Ahead of the world premiere of his Justin Timberlake concert doc at the Toronto International Film Festival, director Jonathan Demme stopped by the TIFF Doc Conference to offer filmmaking advice to the gathered industry.
The Oscar-winning director was on hand to discuss his approaches to filming concerts, which he has done concurrently to making narrative films such as Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia, since helming the 1984 Talking Heads concert doc Stop Making Sense.
While making that film, Demme realized prioritizing shots of the audience could be counterproductive. While shooting the Heads at Hollywood’s Pantages Theater, he kept the lights on so his cameras could film the crowd. Consequently, the audience never let loose and the band tanked. Front man David Byrne was fuming.
“I never wanted a camera on the audience again for a music film,” Demme said. “Let’s face it: something more interesting has got to be happening on stage.”
Timberlake was such a fan of Stop Making Sense he asked Demme to produce a concert film about his 20/20 Experience tour. The 90-minute JT + The Tennessee Kids chronicles the final date on the Tom Ford suit-wearing pop star’s two-year trek at Las Vegas’ MGM Grand. Days before the TIFF premiere, the film was acquired by Netflix.
Although the singer’s music is nothing like the Talking Heads, Demme said both acts share a detail-oriented approach to staging and lighting.
To film Timberlake, Demme set up 14 cameras at the MGM Grand with live feeds into a control room. Additionally, he had two free-floating cameras including a shooter on stage – an unusual move that Timberlake signed off on with two conditions.
“If he can stay out of my way, then yes,” Timberlake reportedly told Demme. “And two, if you put him in a really nice suit.”
Demme, who has also helmed three concert docs for Neil Young, described the process of filming musical performance as “collective invention.” He made sure to have two cameras constantly trained on Timberlake – including a full-body shot to capture dance moves – and cameras trained on the backing band to zoom in on spontaneous interactions.
He also advised aspiring concert docmakers to let performances breathe on screen. “Don’t get sucked into that artificial energy of trying to cut to the beat,” he said when asked about his approach to editing. “Let the audience be there with [the band].”
In the end, he also broke his rule of ignoring the crowd.
“Justin has a particular relationship with the audience,” Demme explained. “The audience in this film became quite a character.”