Demme, part 3

Class conflict and "Melvin and Howard;" why "Beloved" was unloved; how entertainment is sometimes enough; a soft spot for "Youth in Revolt;" the Corman School of Filmmaking; and what's the deal with Neil Young?

PK: You were saying how the Zeitoun movie isn't political. In a sense though "Melvin and Howard," even though it's an entertaining, weird buddy movie, and many other things, is kind of political, a statement on class in America.

JD: It's true. That's part of the brilliance of Bo Goldman's screenplay -- to dig so deep into the truth of this one struggling American, to put it mildly, on the one hand, and this giant billionaire, on the other hand, and to get so deep inside of them and focus on what he imagined their human connection would be that it end up shining a lot of light on more than anything, how hard it is to survive in America.

PK: It seems even harder now, 25 years later.

JD: I know!

PK: The class divide is even greater than it was back then. It seems that there is a populist spirit going on that is being misled by certain leaders. How do you think this movie would play today?

JD: "Melvin and Howard?" Before I think about it too much, I think the film plays terrific. Bo Goldman deserved the Oscar for the characters he wrote. The performances are amazing in that movie. I think we did a first rate job capturing it on film. I'm hoping to find it extremely fresh. It was a film that was considered very eccentric and outside in its day. It was not by any stretch of the imagination a success at the box office. It got some critical notoriety and won some awards but it was considered way too outside a movie to have been a success. Maybe if it came out today it would have a better shot at being a success.

PK: How about a film like "Beloved"(1998) which was a very powerful statement about race and racism in America? Do you think that would do better now that Obama is in the White House?

JD: I think it would do better now if we could figure out a way to somehow make it shorter so that it was easier for people to plan and see. I also think that if we released it now, I'm afraid that we may have taken a little bit too much of a it's time to take your medicine and come see "Beloved" in the way the film was presented. I think we would probably find different aspects to put forth. We may have emphasized the legacy of slavery, which is what it is all about in so many ways, but I think it made it sound tougher to watch then it turned out for many people. It's another film that didn't do very well at the box office but has been a constant DVD item ever since it was shown. A lot of people love that movie very much.

It's tough for these long ones. When the movie came out and my son and I went into a multiplex and we had gone to see "Rush Hour" and "Rush Hour" was in one room and "Beloved" was in the other, I said this on "The Charlie Rose Show," but I know that I, who made the film, as I walked in on a Friday night, I thought, you know, I want to see "Beloved" but tonight, I want to see "Rush Hour." I just need to be entertained. When you do a film with strong, tremendously important themes, it's tough to get it out there.

PK: I think that's happening with films like "The Hurt Locker" too.

JD: I love that movie so much. Don't you?

PK: Yeah. Our group gave it best picture, and maybe the Oscars will too, who knows?

JD: That would be a beautiful thing. I would love to see that happen. I think it's just a fantastic American movie, oh my God. I called Catherine Bigelow up after I saw it and raved at her for like an hour.

PK: It is a wonderful movie, but hardly anyone has gone to see it because they are saying who wants to see another war movie. Let's go see "Valentine's Day" or something like that.

JD: It's hard to argue with that. It's really hard, especially in these troubled times. Man, it's hard to argue with.

PK: It is entertaining though.

JD: And how! And how. Has all the notoriety not perked it up?

PK: It's not screening anywhere. They probably should, and I think they are, putting it back into a third release now.

JD: They better hurry up, gosh.

PK: Another film of yours I really liked, I think it's one of your best films, is "The Manchurian Candidate." (2004)  What happened with that?

JD: "Manchurian" did well. It did well. It exhausted me and I went on kind of a sabbatical. My next movie after "Manchurian Candidate" was "Neil Young: Heart of Gold." (2006). That movie did well.

PK: I was always afraid that the thought police were going to catch up with you after making "The Manchurian Candidate." What's the deal with Neil Young now? You are making a trilogy?

JD: I would obviously love to do a third film with him and Neil likes the idea. We just need to figure out what that would be. I just found out that "Neil Young: Heart of Gold" has done very well, at the box office. It has done very well, financially, around the world since it was released. It has made me kind of hopeful that our new film, "Neil Young: Trunk Show," may attract a similar audience.

PK: That's coming out here on March 1. They are going to show it during your gala.

JD: Yes, and this will be the first showing ever of the final color corrected, tweaked sound track version so it ought to be quite a show.

PK: Can you sum up in a couple of sentences what it is about Neil Young that makes you want to make 3 movies about him?

JD: Neil Young's music became a big part of my soul when I first started hearing it as an extremely young man back in the 60's. I think he is a great artist, a great great great great great artist. I just adore his music and it's been so exciting to work with him these times, to get to know him and see how he conducts himself and listen to the way he thinks. Neil is of course, musically, a giant, and Neil is also an exceptionally cinematic guy. I like the films he has made very much. I particularly love "Greendale." He is an exciting person to collaborate with.

PK: Are there other directors besides Bigelow and, I guess, Bernard Shakey that you are excited about?   

JD: That's right, his [Young's] nom de cinema. I recently saw "Youth in Revolt," Miguel Arteta. Did you see it?

PK: Uh. I did.

JD: You didn't care for it?

PK: I just thought that's the wrong direction for independent movies to go. It was too much like "Juno." Maybe its because it stars the same guy.

JD: Right, well I'm a big Michael Cera fan. So Michael Cera times two I thought that film was really charming and I think Miguel is extremely gifted.

PK: I like his previous film a lot.

JD: "The Good Girl" (2002)?" You've seen "The Prophet" of course?

PK: No, it hasn't shown up here yet.[I'll be reviewing it next week]

JD: That is just an extraordinary film, oh my god. As you know, he did "The Beat That My Heart Skipped" (2005)  "The Prophet" is just killer. It's really strong, incredible film making.

PK: Lest we forget the origin of your career, you gave an Oscar recently to Roger Corman.

JD: I handed Roger his statue. I couldn't believe it. That was a wonderful moment. Obviously, Roger changed my life by imagining that I might be able to write a screen play [for "Angels Hard as They Come" (1971)] that could be filmed and then giving me the opportunity to produce that screenplay which Joe Viola directed and then giving me an opportunity to direct which is something I fell madly in love with doing and have really continued loved doing ever since then. Roger is such a great guy so it was very special to be able to hand him his Oscar.

PK: What would you say his legacy is for American film making in general?

JD: The independent spirit, the think up a movie and go ahead and make it. You don't need the establishment to make a movie. And you don't need the establishment to make a movie that is going to find an audience. I just think it's absolutely amazing and certainly as a filmmaker I think he is exceptionally talented. Especially when you isolate films like either "Bloody Mama" or "Saint Valentines Day Massacre." He made "The Intruder."(1962) [starring William Shatner!]  I don't know if you ever saw that.

PK: No I didn't.

JD: That's a film that Roger and his little tiny low budget crew from California almost got lynched. Making a film about racism in the American South in the 60's, in Mississippi! Its such a great legacy. It takes me a long time to get to the provider of opportunities, the people who went on to do one thing or the other. And then there's Roger's personal body of work, his personal vision of what you can achieve when you set your mind to it is so admirable.

PK: Plus the vast number of alumni from his school of filmmaking.

JD: That too. Of which I am proud to be a member.

PK: There doesn't seem to be anybody playing that role these days though.

JD: No, no.

PK: Yourself, do you, since this is a career milestone, getting this award, do you have thought on what your legacy might be in American filmmaking?

JD: I don't. The thing I mentioned to you about "The Agronomist." If that's my legacy, if "The Agronomist" touched a soldier in Iraq and led him on a certain kind of journey to becoming a filmmaker himself committed to making films that somehow move his country forward, then that's an amazing legacy right there.

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