Talking to Oscar-Winning Director Jonathan Demme

ITALY Magazine talks to Oscar-winning director Jonathan Demme about his latest movie “Fear of Falling”, premiering at the 8th International Rome Film Festival.

Nicola Ferlei-Brown, Edited by Katia Amore

Jonathan Demme, who won an Oscar in 1991 for directing The Silence of the Lambs, is currently in Rome to present his latest movie Fear of Falling, premiering at the 8th International Rome Film Festival.

The movie is an adaptation of The Master Builder, the biting 19th century critique of the pursuit of wealth by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. Demme worked with two of the most original minds in the American world of cinema and theatre: Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn. The film, which tells the story of a famous architect who increasingly becomes trapped in his own fantasies, is the final step in a long creative writing process which absorbed Shawn and Gregory for fourteen years, and which, thanks to Demme’s direction, reveals itself to be both intimate and captivating.

In this interpretation of Ibsen's play, the master builder is on his death bed. Like in the original play, the movie talks about a woman who has a fixation with the master builder, but  the fact that in Demme's transposition she visits him whilst he is on his death bed changes the story dramatically.

We met him at the festival in the backstage and talked to him about cinema, music and his inspiring collaboration with Italian composer Enzo Avitabile.

How challenging was the making of  Fear of Falling?

Fear of Falling has been my most challenging film. It was years in the making, because it was a play, Henrik Ibsen's The Master Builder, which has been made for TV many times. It’s the boldest film I've made.

But I think there is a place for Henrik Ibsen in 21st-century cinema. A mix of dramaturgy and different media. It’s a different kind of visual feast, if you surrender to it.

Do you already know what cinema genre you will be exploring in your next movie?

I have not turned my back on anything, genre-wise. I was asked in 2005 to make an 85 million dollar movie. I'm still waiting for calls like that. I don't want that type of responsibility. Is it really ok to be spending that amount of money in this day in age? Budgets of that kind of multitude. If a movie is great, size doesn't matter. I am never called to do Hollywood blockbusters. I’m addicted to making documentaries. I like to shoot fast. I like to shoot seven or eight pages a day. I like to do TV. There is wonderful writing going on in American TV today.

Is there an aspect of filmmaking you love the most?

I love all aspects of filmmaking. Everybody's a story teller, from the writers, from Meryl to Denzel, the cameraman, the sound man, the lighting man. Story, story, story.

What about music? What role does music play in your movies?

Music makes the story. Cinema brings an added dimension to music that is already beautiful to our ears, and make it exquisite.

Musicians play music together, so in the world we should all compose all sorts of things together in a positive way.

You also turned music into the central story of some of your movies/documentaries, like the Talking Heads concert movie Stop Making Sense and a trilogy of Neil Young?

I was so in awe of the lighting at a Talking Heads gig, I knew instantly it had to be a movie, so I worked with David Burns on a documentary.

Then I wanted to work with music again, so I started working on the trilogy of concert films with Neil Young.  Neil is tremendously cinematic in his vision. He loves the camera. It's like the audience could not see what was in Burns’ head, but I could.

Fear of Falling premieres in Rome, so what about Italian music and Italian culture?

It is with an Italian artist that I made my latest music documentary, Enzo Avitabile Music Life. Enzo is my favourite composer.

Enzo Avitabile is interested in musicians in woods outside of Palermo. The mix, the magic, a cross contamination, if you will.

Music Life delves into the world of musical instruments and the people playing them. Different people playing different instruments at the same time, which became a bonus theme of the  documentary.  It was really meant to be a work about the people of Naples, but became so much more. You can't have Naples without music. It won't work.

If you could make a film about any historical Italian figure, who would it be?

"Vittorio Arrigoni, an Italian writer and peace activist who was murdered in 2008."

[Editor’s note: Arrigoni (4 February 1975 – 15 April 2011) was an Italian reporter, writer, pacifist and activist who was credited as one of the many activists who revived the pro-Palestinian International Solidarity Movement (ISM) in the Gaza Strip, from 2008 until his death in 2011. Arrigoni maintained a website, Guerrilla Radio, and published a book of his experiences in Gaza during the 2008–09 Gaza War. He was murdered by suspected members of Tawhid wal-Jihad, a Palestinian Salafist group in Gaza.]

Fear of Falling stars Andre Gregory and Wallace  Shawn. Julie Hagerty, Larry Pine and Lisa Joyce also star in the movie, which is Demme's first theatrical film since 2008's Rachel Getting Married, which got lead actress Anne Hathaway an Oscar nomination.

Since then, Demme has directed TV episodes for such series as HBO's Enlightened and AMC's The Killing, among other projects. He won the Best Director Oscar in 1992 for The Silence of the Lambs.

Fear of Falling is produced by frequent Demme collaborator Rocco Caruso.