"In my 20s, I started to really rebel against what I was told when I was a kid," Demme says. "Post-college I was like, "Fuck, I never got that championship.' I went to college and played ball, and all these guys were assholes playing around me in Division III. I got fucked up when my leg got cracked, and I just thought, "What the fuck have I learned by being a good guy? Fuck that. Now's the time to really start rebelling.' I'd seen Raging Bull, blah blah blah, so I left college and went on my own to become my own guy. Maybe a lot of that was: "Oh, I thought if I behaved this way, I'd live happily ever after. But you're telling me that even if you behave that way, you don't live happily ever after and you don't get the babes? Oh, OK, maybe I should start behaving like these others guys who are so fuckin' cool and end up having some sort of redemption at the end.' I'm sure a lot of that plays into it. Redemption is a big theme in the movies I love."
Demme ended up in the movies almost by accident, despite having an uncle (Silence of the Lambsdirector Jonathan Demme) in the business. After college, he did a little play-by-play and color announcing on the radio, worked in local TV, made some short films and, of course, tended bar. In 1986, he landed at MTV as a production assistant, and within two years, he was in Austin, filming the pilot for an MTV show that would feature Run-D.M.C., Public Enemy, DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince and Salt-N-Pepa. As creator and director of Yo! MTV Raps, which premiered in 1988 and ran for seven years, Demme had a front-row seat for the hip-hop revolution: He recalls how, almost overnight, white kids were running around with Public Enemy ball caps: "Watching people suddenly be down was really funny," he says, laughing.
Having coke and a smile: Ted Demme, right, directs Johnny Depp (as George Jung) on the set of Blow.
In 1990, Demme caught the stage version of Leary's No Cure for Cancer, in which he sucks down a pack of smokes, wishes it had been Bon Jovi on that crashed helicopter instead of Stevie Ray Vaughan and fantasizes of the day when he can talk through a throat-cancer patient's voice box. The two became pals almost instantly. "We laugh at all the same things," Demme says, "and we're pissed off about all the same things." It also didn't hurt that, in some way, they needed each other: Demme had the power at MTV to get on the air the short films he created with Leary, and Leary, who'd become a comedian only when he couldn't find any acting jobs, had that kind of liberating eat-shit attitude Demme always wanted but couldn't quite articulate.
"When I saw that show, I felt exactly the same way he did, but I wasn't as funny or as smart to write it down like he did," Demme says. "So when we did those pieces for MTV, the reason they turned out so good was because I knew exactly what the fuck he was talking about. I knew how to take his energy and market it. I just knew. He's a little bit angrier than I am, but he was a great outlet for me. He gave me some balls to be able to take it to the next level."
"I always felt like Teddy was playing a little catch-up at the beginning, because he came from Long Island, which was a little bit different atmosphere," the Worcester, Mass.-raised Leary says. "But to his credit, once he got involved, and I love him for this, he's always been a guy who's not afraid to burn bridges, which is not done in this business, where everybody's kissing your ass and then when you turn around they say what they really feel. They're not used to somebody walking in the room and saying, "You know what? You're a fuckin' asshole. You suck.' I love Teddy, because once I said to him, "Look, my attitude is, if somebody's a dick, I call them a dick, and I don't give a fuck,' and he not only followed suit, he did it in spades."
Leary and Demme have been trying to get Blowon the screen since acquiring the property nearly six years ago. Every so often, they'd go out and visit the real George Jung in prison and coax stories out of him, or they'd just smoke cigarettes and hang. They became friends, despite the fact Jung was one of themen responsible for bringing coke to the United States in the late 1970s. For a little while, Demme even felt guilty about being pals with the guy. He started thinking about crack babies, and he thought to himself, Fuckin' George, man, it's all his fault.
Then he decided Jung was just the guy he loves to make movies about: the anti-hero who starts out noble and pure and ends up knee-deep in a world of shit he created. Maybe Demme even saw a little of himself in George. Maybe he could have even become someone like George. But somewhere between Long Island and Los Angeles, Demme decided there was a fine line separating the tough from the tragic, and he'd rather be the guy telling the stories than the guy they tell stories about.