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The Manchurian Candidate - Jonathan Demme Q&A



Compiled by: Jack Foley

Q. Angela Lansbury, who was in the original, has been quoted as saying to make a new version was a lousy idea was that indicative of the kind of barriers you were expecting to come up against once you set out to remake this?
A:
Well, before even responding to the Angela Lansbury comment like they do at debates I’d like to thank everybody for coming here today and showing this interest in the film… Actually I’m glad I’m able to clarify this. Angela Lansbury did not say anything negative about the movie.
This was reported in a gossip column a month or so before the picture was scheduled to come out. We were excited about the picture and were relatively confident many other people would share that our enthusiasm when they saw it and then suddenly here’s Angela Lansbury commenting.
We decided the only think to do would be to have Paramount officially contact Angela and ask her if she’d like to see the movie. This was a big deal in the States it was out there although never quite on page one.
When Paramount contacted her she said she was really horrified, she didn’t know where it had come from, she didn’t say it and would never say anything like that. The last I heard was that she was going to see the movie but I lost track of it.
But in terms of other people “laying” for the movie, when the picture opened in America one of the things the studio sends around is a list of reviews listed by favourable, mixed, unfavourable.
There was one on this list that really popped out at it me by Gary Arnold, who’s the film critic for the Washington Post, as he’d given it half a star out of five. And I thought wait a minute may be it’s a bad picture but how can I be that bad? So I asked to read that review in one paragraph he said how can these people have the audacity to try to remake the 1962 film…and he then went on to review the first film and tell how great it was and say how this one fails to measure up.
I thought this was the laziest piece of film writing I’ve ever seen but it was also evidence of that possibility that some people were going to feel you had committed sacrilege by remaking a classic. It never really worried me.
When I read Dan’s screenplay and knew that Denzel had signed up to be in it all I saw was a great movie on paper and it blew away any concerns I might have had about remaking it.

Q. Is the presence of singer-songwriter Robyn Hitchcock in the film a nod to your rock and roll youth?
A:
I continue to be inside my rock ‘n ‘roll youth. Robyn Hitchcock, who I did a performance film with and who I’m very good friends with, is one of the most under-used performance people in the world. He’s a great, songwriter, great singer and great guitar player and he’s unjustly marginalized even though he has a healthy following and works very hard. Bottom-line is he is extremely charismatic, extremely sharp and has a lot of presence and I felt the film would benefit from his very singular presence in a small but very important part.

Q. Was it ever a matter of debate about not making a 'how to' film?
A:
The thing I wanted to add on the notion of was there something irresponsible about visualising an assassination attempt in the context of a presidential election - we felt not really. Don’t go empowering fictional movies with the ability to have some catastrophic effect on real life. One thing I did say numerous times especially to the film company was that: “Do you realise that at one point in this movie Denzel Washington is going to shoot Meryl Streep with a high-powered rifle?” And that got into the realms of commercial responsibility! Going back to Richard Condon’s novel he wanted people to come out of this potboiler story worked up and thinking question your leaders. Don’t be brainwashed through fear, question your leaders. Know what’s going on draw the line and express yourself and that is hovering around the fringes of our movie. And I think that is responsible that’s go and vote kind of message.

Q. How did you manage to come up with such a great cast – was it hard work or luck?
A.
It was a director’s dream situation because by the time I saw the script not only was Denzel Washington to completely on board but there was also tremendous interest and a lot of competition for Liev’s part and Meryl’s part. I had the great, great luxury of meeting lots of first-rate people and being able to step back and go “I like Meryl the best” and “I like Liev the best”.
Throughout the picture, thanks originally to Condon and then Dan, there are as far as I’m concern an uncommon density of rich parts of various sizes and it was a great opportunity to cast a lot of actors I’ve always wanted to work with. For example, Bruno Ganz is in the film and that’s a dream come true, Jon Voight wanted to play another part, another dream come true. JeffreyWright I’ve been chasing for years. When you’ve got a great script everybody wants to be in it - it’s fantastic.

Q. Was it deliberate or a coincidence that such a political film came out in the year of a presidential election?
A.
My first impulse was like: “Oh, thank God by the time we make this properly the election will be over.” Then I started hearing that Paramount felt it was imperative that the film came out around the election or just before, and that meant doing the editing and sound work on the film twice as fast as I’ve ever done before. It was a really exciting and exhausting experience.
Once Paramount had their minds set on capitalising on election mania that was it.
We’ve had a good reception in America. And in the weird way movies like this can fertilise the air within arenas of importance we’ve made it into the editorial section and the opinion pages from time to time. Different journalists have used our movie as a window to the whole question of Halliburton and the question of is it ethical for Dick Chaney, this bellicose vice president to be the former head of this multi-national corporation that profits from war? That’s very, very gratifying.



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