Iain Blair
Issue: October 1, 2008


NEW YORK — Filmmaker Jonathan Demme will probably always be best known for his chilling thriller  The Silence of the Lambs, which won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. But this director/producer has built up a diverse body of work over the past 30 years, including Philadelphia, Married to the Mob, Something Wild and Beloved, and in recent years he’s focused more and more on documentaries.

Appropriately enough, his new feature film, Rachel Getting Married, was shot in HD — on Sony F900R, F900R HDCAM SR and  a Canon XHG1 — and has a documentary feel and the look of a home movie. A family drama, penned by Jenny Lumet (daughter of Sidney Lumet), it stars Anne Hathaway as a recovering drug addict who gets out of rehab for the weekend of her sister’s wedding, where she’s confronted by past and present demons.

Here, in an exclusive interview, the director talks about making Rachel Getting Married, his love of post and documentaries.

POST: What sort of film did you set out to make?
JONATHAN DEMME: “The most beautiful home movie ever. The two basic reasons I made this are: I fell in love with the script, and it offered me a chance to work in the indie mode and in a style I’ve been admiring and am excited by. And I had a bee in my bonnet about Anne Hathaway, and luckily she wanted to do it. We shot for nearly six weeks and just let the camera roll as it was HD, and as we didn’t waste any time setting up shots, we could move very quickly, which kept it all very spontaneous for the actors, which is exactly what I wanted.”

POST: Your cinema verite feel and approach reminds me a lot of Robert Altman films.
DEMME: “I bask in the comparison [laughs]. I love Altman and his films and style, and for me it was always a big challenge to all filmmakers — would you dare to work this way? [laughs]. I also love Lars von Trier and a lot of the Danish films, so what I really tried to do here was capture some of that loose, anything-goes approach, and at the end of the film I actually include a thank you to Altman.”

POST: Is it true that several of the actors were also shooting handheld HD footage that you later used along with all the material shot by your DP Declan Quinn?
DEMME: “Yes, which helped with the spontaneous feel I wanted, but it meant we also had so much coverage to go through in post. I barely watched dailies on this shoot. I was just glued to the monitor all the time. I barely talked to the actors and went into the room where they were shooting as little as possible, and as a result, at the end of each day I knew exactly what we had.”

POST: All that footage must have been a big challenge for your editor, Tim Squyres, whose credits include Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Altman’s Gosford Park. Had you worked with him before?
DEMME: “Never. He barely came on the set with me. He was back in New York in his cutting room getting the footage. I got to know him on the job and, of course, knew his great credits, including the film he’d done with Altman. I told him I was taking this very documentary approach. I warned him that there would be very little regard for matching on the set, and he was totally unfazed by that.

“I’ve been lucky enough to work with really great editors over the years, and Tim did something that’s never happened to me before: I began to get DVDs of cut scenes while I was still shooting. So I’d look and tell him, ‘That scene’s coming together very nicely,’ and no sooner had I said that, version two arrived, and he’d already edited a totally different version of the scene using all different material.
 And sometimes there was even a third version, and I was slightly overwhelmed and disoriented by it all, and I thought, ‘Gosh, since they all look good, it’s going to be very confusing trying to select which version to go with.’ But it was great fun and verification of the fact that, yes, all this material can go together — and in a variety of ways.”

[Editor’s Note: Squyres worked on two Avid Media Composer 2.8 Adrenaline HD systems, editing DNxHD 36 all the way through.]

POST: How did your documentary approach affect the edit and post?
DEMME: “In terms of what’s in the finished movie versus the script, 100 percent of the script is in the movie, but there’s another 30 percent of stuff that wasn’t in the script — things we filmed that added accents.

“For example, the wedding had been written with highlighted moments, and it skipped from key moment to key moment, all of which are in the film. But I also felt challenged in setting up a moment, then another, and I realized that, consistent with our wish to make this feel as documentary-like as possible, the easiest way to do it was to just let all the actors stage an entire wedding, do everything, fill in whatever blanks in the script were there, and then just edit it all out later. But it turned out that beautiful things happened, so there was lots of bonus material that found its way into the film as a result of letting these scenes play on.

“And Tim was great in choosing from the start not to just cut to script but say, ‘That’s a great moment, let’s slip that in.’

“What happened later in editing, which panned out in a very practical way, was that as we went through the film in different ways and had the sorts of questions that always come up about a scene — ‘too bad it doesn’t have a little of this’ — Tim with his completely photographic memory, would just say,’Let’s go back and look at alternate versions,’ and sure enough, the answer to our new need was usually already edited and ready to go. So the whole editing process was very exciting.”

POST: Where did you do the post and DI?
DEMME: “PostWorks, New York.”
[Editor’s Note: PostWorks’ Scot Olive was colorist, working on a Pandora Pogle. The studio also provided Avid systems, including a laptop with Media Composer 3.0 and a full Adrenaline.]

POST: How did shooting HD affect post?
DEMME: “Certainly it all happens so much faster, but without feeling rushed. I’ve made so many films in the old-fashioned film way and I was very reluctant to move into computers and Avids and Lightworks. I loved working on Steenbecks and Kems, and that enforced reflection time where you’re sitting there and thinking about other parts of the film while the editor’s making that cut and splice. It also made you commit a lot more to the frame you chose to cut on.
“There was something vaguely monastic about the whole process. But I’ve changed completely! I love not caring that much about what frame to cut on, and I’m thrilled by the speed with which you can see different versions of the same scene.”

POST: Do you like the post process?
DEMME: “I love it. You don’t have to worry about the weather, or the collective temperaments of everyone involved in the shoot, or accidents or the actors’ health or getting exhausted [laughs]. I just adore the magic of seeing what happens when different images are juxtaposed with each other and you add sound and music — the magic of a story unfolding through editing. It’s so exciting for me, and I feel I have a bit of a gift for post, and I’m very comfortable doing it.

“The one thing that’s a pain in the ass to me about working in digital — and it’s really the only thing, and it’s fine because at the end of the day you wind up with something you love very much — is the way you have to color correct online, and you put a huge amount of work into fashioning the most beautiful color palette that you can, based on the images you have, but you always know that you’re going to have to do it all again once the online is complete and the data is sent to the lab and they start striking film prints. So you kind of perfect it one way, knowing you’ll have to change it, but you also know that that’s the final dynamic that enhances the look of the film one more time — making the transition to film. And light will now travel through a print and that’s how the image will end up on screen at cinemas. So it’s kind of, ‘Gee, it seems like a ton of work!’ In the old days it seemed easier. You cut the negative, worked with the timer and got a couple of answer prints and there it was.”

POST: How many visual effects shots are there and who did them?
DEMME: “Most of them were done by Brainstorm Digital in New York, and it was mainly clean-up and removal of behind-the-scenes operators, that sort of stuff. There were no illusions. XFX Inc., also in New York, did some work, and we also used Tchya! in London.”

POST: You’ve done documentaries on The Talking Heads and Neil Young, and shot many music videos, so music and audio obviously play a big role for you?
DEMME: “It’s vital, and I’m very proud that we also managed to do something pretty different in this film. All the music you hear was actually playing live while we shot the scenes you’re watching. It might have been in the room, or in another room or just outside the house, but it’s all live.

“So we needed a particularly gifted group of musicians on hand, so that what they did was indeed contributive, and all the guys in the ‘house band’ you see rehearsing for the wedding are guys I worked with on the soundtrack to the Jimmy Carter documentary I did last year. Then we did the mix at Sound Lounge on Fifth Avenue in New York. It’s a very small, stripped-down lovely studio, and Paul Urmson, who’s a sound designer and effects editor that I’ve worked with on many films, led the team, and we spent just under a month on the mix.”

POST: Did the finished film match the vision you first had on reading the script?
DEMME: “Yes, the emotions I feel from the film match the emotions I felt when I read the script. I’m so in love with documentaries that I’m not very interested in making fiction now.”

POST: What’s next?
DEMME: “I just started shooting a documentary in HD about Bob Marley. Declan [Quinn] and I went down to Wilmington, Delaware, where [Marley’s] aunt Amy lives, and she’s the real surviving link between Bob’s childhood and all his relatives, and we had an amazing weekend.