Rachel Getting Married by Jonathan Demme

Jonathan Demme's new film, “Rachel Getting Married,” will premiere at the 2008 Toronto Film Fest and will play at the New York Film Fest before opening theatrically in October by Sony Pictures Classics

About ten minutes into “Rachel Getting Married,” there's a moment when Kym (Anne Hathaway), newly returned to the Buchman family home, wanders down an upstairs hall and steps into a sunlit childs room. Violin music drifts up the stairs from the musicians practicing below. Kym looks around the room for a few seconds, and moves on. Nothing happens, but the moment is powerful.

Rich Music

“I wanted something sad floating through there,” recalls producer-director Jonathan Demme. “I had my headphones on, looking at the monitor, and Declan was doing this beautiful shot: Kym turns around, starts from the camera, and that was Zafer Tawil's cue downstairs to start playing. I heard that haunting music and saw Annes face respond. I went running after Zafer and said, 'Zafer, what was that beautiful tune' He said, 'Thats what I composed for you.' So this rich musical theme was revealed to us as we were making the movie, and to Annie in character as Kym. It was all in the moment and there it is, onscreen.”

That spontaneitycapturing unrehearsed the moody chemistry of Zafer Tawil's composition, Declan Quinns restless camera, and Anne Hathaway's bereft gazewas the guiding principle of the “Rachel Getting Married” production.

“The looseness of Jenny Lumet's script made me feel that this shouldn't be a tightly directed movie,” says Demme. “At every step of the way, Jenny went to an unexpected place and went further and further off formula and never pulled back. I was really amused and intrigued by the fact that Jenny didn't try to make you like these characters. They were smart, edgy, irritating and yet halfway through reading the script I felt like I had become part of the family and cared tremendously about all of them. “There's terrible trauma in this family, and yet the wedding is beautiful. I wanted Rachel Getting Married to explore both sides of that paradox, the dark struggle, and the celebration of love and family and friends.”

Portraying Polarities

To portray those polarities, Demme, cast and crew took an unconventional approach to every aspect of the film's production. Long, loosely staged scenes play out accompanied by live music. Documentary-style camerawork and editing tell the story. Eminent actors mingle onscreen with movie novices, musicians, artists and dancers in a creative mix.

“We all agreed to let reality happen in front of the cameras without trying to manipulate it from behind the scenes too much. Consistent with that we didn't do any rehearsals, and nobody, not even Declan, really knew what the shot was going to be until the take started taking shape.”

As lengthy scenes played out from start to finish, director of photography Declan Quinn and his camera crew prowled the family home with handheld cameras, capturing on the fly the characters exchanges, speeches, big gestures, and small sidelong looks. The action moved forward with few takes and as little obtrusive preparation as possible.

“In the intimate scenes,” says producer Neda Armian, “there would be the main characters in gut-wrenching conversation, and Declan. He was almost like one of the actors, part crew and part cast, relying on his instincts, skill and confidence to know where to point the camera. I like to say this movie has Jonathans heartbeat and a lot of Declans blood.” “Or sweat. That camera was heavy,” remarks Declan Quinn.

Quinn relates, “The way we worked was very empowering to the cast, and brought the emotions to the surface. Even the crew had to look at things differently, because we all had to be on our toes and react in the moment. As the DP I don't usually operate the camera myself, but it gave me the freedom to make immediate choices. I tried to see the action as a viewer in the room would, to put the audience in the midst of it.”

Wedding Party Scenes

During the long wedding party scenes, strategic cameras were literally placed in the actors hands to augment the 'pro' cameras: Gonzales Joseph, who plays Sidney's cousin in uniform, is never seen without a small prosumer camera; indie filmmaker Jimmy Joe Roche is the official wedding videographer, and two of the digicam-wielding guests are Demme's mentor Roger Corman and ace cinematographer Charlie Libin.

The unrehearsed, improvisational shooting style suited the storys emotional high voltage. “There was such an atmosphere of trust,” says Anne Hathaway, who manages to bring wounded humanity to the unrelentingly difficult character of Kym. “Since we never knew when the camera was on us, the cast had to listen every second, and achieve a very intense level of focus. One of the lessons that the movie teaches, particularly for people in recovery, is how important it is to stay in the present. To be able to stay in character, and hear and react to the music and the scene around you, is very liberating for an actor. To me, this story
is about communication and love, and we were given the latitude to explore that.”

“Something happens where you get to work and every corner of the house feels like a house and not a movie set,” says Rosemarie DeWitt, with a nod to production designer Ford Wheeler's evocative creation of a beautiful and believable family home for the Buchmans.

Unconventional Freedom

Like the free-form shooting style, the music was an integral element, played out with unconventional freedom. “For the longest time,” recalls Demme, “I've had this desire to try to provide the musical dimension of a movie without traditionally scored music. I thought, wait a minute, in the script, Paul is a music industry bigwig, Sidney's a record producer, many of his friends will be gifted musicians, so of course there would be nonstop music at this gathering. Following that logic, we have music playing live throughout the weekend, but always in the next room, out on the porch or in the garden.”

Among the legion of musicians, dancers, and performers whom Demme enlisted to fill the ranks of the wedding party, jazz great Donald Harrison, Jr. and Palestinian virtuoso Zafer Tawil, contributed original throughline musical themes and are credited as composers. They also brought along plenty of accompaniment: Harrisons Grammy-nominated nephew Christian Scott shows up to jam at the reception, and Tawil is joined by an ensemble of players from the score of Jimmy Carter Man From Plains including Amir ElSaffar.

“The musicians were encouraged to play whenever they were inspired to, the more the better, never paying attention to the rolling camera,” explains music supervisor and editor Suzana Periar, who has worked on every Demme film since “Something Wild.” “Musical anarchy on the set. Bliss for the musicians, big headaches for those who had to record them.”

“At one point,” says Demme, “Anne Hathaway was trying to act out a very intense scene while the musicians noodled around outside. She was distracted and the assistant director came to me and said that she was having trouble, so I said, 'Tell her to do something about it, then.' That's when Kym yells at them to shut up all unplanned and improvised but completely in character.”