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Then I got jazzed


I walk in on Ted Demme as he’s wolfing down a sandwich. He’s in a room at L.A.‘s swanky-weird Standard Hotel, and we both look longingly—for a second—at the balcony window that looks out on the pool, where pretty tanned people lounge in the warm sun. He’s between interviews, talking all day about his new movie, Blow. The 36-year-old New York native’s sixth feature is, he says, his most personal movie—he produced, developed, and directed it, yes. But, as he’s eager to say, a few times, he also feels invested in its most crucial themes, family, loyalty, and responsibility.


Ted Demme as always been attracted to projects with a bit of an edge. A former music video director, Demme inclines toward stylish visuals and offbeat subject matter, and has cultivated a serious pop-cultural political sensibility as well. This led him, in 1988, to produce the groundbreaking (and by then, long overdue) Yo! MTV Raps and executive produce the short-lived snarky series about the entertainment industry, Action. He has also worked with this film’s co-producer Denis Leary repeatedly (directing two tv specials and The Ref), and directed episodes of Robert Altman’s Gun and Homicide: Life on the Streets, and the films Beautiful Girls (1996) and Life (1999). And, he casts Noah Emmerich in all his movies.


With Blow, Demme focuses on the story of one man, set against a large and colorful backdrop—drug trading in the U.S. over three decades. George Jung (played by Johnny Depp) began by dealing pot during the 1960s, and after going to prison (which he calls “crime school”), he became infamous as the guy who brought cocaine to the United States in the late ‘70s and made millions off it during the ‘80s. The film follows Jung from his childhood in Weymouth, Massachusetts through his early weed-dealing days in Manhattan Beach, California, and then on through his impressively lengthy career as an international cocaine dealer.



Cynthia Fuchs:

Let’s start with an obvious question: in making a movie based on someone’s life, how do you decide what to leave in, leave out, or change?



Ted Demme:

I tried to stick to my game plan, which was always being aware of what my A story was—the love story between a father and his son, and that son and his daughter. I always knew that would make this film stick out from others in this genre, the crime drama. I made sure that all my events wouldn’t screw up that through line, because I knew what the ending of the movie was. We stuck to George’s life fairly close to the bone, with the exception of the very ending, because he got busted a few times, and we combined them into one bust. I felt that as long as we were being honest, and that we didn’t bend the truth to accomplish another goal, to be entertaining or to be a happy ending, I was confident that we’d be able to tell the story the way it happened.



CF:

I’m interested in the daughter story. Did I read it right that Kristina’s name is listed in the credits as a “Clerk”?



TD:

She was. Speaking of things that didn’t make it into the movie, I had a courtroom scene that I decided we didn’t need. She came to visit the set, because I wanted her to be a part of it, and I made her a clerk. And then we cut the scene, but I left her name in the credits.



CF:

So how does that work, that she has not gone to visit her father in prison, but was part of this project?



TD:

Well, Kristina’s a 21-year-old who’s trying to figure out life as a 21-year-old, as we all did. And she’s not only coming to grips with all the things everyone goes through, but she’s also taking a look back and there’s a lot of pain and sadness, and stuff she hasn’t dealt with. So I don’t think she’s ready to go sit down with dad. But I wanted her blessing on this movie, I wanted to use her name, I wanted her input, and wanted to know her feelings. So she came on the set, but she didn’t quite make it to Otisville [New York, where her father is incarcerated].



CF:

What kind of input did she have?



TD:

I called her and her mother Mirtha in pre-production and asked them to come down. I bought them lunch and dinner and showed them the script. I wanted to let them know what I was doing. They knew there was a book out already and they didn’t like the book that much, I guess because there are a few inconsistencies. I wanted to get that straight, because I’d heard that. I wanted to make sure that I was getting the events down as they happened, and to make sure that I was capturing how they felt, for the actresses who were playing them. Mirtha became an amazing outlet for me and we’ve become friends. She met Penelope [Cruz, who plays her in the film] and spent a lot of time with her. When you do someone’s life story, which I’ve never done, it weighs on you. You feel an added responsibility to get it right. And when you have a character like Mirtha, you’d better get it right, because it’s a thankless role in our film. What I like about what Penelope did, is that by the end of the movie, you feel sorry for her. She’s standing there in that awful sweat suit, with that horrible wig, broke, and she’s sad. She’s an absolute victim of what went on. She’s an amazing woman—twenty years later, she’s clean and sober and living her own life. Mirtha kept saying that the reason she got involved in this project was because she wanted it to be realistic, because she wanted to show people, young girls particularly, who get caught up in this promise of money, drugs, and happiness, in this lifestyle, that it is not real. She felt strongly about getting that message out, and she wanted to be able to close the book on her own part in that.



CF:

It’s an elaborate way to close that book.



TD:

She’s got guts, man, she really does.



CF:

You touch on a lot of complicated history, of U.S. government involvement in the drug trade, by way of Noriega and Escobar.



TD:

I had two important FBI advisors on the film, one had been on the Manhattan Beach beat in 1968, because I wanted to make sure that I had all that zaniness correct. And then a second had been tracing George through the ‘70s, to make sure that all those facts were right, that he had been involved in 85% of the coke [that came to the U.S.]. It’s true, they brought it in by the planeload. People have asked me a lot over the past few days, you can imagine, what my stand on the drug issue is, like that will make a difference to anyone. But my humble opinion is, I’m not quite sure where I stand on the legalization of drugs—though, if tequila is legal, pot should probably be legal. But I have come firmly to believe that the punishment of drug offenders is really bad in our country. It’s cockeyed. George is a victim of that—he’s not a victim of a lot of things, but he is a victim of that. And when I went to visit him in prison, I saw there are a lot of kids in his prison, 19- or 20-year-old kids, who have their girlfriends visit them with one-year-old daughters in their arms. So I’d ask, “What happened to that guy?” Oh, he got caught with 20 rocks in his hand, first-time offender, selling crack cocaine on the corner, he’s got 20 years, minimum, bang. See ya later. When he gets out at 39, his son’s going to be 20. What do you think’s going to happen to that kid? That crushed me. I don’t know if our guy now [in the White House] is going to take care of that…



CF:

I don’t think so.



TD:

[Laughs] Yeah, I don’t think so either. But I’ve come firm on that stance. [Sentencing] needs to be examined because it is bad.



CF:

And being in prison is, as George says in the film, “crime school.”



TD:

Yeah. It happened that way. I’ve told people before that if I wrote this film as fiction, no one would believe how easily it all happened. But it happened. All these guys talk to each other in prison. I mean, George was in prison with Gordon Liddy: think about that posse! George and Carlos [Lehder Rivas], who Diego del Gado is based on, were cellmates, and George said they just started talking. Carlos told him, you’re wasting your time with pot, you’re going for the wrong dream. And when he got out, Carlos said, come visit me and my friend, and that friend was Pablo Escobar. Wrong place at the right time or right place at the wrong time, I’m not sure.



CF:

On the time tip, you cover so many decades, and while the story evokes Goodfellas, the look is like Boogie Nights.



TD:

Yeah—I had the same costume designer [as Boogie Nights, Mark Bridges].



CF:

And you worked with Ellen Kuras, a spectacular cinematographer [she shot Tom Kalin’s Swoon, Steve McLean’s Postcards from America, as well as Spike Lee’s Four Little Girls, Summer of Sam, and Bamboozled].



TD:

I’ve been an admirer of her films for a long time, and wanted to work with her, but she’s always booked. So I booked a Tylenol commercial with her almost a year and a half ago, and hit her hard, and said, “You’re reading this script tonight, Don’t show up on the set tomorrow unless you read it.” And she said, “Okay!” When she read the script, she was like, “Wow.” I said, “We’re using different film stocks in every decade, different lenses, we’re zooming in, we’re zooming out, we’re swish-panning, we’re freezing, we’re gonna use it all. And you’re the one to do it.” And she said, “Yeah, I am.” She’s become a dear friend of mine. She’s fantastic.



CF:

How did you come up with these various “looks” for the decades? I mean, they’re not historical per se, there are scenes that look like Miami Vice....



TD:

Of course! I saw this great documentary on A&E one night, on Laurel and Hardy that was amazing, with their home movies from the 1940s, with big Eckta-chromey greens and blues. It wasn’t typical home movie look, and I ordered that film stock, and showed it to Ellen, and we decided to use it. And then we watched an amazing number of movies from the late ‘60s and ‘70s, which is my favorite time, and we studied their camera movements, their stocks, the way they lit stuff, the colors they used. We pulled Time-Life magazines out, what was popular at that time. What I think happens today is that a lot of filmmakers look at other films that are retro pieces, like L.A. Confidential, and say, oh, that’s period. We didn’t want to do the stereotypical stuff. So we had palettes that we stuck to very religiously for each decade, and lighting strategies and different lenses. So, we cranked up the contrast in the ‘80s when the coke started coming in, to make everyone feel a little bit brighter. We also had different colors for each character.



CF:

And while you’re doing this huge span of time, you’re also anchored in one character’s perspective.



TD:

Yes. In reality, George, when he was a young man, he’d charm the pants off you. He was handsome, broad shoulders, former football player. He was very intoxicating as a human being, funny and smart, quotes Kerouac and Dylan, and he’s seen all these great obscure movies. That was why he was so damn good at trafficking—people trusted him and wanted to be with him. At the end, when all those agents are bummed out about busting him, in real life, they were really bummed out. Here’s these guys who are the cats and George is the rodent and they couldn’t wait to get their hands on him, because they’d been following him for years. But two of them left the force right afterwards, it fucked them up so badly, to bust him. I knew that if I could tell that story, the one about the guys who hated this guy the most but actually felt sorry for him—imagine that! He was like Public Enemy Number One, and they were sad to bust him.



CF:

You produced this film as well as directing it. How do you like that process?



TD:

We did this movie really conservatively, for what it was. We did it for $30 million, and that’s five decades, four continents, arguably, and period. I wanted to keep it smaller, because there’s no guarantee that people will go see this movie, called Blow, about an unsympathetic character, on paper. I’m comfortable working in that range. I have friends who are working on enormous movies with huge stars. I mean, Johnny’s a big star, but he doesn’t have a posse. When you do a movie like Life, two $20 million players, a $5 million producer: I’ve spent half the budget before I even blink. The above-the-line on Life was the entire budget on Blow. I’m not so comfortable with that—I loved working with those guys, because it was fun, but there’s a whole different head that goes into it. That’s why I’m really trying to produce my own stuff. This film was so good, because I produced it myself, and developed it, and made it with New Line, which is a smaller studio, so I was in control of a lot of stuff that I wasn’t in control of for my other films. For New Line to let me make this movie was pretty ballsy anyhow, and I felt an obligation to them not to get errant with the cash. I think, on a larger note, that filmmakers and studios should start to tuck it in a little bit, because films wouldn’t have the pressure they have if the word wasn’t out about how expensive they were. Like a Pearl Harbor, they’re going into their opening weekend knowing that they spent $110 million making this movie. That pressure must be enormous. No thanks.



CF:

There’s something about the film that is at once very personal and also conventional, with the focus on family and, for lack of a better term, “values.”



TD:

Yeah, you’re right. It took me six years to make this movie for a lot of reasons. First was, I didn’t know what kind of movie it was. I didn’t want to make a biopic, I didn’t want to do the history of cocaine in America, I didn’t want to do Scarface. And I don’t think I understood what the film was until I had a daughter, four years ago. It gave me added tools and understanding of this traditional love story. On a broader scale, it’s about what happens to children when they’re brought up in a bad household. They grow up to become their parents. And that’s something I can relate to now—I have to be careful. I have a responsibility now, that I didn’t have when I first got the book. Then I met co-writer Nick Cassavetes—he has kids and his dad [filmmaker John Cassavetes] passed away at an early age. And we both have kids, so then we found out what the core of the movie was, which was that responsibility. Then I got jazzed, because I knew that if I told that story, everything else would fall into place, and we can have fun with Escobar and the ‘60s and blow it out, and not be self-conscious about what message we’re giving. Again, because I knew what the ending was—a man in hell. A man who is alone, whose family won’t see him, he has no money, no friends, and he’s there to think every minute of every day, what his miserable life is about. That punishment on any human being is a drag, whatever they’ve done, whether they deserve it or not. There’s a real sadness in it.

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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