parker” is the next installment of.

I’m hoping that we’re now gonna move on to making a portrait of Cherice Harrison. That’ll be called “Guardians of the Flame.” Then we’ll do Pastor Mel and then finally we’ll do a piece on the back of town, the neighborhood that got the tsunami between the Florida Avenue Bridge and the Claiborne Avenue Bridge.

It’s funny because, to me, fiction can’t compete with what the New Orleanians have been through. You can’t, you know, make up a story that can really equal, I think, in human terms and emotional terms the courage, tenacity, humor of the people we were privileged to visit.

I think it’s so great because I remember when we went down there afterwards and we showed up at Carolyn’s house with Doc West and stuff. She was like “It’s so nice to have you” and I kept thinking, oh, she’s gonna be so freaked out that Tavis Smiley and Cornel West have shown up. She was just like, “Come on in.”

Tavis: Yeah, she’s a sweet lady, which reminds me that I just had on my radio program a week or so ago Dave Eggers who has a new book out.

Demme: It was a great show.

Tavis: A wonderful review in The New York Times the other day about his new book, but one of the books that made him famous is a toon book, of course.

Demme: Right.

Tavis: He told me you’re working on trying to bring out that film. How’s that?

Demme: Yeah, we’re developing that as an animated film.

Tavis: An animated film?

Demme: Yeah. We’re calling that “Zeitoun, the Movie.” We’re working with a fantastic artist from Minneapolis named Charlie Griak who’s just kind of proving in the images he’s doing now that animation can be arguably or even a richer way to visualize a story than with cameras and actors and extras and stuff.

Tavis: The reason I raise “Zeitoun” is because Zeitoun is a story of a Muslim family in New Orleans. For those who read the book, you know it’s a best-selling text. This Muslim family in New Orleans who were so maltreated in the days after Hurricane Katrina, it’s a fascinating text and I’m glad that Jonathan Demme is working to bring that to the screen.

But I raise that because it’s been almost seven years now and so many people have, shall we say, compassion fatigue about New Orleans. Seven years is like an eternity.

I mean, we’ve long since forgotten, but you still are so passionately connected to doing anything and everything you can to tell the story of this city still in comeback mode. You’re a kid from Long Island. Why the connection to New Orleans?

Demme: I just want to say this. Doesn’t it torque your jaws that people have Katrina fatigue? Oh, poor you! Oh, what a shame! I’m so sorry. How did you actually acquire this fatigue? What is it about? I mean, unpack that for a second, Tavis. What makes people fatigued? Is it the fact that they don’t want to reach out perhaps?

Because that was one of the thrilling things about our shooting down there was to see these waves of young American students and these are the ones that actually are the kind of the same generation we’re talking about.

I think they were the kind of front runner of the Occupy generation, which I still think is a very thrilling thing for America, the first real energized kind of old-fashioned Neil Young style social response.

But all these volunteers kept going down there and they don’t have Katrina fatigue. They keep going back. You know, they met these extraordinary people.

These are the American heroes to me, you know, of the 21st century. They’re giant figures. They don’t think that way themselves, but they dared to fight for their city like that and to endure living in FEMA trailers and what have you. I just find it staggeringly important, you know.

Tavis: I was telling my crew before you walked in that the first time I went to Jonathan Demme’s house for dinner with his wife and two wonderful kids, I went to spend some time with them.

Of course, I wanted to see where – he has a viewing room. Is that proper? In the basement, you call it a viewing room? What do you call that?

Demme: We call that a den [laugh]. We got our screen down there.

Tavis: It’s a screening room. That’s what I think of. It’s a little bit nicer than a den. It’s a nice screening room. I went down to the basement because I wanted to see the screening room where he actually edits and watches his stuff before we see it on the big screen.

Then, of course, I wanted to see, as any fan does, Jonathan, where’s that Oscar for “The Silence of the Lambs,” that Best Director Oscar?

We go upstairs and he points to it. It’s just on the top of the refrigerator with the bread [laugh]. It’s just sitting on the top of the refrigerator with bread and fruit laying around. I said this guy is way too cool for me.

Demme: Tavis, what is the most visited room in any house?

Tavis: The kitchen.

Demme: And what item attracts the most attention?

Tavis: The refrigerator. Oh, I get it [laugh].

Demme: I see that every day [laugh].

Tavis: I get it now, I get it. Sitting on top of the refrigerator. I loved it. I shared that little funny story because one could listen to you in this conversation and get the impression perhaps, right or wrong, you tell me, that Demme, fine filmmaker that he is, has given up or just put on the back burner for the moment the big Hollywood production for the other stuff that you’re doing now. Would that be an accurate statement?

Demme: You know, I follow my enthusiasms. Honestly, Tavis, I feel like it’s easier to get a small amount of money to make a great Neil Young film than it is to get a gigantic amount of money to make a big old movie.

Tavis: What’s the Anne Hathaway movie you did?

Demme: “Rachel Getting Married,” yeah.

Tavis: “Rachel Getting Married,” great movie.

Demme: That was wonderful because it was a screenplay that was kind of modest in its physicality, but had tremendous appeal on a lot of levels. No, I love doing fiction. In fact, I did a film recently with Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn.

It’s Wallace Shawn’s adaptation of Ibsen’s “The Master Builder” starring Wallace Shawn. Julie Haggerty’s in it. Andre Gregory’s in it, a company of fantastic actors.

We did it inexpensively and we didn’t have any grownups telling us how to do it and we didn’t have any committees telling us, uh-oh, you’re lacking a certain ingredient or what have you. I think that that becomes difficult for me, I have to say, is the way you might be forced into more formulaic thinking with the bigger budgets.

Now that doesn’t happen to everybody and I think great films are being made in Hollywood all the time, but it requires a certain kind of stick-to-itiveness that I’d rather go out and make three or four smaller movies.

That said, I’ve been working with Stephen King on a screenplay for his book, “11/22/63.” I hope that someday that might happen. Maybe soon, maybe not.

Tavis: And speaking of your loyalty, speaking of “Rachel Getting Married,” some of your friends from New Orleans you cast in that movie. I went to the movie and said, oh, my God. I recognized those faces from folk we had met in New Orleans.

Demme: Right. Well, when we made “Rachel Getting Married,” our whole approach to it was – we had a great script by Jenny Lumet, but we wanted to pretend we were making a documentary.

You know, we didn’t plan our shots. Declan Quinn, our great cameraman, just got in there with his camera and followed it the same way that we followed Jimmy Carter when we made “Jimmy Carter, Man from Plains.”

Tavis: I loved that piece.

Demme: We hired a lot of charismatic, real people to be the people in the wedding and their friends and we knew a very special kind of interaction would occur with the “real” actors and the “real” people. It worked out really well.

Tavis: Well, I think the moral of tonight’s conversation is to always follow your passions. That’s what Jonathan Demme has done and it’s worked pretty well for him, so we should all emulate Jonathan Demme.

So the Neil Young project is out for Mr. Demme, “Carolyn Parker” coming this summer from Jonathan Demme, and a gazillion other projects that he’s working on. I’m just glad you had time to come see me for a few minutes.

Demme: Oh, thank you so much. Anytime, Tavis. I love you so much.

Tavis: I appreciate you, man. I love you back, man. That’s our show for tonight.

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at

Narrator: Every community has a Martin Luther King Boulevard. It’s the cornerstone we all know. It’s not just a street or boulevard, but a place where Walmart stands together with your community to make every day better.

Narrator: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: July 16, 2012 at 1:53 pm