For, Friday, June 2, 2017

EDITOR’S NOTE: Filmmaker Jonathan Demme died in April at age 73 after a career highlighted by his Oscar win for “Silence of the Lambs” (1991), but that is just one of a wide variety of genres he tackled as a director. Other acclaimed films include “Something Wild” (1986), “Married to the Mob” (1988), “Philadelphia” (1993) and “Rachel Getting Married” (2008). Among my personal favorites are the lesser-known off-kilter comedy “Handle With Care” (1977), his Hitchcock homage “Last Embrace” (1979) and his made-in-Utah satirical look at Melvin Dummar in “Melvin and Howard” (1980). This interview was published in the Deseret News on Feb. 20, 1981, under the headline, ‘He Follows the rules — and his films score,’ and was conducted during the film festival that would later evolve into Sundance.

“Melvin and Howard” is being publicized by Universal as a “nutty comedy,” according to the film’s director Jonathan Demme, but he feels that’s inaccurate.

“It’s more offbeat than an off-the-wall kind of story,” Demme explained, “but they (Universal) aren’t sure how to sell it. I like to think of it as funky, down to earth, unpretentious.”

Critics nationally are calling it a slice of Americana in the Preston Sturges-Frank Capra tradition, and it won the Best Picture award from the National Society of Film Critics. Though he’s flattered by its success, Demme doesn’t want to lose sight of what “Melvin and Howard” is.

“It’ll never be a ‘Jaws’ or ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ at the box-office. But with the awards it’s won, it should do pretty good business.”

If such statements make Demme seem unusually modest for a “hot” young director, he also seems that way in person.


Demme was in Park City last month as one of the judges on the independent film competition jury for the United States Film & Video Festival. Because he was working on a new script with screenwriter Eric Hughes between interviews and personal appearances, Demme wanted to have lunch while we talked.

Casually dressed and almost hyper in enthusiasm, Demme spoke excitedly about his career and the movie industry in general.

Demme came up through the ranks in “The Corman School of Filmmaking,” he said, referring to Roger Corman, longtime producer-director-writer of “little” films, and one of the founders of American-International Pictures, now Filmways.

There, Demme said, he learned all the rules, “human action, social underpinnings, regard for character and — and this is probably the most important — regard for audiences.”

Then suddenly, Demme jumped to his feet and yelled “Roger!” Roger Corman happened to walk past our table as Demme was speaking of him. “Why, hello,” Corman replied. “How’s it feel to be one of the Hollywood mainstream?”

After promises to get together later, Demme sat down and smiled about Corman’s gentle rib. “I’m not sure how mainstream I am,” Demme said. “I don’t aspire to huge budgets at all, not if it means I’ll have to compromise the material.”


          Jonathan Demme, left, with Roger Corman.

One of Corman’s more obvious teachings is the one that he most often puts into practice — it doesn’t have to cost a lot to work.

Demme also believes in structured filmmaking, that is, sticking to the script and rehearsing. In “Melvin and Howard,” Demme did use some improvisation, but only in one scene. “When we filmed the press conference in Willard, we had some real news people from Salt Lake City come up and just fire off the questions.”

Demme said he feels now is a good time for directors of smaller films in his sense of humor. “Pictures like “Ordinary People” and “The Great Santini” encourage me,” he said. “The country is a blend but basically we all have this sense of social conscience.

“I, for one, am tired of all this mindless violence in the world.”

He also said he has only praise for the movie rating board that labels all films with G, PG, R and X ratings. “I hate censorship in any form but it’s good to have guidelines.”