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Ray Pride

By Ray Pride

Jonathan Demme in the Modern World: On MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (2004)

Unlike his actors, Demme saw John Frankenheimer’s film on its first release. “I saw the original when I was a teenager,” he tells me. “I was an avid moviegoer, I saw everything,” he says, hardly taking a breath.

DEMME: Everything, everything. I was really hooked on movies at a very young age. The Manchurian Candidate, along with Seven Days in May, Fail-Safe and Dr. Strangelove [were] this quartet of anarchistic black-and-white American movies, each of which did things that you just didn’t do in American movies, especially in the realm of irreverence toward politics and government institutions and the Army. I was what, 16, it was shocking, it was thrilling and interestingly, it predated my exposure to the French New Wave, so in away, this was the American, a certain kind of new wave in American movies. So Manchurian Candidate was a trailblazer, it was a shocker, it was a great picture and it altered the way I thought about movies! [Demme caps the rush of words with a pleased whooshing sound.]

You’d done one remake before, The Truth About Charlie, the 2002 remake of Charade. Why another?

One day, I get a call from my agent and he says, ‘So, Jonathan, there’s a script that Denzel’s attached to, it’s a go at Paramount, and they want you to read it.’ And I was like, ‘Oh my god, Denzel again, my dream come true. What is it?’ ‘It’s a remake of The Manchurian Candidate.’ ‘Oh my God! No, no!’ Frankly, I was amazed that would come to me, me in particular, to remake a classic.

So remakes —

I don’t think it’s sacrilegious to remake any movie, including a good or even great movie. I think what’s sacrilegious is to make a bad movie, whether it’s a remake or an original. It’s what I always tell my actor friends, anybody who’s in this, this [business], you’ve gotta try to hold out and only do the scripts, do the material that offers you the opportunity to do your best work. Because if you do stuff that doesn’t give you that opportunity? Your work’s not gonna be good. And you’re gonna suffer in the long run from that. So I don’t care if it’s a remake if it’s a great script with parts in it that can attract fantastic actors, God, you know, to make the movie.

demmeCan you define what went wrong with The Truth About Charlie? Marketing?

Oh, well. At the end of it, my own personal taste, I think Truth about Charlie is a real fun picture and I think it has a lot to offer. I think it’s, it’s limited, it’s not what it was meant to be, it’s not the kind of sparkly movie it was supposed to be when Will Smith was gonna play the lead. Mark Wahlberg, who has, y’know, very real gifts in his own right, doesn’t have the same gifts as Will. So, in casting Mark in order to get the picture made, it turned it into a different kind of picture than it was conceived as. And, and I think, y’know, that was not helpful. Then it came out, and even though it got a lot of good reviews, real good reviews, Universal did dump it because it opened, it had a bad Friday night, and they pulled the advertising out. Didn’t go with quote ads. I don’t know if it would have done better, what have you, but anyway, it certainly didn’t suggest that I was the go-to guy to remake classics. It was kind of curiously stimulating to me; I was like, ‘Really?’ So anyway, I read the script, and I thought the script was great. That, coupled with Denzel, I didn’t think about it at all.

There’s a running buzz of news reports and other media that makes it seem like Washington’s increasingly unhinged character has an infernal radio in his head that will not shut off. The device makes the satire even denser, with news reports about war “contractors” and touch-screen voting machine fraud. Was this added late in the game?

Some stuff was added late in the game. But I gotta tell you, the missing person, y’know, at this table, either to take lumps or to be congratulated, because he did a good job, is Dan Pyne. Who wrote the script. And who really, really, really knows his stuff and who y’know, in that, in that opening sequence, he had a civilian contractor, and this was before civilian contractors started making the news. And it’s even before multinational corporations that profit from war made the news to the extent that they started making the news. We’re reading a lot about companies like Halliburton and the Carlyle group and what have you, but, but when Dan wrote the script, the companies were in existence but they didn’t have the kind of profile that they have now.

While we were editing, even when Abu Ghraib happened, we go into the cutting room, and we’ve got our guys who’ve been all drugged up and being forced to do terrible things to each other and stuff and it was, it was arguable that we wound up with not quite the fantasy movie that we started out to make. A kind of escapist, cautionary tale. It just seemed to take on added resonance as events have gone down.

The incessant rush of voiceovers is a nifty narrative shortcut.

I’m fascinated to note to what extent, if at all, people even listen to the news broadcasts that Marco is being assaulted by all the time. I feel that’s the kind of world we live in today and to not have that going on would be inauthentic and it would also be a betrayal of the whole, the whole sort of Richard Condon theme of media-ization of politics and the politicization of the media. That whole thing.

It was fun and exciting and challenging to try. Some folks will be listening, and that will unfold in a good way. There’s something disturbing about what we hear [on the soundtrack] when we hear it. It keeps our themes alive. I also was excited about using that as a way to bring Manchurian Global’s presence in the movie more than having to cut to the bad guys in the boardroom or cut to people talking about them a lot. Just like, let them seep into the news the way Halliburton, for example, the Carlyle Group has been seeping into the news and seeping into Marco’s consciousness. Marco, at a certain moment, when, when one particular report helps him click into his latest paranoid fantasy about what’s happening, [a pivotal character] dies, and that newscast of the news of his death is followed by new allegations against Manchurian Global and it clicks for him.

One of the news reports that I like a lot is when we hear about protests at a dinner honoring the CEO of Votron, the manufacturers of new, touch-screen voting, controversial new touch-screen voting machines, because, as we know, y’know, like with an eye on Florida and what happened four years ago and now they’re letting those machines that actually tally minus 12,00 votes for Gore in Florida, now are going to be in other states, too? And what? They’re all owned by people who are big contributors to the Republican Party? Well, that’s not what our movie’s about, but texturally, texture, let’s remind people that there’s a controversy out there, let’s push that button. And y’know, we have, anyway. We were constantly refining [the soundtrack] and updating that and trying to make the picture as connected as possible tot the endless myriad of issues that are involved with the election at the moment.

So, two movies in one year. That’s productive.

It’s an interesting coincidence because The Agronomist was a decades-long endeavor, kind of stopping, on-and-off again thing and then came together. The other thing that’s interesting is, for me [laughs], if not for anybody else, but the documentary’s about a real, live person who was assassinated. And in the fictional movie, there’s an assassination attempt. And I tried to find like a parallel but there isn’t. It’s a bizarre coincidence.

[Condensed from a longer feature.]

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This is probably going to sound petty, but Martin Scorsese insisting that critics see his film in theaters even though it’s going straight to Netflix and then not screening it in most American cities was a watershed moment for me in this theatrical versus streaming debate.

I completely respect when a filmmaker insists that their movie is meant to be seen in the theater, but the thing is, you got to actually make it possible to see it in the theater. Some movies may be too small for that, and that’s totally OK.

When your movie is largely financed by a streaming service and is going to appear on that streaming service instantly, I don’t really see the point of pretending that it’s a theatrical film. It just seems like we are needlessly indulging some kind of personal fantasy.

I don’t think that making a feature film length production that is going to go straight to a video platform is some sort of “step down.“ I really don’t. Theatrical exhibition as we know it is dying off anyway, for a variety of reasons.

I should clarify myself because this thread is already being misconstrued — I’m talking about how the movie is screened in advance. If it’s going straight to Netflix, why the ritual of demanding people see it in the theater?

There used to be a category that everyone recognized called “TV movie” or “made for television movie” and even though a lot of filmmakers considered that déclassé, it seems to me that probably 90% of feature films fit that description now.

Atlantis has mostly sunk into the ocean, only a few tower spires remain above the waterline, and I’m increasingly at peace with that, because it seems to be what the industry and much of the audience wants. We live in an age of convenience and information control.

Only a very elite group of filmmakers is still allowed to make movies “for theaters“ and actually have them seen and judged that way on a wide scale. Even platform releasing seems to be somewhat endangered. It can’t be fought. It has to be accepted.

9. Addendum: I’ve been informed that it wasn’t Scorsese who requested that the Bob Dylan documentary only be screened for critics in theaters, but a Netflix representative indicated the opposite to me, so I just don’t know what to believe.

It’s actually OK if your film is not eligible for an Oscar — we have a thing called the Emmys. A lot of this anxiety is just a holdover from the days when television was considered culturally inferior to theatrical feature films. Everybody needs to just get over it.

In another 10 to 20 years they’re probably going to merge the Emmys in the Oscars into one program anyway, maybe they’ll call it the Contentys.

“One of the fun things about seeing the new Quentin Tarantino film three months early in Cannes (did I mention this?) is that I know exactly why it’s going to make some people furious, and thus I have time to steel myself for the takes.

Back in July 2017, when it was revealed that Tarantino’s next project was connected to the Manson Family murders, it was condemned in some quarters as an insulting and exploitative stunt. We usually require at least a fig-leaf of compassion for the victims in true-crime adaptations, and even Tarantino partisans like myself – I don’t think he’s made a bad film yet – found ourselves wondering how he might square his more outré stylistic impulses with the depiction of a real mass murder in which five people and one unborn child lost their lives.

After all, it’s one thing to slice off with gusto a fictional policeman’s ear; it’s quite another to linger over the gory details of a massacre that took place within living memory, and which still carries a dread historical significance.

In her essay The White Album, Joan Didion wrote: “Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969, ended at the exact moment when word of the murders on Cielo Drive traveled like brushfire through the community, and in a sense this is true.”

Early in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, as Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt’s characters drive up the hill towards Leo’s bachelor pad, the camera cranes up gently to reveal a street sign: Cielo Drive. Tarantino understands how charged that name is; he can hear the Molotov cocktails clinking as he shoulders the crate.

As you may have read in the reviews from Cannes, much of the film is taken up with following DiCaprio and Pitt’s characters – a fading TV actor and his long-serving stunt double – as they amusingly go about their lives in Los Angeles, while Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate is a relatively minor presence. But the spectre of the murders is just over the horizon, and when the night of the 9th finally arrives, you feel the mood in the cinema shift.

No spoilers whatsoever about what transpires on screen. But in the audience, as it became clear how Tarantino was going to handle this extraordinarily loaded moment, the room soured and split, like a pan of cream left too long on the hob. I craned in, amazed, but felt the person beside me recoil in either dismay or disgust.

Two weeks on, I’m convinced that the scene is the boldest and most graphically violent of Tarantino’s career – I had to shield my eyes at one point, found myself involuntarily groaning “oh no” at another – and a dead cert for the most controversial. People will be outraged by it, and with good reason. But in a strange and brilliant way, it takes Didion’s death-of-the-Sixties observation and pushes it through a hellfire-hot catharsis.

Hollywood summoned up this horror, the film seems to be saying, and now it’s Hollywood’s turn to exorcise it. I can’t wait until the release in August, when we can finally talk about why.

~ Robbie Collin