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Bohemian Rhapsody: Jonathan Demme

We talk with Rachel Getting Married's Jonathan Demme about how to throw a great wedding.
DemmeIf you like movies, there’s a Jonathan Demme film for you, whether it’s wacky comedy (Something Wild),  Oscar-winning psychological thriller (The Silence of the Lambs), classic concert film (Stop Making Sense), stirring documentary (Jimmy Carter Man from Plains), or zeitgeist-shifting weepie (Philadelphia). In his thirty-plus years as a director, Demme has achieved a career that is striking in its variation. What unites his work is his sensitive and humane treatment of the many subjects—as far ranging as the comic possibilities of Howard Hughes’ will to civil rights leaders in Haiti—that drive his art.


Rachel Getting Married is his first narrative feature in four years, as Demme’s been consumed and thrilled by documentaries. And Rachel certainly carries the influence of documentary filmmaking in its realistic, home-movie approach, adding heft and texture to Jenny Lumet’s (Sidney's daughter) moving script about a family wedding affected by the prodigal junkie daughter, fresh out of rehab for the weekend.


Demme is a pleasure to talk to, and can happily riff on myriad topics, be it the particulars of casting his film with “theater people and unfamiliar actors” or the many histories (Marcus Garvey, the Harlem Renaissance, Ethiopia) explored in his in-the-works Bob Marley documentary. His enthusiasm is contagious, and judging by Rachel, he throws a hell of a party—all qualities that make for a seminal director.


How did you approach casting with this film? You made some unique choices—


Jonathan Demme: Since Jenny didn’t trouble herself to write sympathetic characters, I thought there was a particular need to cast excellent actors who were very likable. It’s a ferociously New York movie, and that excited me, to find fresh actors. I had originally cast Paul Thomas Anderson as Sydney, and he came to a table reading, but he couldn’t do it [because of scheduling]. Tunde [Adebimpe, best known as a frontman of the rock band TV on the Radio] has this deep reservoir of serenity, this light coming out of him. There’s a guy who can survive a weekend at the Buchmans and come out with his wife, ready to go. I only wanted people that I liked, or people that I would like.


RachelWhat is it about a wedding that’s so dramatic?


JD: Well, I’m not a theater person, per se, but I am a Chekhov person. He couldn’t give a shit why people gather, but he lets them gather and he lets ’em rip. Kym enters a family community, it’s hard to get in and they judge her. She has a stranger community [in rehab and at AA meetings]. She’s her deepest self with them.


Debra Winger’s character, (the estranged mother, Abby) reminded me of Mary Tyler Moore in Ordinary People


JD: I’m very moved by Abby. When she says her goodnights and can’t bear to be hugged... Kym doesn’t have that moment of closure with her—it’s very frustrating. By the end of the movie, Abby’s the one that’s tragic to me. She can charmingly not deal [with the family’s tragedy].


How did you approach the look of the film?


JD: In my fiction films, Tak Fujimoto and I wanted to take the idea of the Hitchcock camera-shot in order to literally put the audience in the character’s shoes. That kind of formal approach didn’t interest me and it bored me [for Rachel]. Declan Quinn, who I worked with on Jimmy Carter Man from Plains—I knew he would make Rachel look wonderful in the documentary style. I think his documentary coverage is more thrilling than predesigned stuff. The actors never knew where the camera would be, and we brought that aesthetic to it.


What’s striking about the film is that it’s filled with all sorts of people, black, white, Asian, and it’s so multi-cultural and it’s never acknowledged. It’s just a great party. How did you do that?


JD: We never discussed the racial components of the couple or any of the roles. To me—maybe I’m naïve—it wasn’t pertinent. That’s the kind of world I live in, and none of us marvel at how groovy it is. I live in New York, and you live in New York.


I was sitting with some journalists in Venice [at the film festival, when it premiered] and they asked me, “Is this some utopian vision of America?” No, that’s the America as I know it, and second of all, did you watch the Barack Obama convention thing? We were going, “Hey, it’s just like our movie.” I’m so pleased to see that. I love the line in Rachel where Sydney’s mother (Carol Jean Lewis) says, “We are one, all of us, and this is what it’s like in heaven.” All human beings are here together. That had resonance for me.


Rachel Getting Married
opens in limited release on October 3.


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