Summer 1998: I first met Jonathan Demme in 1976 at a drive-in movie theater in South Austin, Texas sitting in a car watching Caged Heat, his directorial debut. A women-in-prison exploitation film, I was really unfamiliar with that genre, but the experience was revelatory and profoundly life changing.
Four decades later, I found myself again sitting in a car, but this time in a New York cab traveling to St. Mary’s in Harlem, to say a final farewell to Jonathan, who had died days before on April 26, 2017. The church at one time had been ministered by is late cousin Bobby, about whom Demme had made a documentary in 1992. There, at a private, invitation-only gathering of family and friends, guests celebrated and said goodbye to Demme.
Jonathan and I were friends for over thirty-five years. Obviously, our relationship has affected how I think about his films. Still, my interest in his work came years before we met. Caged Heat (1974) was so exciting, it led me to seek out his other early films (Crazy Mama 1975; Fighting Mad 1976) and then to catch his new ones as soon as they were released. Eventually, I contacted him, which led to our meeting in 1981. From then until his death we spent a lot of time together, talking, eating, watching films, and listening to music.
About a decade into our friendship, we got a chance to relax and talk in the summer of 1988. Married to the Mob, his second film for Orion, released in April, was his most commercially successful film to date. As a producer he was just getting ready to shoot Miami Blues, based on one of Charles Willeford’s Hoke Moseley novels. He had been asked to direct it but passed it on to George Armitage, an old New World running buddy, who had an interesting career directing such films as Hit Man, Miami Blues, Grosse Point Blank and The Big Bounce but never achieved take-off.
In retrospect I think we always talked more about music than movies, but this interview was specifically about music. Ex-Velvet Underground member John Cale scored Caged Heat, Jonathan’s directorial debut, and went on to work on Who Am I This Time, an American Playhouse episode, and Something Wild.
LB: So you had met John Cale and then worked with him on Caged Heat? Was that fun?
JD: Yes, it was fun in retrospect. In my limited experience of the composers I had worked with they had written scores down on pieces of paper and then brought people in to perform the music to picture. John didn’t write anything down (mimics voice) he just had a cold all the time and showed up at the recording sessions where he improvised on a variety of instruments through what was going on. He brought Shuggie Otis along to play slide guitar on a couple of pieces and brought Peter Ivers along to play harmonica on a couple of pieces (who Muddy Waters referred to as the greatest harp player alive). Then he just sort of made it up as the movie went along.
As a director, worried about the budget, it was a sort of terrifying experience on the one hand and on the other hand I loved what they were doing. John really invited a lot of input from me. Which is the way we’ve continued to work together on a number of things over the years. When we work together, rather than plan a lot out in advance, John likes to get the director specifically deeply involved in what’s going on.
He asks, “what do you think about this?” “Well I don’t like it” “Well, why not!!!” “Well it’s not this, it’s not that.” Then he’ll blast and come up with some other thing. He’s always worked like that and I’ve always been thrilled with the results.
LB: Caged Heat was great! All the scores to your films have been good. And then Crazy Mama‘s the first time you used a lot of different rock songs on a soundtrack.
JD: That was fun because it was a chance to get back into the golden age and get some of the stuff that I had fallen in love with – I had fallen in love with rock listening to unknown movie tracks.
LB: Over the next few years you’re building your film career and then the next big thing in terms of music would be “Gidget Goes to Hell?”
JD: Right, although Bruce Longhorn, who did the score for Fighting Mad, and again for Melvin and Howard, and then scored Swing Shift (although Warner Bros. trashed his brilliant score for that movie). It was great to work with Langhorne, who Peter Fonda later really wanted to do the score for Fighting Mad because he had done the great score for The Hired Hand. It was fun working with him because he was notorious for having played electric guitar on Bringing It All Back Home, Dylan’s first electric album. He had been an accompanist for Odetta, Judy Collins, the Clancy Brothers.
LB: He seems to play on every Elektra album…
JD: Absolutely! It was wild for me when I finally met Bruce. We started talking about his history and so on then I realized “you were the guy playing guitar on stage with Odetta when I was in high school in Miami!” So that was great. He was a virtuoso on every stringed instrument. And when he did Melvin and Howard and Fighting Mad, just played everything! Would pick up the violin and do it. Would pick up the mandolin and do it! Would pick up the dobro and do it! That was great!
“Gidget Goes to Hell,” happened because SNL was going through a moment where they were offering $5,000 to filmmakers to make short films with. And this is pre-video Louis!
LB: Again you were a pioneer!
JD: That’s right! And dag nabbit! I got one of these offers and I couldn’t think of an idea but I loved this New Wave song “Gidget Goes to Hell” and I thought let’s make a Gidget movie! So I contacted Suburban Lawns, whose song it was, and they were into it. We shot that real fast one day up in Paradise Beach and that was a lot of fun also because we shot it in 16mm. One of the reasons I wanted to do that was I wanted to get more in touch with the camera so I was the camera operator. I did all the shots myself which was a good discipline and scary and fun and it worked out pretty good.
LB: Also around this time you have the idea for Urgh: A Music War which you drop out of when IRS took over?
JD: When Miles Copland got involved I could see that the idea, which started out as a film that would showcase all the most exciting unknown bands, was going to turn into a showcase for predominantly IRS acts. It was a financial consideration and one that was important to the investors because it must have brought the Police and various wildly popular bands into the picture. Obviously this sounded more enticing to the investors than my The Huns, the Suburban Lawns, The Maids, kind of lineup. So I backed out.
LB: But that’s when you started first thinking about concert films?
JD: Yes and the other thing I was thinking about doing in those days was doing a concert film with The Feelies. I’m gonna do a video with The Feelies and we may do a mini-version of Dawn of the Feelies.
LB: This is like 8 years in the making?
JD: Yes! Did Loretta send you the new Feelies album?
LB: No, I haven’t heard it yet!
JD: It’s so great! It’s still absolutely Feelies, but very strong Velvet Underground, very strong — no not REM – because REM has always been very strong Feelies, but it’s just really good. They mixed the vocals up and they sound good.
LB: Well I’m a Feelies fan, so…
JD: I know!
LB: So you’re finally gonna get to work with the Feelies?
JD: Well we got one of their songs in Married to the Mob and of course we got them involved in Something Wild but never doing their music exactly…
LB: What comes first – do you start doing videos or do you go to Stop Making Sense? Did you do any videos before Stop Making Sense?
JD: No, it was doing Stop Making Sense that made me someone who record companies would call up about videos. That was my entree into the video world. And New Order was the first video I did.
LB: Besides New Order, what other videos have you done?
JD: Sandra Bernhard “Everybody’s Young” UB40 and Crissy Hynde’s “I Got You Babe,” Fine Young Cannibals “Never Fallin in Love,” which was for Something Wild…
LB: After Fine Young Cannibals, then you do Suzanne Vega “Solitude Standing”?
JD: Right and The Feelies would be the next one. I didn’t want to do the video for Married to the Mob because I almost went insane finishing Something Wild, doing the soundtrack, directing the video. So I decided long ago that I wouldn’t do the video for this movie.
Also I wanted Ed Saxon, who’s one of the producers for this movie and figured he’s probably a very gifted filmmaker in the rough and I wanted to get him out there. He’s got so many good ideas. And we’ve been working with a guy Adam Bernstein, who edited a couple of the videos I’ve done and who directed all of the They Must Be Giants videos. So he’s an extraordinarily talented young filmmaker. So he and Ed are co-directing the Debbie Harry “Liar Liar” video for Married to the Mob. We’re hoping that David Wild, another very gifted young director, will direct the Chris Isaak’s video if we get to do another one for this movie.
LB: I saw the David Wild spot for Married to the Mob...he did a great job. I’m surprised they didn’t use it.
JD: Me too…it’s a little to avant I think. The other great video director I’d love to work with is Rocky Schenck.
LB: I know Rock! He’s great.
JD: It’s true. I love that one he did for Martini Ranch (Bill Paxton’s band) “How Can A Laboring Man Find Time For Self Culture?”
LB: The Martini Ranch videos are great!
JD: They sure are! The “Reach” one?
LB: Is that the Sergio Leone take off? That’s incredible. Tom Huckabee worked on that one. It’s all in the family. And Death of Jim Morrison. Rocky spent time in Austin hanging out too. He was always California, he’d just come visit occasionally.
JD: I think Brian Hansen’s the one who introduced me to him in the first place. Or maybe you showed me Egyptian Princes, somebody did?
LB: It was Hansen…but you were going. To do a film with King Sunny Ade, but that fell through?
JD: Yes it never got made because it was so difficult to find money for – a concert film of an unheard of in America JuJu band…we just couldn’t find the money.
LB: In the last like 5-7 years, you’ve become more interested in third world music? How did the Haiti doc come about? Was that through your own interest in music or did David suggest it to you?
JD: That came from a trip to Haiti. I didn’t go because of the music I went because I had been meeting a lot of Haitians in New York and I had been interested in the art and the music too. There were just so many different cultural manifestations at play that intrigued me. I went down there with bunch of friends and it was the visit to Haiti that gave rise to the idea of wanting to make a film about it. The theme of the film creatively evolved to be a form of political expression and a force to social change, that’s how the musical element became so big in that documentary.
LB: The music really is what determines the narrative in that documentary.
JD: It’s also because in Haiti, music is such a fundamental critical force for expression for people pushing for change. In an illiterate country, popular music is one of the prime dynamics of the literature of an illiterate nation.
LB: Are you happy? Do you feel the film worked and portrayed what you wanted it to?
JD: I’m really proud of that. I’m as proud of that as anything I’ve ever done. I want to do more documentaries in Haiti. In fact, the two little videos that are in the doc are both done by these two brothers called Les Freres Parent and both of the songs from the doc appear on the soundtrack of Married to the Mob, in Sister Carol’s Beauty Parlor.
LB: One of the great locales in the movie! Have you been back to Haiti since the documentary?
JD: I was back in Haiti about 8 weeks ago.
LB: And what is it like there now? Did you come in right before the coup?
JD: Came in right before the overthrow and shortly after a year after the selection of President Leslie Manigat and found that instead of being depressed and suicidal about the hideous disappointment of losing their shot at democracy the great Haitian people are in very much a period of what they call Dousment which means “slowly slowly easy gently.” They’re letting the new situation take hold then they’re gonna move again.
LB: Do you feel optimistic? Or is that the wrong word…
JD: Hmmm [pauses] it’s so complicated because…it’s important to take a giant step back when you’re thinking about Haiti and get over the terrible disappointment of the first democratic elections in 30 years being trashed and innocent people being murdered trying to cast votes. The military junta that was in control, installing a puppet only to yank the puppet out himself 3 months later. You’ve gotta get over the immediate tragic feeling that that gives you. Take a step back and look at a country that became a republic in 1804 and has in fact been dominated by a feudal oligarchy. The power of that country has been in the hands of a couple of dozen families and the military for almost 200 years now. This is just the latest version. But the beauty is that the Haitian people just keep plugging. And they don’t give up. And they never surrender. And they’re gonna gain control of that country some day and it hasn’t happened yet but as more and more information gets out over the years. If the world doesn’t explode in the meantime there may come a moment where things actually do improve for the Haitian people.
LB: I’m optimistic…I used to be obsessed with early Haitian History, reading about all the early dictators when I was like 15 or something. I think it was just fascinating to read about blacks in that kind of power structure.
JD: Oh it’s amazing shit. There’s a wonderful Haitian novel, just a classic novel about the Haitian experience, and it’s one we’re trying to get the rights to make down there some day.
LB: What’s it called?
JD: It’s called Masters of the Dew. Maybe that shouldn’t be mentioned for fear of somebody thinking “oh that sounds like a good idea…”
LB: Alright we won’t mention it…you’ve worked with John Cale on a couple of movies, you worked with Cale and Laurie Anderson on Something Wild, now you worked with David Byrne. Brian Eno also contributed to Married to the Mob. What’s it like working with some of the most important composers of our time?
JD: [long pause] It’s gratifying because the music they come up with is so goddamn good. `
LB: And that’s a good answer (laughs)
JD: The thing is I’ve known Cale now since ‘74, so he’s a great buddy and David and I have worked now on a whole bunch of things together, so he’s a great friend. So it’s only when I take a step back and listen to that music…You know, music means so much to me and it always has, but I was intimidated by Cale for a long time but I’m not anymore. Same thing very much so with David Byrne. It took me a couple of years to relax with David because I was with this guy who made all this great music and I was just in awe of him as I’ve been with John Cale. But with them, they’re friends. And they’re exceptionally hard workers. I mean David Byrne, to watch him put the score together on Married to the Mob, the diligence, the energy, the hard work, it’s just an amazing thing to watch. The hard work, maybe that’s what it is. You get to see the hard work that goes into coming up with great results when you work with some of the great composers.
LB: Is there anybody left that you want to work with that you haven’t worked with?
JD: Well, no. For me it’s tough enough already. There are some people I’ve already worked with a little bit that I want to work with a lot more. David Bean (of Texas band The Judys), Wasmo Nariz, both of whom have contributed really nicely in subtle ways to last two pictures. These are two exceptionally gifted people that haven’t achieved a high profile yet but should.
The Feelies I want to work with more. But it’s hard enough already because you can just only put so much music into any movie you make. You can do just so many videos. And I’m in touch with so many gifted people. So no…Well there’s the Pixies, who we used one of their songs and seem real exciting.
LB: I like the Pixies. What are you listening to now? Anything?
JD: The soundtrack to Married to the Mob, Talking Heads Naked, and a lot of Haitian radio tapes that I dubbed off of the radio on my last trip. A lot of those. I’m learning to speak Creole now, so I’ve been listening to a lot of language tapes.
LB: What are your immediate future plans or you just gonna wait to see what happens with the movie?
JD: Well I’m producing along with Gary Geotzman, the producer of Stop Making Sense, and Ed Saxon, and Kenny Utt, the producers of Something Wild and Married to the Mob – a movie called Miami Blues this Fall in Miami, which is based on a novel by Charles Willeford, written and directed by George Armitage, starring Fred Ward, Alec Baldwin, and a yet uncast actress. Looking forward to that a lot. It’s a great script. Armitage is a fantastic filmmaker.
LB: This is his first film since Vigilante Force?
JD: Yeah, he’s done some TV movies since then but it’s his first theatrical movie since then. I think George is a really exciting filmmaker. Real excited about this.
LB: So do you have any projects in the works for you?
JD: Well the writer’s strike put a haul to work on Russell Bank’s screen adaptation of his novel Continental Drift. And it put a halt to work on King of the Cannibal Islands, an adaptation of Melville’s Typee that I wanna do some day.
Having a baby is different, Ramona has dominated a lot of the time lately, it’s a lot more fun to play with a baby than it is to read a script. So I don’t know what’s coming up.
LB: Has having a baby changed your listening habits at all?
JD: (laughs) It’s brought out the closet singer in me, Louis! Listening less and singing more. She’ll tolerate anything! She laughs, she doesn’t get mad and close her ears!
LB: Then this is kind of your own punk revival? The integrity of the music….
JD: Oh I’m telling you! It’s true.