I interviewed Mr. Young and Mr. Demme at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival on their involvement in the forthcoming film, “Neil Young: Heart Of Gold.” The interview occurred at Zoom, a restaurant in the old Union Pacific rail station, on Wedneday, January 25, for an MTV News article, “Neil Young’s ‘Heart Of Gold’ Concert Doc Glitters At Sundance”. the interview is reprinted here in its entirety.
BW: Jonathan, catch us up on the circumstances in which you created this extraordinary, amber-hued film.
Jonathan Demme: Every since I saw “Greendale: The Movie,” Neil and I started talking on the phone a lot about film in general because I’ve liked the film’s Neil’s done over the years previous years a lot. In fact, when we did “Stop Making Sense,” as far as David Byrne was concerned, if we could get close to the quality of “Rust Never Sleeps,” then I’d have something we can be proud of. I know about him as a filmmaker and after “Greendale” came out I saw how he’d taken the ways to present music on film in a whole new direction. And because we’d gotten to know each a little bit after Neil did this song for “Philadelphia,” I just had it in my mind that I wanted to collaborate and I felt that I might have an opportunity to do something that was really different if I was able to team up with him.
So I was floating out around there, calling Elliot Roberts every once and a while going “Think Neil would like to do some movie type of thing?” And Elliott would say, “Yeah, yunno, one of these times.” And then, as fate would have it, I called up, not knowing anything of the fact that Neil had discovered that he had an aneurism and had this incredible creative rush of songwriting and recording between the time he found out that he had to have a procedure to remove this aneurism and actually having the operation to do it he did these amazing songs and I got to hear these songs before anybody. I got a CD of these songs and I went, “Oh my God this is a masterpiece.”
So I started suggesting that we do something, it could be an animated film, it could be anything, something to give cinematic life to this great group of songs. Very quickly it started evolving into the fact that this is born of Nashville, these songs, it’s home is the Ryman Auditorium, the most beautiful, mother church in all of the country. Let’s put on the definitive dream concert of these new songs at the Ryman. So that’s what took flight. So my thing was all creative, and Neil was living that drama, which he channeled into this brilliant album. And then we hooked up and went down there and did it.
BW: Neil, to what degree was the Ryman, as football fans would call it, the “thirteenth player” on the field?
Neil Young: The Ryman and Hank William’s guitar and Emmylou Harris and the audience itself was a very musical audience, the audience was invited from musical people in Nashville, people who understood the history of the Ryman Auditorium, and the history of country music, and where the roots of country were. You know, it’s a very revered place. We were trying to pay homage to our roots and to our heroes: Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, George Jones, all these great songwriters who are at the heart of country music and that’s not all of em, that’s just a mess and a few. So, that was the place to do this, and we wanted to make it a concert that treated every song like a scene in a film. Every song had its own care, it’s own staging.
So as we went through the performance, the crowd had to wait for a minute and a half or so when the totally rehearsed set change happened in record time every time with these guys and all their marks and everything moving around so that every time the lights came back up after a song there was a slight shift in the way that everything looked. And in that way, it’s totally different from any concert film and it leaves the realm of concert documentary and becomes a film that creates a concert.
JD: We cut out all those re-arranging parts so the music just flows. And once and a while Neil tells you something about the song you’re about to hear, or about the Ryman, or about Nashville. We wanted to create a dream state, a musical dream state that took you on an emotional journey with great song after great song. And with the Ryman I’ve read the literature, and I’ve heard about how great the Ryman is and it’s the mother church and I know how cool that is but you’ve got to walk in the door and see this breathtaking room, and see that the audience isn’t arranged in regular seating, but in circular pews, because it was a real church before it became a citadel of music. So it’s utterly unique. And not only is that visually interesting, but it brings all the ghost and spirits to life in there.
NY: They were all with us when we were doing that. There was this whole ambience going on. And we were all dressed from a period that was somewhere back from the heyday of the Ryman and that whole thing. So we were all going there. And the audience was more than ready to go there. I mean, all those people were dying to go back in time. So we were able to take them there without much effort.
JD: We wanted, if people were to walk in once the performance part of the movie starts cuz we start [the film] setting the atmosphere of Nashville, and the Ryman, and the musicians and what have you. But when the curtains part, that it. The musical journey begins. But if you wandered in after the show had started, we wanted people to go, “When was this filmed?” It coulda’ been filmed in the Thirties with the quality of the music, the outfits that everybody was wearing, the old fashioned beautifully expressive backdrops we had. We wanted — again, I keep going back to dreams — we wanted this to be a dream concert.
BW: Which comes up numerous times in the lyrics of “Prairie Wind.” In fact the lyric that struck me the most was, “If you follow every dream / You might get lost.” Neil, you’re a man I’ve looked to to help me find mine, so that lyric is such a curious almost reversal for me to hear you tell me, “Hey, caution, beware…”
NY: You might just be ready. Yeah. Go anyway. You might crash. And it might not be something everybody else thought was great. But if you follow, it’s gonna be at least fulfilling to you. Yunno. I feel like following my ideas no matter what they are has been fine for me so far.
BW: You speak of the song cycle, and the ebb and flow of the performance. Certainly you worked that out well in advance.
NY: Ten straights days of rehearsal, twelve to fourteen hours a day in this room that must have been ninety degrees and we just kept on going. The re-do list just kept getting bigger and bigger. We just drove everybody to the limit to get ready for this, to make sure that we could perform the songs and do the justice to them. A lotta work went into that. And during that musical rehearsal time, also the whole staging happened, we decided where everybody was going to be for every song, and then everybody would make the marks, the crew was supposed to know where everything was supposed to go, and then we started running through the whole thing. And it took five to ten minutes between every song for them to get everything in place, and get it right. And then we had it down to one minute between every song. So it was important that every song get treated completely like its own song. It didn’t have to live with any of the trappings of the previous or next song in the way it was staged. That makes a difference. You don’t see that but you feel it watching the film. It’s eye friendly. You don’t get used to things like you do in a normal documented concert.
BW: And in concluding with “One Of These Days” there was this distinct sense that this was some sort of a love letter, both to me, as a fan, and your audience, but more importantly to your band mates and friends.NY: Yeah. It’s all about the musicians. “Heart of Gold” is really about all the people up there playing and the interplay between the family my family of musical friends, my family of songs, and my immediate family: my wife, and my kids that’s what it’s about.
JD: I think you’re right. Hearing Neil up there makes me think about the beauty of being in touch. It makes me want to run out and call my cousin Bobby with whom I haven’t spoken in three months.
NY: Stay connected.
BW: You capture so eloquently the smiles and glances that, were I in the back row –NY: You’d miss it, yeah.BW: And that’s the stuff. Yunno, I heard you say people were crying, it was so moving.
JD: When were filming, I was up watching a bank of little tiny monitors, talking to the camera operators. So I knew what the compositions were, but I didn’t know what was going on with everybody’s faces. And when I got into the cutting room, and when Andy Keir, our great editor, designed all those cuts to reinforce what we’re talking about, I sat in my own cutting room with the tears running down, yunno? I was much more moved by that incredible intimacy than the string section, or…
NY: Yeah, yeah. That was amazing.
JD: That’s a deep song, man.
NY: That’s the best version of it I ever did. I’m glad it’s on the film.
BW: Gentlemen, I could listen to your stories for hours, but I’m getting the wrap sign. So thank you.
NY: Thank you.