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One of Jonathan Demme’s final works, an episode of Fox event series Shots Fired he directed in 2016, premiered the same day as his death. The series’ creators recall working with the acclaimed director — and what he brought to their timely drama.
Gina Prince-Bythewood: We were anxious on that first phone call with Demme. We were asking him to direct the biggest hour of our television event series, and all we had to convince him with was the script for the first hour and a verbal pitch of the rest of it. But he put us at ease quickly by thanking us for putting this show into the world — and for asking him to be a part of it. He believed art could change the world. He was so incredibly prepared for the phone call and spoke honestly about his apprehension of being a white man directing an hour about an uprising reflecting many things we saw happen in Ferguson and Baltimore. However, the fact that he was collaborating with us, two African-American creators, propelled him to take this on. He asked us questions that made us think. We felt the privilege of learning from him that day. Once he officially came aboard, Reggie and I immediately made plans that I would come out the first week of his shoot and Reggie would come out the second. We wanted to continue to learn.
On Jonathan’s first day, Reggie and I were working on a script over the phone — so I was unable to be on set in the morning. I kept getting calls from actress Sanaa Lathan that I had to come watch. Her exact words were, “Jonathan is a magician.” I arrived just as he was blocking an incredibly emotional scene in which the mother [Jill Hennessy] of a slain teenager confronts the Sheriff’s deputy [Mack Wilds] who shot him. I quickly FaceTimed Reggie. We watched Jonathan shoot the scene in a way neither of us would ever think, and it was truly brilliant. Jonathan could not sit still at the monitor. He was so engaged in every moment the actors were giving him, verbally reacting to moments that moved him. At the end of a great take, he yelled out how beautiful it was. Jill Hennessy came up to me a short time later and said, “Jonathan Demme just said my work was beautiful. My life is complete.” It was cool to see the actors come to set on their off days just to watch him work with others and get geeked for each other. Everyone learned from Demme.
Reggie Rock Bythewood: I arrived for his week and found him to be extremely warm and, at times, loud. Not loud in the sense of yelling or berating anyone, but loud in expressing his enthusiasm to actors and crew and background. Jonathan and I talked about his daily preparation. He went into the day with a plan but left room for spontaneity. And if he didn’t like the way his plan was working, he had the courage and skill to adjust. As blown away as I was to be working with him, we did have a few respectful debates. For example, in the penultimate scene, when an uprising erupts in the streets over the un-investigated killing of a black teen, Jonathan wanted several rioters to be white. This desire was pulled from the research he did in which in some instances people come from outside the community to instigate. While I appreciated his political point, Gina and I wanted this uprising to reflect King’s quote, “A riot is the language of the unheard.” As promised in our initial phone call, we collaborated and found a solution that left neither one of us feeling compromised.
Gina Prince-Bythewood: We all understood very quickly what made him a great director. He was so incredibly prepared. He was so passionate about the process. He was incredibly collaborative but still maintained a point of view. And he was kind. He made every one on set better.
Reggie Rock Bythewood: We are grateful that our relationship with JD did not end after his hour of Shots Fired. We continued to reach out to each other. We spoke to him the day the drilling at Standing Rock was legally blocked. Jonathan was there with his son Brooklyn filming a documentary about the protestors. He was so incredibly energized because the decision had just come down. He was in a hotel room reviewing footage in one room while editing was going on in the other. He said it was super low-budget, and he just felt privileged to have borne witness.
Gina Prince-Bythewood: Reggie had a call with him a few weeks ago, and Jonathan was excited about our work and the things that he was working on. He sounded as full of life as he had always been. We are truly saddened by his passing.
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