When I heard that Oscar-winning director Jonathan Demme died yesterday I thought of his films, but I also remember going to hear him speak at AFI’s Director on Directing series in the 80s.
During his talk or interview he mentioned that he went to school at the University of Florida. I was around 24 years old and during the audience Q&A time I asked him about his time in Gainesville so I could try to connect with someone in L.A. with a Florida connection.
I don’t remember my exact question or his entire answer, but one thing he said that night that did stick with me— “Directors direct.” It was to the age old question of how do you find a path to directing.
And that’s certainly easier today in the digital age then the pure film era in which he was speaking. He made some reference to production assistants (P.A.’s) not becoming directors. And while that may not be the most common path, there are directors who were once P.A.’s on at least one or two productions.
Two names that come to mind are Oscar-winner Quentin Tarantino and recent Oscar-winning Moonlight co-writer/director Barry Jenkins. So I don’t know how common it is, but it happens. By working long hours for low pay as a P.A. there’s a lot you can pick up about how films and TV programs are shot.
Demme’s own path to the director’s chair was certainly unusual. First he dropped out of the Veterinarian program at UF after one year and began working as a movie critic in Miami. That opportunity lead him to meeting Roger Corman, which eventually led to Demme directing several low-budget features for Corman including his writer/director debut Caged Heat (1971).
At the time of the talk he was an up and coming director who was mostly known for Melvin and Howard and the doc Don’t Stop the Music with the Talking Heads.
By the time The Silence of the Lambs came out in 1991 he’d had 20 solid years of feature writing and directing, TV directing, and documentary work behind him.
One was a lesson Jodie taught me in the first of the three times we met to talk about the possibility of her playing Clarice. Jodie taught me that this is a story of a young woman trying to save the life of another young woman. Maybe it’s a thriller. Maybe it’s a horror movie, but you have to honor that core story. [production designer] Kristi Zea and [cinematographer] Tak Fujimoto and I worked so intensely together, planning what that picture was going to look like. I think we wanted to take as high a road as possible. We wanted to welcome as many moviegoers as we could, and we just didn’t see it as a splatter movie, or a gory movie, or a crazy killer movie. It was a story of this young woman. I was very concerned about turning people off, and of the idea that people would hear, ‘Oh, no, there’s a scene that’s so gross, you shouldn’t go…’ I really wanted to make sure this great story reached as many people as it was capable of. So we were trusting the imagination of viewers to set the path as much as possible.”
Jonathan Demme on making The Silence of the Lambs