courtesy of press notes:
With the startling, engrossing film Beloved, director Jonathan Demme returns to the big screen following his Academy Award™-winning work on The Silence of the Lambs and the emotionally powerful Philadelphia. Academy Award™ nominee Oprah Winfrey stars with Danny Glover, Thandie Newton, Kimberly Elise, and Beah Richards in this compelling story adapted from the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison. Beloved translates to the screen with its daring intact, immersing viewers in the haunting, haunted landscape of its story.
Oprah Winfrey, for whom Beloved is the ultimate labor of love, appears in her first starring feature film role since earning an Oscar® nomination for Best Supporting Actress in The Color Purple, with a performance of undeniable fearlessness. Winfrey optioned the rights to Beloved upon its publication and nurtured the project for nearly a decade, personally shepherding it to its current incarnation as one of the most anticipated motion picture events of the year.
Winfrey stars as Sethe, a woman of elemental grace and unspoken mystery. A figure of fierce determination, Sethe is a runaway slave struggling to carve out a simple existence with her children in rural Ohio, 1873. She is hindered, however, by the painful legacy of her former life, and the desperate measures to which she is driven to keep herself and her family from returning to it.
Danny Glover stars as Paul D, an old friend who comes to visit Sethe and whose understanding is tested by her household’s shattering secrets. Kimberly Elise portrays Sethe’s daughter, Denver, an embattled young woman who must free herself from the crippling grasp of her mother’s choices. And Thandie Newton is Beloved. As Beloved grows to dominate Sethe’s family, her devastating presence threatens to destroy the delicate balance of Sethe and Denver’s existence.
Beloved is a Touchstone Pictures presentation of a Harpo Films/Clinica Estetico Production. The director is Jonathan Demme, working from a screenplay by Akosua Busia and Richard LaGravenese and Adam Brooks, based on the Toni Morrison novel. The film is produced by Edward Saxon, Jonathan Demme, Gary Goetzman, Oprah Winfrey, and Kate Forte. Ron Bozman serves as executive producer. The film is distributed by Buena Vista Pictures Distribution.
The experience of reading Beloved moved Oprah Winfrey, she says, in a way she had never felt before. “Beloved is about what slavery did to people. It’s about how it drove people mad, forced people to make choices no human being should have to make, and what happens as a result of making those choices. It’s about the death of self, the birth of self, and finding ways to make yourself whole.”
There was a real-life model for Sethe, the novel’s leading character. Toni Morrison had been inspired by the story of a woman named Margaret Garner, a Kentucky slave who escaped with her children to Cincinnati, Ohio, which is also Morrison’s birthplace.
Unbeknownst to Winfrey, in December of 1996, Kate Forte, head of Harpo Films/producer, sent the script to Jonathan Demme and his partner Edward Saxon at their production company, Clinica Estetico.
Demme says, “I took some scripts home with me over Christmas vacation, and Beloved was at the top of the pile. I read it and just fell in love with the script.” For the director, to be given the chance to make such a powerful and unforgettable story was “a dream come true.”
Jonathan Demme realized that a cinematic work must define its own vision, saying, “Even as we were all determined to honor Ms. Morrison’s novel to the deepest degree possible, we also understood that the movie had to achieve a life all its own. We knew that we didn’t want to fall into the reverential trap of just kind of worshipping at the altar of a book we revered and adored. Any adaptation must aspire to taking flight and creating its own identity.”
courtesy of press notes:
In early 1997, shortly after Jonathan Demme had agreed to direct Beloved, he and producer Edward Saxon began to assemble their team of behind-the-scenes personnel. Longtime collaborator Kristi Zea (Philadelphia, The Silence of the Lambs, and Married to the Mob) signed on as production designer and also served as film’s second unit director.
According to Zea, their first priority was to secure a location that would work for the film’s time frame, which ranges from 1855 to 1873.
Their search took them to eight states before they discovered the ideal spot 45 minutes south of Philadelphia, in Maryland. The Fair Hill Natural Resource, a wooded area of more than 5,000 acres that had once served as hunting grounds for the wealthy Dupont family, was where they built Sethe’s Bluestone Road house. Zea looked to historical research and the novel for its design, saying, “A lot of clues are in the book for the look and feeling of the house.”
The early challenges in finding a location were quickly forgotten, says Demme. “Once you do find the spot, it’s inevitably going to be an extraordinary, breathtaking place to work. It’s been arduous finding the right places, and then it’s a source of great joy to actually be there filming.” Principal photography began on June 25, 1997.
The commitment to detail was evidenced in every facet of the production. While filming, the filmmakers faced a particular challenge in mounting the flashback scenes that are interspersed throughout the story.
Demme, director of photography Tak Fujimoto, and production designer Kristi Zea explored several possibilities using different kinds of film stock. Fujimoto is one of Demme’s most frequent collaborators, having shot eight films for the director.
For the 1855 flashback scenes, Fujimoto used a reversal film stock originally created by Kodak for news reporting’s quick turnaround needs. “To our eye today, it’s a very grainy stock, but it had the quality we were looking for,” says Fujimoto. “The colors are very saturated, but we overexposed the film to wash it out, and added a sepia tone to give an older look to it.”
For the 1865 scenes, Fujimoto used a regular film stock which was digitally de-saturated during post-production.
Fujimoto describes his approach to the film’s lighting design. “I rely a lot on the production design. Early on, they had decided on the main house’s design, where the ceilings are very, very low, so all the lighting was dictated by the physical nature of the set. All the lighting was very low to the ground and shadowy. The wardrobe department helped out a lot by keeping the clothes in darker, warmer earth tones.”
All the painstaking detail work served to inspire the director and actors. For actor Thandie Newton, it felt that “all the departments involved just seemed to have a perfect understanding, and the attention to detail on every level. I felt I was in the midst of great artists, and it’s not every day that you feel that on a film set.”
courtesy of Just Buffalo Literary Center:
With her incredible string of lyrical, imaginative, and adventurous modern classics Toni Morrison lays claim to being one of America’s best novelists. Race issues are at the heart of many of Morrison’s most enduring novels, from the ways that white concepts of beauty affect a girl’s self image in The Bluest Eye to themes of segregation in Sulu and slavery in her signature work Beloved. Through it all, Morrison relates her tales with lyrical eloquence and spellbinding mystery.
Born Chloe Anthony Wofford, Morrison’s unique approach to writing stems from a childhood spent steeped in folklore and mythology. Her family reveled in sharing these often tales, and their commingling of the fantastic and the natural would become a key element in her work when she began penning original tales of her own.
The other majorly influential factor in her writing was the racism she experienced firsthand in, as Jet magazine described it, the “mixed and sometimes hostile neighborhood” of Lorain, Ohio. When Morrison was only a toddler, her home was set afire by racists while her family was still inside of it. During times such as these, she found strength in her father, who instilled in her a great sense of dignity. This pride in her cultural background would heavily influence her debut novel.
In The Bluest Eye, an eleven-year old black girl named Pecola prays every night for blue eyes, seeing them as the epitome of feminine beauty. She believes these eyes, symbolizing commonly held white concepts of attractiveness, would put an end to her familial woes, an end to her father’s excessive drinking and her brother’s meandering. They would give her self-esteem and purpose. The Bluest Eye is the first of Toni Morrison’s cries for racial pride and it is an auspicious debut told with an eerie poeticism.
Morrison next tackled segregation in Sulu, which chronicles the friendship between two women who, much like the author, grew up in a small, segregated village in Ohio. Song of Solomon followed. Arguably her first bona fide classic and certainly her most lyrical work, Song of Solomon breathed with the mythology of Morrison’s youth, a veritable modern folktale pivoting on an eccentric whimsically named Milkman Dead who spends his life trying to fly. This is one of Morrison’s most breathtaking, most accomplished and fully dimensional novels, a story of powerful convictions told in an unmistakably original manner.
In Song of Solomon, Morrison created a distinct world where the supernatural commingles comfortably with the mundane, a setting that would reappear in her masterpiece, Beloved. Beloved is a ghost story quite unlike any other, a tale of guilt and love and the horrendous legacy of slavery. Taking place not long after the end of the Civil War, Beloved finds Sethe, a former slave, being haunted by the daughter she murdered to save the child from being sold into slavery. It is a gut wrenching story that is buoyed by its fantastical plot device and the sheer beauty of Morrison’s prose.
Beloved so moved Morrison’s literary peers that forty-eight of them signed an open letter published in the New York Times demanding she be recognizing for this major effort. Subsequently, the book won her a Pulitzer Prize. A year after publishing her next novel Jazz in 1992, she would become the very first African American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Towards the end of the century, Morrison’s work became increasingly eclectic. She not only published another finely crafted, incendiary novel in Paradise, which systematically tracks the genesis of an act of mob violence, but she also published her first children’s book The Big Box. In 2003, she published Love, her first novel in five years, a complex meditation on family and the way one man fuels the obsessions of several women. The following year she assembled a collection of photographs of school children taken during the era of segregation. What makes Remember: The Journey to School Integration so particularly haunting is that Morrison chose to compose dialogue imagining what the subjects of each photo may have been thinking. In 2008, Morrison published A Mercy.
That imagination, that willingness to take chances, to examine history through a fresh perspective, is such an integral part of Morrison’s craft. She is as vital as any contemporary artist, and her stories may focus on the black American experience, but the eloquence, imaginativeness, and meaningfulness of her writing leaps high over any racial boundaries.
Photo: MICHAEL LIONSTAR, ALFRED A. KNOPF / AP PHOTO
courtesy of TCM:
“I only work with actors who take full responsibility for their characters.”
An incredibly energetic, optimistic and versatile director of character-driven films, Jonathan Demme emerged from the crucible of B-moviemaking at Roger Corman’s New World Pictures in the early 1970s to become one of Hollywood’s most critically admired filmmakers. Though he cut his teeth on a few cheapie action flicks like “Caged Heat” (1974) and “Crazy Mama” (1975), Demme tapped into the influence of foreign filmmakers like Francois Truffaut to use sly humor and an oddball style to explore human nature in fiercely intimate films like “Citizen’s Band” (1977), “Melvin and Howard” (1980) and the troubled “Swing Shift” (1984). Though mainly interested in fictional storytelling, Demme also carved out a career in non-fiction filmmaking, including the critically acclaimed “Stop Making Sense” (1984), a rock documentary featuring Talking Heads that was widely considered to be one of the best examples of the genre. But Demme reserved his finest work for his most mainstream fare, particularly “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991), which became one of only three films to win Academy Awards in all five major Oscar categories and cemented his reputation as being one of the most versatile and accomplished filmmakers of his day. Following the equally high profile AIDS story “Philadelphia” (1993) and Oprah Winfrey-starring Toni Morrison adaptation “Beloved” (1998), Demme returned to his quirkier roots with a series of documentaries focusing on rocker Neil Young, a remake of the conspiracy thriller “The Manchurian Candidate” (2008) and the small-scale indie “Rachel Getting Married” (2008). When Jonathan Demme died of complications from esophageal cancer on April 26, 2017, peers and fans across the globe mourned the loss of one of the most eclectic and unique filmmakers of his generation.
Born on Feb. 22, 1944 in Baldwin, NY, Demme was raised by his father, Robert, a public relations executive for the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami, FL, and his mother, Carol, an actress. After his parents moved to Florida, Demme began carving out a career as a veterinarian by working at a local vet cleaning cages and caring for the animals. But when he was unable to master the most basic concepts of chemistry at the University of Florida, Demme gave up his dream of becoming a veterinarian and began writing film reviews for the college’s newspaper, The Alligator. After writing a rave review of “Zulu” (1964), his father arranged an introduction to the film’s producer Joseph E Levine, who was charmed by Demme’s enthusiastic thumbs up and immediately hired him to write press releases. Demme moved to New York, where he spent the next two years as a movie publicist for United Artists and Embassy Pictures. It was during this time that he met and befriended French director François Truffaut, who was in New York promoting “The Bride Wore Black” (1968). Truffaut recognized the young publicist’s affection for film and planted the directing seed into Demme’s mind.
In 1968, Demme left the publicist business and moved to London, where he continued writing reviews, only this time for the music business, which ironically helped to open the door on his feature film career. Hired by producers Paul Maslansky and Irwin Allen to create the music for “Eyewitness/Sudden Terror” (1970), Demme worked with British rock groups Van Der Graaf Generator and Kaleidoscope as the score’s music coordinator. It was during this time that he came to the attention of low-budget impresario Roger Corman. At the producer’s invitation, Demme relocated to Los Angeles to write screenplays for the recently-formed New World Pictures, completing his first script, “Angels Hard as They Come” (1971), with friend Joe Viola. Demme graduated to second unit director on “The Hot Box” (1972) before making his full-fledged directorial debut with the tongue-in-cheek “Caged Heat” (1974), a fairly typical women’s prison flick in which the director inserted a socially-conscious secondary plot about the medical exploitation of prisoners. Demme helmed two more pictures for Corman, “Crazy Mama” (1975), a rich crime comedy about a wild woman (Cloris Leachman) on an absurdist crime spree from California to Arkansas, and “Fighting Mad” (1976), starring Peter Fonda as a man driven to violence by a ruthless landowner who wants to take over his farm.
After “Fighting Mad,” Demme left the comfortable confines of New World Pictures to make movies on his own. He beat out several directors to helm “Citizen’s Band” (1977), an adventurous comedy which wavered between glorifying, lampooning and seriously questioning the implications of the CB radio craze of the era. Retitled “Handle with Care,” the movie was a series of mundane, whimsical and disturbing vignettes that featured a gang of loony CB operators which bombed at the box office despite good reviews, leaving Demme scrounging for work. After making “Last Embrace” (1979), an accomplished thriller in the Hitchcockian mold, Demme continued his exploration of the American condition in “Melvin and Howard” (1980), a laidback but revealing account of an unlikely encounter between a working-class everyman, Melvin Dummar (Paul LeMat), and eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes (Jason Robards), whom Dummar claimed named him sole heir to his fortune. Named Best Picture by the National Society of Film Critics, this satiric, tolerant look at the American class structure also won Demme the New York Film Critics’ Best Director award, as well as Oscars for co-star Mary Steenburgen and writer Bo Goldman. But once again, Demme failed to ignite the box office.
For his next film, “Swing Shift” (1984), Demme envisioned a probing look at women factory workers during World War II (his grandmother had worked on the assembly line making fighter planes.) But the film’s executive producer and female lead, Goldie Hawn, saw a star vehicle instead. Hating the director’s cut emphasizing female camaraderie and endurance in the face of domineering male employers, Hawn presented the director with 28 pages of new material, which he half-heartedly shot. As soon as the picture had been through two previews in its original form, Hawn decided to re-cut the film on her own, playing up the script’s romantic angle. Demme and his editor Craig McKay quit the project rather than insert the new scenes. Though its critical and commercial failure vindicated him in a way, the pain of the experience lingered for well over a year. New Yorker critic Pauline Kael – who originally gave “Swing Shift” a negative review – later said, “I saw his cut on videotape, and thought it was wonderful.”
During the early stages of editing “Swing Shift,” Demme had attended a Talking Heads concert in Los Angeles and had been blown away by their performance. He sold the band’s leader David Byrne on his vision of honoring the excitement of the live performance by avoiding tricky shots, flashy editing techniques, and anything that would constitute a digression from the performance itself, like cutaways to the audience. Compiled from three concerts in December 1983, “Stop Making Sense” (1984) was a joyously energetic, yet downtown-cool showcase which helped propel Talking Heads to mainstream stardom. Demme also directed several rock videos for other bands, including an acclaimed clip for New Order’s “Perfect Kiss” that consisted primarily of extreme close-ups of the band members’ faces and hands as they performed the song.
Demme’s eclectic musical taste also informed the lively “Something Wild” (1986), a screwball comedy that takes a surprising turn into thriller territory. “Something Wild” was Demme’s contribution to the disaffected yuppie genre, which had already yielded Albert Brooks’ “Lost in America” (1985) and John Landis’ “Into the Night” (1985), in which Demme had appeared in a cameo role. The film’s hip urban sensibility seemed a change for Demme, as did the return to violence largely unseen since his early days with Corman. But the film was actually consistent with the director’s examination of self-determination that had begun with the women prisoners of “Caged Heat” and continued with the munitions workers of “Swing Shift.” His concern with the heroic struggle of the central female character who fights to establish herself against unyielding patriarchal attitudes helped contribute to his reputation as a feminist filmmaker.
Demme showed his mettle with another artful and subtle performance film, “Swimming to Cambodia” (1987), featuring celebrated monologist Spalding Gray. He next spoofed the Mafia in “Married to the Mob” (1988), another dark comedy more garishly colored and cheerful than “Something Wild.” Dean Stockwell’s comic turn as Mafioso Tony ‘The Tiger’ Russo and the right-on performance of Michelle Pfeiffer in the lead role were standouts among a formidable cast boasting Matthew Modine, Mercedes Ruehl, Alec Baldwin and frequent Demme player Charles Napier.
Demme’s career finally reached full fruition both critically and commercially with “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991), adapted from the novel by Thomas Harris. Despite the grisly nature of the story, Demme resisted the possibilities for exploitation and instead fashioned a compelling and impressively sensitive psychological drama with a courageous, independent female protagonist. He also elicited landmark performances from both Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins. Following in the footsteps of “It Happened One Night” (1934) and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975), “Silence of the Lambs” went on to win the five top Academy Awards – Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay – an immense accomplishment for what was essentially a big-budget horror film.
Often associated with progressive causes, Demme lent his talents to projects that reflected his political concerns such as “Haiti Dreams of Democracy” (1988), which he co-wrote, co-produced, and co-directed. He also helmed and appeared in “Cousin Bobby” (1992), a documentary about his relative, the Reverend Robert Castle, a radical, Harlem-based clergyman. Though many viewed the director’s decision to film “Philadelphia” (1993) as a mea culpa in response to the charges of homophobia in “The Silence of the Lambs,” Demme had actually been working on the project with screenwriter Ron Nyswaner as early as 1988. Nonetheless, the moving courtroom drama was a landmark in mainstream Hollywood history. “Philadelphia” provided an attention-getting and Oscar-winning role for Tom Hanks as the afflicted gay lawyer who loses his job when he becomes symptomatic from AIDS. Despite some acclaim, the film was criticized for lacking the strong character development and sense of the unexpected that characterized Demme’s best work.
In the 1990s, Demme, like his mentor Corman, increasingly concentrated on producing, beginning with George Armitage’s “Miami Blues” (1990). He upped his output considerably after 1993, producing 10 pictures in five years. He returned to the director’s chair for the film version of Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Beloved” (1998), reinforcing the novel’s best insights with a startling breadth of vision. Demme had been looking for a project that addressed race relations for a long time and “Beloved” fit that bill with its story about the disfiguring effects of slavery and its aftermath. As a reflection of his lifelong passion for rock ‘n’ roll, he also helmed “Storefront Hitchcock” (1998), a concert film featuring legendary cult figure Robyn Hitchcock.
After a lengthy hiatus away from the camera, Demme returned to helm “The Truth About Charlie” (2002), a remake of one of his favorite films, “Charade” (1963), starring Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn and directed by the legendary Stanley Donen. Essentially casting the central locale of Paris as a third lead character, Demme reunited with some longtime collaborators such as Tak Fujimoto and paid tribute to the influences of the French New Wave that long guided his sensibility. The film was poorly received by both critics and audiences, which failed to stop Demme from choosing another remake of a classic film, 1962 conspiracy thriller “The Manchurian Candidate.” Demme’s 2004 spin featured a carefully tweaked screenplay with some new surprises and dimensions, and a masterful cast: Denzel Washington, Meryl Streep, Liev Schreiber and Kimberly Elise.
Returning to documentary films, Demme directed “The Agronomist” (2002), a profile of Haitian radio journalist and human rights activist Jean Dominique, who spent his lifetime campaigning to reform the oppressed nation until his assassination in 2000. Demme next delivered the rock documentary, “Neil Young: Heart of Gold” (2005), which depicted the famed singer-songwriter during two special performances at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium commemorating the release of his acclaimed 2005 album, Prairie Wind. For his third consecutive documentary, Demme turned to politics with “Jimmy Carter: Man from Plains” (2007), an experimental look at the former president during his book tour promoting Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, which featured speeches on how to achieve peace in the Middle East. After four years, Demme went back to feature filmmaking with “Rachel Getting Married” (2008), a dramatic comedy about the troubled black sheep of a family (Anne Hathaway) returning home for her sister’s wedding, which touches off long-simmering tensions. Demme earned Independent Spirit Award nominations for Best Director and Best Feature. Demme next united with Young for two more documentaries, the concert film “Neil Young Trunk Show” (2009) and the cinema-vérité “Neil Young Journeys” (2011). Moving back to television for the first time in decades, Demme directed two episodes each of the acclaimed comedy-drama “Enlightened” (HBO 2011-13) and crime drama “The Killing” (AMC/Netflix 2011-14) and an hour-long drama, “Line of Sight” (AMC 2014). The concert film “Kenny Chesney: Unstaged” (2012) continued his music-related work. In 2013, Demme filmed Wallace Shawn’s adaptation of the Henrik Ibsen play “A Master Builder.” Demme returned to the big screen with “Ricki and the Flash” (2015), a comedy-drama about a struggling rocker (Meryl Streep) who reconnects with the suburban family she had abandoned at the outset of her career. It was followed by another concert film, “Justin Timberlake + the Tennessee Kids” (2016), showcasing the pop-R&B singer in Las Vegas during the final show of his 2014 tour. Returning to television, Demme shot an episode of Gina Prince-Bythewood’s 10-part procedural drama “Shots Fired” (Fox 2017). Jonathan Demme died of complications from esophageal cancer on April 26, 2017.
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