Filmmaker Demme, Keeping Up With the Man From Plains

Jonathan Demme, left, with Jimmy Carter during the filming of a documentary on the former president while on book tour of
Jonathan Demme, left, with Jimmy Carter during the filming of a documentary on the former president while on book tour of "Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid." (By Alex Cohn -- Sony Pictures Classics)
Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Don't we already know all we need to know about Jimmy Carter? Former president, Nobel laureate, compulsive author, do-gooder, quote machine -- and now the subject of Oscar winner Jonathan Demme's documentary "Jimmy Carter Man From Plains," opening in Washington Friday. The film's frame is Carter's nationwide tour for his 2006 book "Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid," which turned out to be the most controversial of Carter's career -- and a boon to a filmmaker in search of a narrative.

-- Richard Leiby

In the film, Carter says it's the only time in his life that he's been called a liar, a bigot, an anti-Semite and a coward, and "this has hurt me." Why do you think he caught so much flak for that book?

Having watched all of that go down closely, it's perfectly clear that he calculated to get attention to the book by using that supercharged word, apartheid, in the title. . . . But he miscalculated the intensity of the response. If I were him I would have said, "Wait a minute, Archbishop Desmond Tutu called it apartheid first," but Carter's ego prevents him from hiding behind the bishop's robes. Jimmy Carter, man of peace that he is, and great American that he is, also has a presidential-sized ego. Because of his ego, he's going to stand there like Gary Cooper in "High Noon" and take the heat.

Didn't you worry that the topic of Carter's book itself would be too tedious for a film audience?

Whether we want to admit it or not, most of us Americans, certainly me, feel we are trapped in this terrifying, potentially cataclysmic situation where we feel as Westerners that we are in a conflict with [the jihadists] in the Middle East, and we're looking for a way out. Carter's message of peace provides that. I got excited when I heard about the book tour. . . . Here is a man with Camp David under his belt; he thinks he can solve this. Maybe we can catch lightning in a bottle and learn something about how that archaic notion of peace can be achieved.

How does making a film about a former president compare to working with rock-and-rollers, as you did with Talking Heads in "Stop Making Sense" and Neil Young in "Heart of Gold"?

All I can say is that the ex-president moves so much faster than the rock star. So I have to say the ex-president is more demanding. He doesn't hang around waiting. He sets such a torrid pace, he's exhausting. This cat never stops moving.

More stamina: Jonathan Demme, 63, or Jimmy Carter, 83?

[Laughs.] I'm a much healthier aerobic person having been on the road with Carter. Carter has the stamina.

More political: Neil Young or Jimmy Carter?

[Laughs.] Neil Young is mighty political. Oh, man. These guys have a lot in common. They each care tremendously about the important issues of the day. They each come from deeply humanistic places, and they are incredibly imaginative thinkers. Neil goes off half-cocked sometimes, but then will come back an hour later and say, no, the issue is more complex. Carter is at a stage of life where he speaks his mind without fearing the consequences.

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