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Capturing 'A Prairie Wind'

For the filming of "Neil Young: Heart of Gold," Young insisted on a little superstition: Only during a full moon.

"That's the only time he'd do it," director Jonathan Demme said during a recent interview at the South by Southwest music festival, where the documentary was featured.

"It makes a difference," Young explains. "Any time you plant anything, it's when things grow."

For two nights in August 2005 (distilled as one show in the movie), Young premiered the songs of his then unreleased album "Prairie Wind" at the historic Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tenn.

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  • The songs, written in a creative burst just before Young had surgery for a brain aneurysm, are deeply emotional - and Demme captures the performance with simplicity and reverence.

    The 62-year-old filmmaker (whose films include "Silence of the Lambs" and "Philadelphia") and Young, 60, share a love for music and have developed a natural interplay while traveling together publicizing "Heart of Gold" - recently in Nashville, then Austin.

    Still warmed by their experience on "Heart of Gold," the two discussed their moonlit creation and Young's continuing reflections
    on the past.

    AP: You both have been involved with two of the greatest concert
    films ever, "Stop Making Sense" (the Talking Heads film directed by Demme) and "The Last Waltz" (the Martin Scorsese documentary about the Band's last concert, which Young performed in).

    YOUNG: That was just a moment. We wanted to get there to help
    the Band say goodbye.

    DEMME: It sure looked like they were having fun with you in a
    way that's unique to that film.

    YOUNG: Nah, everybody was so high; it was ridiculous. I guess I was the poster child.

    AP: You two wanted to collaborate on "Greendale" (Young's 2003
    musical), but weren't able to work it out. What led to "Neil Young: Heart of Gold"?

    DEMME: Well, when Neil started to think about "Greendale," in
    a conversation he asked if I wanted to get involved somehow or other, but I couldn't because I was doing "Manchurian Candidate." But that fundamental idea - how great it would be to collaborate on a long-form film somehow with Neil - stuck with me. And I did start calling him up a year ago, and luckily for me he had just gotten into the studio and started to cut "Prairie Wind." And he sent me the lyrics and the songs on CDs and I knew, I knew we would have a beautiful movie if we did this.

    AP: With "Greendale" and now "Heart of Gold," have you, Neil, been more interested in approaching your work visually lately?

    YOUNG: Not really, I've been doing this for a long time, just on and off over the years. In the late `80s I did the thing with Jim Jarmusch and Crazy Horse ("Year of the Horse") and I've done things with Shakey Pictures (when Young directs, he takes the name Bernard Shakey). It's just nice to keep track. And I did a thing with Hal Ashby in Dayton, Ohio (1984's "Solo Trans") that hasn't really surfaced yet.

    DEMME: Wow, I'd love to see that. Are you going to put that out?

    YOUNG: Yeah, when the archives get to that point. We've got them all lined up.

    AP: Aren't you also working on an 8-CD collection titled "The Archives"?

    YOUNG: Yeah, volume one.

    AP: How many volumes are you planning?

    YOUNG: Four or five. (Demme laughs.) It's, you know, the
    information age. It's just a chronicle. You collect all this stuff. You may spend all your life recording and filming and writing and do all this stuff - what are you going to do, throw it away? Might as well put in order and put it out there at some point. You keep doing it long enough, it gets to be that long.

    AP: So have you been listening to the earlier stuff to catalogue it all?

    YOUNG: Oh, yeah. I've been doing that since 1990.

    AP: Even the Squires (Young's first band) and everything?

    YOUNG: Yeah, the Squires are covered pretty well with five songs.

    AP: Are you constantly living with the past then?

    2YOUNG: Well, I've been working on it for 15 years. (Demme laughs.) I come and go. The one thing that's made it slow going is the present always has priority over the past. But it takes a lot out of you. We're getting ready to release the very first thing from the archives; it'll be out in a couple months. It's a performance series and it starts with Crazy Horse at the Fillmore East in 1970 - and it rocks pretty hard.

    AP: What will the performance series be like?

    YOUNG: It's going to be a concert series of somewhere between 20 and 30 things in it, so we're going to start putting out two and three a year now. It's similar to the Bob Dylan bootleg collection.

    AP: "Prairie Wind" has such a deep feeling for the past. Between the old Ryman Auditorium, you playing Hank Williams' guitar and the old Nashville clothes, it almost feels like it took place years ago.

    YOUNG: That's what we're looking for. Kind of a timeless place
    where you're not really sure what's going on. We were just tying to get to a place where the music was alive and we didn't know what it was.

    DEMME: We wanted to honor the tradition and we also wanted to
    blend into and kind of become part of it.

    AP: What's it like to watch it now?

    YOUNG: Well, it's fun to watch. I like it when they really crank it.

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