Blowin' Smoke

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.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky

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