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Past Article

D.A. Pennebaker: At 80, Looking Back and Ahead
By David D'Arcy
August 19, 2005 - 1:40 AM PDT

"We were booked in a falling down porn house and there were lines around the block."

Was television a place where documentaries showed in the 1950s?

Television wasn't interested in anything independents did. They were all showing top comedians and quiz shows.

I suppose it didn't help that politics became one of your recurring subjects and that you avoided the omniscient correspondent voice-over.

I worked on Primary [about the U.S. Democratic presidential primary of 1960] and there we had a little problem, because Robert Drew [my partner on the project] wanted to tell the story by way of narration. He wanted that authoritative background to hold it together. That was the thing that I felt very nervous about. I didn't think that authority in these films really helped you. It took away the whole adventure of it. It made it seem like it was a geography lesson or something. In television those days, you always had someone telling you what he knew.

Often it wasn't a hell of a lot.

And you never saw the action take place.

Was there any continuity between Primary and The War Room, which you shot in 1992, more than thirty years later?

Not really. Primary was about a person, and in the end, what really came to life was Kennedy. The sections that Ricky Leacock shot of Kennedy gave it the feeling that we were in a special place, which is what really makes those things work.

In The War Room, we didn't have to get with Clinton. Clinton was going to turn you off all the time. He was going to give you front porch parlor talk. He was never going to say "shit." We needed to be in a special place with people who would say "shit," who were interesting, and who would talk to each other. It didn't matter whether they talked to us because we weren't going to interview them. We never wanted to do an interview show out of that. From the beginning, it was definitely not what we had in mind.

Your films seem to depend on the willingness of the subject to be recorded, to be observed.

Yup. To live their lives for us. It wasn't just that they were going to allow us to indulge in their wisdom. It was like race car drivers. They were going to actually race while we were filming, so we could see the best they could do.

So would you say that if a person isn't going to allow that, there's no point in making the film?

No - you just go home.

Why did Bob Dylan agree to be filmed in 1965 for Don't Look Back?

Dylan had seen a copy of Daybreak Express and he really liked the idea of the Duke Ellington music on it. He really loved the music in it. I don't know what he thought about the film. He wanted to find out about what making a film was like, because I think Warner's was after him. Warner's wanted to do the first big Dylan film. So Dylan and his manager decided that I could come along and shoot during the tour and then they'd figure out what they'd do as a next step. I don't think they had any idea that I was going to make a movie, especially after they saw that little homemade camera. I was all alone, really. I had one guy recording all the concerts on the tour and one person doing sound.

He seemed comfortable with the camera there, to the point where, in contrast,  Joan Baez is ill at ease with a still photographer from a newspaper who comes to take her picture - but she's comfortable enough to show all her discomfort in front of the movie camera. It makes you wonder which camera is more intrusive.

Yeah, it's funny. I don't think Dylan took it all that seriously.

What's the key to shooting a performance? These days music video directors seem to be editing with a Cuisinart, the more the better. Yet Monterey Pop is full of lingering long shots of musicians as they're playing. Is your assumption that the musician might know more about his performance than the filmmaker?

In Monterey Pop, I worked with a few cameramen who I knew would listen to the music. I wasn't so concerned about how good they were as cameramen, because the cameras, you just turned them on and turned them off. It was simple. I never thought to direct anybody as to what to do. I assumed that if you turned them loose and said, "Just get the best pictures you can of Hendrix or Janis or whoever's on there," somebody would get a good picture, and they all got good pictures. I realized that not directing is the strongest thing you can do for performance, as long as your people aren't klutzes. Letting people go was the strongest thing that I did there, and I learned a lot from that.

Did Don't Look Back do well in theaters?

It went worldwide, but it never made much money because the theaters would never pay us. It ran in England for years, but I don't think we ever took a dollar out of England. They probably thought they'd never see another film by us, and it looked so ratty that they didn't think they ought to pay for it. But then Monterey came around and that changed everything.

Did the studios come after you to do anything after Don't Look Back?

No. It just looked too ratty. I remember the letters. There was one from an executive at Seven Arts who said he went to the film and didn't understand it, but his daughter really liked it. You could see that they looked at it and it just didn't have the production quality that they thought was mandatory for a film. It probably wouldn't have gotten into a theater except that it was seen by the Art Theater Guild, who were distributing porno on the West Coast. The guy who ran it said, "That's just what I'm looking for. It looks like a porno film, but it's not." We were booked in a falling down porn house and there were lines around the block.

When did you get a sense that the younger generation was moving in?

Not for a long time. Over the years, I've seen films that people have done here and abroad that have really charmed me, but I never got a sense of what I thought would happen after Monterey. I thought that people would come in and just start wrecking the place, because anybody can do it, and the stuff is out there waiting to be found. And they didn't, for a long time. Wiseman was turning films out - I think he began with a camera we gave him.

Did you ever think of doing a film on Ronald Reagan?

No, but I did want to do a film about Nixon, Thanksgiving dinner with Nixon. I wanted to see him human, while he's serving up the Thanksgiving dinner. He had almost become a kind of Donald Duck figure. That always bothered me, when people lose their humanness.

Has anyone approached you about making a film about Iraq?

No, and I'm not interested in going to Iraq. I don't want to make films about things that don't work, and Iraq doesn't work.

With this profusion of documentaries, has it gotten any easier for you to make films?

No. It has to do with this new era of documentary that began with 9/11, in which it was proven absolutely that what I call the Zapruder Concept [named for the home movie that recorded the Kennedy assassination in 1963] was going to hold the field for the foreseeable future. People with tripods and trucks full of equipment are not going to get the picture of 9/11. They weren't going to be there. The guy with a cheap camera in his hand saw the plane go into the building. That's the thing that no one will ever replicate. It was so extraordinary, that he got it in such a perfectly clean, clear way, just like watching Kennedy's head blow apart. You couldn't have imagined having a camera there to do that. And there was no other camera.

People now figure they're not going to go around with trucks in tripods. They're going to go around with a camera in their pocket. It means that the films that win, the films that get distributed, are like people that win the lottery. You don't set out to try to win the lottery, nor do you try to figure out what the secret is of winning the lottery. It seems like an act of God. These films come around, and they're like the one about the dancing, or they're like Spellbound, they're all one-offs. They're always going to be one-offs. They may shoot some more, they may get lots of offers, because their film wins prizes and everybody loves it, but it's doubtful that it will happen to them again.

It's like Zapruder going out and becoming a filmmaker. There's no point in it. So what you've got is a situation where a preconceived concept is very hard. You've got so many people out there with cameras that anything that happens that's at all peculiar or out of the ordinary, someone is pointing a camera at it. And that wasn't happening 25 years ago.

What are you working on now?

A few things. We're shooting a project about drugs for HBO. We're filming people in drug situations. They've got a number of filmmakers out doing it, of which Chris [Hegedus] and I are just one team. It's not sure what the final film will be. A few weeks ago, we went up to Maine to meet a couple that was using drugs, and they agreed to let us film them while they were still using. And then we watched them go into a hospital that's using a new drug that somehow gets at the part of your brain that is exposed the drugs and makes the whole thing work for your body; this treatment is not being generally used for various peculiar reasons. We watched the effect on this couple over two or three days. We also got kind of an insight into the degree to which drugs have taken over America. People have no idea about it.

back to past articles >>>

"The idea was that I could do it all by myself."
"We were booked in a falling down porn house and there were lines around the block."

back to past articles


David D'Arcy
Besides reviewing art and film for National Public Radio, David D'Arcy has also written for the Art Newspaper, the Economist and other publications.

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