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Highs and lows

Like George Jung, the man whose life he chronicles, director Ted Demme uses cocaine as a means to an end. “The name of the movie is Blow,” says Demme in Los Angeles, “so there’s no getting away from the fact that drugs are absolutely the backdrop for this story, but I think it’s bigger than that.

“In this case, we had a true story,” he continues, “about, in many respects, the American dream gone terribly, terribly bad. Here’s this small-town boy, high-school all-American, who grew up to be Pablo Escobar’s right-hand man, and how he’s responsible for bringing 85 percent of our coke in. George tells me all the time he mortgaged his life for moments of freedom. And he gambled the ultimate game, he gambled with his life, and he lost.”

Demme’s interest was piqued by Bruce Porter’s Blow, a nonfiction account of the rise of the cocaine trade in the United States, and particularly the role played by Jung, who’s been described as the Henry Ford of cocaine. When he first traveled to the Otisville Federal Correctional Facility in upstate New York to see Jung (who’s incarcerated until 2015), Demme knew his story but didn’t expect him to be quite so charismatic.

“He’s very, very intoxicating as a human being,” says Demme — “he’s smart, he’s funny, he’s charming, he tells very good stories, he tells very sad stories, he’s very real, he’s very honest. He’s just got one of those personalities that just stays with you. When I first met him, after I left him, I couldn’t stop thinking about him for a whole week. I felt very ambivalent about that because I was very judgmental on him, about what he had done in his past, but I just couldn’t shake him out of my mind, and I thought that was a pretty good excuse and a good character and a good challenge to bring a guy like that to the screen.”

To embody George’s transformation from young high-roller to defeated convict, Demme went with Johnny Depp, whose fondness for biographies has led him to portray many characters based on real people (such as Ed Wood, Hunter S. Thompson and Donnie Brasco). Depp explains that after absorbing the written material, “I had all my homework done and what was left was just to meet him and study him. So I went up there, and both of us knowing that we only had two days for me to sponge up as much as I could. It was very intense talks, maybe 12, 14 hours each day.

“The thing is, if I had not met George,” continues Depp, “if I had chosen not to meet him, then I’d be playing a character. It definitely lessens the amount of responsibility if you don’t meet the guy. One of the scariest things in the world is to meet the guy and say, ‘OK, I’m going to abandon this idea, this thing called performance, and try and transcend, to go beyond that because I don’t want to deliver a performance to you, I want to deliver as accurate — as honest — a portrayal as I possibly can.’ So (the portrayal) left me, and it wasn’t for me, it wasn’t for anybody but George, really.”

In portraying Jung’s life, Demme believes it was vital to embrace his contradictory nature. So the cocaine king is also a devoted father, a prison GED instructor who laces his lesson plan with advice on drug smuggling, a smart and resourceful man who misuses his talents. The process of researching and making Blow didn’t alter Demme’s perceptions.

“I still feel the same way about what he’d done in his life,” says Demme. “I feel very sorry for him now, but I don’t feel that George went into this thing by accident — he didn’t just drop into it. Certain events that happened in his life led him to it, but I think that he’s fully responsible for his actions, and I think he’s fully cognizant of that.”

What also appealed to the 36-year-old filmmaker (The Ref, Beautiful Girls, Life) was a chance to really explore the heady 1970s, the period when Jung helped make cocaine the party drug of choice. Because he knew this story would end on a somber note, Demme felt he had some latitude in portraying a giddy atmosphere where consequences weren’t considered.

“These guys were trying to find freedom,” he says of Jung and his cohorts, “and find it in all these different places they hadn’t seen it before. When cocaine came to this country, they really didn’t know it was going to be bad for them, because they dove into it full-nose, you know?”

Although he felt it was vital to present Jung’s story objectively, without just-say-no finger-wagging, Demme does see Blow as “a classic morality tale” where a spectacular rise is followed by an equally spectacular fall and a thoughtful re-examination of past actions.

“George says that you never know how much you’ve done until you’ve done it,” recalls Demme. “You don’t know you’ve done too much until you realize what your limit is. So you have to go over the edge to come back.”

Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at letters@metrotimes.com

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