|by Greg Muskewitz
Artistic liberty and freedom don't always come easy, especially when it comes down to portraying real-life incidents and people. This is especially difficult when many of those people are still alive and breathing. Ted Demme, director of well-respected ensemble pieces such as "Beautiful Girls," "Life," and "Monument Ave," sat down with me at The Standard Hotel in Los Angeles late in March. Demme explains some of the difficulty in staying true in context to his latest movie, "Blow."
"I felt the pressure to portray the characters right. I knew that I'd have to show this film to the people who were in it at one point. I really wanted them to like it," he said. "Imagine if someone sat you down and said 'Here's your life in two hours,' if you had a really funky life and did some things you weren't really proud of. It's delicate and I really wanted them to like the movie. Ironically enough, that pressure kinda took the burden off my shoulders in terms of critics and stuff like that, because George and Mirtha [Jung] liked [it], I don't care if anyone else likes it because they do."
Known for working with talented ensembles, including Natalie Portman, Uma Thurman, Matt Dillon, Eddie Murphy, Kevin Spacey and a multitude of others, his cast for "Blow" is elbow-deep in talent as well. Names range from Johnny Depp to Penelope Cruz, Franka Potente, Paul Reubens, James King and Ray Liotta. According to Demme, he prefers ensemble casts, but not necessarily any in particular. He admits, "I'd do anything with Natalie again," continuing that, "to do anything with the same people again and it makes sense, it's a lot of fun....I like mixing it up, if it's the right project."
"I had this project for the better part of six years," explained Demme. "I optioned the book about seven years ago, and through that process of trying to figure out what the film was, many casting possibilities come through your brain." Johnny Depp was his first and only choice, mostly due to his wild diversity of characters. "I knew I needed an actor that was a chameleon, someone that loves going through the rigors of transforming himself into his part," Demme said. And the rest of the cast? "Once you get Johnny Depp, it's amazing the amount of people you get who wanna work with you suddenly, and I always kinda wanted Latin actors in the film [to] portrayed the Latin roles, so...for a lot of my casting I looked overseas," he said.
He fell in love with German superstar Franka Potente of "Run Lola Run," and Spanish It Girl Penelope Cruz. Having no language-barrier difficulties, for Potente, he set here up with a couple stoner beach-bunnies for a week, while Cruz hung around cheesy Colombian disco clubs. "I love the idea of giving it this international flavor. It was special to me; it felt like it wasn't the same faces [you're] seeing in movie after movie." Depp on the other hand, spent a lot of time visiting the real George Jung in prison, according to Demme. There was about two weeks straight where the two of them visited him everyday. Demme initial five or six hour meeting with Jung after optioning the book, is what confirmed his belief that this was the project to pursue.
"Once I started writing the screenplay with the other writers, we got the whole process going, George was my constant book of reference, so whenever we hit a roadblock, we'd wait for a collect call because we had our 'George days,' when he'd call us, and we’d ask him, ‘when this happened, how were you really feeling?,’ or ‘who else was there or what really went on?’" Demme and the other screenwriters made the choice to depict Jung in more of a human way than simply a drug dealer, and even though a lot of that was more factually included in the novel of which this was based, many of the direct stories were taken from Demme's visits. "We just didn't have the time to tell [all of the novel's details]. I didn't want to make a straight bio-pic from a to z," Demme said. "I was trying to find the through-lines that would make this film a little bit special and stand out," especially the relationship between George and his daughter Kristina. "You really needed George to bring all that stuff out." "[The real] Kristina was involved with us in making the film....She gave us the rights to use her name. Of course, the fact that Johnny Depp was in the movie helped a little bit, I think."
In addition to that, Demme felt it was not necessary to weigh the film down in nudity and violence --only including two scenes of the latter. "There were only two parts of his life that had violence in them that I thought was worth telling....I didn't think it was about that." Hoping that the country's current positive reaction to "Traffic" and its own critical and financial success will rub off onto "Blow," Demme also admitted the nation's trendy thrill of vicariously living through an anti-hero such as Jung should be appealing. "A lot of times we go to the movies to escape our life and slip into someone else's suit for two hours, and I don't think people wanna be gangsters and drug dealers... but it might be fun to be in that world for two hours. Like 'Boogie Nights,' you may not wanna be a porn star, but you may wanna go check what they're like."
I held this back awhile so as not to conflict with Collin's coverage in Chicago.
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originally posted: 05/03/01 16:18:26
last updated: 01/06/04 02:18:22