D. A. Pennebaker: Looking Back - Revisiting Monterey Pop

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Interview By Jonathan Marlow

Continued from D.A. Pennebaker: Looking Back?

...Distributing was pretty easy at the time because of the way that the country was set up for theatrical distribution. There weren't many insurgents like us coming in with these fly-by-night movies. The country was divided into six areas and each area had some old couple running it. They determined which theaters would get which films and in what order.

Did Leacock-Pennebaker act as a distributor for the films?

Yes, we did. That was one of the very first. Nobody had really tried to distribute an independent film before because nobody had really thought to do it. It didn't seem like a reasonable idea! We were so completely unknowledgeable about the whole thing. It just seemed to me that if you fish and you catch a big fish and you don't want to eat it, you take it to your local fish store and they buy it. I thought that movies would be that way but it turned out that they weren't. Over a long period of time, people came to us with other ideas. Company was like that and then the Bowie film [Ziggy Stardust & the Spiders from Mars] was kind of like that. People assumed that we had some magic way of getting into the theater.

It does appear that way…

The importance of getting into the theater wasn't that you made a lot of money, although Dont Look Back and Monterey Pop did do very well. Eventually, the organized people out in Hollywood closed in and made it so that would be hard to do. They wanted to make that money and they didn't want any insurgents taking it away from them. As we got better at making the films, the distributors kind of appeared. The Bowie film never got a distributor as such but it started with RCA and they didn't expect to distribute it. I made a 35mm feature film out of it and David helped me. We did it just to do it.

What was RCA intending to do with it?

It was originally a test for this video record that RCA was coming up with. It was only supposed to be a half-hour but that concert was so amazing that I said, "This is a feature film. I don't know why I know that but I know it." We made it into a feature film though it took a while before it got distributed. When I took Dont Look Back around to the two or three people distributing films, they had no idea what to do with it. They couldn't even bother. They couldn't even look at it. It seemed too ratty for them to be a real movie.

It was very rough.

Nobody was looking for us. We somehow escaped attention.

The editing for Dont Look Back is fairly unconventional. At what point did you decide to start with the pseudo-Scopitone and then include The Times They Are A-Changin' in three different sections of the film?

I didn't think of it that way. With the editing, I didn't have a flatbed. Every time that I'd edited before that, all of our editing had been on viewers. We worked out a whole scheme for editing Primary mostly where you'd have a viewer and you'd have a synchronizer and you had them twenty-two frames apart. When a frame [of the mag track] was in the synchronizer, twenty-two frames later would be the picture. That was your sound advance. You're always working with the sound advance so that you could see both. You could run it very fast on your rewinds so it was a very easy way to edit, actually. I edited it all that way...

Very tactile.

You could go fast down to the stuff that you wanted and you could build the film up. I think it probably didn't take me more than three or four weeks to cut Dont Look Back. I didn't try to organize it particularly. I simply did it in the kind of order that it happened originally. I was initially considering opening with him in his dressing room and he sort of says, "You start out standing." He was rhyming the words to one of his songs and I thought, "Well, that's a good way to start." I didn't think any more about it but, when I looked at the work print after it was pretty much assembled, I realized that you didn't know who he was. You hadn't seen him on stage at all. Here was this guy singing this barely heard phrase and then, bang, you're in the movie. I thought that it wouldn't work. Dylan had an idea when I first met him down at the Cedar Tavern in New York to write out some of the lines to the song. It was kind of like the Ready Steady Go! stuff that The Beatles had been doing which was all sort of faked but they liked doing it. They figured that they had to do it, even though they didn't get paid for it, because that's what they were supposed to do in order to sell records. Dylan thought that was kind of funny and this was a kind of take on that. We hauled those things around and we finally did that little scene in one take. We did another take somewhere else that was not too good. A policeman was hitting me on the shoulder while we were shooting...

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