Blowin' Smoke

Ted Demme and Denis Leary are a match made in effin' heaven

Apr 4, 2001 at 4:00 am
This is how famous Denis Leary is: He begins and ends a story by saying, "To this day, when I see Mick...," and by Mick, he means Mick Jagger. They became pals, oh, seven years back, when the Rolling Stones were on that week's farewell tour, kickin' it in the Voodoo Lounge. The story, as Leary tells it, has Jagger phoning him and asking him if he and his pal Ted Demme would be interested in making a film starring the Stones. Sure, Leary tells him between puffs on a Marlboro Red, we could do that. Demme was responsible for Leary's frothing-at-the-mouth short spots for MTV (remember: "I got two words for ya..."), and he'd already directed Leary in one stand-up special (Showtime's No Cure for Cancer) and in two films (1993's Who's the Man? and 1994's The Ref). Even way back then, Leary says, "Teddy and I were Mutt and Jeff anyway, in show-business terms."

So the two hopped on a plane, flew up to Washington, D.C., met with Jagger and Keith Richards, then spent six months plotting a movie that had about as much chance of getting made as Brian Jones did of rejoining the Stones. That's how friends are made in show business: plotting deals that never happen.

"But it was pretty funny," Leary says, "because, to this day, when I see Mick or when Teddy sees him, it's always, 'Hey, where's Denis?' or 'Hey, where's Ted?' And we have to tell them, 'It's not like we're always together, OK?'"

Today's one of those days. Demme's sitting all by himself in a Dallas office building, holding a cup of Coke in a meaty hand decorated with a silver ring that's got to weigh a pound...and talking about how Leary gave him balls. The subject comes up during a rather lengthy discussion about why Demme keeps working on projects about unlikable guys you kinda love. There's The Ref, about a small-time thief (Leary) who holds hostage a dysfunctional couple (Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis, even though Disney wanted Roseanne and Tom Arnold). There's Monument Ave., about a small-time Boston hood (Leary, again) who lets his boss gun down his cousins, one by one, till he decides to do something about it. There's Action, the short-lived Fox series about a movie producer (Jay Mohr) with a heart of copper. And Life, about two cons (Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence) who spend forever behind bars. And, finally, this week's Blow, about real-life coke dealer George Jung (Johnny Depp), who's undone by ambition and his own parents. (With Blow, there's still the Leary connection: He co-produced the film. He's always there, even when he's not. "For the rest of our lives," Leary says, "I think we'll be partnered up in one way or another.")

At first, Demme says he's never thought much about the links that connect his work. It takes him all of 10 seconds to realize that, yup, most of his projects do have something in common.

"I think I've always been drawn to the fact that there's no clear-cut good guys and no clear-cut bad guys in society," he says, kicking back on a sofa. Around his neck is a silver chain so thick you could wrap it around tires on a snowy day; the matching watch could double as brass knuckles. "There are some bad guys, and there are good guys, too, but the majority of people could be good or bad."

Then Demme starts in with a story about how, when he saw Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull for the first time--he was a senior in high school on Long Island--he wanted not just to make movies like it, but he wanted to be in the movie. Actually, he just wanted to take scenes from the movie and insert them into his own life, and why not? All his life, he'd been a good boy. He opened doors for old people, stood up when a woman walked in the room, had excellent table manners. It was easy to be kind and considerate out in the suburbs, hiding behind white picket fences. You could be a nice guy out on the respectable streets of middle-class America. You could play by the rules, because there were rewards for the kids who stayed out of trouble: good jobs, good money, a pretty-but-not-beautiful wife, two-point-five kids, a house just like Mom and Pop's. The regular Effin' American Dream.

But out on the football field, where Demme was a high school stud, he found out you don't get ahead playing by the rules; you get kicked in the nuts, over and over and over, by the badass bunch. Demme's teams never won any titles, and for what? By the time he got to college, Demme wrecked his knee and found he could never play ball again; the best he could do was become a physical-education instructor. Shit wasn't working out like he planned. He kept his side of the bargain, kept his nose clean, and all he got in return was a busted leg. Then, when he went off to State University of New York in Cortland, his parents split up. So much for the perfect life.

"In my 20s, I started to really rebel against what I was told when I was a kid," Demme says. "Post-college I was like, 'Fuck, I never got that championship.' I went to college and played ball, and all these guys were assholes playing around me in Division III. I got fucked up when my leg got cracked, and I just thought, 'What the fuck have I learned by being a good guy? Fuck that. Now's the time to really start rebelling.' I'd seen Raging Bull, blah blah blah, so I left college and went on my own to become my own guy. Maybe a lot of that was: 'Oh, I thought if I behaved this way, I'd live happily ever after. But you're telling me that even if you behave that way, you don't live happily ever after and you don't get the babes? Oh, OK, maybe I should start behaving like these others guys who are so fuckin' cool and end up having some sort of redemption at the end.' I'm sure a lot of that plays into it. Redemption is a big theme in the movies I love."

Demme ended up in the movies almost by accident, despite having an uncle (Silence of the Lambs director Jonathan Demme) in the business. After college, he did a little play-by-play and color announcing on the radio, worked in local TV, made some short films and, of course, tended bar. In 1986, he landed at MTV as a production assistant, and within two years, he was in Austin, filming the pilot for an MTV show that would feature Run-D.M.C., Public Enemy, DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince and Salt-N-Pepa. As creator and director of Yo! MTV Raps, which premiered in 1988 and ran for seven years, Demme had a front-row seat for the hip-hop revolution: He recalls how, almost overnight, white kids were running around with Public Enemy ball caps: "Watching people suddenly be down was really funny," he says, laughing.

In 1990, Demme caught the stage version of Leary's No Cure for Cancer, in which he sucks down a pack of smokes, wishes it had been Bon Jovi on that crashed helicopter instead of Stevie Ray Vaughan and fantasizes of the day when he can talk through a throat-cancer patient's voice box. The two became pals almost instantly. "We laugh at all the same things," Demme says, "and we're pissed off about all the same things." It also didn't hurt that, in some way, they needed each other: Demme had the power at MTV to get on the air the short films he created with Leary, and Leary, who'd become a comedian only when he couldn't find any acting jobs, had that kind of liberating eat-shit attitude Demme always wanted but couldn't quite articulate.

"When I saw that show, I felt exactly the same way he did, but I wasn't as funny or as smart to write it down like he did," Demme says. "So when we did those pieces for MTV, the reason they turned out so good was because I knew exactly what the fuck he was talking about. I knew how to take his energy and market it. I just knew. He's a little bit angrier than I am, but he was a great outlet for me. He gave me some balls to be able to take it to the next level."

"I always felt like Teddy was playing a little catch-up at the beginning, because he came from Long Island, which was a little bit different atmosphere," the Worcester, Mass.-raised Leary says. "But to his credit, once he got involved, and I love him for this, he's always been a guy who's not afraid to burn bridges, which is not done in this business, where everybody's kissing your ass and then when you turn around they say what they really feel. They're not used to somebody walking in the room and saying, 'You know what? You're a fuckin' asshole. You suck.' I love Teddy, because once I said to him, 'Look, my attitude is, if somebody's a dick, I call them a dick, and I don't give a fuck,' and he not only followed suit, he did it in spades."

Leary and Demme have been trying to get Blow on the screen since acquiring the property nearly six years ago. Every so often, they'd go out and visit the real George Jung in prison and coax stories out of him, or they'd just smoke cigarettes and hang. They became friends, despite the fact Jung was one of the men responsible for bringing coke to the United States in the late 1970s. For a little while, Demme even felt guilty about being pals with the guy. He started thinking about crack babies, and he thought to himself, Fuckin' George, man, it's all his fault.

Then he decided Jung was just the guy he loves to make movies about: the anti-hero who starts out noble and pure and ends up knee-deep in a world of shit he created. Maybe Demme even saw a little of himself in George. Maybe he could have even become someone like George. But somewhere between Long Island and Los Angeles, Demme decided there was a fine line separating the tough from the tragic, and he'd rather be the guy telling the stories than the guy they tell stories about.

"Now, I'm a 37-year-old guy, and I look back and don't wanna be like those thug guys who were kickin' my ass on the field," he says. "For me, now, trying to be a semi-decent husband and friend and whatever the fuck I am..." He pauses, then grins. "I'm not a total goody-two-shoes, and I'm not a real badass either. I'm stuck in the middle somewhere, but at least I think I've seen both sides now. Now I can apply the good parts to what I want and get a little dirty when I want to."