Since his groundbreaking 1984 Talking Heads film “Stop Making Sense,” Jonathan Demme has forged parallel paths directing studio fare (“The Silence of the Lambs”), docs (“The Agronomist”), and rockumentaries featuring the likes of Neil Young, Robyn Hitchcock, Kenny Chesney and Italian saxophonist Enzo Avitabile. As he unveils his most commercial concert movie to date — the dazzling, dynamically shot “Justin Timberlake + the Tennessee Kids” — Demme talks to Variety about his remarkable career.
How did you get involved with this project?
It’s one of the chestnut truisms of the movie industry: you try to do your best work, get it out there and then maybe someone will think you’re a good idea for something. Justin was a fan of “Stop Making Sense,” so I got a call from him, wondering if it was possible to make a performance movie out of his 20/20 Experience tour. I flipped for what I saw. The ironic thing is, ever since “The Social Network” I was on fire to work with Justin as an actor. Then this happens and I get to make my Justin Timberlake movie.
One of the film’s first shots is a huge shadow of a suit. Was that an intentional homage to “Sense?”
I never talked to Justin about this, but I see a number of little salutes he made to David Byrne — the big suit, for sure, and moving his left hand up his right forearm like David did in “Once in a Lifetime.”
You filmed the end of his tour in Las Vegas. Did you make any changes to it?
We were there to capture what Justin and his team had captured live. Our great DP, Declan Quinn, made certain adjustments in collaboration with Justin’s lighting director so we could see things a tiny bit better, and I asked Justin if we could put this extraordinary cameraman, Adam Vollick, onstage with him. Justin said, “If he can stay out of our way, yes — and put him in a nice suit, ok?” So we put him in a tux, which may have even had tails. [laughs]
How does the film differ from the show?
I didn’t want to just present a filmed record of a concert, which would be 2 1/2 to 3 hours long. We started out with that film, but I wanted to do what we do with all the performance films in the cutting room: make it feel cinematic and suggest some kind of narrative and strong forward movement. So some songs came out in the service of that desire to have a really intense, amazing, rollercoaster ride to the finish line.
What kind of narrative did you want to suggest?
That is such a fair question! [laughs] In “Stop Making Sense,” I’d say, the narrative is this character brought to life by David Byrne, and a community that’s on some kind of intense emotional journey. With the Justin film, the community is undergoing an intense emotional experience because it’s their last performance after two years working on this tour. I see Justin as a little excited, maybe slightly nervous, and then just this endless opening up of Justin to the audience.
By the time we get to [the song] “Mirrors,” there’s a lot of emotion onscreen, and I think we feel that in the audience as well. It’s hard to call that a narrative, but you work with what comes into your head when you go into the cutting room [laughs]. Beyond that, having gotten to know Justin, he is the loving guy that you see in the documentary. He really loves his band, his dancers and his crew, and there’s a strong sense of community onstage between the musicians.
How did you plan out the shots?
We traveled with the tour for several dates, and built a map of where the perfect places would be if you wanted a great close-up of Justin. We gave it to the promoters, who reluctantly released a lot of great seats to us. We had 14 operated cameras and six locked cameras.
I dig performance films a lot, and each time you make one, hopefully the next time out you can do an even better job. This time, I just wasn’t going have that “coulda, woulda, shoulda” moment where I thought, “We really shoulda fought to get that one other camera over there.” Justin had the idea for this film, he reached out to me — which was thrilling — and I really wanted to deliver the greatest possible version.
What kind of release is this film going to have?
That very subject – to what extent this film will be available on big screens, for people who like to see music films with a huge image and a state-of-the-art sound delivery system – is in discussion now. It’s not a secret that theaters are not of interest to Netflix, and we’ve gotten involved with Netflix over the course of the past three months, so we’re in discussion with them because now it’s a Netflix picture. They own it. It’s thrilling that it will be streaming all over the world on a certain date, but I long for a theatrical dimension to this film. I feel coming off of Toronto will be a big determinant in that.
Honestly, I’m kind of feeling my way into this revolution. I feel like just since the time we shot the movie about a year-and-a-half ago, things have changed more and more, and the whole issue of “are theaters still relevant” [has come up more]. This is stuff I can’t even wrap my head around, because I’m such a dinosaur.
So will you be looking for a theatrical partner in Toronto?
I don’t think Netflix is interested in theatrical partners. I think their model is: they want people to watch stuff at home, or wherever that happens. So I think it will possibly become almost a supply-and-demand question. Of course, I think that when people see the picture on big screens, it’s gonna blow everybody’s minds and they’ll say, “We’ve gotta show this!” From the beginning it was designed for the big screen. It’s not that it loses anything on a smaller screen, but for those who dig the theatrical experience — and that’s how I was raised – nothing can quite compare with it.
Why have you gone back and forth between doing music docs and narrative features so consistently?
It just rhythmed out that way. If you’re working with the right musicians, you become at one with the band. It’s this extraordinary opportunity as a filmmaker who can’t play any instruments. I can now become part of the music if I’m able to team up with the right artist, so that’s something I’m always open to.
It’s not that I dreamed of being a filmmaker. A series of extraordinary coincidences made it possible for me to suddenly become a writer/producer when I went to be a unit publicist for Roger Corman at New World Pictures. Then I went with [“Timberlake” producer] Gary Goetzman to a Talking Heads concert in LA, saw the show that became “Stop Making Sense,” and was like, “Oh my God, dude, this is a movie just waiting to be filmed!”
This is one of nearly 20 features you’ve directed that Gary has produced, starting with “Caged Heat.” Why have you collaborated so often?
I met Gary when he was a 13-year-old child actor in a movie called “Yours, Mine and Ours,” playing Henry Fonda’s son. I was a 20-year-old publicist for United Artists and we just kinda sparked in a way. When I went to do my first Corman movie, Gary showed up [asking], did we need any help? Gary is a genius who covers it with a magnificent sense of humor, and when you get to team up with this guy, you’re getting the finest brain power available anywhere in the movie business.
Have you seen the supercut of close-ups from your films that appeared online last year?
[Laughs.] No! I live in Nyack, NY. I’m slightly out of the loop on a lot of this stuff, but I’ve got to check that out. I’m gonna go to my youngest and have them help me find it. This is hilarious! I adore close-ups. I think, at the end of the day, they’re the most valuable shot we have in cinema, because the most valuable elements of storytelling and moviemaking are the actors, and the way their magic brings the story and characters to life. Sometimes on some of the pictures that I do, we’ll talk to the editor and say, “OK, just cut all the close-ups together. Let’s start with close-ups and start laying other shots in when they’re welcome.” It’s a great way to go.
Do you ever feel pressure to live up to your past work, or do you feel more of a sense of goodwill buoying you along? You’re a very upbeat person.
I’m not connected with what people’s impressions of me or my films might be. I don’t really plug into that very much. When someone says, “Oh, did you make that movie,” and they like it – I love that. It means a lot to me. I continue to subscribe to the idea that, if there’s some subject matter that appeals to me enough that I’d want to go to all the trouble to make a film of it, surely there are others out there who’d be happy to see it.
It’s been a long time since I’ve done a big-budget movie with aspirations to be number one and break boxoffice records. I’ve been there, and I’ve found that big budget world ultimately takes a toll. I guess, starting mainly with “Rachel Getting Married,” I felt my love for indie movies growing. It had always been there, but I was self-acknowledging it more. Justin Timberlake is a star with a show designed to be seen by countless masses of people, but I’ll also do documentaries that you pray will wind up in libraries. As a filmmaker, you have to trust your own taste and enthusiasm levels and let that guide you.
What’s up next for you?
I’ve taken an option on a wonderful original screenplay, “George Goes Blind,” written by the novelist Heather McGowan (“Tadpole”), and in a very relaxed way I’m exploring the possibilities of making that film next year. There are a couple of very exciting TV series coming up [including Fox’s “Shots Fired”], and I’m in the middle of a really exciting project: creating a fifteen-minute rock-and-roll experience film drawn from the induction ceremonies of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame since they first started many years ago. The idea is to create a piece that will just blow people’s minds as the final stop on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame tour. I’m working with Paul Snyder, the editor of “Justin Timberlake,” and having a lot of fun.
You have such enthusiasm, it’s easy to forget that you’re 72. Any thoughts of retiring?
I only feel 72 when I break into a sprint and realize I’m kind of jogging. [laughs] I still have the same love of shooting and watching actors do what they do, working with terrific crews and participating in what I like to call this kind of “active collective invention” that happens on a movie set. I’ve been having fun over the past five years doing TV episode work on some really cool series, and I love that shooting digital instead of on film has made it possible to keep the camera rolling for 40 minutes straight. I love all that stuff. It’s in my blood. I don’t want to retire. I just don’t want to work quite as hard [laughs].