Jonathan Demme, Part 2

Jonathan Demme talks about an HBO adaptation of a Walter Mosley novel, an animated adaptation of Dave Eggers book about a hero of Hurricane Katrina, and confronting a new audience for his Golden Oldie "Melvin and Howard."

PK: So this four year project is all one film or a series of portraits?

JD: My dream is that it's going to be a historic, up to the present, reality show on some cable network that will weave these various families, and there are others, in an ongoing way, starting three months after the flood, and could pay off, could deliver at the end, to, arguably, a live visit with everybody. But meanwhile, the Carolyn Parker thing, I've just become obsessed with making a portrait film about Carolyn and getting it done so we are doing that. And I'm doing, Tavis Smiley has given us his show, in the past, to do a week of 20 minute portraits. In fact, a film that I did called "New Home Movies From The Lower 9th Ward," actually the five Tavis Smiley 20 minute pieces clumped together. So I am very, very, very grateful for that project. That these people let us come back again and again and again. I think what we've got is a unique perspective on American people, under incredible pressure, really setting stunning examples. I wish I could make enough money, Peter, to just devote myself to getting that stuff finished. It's in the labor of love zone.

PK: Aren't you also doing a pilot for HBO?

JD: I am! I hope to. I teamed up with Walter Mosley  and we wrote a pilot. The idea of which is to do an HBO series that is a 12 week presentation of Walter's recent book, "The Long Fall," which is a wonderful book. A new Walter Mosley private eye, New York based, a fantastic book and something I would have never dreamt of trying to shrink wrap down to 2 hours for a movie version, but when HBO expressed a lot of enthusiasm for letting us sprawl for many weeks in the same way Walter's book sprawls across many pages, I got very excited.

It's film noir, Dostoyevsky, 21st Century, New York that's around the corner from the New York we have always seen before on television and movies. If you are remotely a fan of film noir and or Walter Mosley you gotta read this book, it's great.

PK: So it's set in the future?

JD: No, but it's 21st century. It feels up to the minute.

PK: Ah. You're right. We are in the 21st century.

JD: Darnit! Walter's Easy Rawlins's series was famously set in the past, so this one is up to the minute.

PK: So it sounds like you are mostly doing documentary but are dipping into fiction as well.

JD: Well, yeah, I'm at a moment where I've got a number of things I'm committed to seeing happen, that I'm really excited about. The other one that I'm doing a lot of work on at the moment is developing Dave Eggers' recent book "Zeitoun." Have you read it?

PK: I haven't  read it. It's about a family in New Orleans Post-Katrina, right?

JD: Well actually, it's not post-Katrina, it's in the middle of Katrina. It's about this marvelous Muslim-American family, this guy named Abdulrahman Zeitoun, who stayed to look after his properties and the properties of friends of his and did with other people, wonderful heroic things in the wake of the flood, true story. Then he fell in the clutches of homeland security and wound up in a really tough spot. We're doing this as an animated film.

PK: It's sort of like "Waltz with Bashir?"

JD: Well, no, it's not. It's really kind of a, it's an epic. It's gonna be a big, old animated Hitchcock thriller style film. It's not political. It has a dimension to it as even some of the Hitchcock films. It's an adventure story. It's a huge, huge story. We are excited about using animation in a way that it's rarely been used before - for big thriller drama. I think of "Waltz with Bashir," which I have a lot of respect for, as a strongly political themed art film. This has big entertainment aspirations.

PK: This is your first animation.

JD: Yes, and as I start to see how much work goes into it, it will probably be my last as well.

PK: Is this hand drawn?

JD: Yes! I've been meeting different animators and recently have gotten very excited about a very young French animator, a guy named Bastien DuBois, who had a 12 minute film at Sundance in January called "Madagascar"  which just looked great so we are gonna go the drawn route.

PK: I read that you were inspired by the cover of the Eggers book.

JD: That was what made the light bulb go off and say hey, you could make a movie out of that if you wanted to. Two big reasons. One is to do a picture of this scope - it's a hurricane movie, a flood movie, a Hitchcockian thriller. It goes back in time to Syria. Zeitoun's family goes across America while he's back in New Orleans in the embrace of this flood. It would be an impossibly expensive film to do properly, live action, anyway. And I just couldn't try to recreate the human heartbreak of what the people of New Orleans endured in real life and getting extras and actors to pretend they were having that experience. It just wouldn't sit right with me. I feel also that we can do something kind of amazing with the characters of this family, of Zeitoun and his wife Kathy, and his three daughters. Through artist rendering I think we can capture their essence and capture their character. They are great, they are wonderful people, in a way that maybe acted performances couldn't do. I think that we can find the soul of the people in a fresh way.

PK: Whose doing the voices?

JD: Well, I can't say, but I can tell you that one of our favorite actresses on the planet called me up as soon as she heard that I had acquired this book and begged me to let her voice Kathy Zeitoun.

PK: Well this seems a long project. Do you have any idea of when we might be able to see it?

JD: Our hopes would be that we are going to get the ball rolling now, in this year 2010, that we'll be working on it all through 2011 and probably pretty deep into 2012 and that it will finish up some time late 2012.

JD: You are also showing "Melvin and Howard" for the Coolidge retrospective. Why did you choose that one?

JD: I chose Melvin and Howard because I love that movie and rarely get to see it and also I have a feeling, I'm not sure who might turn up for these screenings, but my hope is that if people come to the "Melvin and Howard" screening, that many, most of them, won't have seen this movie, and I'll be able to selfishly have the pleasure of a fresh conversation with some first time viewers of the film. It's a very interesting experience for me when a group of people sees a movie you worked on and now here comes some questions. There are some films I just feel that I've talked about them so much I just don't have anything fresh to say and therefore I feel like that I can have more fun and be more fun after a screening of "Melvin and Howard" than some of the more recent movies.

PK: Do you have some of the members of the cast and crew who are going to be there also?

JD: I don't know. I know that Tak Fujimoto, who shot "Melvin and Howard," is going to be there, which just amazes me. Tak and I started out together when we were in our 20's on the first movie, I directed, and the second low budget movie, he shot, and here we are many, many decades later so I am really looking forward to that. I know there is a possibility that some of the cast coming but I don't know where that stands. I've actually been trying not to think about that part of things too much so I can stay serene and relaxed about this upcoming event.

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