In the midst of a tribute presented by the Documentary Film Institute last year, Jonathan Marlow had the opportunity to speak with D.A. Pennebaker about his remarkable fifty-year career.
Best known for his music films, such as Monterey Pop
and Down from the Mountain
, Pennebaker is also responsible for a number of exceptional political documentaries -- The War Room
, as director, Al Franken: God Spoke
, as producer, and One PM
, a documentary/narrative hybrid which was started and abandoned by Jean-Luc Godard
In honor of the DVD reissue of the landmark documentary Don’t Look Back (which includes the feature-length Bob Dylan ’65 Revisited, complied from hours of footage collected on the 1965 tour), we present the first installment of a two-part interview with the legendary filmmaker.
Your first film, Daybreak Express, is arguably one of the most stunning short films ever made.
I have to freely admit that it owes a little something to [Duke] Ellington!
At what point did you decide to use Ellington as the springboard…
I began by wanting to use that song and that's why the film has no title. It's known as Daybreak Express but that’s the title of the song. I didn't want to co-op the song to my little film. I had to show it to Ellington because, at the time, I didn't know anything about making a film. I didn't make a print or anything. I took the original stuff, which was Kodachrome…
Was it reversal or negative?
Reversal. You bought it for ten dollars a roll at the drugstore. You sent it to them and they processed it and sent it back. The short took about three or four rolls. Since a roll is about three and a half minutes long and the record was about three and a half minutes long, in the beginning I thought that, if I'm really smart and can start and stop that camera accurately, I could do it all on one roll. Of course, you could never do that! When the rolls came back, I didn't even know how to fasten the film together. I knew that I had to do it somehow so I did it with adhesive tape. It looked terrible. Actually, I liked the effect of the sudden "slug" at the cut.
A few years later, I made a film called Company. I had a guy working for me as a kind of apprentice. His father was a sculptor and I thought quite highly of him. I had to go away somewhere and I left him with the problem of cutting the original film into what is called "A” and “B” rolls. By having them run, first one and the other, on your print, you manage to cover up the splice. He got confused and made the splices so that, instead of covering them, they doubled. He thought that it was a disaster. When I looked at it, I thought that there wasn’t anything we could do. We couldn’t change the music. There wasn’t any way to extend or change the shots. We were stuck with it. I showed it over the course of the next week or two. Nobody noticed except the producer and he said, "Why do you have those funny blips between each cut?" I said, "Because I think it kind of ups the excitement." And he said, "Great idea!" The Canadians later wanted to know if I had some kind of "splice master" that I used. I’ve lived with it ever since! Most people don't notice but it's like a little time clock going off in the back of their head. It makes it look more exciting but you would never want to do it. I would never do it again.
Daybreak had that quality. I had to show it to Ellington in his office on a little projector with a tape recorder to run the sound. By present standards, it would have been unbearable but it looked great. He loved it.
Was it this experience that made you decide to pursue a career as a filmmaker?
I actually decide before that. Not long before. I had built a setup in my New York apartment with a projector in a wooden booth and, underneath, I had a turntable. I could show films and play music [for accompaniment]. On a Sunday afternoon, if it were raining, we would get old movies and play Jelly Roll Morton. Francis Thompson came to show a film he had been working on for a long time called New York, New York – N.Y., N.Y.…
I was an engineer, actually. I have an Engineering degree from Yale. I assumed that I'd be an engineer for some time. After about a year of it, I realized I didn't want to do that anymore. I had a writer-friend who said, "You’ve got to quit. You can't do that." At the time, I thought I would become a writer. We were sharing an apartment and I wondered how I would pay the rent. He said, "Don't worry about it because what you'll learn is how to live in New York without a job." And, indeed, I did. I've never had a job since. But the whole idea of being a writer… I started a novel and I got about a third of the way through but it was clear to me, upon sober reflection, that it was going to be just another book. I wasn't F. Scott Fitzgerald.