Jonathan Demme’s friendship and creative collaboration with Neil Young began in 1993 when the Canadian-born rocker sent the director a demo of what eventually became the closing song to Demme’s acclaimed AIDS drama Philadelphia.
Twelve years later, Demme shot two consecutive summer concerts by Young and band at the legendary Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, editing the country-inflected results into Neil Young Heart of Gold, released in 1996. Another, rockier performance film, Neil Young Trunk Show, made in 2010, had what Demme calls “a moment in theatres, got terrific reviews” – and hasn’t been seen since, not even on DVD.
Last year at the Toronto International Film Festival, the duo unveiled yet another concert project, this one composed mostly of footage from a pair of Massey Hall gigs showcasing Young’s then-latest recording, Le Noise, produced by fellow Canadian Daniel Lanois . Originally called Neil Young Life, it’s having a limited theatrical release this week as Neil Young Journeys. Demme, now 68, was interviewed last September at TIFF Bell Lightbox.
Just as Neil Young reportedly has umpteen songs that no one has ever heard and five completed albums that have never seen the light of day, are there any Neil Young films you’ve done that haven’t surfaced or footage you’d like to edit into something?
No, but there’s a proviso of sorts, that being Neil Young Trunk Show, which no one seems to have seen. And because Warner has yet to release it on DVD, there’s this giant vacuum in the middle of this alleged trilogy. Then there’s the first thing that Neil and I ever shot, this gorgeous 25-minute-long piece that we did on 35 mm with Tak Fujimoto as the director of photography. It was after Neil had finished his Mirror Ball record [with Pearl Jam, in 1995]. We went into Complex Studios in Los Angeles with Crazy Horse – this was just before a tour – and did five songs. That’s never come out on DVD and it’s just a lovely time-capsule piece.
People are calling your three Neil films a trilogy. But do you see it that way, or is this just what has been done so far and there may be two, maybe three more pictures to come out of this collaboration?
The only thing that will confirm it as a trilogy is if we never made another piece. And I hope we do. Previously, the way I’d keep it fresh for Neil is to say, “Well, that’s two films and now we have to make it a trilogy.” Now, my big goal is to do a “quadrilogy.”
With music as the focal point?
Who knows? I’d love to do a spoken-word piece with Neil. I haven’t spent masses and masses of time with him, but, I’ll tell ya, this guy is always incredibly interesting. And so I’d like to shoot anything with him. Dunno what it might be. Such a droll sense of humour, ohmigod.
Is the rumour true that the man behind such esteemed films as Philadelphia, Something Wild, Melvin and Howard, The Silence of the Lambs and Married to the Mob is not interested in doing another feature movie?
It’s now incorrect. There was a time, certainly, a couple of years ago before I did Rachel Getting Married, where I’d gotten so exhausted and so over the process of making larger-budget studio movies … that I just wanted to make documentaries and I’m gonna call Neil up to see if he’d like to do something. But then Rachel Getting Married sucked me back into the joy of making fiction films. Now, I’m enthusiastically developing a couple of possibilities, one of them an animated film drawn from Dave Eggers’ Zeitoun. The other, on which I’ve taken an option and am working on the screenplay, is Stephen King’s next novel, due in November. It’s called 11/22/63, and it’s about time travel and an attempt to prevent the assassination of JFK in Dallas in 1963. It’s great!
Besides the music films, Young’s tried his own directorial hand at more ambitious, experimental, semi-narrative stuff like Greendale, Human Highway, Journey Through the Past. Is that sort of thing of interest?
God, I would love to work in that mode. Y’know, Neil called me when he decided he want to make a film out of Greendale because he knew how much I loved the concert. So he said, “Now, I want to do a film about it and would you like to collaborate?” But I’d just started preproduction on The Mancharian Candidate and I couldn’t do it. It just broke my heart. … Y’know, don’t you, that Neil, as Bernard Shakey, has got a new film called Link Bolt, which is, like, 12 hours long and which eventually will be two hours? Oh yeah. One of these days, I want to team up with Bernard Shakey!
This interview has been condensed and edited.