Jung At Heart...Of Darkness
By Collin Souter
Posted 04/08/01 07:15:41
After a press screening for his latest movie 'Blow,' director Ted Demme hosted a press conference where he discussed his future, the impending writers and actors strike and the REAL George Jung. WARNING: SPOILERS!
This could very well be one of the darkest times for filmmaker Ted Demme. Not only does he have “Blow,” a harsh drama about the life of notorious drug smuggler George Jung to promote, but he has to do it in the wake of a hugely successful drug film (“Traffic”), he will have a mini-premier of the film in Otisville Prison and he can’t help but feel a little edgy with the whole actors/writers strike lurking on the horizon.
“I’m flipping out over it,” Demme says. “I’m really angry about it, too. It’s not just the actors, it’s the writers. My personal view--and I’ve been pretty vocal and I’m sure I’m going to get beat up in an alley by some writers--is that I find it highly offensive that they’ve known for over a year that they’re going on strike. ‘We’re striking!’ Well, how are you going on strike? You haven’t even sat at the fucking table to talk about it. It’s like they put this fear into all of Hollywood about how there’s going to be a strike. ‘There’s gonna be a strike. Take any job you can. Take Anaconda 4, because you need it.’”
For now, though, Demme, 36, has to concentrate on his latest movie, “Blow,” a story that spans decades about how George Jung, an average small-town nobody, ended up being Columbian drug cartel Pablo Escobar’s right hand man. Johnny Depp plays George Jung, a man who came from an abusive family and who vowed to never end up as his parents did. Ted Demme read George Jung’s book and bought the rights to it immediately.
“I was completely hooked by the byline of the book on how a small town boy went on to be Pablo Escobar’s right-hand guy and had 100 million cash in 2 years and then lost it all,” he says. “I met the real George in prison and spent about 5-6 hours with the guy and found him intoxicating as a human being. Really funny. Really smart. Really sad. I couldn’t stop thinking about him. I got very judgmental about him when I first met him. I couldn’t get him out of my head. I thought, ‘This must be a good sign.’ It would be a really good challenge as a director to make a story about a classic anti-hero with a lot of sides to him.”
Demme took his cast and crew to Mexico for all the scenes that originally took place in off-limits-to-filmmakers Columbia. For the rest of the cast, Demme looked to a gallery of international unknowns and newcomers. For the first 45 minutes of the movie, George Jung surrounds himself with a motley crew of ready-for-anything pot smugglers. One of them, a flamboyant hairdresser named Derek Foreal, had to be a work of semi-fiction.
“Derek Foreal, his real name is Richard Foreal,” says Demme. “We had to change his name (and Diego Delgado’s name), because we couldn’t find them to get their approval. Derek’s on the run.”
To help him out, Demme chose a master of character creation and disguise, Paul Reubins, also known as the boisterous, gray-suit-and-red-bow-tie-wearing man-child Pee-Wee Herman. Reubins had to face the challenge of creating a real-life character who, for all practical purposes, did not exist.
“We had to create that character from scratch, because we couldn’t find the real guy. And we knew what he looked like, but he wasn’t as fun. And I just told Paul, ‘Look you created my favorite character of all time. Create another one for me,’ and he just went off and really created Derek Forreal.”
George’s gallery of cohorts early in the film consists of Tuna (played by Ethan Suplee), Barbara (played by Franka Potente) and Kevin Dulli (played by Max Perlich). The essential emotional element of “Blow,” however, has to do with the effect the drug culture has on the nuclear family. The tragedy at the core of this American success story (or excess, depending on how you look at it) comes from George’s determination to be financially successful, unlike his parents, who hardly ever went a day without arguing over money. Of course, George did turn out as his parents did. Demme saw this as one of the most important thematic elements and messages of George Jung’s story.
“I feel really strongly about atmospheres in which parents raise their children,” says Demme. “I grew up in a really strong household. We’re all going to make mistakes as parents. I’m sure our parents made mistakes with us…I just think, do the best you can. Because if you don’t, that kid’s just going to do the same thing that you did.
“The reality of George is that he came from a really bad household. No one got shot, but mom was a really bad drunk, a really abused dad, physically, emotionally, George saw a lot of it. He told me he left in 1968 to be nothing like his parents. Cut to 10 years later, he’s drunk in a room screaming and yelling at his wife, Mirtha (played in the movie by Penelope Cruz), she’s high on coke and he looks in the corner and his daughter’s there crying. He said, ‘I almost went in the other room and committed suicide.’ It flipped him out so much that he had become his parents and he didn’t even realize it.”
The off-screen drama involving these people, Demme included, has all the workings of a “Blow” sequel. Today, George Jung resides in prison serving his sentence. “He’s gong to be 71 when he gets out,” Demme says. “There’s a possibility that the judge might look at his sentence and reconsider getting him out earlier because he’s 58. It’s kind of unhealthy, as you can imagine, because he’s got emphazima, because he smokes a lot. And plus, you don’t age well in prison. He wants to get out so damn bad. He just wants to help his kid.”
The reconciliation between George and his daughter, Christine, obviously won’t happen overnight, but “Blow” does speculate what might happen if/when they do meet. Every day in prison, George Jung checks the guest book to see if Christine’s name happens to be on the list. Though he knows she will not come, he checks anyway. With “Blow” finished and ready to take the country’s silver screens by storm, Jung has more hope than ever for a chance at human contact.
“George saw the movie 4-5 months ago,” says Demme. “He saw the rough cut which was a lot longer than this one. I wanted to show him every frame of his life. He was absolutely flipped out by Johnny, because he had never seen a movie that Johnny had been in, and Johnny nailed him to the tee. I mean, if you knew George and how he talks out of his mouth and the way he walks with his ass tucked in, the way he smoked cigarettes and the way he drank…He was flipped out by that.
“I was actually in a holding room,” Demme continues. “It was very small. We had a 14-inch TV with a VCR built into it. It was me, the warden, George, a guard, and my assistant, Emma, was with me. In the last ½ hour of the movie, George went and grabbed a Kleenex and I knew we were in trouble and he just really broke down and cried like a baby for the last 10 minutes. And I’m crying, Emma’s crying, the warden’s crying, the security guard is trying to act cool in the back. It was a really intense experience and I think he really liked it a lot.”
Along with the soap opera involving Jung and his daughter, Demme could also include in the sequel an account of what happened to George’s parents after he went to prison. An interesting dynamic existed between George and his father, Fred (played by Ray Liotta), who approved that George had no problem making money, and his mother, who expressed harsh disapproval for the method behind his madness. But a little madness on George’s part probably came as an inheritance from his mother, Ermine (played by Rachel Griffiths).
“Fred passed away about 1989,” Demme explains. “Ermine lived to be about 92. She lived a really long life. Smoked about two packs of cigarettes a day. Drank until she died. She was in an old folks home. She literally thought she was Loretta Young. She dressed like her, the whole thing. When George went to prison 8 years ago--I don’t think she was coherent for a while, she had been sick--they didn’t tell her that George was in prison, because they weren’t talking. They just said he was overseas. One of George’s relatives told her the truth, that George was in prison. She died three hours later. And she died the same day Loretta Young died. I’m not making that up. I had to call George up and tell him. And he started laughing. And he didn’t start laughing because she died. I said, ‘What’s so funny?’ and he said ‘Poor Fred is going to have some peace and quiet, and now here comes Ermine.”
As for George’s partners in crime, he only holds a grudge against Diego Delgado (played by Jordi Molla), a man he met in prison after his first drug bust. Diego basically played the biggest part in turning George’s life around by introducing him to Columbian drug cartel extraordinaire Pablo Escobar (played by Cliff Curtis). Together, Escobar and George claim responsibility for over 75% of the cocaine smuggled into America over the late 70’s and early 80’s. Diego may also be responsible for George’s and Mirtha’s meeting and eventual marriage. For all that George had much to be thankful at that time. But that fateful partnership between George and Diego also resulted in George’s life as it stands today, alone in a prison.
“Diego Delgado, his real name was Carlos,” Demme explains. “And he was a huge Columbian drug lord who got taken down by George in a courtroom scene, because he was going to rat on Escobar. The real Diego, Carlos, got arrested in 89. And when he got arrested, he wrote a letter to then President Bush and basically said, ‘you let me go, I’ll help you pin down Escobar and give you lab locations and bank accounts, everything.’ And Escobar told George (Jung) to bury them and he did. So, Diego is serving five consecutive lifeterm sentences in Witness Protection, so you definitely can’t find him. Mirtha’s alive and well.
“(George) hates Diego badly. Diego screwed him royally. At the end of the movie, that voice over where he says, ‘being screwed over by Derrick Foreal, that didn’t matter. Being screwed over by Kevin Dooley, that didn’t matter.’ He really felt like that, like he fucked up. It was all his fault. He shouldn’t have been there in the first place. He has some hatred for Diego, but that’s about it.”
George’s life seems to conjure up a whole series of morality tales. By the end of the movie, one has seen a life rise from the gutter, hover in the clouds while coming dangerously close to a quick crash landing, and then once it happens, it happens over and over again. George never seems to learn the lessons until he loses his complete sight of the one thing that keeps him human: His family.
“I think it’s a classic American tragedy of what can happen to families in this atmosphere,” says Demme. “George doesn’t apologize for what he did. In fact, he told me that he would do it again, he would just do it differently. I’m like, ‘Well, that’s dodging the questing, sir.’ I could say the same thing. I just think the reality of George is the reality of the movie. He’s by himself, alone, in a prison with virtually no friends around him. He misses his daughter very much and he feels very responsible for fucking her life up and she won’t come see him. That is a personal hell that he has to live with every day. I feel real sadness for him.”
“Blow”’s heartbreaking finale leaves the viewer wondering what has become of George and his daughter, Christine. Oddly enough, Christine had a helping hand in bringing authenticity to Demme’s film, serving as a consultant.
“She hasn’t seen (“Blow”) yet,” says Demme. “She’s 21. She didn’t go to college. She went to the school of hard-knocks. I think she’s trying to figure out how to survive as a 21 year old in the workplace. The last 20 minutes of the film is pretty accurate as to what she saw in her life. She saw some pretty bad things as you can imagine… I don’t think she’s got to the point as a person where she’s ready to sit down with her father and go through it and really talk about it. She won’t come and see it yet. She’ll see it soon. She knew what we were making. She read the script. I hope it’s going to help her.”
Demme and the subjects of his film have a lot to look forward to, or a lot to dread depending on how one looks at it. For now, Demme has to deal with the film’s opening and the impending writers and actors strike. Perhaps the situation will inspire Demme for his next film. Along with the comedies “Beautiful Girls,” “Life” and “The Ref,” Demme directed a few episodes of Fox’s critically acclaimed Hollywood satire “Action.” Though neither a writer nor an actor, Demme has deep concerns for his friends as well as the impact the strike will have on entertainment for the masses.
“I’ve been really pissed off about that because I think it’s an ego thing,” Demme says. “If they do go on strike, people are going to lose houses, people are going to lose mortgages, grips and gaffers, these friends of mine are going to be out of work, and that blows, man. Forget about me, I’m just thinking about that sector of people who live on a weekly job and who need that paycheck. I think it’s really irresponsible what they’re doing. There’s going to be some shitty-ass movies. You thought this year was bad. I’m not kidding, man. Some of my actor friends are taking jobs because they don’t think they’re going to be working over the summer. It’s going to be really bad.”
Still, Demme tries to stay optimistic. He has not yet resigned himself to sitting around and waiting for writers and actors to come to an agreement. With his darkest film behind him, Demme ponders the idea of returning to his comedic roots.
“I’ve got so much time and energy invested into this film,” says Demme. “I didn’t want to think about that until ‘Blow’ comes out. Plus with the strike, you know…I think I may want to do a comedy, though.” He added jokingly, “‘Anaconda 4’ is on my desk.”