Jonathan Demme's Former Assistant: "He Changed My Life" (Guest Column)

Bob Vergara
Jonathan Demme

Filmmaker Rebecca Eskreis pays tribute to the iconic director with her own tales of his "positive spirit, endless creativity and seemingly unlimited energy."

Rebecca Eskreis worked as Demme's assistant from 2014 to 2016. She currently is prepping to direct her first feature.

When I heard the news that Jonathan Demme had passed away, I felt a piece of my entire being wither. And yet, in my profound sorrow at the loss of this great man, my former boss and mentor, I also experienced an intense feeling of déjà vu. I’d felt this way before: Venice, Italy, August 2015.

Let me explain. 

Two years ago, Jonathan was selected to head up the Orizzonti Jury of the Venice Film Festival, and as I was his assistant, I went along. After checking into the hotel, Jonathan said, “Becca, let’s meet down here in an hour and check out the opening night film, k?” Sure. Easy enough.

An hour later, we met in the hotel lobby. But unlike two hours earlier, the place was swarming with press. And fans. And more fans. Our festival guide held us back behind a velvet rope. Then, introduced us to our bodyguard (bodyguard?), who quickly ushered Jonathan and me through the throngs of people who were shouting “Signor Demme! Autograph!” and into a limo … which was also mobbed with fanatic spectators. As our car slowly parted the sea of humans, Jonathan turned to me and said, “Isn’t this fun?” I nodded, hoping to hide the adrenaline rush coursing through my body.

We arrived at the red carpet, where there were now thousands shouting and clawing for autographs, while camera bulbs flashed incessantly. I wanted desperately to run away, but our guide gestured for me to follow Jonathan onto the red carpet, following his photo op. I sprinted through, feeling so insecurely out of place. We headed inside the theater and were immediately guided to the best seats in the house, of course. Everyone was shaking Jonathan’s hand. Graciously, he introduced me to all who passed by, including Bruno Ganz, which made my wired brain nearly explode.

At this point, my hands were sweating and shaking and I felt like Zelig.

Suddenly, the lights flickered, then dimmed and I became aware of why I was nearing a panic attack: I’d forgotten just how world famous Jonathan was.

Of course, I knew Jonathan was one of the most recognized and revered filmmakers in the world. He swept the Oscars! He basically invented the concert film. It’s why I leapt at the chance to work for him. But the thing about Jonathan was that in his day-to-day life as a working filmmaker and humanitarian, he was a down-to-earth, approachable person who treated everyone equally and respectfully, so much so that you kind of forgot just what a huge creative life force he was on planet earth.  

I first met Jonathan Demme on a street corner in Rye, N.Y., in August 2014. I was there, on location, to interview to be his assistant on Ricki and the Flash. At 30 years old, to quote Terry Santiel in Jonathan’s last feature, Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids, I’d been in the game for a minute. A minute longer than I wanted to be an assistant, frankly. But when you’re an aspiring director who is unemployed, and you get the call on Monday to interview with Jonathan Demme on Wednesday, you volunteer to come in, like, within the hour. But only if he wants you to, of course. Because he’s Jonathan Demme.

So there I was, waiting patiently on the street corner designated by the hiring producer in his email, expecting a PA to fetch me. But instead, a man in a bright orange sweatshirt bounded up the hill. I quickly realized that it was Jonathan himself — and I wondered if I’d somehow mangled the interview instructions. Instead, he gave a big smile and stuck out his hand — “Hi Rebecca, I’m Jonathan. I’m super impressed by your résumé.” Huh? My résumé?

We made small talk as the crew bustled behind us — and I kept waiting for the actual interview to start. After we chatted for about 15 minutes, he paused, then said, “Becca. Do you want to come hang out in video village?”

I would soon learn that when Jonathan asks, “Do you want to ____?” the blank will likely be filled by an event that will change your life. The best approach? Just say yes, and hold on for the ride. 

For example, about a month after I’d been hired, Jonathan turned me during lunch and asked, “Do you want to go to Vegas for New Year's? Because I’m going to direct a Justin Timberlake concert film and I think it’s going to be great!” That documentary project would turn out to be my first producing credit on a feature film. Or, three months later, when Jonathan said, “Do you want to come with me to Los Angeles and screen Ricki and the Flash for a few friends?” Cut to dinner, after the screening, where I find myself sharing a pizza with Maya Rudolph, while Paul Thomas Anderson, Jonathan and Roger Corman share stories of years gone by. Again, head nearly exploding.

Sure, rubbing shoulders with famous and interesting people was part of working for someone like Jonathan. But working for him involved surprises outside the realm of filmmaking as well. One afternoon, we were wrapping up in the cutting room and Jonathan asked, “Do you want to come to Sing Sing for their inmate graduation ceremony?” Yes, Sing Sing, the maximum-security prison. Two days later, we were filming 60 men who had gone through the Mercy College program while they received their college degrees. It was one of the most moving evenings of my entire life. Afterwards, during the reception, I watched as Jonathan talked up a few of the grads and their families. I wondered if these men knew they were talking to an Oscar-winning director. In fact, I’m sure they didn’t. But in a way, that was the whole point — like the rest of us normal people, Jonathan was a respectful observer in these incarcerated men’s momentous occasion.

I could go on, as I never tire of telling Jonathan stories, or reliving the great or humbling moments of working for and with him. Like the countless actors, musicians, filmmakers and public figures who came forward to mourn his death, I, too, an unknown person, felt that knowing and working with Jonathan changed my life. He built confidence in those he met with his positive spirit, endless creativity and seemingly unlimited energy. Every day that I worked for Jonathan, I was inspired to live curiously and to remain fascinated by the beauty and mundanity of the world. And, to always celebrate each accomplishment — or day’s end — with a martini.

I’ll end with another story from that same day we arrived in Venice. The plane touched down, and Jonathan’s cellphone did not work, nor did the European rental we’d painstakingly tracked down to match his Verizon flip phone. As we gathered our luggage and found our car waiting outside, I frantically woke up everyone I could reach in New York, trying to find a replacement phone to ship out. We boarded our water taxi and took off for Lido, where the festival is headquartered, as I continued making phone calls, trying to reach Verizon’s international hotline. I sat below the deck, screaming at some poor woman who was trying to explain that there was just no way to make his American phone work. Suddenly, I heard Jonathan yelling my name from above deck. I hung up the phone, took a deep breath and poked my head out from below, sure that Jonathan was anxious for an update on the disappointing cellphone situation. Instead, I found him perched at the front of the speed boat, hat blowing in the wind, big smile on his face. “Get off the phone and come on up here! You’re missing Venice!” Relieved, I climbed up on the deck and joined him as the our water taxi zoomed out into the Laguna Veneta towards Lido.

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