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JONATHAN DEMME : Family Ties

August 22, 1993|JOHN ANDERSON | NEWSDAY

In what he calls "the most overproduced home movie in the history of home movies," Oscar-winning director Jonathan Demme--who's given us psychopaths ("The Silence of the Lambs"), Mafia brides ("Married to the Mob") and Talking Heads ("Stop Making Sense")--turns his camera on a relative, the Rev. Robert Castle.

"Cousin Bobby," airing Tuesday on PBS' "P.O.V.," is a film profile of the activist minister, pastor of St. Mary's Episcopal Church in Harlem, and a general rabble-rouser. It also documents the reunion of the two long-lost relations, as Demme re-establishes his ties to his family and the past.

Demme follows Cousin Bobby as he ministers to his congregation, making street speeches with the same passion he brings to the pulpit; berating city officials for depriving his neighborhood of essential services, and criticizing the police for treating the area as just another bad assignment. People live here, he tells the authorities. Why don't you?

Castle also returns to his former parish, in Jersey City, N.J., and visits the grave of Isaiah Rowley, a Black Panther leader who, before his violent death, exercised a profound influence on Castle's politics and his life. His reminiscences about Rowley are a dramatic part of the film. "At one point," Demme says, "Bobby starts talking about this guy, how he wishes the story of Isaiah could be told, and then he proceeds over the next two days of filming to tell the story and get it told. I love that he did that."

Newsday writer John Anderson caught up with Demme in New York, where the Oscar-winning director was editing his upcoming AIDS drama, "Philadelphia."

What prompted you to make a movie about your cousin?

I was reunited with Bob at a time when I'd been offered funding for a documentary on a subject of my choosing, by a television network in Spain. The stipulation was that it would be a film about a subject of a personal nature.

As a New Yorker, I'm constantly concerned about the many people living in the more disenfranchised neighborhoods of the city--the ones characterized by those of us in better neighborhoods as hotbeds of crime and drugs, neighborhoods that I know, in fact, are populated by many, many decent, hard-working people. So I thought my personal project would be putting an appropriately human face on one of these neighborhoods.

As it turns out, your cousin is a rather formidable screen presence. Did you sense that right away, or have any reservations about it?

No, having seen him officiate a service at his church and deliver a sermon, my perception was that he was an extremely charismatic person. What I didn't know was whether, in the long run, he'd be someone that I, and by extension the viewer, would find likable. But I was confident he would be interesting to watch.

I hesitate to call it a performance, but does he act for the camera? Or is he as animated as this all the time?

Well, he's in a service kind of job. Not just the religious ceremony, but all week he's at the service of whoever comes to the church. So the spotlight is almost always on him in one way or another; he's responding to others, usually with a certain number of witnesses around. So no, I don't think he was any more "on" than he would have been with the camera off.

He might have been an actor, don't you think?

Well, he's in "Philadelphia." He's playing Tom Hank's father. Which means in the movie he's married to Joanne Woodward. And he's terrific. A natural-born communicator. And that's what acting in movies is all about.

"Cousin Bobby" was shot while you were working on "Silence of the Lambs," wasn't it? Was it strange seesawing between Hannibal Lecter and your minister cousin?

Hah, not really. We started shooting "Bobby" before "Lambs." It was scheduled to be shot over a summer. Then "Lambs" started happening, and because of everything involved, "Bobby" got stretched out over 18 months instead of three. But the dividend is that we get to know him a whole lot better. He actually does a little walk-on in "Silence of the Lambs." In the last scene, Dr. Chilton gets off the plane and he descends the stairs behind a missionary couple. And that's Cousin Bobby.

He does seem like the Lone White Man up there in Harlem. Is he as accepted by the community as he appears to be in the film?

I think so. In a community like that, you're judged by a number of specific criteria: One, do you show respect for the people you encounter? Two, are you part of the problem, or part of a possible solution? How do you respond to the kids? Are you an adult who feels compassion, or are you an exploiter? And he stacks up good on those important elements.

Didn't anyone have anything bad to say about him?

I sought out the downside of Bobby. I spent a lot of time looking for people who'd trash him. But I gotta tell you it was hard to do. So hard, there's nothing like that in there!

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