Robyn Hitchcock Remembers Jonathan Demme: ‘He Was the Anti-Video-Generation Director’
Director Jonathan Demme, who died on Wednesday at age 73, may go down as the most rock-friendly major director of all time. His most famous association was with Talking Heads, thanks to the boon to both their careers that was “Stop Making Sense.” But he also enjoyed long friendships and/or working relationships with everyone from Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young to cult bands like The Feelies. And arguably the most peculiar documentary in a filmography full of peculiar documentaries is “Storefront Hitchcock,” a concert film that had the amiably surreal British singer/songwriter Robyn Hitchcock playing an acoustic gig with his back to a shop window, competing for the viewer’s attention with mostly unaware passersby.
Demme never stopped dragging his favorite people into his movies, so Hitchcock subsequently showed up in “The Manchurian Candidate” and “Rachel Getting Married,” on top of being asked to contribute songs for other films. Variety asked Hitchcock — whose 21st album, a self-titled effort, came out April 21 — to reminisce about “Storefront Hitchcock” (or, as the singer cheekily refers to it, “Storefront Me”) and his subsequent friendship with the filmmaker.
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Did you ever have a chance to talk to Demme about his filmmaking philosophy, balancing mainstream picture with small-scale labors of love? It’s hard to think of many people who’ve done that to that degree, other than Steven Soderbergh.
He was quite reticent about actually talking about what he did. And he wasn’t a film bore. He wasn’t waiting to be unlocked so he could tell you a stream of information about B-movies going back to the ‘30s, as you might expect he would be. He didn’t talk shop a lot — well, not to me. I think he saw it as all the same process, whether he was going down to film people who’d survived Hurricane Katrina or he was having to make a movie for Universal Pictures and have one of their henchpeople kind of leaning over the lens while he was on the set.
What was your impression of what he wanted to accomplish with his music documentaries?
He was kind of the anti-video-generation director. He would just find an angle and let the camera linger there for two minutes, where somebody directing a rock video would be jump-cutting all over the place, terrified of demanding that anybody focus on anything for more than 10 seconds. Jonathan was quite happy to just put the camera there and let it watch you — and he does that on “Storefront Me.” You know, he was a patient cinematographer. He wasn’t in a hurry. And I think he just liked people to reveal themselves in front of the lens.
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How did “Storefront Hitchcock” come about?
He had a house in Nyack, a New York state country town about 50 miles out of New York. I was doing two sets there in March or April of 1995, and he appeared up the trap door into the dressing room between the first and the second one. Someone said, “Is it okay if Jonathan Demme comes up?” And I said, “Sure. Scorsese can come up if he wants, too.” I’d never seen him before, so I wasn’t sure it was really him, but I gathered that it was. Within a few months we’d arranged to actually make it. At first it was going to just be a live performance of a song, then it turned into a whole film. And this was in the days of film; Storefront was actually shot on celluloid, unbelievably. He was sweet. I just remember him saying, “The camera loves you, buddy!” I kind of wish we’d done it later, because we went straight in. I was quite uptight doing it. I had never done anything like that, and suddenly I’d gone from being a film virgin to almost the sole inhabitant of one. I only smile once in the whole film, I think. I saw it and I was so shocked — I’ve tried to smile a bit on stage ever since. I was just shocked at seeing myself and what I was. He was very encouraging. He obviously had his gang. There’s a bit when Ed Saxon, who was one of the producers, walks around the back and you can see him in the shop window holding up a large photo of one of their deceased colleagues, which was just a sweet little tribute. He liked people.
Do you have any sense of where his musical fandom came from?
No. I do know that it goes back a long way. He’s the only person I know who’d seen both John Lennon and Syd Barrett in the flesh. He lived in Britain in the late ‘60s, and he interviewed Syd Barrett, the guy who started Pink Floyd, one of my big musical heroes. He said “Syd was tripping, though.” And then my manager at the time, Peter Jenner, who actually had also managed Barrett at one point, said, “Oh no, he wasn’t tripping, it just became permanent.” He also saw Lennon. He was walking down Frisk Street or something, and Lennon went vamping past him in his circular glasses and made the peace sign – “Hey, man” – and Jonathan went “Hey, man” going past him. Boy, he’d seen the greats in the flesh. And he went back a bit of a way with Neil Young and Springsteen. It wasn’t indiscriminate music. He definitely liked classier or quality acts. So I was very honored to be amongst his musical chums.
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You had cameos in subsequent dramatic movies.
I was in “The Manchurian Candidate” and “Rachel Getting Married,” yeah. I think he just found ways to incorporate what he loved in his movies. So he took a shine to me, so he would then find somewhere to go for me in films. He put a song of mine in “The Truth About Charlie,” I think it was. That (movie) was something that didn’t really work. But he liked to furnish his movies with his friends. Obviously I was a beneficiary of that. And it was touching, really.
You were an unlikely choice to cast in “Manchurian Candidate.”
I don’t quite know why they did it, because the original is so iconic. But he wanted some British villains, because I think Hollywood enjoys our sexual ambiguity and our moral ambivalence. We’re seen as kind of authority figures who are essentially dodgy, which we probably are. So they got Simon McBurney, who is a legitimate performer of stage and screen, as the main villain. But I’m just me, and I said, “Whoa, Jonathan, this is very exciting that you want to put me in a proper Hollywood movie, but I’m just a singer/ songwriter. I’m not an actor.” And he said, “It’s all performance, Robyn. If you can get on stage and hold people’s attention, you can do the same in front of a camera.” That was it, really, in a sentence. And then I realized that if you’re in a Jeep with Denzel Washington and Liev Schreiber and you’re all pretending that it’s Gulf War I, it’s like being a kid and going around to someone’s house: “Hey, let’s play soldiers! You’re going to be play with Denzel and Live — now, don’t beat each other up, and you can have some milk and cookies at halftime.” It’s the same thing. Also, he picked a really good team. I just noticed how nice everybody who worked on “The Manchurian Candidate” was, right down to the assistant directors and the boot boys. It was a revelation to me, having spent a long time in the sort of greasy penitentiary of rock and roll, that he would get such good people. And “Rachel,” which was much cheaper, was fun, too.
Was he more relaxed working on an independent like “Rachel”?
Well, he didn’t have people from the studio bugging him, so I think he felt liberated that way. But there wasn’t a budget. I mean, he put me up in his New York apartment while he was making the film. Shooting it almost in real time was like actually going to a real wedding, but with de-alcoholized wine; it’s as everybody was in recovery or something. And everything there happens in real time with the music; it’s not added on afterward. There’s a sort of heavy conversation that happens in one of the upstairs rooms, and you can hear a couple of musicians in the back garden playing something that goes with it really well, some doubtful chord. I got the script and I wrote this song, “Up to Our Necks in Love,” so he got me to perform about a minute of it in the [film]. But he just kept giving me extra musicians to perform it with at the wedding: There was a woman who’s not really a musician but she looks amazing, we had Jonathan’s son Brooklyn and his mate Barry. I think there were 15 people (in the band) and there wasn’t a room big enough to rehearse in, so I did two rehearsals with seven and a half people each. Then I think we ran through it once on stage and it was filmed and that was it. And everyone was in character: Anne Hathaway was miserable when I met her; I met her subsequently and she wasn’t miserable. It was fascinating that you were actually walking into the movie. “The Manchurian Candidate” was much more “Okay, we’re going to shoot this scene 20 times and then we’ll keep the best take,” whereas “Rachel” was almost like a wedding home movie.
What ultimately happened with “Storefront Hitchcock”?
We made it in November or December ’96. We got funded in the end by Orion Pictures, who then folded right after it was made, which meant it never got the distribution in the States that we’d expected. My main audience is in the States, and actually we got the most distribution in Britain, where I just have a lower profile. We got it into the Sydney Film Festival, which was nice, although they had the last two reels the wrong way around, and a few film festivals. It still crops up. They just showed it [at a Jonathan Demme festival] in Knoxville, Tenn., a few weeks ago. Jonathan was supposed to come and introduce it. I was told that he wasn’t very well, but I had no idea that he was that ill.
The rumor was around about his health, but few were expecting this so quickly.
Well, you’ve got to stop sometime, and he made it to 73, which isn’t bad. What this will do is it will now tie up his legacy. It’ll be encapsulated and it’ll have a string and a bow and it will be the work of Jonathan Demme and it will legend-ize him. People really do love you when you’re dead, and history can start to kind of define you in a way and it becomes much neater than while your story is still ongoing. But maybe they’ll still have trouble categorizing him even now he’s gone. There’s a lot to be said for not defining yourself. It makes you harder to sell. I mean, my namesake, Alfred Hitchcock, totally defined himself: He was a brand; he was a silhouette. Hitchcock would never have gone and made a documentary about survivors of Katrina, and he would not have lurched from budget movies to independent, self-made pictures.
My favorites are “Married to the Mob” and maybe “Something Wild,” which are both sort of comedy thrillers. Should you be making a comedy thriller, definitely check those out for amongst other things how the music goes in the soundtrack. He just had an instinct for where and how music should go without it being intrusive. But even with those, he never made the same movie twice and he didn’t have a genre. Jonathan just did whatever appealed to him, and though I do know that working with the studios ground him down, he put himself in a position where he could actually do that and pretty much make a living.