Jonathan Demme

Nov. 8, 1984

Talking Heads’ 1984 film, “Stop Making Sense,” has long been regarded by critics and fans alike as one of the greatest concert films ever made. Director Jonathan Demme dropped in on Deirdre for a guest DJ set while the film was still in theaters. Demme sat in for SNAP! No. 172 on November 8, 1984, spinning a wild selection of his favorite music — including the premiere of a then-unheard Talking Heads song — and discussing the making of the now-iconic film. 

Read on for their conversation and dive into his song choices with our Jonathan Demme Spotify playlist

Jonathan Demme

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Deirdre O’Donoghue: Stop making sense. That's approximately what we're about to do here on “SNAP!” number 172, not that we ever started making a whole lot of sense, but within the context of that phrase, I think we'll turn things around a little bit. I'm Deirdre O'Donoghue on KCRW and my guest in the studio is Jonathan Demme. Hi, Jonathan.

Jonathan Demme: Hi Deirdre. How you doing?

I’m doing really well. I've had some of the best phone conversations of my life in recent weeks just chatting with you on the phone. Everybody I know who [has] seen [“Stop Making Sense”] has just been thrilled. You've done something real special.

Well, it makes all of us really happy to know that's the effect, on some people anyway.

You've brought along an amazing collection of music. Jonathan is going to be in charge of the music tonight, primarily. You've got some great stories to tell. You have a tape with you, I believe.

That's right. It's a tape. 

Are we going to tease them? [Laughs]

Well sure, why not? It's a song that's called “The Lady Don’t Mind,” and it is written by David Byrne. It's performed by Talking Heads. Nobody has ever heard it except them. And maybe we can play it tonight, I don't know. It's a great song.

Oh, we'll see if the audience wants to hear it. We'll see if we can get any kind of reaction from them on that. 

Well, David gave me the tape, and he said it’s okay to play it and he’d enjoy you to hear it.

Oh, excellent, excellent. The word “eclectic” is bandied about rather a lot at KCRW, but this is one hell of an eclectic collection. This is going be like the Monty Python bit where you learn to be an actor. Jonathan learns to be a disc jockey tonight.

Well, okay, I'm kind of nervous, but I'm also really excited, so I think it'll probably work out good in the long run. It's fun to be able to bring some of these weird, obscure songs along and play them with you, Deirdre.

Music: It’s Immaterial - “A Gigantic Raft in the Philippines” 

Music: Blood Donor - “Rubber Revolution” 

Music: Thick Pigeon - “Subway (45 version)”

Music: The Fall - “Fantastic Life”

Music: Singers & Players - “Bedward The Flying Preacher”

Music: The Staples Singers - “Slippery People”

Jonathan, what a great set of music! You’ve either been listening to “SNAP!” or you're definitely in tune with KCRW.

Both.

Are you available? 

[Laughs]

“When we get old and stop making sense / she won’t be around long.” [sic]. How did that particular line [from Talking Heads’ song “Girlfriend Is Better”] come to be the title of the movie?

We were really stuck for an idea as to what to call the movie, and we didn't want to get too clever. We couldn't think of any good ideas, so everybody started writing their favorite lines from the various songs on a list in the cutting room, and that's the one that everybody kind of gravitated to, so we went with it. We thought that the good thing about it was that it really captured the spirit of the movie which was, you know, kind of “come in, relax, stop making sense, enjoy yourself.”

You’re one of the happiest people I've met in a long time, and there's a lot of childlike enthusiasm in you and in what you're doing. It shows in the movie. That, as I understand it, was how the movie came to be made in the first place. It was a function of your enthusiasm.

I went to the [Talking Heads’] concert at the Greek last summer and I was completely bowled over by the experience. I found myself laughing a lot, in addition to being forced to move, which I don't do particularly well, but I have fun doing it. And then I found myself with big lumps in my throat on some of the songs, and I came out of the thing just quivering and wanting to meet the band because I felt a movie had to happen. The show was too great to not capture on film.

demme-stop-making-sense.jpgHow many times did you get to see the show? What did you do to prepare to do it?

Well, as soon as I knew that we were going to absolutely be making the movie, I went and joined the band on tour as often as I could. By the time we got ready to shoot it, we had a real solid idea going in. Once we started shooting, so many wonderful things happened that we never could have dreamt up or planned. About 50% of the movie is stuff that was pre-planned, and then the other 50% are wonderful happenings that just occurred while it was happening.

Well, what's it like working with David Byrne?

He’s unusually easy to get along with and real funny. The biggest thing about David, that I was startled by, is the fact that he's an unbelievable chow hound. The man never stops eating.

David Byrne? Come on.

He’s a slender dude, but I'm telling you, he never quits eating.

It’s that metabolism.

That’s right.

High energy, constantly moving, and dreaming up all those ideas.

When I first met him, he was eating sushi and carrots and stuff, but now that he's been staying out in Los Angeles while we were doing the movie, it's cheeseburgers, and hot dogs, and things like that, yet he remains the same.

One of the things that's been remarked on a whole lot about the movie is the simplicity. There aren't a lot of intercuts. One of the things that many people find annoying about rock concert films or videos is [that] a scene lasts all of three and a half seconds and [then] you're off to a different angle. The simplicity of the film and yet the constant motion is very striking and gives you a strong sense of being there. Did you plan that on purpose?

Yeah, well, a couple of reasons. First of all, I thought that the look of the movie should reflect the gimmicky nature of all the Talking Heads work. To try to get real jazzy with all kinds of movie tricks would be going against the grain of what they're all about. And furthermore, I thought “The Last Waltz” was a film that really taught me that there's something very wonderful, very special, very unique [about] being able to watch a sustained moment of one of these nine great people doing whatever it is they do. And I didn't think there was any kind of fancy editing that could equal the excitement of being able to hang in on [“Stop Making Sense” keyboardist] Bernie Worrell, or just any of them while they're doing what they do.

It's so hard to describe to people without getting them to go and see it. It's the ideal seat for a performance. That just came to me. Luck of the Irish, I suppose.

Music: Savage Republic - “Film Noir”

Music: Mutants - “Twisted Thing”

Music: The Damned - “Gun Fury”

Music: Robyn Hitchcock - “Night Ride to Trinidad”

Music: 17 Pygmies - “Lawrence of Arabia”

Music: Fish Turned Human - “Porky’s Minion”

Music: Dillinger - “Fernando Sancho”

Things are getting a little strange around here. Okay Jonathan, explain yourself there.

My friend ... explained that song to me, which was [that] it’s Dillinger’s attempt to break into the American market. He thought if he could come up with a song that would include as many references to Americans as possible, that he'd probably have an international hit. So that's what “Fernando Sancho” is all about.

Maybe you could tell us the story for [the1982 punk-new wave concert film] “Urgh!”?

Urgh! A Music War” was a movie produced [by] Michael White, who is another friend of mine from England. He and I dreamt that up one night, the idea of doing a movie that would feature a huge amount of preferably unsigned bands that were working with their own independent labels, and shooting the movie in the clubs [where] that kind of music was happening.

But we’re not talking about up-and-coming Styx or REO Speedwagon. We’re talking a different genre of music here.

Well, yeah. It seems to me that was a moment, I guess this was about three, four years ago, where it seemed like there was just this inordinate amount of exciting music happening everywhere in the world. I was interested in getting people that weren't signed yet; people from Los Angeles like The Plugs, Suburban Lawns from Austin, Radio Free Europe, The Huns, Standing Waves, and in New York, people like Bush Tetras and so on and so forth. 

But then, when the money got involved, so did a big management concern — IRS records. Suddenly it looked like it was going to turn into kind of an in-house IRS stable of artists to police. That sounded like a good idea for a movie, but not a movie I wanted to make. I sort of exited that project and let Michael continue on with it alone.

It did come out and it did have a number of unusual, interesting bands.

Yes indeed. 

You did a movie [called] “Citizens Band. [a.k.a. "Handle With Care"]”

The director of photography on that movie was Jordan Cronenweth, who shot “Stop Making Sense.” That's the first time we worked together. That was a strange movie that was about an hour and a half of people talking to each other over their CB radios. It turned out pretty good and I liked it a lot, but it was not a big hit.

You've been involved in a lot of interesting projects. One is coming up on PBS real soon, which I think also involves David Byrne, and Rosanna Arquette.

That right, and Bob Ridgely, Hope Lange, and numerous other good people. That is a half hour comedy that was created for PBS and it'll be on in January/February.

“Survival Guides”?

Yes, it's called “Survival Guides.” It's a pilot for an anthology series that will be half-hour comedies, always with different writers, casts, and directors. They will be linked by a common theme of how to survive a certain kind of crisis unique to the ‘80s.

It sounds like a cross between “Playhouse 90” and “Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.”

There you go!

Sounds like a great idea!

With a little bit of the “MacNeil/Lehrer Report” thrown in.

[Laughs] Well it’s PBS, I think you have to work them in there somewhere right? I think that’s in the contract, isn’t it?

[Laughs] That’s right.

Other than the one “Columbo” episode that you directed, this is your first adventure in television?

Well, no. I did one other film for PBS about three years ago [that] was a film version of Kurt Vonnegut’s “Who Am I This Time” with Chris Walken, Susan Sarandon, and Bob Ridgely again. I wanted David [Byrne] to be in “Survival Guides,” and I know David is a natural filmmaker in addition to all [his] other gifts. His videos are especially well directed, and he just has a great, great eye. I hope he'll be making movies very soon. 

He’s interested in that, and therefore I thought I could drag him into this thing by pointing out to him that if he was present while the whole little film was being shot, he’d probably learn a lot about production and the various problems unique to a narrative film. He agreed to do it, and I wanted him to do it because he was so funny in “Stop Making Sense.” He's so funny anyway, and this was a comedy. It worked out real good. Wait until you see him.

Jonathan, one of the questions we got asked — this was posed to both of us — is what's the most exciting performance you've ever seen? I remember how excited, how stoned I was, when I walked out of that performance [at] the Greek theater that night.

You were stoned? [Laughs]

From the performance, from what I saw. It was not the ingestion of chemicals. It was the music and everything that surrounded me . I have only one other time seen the Greek theatre that animated. I mean, we're talking people all the way up in the very top row on the hill, standing on the seats and dancing. It was an amazing concert, Talking Heads. Have you seen anything else that you'd care to film that you want to preserve?

Oh gee, not necessarily that I'd care to film, no. I've never had that kind of reaction to—

It was real special.

Yeah.

As I said before, [still] is now. I could sit and talk to you for ages and ages. We have cued up on the tape machine a song by the Talking Heads that [the audience] has never heard before. Shall we continue to tease them a little bit more?

I think we ought to hold off on the Talking Heads song for a little bit.

[Laughs] I wish you could see the elephant grin on this man’s face.

Music: The Naughtiest Girl Was A Monitor - “Front”

Music: One Million Fuzztone Guitars - “Men’s Hearts”

Music: Made For TV - “So Afraid of the Russians”

Music: Eek-A-Mouse - “Neutron Bomb”

Music: Bonzo Goes to Washington (Jerry Harrison and Bootsy Collins) - “5 Minutes”

Well, I don't know if you got the subtle political implications of the last three tunes, but that's very much a re-election kind of suite.

Four more years, four more years. You're doing a video for Cruzados, yes, the follow up [band] to The Plugz?

Yes. [Members] Tito Larriva and Steve Hufsteter did the score for the PBS film that David and I did together. They did it as a great big favor to us and they did a beautiful, beautiful score. I've heard a lot of the songs from the new Cruzados album and it's fantastic stuff. It’s really a whole new metamorphosis for everybody concerned and it's great.

You've done television now. You’ve done this concert/performance film … but as near as I can tell it, from an observer point of view, music videos are a whole different ball of wax. What are you going to do?

Until they pick the song, I'm not sure, but I've talked to them a little bit and there's a strong northern Mexican influence to a lot of their songs, and if that's the case, we may go into a Mexican dance club and have them perform and then see that great kind of dancing that's done down there. 

Who is going to play this Cruzados’ video? There’s discrimination in anything that's got a format, and MTV has got a format, as any radio station [does]. There's a lot of talk about what they're accepting and not accepting. Where do you see this being functional to the band? Do you care about it being functional? 

Well, sure.

It’s obviously a group that you care about. How is this whole new process really affecting us, and how is it affecting music and what's it going to do? Answer all those, please, in thirty words or less [Laughs].

MTV is certainly stimulating record sales for bands and artists that come up with a song that lends itself to a visual interpretation that catches on on the music channel. I guess that's a good thing. I hope it doesn't become a situation where a lot of other deserving artists, who are doing great stuff, by virtue of not having a video, fail to get the break that the video-oriented artists get, but I don't know. I don't think anybody knows yet.

It's an interesting crossroads. I think we're going to begin to see the actual nature, flexibility, viability, purpose, importance, and use of radio. What function is it going to serve? It's a very interesting time in music for me. There are also people who feel that, with the rise of the music videos, which are very scripted, planned stories, very sterile, very passive ... that they create the story for you out of the music, but [also] that they take a lot of the element of danger out of rock and roll, although I wonder about that because it's pop. Do you have any feelings about that? 

Well, I don't know, maybe that's happened a little bit. What I prefer to notice most are the videos that really function as a sort of a hybrid new art form all to [their] own. I think there are enough examples of that going on to make it a real exciting thing.

You’re not talking about the new Twisted Sister video, for example?

No, but even mainstream artists like Rod Stewart come up with a video like “Some Guys Have All the Luck.” As a song [it’s] one thing, it's very nice, but visually [the] design of that thing is terrific. It's made me pay extra attention to that song.

But when you say that, at least as far as I can tell, it’s not Rod Stewart making the video. It’s you, the director.

Whoever the director is, yeah, bringing some kind of interpretation to it. In that particular instance, just graphically, image wise, working with a very simple situation — the guy’s dancing around a little bit, singing — but shooting it in an incredibly varied and fascinating way, using all kinds of stop motion photography and really coming up with something that, to me, heightens the quality. It takes a song that maybe is real nice, but maybe you wouldn’t listen to it that much, and turning it into something which, when I hear it on, I get glued into it.

Interesting, so you see positive effects. You’re one of the few people I’ve talked to who sees positive things. It’s a tricky area, a lot of conversation going on now … You think there’s going to be video of this next song we’re going to play, ever?

Oh, you mean the Talking Heads song that no one has ever heard before?

I think we’ve teased them long enough. It’s time to do this.

Let’s go.

This is called “The Lady Don’t Mind.” This is from the era of “Speaking in Tongues.”

That’s right. From what I understand from David, it’s a song they cut. They all liked it a lot, but I guess there just wasn’t room enough for it on the album.

It's like what's happening to us right now. We've only got about another 14 minutes left. I want another couple hours at least! Maybe we’ll convince you to come back. This is Talking Heads, off a previously unreleased piece.

Music: Talking Heads - “The Lady Don’t Mind”

Music: Suburban Lawns - “Flavor Crystals”

Music: Bay of Pigs - “Manchild

Jonathan Demme, thank you for everything. Thank you for the last couple of hours, for all the music you've brought us. Thank you for making “Stop Making Sense.” … You kept it alive for all of us. It's showing at the Pickwood Theater on the corner of Pico and Westwood here in West LA. The sound system over there's real good.

It’s the best in Los Angeles.

It wants to be seen in the theater.

The first thing that David said to me, when we talked about doing a movie, was that it was real important to withhold being able to see “Stop Making Sense”— if we made a movie, it was going to be real important to withhold it from small screens — to make people who are interested in seeing the movie see it under the best possible circumstances, with Dolby stereo surround system on a big huge screen. The video cassette won’t be out for a pretty long time. 

Now I want to get this while we’re still taping here — you have agreed to come back at some point in the future?

I would love to, if you’ll have me back in. This song is called “Rearranging the Deck Chairs on the Titanic” by Jona Lewie and it's something I think's real pretty.

Music: Jona Lewie — “Rearranging the Deckchairs on the Titantic”