Interview with Coolidge Award Winner Jonathan Demme

I don't know what system the Coolidge Corner Theatre uses to select the winner of its annual award, but the choice is always unexpected, eclectic and apt. Past winners have included Meryl Streep, Zhang Yimou and Thelma Schoonmaker. This year's winner Jonathan Demme fits right in. Not only is one of America's best filmmakers, but he's also a great guy. He'll be collecting the award on March 2 but also host a Q & A on March 1 for his first big hit "Melvin and Howard." Other films showing include the Roger Corman (who will be attending the Award ceremony) gems "Caged Heat" (1974)  and "Crazy Momma," (1975) the moving Haiti documentary "The Agronomist" (2003), and  the terrific "Something Wild" (1986)

Here's the transcript of a telephone conversation I had with him a week or so ago..

PK: Well, congratulations on your Coolidge Award.

JD: Thank You!

PK: This is a lifetime achievement award?

JD: Well, I'm not exactly sure what they call it, Peter, but it's the Coolidge Award and I'm getting it.

PK: One of the films you are showing is "The Agronomist." I know that you have a deep love for Haiti. Can you talk a little about it given the recent disaster?

JD: Well, I was on the phone earlier today with a young man, a sergeant, in the US Army. His name is Gonzales Joseph. He was calling me because he's got a camera down there in Haiti. He's part of the force that responded to the disaster in Haiti. He's got his camera with him. He's getting, what he described as, extraordinary and important footage. We were talking about ways to get that up here and what we could do with it once it arrives. Gonzales is, if you can remember the wedding scenes in "Rachel Getting Married" (2008)  and there is a guy in uniform who is taking shots all the time with a video camera, cousin Joe. That is Gonzales Joseph. He's in Haiti as a member of the US Armed Forces. But, he's got his camera. A camera that he left "Rachel Getting Married" with. That was kind of a gift we all gave him.

But I have to take it back two more steps. He is there because Gonzales and I became pen pals when he was stationed in Iraq, five years ago. He had read about "The Agronomist." Somehow or other, he managed to see that film in Iraq and he loved it, it spoke to him, and he wanted to get more information from the distributor. They knew I would be interested in this inquiry and we became avid email pals. So that brings "The Agronomist" right up to the minute.

That movie was chosen [as part of the retrospective] prior the catastrophic event. Just because I love documentaries so much. I love that film so much. It was something I very much was hoping to speak with people about in the context of the screening. Since the catastrophe, we have gotten a lot of calls from all kinds of sources: ‘Can we show "The Agronomist" as a fundraiser? Can we just show The Agronomist?' It's interesting because it's really a home movie. It became an elaborate home movie, but it was a home movie I made about these friends of mine. It's very much alive today and that's part of the beauty of documentaries.

I'm going off on a slight tangent, but it was really amazing talking to Gonzales earlier, to this young guy, who wrote to me, and now he's filming..

PK: You haven't been down there yourself at all?

JD: No I haven't. I would have been there today. I was heading for Haiti last Friday with the band Arcade Fire. We were going to do a music driven, kind of music documentary, against a backdrop of carnival in Jacmel - the great, now devastated, south coast Haitian city. We had our final conference call the morning of the day the quake struck. We were gonna go down anyway until we realized we can't really get there. My personal feeling was, those who go down two months or three months from now, with a specific mission in mind, will be valuable in their own way, as the people that are going now. So I'm gonna go. I'm gonna go within the next six months, but I haven't been yet.

PK: Yeah they don't really have too much access to airplanes. I guess the one airport is kind of limited.

JD: Yeah, there are still no commercial flights going out. It's all charters at this point. Which is fine, but again, I feel like there are urgent needs being dealt with by great people who are going down right now.

PK: So these images, the film that he's shooting, is this different from what we are seeing in the news?

JD: I get the sense it is. I think that Gonzales showing up with his camera, people are talking to him, wherever he goes. I'm confident that he's getting a different quality of discourse than what happens with the important, man in the street stuff, we have been seeing on the networks.

PK: Yeah because I was very suspicious when they started talking about how there was starting to be civil disorder, rioting and looting and so forth. They said the same thing about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and that turned out to be really exaggerated. Do you think that is the case down there too?

JD: The media loves that phase! God bless ‘em. Because now you've got not only disaster, you've got violence on top of disaster. That really sells.

PK: Speaking of which, you are making a film about Katrina?

JD: This is my longest in-production film. I have been filming four times a year in New Orleans since 3 months after the floods. I visit people who were amongst those that were the first to return to their properties and to their homes, despite being forbidden to do so, in order to save them and not let these neighborhoods be plowed under and turned into condo courts. I was lucky enough to connect. Cyril Neville, from the Neville brothers, gave the names and phone numbers of about 6 people and I was able to connect with them. Over the course of time, you know, of course, when you visit someone 4 times a year you either stop visiting or you become dear, deep friends. That's happened. What's emerged is, yes, there is an ongoing portrait of life in post-Katrina New Orleans as seen through the lens of about five particular families, but they have all turned into extraordinary portraits of quote unquote ordinary Americans who really rose to the occasion under extraordinary circumstances. They have become kind of biopics and the people are amazing. I'm in the cutting room now on one of them that I'm calling, "My Favorite American: the Carolyn Parker Story."This particularly amazing, stalwart woman who I think is going to become a super star when we get this film out.


PK: A superstar just as a wonderful person?

JD: Yeah, as a magnificent human being and as a wildly entertaining and incredible story teller. Someone who has lived a really amazing life and sets an incredible spiritual example, a portrait of tenacity. Incidentally, her daughter, Kyrah, who is also part of this portrait of Carolyn, Kyrah came up when we shot "Rachel Getting Married" and she played the groom's sister. She actually turned out to be an excellent actress and had some terrific moments in that movie.

PK: So you have a merging of life and art in that film quite a bit.

JD: Yeah, and I really wanted to, you know on a wedding weekend, especially one that has as much going on as that particular family had on their hands that weekend, you know, what's going on in the world kind of drops out of sight for that weekend. Everything kind of happens in a vacuum. By having Kyrah and also another woman, who is yet another exceptional person I'm doing a portrait film on, her name is Harice Harrison. She played the groom's grandmother. I wanted New Orleans to be there. I wanted it in the room. And I wanted the war in Iraq to be in the room that weekend and that's why Gonzales was chosen. Oh and Pastor Mel! There is another guy, yet another amazing portrait film that we are doing from the New Orleans footage. He was the guest speaker at Anne Hathaway's first 12 step program, a really kind of extraordinary bald-head guy who is just amazing. So Pastor Mel came up and played himself at the 12 step meeting. So these are all people I will be seeing. We are now approaching the five year anniversary of the floods at the end of August. So especially on the heels of the Saints victory, thank you, on Sunday and with the election of a new mayor that all of our friends are very positive about, Mitch Landreau. I think there is gonna be a particularly resonant...Oh, and we are really going back because it's Mardi Gras. The Harrison family, we've selected this trip because the Harrison family is a family steeped in the Mardi Gras, Indian tradition. We have been filming their activities. They do outreach stuff to the schools. I don't know if you have ever seen any of those costumes, they do extraordinary bead work and sequins...

PK: I'm wearing one right now..

JD: We are getting down there in time to be there for their feverish, last-minute, final work they can do on their outfits before going into the streets Tuesday morning for the masquerade. It's gonna be an amazing scene.


Hurricane Katrina: the animated movie.

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