How can someone make so many movies for so long and still be such a nice guy? Once again, the Coolidge Corner Theatre is giving its Coolidge Award (the celebration will take place at the theater March 1-2) to a filmmaker who genuinely deserves the recognition. Hollywood seldom turns out anyone as good-natured, talented, and eclectic as Jonathan Demme. He's made some two dozen films over four decades, efforts ranging from the Roger Corman B-movie Caged Heat (1974) to Oscar winners The Silence of the Lambs (1991) and Philadelphia (1993) and concert documentaries like Stop Making Sense (1984) and Neil Young: Heart of Gold (2006). Recently, he's been working on an animated adaptation of Dave Eggers's book Zeitoun — the true chronicle of a man and his family in the midst of Hurricane Katrina — as well as a TV documentary about five other families who survived the storm.
These aren't his first forays into socially conscious filmmaking. His 2003 documentary The Agronomist, which profiled a martyred Haitian journalist, was inspired by his fascination with that country. A love that goes back almost 25 years, it has serendipitously linked many of his films, as Demme points out when we talk about his prolific, dynamic career.
One of the films you are showing as part of the Coolidge Award Celebration isThe Agronomist. Can you talk about that film and your love of Haiti in light of the recent earthquake?
Well, I was on the phone earlier today with a young man, a sergeant in the US Army. His name is Gonzales Joseph. He was calling me because he's got a camera down there in Haiti. He's part of the force that responded to the disaster. He's getting what he described as extraordinary and important footage. We were talking about ways to get that up here, and what we could do with it once it arrives.
Gonzales is, if you can remember the wedding scenes in Rachel Getting Married (2008), the guy in uniform who is taking shots all the time with a video camera — Cousin Joe. He's now in Haiti, and he's got the camera he left Rachel Getting Married with. But he was there [in Rachel Getting Married] because he and I became pen pals when he was stationed in Iraq, five years ago. He had read about The Agronomist and, somehow or other, managed to see that film in Iraq, and he loved it and wanted to get more information from the distributor. They knew I would be interested in this inquiry, and we became avid e-mail pals. So that brings The Agronomist right up to the minute.
You're making a documentary in another disaster site, New Orleans post-Katrina.
This is my longest in-production film. I have been filming four times a year in New Orleans since three months after the floods. I visit people who were among those who were the first to return to their properties and to their homes, despite being forbidden to do so, in order to save them and not let these neighborhoods be plowed under and turned into condos. What's emerged is an ongoing portrait of life in post-Katrina New Orleans as seen through the lenses of about five particular families — ordinary Americans who really rose to the occasion under extraordinary circumstances. My dream is that it's going to be a historic, up-to-the-present reality show on some cable network that will weave these various families' stories, and others, in an ongoing way, starting three months after the flood, and which could pay off at the end with a live visit with everybody.