Sunday, April 08, 2001

'Blow' dealer a modern pirate


Director shows man in all complexities

By Margaret A. McGurk
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Director Ted Demme acknowledges the irony of turning a drug kingpin into a sympathetic character, as he does in Blow, the movie that opened this weekend starring Johnny Depp as George Jung.

        Mr. Depp delivers a tour-de-force performance, portraying the real-life man who is still serving a 60-year sentence for cocaine trafficking after a criminal career that included a long alliance with the Medellin drug cartel.

        When Mr. Demme was considering a movie based on Bruce Porter's book, also called Blow, he decided he had to see the central character with his own eyes.

        “I went and met George in prison, and I spent about five hours with him,” Mr. Demme recalled, “and he was extremely intoxicating. Very funny, very sad, very smart. Quoted Bob Dylan, quoted Jack Kerouac, had amazing stories to tell and was very lonely.

        “I was very judgmental about him when I met him, about how I saw him and his place in history and what he had done,” the director said, yet he found “I couldn't shake him from my head for weeks. It was just flipping me out. How could I be liking this guy? How could I feel sorry about this guy? Then I thought, man, this sounds like a good territory to make a movie.”

        It was about then that Mr. Demme thought, “If I could bring a character (who) on paper (is) as despicable as what a lot of people would think of him, and portray him as he was, which was the life of the party, and very likable and very funny, it might stir some emotions. . . . I didn't invent this guy; he's really there.”

        Mr. Demme said he found the prisoner, though charming, was not remorseful.

        “I'd say to him, "Man, so here's the million-dollar question: Was it worth it? Would you do it again?' It took him a long time to answer it and he'd go, "You know I'd do it a little bit differently.'

        “I said, "You know what? That's not the right answer. You're skirting the issue, pal, you gotta say yes or no. There's no asterisks here.'

        “What he tells me all the time is, he mortgaged his life for moments of freedom. He needed to be free. He couldn't follow rules, especially when he got to the point of making so much money, and having so much money and not answering to anyone, and buying anything he wanted, anyone he wanted, traveling, buying boats, buying planes, buying islands, who knows? Buy it all!

        “He said, "Teddy you don't understand what that does to you. It's insanity.' He's telling me all these things with a smirk. "It's insanity. How could I go back and work a nine to five? I couldn't!'

        “He saw himself as a pirate. He really thought he was outlaw, he really thought he was living outside the lines, and if he wasn't doing it someone else would,” Mr. Demme said.

        “Then five minutes later, he starts crying and telling you how much he misses his daughter, and you go, where are you at? There are so many levels to him, and that's again why I just thought it would be such a great movie to make. Because if I could find the actor — which I'm confident I did — that could do all that for me, then, boy I thought people would be talking about this for a while.”

        Mr. Demme acknowledges his debt to early movies built around bad guys, including GoodFellas and Scarface.

        “I knew that I didn't want to make GoodFellas; I wanted it to be my own version of it, if you will. I knew that I didn't want to make Scarface because that movie had been done already.”

        Instead, the director said he wanted to go beyond the conventions of the genre — in his words, “Start from nothing, rise really fast, have it all, lose it all, rise again, and then blow it probably, or die.”

        It was obvious, he said, “that everyone knew that was going to happen, so I just felt like I could get to those points as fast as possible and then really kind of have fun with the other stuff. Perhaps show the '70s as a nonjudgmental, fun party that it was back then.”

        Indeed, the movie is disturbingly effective at capturing a late-'70s sense of freedom, power and immunity, fueled by drugs and inflected with propulsive rock-and-roll.

        Mr. Demme said the movie inspires widely varying responses from drug-scene survivors of the era. “I've had people in the (12-step) program watch it and say, "I'm so glad I don't do that any more,' and others have said, "Man I've never wanted a bump so bad in my life.' That's when I think, oh God, go back to a meeting.

        “Hopefully, by the end of the film their craving goes away. They'll see that picture of George up there and think, "Yeah I don't want to do that.' ”

       



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