Jonathan Demme on how he got started in filmmaking, in his own words
Jonathan Demme, director of Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia, and Rachel Getting Married, died on Wednesday at 73 following complications due to esophageal cancer. But long before he won an Oscar for Silence of the Lambs, Demme got his start like so many other filmmakers — by working with B-movie king Roger Corman. Demme began his career in the early 1970s making low-budget B movies with titles like The Hot Box (which he produced) and Caged Heat (his directorial debut, image below), and spent those early years honing his craft and learning valuable lessons that would pay off decades later.
Back in 2010, when Corman was being given an honorary Oscar for his contributions to Hollywood, Entertainment Weekly critic Chris Nashawaty spoke with Demme about his nascent days with Corman and their collaborations. Read an edited transcript of the conversation below. (Nashawaty’s book on Corman, Crab Monsters, Teenage Cavemen, and Candy Stripe Nurses: Roger Corman: King of the B Movie, is available via Amazon.)
CHRIS NASHAWATY: How did you get started in the movie business?
JONATHAN DEMME: I was living in London in the late ’60s, and I was producing TV commercials, and I had a background as a film publicist, and I received a phone call from United Artists, who were financing a Roger Corman movie which was going to be shot in Ireland called Von Richtofen and Brown (1971). They were calling to see if I was interested in being unit publicist on that film and I was, of course. I went over to meet Roger in Dublin for an interview and sat down with him. I was a huge Roger Corman fan with no filmmaking aspirations whatsoever. I loved movies, but I was fine being a publicist. He looked at some of the publicity materials I had written and asked if I thought I could write a screenplay. And I said, yes. And he said he was starting a new company back in Los Angeles — New World Pictures. And he needed to generate scripts so he could get some movies in production. So he asked if I liked motorcycle movies. And I said yes. “In particular, Roger, I like your Wild Angels. And he said, “Okay, fine, well, why don’t you write a motorcycle script for me.” I was like 24 years old! It sounded thrilling to me.
Did he say how much he would pay?
No, and I never thought to ask. I was a voracious moviegoer — an intense cinephile. I’d written some film reviews for tiny newspapers. Anyway, I teamed up with a friend, Joe Viola, who directed the TV commercials that I produced. Joe was a fantastic storyteller. So I told Roger the idea: We were going to do a motorcycle version of Rashomon. But with scenes of sex and violence, of course! So we wrote it and we sat there and watched him read our 80-page screenplay. He finishes and says, “Hmm, this is pretty good. I think we can make it. Joe, you direct commercials, and Jonathan, you produce them. Why don’t you fellas come out and make the movie? Come to L.A. in two months and you can get started.” So we went out to L.A. to attend, what we called it was the Roger Corman School of Filmmaking. You were literally learning how to make a movie while making a movie. And I think Joe and I shared $3,000 for our combined writing, directing, and producing chores. The movie was called Angels Hard as they Come (1971).
What was the budget on Angels Hard as they Come?
$125,000. We had three weeks to shoot it. But we were making a MOVIE! Who cared? The money was not an issue. The only advice he gave us was warning us to stay on budget and on schedule. That was it.
How do you think the film holds up?
Joe and I did a much more successful — creatively and every way — follow-up, The Hot Box (1972). We became much better filmmakers on that one. We were one of the first teams to go to the Philippines along with the Big Doll House (1971).
So you made a biker movie then a women-in-prison movie in the Philippines; is this where you thought your career would go?
Honestly, I never… I was perfectly happy to be a film publicist and make TV commercials. The Hot Box was an incredibly intense experience. We had monsoons and terrible weather and got behind schedule, and it was necessary to have a second unit, and that’s the first time I ever directed. Huge battle scenes.
What was the rationale for shooting in the Philippines? Just that it was cheaper or it had jungle or what?
You would get tremendous production value. They had an incredibly strong and poorly paid film industry over there. The Hot Box was made for $181,000, and it has spectacular locations and explosions and armies of soldiers shooting guns. It was very exciting, and that’s where the I got the directing bug.
And the first film you directed for him was Caged Heat (1974)…
Yes. When we came back from the Philippines, I asked Roger if there was any chance of directing, and he said, “Okay, write a women’s prison movie.” At New World in those days, the titles and play dates were set before there was even a script. Roger made sure that he could book a women’s prison movie in thousands of theaters, and then he’d say, “Okay, we better make this.” It was always important to work fast. There were always a lot of notes on the scripts from Roger. They all kind of had to do with narrative and character and this can be better. It wasn’t like more sex and violence and topless girls. Everyone who came in the door knew what the formula was; you didn’t need to be reminded about the action and the nudity and the subtle social commentary.
What’s the most important lesson about filmmaking you learned on these B-movie cheapies?
It’s a mantra, and I do it to this day! I learned it on Caged Heat from Roger. When the shot is finished, here’s what you say: cut, print, the next shot is… fill in the blank. You have to know what your next shot is. Never stand around for a second. You have to keep it rolling all day. So you have to know where you’re going with shot lists and storyboards. That’s enormously important, and I still think that way today.