Posted in: Directors, Interviews

Jonathan Demme on “Rachel Getting Married” – “As long as we are born into families, it’s going to be a big deal”

Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married may look like your basic Sundance/Slamdance indie feature, with its wandering handheld camerawork and ensemble riffing through the collisions and confrontations of a dysfunctional family reunion, but in his hands the familiar conflicts and clashes are invigorated by an authenticity and, dare I say it, a sense of rediscovery. The one-time underdog auteur who traded his small termite art movies of American eccentrics and their distinctive communities (Melvin and Howard and Something Wild) for the Hollywood respectability of films like Philadelphia and Beloved is back doing what he does best. Demme brings an inclusiveness and a sense of community to the film. He gives characters we may only meet once a lived-in quality and makes music a defining part of the community with a soundtrack played live by the wedding guests (a roster that includes Robyn Hitchcock and Sister Carol East, among others). Rachel Getting Married is both warmly generous and uncomfortably honest and it’s one of the best American movies of the year.

the sisters of "Rachel Getting Married"
Anne Hathaway and Rosemarie DeWitt: the sisters of “Rachel Getting Married”

My phone interview with Jonathan Demme started almost 45 minutes late. Once we started talking, it became obvious how such a thing could happen. I was supposed to have a 15-minute interview, but the time flew so easily that when the publicist broke in to pull him away for the next interview, we’d been talking for over half an hour. Demme speaks with an excitement and passion that I rarely hear in people discussing their work; reading his words doesn’t begin to capture the enthusiasm or expressiveness of the interview. He doesn’t just say the words “reluctantly,” he transforms it into an expression of the epic struggle within himself the way he pronounces it: “relllll-UC-tantly.” And his love of film and filmmaking is matched by his respect for collaborators and his excitement over the magic that arises out of collaboration.

How did this project come your way?

Sidney Lumet called me up on the telephone and said, ‘My daughter, Jenny, has written a wonderful screenplay and Jonathan, you should direct it.’

That’s pretty direct.

Yeah, it’s an unusual way to receive a script and I obviously, with full respect, said, ‘Oh Sidney, I would love to read it, send it right over,’ and parenthetically I didn’t say, ‘and I will read it very quickly and call you up and thank you but tell you I’m in to other things.’ I have gotten so into documentaries, even before The Manchurian Candidate, which was 2004, but since then I’ve not only gotten deeper into documentaries and performance films. I was feeling tremendous relief to be out of the (quote-unquote) “commercial movie” game, which I had been finding more and more stressful and complicated over the previous whatever years. So I wasn’t looking for a script, I wasn’t interested in doing anything like that. I read the script and it was just great from the first page. It was fresh as a daisy, loaded with surprises, made me laugh out loud when I was reading, made me weep — which never happens [to me] at a script level — at a certain moment, when the one sister bathes the other sister. I had tears coming down my face. And I was thinking, ‘Gee, I wish I had read this six years ago, I would have loved to do it.’ I called Sidney up and told him how much I loved it but I wasn’t really interested in doing that kind of thing at the moment. Sidney was like, ‘Oh Jon, well think about it,’ and I thought maybe I should meet Jenny – this was a beautiful piece of writing — and we met and I got into it, which never would have happened if it didn’t have the potential for being a very low budget movie. That struck me as a zone which I could go into, outside the “big budget, 2,000 theater opening, has to make $20 million Friday night” world. So I got deeper and deeper into it, talking to Jenny, and then sent it Anne Hathaway. With a picture like this, or with this picture, what I’m loving about the script is that it’s so different, but what if it’s so different that no one else would even get it? So I thought, ‘I’m really now falling in love with this and liking it more and more the more I meet with Jenny, let’s see what an actress might think.’ And Anne, I think, is the most exciting actress of that generation and there are many of them. I sent it to her and she read it right away and loved it and we really moved forward from there.

The dysfunctional family that gathers for a special day where unresolved issues come to the surface is a veritable genre in itself. At Toronto this year, many of the best films I saw — Still Walking, Un Comte de Noel, Summer Hours as well as Rachel Getting Married — found their own distinctive takes on the same situation. What did you want to bring to this situation that was different from other films you’ve seen?

First let me say: what does Chekhov always write about? Always.

Anne Hathaway, Tunde Adebimpe, Rosemarie DeWitt and Mather Zickel
The wedding party: Anne Hathaway, Tunde Adebimpe, Rosemarie DeWitt and Mather Zickel

Chekhov writes about dysfunctional families and families with internal conflicts.

Yes! And yet we keep going back. And I’m not a deep theater dude either, but Chekhov, I will go. So I think that it’s seeded within a vital, time-honored, inevitable subject. As long as we are born into families, it’s going to be a big deal and something that will result in endless, endless, endless attractive material, if the material itself is attractive. Boiling Jenny’s script down even further, it’s the bad sister shows up at the good sister’s wedding just in time to ruin it. That’s page one, but from page two, Jenny — just having established an ultra-arch, boring, formulaic set-up — just runs away from it and turns every expectation on its head. And her story is fueled by staying true to her characters. She doesn’t care if we like them, she doesn’t care if they fulfill our expectation, given the situation. What she cares about is truth of character, and having established this potential forest fire of predictable problems, she, yes, delivers catastrophe, catastrophic things happen, but they happen behind closed doors within the family and the wedding actually goes off quite well. So it amazed me that in refusing to deliver on our expectations, she delivers even more. It’s one of those rare movies that, because it doesn’t subscribe to a predictable, theoretically guaranteed-to-satisfy form, delivers so much more and creates an entertainment, or whatever you want to call it, that because of its originality achieves a very strong audience reaction. Do you know the movie After the Wedding?

The Danish film with Mads Mikkelson?

Yes. That’s also in the genre that you’re talking about, and it’s even in the wedding genre, but that was a real model for me. The stories, while starting off from basically a similar plac, are wildly different, but that film, stylistically, thrilled me so much. I was deeply, deeply moved by it, I thought it was so fresh and exciting, it had the feeling of being kind of almost a documentary. It felt unrehearsed, the performances were so liberated and so stark and gut-wrenching and graphic. It was the model. I actually showed that film to the cast and looked at it many times with [cinematographer] Declan Quinn and Tim Squires, the editor, saying, ‘I don’t want to copy this but the feeling of this film is something, if we can capture this feeling through the way you actors attack your performances and the way we capture it documentary-like on film, maybe we’ll wind up with something that delivers the emotional impact of that other movie.’

Ernst Lubitsch famously said: “There are a thousand ways to point a camera, but really only one.” Your previous narrative films are impeccably composed. This kind of filmmaking couldn’t be more different. Why such a radical change in style? Was it freeing? And how did it change the way you work with actors?

It was freeing. I’ve made a lot of movies over the past couple of decades and worked very hard try to, quote-unquote, ‘perfect a style’ that would pull the audience into the movie, I’ve even tried to use — thank-you Mr. Hitchcock — a lot of subject camera, people looking into the camera and talking to each other so you would literally, quote-unquote, ‘put the audience in the shoes of the characters,’ and I feel like it worked really well, but it reached the point where I know how I’m going to do a scene before I even get there. I’m going to wind up in those into-the-lens shots and we’re going to work our way into those in an artful way, and I love handheld cameras so I’ll find a way to inject that energy in somewhere or other. So on one level, I didn’t think that that approach would work for such a loose-limbed script, a script that really trades on Jenny’s desire to make it as truthful and honest in the moment. It just didn’t seem like it would invite a formal approach like that. Rather, I thought, I want to try to draw the audience into this another way, make them feel that what they’re watching is really happening, and we can do that by using the kind of style that Declan and I have been working with, documentary style. We’ve made three documentaries together — this is our first fiction film together— and with Declan, he’ll show any situation, any situation, whatever’s going on, he’ll put that camera to his eye and he’ll make great shots because he’s got a great eye for composition and tying things in. He knows how to get all the information and he knows how to find all the best information at any given moment when we’re doing a documentary. And he’s very drawn to performance, whether it’s Jimmy Carter, if we’re on the road with him, or if we’re with actors. He’s going to respond with little tiny adjustments and moves to what the actors are doing. He’s going to feel their performance and he’s going to just be at one with that, and I know he’s going to make it look good.

We did not rehearse, ever, we never planned a shot, the actors never knew if they were going to be on camera from take to take, never knew. They had to be on all the time and they loved to be on, this group of actors. They thought, apparently, that they were doing theater, because their performance wasn’t interrupted and they didn’t have to do the same thing exactly and they didn’t even have to be in the same place. They’d say, ‘This won’t match.’ They kept saying, ‘I wish I could go over there, but then it won’t match with anything.’ I’d say, ‘Go ahead! This will never cut together properly anyway, but it will cut together the way people cut their home movies together.’ You know, you get four or five different people filming a wedding with their little home digital cameras and then one of the people takes them and cuts it all together. We don’t care if it’s matched or not. What we care about is are we getting a vivid sense of what it was like to be there. But only with Declan would I have done that. His brother is Aidan Quinn, the actor, and he gets the actors. The movie is starless in a way because it’s such a rich ensemble piece, I like to think, but it does have a star in it and it’s Declan Quinn.

You said that you’ve been moving away from Hollywood features to make documentaries and performance films. Rachel Getting Married seems in some ways a marriage of all of those genres: it’s a narrative film, it plays like a documentary of a family, and it’s a film full of music, in fact of live music.

Jenny, in having the groom be a record producer, opened the door to the big question, which was: Okay, he’s a record producer. Who are their friends, who do they hang with, who would be at this wedding? Well, lots of musicians, obviously. Jenny had it in mind, she didn’t overwrite it, but she had it in mind that this couple had taken responsibility for creating their own wedding. They’re going to write their own vows, they’re going to make their own menu, it’s going to be done at home. So I was very excited about the idea of having a house full of musicians who will play at the wedding but must also come to the house on the Saturday, the day before the wedding, to start rehearsing and get set up and stuff. And I thought, in this way, maybe we can score the film while we’re shooting it. It won’t have a formal score but it will have music and the music will affect the mood and if the musicians are playing agreeable stuff, it will be very interesting. I loved the idea, and I’ve loved the idea for a long time and never tried it before. The usual way we do it, the way I’ve always done it, is you shoot the picture, the actors give their performances and then, with a composer, you look at the movie and now there’s a musical response to the performances. What if we flip that? What if the music is happening while the actors are acting and now their performance becomes, to a certain extent, a response to the music they’re hearing? You know in the movie when Anne Hathaway says, ‘My God, are they going play all weekend?’ and they make the musician go away?

I think the mom says, ‘Can you boys give it a rest?’

We had done that scene two times and the assistant director came over to me — I tried to stay out of the room as much as I could, I was a reminder that this wasn’t really happening, whatever it was, so I was lurking in the other room looking at the monitor and trying to stay out of the way — and the A.D. came over and said, ‘Anne just came over to me, Jon, and said that, in the takes she’s done so far, she’s been distracted by the music and she was wondering, does it have to be there?’ And I said, ‘Well, tell her to do something about it.’ So on the next take, Annie came in and plopped down and said what we see her say in the movie: ‘My God, are they going to play all weekend?!!’ and the other actors went and shut them up. So the music had various kinds of impact. That was one aspect of things. Then the other was, I guess I started getting carried away on the music, but I thought, ‘If we make their father a music industry executive, then maybe, if I was him, I would have Sister Carol East come over from Brooklyn and perform live.’ He would have to do something like that. And Robyn Hitchcock, he would fly Robyn Hitchcock in. So I knew that we could use as much of that stuff as suited the movie. I also thought that a great way to deliver the joy and euphoria that should and hopefully would come from a beautiful ceremony would be through dance, and dancing to live music and responding to live music is that much more exciting than a deejay spinning and stuff. And I’m forgetting the fact that Jenny had written in that, for no apparent reason, suddenly there’d be a Brazilian samba band there. So this was just pushing that envelope as far as seemed reasonable.

There’s another scene that amazes me: the rehearsal dinner scene, when everyone gets up to make their speeches. Instead of cutting it as a montage with little bits and pieces, your scene goes on and on with full speeches and a very natural rhythm. I became more involved with that community with every speech.

Great! Two things about that. One, I’m so glad you said that because I think we get risky there and I love it in the same way you describe it. Two, there were only two scripted speeches at that rehearsal dinner. One was Annie’s and the other was Emma, the bridesmaid, who tells the long story about the taxi cab. The other speeches I left up to the cast. I told all the family members, the actress that was playing Tunde’s mom and the actress playing Tunde’s sister, anybody, I invited anybody to make a speech if they wanted. That was about a 45-minute take that we did twice. And no one knew what order they were going to get up, Annie had to fight her way into the line-up whenever she felt the moment, and I was thrilled that so much of it… I wanted to do that not so much so that we’d have a lot of stuff to put in the movie, but because I wanted Annie to be able to have the full feeling of what it’s like to make her speech in the context of a bunch of other speeches. And I loved what so many of the people did. As we whittled it down, which we had to do, I found myself thinking, ‘There’s certain people I’m clinging to here.’ I realized that I wanted to make sure that every bridesmaid, that’s an important job, got a chance to say something and I wanted to make sure certainly that every parent who wanted to speak got say speak. We stuck very faithfully to Jenny’s script but in a couple of instances, and that was the biggest one, there was a lot of improvising going on, and I’m so glad you liked that part.

Jonathan Demme directs the rehearsal dinner scene
Jonathan Demme directs the rehearsal dinner scene

When Kim comes up to make her speech, after all of those genuinely generous and warm and connecting speeches, she makes a speech that is not connected to anyone but herself. It’s like those scenes where the drunk gets up at a party and everyone is embarrassed by him or her, but Kim isn’t drunk on anything but her own need for attention.

I know. She’s drunk on candor. That’s her problem. She’s obliged to tell the truth about herself wherever she goes because this is what she uses to recover. That’s one of the things that interests me and I didn’t even quite get it entirely until I saw the movie. She joins two communities when she arrives in town. She joins the extended family community and she’s perceived and, yes, judged a certain way by that group. She also joins the 12-Step program community where she is not judged at all, and that’s where she can say and must say, is obliged to say, can speak her heart and to be truthful about herself, and in that context no one minds. Everybody listens to each other, that’s what it’s all about. She brings that aesthetic to the rehearsal dinner and it’s just devastating, she kills the room. It’s interesting to me because in going on way too long about her need to stay sober in the context off the terrible things and the chaos she’s created when out of control because of various things she’s taken, the next person who gets up evokes drug experiences shared with the groom and immediately the room warms up again. And then, finally, someone who’s totally drunk gets up and he’s adored. He can’t put a sentence together and everybody loves him. So there’s something going on there that I find very interesting.

What inspired the casting of Tunde Adebimpe as Sidney?

Are you familiar with his band, TV On the Radio?

I’ve heard their music. But I didn’t recognize him from the band when I saw film. It was only later, when I saw the band being interviewed for their new album, that I recognized him as Sidney from the film.

Exactly. And did you see him perform? On YouTube, put in “TV on the Radio” and “David Letterman” and you can see how this serene, deep, mellow young man, what he turns into on stage [or just click here]. And by the way, you should hear their brand new record [Dear Science] which is a brilliant masterpiece, it’s extraordinary. It’s the album that Brian Wilson always wanted to make. But he’s a New York-based actor as well as being a band member. Our wonderful casting directors brought him, in along with a bunch of other terrific young men, because I wanted to cast the parts of Sidney and of Kieran, the best man, with gifted actors who also had really likable qualities. I was hoping the audience would really like Sidney and really like Kieran. And I met these guys and I like them a lot and I looked at their work and was really impressed with what they’d done before and honestly, as far as Tunde goes, I thought there’s a quality that this guy has that suggests that he would be capable of surviving the Buchmans, that his love of his bride to be would be undeterred even in the context of meeting this crazy family.

I love how he gets into a contest with the father to see who can load a dishwasher best.

I can tell you what the inspiration for that scene was. Jenny Lumet, as a young girl, saw such a contest, and it was between Sidney Lumet and Bob Fosse.

It would never occur to me that Bob Fosse would even know how to load a dishwasher.

There’s a certain kind of guy, I’m one of them, that takes that task very, very seriously and believes he can bring a real art to it. Apparently Fosse won. Sidney’s kind of straight ahead, his assembly-line approach was damn good, but Fosse brought an almost balletic flair to it and actually managed to get more dishes in.

I’m sorry you couldn’t find a role for Roger Corman in Rachel Getting Married.

Well wait, he’s there. He’s at the wedding and he did some really good improve lines with Annie, too. He plays a lawyer who finds a moment to offer his card and say, ‘If you ever need any legal help…” It was great and reluctantly I took it out because we had to get to the final confrontation quicker. But there is a shot, it’s kind of a loose shot, but if you ever fast forward through it to the wedding, there’s a shot where you see the couple in the foreground, saying their vows, and behind them, with this gigantic grin on his face, holding a digital camera aimed at the couple, is Roger Corman. You’ll see him in a heartbeat and then, I’m happy to say, we cut to Roger’s shot of the couple. He’s in there.

I look forward to his big scene in the deleted scenes portion of the DVD.

Thank you, great idea. It’ll be there, I promise.