Words: Zach Gayne
With a lineup of over 200 documentaries at this year’s Hot Docs Film Festival, it’s hard to fathom a time when the act of capturing reality was not possible. And yet, just over 50 years ago when D.A. Pennebaker began his work, there was no such thing as a documentary genre to speak of. Up until that point the act of capturing reality was reserved for mediums like news broadcasts or educational films, force-fed to teens in an effort to warn them against the dangers of sex, drugs, poor hygiene and other threats to American values. But even these non-fiction films, like any other Hollywood product of the day, required deliberate planning and set up, which didn’t exactly lend itself to the spontaneous nature of reality-proper.
The mere act of recording sound was so obtrusive, that no subject could truly “act natural”. Pennebaker, an engineer by background, had the genius revelation to construct a sync-sound camera, freeing him to move around the room with a loose unobtrusive shooting style. In doing so, true observation become possible for the first time, thus changing the face of history. Not only film history, but with the advent of capturing and archiving time came a new-found ability to explicitly learn from the past and thus affect the future. Today’s equivalent of home movies were, at the time, considered to be Avant-Garde art films. In this era of controlled non-fiction, Pennebaker’s quest for the plain truth was known as Direct Cinema or Cinéma Vérité.
Pennebaker first applied his fly-on-the-wall technique to the world of rock and roll. His first five seminal, genre-defining Rockumentaries offered candid profiles of artists with names like Dylan, Joplin, Hendrix, Redding, Bowie, Lennon, and on and on. I’ve already written a love letter to these works, which I needn’t rehash here. Suffice it to say, these films were instrumental in allowing the best music of the 20th century to be seen clearly by future generations of fans and musicians alike.
Cut to the ‘70s when Pennebaker formed a partnership with Chris Hegedus, an art school grad turned filmmaker, with an appreciation for the cinematic mission at hand. In Hegedus, Penny (as she calls him) found a voice with whom he could collaborate; an equal partner to join him in his quest. While Pennebaker’s early docs focused on subjects of mass interest, with the expansion of the genre and his newfound partnership with Chris the range of subjects grew broader, allowing the life and times of the ordinary to enter into the realm of the significant by framing periods of time into story arcs.
This is not to say that the partners lost interest in music. Far from it. Hegedus and Pennebaker continued to capture the evolution of music, with subjects ranging from Depeche Mode to Michael Stipe, Bruce Springsteen, the legends of Stax records, the heavyweights of bluegrass, and most recently an epic YouTube telecast of a concert by The National. But now, the partners also turned their sights on subjects like Broadway, the Delorean car, pastry chefs competing in France, internet startup companies, and – perhaps most famously – Bill Clinton’s ‘92 presidential campaign as seen through the strategy room of Clinton’s campaign office.
The War Room celebrates its 20th anniversary on Thursday at Hot Docs. Pennebaker and Hegedus will be in attendance to discuss the production of this rare glimpse into how elections were once won in the pre-historic days of “what’s the internet?” As in all of Pennebaker’s most marveled-at works, there is a big element of chance. Like Forrest Gump, his right-place-right-time reputation is somewhat stupefying. When the project began, Clinton was 4th in the polls with little chance of presidential success. How could Pennebaker and Hegedus have possibly known that they were filming history in progress? Perhaps they were making history. Maybe making history is largely in the recording of it. However these things come to pass, Penny and Chris’ genius was in their sensibility to sniff out a worthy story and allow it to happen without affecting the events with their presence.
Pennebaker/Hegedus films are so successful because, in addition to telling rare, large stories, they have set the zeitgeist of the last 50+ years firmly onto the record in a way words never will. They watched the ‘70s become the ‘80s and ‘90s and so on and because they did so too could I, despite the handicap of my birth date. Now, after a long career and full filmography, the world is left not only with the passionate characters they’ve brought into the light, but an entire genre of films that will forever serve as a document to the experience of life as we know it. Pictures don’t lie. Directors do. And as Penny says below – “I’m no director.”
Pennebaker and Hegedus were kind enough to chat with Society Vernacular and share with us some insights into their esteemed careers as they prepare for their Hot Docs appearance. This rare Toronto event, like the masterful War Room film itself, is not to be missed. Enjoy..
SV: Chris, why did you seek out Penny in the ‘70’s for employment?
DA: I think she had her mind set on getting a hold of my camera.
CH: Yeah, I mean, it was partly that. My career started as an artist, basically, and I really didn’t think women could be film directors in the Hollywood sense of the word because I’d never heard of any woman being a Hollywood director. When I was in art college I was exposed to a lot of the American filmmakers who were a part of the art film movement of the ‘60’s. It was just a very political time – it was the Vietnam war and the women’s movement and civil rights and everything else – y’know just making these very formalistic art films. So after I graduated from school I got a job as a camera person for the Burn Center at the University of Michigan.
SV: Were you aware of D.A. at this time?
CH: Oh yeah, I was aware because a lot of those films that he’d made – the early cinéma vérité films – were not distributed anywhere, they didn’t play on television or anything, but a lot of them were distributed in the same catalogue that distributed the art films. I put on a festival at the school and I’d rented some of those cinéma vérité films because I’d been reading about them and they seemed very interesting to me and once I saw them I was totally blown away because they seemed just like fiction films and they followed a story in kind of like a real life drama with characters and dramatic arch and it seemed like, oh, I could do these films too and I think that was a lot of my impetus coming from the art field where you actually do everything yourself. That you could take the camera and shoot the story was very appealing to me.
SV: On the Criterion website, both of your top 10’s are posted and there are a number of French new wave films on your respective lists. I’m wondering if the new wave emphasis on reality-fiction had any influence on your non-fiction?
CH: Oh yeah, because at the time when I started making films all of those new wave films and foreign films were very influential in the United States. The happening thing was to go see what was new in foreign films or the burgeoning Hollywood Indie film scene that was happening. For me, film was untouchable – far away and hard to do – but to do documentaries, following real life stories, was something that I could do. When I moved to New York I decided to do these films full time and the real problem was trying to get experience and equipment. The equipment was very difficult to find. It was expensive. There wasn’t that much of it out there.
SV: When you go about making a new film is there a subject you tend to gravitate towards? How do your films tend to come about? And how has it changed over the last 40 odd years?
DA: Usually someone brings us stuff. I once worked at Time and Life magazines. We had people from all over the world sending us back story ideas all the time. But when you’re independent you can’t afford that so the only stories you know are the butcher on your block or your mother-in-law or somebody and you need people to bring you a story that they found and you figure out how to do it as something you know how to do.
SV: So when you adopt a subject, how do you go about figuring out the approach? Do you familiarize yourself with your material or do you allow the story to just unfold?
DA: Well, you kind of bite on it, sort of, and taste if it’s possible. And then you figure out how to do it. You don’t need to raise the money right away cause making films now is fairly inexpensive. You’re using video cameras, digital whatevers – little things that fit in your pocket. You’re just spending your time looking into something and figuring out what’s there. It’s only toward the end that the film gets expensive. You have to make it so that it can be shown in theaters and can be released and distributed because if you don’t do that the film really doesn’t exist. You know it’s just something you did and you show to your friends and that’s the end of it.
SV: Do you think technology has hurt the genre in any way?
CH: Well, it hurts that there’s a lot more competition. But at the same time it really turned filmmaking into the hands of the masses which is good because people can tell their own story. You know when we started it was almost totally in the realm of one man telling everybody else’s story. That’s a big change.
DA: The pencil didn’t make for a lot more Shakespeare’s. Films, like plays, like books are made in somebody’s head and the number of heads is somewhat limited. But it’s hard to know which is a head and which isn’t when you get 1000 films offered to a Festival. So, you know, the problem is telling – but then that’s always been the problem. I mean probably 200 books are published every week – nobody can read them. Or 200 films are made in a week – who can see them all? So you don’t have a good way of evaluating, except maybe by critics.
CH: Also, one thing about the whole digital revolution is that nobody really knows how long it’s going to last or how to archive it or what’s going to be around. We’ve all fallen into this unknown category, whereas at least with film people knew it lasted 100 years. Now, well, it’s like, okay, here’s this device that will play this thing, this file or capturing plug in the hard drive and then two years later, we fall into these new problems of how to archive our film. For most films it’s important but I think especially important for documentary because it’s the history of our time and you never know what part of it is going to prove valuable.
DA: I mean it’s kind of like fashion which has some sort of periodic rotation – where everybody’s used to it – and nobody worries much about getting at the history of fashion – getting out the old books to look at pictures – young people going out to look smart in their culture. That’s not something they need. More and more what happens to people in a period of time becomes sort of interesting and essential to be understood in future periods of time and that’s why I think this kind of film – the independent film – is maybe the only method of transferring that history to the future… I think we all live on the edge of a kind of cliff in which there are people climbing up all around us, bringing us things that we had no idea existed. So I think that the future is more uncertain now than it ever was, but still nobody really knows.
SV: Going back 20 years to The War Room, I’d like to ask how that project came about. Was it brought to you by a fellow mountain climber? And if so, why did you feel you two were a good fit for the subject matter?
DA: Yeah, it was there. We’re like chefs in the bakery, y’know? If somebody comes and shows us a new kind of cake we just have to make it.
CH: I think that Penny also started to do a film about Bobby Kennedy running for president, which is something that never happened for… various reasons. It was something that we always wanted to do, you know, do a film about a man becoming president. I mean wouldn’t this be amazing?! We tried to do it several other times but we couldn’t get funding. As a matter fact, even that year several people came to us about the idea but they really never got together money. And that’s what R.J. Cutler and Wendy Ettinger really helped us with.
DA: They nudged us. We were just sitting there. Nobody else was nudging us. So we listen to them, you know? They didn’t bring a lot of experience either. They’d never made a film and they just thought it was a good idea… but, there’s hundreds of good ideas floating around. Somebody has to take us by the hand and lead us to the trough where the ideas were somehow embedded. And the whole process of filmmaking is such an obsessive thing to do that once you get started you’re like a detective. You must solve the problem.
CH: I mean, in the end, we really didn’t make a film about a man becoming President. We really never got that type of access. But we made something else and I think we stumbled on something. There’s so much about character and James Carville – you couldn’t ask for better character than James Carville.
SV: Given that when you began shooting The War Room Clinton was 4th in the polls, odds were against your making a film about a man becoming President. What type of film did you think you were making?
DA: It’s a walk in the woods. You don’t expect anything exactly. What you expect is that it’ll be an interesting walk. And that you’ll constantly be set and sort of shown things that you know will be interesting to you because once you’ve unlocked somebody’s mind or their brain and they’ve allowed you to veer in, it’s fantastic, you know? So, you don’t care what happens in one way. I mean if you’re friends with that person then generally you do – you want it to be an okay ending for them, that’s what you really want. You’re not a director, you don’t discern these things. They do and so you just watch what they do.
SV: In your Governors Award acceptance speech you say Bobby Neuwirth taught you how to see without interfering and observe the plain truth. How did you apply that to your filmmaking approach? How did you succeed at being a fly on the wall?
DA: I don’t know it just comes naturally to me I guess. I’m a born watcher. And I’m certainly not a director. During the war when I was in MIT they would try to assemble people to wake up in the morning and march and things in a military fashion. I was a sergeant for two days but then I got fired because it’s not something I know how to do.
SV: Do you think it’s possible to film something without your presence affecting the behavior of the subject?
DA: Oh yes. I mean it happens all the time. I mean you take pictures of bacteria, they’re not bothering with you. They do what they need to do. And if you go on with a lot of equipment and a lot of crew I think people feel besieged and they generally want to get it over with and they just try to please you as much as they can, but I think what you really want to do is to have yourself seen as a consort. As a mountain climbing companion. It’s complicated and it’s hard work and they have to spend time figuring and doing it and when pleasing you is the last thing on their list then I think you have a chance to make an interesting film.
CH: I think people are passionately involved in what they’re doing. And after a while they can’t be bothered paying attention to you and I think one of the most important things that we can do is not let our filmmaking get in the way of them living their lives. And sometimes that means sacrificing some of our style or whatever so that we can really get the story and not be the story.
SV: What sort of docs interest you these days?
DA: Oh boy. An idea comes to you for no reason. Just walking down the street. And then the next day somebody says you know I’m making a film about that idea and right away you have to talk to them because you want to know more about it. And whether or not you feel they’re taking a film away from you is much less a factor in this thing that you’re going to find more about that interests you. Curiosity is the key thing in this entity. If you’re making a film only to show what a marvelous filmmaker you are or how smart and clever you are then it may be very effective – you may enjoy enormous rewards – but it doesn’t necessarily appeal to your curiosity. Curiosity wants to know much more.
CH: I think films that interest me really drop me into a world that I’ve never been to before and sort of introduce me to people in a way where you feel like you’re gonna do something with them in their lives. There’s so many amazing films out now because people can take this new digital device almost anywhere. And so many great filmmakers are…
DA: Curious people
SV: How do you feel about docs that take the opposite approach to invisible filming? Like personal visions that blur the line between reality and fiction in a manipulated manor?
CH: Oh yeah, I mean right from the beginning we loved all the personal diary films and experimental docs.
DA: We love Fred Wiseman, for example. I mean, all the people you know when you go into a bar, they may not drink the same thing or beer, or even if they do, they may not drink it in the same way.
CH: I do love people who can do their own personal view on something.
SV: How do you find the compromise in your two respective visions when you’re editing all the footage you’ve accumulated?
DA: Well, editing is peculiar because it’s different from the gathering. In the gathering, the shooting, you just go out and get everything you can get your hands on. And you need someone to help you – especially when the people that you’re gathering with lose their interest in the project. You need somebody to sort of hold your hand. But when you sit down to try to make theater out of it… theater’s such an imagined device and yet we all know when it works. When we see a person do a perfect dive, that’s theater. We know in looking at it – nobody has to tell us – we know it’s worth something. And when a film works and it’s theater, it comes out of your imagination; it comes out of your creative energy. And creative energy is a hard thing to share. And so you have to learn to sort of share it with somebody and be happy with how it works out. That’s a hard thing to do.
CH: I think a lot of it is based on a mutual respect and if you don’t respect each other’s work and creativity then it’s never going to work out as a partnership. We have a certain way that we work together editing. I’ll usually put together the first rough cut of the film then Penny sort of sits down and looks at it. And then we’ll kind of work together and shave it down in different ways. I mean it’s changed through the years because, you know, you used to cut on Steenbeck years ago, and then moved into the digital realm with Avid and things like that. I mean, right now, Penny doesn’t really use the editing programs…
DA: She has control. I’m obligated to sit and cry..
CH: Yes, so I have control.
DA: She knows which buttons to push – it’s very frustrating.
SV: Chris, you’ve done a lot editing on some of Penny’s archival concert footage. You’ve revisited Monterey, Woodstock, Sweet Toronto, to name a few. How do you go about sifting through this priceless footage?
CH: I mean, I think in terms of dealing with some of the rock icons, for me it was always really exciting because a person like Jimi Hendrix – to be able to go into the outtakes, which I did in both of Penny’s films – Monterey and Woodstock – you know it was a real honour. I’m such a fan. But you’re still making films and trying to put it together. I’m trying to make it into an experience, and I think that’s pretty much the goal of concert films. Not let the filmmaking get in the way of the artist.
DA: Sweet Toronto, she chopped quite a bit of herself so that wasn’t even necessarily mine. I think Town Bloody Hall is a good example. Having filmed it, it seemed to me that there were a lot of laughs. And I knew that I didn’t want to make a joke film about women’s liberation. So, she seemed a much better person because she herself had been involved with films that dealt with that so it was a natural thing to have her take that film on.
SV: Is there any footage that to this day you just can’t believe you got?
CH: I mean, mostly you are obsessed about what you didn’t get. I think that’s the hardest part in these real-life films.
SV: Is there something you didn’t get that you’ll never forget?
CH: Yeah, so many you can’t even think of it. But that’s your challenge, to make the film anyway.
SV: Throughout your vast canon, you guys have witnessed some pretty intense moments. Like in 2009’s Kings of Pastry, for example, when the pastry-chef drops his huge sculpture. Despite being commissioned for some of these shoots, are there ever moments of unbearable tension, when you feel really awkward to be in the room?
CH: Well, having shot that guy dropping his sugar sculpture in Kings of Pastry, that was really one of those moments where you just felt so bad behind the camera. And having watched this person’s dream which he’d been preparing for for 20 years of his life literally shatter on the ground. I mean, you just have to keep filming away and get the story. But I felt very happy in the end because he was able to recreate something else and he really was someone who was of that caliber. To see him win was really satisfying. With KOP, we were barely allowed to be there. That day I had to stand in a box that was 2′ x 2′ at the end of the table and shoot from there so it was a very difficult thing to film. And very limited permission. Other times have been very difficult too and interesting. Actually in the War Room that whole scene of the Bush materials being printed in Brazil is kind of an interesting moment because we really thought at that point Clinton was going to win the election and Bush was going to lose because of this printing thing outside of the United States. Sadly, the whole thing fell apart. It was interesting because the press didn’t know anything about it.
DA: But you know, in the end, the thing I think you remember is not all the fantastic scenes that we may have gotten by luck, some incredible achievement, the thing that really gets at you is when you finally see the film with the people you made it with, the people that it’s about, and it works for them. Their memory somehow is now on a wall in a way that makes it permanent and that makes you feel really like you’ve done something of value… At least for me. Much more than any one shot in a film. The thing of watching Jacquy lose (KOP), which could be a really humiliating thing for him, cause he lost to the kind of people he would hire to do something and yet in the end he made it work for him in his life. It all came together for him and other ways that he had expected. and that made me feel really good about that film.
SV: With your 50 years of concert history behind you, what was it like shooting something as recent or modern as the 2010 telecast of Brooklyn’s The National concert? That seemed to have 8 or 9 cameras shooting. How did you go about orchestrating such a thing?
DA: Isn’t The National great? It was the first time we’ve ever done anything like that and we really weren’t sure what we were supposed to do. We sat in the (green room) trailer and pointed our hands (at the 8 screens) and there were 8 cameramen. Luckily there was a guy there from New Zealand who knew exactly how to do it (laughing) so we were watchers of that too. The whole thing of watching a program like that through 8 cameras is really something.
CH: We also helped with positioning the cameras(In addition to choosing the shot coverage live). We had a lot of conceptual input as well. We expressed a style and they tried to shoot it in a way that we can attest ownership to.
SV: How did that telecast come about? Were you approached by The National?
CH: Yeah, basically their band and management approached us through American Express to do one of the first online (laughing) i-concerts. One of the exciting things is we had two of our sons shooting on it so…
DA: You can see how well they did.
SV: Was it it the band’s idea to do the Don’t Look Back reference with the lyric cards and Penny in the background standing in for Allen Ginsberg?
CH: When the concert got divided into individual song videos, we needed extra little things. I don’t remember everything that happened. I think (the cards) were a collaborative idea
DA: They also had me acting as a bartender. They made a music video.
SV: What’s your favorite part of shooting concerts?
DA: Well, the good thing about it is it happens in a day so it’s over and you can go home and sort out the film. And the best thing about it is, if they’re really good and interesting musicians, this is the best thing they’ll do – not necessarily in their lives – but at least up until this moment. They have to do it as well as they possibly can. It’s the walk in the woods in which you see the eagle. It’s amazing.
SV: Are there any other contemporary bands that have your interest?
DA: We stay home most nights and have dinner with our children. (Concerts) are not something we do as much as we did when we were baleful youth.
CH: I mean, I’d love to do something with Arcade Fire now that you mention it. There are so many interesting musicians out there and we don’t know half of who they are. From the period of Bob Dylan until now it’s mostly been someone comes to us and says “we’d be good to do a film about…”
DA: …This and that.
SV: When you take on a band do you listen to their records leading up to the shoot or do you just try to watch objectively?
DA: We learn by doing the film. That’s our learning. The less we know going in the more eager we are to find out. Though, I think Chris might be a little more researchable than I am. I like to just be surprised… to make them all a first-hand experiences. I kind of like that notion even though it’s foolish, I think.
SV: Do you think there are any directorial similarities from your first documentary short Daybreak Express that are still with you today?
DA: I think they’re pretty much all the same film. The sound just got better. Though unlike Daybreak Express, I really wanted to go for dialogue. I liked the idea. Even at the start I wanted my movies to be like plays in which all the action, all that happens, is driven by the dialogue you can hear. Led not by you, but the people in the film, so I think Daybreak Express is the last film I would’ve gotten involved in. My interest is in going some place you haven’t been.
***Zach Gayne is a guy like any other, sort of. As an obsessive cinephile and musical miner, he is incessantly out, positively about, and often afoot. Follow Zach and his many musings, as he attempts to adapt his perceptions unto the printed ‘net.