Combustible Celluloid

Interview: Jonathan Demme

Revealing the Truth About Charlie

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

October 22, 2002—The image most people have of Jonathan Demme comes from the 1992 Oscar ceremony when he picked up his Best Director award for The Silence of the Lambs. Nervous and frantic, he used "um" more times in his acceptance speech than any other Oscar winner, ever.

In the years following Lambs, he worked sporadically, making grander and more blatant attempts at Oscar like Philadelphia and Beloved, as well as quirkier and more obscure indies like Cousin Bobby and Storefront Hitchcock.

As a result of this past ten years, Demme's image probably seems intimidating. But in person, he turns out to be surprisingly loose, casual, friendly, and happy. It's almost a fresh happiness, as if he'd found it again for the first time in years.

That happiness comes through in Demme's new film The Truth About Charlie, a remake of Stanley Donen's 1963 Charade. Demme isn't shy about calling a spade a spade. "It's not a 're-working.' Let's face it. It's a remake."

Demme began by working with Charade's original screenwriter, Peter Stone, and by looking at the original novelization of the film. But it wasn't long before the film began to take off in more liberating directions.

Part of his newfound energy comes from what he calls "our own new wave going on in America," citing Paul Thomas Anderson's Punch-Drunk Love, Miguel Arteta's The Good Girl and Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums as examples.

"That last one's a giant of a movie," he says, excitedly. "I'd love to try to sneak into that zone, even though I'm not the right age for it. I'd like to find material that's a little less predictable. I'd like it if I could make a film that showed the joy of filmmaking and the exuberance of filmmaking. That can be infectious."

Demme says that recent films by Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) and Wong Kar-wai (In the Mood for Love) have really floated his boat. But when he was a youngster, it was the French New Wave that roused his enthusiasm.

Since The Truth About Charlie is set in Paris, as was the original Charade, Demme found himself growing excited while discovering classic movie locations in Paris. As a result, he began drifting more and more toward New Wave ideals.

In addition to shooting his new film in a rangy, free-floating style with handheld cameras and jump-cuts, Demme went so far as to track down three icons from the original New Wave.

Firstly, he cast Charles Aznavour -- the star of his favorite New Wave film, Francois Truffaut's Shoot the Piano Player -- in a small role. When the two romantic leads -- played by Mark Wahlberg and Thandie Newton -- have a quiet moment in a hotel room, one of them puts on an Aznavour record. Lo and behold, Aznavour himself appears in the room to serenade the two would-be lovers.

Next, he cast Anna Karina, a much more central New Wave figure. In the 1960s, the beautiful actress became Jean-Luc Godard's muse and appeared in many of his seminal films, including Vivre sa vie, Alphaville, Band of Outsiders and Pierrot le Fou.

Finally, in a tiny cameo, he cast New Wave director Agnes Varda, whose Cleo from 5 to 7 was a classic of the New Wave, but whose The Gleaners and I was one of the great films of last year. Varda appears in only one shot. Demme says her haunting eyes were just the right thing to slap a bit of menace on a particular scene in a deserted market. "But it was also a little gift to those who might recognize her."

In the grand scheme of things, Demme also wanted to work again with Newton, who had starred in his underrated 1998 film Beloved. He says he was convinced she could carry a modern-day piece much better than the period character of Beloved.

"I wanted to get closer to what she's really like, which is Regina Lampert. She's got a big heart, she's courageous, she's smart, she's funny and she's charming. I felt very strongly about it. There's that Svengali wannabe that lives inside filmmakers that says if I were the one who directed Thandie's first contemporary movie, I'd have another There's Something About Mary."

In addition to his French stars, and the Zambia-born Newton, Demme also cast Lisa Gay Hamilton (Beloved) and Ted Levine (The Silence of the Lambs).

"One thing you notice about Charade is that it's the whitest movie you've ever seen in your life, which was consistent with the times. But what appeals to me was that we'd be able to do a real global community cast of actors."

But his real find was the Korean actor Park Joong-hoon. "I saw Park playing Agent Woo in Nowhere to Hide at Sundance two years ago. Oh my God! He can be in my movie!"

As for his leading man, Demme in the end saw Wahlberg's character as a version of himself -- a goofy, happy-go-lucky guy in love with the world. "He's a very fish out of water guy, who goes to Paris and puts on a beret and learns the pleasantries, but will never fit in."

Partial Filmography:
Black Mama, White Mama (1972) [screenplay]
The Hot Box (1972) [screenplay]
Caged Heat (1974)
Crazy Mama (1975)
Fighting Mad (1976)
Citizen's Band (1977)
Columbo: Murder Under Glass (1978) (TV)
Last Embrace (1979)
Melvin and Howard (1980)
Who Am I This Time? (1982) (TV)
Swing Shift (1983)
Stop Making Sense (1984)
Something Wild (1986)
Swimming to Cambodia (1987)
Married to the Mob (1988)
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Cousin Bobby (1992)
Philadelphia (1993)
Subway Stories: Tales from the Underground (1997, TV) [segment]
Storefront Hitchcock (1998)
Beloved (1998)
The Truth About Charlie (2002)
The Agronomist (2003)
The Manchurian Candidate (2004)
Neil Young: Heart of Gold (2006)
Jimmy Carter Man from Plains (2007)
Rachel Getting Married (2008)
Neil Young Trunk Show (2009)
Neil Young Journeys (2011)
A Master Builder (2013)
Ricki and the Flash (2015)
Justin Timberlake + the Tennessee Kids (2016)

Movies Unlimtied