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Director Highlight ~ Jonathan Demme

Updated on January 11, 2013

A Director with His Own Style

Jonathan Demme is a director who has made movies that are known for their zany, campy feel. The audience seems to share in the whole movie-making process as the characters look directly into the camera, reacting and responding to their situations directly at the audience.

The camera then follows the characters and the storyline with Demme's penchant for zooms, swoops, and dollies. In some of Demme's films, the frame is often moving, giving the scene more momentum and sometimes jarring the audience out of the movie-watching experience. Coupled with his characters' direct-to-the-camera dead-on antics, these techniques make up Demme's fun, light-hearted, and crazy-feeling style.

Yet when Demme takes out that element of fun in his movies, what he leaves is often a really good movie which follows its script faithfully. Two of Demme's most well-known and commercially successful movies not only deal with serious subject matter, but do so with such sensitivity that Demme's style seems the only one fit to tell the story.


The Truth About Charlie

Demme's style is more easily seen in his less well-known movies, which also happened to not do as well in the box office. In The Truth About Charlie, Demme's style can be seen in the hand-held feel of the movie. The camera shakes along after the characters as they take part in their personal destinies, all trying to track down the deceased Charlie's money. The camera zooms along after Charlie's wife, Regina, the main character, who is intent on discovering the truth about her late husband and disentangling herself from the money-hunters' dangerous entrapments. While she is on this quest, she's helped and hampered by Joshua, played by Mark Wahlberg, and together they find out just who it is she can trust. Through the movie, the camera zooms in and out, bouncing and circling around, adding suspense to the action scenes, but also jarring the audience out of the movie.

Throughout The Truth About Charlie, the minor characters will look directly at the camera at points, as though right out into the audience, and share with the audience their personal opinions by their expressions. At one point, Demme has Charles Zanavour break out into song, jarring not only the audience as Aznavour looks directly at the camera at them, but also confusing some of the surrounding characters, although the majority of the characters play the scene nonchalantly. It certainly adds a Demme stamp of style to the movie, but it also breaks up the feel of the drama and it does interrupt the storyline. Demme's choices and techniques feel zany, campy, and lighthearted -- as though Demme has done them for fun. It's refreshing and fun to watch the playfulness of the directing in this movie.

If the quirky-humored nature of the movie isn't clear enough when Aznavour starts singing, the audience notices it clearly in the last scenes, when the minor characters look long and hard into the camera, directly at the audience. In one of the ending scenes, Demme even has done a small homage to The Silence of the Lambs, one of his more well-known movies. He has Tim Robbins, whose character is in jail, standing in his cell in a satire of Hannibal Lector, while Charlie's mother serves him poisoned food through a sliding trap door into his jail cell. When he chokes and dies from the poison, Charlie's mother is looking directly into the camera, smiling.

All the swoops and shakiness, as well as having his characters react directly at the camera, are elements which reveal Demme's typical campy style. They give the movie a light-hearted feel, and make it seem like Demme is making a movie for himself and some of his friends who are used to his ways and in on his inside jokes.


The Silence of the Lambs

In The Silence of the Lambs, which was a complete box-office and critically acclaimed hit, Demme's style remains, but he has cut out all the campiness. The movie is subtle and sensitive to the novel by Thomas Harris, and feels anything but zany, light-hearted, or campy. Instead, Demme favors all his techniques that will help reveal they storyline and increase the suspense. Demme's careful techniques bring out the suspense and horror in the story's movie form.

Demme was able to create the captivating character of Hannibal Lector with the help of the excellent actor Anthony Hopkins, and by making choices which worked best for Hannibal's supremely intelligent and yet demonically insane character. Demme shows the descent into Hannibal Lector's cell by having his characters go down flight after flight of stairs, as though descending into hell. This adds to the spookiness of the Hannibal character, along with all the rules that any of Hannibal's visitors must be sure to follow or else. While Clarice and Dr. Chilcoat descend, Demme uses his zooms and swoops, but they are much slower here, and they serve to build the suspense he creates as Clarice Starling is on her way for her first face-to-face meeting with Hannibal. After all the audience has heard (but not seen) of Hannibal through the other characters, the slow dollying and slow zooms in on Starling and Dr. Chilcoat as they descent toward Hannibal's cell compliment the suspenseful feel of Clarice and Hannibal's first meeting.

By choosing to have Hannibal's cell made of see-through Plexiglas, rather than bars and mesh, Demme captures his actors' superb performances dead-on by "melting" the glass between his characters, so the audience can see them clearly in Demme's dead-on close-ups. Demme also uses the reflection of the glass when it behooves the story. This way he can have his antagonist talking while at the same time catching the reaction and response of Clarice, or vice versa. The Plexiglas also has holes which not only allow sound to travel through, and the characters to hear each other, but the holes give an excellent opportunity for Hannibal to (most creepily) smell Clarice on their first meeting. The clear glass and Hannibal's use of it add to the danger the audience feels for Clarice, and the fascination the audience feels toward Hannibal. Demme's control of the Plexiglas divider allows the actors their great performances without bringing the audience out of the movie, even though Demme has his characters, once again, looking directly at the camera.

In The Silence of the Lambs, while Demme has his characters looking directly into the camera, rather than detracting from the engagement with the movie and storyline, this choice serves to create further intimacy with the characters. The audience feels that they're "in the head" of the characters, and the tight close-ups Demme uses are especially spooky with Hannibal. When the audience first meets Hannibal, Demme slowly pans over into his cell, and Anthony Hopkins is looking directly into the camera. This works well with Hannibal's character because it gives the feeling that Hannibal knows all, nicely previewing Hannibal's high intelligence which soon becomes evident.

Demme's superb performances from his actors in The Silence of the Lambs and the compelling story are the major forces behind the movie's success, but how Demme chose to frame the actors greatly enhanced the feel of the movie. His decisions to have tight close-ups where the characters look directly into the camera ~ while also being his usual stylistic choice, also work best for the movie because Demme is able to delve into the complex characters through his choices. Demme uses tight direct-to-the-camera close-ups when the information the characters are exchanging is important, personal, and intimate. When Clarice Starling reluctantly reveals the story behind the screaming of the lambs, Demme captures Jodie Foster's superb performance in tight, dead-on close-ups. He gets tighter and tighter as he switches to Anthony Hopkin's brilliant performance in response to Clarice's story, so the audience understands Hannibal's complex character who seems to taste Clarice's humanity in that scene. The decision to have the characters look directly into the camera with their reactions works well because of the intimate nature of the exchange in this scene. The audience is able to fully engage in this mesmerizing scene because of the nature of the characters ~ their eyes right at you while they tell you their secrets serves to bring you into the movie, rather than out of it. The same technique has the opposite effect in The Truth About Charlie, partly because of the satirical humor in the character's expressions when they look directly at the audience.

Demme uses tight close-ups when information being exchanged is important to one of the characters or for revealing more of a story, but he does not always couple the close-up with having his characters look directly into the camera. When Crawford calls Clarice to tell her that Miggs is dead and find out what she's learned about Hannibal, the start of their conversation is in extreme close-ups of Crawford's face, and then Clarice's shocked response to the news of Miggs' death. But the characters do not look directly into the camera for this sequence, because the story is about Hannibal and Clarice, and the information being exchanged would be confused if a message was sent by having Crawford look directly into the camera at that point. Demme controlled his technique to keep the audience engaged with the story, so no movie-making funny-business included.

Demme uses tight close-ups with his characters looking directly at the camera at one point in The Silence of the Lambs when the information being exchanged is not personal to the Clarice and Hannibal storyline. This sequence is when Ardelia, Clarice's roommate and FBI Academy friend, and Clarice together discover the significance of how Buffalo Bill has hidden his girls' bodies. The evidence has been provided by Hannibal, whose complex character chooses to help the "interesting" Clarice out, and when the two girls realize that Buffalo Bill has weighted down the first girl he killed so as to keep suspicion away from Belvedere, where Bill lives, Demme has the discovery part of the scene play out in close-ups where Clarice and Ardelia speak to each other by looking directly into the camera. This scene works because, by this point, the audience has not only already become used to the style of the film, but because the information exchanged is significant ~ the entire completion of the finale rests on this discovery. Also, the discovery sequence itself is relatively short ~ first Clarice paces while she and Ardelia discuss what they know in simple two-shots. When the actual light goes on, that is when Demme catches the two performances in his tight dead-on close-ups. The whole thing is over in a few shots, and having the characters look dead-on into the camera adds to the suspense and the significance ~ like being in the head of the other character revealing a secret to you.



In The Silence of the Lambs when Demme chooses to have his character play dead-on into the camera, he is trying to convey important information, or something about the character. In Philadelphia, Demme also has his actors play directly to the camera, and like The Silence of the Lambs, their reactions do not take the audience out of the picture. Demme also has swoops and zooms, as is most evident in the opening scenes which show the streets of Philadelphia and the regular people at work, life, and play. The camera is in a steady movement tracking either left or right, and the beginning or end of many of the scenes have an added movement of a zoom in or out. The zooms are all cut short so that the cumulative movement is that of a steady left or right around the city, so the zooming never gets too crazy feeling.

The opening scene after the credits have finished is of Tom Hanks as Andy Becket, who is working on a case alongside Denzel Washington playing Joe Miller, as they both address the judge. Andy is talking directly into the camera, and the shots go back and forth, catching each character as they talk to each other by speaking directly into the camera. Just as with The Silence of the Lambs, this cross-cutting of characters talking directly into the camera creates interest. The audience wonders who is this character and who is this character speaking to? The choice of having his characters look directly at the camera at different times allows Demme to keep the audience's interest in the scenes. Demme reveals a little more and then a little more, until finally it becomes clear who the character is talking to and why. This plays in well with the structure of the plot, because the audience watches as the firm Andy works for discovers Andy has Aids and then the audience discovers the backstory of that along with Miller, who agrees to be Andy's attorney in his fight against Andy's powerful law firm. The audience discovers more and more about Andy's character as the movie progresses, and Demme's choice of camera movement keeps the story from feeling cliched in some places, like when Miller has his change of heart about homosexuals.

When Miller asks Andy if he remembers the circumstances surrounding his start at the law firm, in order to prep Andy for his testimony at the trial, the scene plays out with smooth Demme style, enabling the audience to learn more about Andy's character as well as for Miller's change of heart to not feel obvious. Andy's response is first to ask Miller if he ever prays. Then Andy reveals he knows he might not make it to the end of the trial. Finally, instead of ever responding directly to the question, Andy begins discussing his favorite opera piece by Maria Callas, which has been playing in the background. Not only is this a sensitive piece of screenwriting, but Demme's choice to follow Andy's response as Tom Hanks circles around the room is one that is sensitive and memorable. The camera dances slowly up and above Andy as the music grows louder and Andy breaks down the aria for Miller. Both Andy and the camera circle around and then following the opera's climax in a red light while Miller watches on. The audience sees Miller's change of heart without the in-your-face obviousness not only in that scene but in the next, when Miller can't sleep that night. Demme's choice of camera movement adds to the significant feel of Andy's aria scene, and the audience gets this because afterward, Miller simply tells Andy, "You're ready" to testify at the trial.

Demme's Best Choices

Part of Jonathan Demme's style lies in his use of camera movement and framing choices to engage his audience. Demme favors a moving camera for action scenes or scenes which take the movie somewhere ~ when characters are out and about trying to discover something or find something out ~ and he's also known for having his actors look directly into the camera, particularly for more intimate moments. For his less-known films, which often use these campy camera techniques abundantly, this adds to the films' zany campy feel. His more well-known works, such as The Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia certainly have his Demme stamp, but without the quirky feel. Demme integrates his use of the camera into the film so smoothly that his choices are not so much about his style than about what works best for the film. Demme's choices, which serve to reveal intimate and complex characters in The Silence of the Lambs and the honorable and courageous nature of Andy Becket in Philadelphia, work seamlessly to heighten theh audience's engagement in the storylines, and thus are the best choices for the stories and characters in these films.


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    • profile image


      3 years ago

      I really clduon't care less about horror film sequels. No matter how many sequels or ideas they come up with, it's always terrible & always for money. Horror writers don't think thoroughly. Writing a sequel has to be very well planned & careful. That's why many great movies usually don't have sequels. It always has to be a better story line than the first, that should be the very first rule for planning a sequel screenplay. It's very risky. That's why I hate horror films/ horror screenplay writers.The only brilliant scary movie I've ever come across to was The Exorcist. The thought that demons are truly real makes the movie horrifying. Another one is Silence of the Lambs, although it falls in the Mystery/Drama genre. No man with masks, or guns. The spine chilling Hannibal Lector is scary enough. A mere doctor, who doesn't just kill people, he EATS them. These films, are worth being called true horror films.References :

    • carozy profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago from San Francisco

      I agree -- it's a different way of experiencing the movie that I think worked really well for this one. Thanks for stopping by.

    • Thief12 profile image


      5 years ago from Puerto Rico

      I remember it took me a while to warm up to Demme's style in The Silence of the Lambs. I felt the first-person perspective from Clarice's eyes was a bit distracting at first, but after reading Demme's justification and reasoning for it, I love it.

    • carozy profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago from San Francisco

      Thank you Chris. He's one of my favorite directors.

    • cam8510 profile image

      Chris Mills 

      5 years ago from Hartford, CT

      Demme is a great director. I will never foget Silence of the Lambs. Everything was right about that film as a film. I appreciate your insight here and the skillful way you wrote this director highlight. Up and useful


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