In the following post, Talkhouse Film contributors and other filmmakers share their tributes to the brilliant and beloved Jonathan Demme, the Oscar-winning director of The Silence of the Lambs and countless other films, who passed away yesterday at the age of 73.
More remembrances will be added to this post as they come in. Feel free to leave your own tributes and memories in the comments section. – N.D.
A month ago, I had the honor of sitting down with Jonathan Demme at Metrograph in New York City to discuss my new film, The Discovery. I’ve known Jonathan for most of my life because my mom, Mary Steenburgen, worked with him multiple times, most notably on the film Melvin and Howard, for which she won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. So, as you can imagine the name alone, Jonathan Demme, is very meaningful to my family.
For me personally, I can trace my desire to be a director back to when Jonathan let me yell “Action!” on the set of Philadelphia. I was a little kid and didn’t understand what I was doing, but I remember feeling excited because it got people to start talking and it also made Jonathan smile from ear to ear, so that was enough for me to want to do it over and over again. And now, as an adult, I am doing just that.
I asked Jonathan to moderate my Q&A last month not knowing how sick he was. I wouldn’t have asked him had I known what he was going through. But I realize now that he showed up because he loves movies and wants to talk about them. It’s what drove and consumed his mind. My mom summed it up perfectly when I spoke with her today. She said, “Every single young director should study not just Jonathan’s films, but his life. The fact that he came in to N.Y.C. from Nyack and did that for you when he must’ve known that his end was near is typical of his kindness and his championship of creativity. He was the best.”
I spent a few years of my life putting The Discovery together and Jonathan’s reaction to it and the discussion we had is the most meaningful part of it all. He meant that much to me. His movies and talent will live with us forever. But, for me, his energy and love for people and character will be what I remember most. RIP, sweet man.
Few directors have been as beloved by actors, crew, audiences and other filmmakers as much as Jonathan Demme. His death is truly a loss to cinema, but we thankfully still have his treasure trove of work to cherish and his open generous insights on what being a director and movie (and music) lover is all about.
I loved the way he would approach character in his work; off-center, askew, never straight-on – unsettling at first, and then so incredibly enriching. You can see this in all of his films from the smaller ones like Melvin and Howard and Something Wild – all the way to his biggest Silence of the Lambs and Manchurian Candidate (which I personally loved, without comparing the original; they were very different). I regret not seeing Rachel Getting Married, only because I hate weddings. But I know the same warmth I love in all his films is at play there, and I now have that to look forward to, rice, wedding cake, bouquets and all.
The heartbeat of a true music lover is at play in all of his films. His music videos and music docs, of which there are so many, were among the best ever made. But he also made sure to include obscure bands in his narrative films, in his soundtracks and on screen – and it always feels so personal; you just know this was a song or artist that was under his skin at the time. And I personally thank him forever for putting Suburban Lawns’ mysterious singer-songwriter Su Tissue in Something Wild. A friend of mine just related working at a record store and helping Demme and his son locate some punk records they were in search of. It made my heart happy.
Demme was also a great champion of women filmmakers. He was a mentor to film director Nancy Savoca, produced the films of several women directors, and when I won the New York Film Critics Circle Award for best new filmmaker of 1992, he took time from the podium to congratulate me and say how much he and his wife enjoyed Gas Food Lodging. I was so touched and honored and have never forgotten it.
There truly is no one else like him. His style was his own, it came from him. We were so lucky to have him.
RIP Jonathan Demme. Sometimes directors as versatile as him (I mean … Married to the Mob AND Silence of the Lambs!) do not get as much auteur weight in the history books, and that is just ridiculous because his voice was unique and his work with actors almost unparalleled. Although, admittedly, I am biased. He “discovered” me at my friend Mary Tobler’s wedding party dancing semi-shirtless to Journey and offered to cast me as Rachel’s sister’s gay best friend in Rachel Getting Married, just so I could dance in his movie. However, my feature-film dancing debut never made it onto the screen – they moved production to another state and I wasn’t a local and got replaced. But I can always say now that an Oscar-winning director discovered me and for at least an hour, I was somebody’s muse, or at least his featured extra. My love to his family and friends and to all those people I know who worked with him. Let the films live on.
Jonathan Demme was a major inspiration to me as a storyteller. When I was growing up, I thought directors were specifically honed or “hired” to one genre, be it horror, action, drama or comedy. When I saw Something Wild at age 10, what I thought I was watching was a cheap-thrills comedy with that girl from Body Double, the kind that my parents didn’t let me watch (ha!). But the terrifying third-act twist (and the intensity of Ray Liotta) proved to me that films are liquid in tone and fluid in genre, and Demme – with a background in Corman exploitation movies as well as an affinity for music and documentary – broke those rules in two, making up his own rules along the way. I was a lifelong fan from there, even trying to sneak on set of the movie he was shooting near where I lived on Long Island, Married to the Mob. When he directed Silence of the Lambs, I was already excited to see it because Demme was directing, but nothing prepared me for the seismic shift in maturity of tone, while still retaining that singular voice I had admired from previous films. Here was what most industry types saw as an “offbeat comedy guy” doing a horror movie, but Silence was a fucking horror movie. It was truly terrifying, and Demme had once again proven that directors are simply storytellers, no matter what the genre may be. He showed me and so many aspiring filmmakers that we should never let the idea of a particular genre veer us away from telling a story and to never stop pushing the envelope. Without Demme, we’d be stuck in a lot of smaller boxes. Thank you, Jonathan, and godspeed to the next ethereal endeavor … I hope they let you “spike the camera!”
To me Jonathan Demme represented pure curiosity in filmmaking. He had an unmatched ability to oscillate wildly between tones, genres and form. From his exploitation films for Roger Corman to redefining the concert film with Stop Making Sense to making arguably the greatest adaptation of an airport novel ever in Silence of the Lambs. He was fearless and untethered in his creative choices, making a studio film and then going and shooting a political documentary as his next project. Even through these different modes of storytelling he was able to maintain a consistent style and intimacy with his subjects. I’d never met him, but it’s obvious his presence must have been a welcoming one to his collaborators. There is a love felt in all of his work, standing as a reminder that everything and everyone is important.
After I recently visited New Orleans for the first time and fell madly and passionately for the city, I told some friends I’d never been to a place so alive it seemed impossible anyone could actually perish. Charged with an expressive and defiant will to power, it felt so jam-packed with vibrancy and pulsating life that it seemed almost supernaturally resistant to the laws of physics. The same could’ve been said for Jonathan Demme, my creative hero and favorite filmmaker, my living reminder to let nothing more or less than my quickening pulse be my guide into the corners I explore, and to always ask questions.
I first encountered the man around when I was about 11, newly moved to Florence, South Carolina, watching the 1992 Oscars on the floor of a house we were staying in while our new one was prepared. It created a certain cognitive dissonance inside the mindscape of this 11-year-old that a man who directed a film like The Silence of the Lambs would be receiving such prestigious awards, and seemingly be so kind and jovial. As I wasn’t yet allowed to watch that film, my first Demme picture was Philadelphia, and I’ve mentioned before on this site the impact it had on me when my minister father took me to see it at the age of 12, in that same South Carolina town. The opening credits of that film provided a sort of entry point into Demme’s humanism, and the intensity of its style altered something in me I wouldn’t come to understand until years later.
Several years passed before Beloved, Demme’s 1998 adaptation of the Toni Morrison novel, entered theaters, and seeing that in college launched the beginning of what would become an exhilarating personal journey into the heart of a great American artist. While it was a commercial flop and received lukewarm reviews, I’d never seen such vivid and expressive emotion on screen. I wrestled with the intensity of the first viewing (I was 18), later embracing it as one of the greatest films ever made. To this day, I believe it’s Demme’s masterpiece.
Past Beloved, I kept watching. The Truth About Charlie and The Manchurian Candidate would come next, and it’s only after those films that I started digging back into the past, catching up with Melvin and Howard and Something Wild, movies that felt as fresh as tomorrow. I didn’t catch up with Stop Making Sense until the release of his first Neil Young documentary, and I didn’t reach all the way back to Caged Heat and Citizen’s Band until very recently, after seeing Rachel Getting Married and before catching his vastly underrated, Renoir-esque Ricki and the Flash, my final new Demme in theaters. Discovering his late and early films at the same time allowed me to experience the multidimensional soul of an artist, at different stages in life, falling in love with things and people – musicians, actors, characters, places, stories, songs – and following that love into new experiences, for himself and for us.
Around six or seven years ago, I started surprising myself by answering the question, “Who is your favorite filmmaker?” with “Jonathan Demme.” This was surprising to me for many reasons: he didn’t write his own scripts, which I did and do; he explored various genres, something I admired but did not particularly envy or aspire to; we didn’t share the same taste in music, nor did I have immediately ecstatic responses to all of his films. I realize now I had fallen in love with a cumulative body of work, a body of love. A great seeking, and a great joy. Someone had taken his love of people and figured out how to make the largest, most vibrant cinematic mural possible. He had painted people and their journeys so vividly they became eternal. After two-and-a-half decades of both following and catching up with Demme’s work, I have ended up in at least a kind of love with each of his films, but I have also ended up in love with a four-decades-long exploration, one that has inspired me to stay in tune with what lights my own internal fire, and to keep going, to keep asking, to keep celebrating …
My dear friend and favorite actor Tyler Ross starred in the final season of The Killing, for which Demme directed an episode or two. Knowing how I felt about his work, Tyler generously offered to share my movies with him, and also pass on a note from me, while they were shooting in Vancouver. I jumped at the chance, writing my badly handwritten note on a Jonathan Green card, and sending it along with copies of The Wise Kids and Black Box. Several weeks later, I was visiting my family in South Carolina when I woke up to an email from Jonathan Demme. The subject heading was “thanks!”, and in the message he thanked me for the kind words about what his movies meant to me. He told me he looked forward to watching the films when his schedule let up, and thanked me again for getting in touch. I stared at the e-mail in disbelief. My hero had reached out to me, personally. It was my taste of the community he’d been celebrating for longer than I’d been alive. It was an email, but he was looking at me.
“Trust your audience” – a simple bit of advice that rumbles around, not unlike “show, don’t tell,” in a fairly obvious & benign way. But delivered thoughtfully at a crucial moment, by a vital and direct mentor, with foundational confidence and a tack toward humanity, “trust your audience – believe in them; speak to their smarts and their hearts” is advice that can crack an edit along the exact right fault lines. It’s advice that I’ve given emerging filmmakers many times, but it took hearing it and exploring its implications with Jonathan Demme for it to really sink in for me.
Demme’s success in multiple mediums and approaches was born from that simple and humane nugget. He shared it with me as he shared of himself – spending hours digging into the edit on Tower with me, and helping me wring the most, often by saying less.
I wasn’t expecting to know Jonathan Demme – JD as he signed his emails – and I certainly wasn’t expecting to have him in my corner. But I learned more from our marathon phone calls, a dozen years into my directing career, than I did in any film class … and I learned later that I wasn’t alone. Besides the dozens of great films that JD brought to life, there are dozens of filmmakers whose work benefited from his mentorship and friendship.
Despite his hectic schedule, his own big ideas and new projects, JD made time to watch and react and share and debate with me. I can’t overstate how meaningful those hours JD and I spent working together to strengthen the film were to me – listening, laughing, debating. He gave me the gift of his time and experience and I’m still a little blown away by that.
It wasn’t superficial – it was a genuine, collaborative experience and it was enlightening as hell.
He didn’t do it for money or credit, he did it because he loved story and character and helping those that were walking the path he’d already traveled. That’s not the mark of a great filmmaker, that’s the mark of a great man.
Cinema is my church. The great directors are my saints. Saint Jonathan Demme created and refined countless cinematic tools that I continue to lean on with everything I make. His use of True Point of View alone has been absorbed into many of the great directors’ toolbelts as a way of unnerving an audience and creating a true feeling of immersive paranoia. In the coming weeks, everyone will be looking at Demme’s films again. Surely Silence of the Lambs will top the iTunes charts. Deservedly so. But I encourage you to dig a little deeper. Watch his Manchurian Candidate remake and focus on how he uses point of view to create tension. Watch Beloved and have your heart and brain shattered by its breath-of-fresh-air boldness and passion. Watch Melvin and Howard and fall in love with Mary Steenburgen’s adorably goofy striptease act. Saint Demme has passed on – and I’m still trying to deal with the fact that his filmography has come to an end – but oh, what a body of work it is. Most of us would be happy to have one movie in our lifetime that’s half as great as all of his. So take comfort in the fact that they’re all there, sitting like time capsules waiting for the day you’re ready for them. Dive in and celebrate all the gifts this great artist has given us.