Whenever any article or television news program brings up the topic of prolific filmmaking families, the usual suspects mentioned are the Coen brothers, Chris and Paul Weitz of American Pie fame, and the Hughes brothers, the auteurs behind Menace II Society.
Rarely does the name “Demme” ever pop up at such moments, which is surprising. Most people know award-winning writer/director/producer Jonathan Demme, the man responsible for such films as Married to the Mob, Philadelphia, and Silence of the Lambs. His nephew, Ted Demme, may be less well-known, but in the last 10 years, he’s begun to make his own mark on the cinematic world, directing Homicide: Life on the Street, two Denis Leary specials, and the hit movies Beautiful Girls, Life, and now Blow starring Johnny Depp. Quietly, the Demmes have established themselves as A-list filmmakers.
Following closely on the heels of the Academy Award-winning Traffic, Blow chronicles the true story of America’s first cocaine smuggler, George Jung (Depp). Whether moviegoers are ready for another trip into the dark heart of narcotics-fueled America remains to be seen, but shortly before the release of the film, Demme gamely sat down with reporters to field questions about Blow.
What was the motivation for George and his family to become involved with the film? Were any of them compensated for helping out?
Well, George wrote the book Blow with Bruce Porter, so he got compensation by writing the book. An inmate can’t make any cash from any outside sources, really, so he wasn’t compensated for the film. I think George really wanted his story told, because he realizes what a wild one it is and he realizes the sadness of his situation now, and I think he really felt it was an important story to tell. I know Mirtha, for a fact, really became a consultant on the film and worked with me and Nick [Cassavetes] from the beginning, both approving what we were doing and also talking about it. I was very honest with her about what I thought her role was going to be in this film and she said, “The only way I’ll let you do it is if you’re honest about what you want to do.” At the end of the day, if this film deters any girls that are her age when she got seduced by all this stuff from doing it, then she’d be really happy with it. Mirtha is a clean and sober citizen living a really good life right now and she wants to turn the page on this whole chapter in her life. I think she feels like, if this film helps anybody not get into that lifestyle, then she’ll be happy with it.
Did you see George as a victim or how did you see him?
I think how I did see him, and how I do see him right now is, I don’t think he’s a victim. George has certainly made his own bed and there’s no two ways about it and I think he’s cognizant of that. Do I feel sorry for him? Yeah. I feel that he’s a 58-year-old man who’s growing very old quickly in prison. His daughter, who’s alive, won’t see him, his wife is estranged from him, he’s got no money, he’s got no friends. Cassavetes and Johnny and I are probably his only three friends in the world, to be honest with you. I feel sorry for him. I feel sorry for anyone who’s going through that. Do I agree with everything that he’s done? Absolutely not. Do I think he should be serving 20 years right now, at this point in his life? No, I don’t.
Why did you think this would make a good film in a year when everyone is raving about Traffic, a movie which documents the results of drug smuggling?
I knew that the backdrop—the A to Z of the story—would make a good cinematic story of a small-town boy, who kind of grew up an all-American high school football player, who was handsome with everything going for him, who went on to become Pablo Escobar’s right-hand guy, and make $100 million in two years. That would probably be a sexy movie to tell. I didn’t actually want to tell that particular story. I thought it would it be an interesting backdrop and it took me a lot of meetings with George and a lot of changes in my life to realize that, for me, the story of this film is loss—loss of life, loss of innocence, loss of family, loss of freedom—and really the bond between a father and a son, and a son growing up, and his relationship with his daughter. I really respond to that triangle, if you will. I thought that, dramatically and emotionally, if those were our focal points of the film, I thought it would cross the crime genre a little bit better than just doing a biopic.
You said things in your life affected the film’s focus . . .
Yeah, I’ve had this film for like six years, and two years, two and a half years into it, I had a baby. For those of you who have kids, you realize what changes when you have a kid—your responsibilities, your thoughts, your goals and all kinds of stuff. George’s comments about how alone he was and, “You don’t understand what it’s like to be in prison when your daughter doesn’t come to see you”—I didn’t get until I had [a daughter]. That allowed me to have the tools to make the film.
What did Johnny Depp bring to this role that another actor couldn’t?
When you hire Johnny Depp as an actor . . . if you’re looking for an actor to stand on the mark and do your lines for you, you’re asking the wrong guy because he’s such a smart filmmaker. Johnny Depp is also a chameleon. He, in my opinion, has never done the same performance twice. If you put Donnie Brasco and Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood in the same room, and you told me that they were the same guy, I’d be hard-pressed to believe you. I knew that I wanted someone to transform into George. I didn’t want a star playing a role in Blow, I wanted this guy to really wear the wigs and talk the talk and do the whole thing. Johnny’s one of the few guys, I think, in his generation that is willing to dirty himself up, if you know what I mean, to play a role. He brings all that, plus just the talent that all you guys know. He’s a great actor, but his dedication is something that really, really impressed me a lot.
How much did you put into capturing the period of the film?
We spent a lot of time working on it. One of my pet peeves as a filmgoer is when I watch a period film that looks like they made it today. I just find it insulting, like, “God, you could have worked a little bit harder. You used the same kind of suit that we’ve seen in all the ‘80s movies, same kind of music, the same cue-up over and over again.” I wanted to really capture the period, but also have a unique look to it, so I watched an amazing amount of documentaries and home movies from the ‘50s and the ‘40s, actually, that were shot on this really great Ektachrome color film stock. I showed them to my DP and said, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we could make a modern-day film look like this?” and she was like, “Yeah, let’s go.” We just spent an enormous amount of time watching really cool ‘60s and ‘70s movies, which is my favorite era anyway. Really trying to get those lenses, and using those camera moves was a blast, and then my costume designer, Mark Bridges, who did Boogie Nights and Magnolia, was fantastic. I said, “Let’s not try to be obvious, but have some fun with it. We don’t want to be so obscure that you don’t really get the period right away, but we want to be original.” So we put a lot of time [into it] . . . everyone had a blast doing it.
Where did you get the idea to cast Paul Reubens in the movie as a hairdresser who has a side business as a drug dealer?
I was watching Pee-wee’s Playhouse with my kid and just watching him again, because I loved it so much. She was cracking up and I was just like, “God, could you imagine? I wonder what Paul Reubens is doing.” I didn’t even know where he was, so I tracked him down and convinced him to come have lunch with me at my house and he came and we hung out for like five hours and, by the end of the five hours, he was in the movie. The character that Paul plays, we couldn’t actually get his real life rights ‘cause he’s on the run in Mexico. I knew what that role had to be in the scheme of our story—a hairdresser who needed to provide X for the story to work and be there for these different scenes—so I said to Paul, “Create a character for me.” Who better to create a character than Paul Reubens? And he did. I also told him, “I need some comic relief in this one, pal, so help me out.” He’s great.
How did you decide to cast Ray Liotta as Johnny Depp’s father?
It’s funny, because this happens to me on every film, where I’m watching films to get inspired by directors and actors that I really respect and as I was watching Goodfellas, I was like, “Hey, I wonder what Liotta’s doing?” That was literally how that went down. I know Ray from over the years and I said to Ray, “Look, I’ve got this part, but you’re not going to curse once, you’re not going to beat anyone up, you’re actually going to get beat up and you’re going to be a real nice guy,” and he was like, “That sounds kind of interesting.” That’s how that went down.
Talk about your relationship with Denis Leary, who you have not only worked with before, but who is one of the producers on Blow.
Denis and I have, obviously, made a few films together and we’ve stayed very close friends. Denis found me the book six or seven years ago. He bought it in a bookstore in Toronto and it had just almost gone out of print, I guess, and he gave it to me and said, “You know, you’ve gotta read this book. You’re not going to believe it.” I went, “Great,” so I read the book and was amazed by it and we bought the rights together, so we just kind of decided we’d both produce the film and see what would happen if we ever got the chance to make it.
What are his thoughts on the film?
He loves it. He’s really proud of it. What’s been great about Denis on this, he’s such a smart writer that every time we’d bang a script or two out and we felt we were really close to it, I’d shoot it off to him and have him read it and give me notes and he was actually really, really helpful during the scriptwriting process.
Where does this film fall among the current films about the drug war in our country?
I don’t have too many opinions that would be relevant on the drug war, because I do know that my opinion is that I think we’re losing it, and I really do believe that our country, to a large extent, is in denial about what our drug problem is and how we fight it and how we decide to spend the money on it. After meeting George and being in prison with him, I was moved by a series of events that really crushed me. On visiting day in prison, [I saw that] these young 19- and 20-year-old kids are in prison and they look like babies. These kids are baby-faced 20-year-olds and they’re sitting there and they’re just kind of waiting, and I just happened to catch a few out of the corner of my eye and then these young women come in and visit them with these tiny babies. George is talking away and I’m like, “Right, right,” and I’m mesmerized by these two young men so happy to see their kids. I was like, “George, what’s the deal with those guys?” and he said, “Well, those guys both got caught on a corner with 12 rocks in their hand. [They were] first-time offenders selling crack cocaine that got an automatic, no questions about it, 20 years.” I was like, “What?” and he was like, “Automatic. First-time offender, selling crack of a certain amount, you go right to the pen for 20 years.” I was like, “All right, so when that guy gets out, he’s going to be 39, 40 and his kid’s going to be 20.” It’s like, “Hi, Dad, welcome out.”
What do you think is going to happen to that kid? The more I talked to George about it and the more I did a little research on it, the one thing I’ve come to grips with is that the way we punish drug offenders in our country has no rhyme or reason to it, it’s very arbitrary and it’s completely ass-backwards. I’ve got a very strong opinion because I’m very close to George now and I would very much like to see him out of prison. I don’t think he’s going to make it inside, and I don’t think he’s going to do any good inside and these kids certainly aren’t . . . they’re losing their entire lives. We’ve got to, in my opinion, come up with some sort of rehabilitation process for drug offenders. These kids are mixed in with rapists and murderers and pedophiles. These kids probably grew up in an atmosphere that wasn’t that great and they did what they had to do and that just really crushed me. I really wished I’d had more knowledge about it and how to try to change it. That’s the one thing I feel strongly about.
Does George look forward to getting out or is he a little apprehensive?
First of all, what’s interesting is, there’s no more real parole system in our country. You have to serve, mandatory, 80% of your time, no matter what. There’s no more getting out for good behavior. That’s out. So George is in, there’s no getting out. He knows the earliest he’s getting out is when he’s 71, unless the judge that sentenced him decides to reopen his case and think about it. He desperately wants to get out. He desperately wants to get out to help his daughter, to heal his daughter, to say “I’m sorry,” and to prove that he can do her right, and hopefully help other people.