Conversation: Director Jonathan Demme on His New Film and Hero, Carolyn Parker

The film is titled “I’m Carolyn Parker: The Good, the Mad, and the Beautiful,” and indeed Carolyn Parker is all those things and more. A resident of the Lower 9th Ward in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, acclaimed filmmaker Jonathan Demme tells her story — or perhaps, more to the point, let’s her tell her own story in a film that he shot during visits over some five years.

Demme is well known for his wide range of work: from his acclaimed films “Rachel Getting Married,” “The Silence of the Lambs” and “Philadelphia” to documentaries and projects like his series with musician Neil Young.

“I’m Carolyn Parker: The Good, the Mad, and the Beautiful” airs on the PBS series “POV” tonight. Jonathan Demme joined me by phone earlier this week:

A transcript is after the jump. Watch more clips from “I’m Carolyn Parker: The Good, the Mad, and the Beautiful” here.

JEFFREY BROWN: Welcome back to Art Beat. I’m Jeffrey Brown. The film is titled “I’m Carolyn Parker: The Good, the Mad, and the Beautiful,” and indeed Carolyn Parker is all those things and more. A resident of the Lower 9th Ward in New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina. Acclaimed filmmaker Jonathan Demme tells her story, or perhaps more to the point, let’s her tell her own story in a film that he shot during visits over some five years. The film airs on the PBS series “POV” tonight, and Jonathan Demme joins us now. Welcome to you.

JONATHAN DEMME: Thank you very much.

JEFFREY BROWN: You know, it looks from the first minutes of the film as though you happened upon Carolyn Parker almost accidently. Is that true? Tell us how this came about?

JONATHAN DEMME: Yeah, it is true. I had gone down in the hopes of meeting some of these people that I had heard about that were daring to go back to their ruined houses in their devastated neighborhoods and claim them — reclaim them — and rebuild and re-habitat. We had the names of some people that my friend Cyril Neville from the Neville Brothers had told me about and I was hoping that amongst that group there would be people that would agree to work with us. Well, one of the people that Cyril introduced us to was the late, great Antoinette K-Doe, the wife of Ernie K-Doe and the owner operator of the legendary Mother-in-Law Lounge down in New Orleans. And on our second trip — that was probably like in April, about nine months after the floods — we drove out with Antoinette to her childhood neighborhood, which is the neighborhood of Holy Cross in the Lower 9th Ward. We were wondering around the streets, the streets were empty. As far as we could tell, nobody had returned to the Holy Cross neighborhood, and we encountered a man who turned out to be a Catholic priest who was down visiting Carolyn Parker. We told him what we were doing down there and he said, ‘Oh, well, you should talk to Mrs. Parker. She’s a trip, she was the first one back.’ So I went over and I was framing up a shot of her house. It was one of those wonderful double-shotgun houses that you could see had been brutalized by the floods, completely submerged, but there it stood. The door opens up, and Carolyn Parker puts her head out and says, ‘I know what you are doing.’ She knew more than I did.

JEFFREY BROWN: She was ahead of you.

JONATHAN DEMME: Yeah, and she invited me in, and it was the first time we had gotten to visit with somebody who was actually living in their gutted house.

Watch I’m Carolyn Parker – Trailer on PBS. See more from POV.


JEFFREY BROWN: Did you know right away that she would become your subject, that you just wanted to stay with? What exactly was it about her?

JONATHAN DEMME: You know, it’s simple because, as you can see in the movie, she’s an incredibly gregarious, charming, sharp as a whip, funny, to me kind of a movie star of a person. She’s like a quote unquote ordinary American, she’s a retired cook, but she’s a superstar. That became evident to me very quickly — very, very quickly — and Carolyn was very willing to take the opportunity of my camera to spout off about all the things that were making her angry, all the things that were making her hopeful, and she agreed to let me visit her four times a year. I wanted to do seasonal visits until she was back in her house. I hoped that would take like, you know, a year-and-a-half or something. It turned out taking, with all the obstacles put in front of not just Carolyn but all of the New Orleaneans by the various bureaucracies, state, federal, local — it took her five years to get back in. It was more than I bargained for, but it was also that much a greater a gift. The film turned out to be as much a biography of this remarkable woman as it is a kind of a suspense thriller about will she get back in our house or not.

JEFFREY BROWN: But also through her, because of her story and what she tells you that comes out about the neighborhood, about larger issues of New Orleans, about race, about a community all kinds of things. In going back not only looking at the developments in the house itself, but what struck you about her, about the story she was telling you and the changes she was going through over those five years?

JONATHAN DEMME: Well I would make these trips to New Orleans and I was motivated, my admiration for these, what I called the pioneers, the ones that actually came back into the wasteland to re-establish their homes. After seeing the difficulty and the hardship of the way they were living without any of the basic services, with every single kind of store and service outlet and professional services — there just weren’t any. There weren’t doctor’s offices, there weren’t dentists, there weren’t McDonalds, there weren’t Family Dollar, there weren’t Shake ‘N’ Bake. You had to travel tremendous — there was nothing there. The first returnees to the Lower 9th Ward were not being served by anybody. So that it was tremendously difficult. And I would come away thinking, ‘Wow, um, I admire Carolyn, but why is she doing this?’ And I came to learn over the visits the true meaning of home. The better we got to know each other, the more Carolyn chose to reveal to us her inner feelings, the more concept of home really, really became something tremendously moving to me. And I will never be quite so flippant again about ‘home sweet home.’

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me ask you as someone who looks at different ways of storytelling, especially through film. You referred to her earlier as an ordinary person, which indeed she is, and then it becomes clear that she’s an extraordinary person, but she’s not a famous person and it’s just her looking to camera often or just going about her business. So it’s a one-person, one-voice, along with her children, you have all kinds of styles, all kinds of ways you can tell stories. Why did you like this one?

JONATHAN DEMME: You know, when I described Carolyn as ordinary, I would apply that same well to myself and even to you, Jeffrey. Extraordinary people are the Green Berets and the Navy Seals and the Olympic athletes — these are the ones who can face these extraordinary physical challenges and be triumphant.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, you know, in the jargon of journalism we would say ‘real people.’ Like, we’re going to talk to some ‘real people,’ not the newsmakers or the famous subjects or something. That’s how I mean it, in the best sense.

JONATHAN DEMME: Fair enough. We’re in agreement. You know, for me, I just felt — and as I look at this film now — felt that Carolyn was making a tremendous privilege available to me, which was to have completely trusting wall-to-wall endless access to the details of her life, present, past and her aspirations for the future. In this regard a quote-unquote ordinary or real person facing extraordinary odds, extraordinary. So to me, this was a word I really don’t like: hero, because I think it’s terribly misused for a lot of dubious reasons. But anyway having said that, Carolyn is my hero. She faced that challenge with the greatest of humor and with tremendous steadfastness and total honesty every step of the way, guided spiritually. She won. She got back in that house despite all the odds against that happening. And I feel like I am one lucky filmmaker to have been given that opportunity.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me ask you one more question before I let you go. It’s about you as a filmmaker. It’s impossible to look at the wide range of things you make. I was just looking at the list of, well, most recently “Rachel Getting Married,” everybody remembers “Silence of the Lambs,” “Married to the Mob,” and then a lot of different documentaries and projects like the Neil Young performances. How do you pick your projects?

JONATHAN DEMME: Just recently I’m thinking about this a lot. I love to shoot. As a kid, a little kid I loved going to the movies, and now I love making movies. I’m guided by my enthusiasm. It’s sort of like, that script has a story in my view, my humble opinion, that story is worth telling. So “Rachel Getting Married” — I’m going to do it. I don’t look around for scripts very much. I’m not in that business of searching for screenplays. Documentaries — my God, there is so much going on in our country and in the world today that every time you open the newspaper or turn on the radio or watch the news on TV there is another documentary subject. 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 and I love to grab my little camera and pursue it whenever possible.

JEFFREY BROWN: Allright, well this film documentary is “I’m Carolyn Parker.” It airs on the PBS series “POV” tonight. Jonathan Demme is the director, and thanks so much for talking to us.

JONATHAN DEMME: Thank you so much, Jeffrey. I really appreciate it.

JEFFREY BROWN: And thank you all for joining again on Art Beat. I’m Jeffrey Brown.

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