Jonathan Demme's First Talking Heads Interview

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.

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