Jonathan Demme: The Enthusiast

With the help of longtime collaborator Suzana Peric, Jonathan Demme continues to find new ways to marry music and film

The Hollywood Reporter: Music obviously plays an integral part in "Rachel Getting Married." Can you talk a little about the process?

Jonathan Demme: When I heard you were interested in talking about this, two words come to mind right away: Suzana Peric. What's involved with the music and the films I've directed over the past 20 years has to be seen as a result of this incredible collaboration between me and Suzana Peric, who's the incredible music editor I always work with.

In broad strokes, I adore this intersection of music and image, music and emotions, music and drama. I love it. It's one of my favorite aspects of filmmaking.

THR: Her credit is "music designed and edited by," right?

Demme: On "Rachel Getting Married," yes. Because in different, subtle ways she's been doing that (on previous films) anyway -- but on this film it may be the first time that a music editor was not only present on the set but also had her own film crew. She essentially collaborated with both Donald Harrison Jr. and Zafer Tawil, our two composers, who were creating their music in the moment, and Suzana was there.

The film I'm doing now, by the way, is a documentary portrait of Bob Marley. Before the editors started, before we shot any of our own footage, Suzana Peric was on board.

I don't know how to contemplate making a movie without Suzana anymore. I don't depend on Suzana, it's more beautiful than that -- I thrive on Suzana. That's the throughline. We imagine that we are trying to reinvent the wheel every time we team up on a movie. And maybe we're lucky enough to have Rachel Portman as the composer, or Howard Shore. They're off in their world, responding to the film and responding to the actors, but Suzana is the one I'm working with all the time. Suzana and I are going through the movie scene by scene and always asking questions like, "OK, we're shooting a scene in a grocery store, will a radio be playing?"

THR: How far back does this relationship go?

Demme: The first time Suzana and I worked together was in 1986 and that was on "Something Wild." On that one, right off the bat we decided that because it was a road movie and the characters were in cars and rooms so much, we had the opportunity to score a movie with source only. I also think this was Suzana's first film as a music editor.

That was our first kind of experiment with trying to score a movie with source. We almost succeeded, but we found that there were two moments where we just couldn't find the right things source-wise. We kind of hit a wall. What we did was, we were in New York, and we reached out to John Cale to see if he would do something scary -- we wanted to have some heavy-adrenaline music for a violent fight scene. And there was a lyrical moment for which we asked Laurie Anderson if she could do something modern and lovely. Needless to say, John Cale wound up doing the lyrical piece and Laurie Anderson did the violent freakout music. That's part of what's great about working with composers in general and particularly brilliant about working with Suzana Peric -- she'll say, "Why don't we flip it?"

THR: Composer Jon Brion ("Synecdoche, New York") has said that the use of Neil Young's "Philadelphia" was the absolute greatest use of a song in any movie.

Demme: That's very lovely. Howard Shore came in with a beautiful score. I thought, what we need here is a song at the top of our movie that will send a signal to the young macho guys in America whose hearts we have to win. So let's start out our movie with a Neil Young anthem -- let's get Neil Young to write a song that will be the "Southern Man" of homophobia, if you will.

We didn't know Neil Young, so we got a tape of the movie to him. I had actually cut the movie to "Southern Man." A week later a cassette shows up, and my wife and I got in our car and listened to this exquisite song that almost made me cry, but it wasn't a rock anthem. In a heartbeat I said, "Oh My God, this is a way to lead the audience." But we still needed the kick-ass rock anthem to reassure the boys in the neighborhood that it's safe to come to this movie, so let's send the "Southern Man" version of the opening credits to Bruce Springsteen because he'll write the "Born in the U.S.A." of homophobia.

We send (the film) over to Jon Landau, his manager, and word came back that Bruce liked the film and this was something he wanted to do. He sent over "Streets of Philadelphia" and I was blown away again, crying, etc. But I hear myself saying to Joanne, my wife, "It's still not a rock anthem."

She says, "It seems like these musicians trust your film and your audience more than you do. Forget the rock anthem. You've got Springsteen and Young now, so relax."

THR: That was the beginning of a fruitful relationship with Neil Young, wasn't it? He has the special thanks on the credits of "Rachel Getting Married," and of course there was the documentary "Neil Young: Heart of Gold."

Demme: Five years ago I hadn't shot anything for a while after "Manchurian Candidate" and I thought to myself, I want to do something with Neil Young. I called him and said, "Is there anything gong on we could film?" He was going down to Nashville to do a record, and we wound up filming the concert, and that was the movie.

THR: It seems to have invigorated you both.

Demme: Yes, it did. And now I'm in postproduction on another Neil Young performance film that we shot last year. It's called "Neil Young Trunk Show." It's half acoustic, half electric. We went down with a group of shooters and captured it. There's nothing that cameramen love to do more than shoot rock 'n' roll.

THR: Your movies certainly have a strong rock 'n' roll sensibility.

Demme: Over the years, as much as I've always loved the musical dimension of film, two things have happened.

One is that I have come to love the marriage of film and music more and more and more. It's a cosmic crossroad in the world of cinema and moviegoing -- that marriage of image and music. There's nothing like it. That keeps getting deeper for me every time out.

The other thing is that, over time I came to see the score as the final crutch of the filmmaker. It was a way to take a scene that wasn't working terribly well but you had to have it, and you could make it acceptable somehow with the right music. You could hide the inadequacies of your work with well-chosen music from the right source. You could also take a beautiful scene and send it into the ozone with the right music. It was this lovely coating that went on top of the film in a way.

I don't feel that way anymore. The music has to arrive from the very heart of the film -- it's not something you can plaster on top of it. It has to be organic.

This whole idea of: music ain't no Band-Aid, it's an exquisite dimension to the film. I don't look for it to be a crutch anymore. I look to honor it. I use it wisely and I respect it.