Remembering Jonathan Demme

I heard the devastating news today that Jonathan Demme is no longer with us. I knew he had been ill, but the last time I saw him he looked like he was back to his normal self and seemed to be in quite good spirits. But then again, Jonathan always gave off the vibe of being in good spirits. I had the pleasure of working with him on two of his films, and then peripherally on two others, and in all that time he never treated me with anything but the utmost respect. 

Jonathan Demme & I at Sundance in the ’80s. That’s me up top and  Jonathan at the bottom-center, Joel & Ethan Cohn to the right. I have no idea who the other folks are.

I first met Jonathan shortly after the Cinecom team screened “Stop Making Sense” and we immediately decided we wanted to distribute it. The film had been financed by Warner Brother Records; from their perspective, it was merely a promotional film intended to broaden the appeal of Talking Heads. We saw the film differently, as Demme was already on our radar as someone we would love to work with. Yes, it was a great concert film, but the simplicity with which it captured a live performance and made it feel as immediate and exciting as if you were in the room–this was something new. This was pure cinema.

Jonathan was coming off of a few films that, while well received critically, had not exactly set the world on fire. Worse yet, he had just finished “Swing Shift,” a fairly big budget Hollywood movie he wasn’t all that pleased with, that tanked at the box office. The experience of “Stop Making Sense” seemed to him like a breath of fresh air at a time when his Hollywood stock was not exactly rising. Perhaps it was his publicity background kicking in, but he was unusually respectful of the work being done to market and distribute the film, and showered us with public praise when the film outperformed expectations. 

The night before “Stop making Sense” opened, I was at the New York Times office on 42nd Street when the next day’s paper was published, and I was able to read the rave review that kick-started the success of the film. I hopped on my bicycle and headed up Broadway in order to call everyone and deliver the good news (it was well before the invention of cell phones). As I reached 72nd Street, I saw Jonathan walking up the street and peddled over to him to show him the review. A few days later, Jonathan was interviewed for the Village Voice (if I am remembering correctly) and was quoted as saying “those Cinecom guys, they never sleep.” It was the only time I can ever remember a filmmaker publicly acknowledging the hard work of distribution.

After the enormous success of “Stop Making Sense,” we were anxious to work with Jonathan again, and ended up co-financing and distributing “Swimming to Cambodia.” I liked to joke that the film was the only one in history to have 17 credited producers (only a slight exaggeration) and a single actor. It certainly was a quirky idea for a film and not an easy film to market, but once again Jonathan’s genius was to keep it simple; to pull the audience into the story and make the limitations disappear. While it was not as big a success as “Stop Making Sense,” it made money for everyone involved and, more importantly, cemented Jonathan’s reputation as someone who could film almost anything and make it into art. His filmmaking stock was back on the rise.  And as much as we would have wanted to continue working with him, the studios were calling.

Several years later, when I was producing and repping films at my own company, I got a call from Jonathan about a film he wanted to bring to my attention. The story he told me was that he was editing his latest film at Magno when he noticed an editing room across the hall with a sign on it that said “Brooklyn.” Since he had just named one of his children Brooklyn, he decided to pop in and say hello. He met a young filmmaker named Matty Rich, who was making a very low budget first feature called “Straight Out of Brooklyn.” They became friendly and Jonathan was seeking help for him.

On Jonathan’s recommendation, I saw a rough cut of the film and came on board as an Executive Producer. I was able to find additional funding for the film, which enabled Matty to do reshoots and finish it up. I then submitted the film to Sundance, where it was a sensation and was sold to Samuel Goldwyn for distribution. Jonathan’s curiosity, his generosity and his matchmaking instincts led to a feather in my cap, but more importantly, kicked off the career of a young, aspiring filmmaker.

My final collaboration with Jonathan was on Nancy Savoca’s “Household Saints,” a film that I co-financed when I was at Fine Line. I must admit that the subject matter was never really up my alley, and all of my marketing instincts were telling me that it was going to be a tough sell. But Jonathan was aboard as Executive Producer, and my experience with him was such that it gave me confidence that the film might outperform my expectations. While it didn’t quite turn out that way, Jonathan was actively involved in ways that were not true of other well-known directors who slap their names on films. He was a tireless advocate for Nancy’s vision and also acted as a trusted advisor as the final cut of the film was being shaped. 

In the year’s since, I’ve seen Jonathan at various events, and he was always warm and generous with his time. He always greeted me as if we were childhood friends. This past December, Jonathan was given a lifetime achievement award by the Doc NYC Film Festival, and he called me out from the podium for my contribution to his career and to documentary film in general. It was an unexpected and moving moment, and will last as my final memory of an amazingly generous soul.


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