Talking with Jonathan Demme about Neil Young, you quickly realize you're speaking with a fan as much as an Academy Award-winning director. "There's no musical artist whose music I've enjoyed more," he says.
The U.S. director ( The Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia, The Manchurian Candidate) was at the Toronto International Film Festival last September to discuss Neil Young Trunk Show, an intimate concert film shot largely with hand-held cameras at a pair of shows at the Tower Theater in Upper Darby, Penn., in 2007.
An interview with Demme reveals the depth of his relationship with the Canadian rock icon (on a professional and personal level) and the awe he has for the Hey Hey, My My man.
You've made two Neil Young concert films - 2006's Heart of Gold and now this new one - which probably makes you as qualified as anyone to answer the question, 'What makes Neil so darn watchable?'
My explanation would be, speaking as someone who loves what he does, is that he's brilliant. He is a ferocious communicator, he's equipped with tremendous generosity of spirit, and he's an artist.
You stress the word 'artist.' What do you mean by that?
He doesn't give a shit. He is who he is. Fortunately, he's this brilliant, big-hearted guy.
And he seems to be able to knock off the odd tune or two, right?
I know - what the heck, he writes these great songs. And he sings in that unique voice. He moves in a way that no one else does. He plays the guitar in a completely unique style. And it all adds up to someone I love to experience.
What is your relationship, beyond the working relationship?
I dare say that, over the years, Neil and I have become friends. I love him very much in that way. We have a very nice communication, and we both love his music. [Laughs.]But also, Neil is such a cinematic person. And that may be a reason, to get back to your first question, why we enjoy watching him - because he moves with that awareness.
Is he conscious of the cameras?
I don't think he's conscious of it in the moment. I think he trusts 'it.' You know, it's unfigure-out-able, but I think he trusts the camera and he trusts himself with the lens - on both sides of it.
What's your appraisal of his own films?
I love his work as a filmmaker. I love his Greendale. I love crying to the last seven minutes of Greendale - that this filmmaker has made this one-of-a-kind film that moves me so much.
How did your relationship with Neil come about?
As a recipient of Neil's work, we've had a relationship since 1967, when I first heard his songs on Buffalo Springfield's first album. He's been communicating with me ever since, in the deepest way. His stuff has such great meaning to me.
Neil contributed a song to your 1993 film Philadelphia. Is that how you two met?
Yes, I met him after that. I dared to ask him if that he ever needed somebody to make a video, please call me. At that time, he had just completed Mirror Ball, the album he made with Pearl Jam. We wound up going into Complex Studio, where he records in Los Angeles, and I filmed five songs. We ended up with a 25-minute film that was called The Complex Sessions, which never came out. I think it will at some point.
In 2003, you made Heart of Gold, a documentary and concert film of Neil at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. We can assume that Neil was happy enough with it to ask you to make another concert movie, which ended up being Neil Young Trunk Show.
We had become friends by then. During his Chrome Dreams II tour in 2007 I got a call from Elliot Roberts, Neil's manager. He said, 'the music is playing great. We're wondering if we should film it, and we're wondering if you want to come down and take a look.' Six weeks later, we filmed what became Neil Young Trunk Show.
The film is quite different than the Heart of Gold. Can you talk about the processes of making the two films?
We made such painstaking preparations in conceiving what Heart of Gold would be like. Everything was planned - everything. Every wardrobe item that everyone wore - not just Neil - was made for the show. We had backdrops. We textured the lighting so we could have that golden hue to it. The cameras were in very specific spaces. So, it seemed that if we were going to make another film, let's be rock 'n' roll - let's go with the spontaneity and surprises of rock 'n' roll. This was going to be a rock 'n' roll show, not a Grand Ole Opry country music show.
The film has a grainy, bootleg quality to it. How planned were the shots?
We gave the camera workers areas to work from, but no specific assignments other than to get something great - to always have something in your lens that you think is a great shot. So, we ended up with a terrific amount of great, great footage.
How arduous was the editing process?
It's funny. When you have seven cameras going, the best shot for the best moment speaks loud and clear. You don't have to puzzle over much. One shot is better than all the others. There aren't actually a lot of edits with the film.
From what I understand, the music wasn't fiddled around with much either. Why did you decide to go with the straight soundboard mix, rather than remix the music for the soundtrack?
We couldn't compete with the immediacy and the truth of the board mix. Neil did a couple of little tweaks - something was missing and needed to be pushed up a little. But this is the same sound that everybody heard when they went to the show.
Invariably, when fellow musicians speak about Neil, the term 'genius' comes up. Do you agree with that?
Neil Young Trunk Show opens Friday at Toronto's Royal Cinema, Vancouver's Vancity Theatre and Winnipeg's Cinematheque, with dates to follow in Waterloo, Ont., Saskatoon, Ottawa and Montreal.