Man’s Best Friend

Photo: Peter Hapak

Jonathan Demme began his career in movies as a publicist, and one key to his greatness is that he has never entirely relinquished that role. Forty years later, he is the artist as promoter, the artist as apostle and entrepreneur. The writers he engages, actors he casts, musicians he spotlights, and political figures whose lives he documents have voices he wants you to hear—passionately. His job is to put them in their most brilliant light. He builds families of artists and lets them take center stage, his own art concealed. When unchecked, his teeming multiculti humanism can seem overindulgent. But set his vision against a darker one and the alchemy begins—a darker vision such as playwright Beth Henley’s in Family Week, Demme’s first-ever job in live theater.

It’s two days before the first preview, and Demme is perched behind a control panel at the Lucille Lortel Theatre working out sound and light cues while keeping one eye on the actors. His bio states that he was born in 1944, but there is no way in hell this could be true. No 66-year-old is so relentlessly, even scarily boyish. His ebullience notwithstanding, Demme tells me the experience has been “brain-frying.” He has had to learn a new vocabulary. For instance, he blocked the whole play in the first two days of rehearsal. This, it turns out, is just not done. You’re supposed to sit around at a table for a week reading the script, rereading the script, and, you know, rapping about issues. But Demme needed to see the play on its feet. “I had to demystify the stage thing,” he tells me. “I had to make sure I had in my head where everything was going to be spatially. And they went along with it … and finally I was told, ‘We don’t do this.’ ”

Kathleen Chalfant, the most experienced stage actress in Family Week, said it was like the time she worked with a Russian director who didn’t know a word of English: Everything needed to be translated. “We had to show Jonathan the utility of sitting around talking about the play,” she says. “He’s used to exploring the text in postproduction—when he’s editing the movie.”

In fact, Demme considers rehearsal for film “an anathema,” in part because he started out with exploitation mogul Roger Corman, who told him every minute the actors weren’t in front of the camera was wasted time and money. He also fears those big moments of discovery will happen in rehearsal and he won’t get them on film. He’s had to learn that in theater, it’s all about repetition. And that for actors, “you don’t get it right only once. If you’re a fabulous actor, the whole point is to get it right again and again and again.”

“He was so cute,” Henley remembers. “He finally said, ‘Okay, we’re going to do some of our line work now.’ ”

Demme has known Beth Henley for decades. He contacted her after flipping over Crimes of the Heart on Broadway and gave her a tiny part, as a Bible pusher, in his 1984 movie Swing Shift. He directed an episode she wrote for a PBS series called Trying Times starring Rosanna Arquette and David Byrne. They’ve collaborated on movie scripts that were never made. Henley says he turns up at all her productions—in California, Williamstown, Princeton—to show his support. When MCC Theater co-founder Bernard Telsey, who cast Rachel Getting Married, suggested that Demme direct a play, Demme proposed Family Week. Last staged a decade ago and never published, Henley thought it needed work. But Demme “truly helped me believe with his great enthusiasm,” she says.

“I have such a love of Beth’s work,” Demme says. “It always reminds me of Chekhov with all these brilliant flawed people and so much humor amidst the heartbreak of life. I think that Beth could play her writing a lot safer, probably be a lot more commercial, but that’s not what it’s about for her. She’s in love with actors and wants to give them amazing stuff to do, stuff that will test them.”

Family Week has a cast of four, all women. The play centers on the suicidal Claire (Rosemarie DeWitt, Rachel in Demme’s Rachel Getting Married), who has checked into a recovery center in the middle of the Arizona desert after the murder of her 17-year-old son. That’s not a recipe for big laughs, yet the play is often bitterly funny. It’s “Family Week” at the center, the time for Claire’s nervous loved ones to visit and reconnect. Three of them arrive: her mother, Lena (Chalfant); sister, Rickey (Quincy Tyler Bernstine); and teenage daughter, Kay (Sami Gayle). The play—which is fast and tight, with no intermission—is a series of confrontations, some tart, some brutal, and some therapeutically contrived. A counselor directs Claire and her mother, daughter, or sister to sit facing one another and recount past injuries, selecting feelings from a list of six—anger, pain, shame, guilt, fear, or loneliness. Family Week could be played as a nasty send-up of the recovery movement. But amid the ludicrously enforced intimacy, momentous emotions come to the surface.

Rosemarie DeWitt in Family Week. Photo: Carol Rosegg

“This play moves me so deeply,” Demme says, “because it explores when someone is hit so profoundly with something so tragic and then asks: ‘Now, what do we do for that person? Is there anything we can do in the face of that?’ One of the early synopses that I saw that the theater company had done described it as Beth Henley’s ‘lacerating vision’ of the mental-health community—and it’s not that at all. What appears to be at first an evisceration turns out to be a tremendous appreciation for the act of trying to help people.”

Demme and Henley shuffled and reshuffled scenes and threw out the original ending. Their collaboration had only one source of tension—by all signs a profitable one. DeWitt thinks Henley saw the family as “really dismantled by the end.” Chalfant adds that in the playwright’s view, the world is “fundamentally tragic,” the distance among individuals almost unbridgeable. But Demme is more hopeful. He likes the recovery movement, even with its authoritarianism and reductive jargon. He believes in anything that forces people to accept one another’s “separate realities.” “If you can get the empathy thing jump-started, it’s great,” he says. “Without that, we’re screwed.”

It must have been a quiet tug-of-war, since Henley is as soft-spoken and halting as her characters are extroverted, and Demme is tender and solicitous. And they do overlap in their reverence for Chekhov. “Jonathan is not judgmental,” says Henley. “He’s got a very soulful understanding of the universe. He loves human beings and he loves their flaws, and he’s not afraid for people to have their needs and longings even if it turns ugly because that’s just human.”

The process of hashing all this out, says Demme, has been thrilling. “The job is, you go to work and you’re in a room with four fantastic actors and your workday is watching them act then talking about it and going home. I said to them on the first day, ‘Is this what you people do?’ ”

Demme almost gave up working with actors after a grueling experience with his 2004 remake of The Manchurian Candidate. (No, it wasn’t a patch on the original, but it had its own urgency and integrity; it was a Manchurian Candidate for the Bush-Cheney era.) “It was such a hassle, the studio and the producers and the … oh, God … I said, enough with the fiction already. I’m perfectly happy to do documentaries and performance films.” But then he got Jenny Lumet’s script for Rachel Getting Married and decided to make it in a different way: “I finally achieved a zero-rehearsal mode!”

He’s not exaggerating. DeWitt recalls, “The big dinner we shot three times, in 40-minute takes with lots of cameras going. You never knew what would end up in the film. It wasn’t until I saw it that I understood what Jonathan was doing.”

Many of Demme’s instincts ended up translating beautifully to theater. Even in a tech rehearsal, he’s alert to small, spontaneous things the actors do that will make the play feel more alive. Onstage, young Sami Gayle puts on headphones and launches into a frenzied hip-hop dance for the amusement of her co-stars. Demme asks her to do it again, then says, “Can we use that? Let’s use that.” It goes into the play that night at a key moment—when Kay first hears her parents are divorcing and wants to shut out the world.

“He’s such a keen observer of human behavior,” says DeWitt. “You find great moments in unexpected places and it changes your process, changes the dynamics of everyone in the room. You throw out all your preconceived notions.”

As the tech rehearsal drags on, production stage manager Lisa Porter asks Demme if he minds that the “Get Well” and “Happy Birthday” balloons that Kay brought for Claire have been onstage for several scenes. “I like it,” says Demme. “It’s a grim reminder—no, not a grim reminder, a poignant reminder.” That quick, reflexive substitution tells you much about how he thinks. “Grim” is mordant and final. “Poignant” is less bitterly conclusive.

Still, Demme can’t get rid of all that is grim. Young Kay’s exit from the play follows the most emotionally violent scene, in which Claire attacks her daughter with a giant stuffed panda she has been ordered by her therapists to carry. Demme had decided Family Week should open with Kay addressing the audience, which would make the rest of the play a flashback. He wanted the audience to know that she was all right, that she’d made it home safely, that she was coping with what had happened.

But it doesn’t work, and after the first preview a few nights later, the prologue is dropped. Demme is visibly upset.

“Jonathan is the father of a 14-year-old girl, as is Beth,” says Chalfant. “I think it’s very hard for him to see a child abandoned like that.”

Given his overflowing humanism (so apparent in his film Philadelphia), it’s odd that the movie Demme is best known for, the one that brought him an Academy Award, is the gruesome The Silence of the Lambs. He’s ambivalent about that. When he speaks of it, he takes the emphasis off the liver-and-fava-beans-and-a-nice-Chianti stuff and focuses on Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling, the young woman who triumphs over her demons—internal and external—and emerges into the light. That’s why he (and Foster) turned down the chance to make author Thomas Harris’s sequel, Hannibal, in which Starling’s spirit is crushed. A semi-heroic serial killer doesn’t suit him either.

Demme is never casual about characters dying onscreen. Maybe that’s because there seem to be no expendable characters in his films, no extras—only individuals we haven’t met. Friends, family members, and colleagues are always popping up in the background.

The final, extended musical sequence in Rachel Getting Married was like a giant Demme-artistic-family reunion. (Among the wedding guests are “Sister” Carol East, Roger Corman, Robyn Hitchcock, and Demme’s daughter Josephine. His son, Brooklyn, is seen playing guitar.) Some viewers thought it went on too long, but Demme needed that larger multicultural family, I think, to balance out the sadly dysfunctional nuclear family at the movie’s center.

It was also telling that both Rachel’s fiancé (played by Tunde Adebimpe, the lead singer of TV on the Radio) and her father’s second wife (Anna Deavere Smith) were black. Family Week has similarly “color-blind” casting: DeWitt is white and Bernstine, as her sister, is African-American. “We’re so deep into that world now that it’s not a consideration anymore,” says Demme. “It’s perfectly all right to do race-mixing, and as a theatergoer, I like it. I find it a lot more interesting than an all-white cast. As Family Week started to get realer, I asked Beth, ‘Do you think we could do a black version and a white version on alternating nights?’ and she said, ‘I think it would be too expensive.’ ”

Some film directors keep a bubble around themselves, afraid of losing their own unique visions, whereas Demme loves experimentation, and his appetite for culture is voracious. He lives primarily in the Hudson Valley, but several years back he downsized his production company there, Clinica Estetico (“It expands and contracts like an accordion,” he says), and started spending more time in Manhattan. His wife, Joanne Howard, is going for a master’s in fine arts at Hunter College, and his daughter Josephine loves the city. Many nights he’s at the theater, movies, or concerts. He’s made two concert films with Neil Young, and he was about to leave for Haiti—one of his favorite places and the subject of two of his documentaries—to make a film with Arcade Fire when the earthquake hit. (He hopes to resurrect the project in a few months.) He’s working on an animated adaptation of Dave Eggers’s Zeitoun and a possible HBO series with Walter Mosley.

But one thing theater offers that film doesn’t is the chance to see a live audience respond to live actors for the first time. Chalfant recalls, “I’ve never seen in my life the look on Jonathan’s face after the first dress rehearsal in which guests, mostly friends of his, were invited—the look of pure delight and wonder, like a kid who gets his first Lionel train set.”

I see Demme for the last time after the first public preview, and he appears dazed with happiness. “I sat in the theater and didn’t take notes,” he says. “It was easy to pretend that I’d come down to the Lucille Lortel to see the new version of the Beth Henley play with a cast I admired a lot. I enjoyed it enormously. I said, ‘That was terrific. I’m going to recommend it to all my friends.’ ”

The end of his own role in sight, he’s back to promoting the artists he loves.

Man’s Best Friend