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Playing Charades 

by Ed Symkus


Before Jonathan Demme became a Hollywood A-List director, the man responsible for such films as Philadelphia, Married to the Mob, Something Wild and his Oscar-winning The Silence of the Lambs, he wanted to be a veterinarian.


"But within one week of university in Florida, I had flunked out of basic college chemistry, so goodbye to that," he chuckles.


But that incident led him indirectly to the job he has now. Demme stayed in school, but didn't have enough money to support his habit of going to movies.


"So I wrote a review for the campus newspaper -- The Florida Gator. The editor liked it, and I started getting into movies for free."


Writing reviews eventually led to a job as a publicist in New York, which led to his meeting up with legendary director-producer Roger Corman, a man who was always on the lookout for new talent. It wasn't long before Corman offered him a script-writing job, then a directing job. And soon after, Demme was on his own, directing his first feature, Handle With Care."


"I remain eternally grateful at the bizarre little twists and turns that brought me to doing something that I love doing," he says.


When a couple of years ago, he thought it would be fun to remake one of his favorite older films, Charade, Stanley Donen's 1963 classic about a young woman who gets caught up in a series of intrigues when her husband is killed just after a load of money goes missing. He approached Donen to ask for his permission.


"Stanley, who is an extraordinarily gracious gentleman, said, 'You have my blessing,' " says Demme. "But he didn't want to know anything about what we were doing. And to this day, he has no intention of seeing the movie. He's doing his own thing, and he doesn't want this movie to become something that he needs to go around talking about."


Then he adds, in a whisper, "But I'm convinced he's gonna go slip into the neighborhood theater. How could he not?"


Demme, who co-wrote the film as well as directed, kept many of the original elements, even some of the same dialogue and the same Paris setting, but pushed everything from the comparatively quaint '60s to the lightning-paced world of today. The original romantic-comic-mystery leads were Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn. They're now Mark Wahlberg and Thandie Newton (who also had the title role in Demme's Beloved).


Newton says she had no second thoughts about taking on the Hepburn part.


"Absolutely not," she says. "And I don't for one second compare myself to Audrey Hepburn. There's no point; she was an icon. The closest I get to her is that I have the opportunity to play a role that she played. And that, for me, is a high point in my life."


One of the biggest differences in the two films involves the trio of heavies who are following Newton's character, demanding that she turn over the money, even though she has no idea of its whereabouts. In the original film, they were absolutely menacing; this time around, they've become almost endearing.


"More than anything, that probably comes out of my resistance to the idea of villains," explains Demme. "I think this sort of rounded, appealing character is ultimately more interesting. I don't know if that's true. But I didn't feel it was necessary to have villains in this move. I thought it was important to have formidable adversaries, but I wanted to try to keep the fun of the three bad guys and take it in a different direction than Charade."


One thing that's not different in this film or any of the others that Demme has directed is the fact that he keeps cameras running all the time.


"Oh, yeah. We rehearse on camera," he says. "We never, ever, ever just rehearse. I believe in the magic of spontaneity and the magic of discovery. You know, what if they get it right in rehearsal and the camera wasn't on? So we rehearse on film. We block it out so we know what the movements are going to be, so the cameraman knows what direction to point the camera in, but we never try anything remotely dramatic until we're shooting."


An example of where that worked to the film's advantage is in a scene where Newton takes a running fall -- one of two in the film.


"Actually, one of them is an accident and one isn't," says Newton, giggling. "On the one where I slipped, Jonathan sort of sheepishly said to me, 'Could you try that again?' And I did, and it worked. But the other was an out and out major wipeout. And there's nothing funnier to me than someone wiping out, as long as they haven't hurt themselves. It tickles me more than anything."


"I have the weirdest reaction at screenings of the film when that happens," chimes in Demme. "It invariably brings this huge eruption of laughter, and part of me goes, 'Yay, they're being entertained!' And then part of me goes, 'What's wrong with these people?' "

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