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‘Shots Fired’ EPs Remember Jonathan Demme: ‘He Mesmerizes You’

Jonathan Demme directed the sixth hour of “Shots Fired,” which will air Wednesday night on Fox. From the start, executive producers Reggie Bythewood and Gina Prince-Bythewood conceived of the project as a film, so it was their dream that an Oscar-winning director would come on board to helm one of the episodes. When Demme agreed, they couldn’t have been more thrilled. “He mesmerizes you,” says Prince-Bythewood. “I feel grateful that we got the opportunity to have him come into our lives.”

“There have been times when a family member has passed away and you think, I wish I would have told him this or that,” says Bythewood. “But we have definitely had a love fest with Demme. We definitely had the opportunity to tell him how much he meant to us and how much we learned from him.”

Here, they share their memories of working with Demme with Variety:

Demme signed on for the project after he read the script, and the producers recall having long conversations about his passion for the subject matter, which deals with the aftermath of a racially charged police shooting. “One of the first things that struck me about it, he never used the term ‘riot’ — he always used the term ‘uprising,'” says Bythewood. “That always indicated a level of consciousness.” Adds Prince-Bythewood, “He kept thanking us for doing the show, for putting it on the air, for giving him the opportunity.”

Demme was meticulous about his preparation. “He was very conscious about the fact that, ‘Hey, I’m a white guy’ and so we’d have to collaborate on his vision,” says Bythewood. “He was very clear about that.” He solicited the scripts for all the other episodes, as well as the bible they had created for the show.” Adds Prince-Bythewood, “This is why he’s an Oscar-winner. His level of preparation was phenomenal.”

His presence on set inspired the cast and the crew in a way they could never have imagined. “The thing we marveled over was how much energy he had,” says Bythewood. “He was the most energetic person we have ever encountered on a set.” Prince-Bythewood recalls everyone just tried to match his enthusiasm. “It was just amazing to watch,” she says. “He showed up the first day on set in Pokemon pajamas. That’s just who he was. It just made sense.”

Demme elevated the script in a way they never could have anticipated. Prince-Bythewood FaceTimed with Bythewood, just to show him how the director had blocked a particular challenging scene. “It was so brilliant and elevated the material,” she recalls. “We realized how much we could learn from him and his process.”

He wasn’t shy about letting the cast know how much fun he was having, too. “He’s very boisterous, not quite an internal guy,” says Bythewood. He’d yell to the actors, “Oh my god, I love it” or “Oh my god, you’re amazing.” Recounts Prince-Bythewood, “Jill Hennessy came up to me and said, ‘Jonathan Demme loves my work, I can die happy now.'”

Working with him, they say, changed their lives for the better. “It was an amazing experience to be there, to collaborate with him, to debate with him, quite frankly,” says Bythewood. “His debating skills made my debating skills better.” Adds Prince-Bythewood, “You might start out the conversation thinking one way, and you walk away thinking the other way, and still feel good about it.”

Bythewood also praised Demme as a father, remembering how he brought his son to the set. “There is a public legacy that he had that’s important that speaks to him as an artist, but there’s another piece of his legacy,” he says. “We’ve just gotten a little peek into a window of how passionate he is not just as an artist but as a father. I found that inspiring as well. I can’t say enough about this strong bond that he and his son had.”

Prince-Bythewood noted his activism as well, pointing to his work at Standing Rock, where he filmed a documentary. “He not only used his talent to entertain, but used his art as activism as well,” she says. “When you talk to people he worked with, they talked about his kindness and his passion. Not everybody in Hollywood has it. The fact he was able to maintain those qualities in this industry is a testament to his heart and soul.”

Wednesday night’s episode of “Shots Fired,” which airs on Fox at 8 p.m., will feature an “In Memoriam” card.

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