Winter 2015

Plugged In

Always a bit ahead of the curve in his 40-year career, Jonathan Demme pioneered the psychological thriller in The Silence of the Lambs, caught a band at its peak in Stop Making Sense, and tackled social issues in Philadelphia. For his next act? Meryl Streep as a rock star.

Photographed by Patrick Harbron

DGA Interview Jonathan DemmeAs you might conclude from such diverse cultural touchstones as The Silence of the Lambs (1991) and Talking Heads’ performance film Stop Making Sense (1984), Jonathan Demme has had an eclectic career. His stylistically and topically ambitious body of work began with the B movies Caged Heat (1974) and Crazy Mama (1975) for producer Roger Corman, already showing a deft touch for capturing the spirit of the times. He graduated to studio films—and the New York Film Festival—with Citizens Band (1977), and returned to the festival in 1980 with the opening-night attraction, Melvin and Howard, a shaggy-dog story about a drifter’s possible encounter with Howard Hughes. Pauline Kael called it “an almost flawless act of sympathetic imagination,” comparing it to Jean Renoir by way of Preston Sturges.

Demme’s lifelong interest in the intermingling of music and movies found expression in documentaries—Neil Young: Heart of Gold (2006); features—Something Wild (1986); and music videos for the likes of Bruce Springsteen and the Pretenders. His dedication to idiosyncratic nonfiction films led him to the Spalding Gray performance piece Swimming to Cambodia (1987) and a visit with the 39th president in Jimmy Carter Man from Plains (2007).

Hooking up with the now-defunct independent distributor Orion Pictures in 1985, Demme capped a five-year creative burst with the influential psychological thriller The Silence of the Lambs, which won both the DGA Award and an Academy Award for directing (and best picture). With that success, he was able to make another socially conscious film, Philadelphia (1993), which brought awareness of the AIDS epidemic to the multiplex.

Most recently, Demme has returned to studio filmmaking for the upcoming Ricki and the Flash, about an aging rock star portrayed by Meryl Streep, who plays the guitar and sings in the film. (“She’s quite the shredder,” Demme says.) Next up is a trip to Las Vegas to shoot a massive Justin Timberlake concert in 3-D. Rust Never Sleeps, indeed.

DGA Quarterly Jonathan Demme Citizens Band
DGA Quarterly Talking Heads
DGA Quarterly Jonathan Demme Swing Shift
DGA Quarterly Jonathan Demme Philadelphia
VERSATILE: Demme has worked in a variety of genres, as seen in (top to bottom) Citizens Band, the Talking Heads documentary Stop Making Sense, Swing Shift, and Philadelphia. (Photos: (from top) AMPAS; Cinecom Pictures/Photofest; The Kobal Collection/Warner Bros.; Tristar Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection)

ROB FELD: Looking at how you first got started making movies, it’s nothing you could have planned.

JONATHAN DEMME: It’s true. My dream was to be a veterinarian, but I flunked out of chemistry. I was an obsessive film buff and completely broke. When I went home to Miami and resumed working in animal hospitals, I found a little paper needing a film critic. I couldn’t have been happier and I then had the opportunity to become a publicist. Now I was inside the movie industry, meeting amazing people, and I didn’t want to do anything else—until I got a call to be Roger Corman’s unit publicist. On my first meeting with him, he said, ‘You write good production notes. You’re hired as the publicist, and listen, do you know how to write a script?’ I went, ‘Yeah, sure.’ It wasn’t like a dream come true. It was just an extraordinary thing. So Roger buys the script and says, ‘Jonathan, you would probably be a good producer. You can produce it.’ And, again, I never had any dreams of producing movies.

Q: And how did that lead you to directing?

A: Later on we made The Hot Box [1972]in the Philippines and encountered monsoons. We went way behind schedule and it became necessary to have a second unit, so I became the second unit director to shoot these battle scenes. What the hell? I went out to shoot and fell instantly in love with directing. And Roger gave me an opportunity to direct. He said, write a women’s prison movie, which was Caged Heat. I never had dreams of doing that sort of thing, either. To be a publicist in the movie business was as good as it gets.

Q: What were some of the things you picked up from the Corman playbook?

A: I’ll never forget having my directorial one-hour luncheon at a spaghetti joint on Sunset Boulevard, around the corner from New World Pictures, where Roger gave me all the rules. There were a number of things that struck me hard. He said you have to think in terms of the human eyeball at all times. It’s a visual medium and our eyes are what keep our brains engaged in the movie. If you start boring the eye, then the brain will get bored. So try to get a variety of angles and not fall into the same kinds of angles and compositions scene after scene. Try to have different close-ups for every scene. Whenever you’ve got the motivation, move the camera, because the human eye loves that element of surprise. Where are we going? What are we going to see next? That’s before the brain even gets involved.

He also said you don’t have to do a lot of fancy moving, either. Roger felt that the best shot in cinema is dollying slowly down a hallway toward a closed door. You can’t beat that shot. I’ve done it a million times and it’s always great—the introduction of Dr. Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs. It signals that something important is going to happen on the other side of that door. It may be a surprise party or it may be Linda Blair in The Exorcist.

Q: Can you remember the first film where you did a camera move and went, ‘Oh, that really works’?

A: Totally. Caged Heat, the first movie I directed. I had a 20-day schedule, not knowing what the hell I was doing, thinking, ‘Are we really going to take the time to set up a dolly shot?’ But [cinematographer] Tak [Fujimoto] and I set up this elaborate dolly shot to introduce all the women confined in the cellblock. We gave everyone a little business and, to me, it seemed as great as anything in Doctor Zhivago.

Q: Then you got to do your first studio movie, Citizens Band.

A: That was the first time I got fired, by the way.

Q: Oh, how did that happen?

A: Freddie Fields, the tyrannical producer, was making two movies at the same time, Citizens Band, directed by some unknown named Jonathan Demme, and Looking for Mr. Goodbar, directed by Richard Brooks. Brooks wouldn’t let Freddie through the door, much less on his set. Freddie had been this gigantic agent and he got fed up with me complaining about what he was changing, so he fired me during the mix. I didn’t know about it, but Roman Polanski called Freddie and said, ‘I hear you fired the young director that’s making a movie for you. You better get him back, because directors won’t want to work with you if you get that reputation.’ So Freddie invited me to come back on the movie, which was great although it had mixed results. I really do feel like directors are a band of sisters and brothers. I’ve made phone calls to producers out of the blue myself and said, ‘I hear you locked so and so out of the cutting room. You can’t do that.’ And, you know, it matters.

DGA Quarterly Jonathan Demme Silence of the Lambs
SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL: Demme, working with Anthony Hopkins on The Silence of the Lambs, describes himself as the best, most loyal friend to even his worst characters. (Photo: Ken Regan/AMPAS)

Q: Speaking of supporting directors, what role has the DGA played in your career?

A: You get great support from the DGA. When I had a lot of trouble on a documentary I did about six or seven years ago, the Guild was ferocious on my behalf. And after I made Citizens Band, which became famous for doing poorly at the box office, what had been sort of a promising, budding career just hit a wall. Soon I had difficulty paying my rent, but there’s an emergency fund through the DGA Foundation that I love to make little contributions to whenever I can. That kept me going for probably three months until Peter Falk saw Citizens Band and invited me to do a Columbo, saving me. 

Q: Even from your earliest films you were getting strong performances. How has your method of working with actors evolved?

A: At a certain point a giant light bulb goes off in a new director’s head, if they weren’t smart enough to get it from the outside, which I wasn’t. The actors have been preparing for tomorrow’s scene, so not only should I not come tell them where to sit and when to stand up to go get the water, I should just shut up and trust that this wonderful actor I’ve cast is going to bring fabulous stuff. The beauty of shooting digital is that you can say, ‘On this next take, let’s just do four straight runs; we won’t come in and touch you up. I’m not going to say anything.’ I’ve seen it happen so many times; no one is going to have a better idea for Meryl Streep or Anne Hathaway on their next take than Meryl Streep and Anne Hathaway. They’ve just done it, now give them a chance to do it again. After three or four runs you just see what starts happening, and if I have any requests, then I can make them. That to me is the great breakthrough in technology, giving the actors an opportunity to do these repeated shots unencumbered by cut, makeup, little adjustments, all that stuff.

Q: But you are having discussions with the actors beforehand?

A: The part gets offered to them and we meet and talk about the script. The one thing I want to know for sure is, ‘Is there anything in here that you’re not comfortable with, that you don’t buy, or do you feel it’s missing something?’ Because that’s when we have to figure out if we’re on the same wavelength. I make a deal with actors: You will try anything I request, whether you think it’s good, bad, or ugly, and I will always make sure that you never leave a scene feeling you didn’t get a chance to have what you wanted to do captured on film. I don’t think there’s any right or wrong, just what ultimately works best for the story scene by scene. Sometimes people will say, ‘Oh, I love the performance you got out of so and so.’ I didn’t get anything out of anybody. I encouraged, I protected, I helped create an open, positive atmosphere where the actors know that we are all there to support and capture the magic they create. I hopefully tossed in a couple of good ideas, but that’s their performance.

DGA Quarterly Jonathan Demme Something Wild
DGA Quarterly Jonathan Demme Neil Young Heart of Gold
OFFBEAT: (top) Demme (center) directs Jeff Daniels and Melanie Griffith in Something Wild; (bottom) Even in concert films like Neil Young: Heart of Gold, Demme is always looking to tell a story. (Photos: (top) Orion Pictures Corp./Courtesy Everett Collection; (bottom) Paramount Classics/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Q: Can you talk about how you develop a shot when you show up on the set?

A: At call time, the actors, [DP] Declan Quinn, my AD H.H. Cooper, my script supervisor Mary Bailey, and I have a private blocking rehearsal. What we’re looking for is blocking that the actors will be comfortable with. We light the set based on that staging, and when the actors come back, we start rehearsing the shot and they start rehearsing the acting, with us filming the whole time. And that’s how the day goes. And then suddenly: ‘Damn, that was good!’ The shot works and the acting is great. Then it’s let’s print that and do another angle. I definitely fight against falling into the trap of repeated takes. If you’ve done three or four takes on something, change the angle. Don’t do seven takes from the same place. Get as many different angles as you can, especially in situations where you can’t move the camera, because a cut equals a move in terms of stimulating the eyeball.

Q: Do you put a particular emphasis on how you’re going to introduce a character? Do you have a favorite?

A: Oh, definitely. Ray Liotta in Something Wild [as Melanie Griffith’s violent ex-husband, who shows up unannounced at her high school reunion] comes to mind right away. With Liotta’s intro at the reunion dance, I had the band, the Feelies, playing because it was so scary and the song builds up wonderfully. That whole movie is scored almost entirely with source cues. Something Wild is filled with so many surprises, so many location changes. Tak and I thought, let’s just have clear shots of the actors bringing this story to life; let’s really keep it simple. We knew we wanted to reveal Liotta in close-up. I think we were pushing in with their backs to us until they turned and saw each other. We had a lot of fun on that one. After having been pummeled on Swing Shift [1984] and the hideous ignominy of having your film taken away from you, recut, and rewritten, Something Wild was a rebirth experience.

Q: How do you rebound from a bad experience like that?

A: It made me feel like, if I’m ever going to do this again, I’ve got to have final cut. And I’m only going to work with people that I’m convinced, after looking deeply into their hearts and souls, that they can trust me and I can trust them. Then we can go forward together in this profound adventure of hopefully making a terrific picture.

Q: So once you find your adventure partners, what questions do you start asking yourself and your collaborators about a film’s voice?

A: The questions start at the very first meeting. I don’t want to come in with a bunch of ideas about how to shoot the movie. For Ricki and the Flash I wanted to get Declan and [production designer] Stuart Wurtzel and say, ‘How do you see this? All I know is I want the picture to look rock ’n’ roll because Ricki is pure rock ’n’ roll. I’m wondering if there is a certain palette that comes with rock ’n’ roll?’ [My AD] H.H. Cooper is involved in most everything, and we all wound up thinking primary colors. So we used bright primary yellows, oranges, and reds whenever we could. And then we looked at some of the Fassbinder movies that had very bold, primary palettes. ‘Yeah, look how effective that is.’ So then we were encouraged to pursue that. 

DGA Quarterly Jonathan Demme Manchurian Candidate
BRAINWASHED: Demme directs a scene from The Manchurian Candidate. When you have someone like Denzel Washington, Demme says, you want to do close-ups. (Photo: Courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

Q: What was your shooting style for Ricki and the Flash?

A: We hadn’t planned on shooting much handheld in Ricki, but then we got to scenes and the camera just wanted to be off the dolly. In keeping with rock ’n’ roll, we found that we used many different stylistic approaches than we had originally thought. We’d do the beautiful dolly and crane shots, but it kept opening up from there. You read a script you love and you’re seeing it in your head, but I haven’t got a clue what [the] movie is going to look like until I do it. We have these discussions, we agree on these ideas, we execute them, and then you go, ‘So that’s what that looks like!’ It’s fascinating.

Q: Aside from the music aspect, which has always interested you, what appealed to you about directing Ricki?

A: When it came time to do Ricki and the Flash, I was excited once again by the opportunity to design shots that could communicate the dramatic under-text, like when Tak and I worked together, especially for [the independent studio] Orion [from 1986-1991]. We developed a classical style like Raoul Walsh or Hitchcock, so by the time we got to The Silence of the Lambs, Tak and I felt that we had ‘mastered’ that. [Later on] we wanted more of a straight-ahead, no-nonsense feeling for Philadelphia.

Q: There’s still a good deal of expressionism in Philadelphia: the scene with Tom Hanks narrating the opera and those POV moments in the courtroom.

A: We used a lot of the subjective camera there, it’s true. In fact, more than we’ve ever used before. After Philadelphia we started responding to stuff like the Dogme films, and when we got to Beloved [1998], we started shaking it up a little bit. It was kind of classical but we were going for some expressionistic stuff, and with The Truth About Charlie [2002] we wanted to shoot a New Wave film—lots of handheld, some digital, and some Super 8 reversal negative. Now with Ricki and the Flash, we had a lot of motivated moving camera per Roger Corman, and some scenes shot in the fixed-frame Gregg Toland way, really trying to come up with dynamic cinematic staging. We did a couple of oners like that, which was really exciting. But I definitely come to any new picture equipped with things I learned last time out.

Q: How do you decide when to use more subjective POV shots instead of over-the-shoulder shots?

A: The most powerful shot of all is when you put the viewer right in the shoes of one of the characters so that they are seeing exactly what the character is seeing and, ideally, having the same response that the character is having because they’re so identified with them. How do you get into that POV shot? We’ve discovered you have to have tight over-the-shoulders in order to get there invisibly. Of course, you don’t want your audience to realize your actors are staring into the camera. You want them to be so immersed in the moment that it’s their reality, so you need that tight, tight over the shoulder to get in and out of the subjective camera. We felt like that shot was made for The Silence of the Lambs because, in their confrontations with each other, Dr. Lecter [Anthony Hopkins] and Clarice [Jodie Foster] are going deep inside each other’s heads. The more you back off and loosen the over-the-shoulders, you’re just moving away from the goal of the intensity of the sequence, becoming more and more objective. I love pushing the subjective side of things whenever possible for the viewer.

Q: How does that apply to the shot where you introduce Hannibal Lecter?

A: Again, that’s from Corman’s dollying down a hallway. We dollied down a cellblock to reveal this guy standing there. We knew we were going to push the POV aspect of things in every scene that Jodie was in because she’s the one that we’re going to identify with. In our shot list, our close-ups were always super tight, over and into the lens. And we knew that whatever she did, whatever walk she took, we’d have a moving POV there. We’d have a record of everything she saw throughout the course of the story. We could go to her point of view whenever we wanted, would have the matching shot to tie us in with it, and we would have the overs to get us into that delicious little duet of POVs.

Q: So, when do you shoot what we’re seeing and when do you shoot what we’re feeling?

A: The feeling part is super important, isn’t it? So it really becomes a question of how do we translate what we want the feeling to be through what we see? Very often that brings us back to the character’s face and what they’re presented with in the moment, their POV of things. I knew the end of The Silence of the Lambs would work great, when Buffalo Bill runs away from Clarice in the dark, because a lot of it was like the endless variations on dollying down the hallway to the closed door. We’re dollying through this scary basement and there’s so many doors. If you’ve got Jodie Foster or Meryl Streep or Denzel Washington, you really love those close-ups of them. So what about a close-up where they’re looking at the audience and the audience now sees what they’re seeing? POV is just so vital. I’m surprised it isn’t used more often.

Q: How do you treat your villains, for example, those in The Silence of the Lambs?

A: I learned that you have to make your antagonist every bit as interesting as your protagonist because anything less diminishes your protagonist. Where I’ve come to that as the director is, I am the best, most loyal friend of every character in the film. Whoever they are, whatever they’ve done: Buffalo Bill or Dr. Lecter in Silence of the Lambs, who are probably the most disturbing characters I’ve worked with. I know that they were damaged themselves so I feel for them. I try to be there with and for them, accept their humanity and look for opportunities to share my lack of judgment with the viewers.

Q: Sound design is so much a part of what you do too. Can you talk about crafting the sound for two very different films, The Silence of the Lambs and Rachel Getting Married (2008)?

A: The sound design of Rachel Getting Married proceeded on the premise that, over the course of this weekend, there were musicians around who would always be practicing or noodling, so the sound was going to be real. We wanted it to feel and sound like a documentary. That was my strongest effort to make a Dogme film; a number of the vows of chastity were honored there, including no music added. There’s so much music in that movie, all recorded live while the actors were working. That was really cool.

With The Silence of the Lambs, we wanted to create this extraordinary mood of dread and suspense. Even before we started shooting, for the scene when Clarice first meets Dr. Lecter, I talked to [production sound mixer] Chris Newman about what will lead us to a sense of dread there. ‘Are there ways you can mic this? Is there b-roll that you can get? How can we make it feel like Clarice is literally going to hell to have this meeting?’ And you wind up with things like, ‘Let’s make it sound like she’s in a submarine.’ And then, ‘Let’s get humpback whale sounds and mix them in a little bit.’ Movies are 50 percent image and 50 percent sound. It’s really an asset to think in those terms as a director.

DGA Quarterly Jonathan Demme Jimmy Carter
DGA Quarterly Jonathan Demme Rachel Getting Married
FACT AND FICTION: (top) Demme sits down with a former president in Jimmy Carter Man from Plains; (bottom) Demme shot Rachel Getting Married like a documentary. (Photos: Sony Pictures Classics/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Q: You’ve been moving between features, documentaries, and music performance films for much of your career. Have you seen them cross-pollinating one another in terms of developing a style?

A: What struck me at a certain point was that with features we’re trying to make everything seem real, and when we do documentaries we attempt to make them very entertaining. It’s a wonderful contrast, but I learn something every time I shoot, so in that way there’s been tremendous cross-pollination, but it changes every time for me. For instance, I’d shot a number of documentaries with Declan Quinn, so for Rachel Getting Married I thought it would be exciting to pretend that’s what we were doing. We never preplanned shots, just knew where the staging was and that the actors were comfortable with the scene. Declan was with his camera; I’d be in my chair at the monitor. I’d say, ‘Action!’ and suddenly a shot comes alive. I felt like we were getting better shots than you could ever design.

Q: In your musical performance films like Stop Making Sense and Neil Young: Heart of Gold, what are you looking for?

A: You have to tell a story. With Stop Making Sense it was easy because David Byrne designed it that way; it was the story of how a band takes shape, what happens as you add instruments, and his character had an arc. The Heads did a mini-tour leading up to our stand at the Pantages, which gave me the chance to design shots with [cinematographer] Jordan Cronenweth lighting. We had to shoot from the left one night, light it a certain way, and the next night, light it from the right with the cameras over there. We didn’t turn the cameras on the audience until the very end, because I understood that there was never going to be anything more interesting going on in the audience than on the stage.

Q: What were you trying to capture?

A: I knew that we wanted to emphasize the relationships between the band members, subsequently true for any of the performance pieces I’ve done. So for Heart of Gold you start thinking about your angles, like if you want to tie in Neil and [steel guitarist] Ben Keith, the camera’s got to be over here. You know you have to have a close-up for every line that’s sung and you know you’d want to have a proscenium for every moment. So you usually wind up between seven and 12 cameras, though the Justin Timberlake show I’m about to do at the MGM Grand is so huge, 7,000 seats, we may have 20 cameras. We’ll have Technocranes and a lot of toys to help us achieve the kind of shots that Busby Berkeley invented back in the ’30s. Gold Diggers of 1933 and The Band Wagon are two of our models. But that doesn’t mean we’ll cut a lot. A lesson I learned early on with Stop Making Sense was that you don’t need to fall into that trap of cutting on the beat; actually it’s very powerful to stay on the singer or musician when they’re really cooking.

Q: How much of a practical business head do you need to have as a director?

A: Corman always says that a director has to be 40 percent artist and 60 percent businessman, and then he’ll quickly point out that 40 percent is a strong percentage. I really think that’s true. I’ve made documentaries that I shot myself, on my own little cameras. When I’m doing that, I can do anything I want because I’m paying for it. But as soon as you take a job as a director and someone’s going to entrust you with a certain amount of money, your job is to give them their money’s worth and more. Whether it’s $171,000 for Caged Heat or huge amounts, it’s our job to justify that investment. That’s a profound responsibility. Now, you need to unleash your artistry inside of that, but part of the 60 percent means lining up a cast that’s going to be extraordinary, getting the best crew imaginable, making sure that the script is as strong as it possibly can be. These are all business decisions on a certain level. And I think that’s fine. You may have to fire people sometimes, just to keep things going in the best possible way. Charlie Okun, when he was my AD, once encouraged me to kick a writer off set because he was complaining to the actors about how a scene was going. That put me in touch more than ever before with the tremendous responsibility I had as a director, and it made me realize a director might have to be ruthless sometimes for the sake of the picture.

Q: What other support do you look for from your ADs?

A: Back to Charlie Okun: When I showed up on Citizens Band I had only done Roger Corman movies. You’re not getting real AD support and you’ve been brainwashed into thinking that you have to have the answer to everything before you even get to set. So on Citizens Band, I wanted to have one shot where every single car would go past camera. Charlie said, ‘What do you want to do here, Jonathan?’ I said, Well, I think we should follow Spider’s [Paul Le Mat’s] car and we’ll hear his line, and then we should somehow have her car…’  And he said, ‘Wait a minute. Do you want to do a continuous shot with all the hero cars moving through it on their lines? Just tell me that and I’ll set it up for you.’ I was like, What? For me it was a great humiliating moment and a great awakening. So I went away and came back and there it was. Charlie was ruthless and would say, ‘What is my job designation?’ He’d make me say, ‘Assistant director.’  ‘That’s right. I’m here to assist the director. That means, tell me what you want and I’ll make it happen.’

Q: And now that you have more experience?

A: Nowadays it is my great good fortune to have Ron Bozman and H.H. Cooper [as ADs]. When you’ve got a great AD, they’re going to be the fiercest advocate on behalf of the film. If the AD really believes that there’s a vision going on, a great AD is going to help you get everything you need to get that day. On the stuff we do, H. is immediately a co-producer as well. He’s truly part of the producing team—he just happens to be out on the floor moving the day forward, suggesting staging, asking if I want so-and-so, and making sure we have time to get it. I feel like I’m tough and I push things forward, but when you have a great AD, you’re just going to have a better day and better footage if you let them do their job.

Q: Looking back at your work to date, you seem to have just followed your interests. Is that how you would have conceived it years ago?

A: No, but I can look back and see phases. There’s the Orion phase and then there was the post-Orion, bigger picture phase. But I also see documentaries working their way into the lineup more, and I love that. After The Manchurian Candidate [2004], which was a huge budget with all the committee stuff that comes with it, I felt burned out and remember seeing Napoleon Dynamite, which was made for like $150,000. I thought, ‘My movie was $90 million, and here’s this other thing, a million times better than Manchurian Candidate. I’ve been making movies for around 30 years; I’ve learned a lot. Surely I can make a Napoleon Dynamite. I’m going to try to do that.’ And that led to Rachel Getting Married. [With Rachel] I felt like I found a new indie niche—much lower budgets and lower directing fees, but a good niche. I wasn’t interested in doing larger budget movies. I had terrific little films, little documentaries; one of the great experiences of my life was making A Master Builder [2013] and Neil Young Journeys [2011]. But these pictures were not being seen very much, and you want people to see your work. Everybody works so hard. Then at that moment came Ricki and the Flash, and ‘wow!’ And it’s a studio movie. Now I’m going to Las Vegas to shoot Justin Timberlake, probably in 3-D. I think I’m in a new phase now. I don’t know where it will lead but I’m enjoying it immensely.

DGA Interviews

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