What director Jonathan Demme, who made 'Silence of the Lambs,' brought to filmmaking

American director Jonathan Demme in Venice, Italy, in September 2008. Credit: REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

Oscar-winning director Jonathan Demme, who is best-known for the 1991 horror-thriller film "The Silence of the Lambs," has died at 73 of esophageal cancer and complications from heart disease, IndieWire reports.

In addition to "The Silence of the Lambs," one of only three films to ever win Academy Awards in all five major award categories, Demme also made comedies, documentaries and concert films. Among them: "Stop Making Sense," a seminal 1984 concert film about the post-punk rock band the Talking Heads, "Philadelphia," which in 1993 was the first big-budget Hollywood film to tackle AIDS, and "Something Wild," a 1986 quirky comic thriller starring Melanie Griffith and Jeff Daniels, which influenced prominent screenwriters such as Bret Easton Ellis, who similarly mixed violence with pop culture and comedy in his 1991 book, and then film, "American Psycho."

In a 2012 interview with NewsHour correspondent Jeffrey Brown, who asked Demme about the tremendous range of films he made, the director said he was "guided by my enthusiasm."

"It's sort of like, that script has a story in my view, my humble opinion, [that] is worth telling," he said. "There is so much going on in our country and in the world today … We're getting the headlines for a second, shaped by corporate delivery most of the time, but what's really the story there? Well, I'm turned on by that kind of stuff."

What enthused Demme had an impact on many in the industry. When director Paul Thomas Anderson, known for dark, often unsettling films, was asked which filmmaker influenced him most, he replied: "Jonathan Demme, Jonathan Demme, Jonathan Demme" — especially for the way it shaped Anderson's film "Boogie Nights."

In a conversation between Demme and Anderson at the Austin Film Festival in 2015, Anderson asked Demme about his trademark use of "subjective camera," a technique in which a film shows exactly what is in the actor's point of view, often followed or prefaced by the actor looking directly into the lens. Demme used this technique both in "Something Wild" and "The Silence of the Lambs."

"You want the audience to be in the character's shoes," Demme explained. "The more deeply into the character's shoes the audience is, the more they're going to care about what's going on."

Demme's concert documentary "Stop Making Sense," for which he shot the Talking Heads for three nights in Hollywood's Pantages Theater during their 1983 tour, is widely considered one of the best concert films ever made. In a bizarre David Byrne interview the musician conducted with himself, Byrne said he chose Demme to direct the film because "he knew what not to do" and "he also saw things as an outsider."

Demme also made the Neil Young concert film "Neil Young: Heart of Gold" and a 2016 concert film on Netflix for Justin Timberlake.

Demme's 1993 drama "Philadelphia," which highlighted how the AIDS epidemic was stigmatized, is credited with helping Americans understand the disease for the first time. In an interview 20 years after the film's release, Rita Charon, who directs Columbia University's Program in Narrative Medicine, said "after seeing the film, people said, 'Oh my God, is that what's happening?' Through art and creativity, it changed the national conversation about the disease."

As for "The Silence of the Lambs," the most well-known of Demme's films — and perhaps one of the most terrifying films ever made — it is also the first and only horror film to win an Oscars Best Picture.

In an interview on the 25th anniversary of the film, screenwriter Ted Tally said the movie "broke all the rules" in being a "talky" and "intellectual" horror film, and for having a woman, actress Jodie Foster, in a lead role. Demme played with techniques such as breaking the fourth wall repeatedly throughout, especially with his psychopath character Dr. Hannibel Lecter. He also shot in night vision when Clarice is stuck in killer Buffalo Bill's house, and played with eyeline to establish how the audience should view each of his characters.

In a collected book of interviews with Demme, when he is asked how he turned words on a page into a movie, he said it was all about interpretation and emotion. "If I get turned on by a script, it's my job to make the viewers of the movie feel the way I felt," he said.

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