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Spotlight: Jonathan Demme, Director & Lindsay Jaeger, Producer, 'I’m Carolyn Parker: The Good, the Mad and the Beautiful'

Known for directing feature films including The Silence of the Lambs, Married to the Mob and Philadelphia, Jonathan Demme is also known for his passion project documentaries. His most recent is I’m Carolyn Parker: The Good, the Mad and the Beautiful for PBS’ POV, which presents the post-Hurricane Katrina journey of a New Orleans native who stood her ground.

Carolyn Parker. Composite by Jacob Burns Film Center

For both Demme and producer Lindsay Jaeger, the project quickly became very personal and meaningful. Five years of visits to Parker’s house made for a great connection between the filmmakers and the subject, who opened her home to them and even cooked meals for the crew.

How was your approach to I’m Carolyn Parker different from other projects of yours?
Demme: I was passionately concerned about the citizens of New Orleans and the return to their neighborhoods after Hurricane Katrina. Initially the plan was to make five trips in order to make a film that shows the changes in their lives and neighborhoods over the course of one year after the flood. At the end of five visits, very little had changed. I decided to keep going down. We were very blessed in forming extraordinary friendships with Carolyn Parker, her daughter and her son. It was a labor of love, with the emphasis on the love.

Did you have a concept for the look of the film?
Demme: I was shooting it and I’m not a camera person. I knew I was going to end up with a film that looked like a home movie.

Jaeger: This is a departure for Jonathan even in the documentary realm because he was so liberated by the technology. He didn’t hire sound or a camera operator. He could just go. That in itself lent a lot to the personal feeling of this film. He has made portrait documentaries in the past—what makes this one unique is that he was the main technical person on it.

We were all using different cameras. At one point someone was shooting on a Hi8 camera. Jonathan’s favorite, which was really compact, was the Canon VIXIA. It looks great. It’s really small, easy to use, and it comes out with a fantastic image. He liked to use it so he could be super mobile and move around. I shot a Panasonic AG-DVX100.

In one year turning into five years, what were some challenges along the way?
Demme: The biggest challenge was to not get overly involved. I don’t want to make a film about a family trying to get back in their house who were helped a lot by these New Yorkers. This is Carolyn’s struggle. I’m rooting for her, but I would worry about her. I had to resist trying to help her, but there were times when I thought, ‘This is taking too long, she’s never going to get back in! What am I doing coming back down here? Am I a cinematic vulture?’ But on the other hand I had tremendous confidence in her. Thank God it’s a film with an extremely happy ending!
 

Watch I'm Carolyn Parker - Trailer on PBS. See more from POV.