Get SF Weekly Newsletters
Pin It

Jonathan Demme's First Talking Heads Interview 

Wednesday, Apr 21 1999
In February 1984, I went to Los Angeles partly to interview Jonathan Demme about the trouble he'd run into on Swing Shift, a dream project that, after star-dictated re-shoots, had turned into a nightmare. (Demme's own cut had been sublime, even when seen on videotape.) Sounding chipper for a fellow who'd gone through post-production hell, he invited me, my wife, and our host, Meredith Brody, now restaurant critic for New Times L.A., to "something I've just done with Talking Heads." We showed up at a mixing room expecting to see Demme and maybe a couple of Heads, only to find ourselves at the end of the line behind the likes of Rod Stewart and Anjelica Huston all turned out in pop couture. When he glanced at my group's relatively scholarly garb, Demme's hip production partner and music guru Gary Goetzman quipped, "Crazy crowd here tonight, Jonathan."

Of course, the inspired craziness was on the screen. From "Psycho Killer" to "Take Me to the River," Stop Making Sense was the most electric concert film we'd ever seen, and it turned David Byrne, Tina Weymouth, Christ Frantz, and Jerry Harrison into a surreal musical family: the Mamas and the Dadas. I couldn't wait to talk to Demme about it, and a week later, this is what he said:

SRAGOW: How did this movie come about?
DEMME: They are my favorite band, ever since I saw them in New York in the summer of 1978 at a daytime concert in Central Park. In the summer of '83 they were doing their Speaking in Tongues tour, and I was knocked out by a concert they had at the Greek Theater. Gary Goetzman, who I work with a lot, has a friend who is friends with David Byrne. A couple of days after the concert we got together one afternoon with David. He said the band had been intrigued with the idea of filming the concert but nothing had really come together on it. I told him I'd love to do a film of the show, and I told him what kind of approach I'd take to it. The next thing I knew David got back in touch. They had arranged to borrow the money to make the movie -- I had figured less than a million, maybe around seven or eight hundred thousand. They concluded their tour, then did a mini-tour late in November, the climax of which was meant to be the Pantages Theater in Hollywood, where we would shoot for three nights in December. And that's what happened.

SRAGOW: What in your approach sparked them?
DEMME: First and foremost, I wanted to put on screen what they had seen in their minds as they created the lighting and the staging and the introduction of the band members. It was an incredibly cinematic show, so I argued that making a movie was a way to see the show at its maximum advantage. We could really make the lighting happen in a way that's difficult when you move into a venue for one night and then pack up and move out again; here, I thought we could get their look down really perfect. And I told them that I felt the way to do it would be not with a lot of quick cuts, but rather with long takes. And I didn't want to go the route of constant cutaways to the audience, but rather I wanted to try to create a roving "best-seat-in-the-house" -- as if you were watching from the audience but could have any vantage point you wanted, on the basis of what the most exciting thing happening at that moment was. I told them I could put a terrific team of filmmakers together, and that appealed to their craftsmanship and artistry: They are a very, very serious bunch of musicians.

SRAGOW: How did the show change for the movie?
DEMME: I suggested some songs be dropped, and one song be replaced by something more energetic to help the movie build -- the song they came up with was "Found a Job," one of my very favorites. I made a half-dozen staging suggestions, which were taken. But the pleasure of it was that they were tiny brushstrokes, because there was such a plenitude of riches in what everyone was doing. You didn't have to say anything, you just had to have the camera in the right place and capture what was there.

It wasn't slapdash in any way. Because we were so prepared, and because we could talk to the cameramen, I could have an idea at the spur of the moment and talk to a cameraman and he'd capture it, no matter what was happening. With Jordie as director of cinematography we got the finest camera operators in town. (I had worked with him on Citizens Band.) He got really turned on by the Heads' lighting in a big, big way. It was a huge challenge: Jordie had to enhance the effects onstage with movie lighting, plus there were things David wanted to do on the show that he couldn't before the film.

SRAGOW: Can you sum up the experience?
DEMME: I have always been a fanatical rock 'n' roller, and I've always been interested in the musical aspect of the films I've made. I've always wanted to do a film that was pure music, and to do a film with Talking Heads was a dream come true, you can't top it. One of the things I found so exciting was all these relationships between musicians; and that's something I'm interested in every film I do, in the relationships of the characters. I love viewing a community of people, and in this movie they happened to be playing music together. I think what's great is that their songs tend to give a feeling of how rough, and challenging, and violent, and complicated life is today, in the modern world -- but then, in the end, they "take you to the river," which I take as saying it's all worth it.

SRAGOW: What are you doing now?
DEMME: I'm taking a month holiday; then I'm going to the San Francisco Film Festival.

--Michael Sragow

Stop Making Sense screens Tuesday, April 27, at 9:45 p.m. at the Castro.

About The Author

Michael Sragow


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Popular Stories

  1. Most Popular Stories
  2. Stories You Missed


  • clipping at Brava Theater Sept. 11
    Sub Pop recording artists 'clipping.' brought their brand of noise-driven experimental hip hop to the closing night of 2016's San Francisco Electronic Music Fest this past Sunday. The packed Brava Theater hosted an initially seated crowd that ended the night jumping and dancing against the front of the stage. The trio performed a set focused on their recently released Sci-Fi Horror concept album, 'Splendor & Misery', then delved into their dancier and more aggressive back catalogue, and recent single 'Wriggle'. Opening performances included local experimental electronic duo 'Tujurikkuja' and computer music artist 'Madalyn Merkey.'"