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July 2004
The Manchurian Candidate: An Interview with Jonathan Demme

By Wilson Morales

The Manchurian Candidate: An Interview with Jonathan Demme

If there any white man in the Hollywood industry who has given a lot of support to the African American community, it's Director Jonathan Demme. Not only did direct the recent documentary, The Agronomist, which explored the life of Haitian radio journalist Jean Dominique, but he also help produced the HBO documentary on the late actress, Beah Richards, directed by actress Lisa Gay Hamilton. His latest film work is the remake of what some consider to be an American classic, The Manchurian Candidate, and his lead actor is Oscar Winner Denzel Washington. Demme spoke to blackfilm.com about doing the remake, the timing of its release, and working with Wyclef Jean, who did some of the music for the film.


How long have you been attached to this film?

Jonathan: First, Dan Pine wrote this great script, then Denzel Washington agreed to do it, and then I was given it and it about a year and a half ago. I guess it was early 2003.


Please tell me that you had seen the original Manchurian Candidate?

JD: Yes, I saw the original Manchurian Candidate. Needless to say, I won't talk about it. I saw it as a teenager when it came out. The Manchurian Candidate, Seven Days in May, Failsafe, Dr. Strangerlove are 4 pictures that came out roughly at the same time and for this young movie crazy guy, I completely exploded what American movies can be. Before pictures in tandem did that, there had never been, and then you boil it down to The Manchurian Candidate, interesting cluster, a picture that looked at American politics, American social morals ever before. There had never before been like a totally sassy undisciplined movie. It was unbelievable.


There was the black humor, and the wild absurdity of it all

JD: The shocking cutting of the American flag cake. There was this insert of this big American red flag and Senator Johnny Iselin, a character who's not in our movie, puts his knife in the man and there was this big gasping sound.


What did you think when you first saw it?

Well, that's it. I was completely shocked and it was a whole new kind of American movie.


We had never seen a woman treated like that in movie before.

JD: Yep, it's true. Unbelievable. Much less the kiss.


Was there a consideration to change the title? They share a lot of things but I think yours is a totally different movie?

JD: I felt at script level that there was an originality that Dan Pine had brought to this version. It's the only reason that our multi national corporation that profits from war is called Manchurian Global is that so the movie could be called The Manchurian Candidate. It's ridiculous. When I first got involved, I said, "Guys, this is silly." Not because it's so different even, it's because that's so flimsy. It's serviceable. But now, I feel whether this film is good or bad, it's the only one like it. If movies are products that enter the marketplace and appeal to consumers, we're the only product like this, and it's got a brand name, and the brand name is The Manchurian Candidate. So that's it. .


What do you think of the poster that is being used to market the film, "Who is The Manchurian Candidate?"

JD: I've been trying to convince Paramount to take the campaign poster, the Arthur Shaw campaign poster, and anything that mentions a thing about the movie, and put posters everywhere. "Secure tomorrow!"


What do you think about the timing of the release?

JD: I'm excited about that. I was afraid of it. I know when I got involved in it, I said to myself, "Thank God we won't be finish with our presidential assassination movie in time before the election because that's really in bad taste, and then Paramount said that we had a movie set against the backdrop of a presidential election and if it comes out afterwards, people aren't going to be interested in it so we better get it out beforehand and by then I was inside my excitement about the movie and I was like, "Yes". I'm excited about it because this is a movie that's been conceived and paid for in order to put a thriller out there. Denzel Washington, psychological thriller, roller coaster ride, every 12 minutes, something fairly shocking happens, that's the movie I wanted to make, but I also think it's a stick in the eye of American politics, not particularly one party or the other, just the whole blah blah blandness of it all and the whole mediazation of it. I hoping it's the kind of movie that people will talk about. Have a good gripping time and then talk about.


Was there a scene that further on in the movie explains the Arabian woman? She seemed to have disappeared after a small scene.

JD: Did you notice in Marko's retrieve memory of when he and Raymond killed their squad members? Did you notice that there were posters of the tattoo faces with the words "Enemy" written on them? That probably should have been in there more.


The only reason I bring it up is because the original had the cards and the queen of diamonds.

JD: Right, but of course, she's not a trigger. The idea there was that if you were going to capture these American soldiers in the Gulf War, and while you had them, brainwash them, you would want to steep them in negative Arabic imagery so that in case they do have any leakage from their experience, they are going to remember these black clad images and Arabic people.


So that was no homage to the original film?

JD: No, but it's interesting because in that scene, there was a longer version where you got to see that poster and that woman's face leaning against the wall much longer than you presently see it.


You are a big believer in DVD, so are we assuming that we might see it there?

JD: We had a much longer version (of the film) that is about 20 minutes longer so there's going to be a lot of good deleted scenes but not a longer version of that scene.


Did you reshoot the ending because some people think that Denzel's character originally died?

JD: No, that was always scripted. That was always the plan. The only thing we went out and did more was more coverage of Denzel putting the photograph in the water at the end because it had been shot in a more stylized way. He placed the photo down, the camera move in on it, and that was the movie ended. It didn't have the emotional resonance that I was banking on there so we went back so we could have Denzel make it right. That was one of my favorite lines when I first read the script. Rosie's running up to the booth, he's in there, taking his gun out, and I was frightened at script level, and even then I see the movie, it suggests the possibility that, "Oh, My God!", Marko may shoot Rosie. Then, in the script, she curls and opens the door, and I told Dan Pine that my favorite line in the script is "She shoots him". Three words and I was like, "What???" because I thought that was so shocking and such an extraordinary thing.


Can you talk about working with Meryl? Did anything surprise you about her?

JD: I guess I was surprised at how effortlessly down to earth this genius is all the time and without playing down all our perception of her greatness how down to earth she is, and it was amazing to see how technical she was at rehearsal level so that she could be completely liberated and free within the moment when she'd do it; and anytime you would do another take, she'd do something completely different from what she did last time, which made it difficult to not request, even though you had five She doesn't know how to do something that hasn't have value to it. There's no bad takes for Meryl. None. So at a certain point, you have 5 fabulous choices already but it's like, "What's she going to do the next time?" You do one more and she's delighted to do one more, so it was a really a blast to see how great she is as an artist and also seeing her humanity. She's really something. The other thing about Meryl I loved and this is something that is true of my excitement of working with Jodie Foster and Denzel Washington, in the Marko part, and although he's troubled, he's very much a good guy, and it's really great when you're working with actors who don't have to mask their intelligence. All of these actors are able to use that. Denzel, in this movie, there are dialogue scene and what have you, but it's a part that is so empowered by what we see in his eyes as he looks at things and thinks about things and listens about things. He's such a storyteller with all that stuff.


This is such a breakout role for Live that I don't think we've realized how good of an actor he is?

JD: I agree, and I wish he was here, but you know that he's off making his movie somewhere in Eastern Europe. He's a very moving person I think. The moment he walked in, I said, "Oh boy, this is it." That combination of vulnerability and ego and I thought that this is going to be great for Raymond.


Did you test him with Meryl?

JD: Yeah.


It's nice to see that in this movie he has ambitions too and that he's just not a pond put out there to do his mother's bidding.

JD: I don't know if it comes through in the movie but the idea was, and there's so little information about this, but when he talks about the grandmother and the medicine in one hand, he means it. There is that about him.


I loved the graphics about the CMP. It's better than CNN's.

JD: Half way through our post production, the people that were designing that, and we wanted it to be one step ahead of the craziness of graphics we now see on TV and halfway through the post production, the people that designed all our stuff, got hired to design the stuff for the Democratic National Convention. I was like, "We'll be in theaters by then, won't we?"


How did Al Franken wind up in the movie?

JD: I've wanted to work with Franken since Saturday Night Live when he did those deadpan news reports. Who better to grimly to intone the worries that we face as Americans than Al Franken.


Will there be a soundtrack for this film?

JD: No. There wasn't enough time to get a song CD out. However, there is going to be, after the movie comes out, a best of Rachel Portman and Wyclef Jean and David Amram, who did the score for the original. It's going to be very interesting. The CD will start off with 45 minutes of David Amram and then another 45 of Portman and Jean.


What's it like working with Wyclef Jean? Didn't he work with you on The Agronomist?

JD: He's great at everything. I would describe Wyclef as a one man Beattles. He can do anything and he's so movie smart. I'm quite sure that he will be an important filmmaker someday, but I love working with him, and I love working with Rachel Portman. She did two fictional movie with me, The Truth About Charlie and Beloved, and I wanted to work with both and was wondering how these two unlikely people could team up, so Rachel did the foundation score, the character narrative thriller score, and when that was in place, she and Wyclef went into the studio and put in new layer of stuff with Wyclef playing the guitar and sometimes drum and sometimes keyboards. There's some spooky stuff going on in there that I feel is quite original and quite effective. If you ever see the movie again, there's a lot of Wyclef in there. Just listen for the guitar and the score.


What's next?

JD: I bought, all by myself, an option on a book called "Walk Two Moons" written by Sharon Creech, a Newberry winner. It's a coming of age tale of a 13 year old girl.

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