ANTHONY BROOKS, host:
And now, Jonathan Demme. Throughout his three-decade career, he has moved back and fort between two types of moviemaking, feature films and documentaries. The Academy Award winner directed hits like "Silence of the Lambs" and "Philadelphia." But he's also known for his music documentaries about Neil Young and the Talking Heads. And for intimate projects, including one about the plight of New Orleans residents after Hurricane Katrina, and another about the struggle for democracy in Haiti.
In his latest work, "Jimmy Carter: Man from Plains," Demme follows the former president around the country as he promotes his newest and controversial book, "Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid."
If you have questions for Jonathan Demme about "Man from Plains" or any of his other work, give us a call. The number is 800-989-8255. You can also send us an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
And Jonathan Demme joins me right here in the studio. And thanks very much for coming in.
Mr. JONATHAN DEMME (Director): It's wonderful to be here. Thank you very much, Anthony.
BROOKS: It's a great pleasure to have you.
"Jimmy Carter: Man from Plains" - what drew you to take on this project? Why did you want to make this movie?
Mr. DEMME: Well, I was offered the opportunity to direct an undesignated - no one knew quite what it would be, but the opportunity to do a documentary with President Carter. And because he's an American who I have great admiration for, I was really very excited of the chance to meet him and see if there's a story or a situation that we could hang a documentary on.
BROOKS: And how did that - I'm interested to hear how that first meeting went, because I read that he was at first sort of reluctant to sort of have someone following him around with a camera?
Mr. DEMME: Well, more than anything, he like the idea, the possibility, I think, of a film providing him with another forum to express his ideas because he's got a lot of ideas, as we well know, about the world today and about our country. And he certainly saw the chance to expand his audience or to get the word out a little bit more.
The trick was what form would it take. And I wanted very much to try to find a way that - to bring the perception of President Carter into what's going on today in as dynamic a way as possible, and see if his vision could be applied to something majorly important so that that'd be a good reason to go see this movie beyond and seeing a sort of a portrait in motion of President Carter. I thought that Iran would be a great place to go with Jimmy Carter.
Mr. DEMME: His presidency was - he was the first to really taste the confrontation with radical Islam.
BROOKS: Of course, because we're talking about the hostage crisis back then which pretty much doomed his presidency.
Mr. DEMME: Right. I mean, it certainly, yes.
BROOKS: Hurt his presidency.
Mr. DEMME: Hurt his presidency tremendously. Although, he has very interesting, I think, terrific ideas about how to place that historically. And now, with this gathering energy is - this growing obsession on the part of our current leaders who want to take a whack at Iran and get in there, just looking for that excuse to blow Iran off the map or do tremendous damage to it.
I thought this is a terrific moment. It started with Carter. Let's fly over to Iran. Let's go Tehran. Let's go to the location of the former U.S. Embassy. And I think by the time we leave that corner, we will have the makings of, sort of, an amazing movie. President Carter looked at me like I was insane when I proposed it to him. But he said if you're so interested in the Middle East, I got a book coming out in the end of the year and it's focused on that situation. He told me what it was and I just got very, very excited and leapt at the opportunity to do that.
BROOKS: Well, that book captured a lot of headlines, of course, stirred some controversy. The title itself was controversial, "Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid." And I want to play a clip from the movie about that book. This is President Carter being interviewed by a journalist from Israeli television.
(Soundbite of movie "Jimmy Carter: Man From Plains")
Unidentified Man: Your book, publishing of the book, made many people angry. It's quite clear, after reading the 250 pages of the book, that the onus is on Israel. But you ignore the - almost ignored the Arab terrorism.
President JIMMY CARTER: No, I don't. I deplore terrorism and violence very repeatedly in the book.
Unidentified Man: But only Israel is responsible for the lack of political process, not the Palestinians.
Pres. CARTER: I believe that to be true, yes.
Unidentified Man: You said and I quote, "that the disengagement made the Palestinian poorer so…"
Pres. CARTER: It has led to - yes, it has led to them being poorer because when Israel withdrew, then they encapsulated or imprisoned the Gaza people within a wall with only two openings in it and closed the openings most of the time.
BROOKS: That's former President Jimmy Carter, talking about his book, "Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid" and that's a clip from the film, "Jimmy Carter: Man from Plains," a new film directed by Jonathan Demme who's my guest right now. And we're inviting your calls at 800-989-8255. How did the controversy over that book affect the film, affect the making of the film?
Mr. DEMME: Well, it provided us with rich terrain to travel more than anything. I think it provided us with an incredible snapshot about how the vast majority of the American media works and how it loves to seize on sort of a tantalizing aspect of the subject at hand and then just run with that instead of digging deep into the subject and exploring it.
And I think that that's one of the things that really startled President Carter was I think he really had the idea that he would get attention to the book with the title, and that that would open the door to a real exploration of what he means by applying apartheid to Palestine. But instead, most people just wanted to talk about why did you call it that when you knew it would make - it would hurt feelings as opposed to explain it.
And it was a struggle for him to try to somehow get some content into his dialogue. And, you know, I think that President Carter, I heard him say repeatedly - he says it in the movie a number of times - he calculatedly used the word. He borrowed the word actually, which was I think first applied to Palestine by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. So he borrowed that term, used it for -to attract attention, but he did not bank on the feelings that would be hurt by it. And a lot of people like the Israeli journalist, says, you know, you made a lot of people angry. But backing up from there, he hurt a lot of people who loved him and a lot of people who, I think, misunderstood his application. I think that vast majority of people felt he's saying that Israel is an apartheid state, whereas what he's saying is that Israel's policy in Palestine is an apartheid policy. And he just didn't get a chance to really talk about it.
BROOKS: What's he like? I mean, I know he's a man that you admired, but what surprised - what did you find surprising about him after spending all that time? I mean, did you learn something that you didn't know about him and that sort of surprised you Jimmy Carter?
Mr. DEMME: The thing that surprised me the quickest, I think, was that here's a guy that has this unbelievably encyclopedic knowledge of everything, and he's got it right too. I mean, his data is unbelievable and he's a sponge. He's constantly - you can see him - so many horsepower in that new Buick and da, da, da. So he's constantly, constantly seeking info.
He prides himself on this - he's not a dilettante. I mean, and that was one of the things that I think characterizes his presidency. And his approach the office was that if there was a problem brewing in a country, he didn't tell a group of advisers to find out what's going on there and then brief them. He Dove in. But more than anything, I think that the exciting thing for me to learn was I wanted to know what makes a Jimmy Carter tick? Why does this guy from Plains, Georgia, cares so much about what's going on in the Middle East? Why does he care so much now? Why is he so angry about the situation of the Palestinian people?
And we came to discover, through accompanying him around - his home in Plains discovered that he's a man who was at a very early age had a profoundly impactive figure in his life which was an African-American woman named Rachel Clark(ph), who in the film, he says, more than anyone he's ever encountered, Rachel Clark helped form his ideas even more than his parents who he attributes a lot of input too. And you come to realize that here's this kid that grew up in a completely separated society and who - for whom the whole idea of the other was obliterated.
He doesn't think in terms of different races. He thinks in terms of humanity. And as a farmer, he's very passionate about this, the horror of having your land taken from you. So, I think these two ingredients are what fueled - that, plus his biblically driven belief that what he calls the Holy Land is meant to be - not just should be but is meant to be - inhabited by all the children of Abraham, both the - all the Jews and the Muslims and the Christians are supposed to all live there together in peace. And he's obsessed with this notion.
BROOKS: This idea of being obsessed, he strikes me - and you would know this because you spent all this time with him - but he seems like a person who's never not on. I mean, is he always sort of going, thinking, working? I mean, did you ever see him kick back and…
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. DEMME: He's always tremendously engaged. It's very challenging. And I know that even one night on the trail we went out to - the film crew and President Carter, we went out to dinner and we arrived at dinner and he wanted every - he told everybody where to sit and he made sure that nobody who knew each very well as far as he could tell was sitting next to each other, and then he monitored all that. He was interested in all that. No, he doesn't - I never saw him kick back and relax. He's got too busy an agenda, I think, to do that.
BROOKS: We're talking to Academy Award-winning director Jonathan Demme. His latest - his current documentary is called "Jimmy Carter: Man From Plains." And we're taking your calls at 800-989-8255. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
I wanted to ask you how you move between feature films and documentaries, a range of subjects from rock 'n' rollers like the Talking Heads. You did this film "Stop Making Sense." I forget what year it was. Back in the '80s, correct?
Mr. DEMME: Yeah. '84.
BROOKS: '84 which I loved. You do thrillers, like "Silence of the Lambs." Does your approach in directing change from one format to another? I mean, how do you do this so effortlessly…
(Soundbite of laughter)
BROOKS: …because they're such different styles obviously.
Mr. DEMME: I'm not sure how effortless it actually is.
BROOKS: It appears effortless.
Mr. DEMME: Well, you know, I've always followed my enthusiasm. Whether the pictures have turned out good or not is one thing. But I've always had a lot of enthusiasm for the project at hand. And I've found documentaries to be a place that I love going to, and I think it's kept me very, very fresh and available for a script I might read that I could get excited about because I'm not really in the business of making fictional films, and I'm drawn to ones that I consider to be special and exciting in a certain way.
And in the meantime, I'll be perfectly happy to just make documentary after documentary. I love to shoot, and nowadays with the new technology, little cameras, like the piece that I'm doing down in New Orleans with Daniel Wolff and Abdul Franklin, we go down there with out little tiny cameras and just shoot. We come back when we cut it together, and if we're lucky, we wind up on getting up 100 minutes of broadcast time in "The Tavis Smiley Show."
BROOKS: Wow. Here's an e-mail from Pete(ph) in San Francisco which is sort of along the same lines of what I just asked you. What does a documentary allow you to do as a filmmaker that fictional film doesn't? Does it open up new ways to tell a story?
Mr. DEMME: Well, you know, what it allows us - it allows me as a filmmaker, and by extension hopefully the viewer, to make discoveries. We're not starting out with a blueprint that's programmed to arrive at a specific calculated conclusion - and I have nothing against that because I love fictional movies -but the excitement of waiting into quote, unquote, "reality" and just finding out what happens, and then the challenge of selecting those things that happened and shaping them in the editing into a narrative that will have appeal and be engaging is a great, great thrill.
BROOKS: Mm-hmm. Well, let's try and get a caller into this conversation. Carol(ph) is calling from Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts. And there she is. Carol, you're on the air.
CAROL (Caller): Hello.
BROOKS: Yes, how are you?
CAROL: I'm fine. I'm actually not in Oak Bluffs right now. I'm in my car driving there. But anyway, I don't how old Mr. Demme is now, but I wondered how old he was when he figured out he wanted to be a filmmaker, and the kind of films he makes are very different, and how long did it take him? How did he do it to get to the point where he could actually get financial support for the films he's doing?
BROOKS: Sounds like you're an inspiring filmmaker, Carol, is that right?
(Soundbite of laughter)
CAROL: I think you figured it out.
BROOKS: Okay. Jonathan Demme.
Mr. DEMME: I figured out that film was where I wanted to be working and where my interest really lie, when I flunked out of college chemistry after my first week of what I had hoped was going to be a journey to becoming a veterinarian. And I started writing movie reviews for campus newspaper for the rest of my one semester in college.
And in writing reviews, I finally got a publicity job at a film company and under those circumstances, I met Roger Corman, who said, well, you can write press releases. I'm starting a new company. I need movies. Can you write a screenplay? I was about 25 years old at the time and I said, I would love to try that. I had had no aspirations to be a filmmaker or a writer. Until then, I was thrilled to be working in the movie business as a publicist. I would have been perfectly happy to do that forever.
So suddenly, I became a screenwriter and then Corman said this is pretty good. I had written with my friend Joe Viola. And he said, well, Joe's a commercial director. Jonathan, why don't you produce it, Joe will direct it. So these - I fell backwards into it almost and I was excited about it. I learned how to do it on the job in public these new world pictures. And obviously this is a very specific - you mustn't wait for something like that to happen to you. You should now - you know, if you haven't got a little nice high-def camera already, get one. Start making a documentary. Cut it together. Get it in some festivals. Prove you're a filmmaker. That's all one has to do.
BROOKS: It's great, isn't it, with this technology that you can really do that now. I mean these cameras are so wonderful.
Mr. DEMME: Yeah. And you look at YouTube, which I'm not much of an Internet person. But I started hearing about a couple of things on YouTube, and you see all these work, incredible new filmmaking work being done by I guess, mainly young people and it's - it is a whole new wave happening that is obviously getting bigger and bigger.
BROOKS: Well, Jonathan Demme, what a pleasure talking to you. Thanks for coming in today.
Mr. DEMME: Thank you so much.
BROOKS: Appreciate it. That's Jonathan Demme. His new film is called "Jimmy Carter: Man from Plains." And he joined us here in Studio 3A. And we're going to go out, I guess, from the Talking Heads from "Stop Making Sense." There you go.
Neal Conan is back on Monday. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Anthony Brooks.
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