Jonathan Demme appears at Philadelphia Film Festival
10/23/2013 11:29:00 AM
The film Philadelphia marks its 20th anniversary of being released this year and to celebrate, the 22nd Philadelphia Film Festival featured a screening at the Prince Theater Tuesday night followed by an appearance by its director, Jonathan Demme.
During the Q&A, Demme touched on many aspects of the film including the story behind getting Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young to write songs for it. He targeted a specific audience for the story about an AIDS stricken lawyer who was wrongfully terminated from his job claiming bigotry on the part of his bosses because he was gay and had AIDS.
The year was 1993, only a decade since the word AIDS started to become known. On Demme’s way here last night, he drove through New Jersey, a state that recently elected to approve same sex marriages. He said it made him think about how far we’ve come with the issue of homophobia and discrimination against gays since the movie was made.
AIDS has taken the lives of 30 million people as of 2009, and over 34 million are currently living with the HIV disease, according to the Journal of Internal Medicine.
The specific audience Demme targeted was the heterosexual men in our society who weren’t sympathetic to gays. “We weren’t interested in people who were already sensitive to people with AIDS. We wanted to reach homophobes,” Demme explained on stage.
What he had in mind for the music was a manly-man type guitar anthem like “Southern Man” by Neil Young. He looked at that song as a call to arms, anti-prejudice anthem. He thought if he were to show his target audience that a rocker like Neil Young was aligned with the film, it would be easier to win them over.
In fact, when the film was finished, Demme used “Southern Man” as the opening song and sent a copy to Neil. He said, “We sent Neil Young the film and he wrote this ballad, and we thought, where’s our anthem? This would be great for the end.” And that’s where he used it.
The haunting, “delicate” as Demme called it “Philadelphia” by Neil Young plays as the closing song during scenes of the memorial gathering after Tom Hanks’ character dies from the disease.
“City of brotherly love, place I call home, don’t turn your back on me, I don’t want to be alone. Love lasts forever” the chorus reads.
It’s hard to think there could be a better song and performance to end the film. The song was nominated for an Oscar. As Demme said, “So many people bring profound contributions to a film.”
Demme had worked with Bruce Springsteen on the Sun City project with Little Steven. He approached him next and told him about the Neil Young song. Both Springsteen, Young and the director, and so many others who worked on the film knew people stricken with the disease, and they all wanted to do something about it.
Springsteen also wrote a ballad called “Streets of Philadelphia” after he saw an advance copy of the film. Demme was still hoping for that guitar anthem song, but trusted that the ballad would work to open the film. It did, and won the Oscar.
Denzel Washington played the lawyer defending Hanks’ character. His character started out as a homophobe himself but slowly came around to take on the case. “He was the anchor for the homophobes. We didn’t want Denzel to get ahead of the target audience.”
Several AIDS patients from Philadelphia were cast in the film through the help of Action Aids. And Ron Vawter, an actor Demme worked with in another movie he directed, Silence of the Lambs, was suffering from AIDS while shooting the film. He died a year after its release. He portrayed a straight lawyer from the firm that ousted Hanks, and he expressed some regret about his dismissal on the stand in a courtroom scene.
The entire film was shot here, “the first time that’s happened in 80 years” according to Sharon Pinkenson who shared the stage with Demme last night, and helped field questions from the audience. Pinkenson heads up the city’s Film Office and Philadelphia was her first project.
“It’s the most important movie to me,” the Philadelphia film czar exclaimed. “We changed the way people thought about people living with AIDS.” How important was that to you, she asked Demme.
“Immeasurably. The film fulfilled our wildest dream. We wanted to add a new strain to the dialogue of what was said about AIDS and homophobia. When you can make a movie that resonates with people, it’s an extraordinary gift.”
One final fact was revealed last night. The title of the film came about long after filming began. The working title was People Like Us after the Talking Heads’ song, but toward the end of shooting, the cast and crew were asked to come up with a title. Jonathan decided on Philadelphia. After all, “Philadelphia is known as the city of brotherly love.”