Jonathan Demme has long had one of the most interesting careers in the film business. An Oscar-winning director (“The Silence of the Lambs”), the 64-year-old Demme has also enjoyed success as a concert filmmaker (“Stop Making Sense”), documentarian (“Cousin Bobby”) and low-budget indie god (“Melvin and Howard”).
Now, after several years churning out big-budget flicks such as 2004’s remake of “The Manchurian Candidate,” Demme has returned to his roots with “Rachel Getting Married,” a beautifully observed, modestly budgeted film about a large family wedding and the drug-addicted daughter (a brilliant Anne Hathaway) who disrupts it. Lewis Beale interviewed the Baldwin, N.Y., native while he was on a New York publicity tour.
Anne Hathaway is not exactly the first person a lot of people would cast as a foul-mouthed, self-absorbed and tortured druggie. How did that come about?
I took my daughter to see “The Princess Diaries” several years ago, and there was this exceptional teenage actress, and I saw a movie star. Then a few years later I was at the Golden Globes, and down the red carpet was this young woman who moved in a certain way, and I asked, “Who is that?” And they said, “Anne Hathaway,” and I thought she’s really got it, and I’d love to capitalize on that some day. And when I read the script (for “Rachel Getting Married”), she was the only person on my mind, and I thought she could kick butt with this part.
You shot the film in a real loose style, with no rehearsals and the actors not knowing where the camera was going to be. How did that work out?
I told (the actors) how we were going to do it, and they had to like that idea a lot, and I told them I hope you invest your character with who you are, and the actors loved shooting that way. Everything we did was from the beginning of the scene to the end of the scene; it made them stay spontaneous, they didn’t know where the camera was going to be. A number of them said it was like doing theater. There was not that stop/start of filmmaking. And I was more restrained than I had been before; I was focused on “Is this moment believable?” rather than “Is that line perfect?”
You started your career making exploitation films like “Caged Heat” and “Crazy Mama” for the legendary low-budget producer Roger Corman, and he has a very small part in your new film. What particular lessons did he teach you?
When I first met him, Roger said, “Remember this, you can divide your shooting day into two things: The time when the camera is rolling, and the time when it’s not rolling. Try to minimize the time it’s not rolling.” And he told me if you want to keep the audience involved, the primary organ in watching movies is the eyeball, so try to keep ways to keep the eyeball involved. Move the camera, find interesting angles, so the eyeball doesn’t fall asleep.
Some critics are practically damning you with faint praise, saying “Rachel Getting Married” is your best film since “Silence of the Lambs,” which was 17 years ago. Does that bother you?
If someone’s liking it, they can characterize it however they want to. Over the past five or six years, I was making larger budget pictures, and I felt I’m in my 60s now, so the thought in doing the big studio movies, what you’re supposed to do with your skill, is fashion a successful Friday night movie. I felt I’d rather make my best picture ever. What have I learned? I can make this movie, because I don’t have to worry about it, and I feel I brought my best filmmaking to this movie.
You’ve also been heavily involved in documentaries lately, making films about Jimmy Carter, Haiti, Neil Young and the Katrina aftermath. Why documentaries?
I became excited about Haiti, I made a documentary there (1988’s “Haiti Dreams of Democracy”) and I discovered the joy of wading into reality. If you choose your subjects well, you’ll wind up with great stuff. And it doesn’t have to open in 2,000 theaters. When I first started making documentaries, I realized we had to make them as entertaining as fiction films, just as fiction has to have some basis in reality.
You grew up in Baldwin but moved to Miami when you were 15. What was it like growing up in Long Island in the 1950s?
It was idyllic, we did all that old-fashioned stuff. I loved getting in the car and driving to Long Beach and getting fresh-cut French fries on the boardwalk.