Toronto 2011: Jonathan Demme on How He Started Collaborating With Neil Young

7:06 PM PST 09/12/2011 by Etan Vlessing
Michael Yada/A.M.P.A.S. via Getty Images

The Hollywood director and self-described "Young groupie" recalled how the opening sequence for his 1993 movie "Philadelphia" spawned his trilogy of concert films with the legendary rocker.

TORONTO – Hollywood director Jonathan Demme on Monday night said his trilogy of Neil Young concert films have their origin in needing to reach gay-bashers with music for his 1993 movie Philadelphia.

Demme, debuting his latest movie, Neil Young’s Journey, alongside the legendary rocker at the Toronto International Film Festival, recalled how he was editing Philadelphia with an eye to homophobic young white men as his target audience.

“We didn’t want to preach to the choir with this thing,” he said of the Tom Hanks-starrer about a lawyer dying of AIDS.

So Demme decided to start the film’s opening sequence with Neil Young’s “Southern Man” as a rock anthem.

“I wanted to reassure the guys that Neil thinks this is okay,” he recalled.

So Demme cut the opening sequence to "Southern Man," and called up Elliot Roberts, Young’s manager, who agreed to send a tape of the movie and the opening sequence to the rocker.

Demme soon heard back that Young was interested in the project, and he’d take a look.

But Young had other ambitions for Philadelphia.

“Neil had done a song and they were sending us a demo,” Demme remembered.

“That was the finished product,” Neil Young recalled Monday night, interrupting Demme's account told at the Princess of Wales Theater in Toronto.

“I thought that was my decision,” a beaming Demme replied, before recalling how he popped in Young’s song and was immediately impressed.

“But the song was so not a rock anthem, and fit the end of the movie in an unbelievably perfect way,” the Philadelphia director recalled.

Still in need of an opening sequence rock anthem, Demme sought out Bruce Springsteen by sending him a tape.

Two days later, the director recalled, “Springsteen sent back ‘Streets of Philadelphia,’ which is not a rock anthem.”

That’s when Demme’s wife stepped forward and argued Young and Springsteen trusted his movie more than he did, and the director should suck it up and send both songs to the lab for the opening and closing sequences.

“So then I started going to the concerts, and we talked and we started collaborating,” Demme said.

And with that, Demme and Young eventually got to work on Neil Young: Heart of Gold and Neil Young Trunk Show, ahead of Neil Young’s Journey, the final film in the trilogy that had its world premiere at TIFF on Monday night.

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