In Neil Young Journeys, Academy Award winning filmmaker Jonathan Demme embarks on a road trip with Young in his 1956 Crown Victoria as he drives from his idyllic hometown of Omemee, Ontario to downtown Toronto’s iconic Massey Hall to perform the last two nights of his solo world tour. A long-time fan and collaborator, Demme captures Young recounting insightful and introspective tales of his childhood and masterfully weaves them together with his mesmerizing music including songs from the 2010 album Le Noise and powerful renditions of earlier Young classics. Through the tunes and the tales, Demme portrays a personal, retrospective look into the heart and soul of the artist.
We sat down at a roundtable interview with Demme to talk about the inspiration behind his most recent collaboration with Young. He told us what attracts him to artists like Young, David Byrne and Robyn Hitchcock who write words that are almost scripts in themselves, how filmmaking for him is all about following his enthusiasm, and why he is in awe of Young and what he has contributed musically to the world. He also discussed the sound technology behind Neil Young Journeys and why he considers this the most autobiographical piece of all. Hit the jump for the interview.
Jonathan Demme: Why so many Neil Young movies? It’s just because three great opportunities have presented themselves. Neil Young: Heart of Gold is the only film that was a planned film designed for the movies. It arose from conversations we had around his record, Prairie Wind, and about how beautiful it would be to do a film in Nashville and try to make a valentine to country & western music. We made our own backdrop and we brought in Manuel to make special costumes for every single person you saw on stage at Ryman (Auditorium). So, that was conceived but never went on the road tour. There was no such tour. That was a performance for the movie cameras only. That’s one thing. Then, he goes on the tour for Chrome Dreams, or whatever name a tour two years later had, and I went to see it and I just thought it was so visually exciting — the lighting that they were using in the show and all this old, wonderful analog stuff piled all over the stage. It felt like a movie waiting to be filmed. So we did that one. We made a film of a show that occurred within a tour so that was that. We started talking about making it a trilogy and what have you but that was just a joke. But then, Neil does this one-man tour off of the Le Noise album and I was so moved when I saw that show. For a very autobiographical and personal songwriter, this seemed to be just the most autobiographical piece of all. There’s an enormous sound.
Again, it felt like a film waiting to be done. For me, the challenge was how can we differentiate – beyond the fact that it’s a one-man show – okay fine – but how can we really make this different from Trunk Show because it runs the risk of being a concert film. That’s where this idea of maybe seeing if we could add another dimension to the film, and when the venue wound up being Massey Hall in Toronto, that whole autobiographical vibe felt like we could turn it into a homecoming of the autobiographical show. For anyone who’s a fan of Neil Young, everybody knows this line, “There is a town in North Ontario.” And, when we went up to Toronto in preparation for the show, I was like “Wait. Toronto’s in Ontario? Are we near the little town? That’s just three hours away.” And then, with Neil, if you know anything about him, you know he’s an old car freak and he’s actually invented a new old car, the Linc-Volt, which he’s spent a lot of money designing and perfecting as a fuel-less automobile. So anyway, a town in North Ontario, Massey Hall – the last time Neil played there was in the seventies when he was just emerging as an acknowledged artist. He could finally get into Massey Hall and he hadn’t been back there since.
All these elements just started conspiring. I thought I’m confident this will be different from anything we’ve done before. He was happy to get into the car. I didn’t know what he was going to be talking about because nothing was rehearsed or anything. He comes out with these outrageous antidotes about blowing up turtles and eating tar and stuff. I thought Mr. Cool is telling us all this stuff? It was also fun cinematically. I had a lot of fun in the cutting room. In a way, it’s a film about a guy who’s driving to his concert, except we start flashing forward to the concert and interrupting the drive with full-fledged songs. That was working and exciting, and I was mixing the order of the songs because I wanted the songs to have an emotional journey narrative implied like the way we were arranging them. And then, it was like this is working great, but he’s got to get there at a certain point. And then, the way that worked came together and suddenly we were showing him actually coming out on stage. I liked that a lot in the movie. I liked the movie a lot. It brings a little bit of Alain Resnais into the music film world. It was elliptical. We had a lot of fun doing that.
The filmmaking was wonderful in Stop Making Sense because it enhanced the performances, and this film does it again. Was there a lot of planning in terms of setting up the cameras and how you wanted to approach each song?
Demme: Yes, Stop Making Sense is the first performance film I did. On that one, the camera team and I did a little mini-tour with the band leading up to it and I made up shots and made a little script and then I talked to the camera operators with headsets counting them down to certain previously rehearsed shots. That said, half the movie were these prearranged shots and then the other half is just great stuff that happened when you have wonderful camera operators in the midst of things capturing music. With Neil Young Journeys, nothing was planned in advance or tailored to any song. It was two things. One was, for the first time, there’s no one else to cut to. In a way, there’s bad news there because in Neil Young: Heart of Gold and Neil Young Trunk Show, part of what makes those shows very strong, I think, is the fact that you can see how rich the relationship is that Neil has with his fellow musicians which is a real strength, this kind of community of players up there making music together.
This time we don’t have that value. It’s just Neil. But now what we can do, because we’re going to have just as many cameras, instead of tying it in, we can have a camera dedicated to the guitar all night. Whenever we want to go to the guitar, we can go to the guitar. We’ll have at least two gorgeous close-ups of Neil singing his heart out. We always have close-ups to go to and we’ll always have a full figure and we’ll always have the room. Then, we have two wild card camera guys who were free to just respond to what was going on and maybe go out on stage if they felt motivated enough for a minute and get a shot. So these are all things that we wound up with in the cutting room. We changed the composition song by song. All the camera operators knew to change a little bit. If you’ve been framing it that way, then frame it that way, make it a little lighter, make it a little tighter so we don’t get into that ‘oh, there’s that shot again.’ I wanted to feel like each song had its own fresh look. But then, it just became a question of presenting the songs as vividly as possible, and the first cut of Neil Young Journeys, we were able to achieve in one day because it was all close-ups, especially with these great stories. If you’ve got to only have one shot, it’s going to have to be a close-up of him singing. So then, we started opening up and there’s a good moment for the guitar. We built it that way.
As a filmmaker, when you’ve made one of the seminal movies like The Silence of the Lambs and then followed it with a groundbreaking movie like Philadelphia, how do you proceed to just make films within the business of filmmaking after creating a legacy like that?
Demme: I’ve never thought in those terms. Everything I’ve made – it doesn’t mean they’ve all been good – but everything I’ve made so far, big or little, fiction or documentary, has been something that I’ve been really enthusiastic about. I’ve never fallen into what I consider to be a trap of trying to figure out something analytically that could be a very popular film. I would hope my enthusiasm could match up with something with that potential. But, after the success of The Silence of the Lambs, it really was the result of making a lot of films with Orion Pictures and having a great relationship with them, and them feeling like I could do a good job on it. That’s how I got Silence of the Lambs out of a relationship. And then, with the success of that, I had an enthusiasm for making a film that would confront AIDS, prejudice and homophobia because I had friends who were afflicted and you looked at what was going on in the country.
My greatest enthusiasm wasn’t to make a hit movie. I wanted to make a film that addressed these issues. So we made Philadelphia and it was very successful. And then, I was sent the script for Beloved and I loved that script and I thought wow, with Oprah Winfrey behind it, they were actually going to finance this giant movie about our legacy of slavery in America. So I was like “I’m in!” I was actually moving towards doing a comedy with Denzel Washington, but that went on hold to do that. I’ve moved from stuff that turned me on. I’ve never had a good game plan. At a certain point, making independent films became more and more appealing to me because I like freshness and originality. So that’s kind of the way it’s been for me.
Demme: I was very, very excited about doing The Truth About Charlie. That was conceived of as a Thandie Newton/Will Smith film, and then for reasons pertaining to looming writers’ strikes and one thing or another, we wound up making it with a different cast. But that was a film I had tremendous enthusiasm for. And then, Manchurian Candidate, I loved Dan Pyne’s screenplay. I wanted to work with Denzel again. I had enthusiasm for the piece and I felt that it could have potential at the box office. But I loved the script. I thought “Yes, I can do this.” I was exhausted after Manchurian Candidate. That was a really tough picture to make and inside the studio. There’s a lot going on at the studio. And then, after that, I made Neil Young: Heart of Gold and I loved the freedom and the oxygen of making a film outside of that other system. Sidney Lumet called me up one day and said “You should read my daughter’s script. It’s great.” I read Rachel Getting Married and I loved it. We were able to make that as an independent film outside of the system. So that’s my weird journey. It’s just following my enthusiasm.
This is an amazing movie and the sound just blows you away.
Demme: Thank you.
Could you talk about the technology behind how you captured the sound?
Demme: When I first saw the show and heard the show, it was the profound energy of that bottom of the bass in it. I wondered if we could capture that for movie theaters because you can feel the low end and it’s exciting. Once you realize it’s not a mistake, it’s exciting. So I was assured that yes, we could with today’s technology in the movie theaters, and Neil wanted to double the amount of information that’s normally on sound tracks, what we hear even for Avatar’s 48 kilohertz. Neil wanted to record this not just at 96, twice the information that we are used to and satisfied with, he wanted to do it at 192 even though there’s not a system available to actually play that back yet. But we did. We recorded it at 192 and some day… So that became the big challenge and the big excitement. Again, we didn’t think we’d be able to deliver it at 96, but Neil, who’s a genius at sound, is actually designing a new sound system. He was like “No, but that information will be contained within the 48. We’ll benefit from that even under those circumstances.” So, we shot it in 192. We went back into…I don’t even know why we did this by the way, because I’m not a techie, but we went back to Massey Hall and played the board mix in the empty room and re-recorded that to have as an element on the mixing stage. It was really trail blazing. We had our premiere at the Toronto Film Festival last fall and they went to the trouble of bringing in a 96 kilohertz sound system. I’ve done a lot of these music movies and it’s the first one where everyone would go “Is this too loud?” (whispers) “No, this is fine.”
How important is it when you make these concert films to find people who write words that are almost scripts in themselves. Is that something you look for in the artists that you are attracted to such as Robyn Hitchcock in Storefront Hitchcock, David Bryne in Stop Making Sense, and Neil Young?
Demme: Well it’s something that presents itself. Yes, come to think of it. David Byrne’s lyrics are amazing. They’re just amazing and I never tire of hearing them. That’s like the text. If you’re doing a music film, you’ve got to be singing about something. Or, you have to be singing in a vocabulary that has tremendous appeal or else people are not going to want to sit there for eighty or ninety minutes hearing this stuff. We’re forced to interpret all this verbiage that comes our way. That, to me, is what makes Neil so inarguably worth three more performance films because his stories are so great and because his immersion in those stories is so fantastic. I went to see Robyn Hitchcock at a club after doing the Talking Heads movie (Stop Making Sense), and with Robyn, his lyrics, I think, are amazing and endlessly re-hearable. But also Robyn Hitchcock tells these amazing stories between his songs. He’s like a one-man Monty Python. When I saw his show, I was like “Wow! We should film him.” And Orion Pictures, bless their hearts, with whom we’d had some success with The Silence of the Lambs and Married to the Mob said “Oh sure, how much? Okay. That doesn’t sound like much. Yeah, we can make it.” So we did it. But I think it’s vital. It’s like when you’re working on a script, every word that’s on the page, somebody has to read it. Make every word count in your stories.
Demme: I don’t know. I read a piece about the whole issue of verbal analysis of what’s going on in the culture. There’s a writer named Mark Dery. He’s a culture critic. He’s written several books. He’s got a new one coming out. He was discussing the whole idea of do words matter anymore, and there’s this safety amount of words that everybody understands, and it’s risky to use words that don’t fall into that, and the last thing you want to do is to send anyone in America running for a dictionary. I was like “What?! Is that really what’s going on here?” It’s tremendously important.
How far back do you go with Neil Young, both the man and his music?
Demme: I’m of Neil Young’s generation. Neil Young’s songs have spoken to what it’s like to be at least a white male of his generation over the years. Endlessly, he’s sung about the stuff that I really care about. He’s put into words the feelings that hit you at different transitional moments in life. He’s written about what it’s like to age, someone his age, our age, and I’ve been grateful for that. I feel like his music has almost been like a mirror turned inwards, and beyond loving what it sounds like, his music has spoken to me in a very special way, long before I met him, which was when I sent him a cut of the movie, Philadelphia, to see if he’d write a song for the film. And then, we finally met. I had a lot going on with him to begin with. It’s been amazing working with him because I’m in awe of him. I think he’s a genius. I think you have to look throughout time globally to find the club that this man is in, in terms of what he’s contributed musically to the world. I still can’t believe that I’ve made some pieces with him and that I know him.
Demme: Yes. He let us use his song Unknown Legend in Rachel Getting Married. Darn it! I’m friends with Neil Young. I’ll come out and say it. (laughs)
I found the Ohio section of the film really powerful.
Demme: Me too.
Did you have any thoughts about tucking that in at the end of the film to build up to it?
Demme: No. I like its place because it comes within the first half hour or so of the movie or 20 minutes maybe. That’s my way of saying “This film ain’t messing around, people! And we got more for you!” I think that Walk With Me at the end is such an exquisite piece. That’s the one that has to be at the end and I also felt that the crazed drug autobiography, Hitchhiker, is kind of a show stopper. After you’ve seen that, I don’t know.
Demme: Oh yes. Helpless will be on there, Cortez The Killer will be on there. We left out some great, great stuff.
This is a movie you have to see in the theaters or the Blu-ray. You can’t stream this movie and get everything that’s in there.
Demme: Well, the delivery system, that’s true, too.
Neil Young Journeys is now playing in New York and Los Angeles.