It wasn't the great American novel.
There was no way I was going to write This Side of Paradise. Anything short of that would have been a disappointment so I thought I'd better think this writing thing through. When Francis showed me the work print [of N.Y., N.Y.], he also had a record playing with it -- [Bela] Bartok. I had never heard Bartok before although I knew quite a bit about music. I’d spent time in music school during my senior year at Yale. The combination [of image and sound] was terrific. The picture was very artistic. It was all abstractions, quite beautiful, but that wasn't what interested me. What interested me was that he’d made this film all by himself. I had no idea how movies were made before that. I’d never thought about it much. As a result, in about fifteen minutes I saw right away that filmmaking was what I was going to do for the rest of my life. Little by little, I weaseled my way into the world of independent filmmaking in New York. It was a very haphazard thing at that time but there were a number of people who were making films for a very small audience. There was no television to speak of. I guess that I was very naïve. I assumed, having the benefit of several years of college as a result of the G.I. Bill, that everything would sort of work out. You develop that theory even though, if you look around America, that's not realistically the case.
You owe your career to naivete.
I owe my career to being a slow learner. Entirely.
How did you meet Robert Drew?
After a few years of doing some films, I went to Russia for three months to make a film that was set up there by George Nelson involving Nixon and Khrushchev. I’d actually shot Daybreak but I hadn't released it. I didn't know what to do with it. Willard Van Dyke, who Ricky [Leacock] worked with sometimes, came to me. I guess that he had seen a screening of Daybreak. He had to do a series for the Brussels World’s Fair [Expo ‘58] of loop films and he talked to me about doing a few. I said that I’d be happy to do it. There was not much money and it involved about a year of traveling around the U.S. to shoot them, but it sounded exactly like what I should be doing. In the course of that I got to meet Ricky since he made one of them [known as Brussels Loops; Shirley Clarke and Wheaton Galentine also participated] and he was doing this project with Drew. While I was in Russia, he came over with Lenny Bernstein and they shot a concert of the New York Philharmonic and the Russian Philharmonic there. He brought with him a very haphazardly constructed sync-sound thing. That was a big problem. You could shoot films with a tape recorder, the same type of wind-up tape recorder on which I had run the track for Ellington to show him Daybreak, but there was no way to go out in the field with the camera and shoot the sound of people with dialogue. It was impossible. You had to do it on a set, plugged into the wall. You had to go through the whole process. While we were there, he had this thing and it took three of us -- Al Maysles was with me -- to carry it. Long wires and a battery about the size of a Volkswagen, we would be following Lenny down halls…
Did you do this with a cart behind you? How did you carry all this stuff?
We had a microphone that was maybe this long. A directional mic…
On a boom?
Not on a boom. The tape recorder made quite a bit of noise, a terribly noisy thing, and the camera shot only a hundred feet of film. That was all it shot and then you had to reload. We had to be following Lenny who would be complaining bitterly that we were messing up his life with this stupid contraption. It didn't look like it had much future. We set it down in this hall where Lenny was going to entertain some party officials and, in the course of it, I remember that he sat down and started to play current American music because that's what they wanted to hear. He wasn't going to play anything very complicated for them. It isn't my favorite music but I do know when it's good. Lenny was a fantastic piano player and I thought, "I've got this machine here that should be able to sync." I shot two rolls of film and that made me think, "That's what we have to do! We've got to figure out how to get this thing to work because it's always the thing that you don't expect that you want to film." When we got back to New York, Drew had asked Ricky to do this balloon assent out in South Dakota or North Dakota. They had shot once before and the balloon hadn't gone up due to weather conditions or something. Ricky couldn't go so Drew asked me to do it. By then, Ricky and I had sort of formed a partnership with Shirley Clarke and Willard Van Dyke. The four of us shared a little office in New York. I went out and spent a couple of months trying to film this balloon taking off. Drew meanwhile had persuaded Time Life to put up money for a program involving filmmakers like ourselves doing a kind of projected series, a kind of candid series like they had done for still photograph. Drew, who had come done down from the Neiman Fellowship [at Harvard], had seen Ricky's film called Toby and the Tall Corn, and he’d fallen in love with it. I had seen it and I’d also fallen in love. Daybreak Express was my attempt to become a cinematographer overnight. It was also my expression of affection for John Sloan who loved elevators and did these fantastic pictures of New York, which I've always adored. He is the New York painter of all time. That was my little offering to him. I didn't want to make little contrived funny movies and so I never really tried to make Daybreak again or anything like it.
By now, we set out with Time Life to really design a camera that would be quite portable and work anywhere. We had [Stefan] Kudelski who developed the Nagra, and we got to know him pretty well. We started out by putting Bulova watches -- Accutron watches -- on the Nagra and then one on the camera, so if the two were keeping the same time…
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