…then they were in sync.
They could be made to drive the two things. In the case of the tape recorder, it could simply lay down a signal in the middle of the tape. In the camera, it drove a rather complicated thing that was very inefficient but, little by little, over the next couple of years we managed to get a more efficient system of driving the DC feedback system. We stopped using the clocks because we could get crystals that were just as accurate. In the end, we designed and built about five cameras that were hand-made from existing Oracon cameras but they had very little Oracon stuff in them anymore. We chopped off the tops and raked the magazines so they sat back on your shoulder. You could hold the camera with a handle, kind of like what you get in a video cameras now. We were the only ones that had equipment like this. We made maybe a dozen films as part of this Time Life deal but, little by little, I could see that the problem was Time Life wasn't going to get them into any kind of real distribution. That is, they were limited on TV when the ads were thrown in. They were much too short -- you couldn't develop character in forty-five minutes. You needed that ninety minute span that the movies have trained everybody to expect. I quit Time Life and Ricky joined me. In the beginning, we had a couple of projects but they didn't turn out to be big money makers.
After Happy Mothers Day was finished, the Saturday Post decided that they didn’t like it. They wanted to change it so we had to buy it back from them. I did a film with a Prime Minister in Canada. Another person later edited it and together we saw that it was not satisfactory. I determined that I wasn't going to shoot films that someone else edited because it didn't make use of what we thought we were doing. By then we were renting the cameras out and that irritated the Film Board a lot because we had to pay duty every time we came into Canada but they had no other camera that was quiet and did what this camera was able to do. We sort of survived for a year or two doing a lot of little short films. One with Dave Lambert [Lambert, Hendricks & Co.] and another with Timothy Leary, films that were maybe fifteen minutes long and which we could shoot in one day. We didn't know what else to do. We had no market for them. Certainly television was never going to be a market for us. I could see that fairly quickly. I couldn't even get people to look at Happy Mother's Day.
How much of your association with Drew, Leacock and the Maysles was simply a matter of time and place? Primary is certainly of that particular moment and later, as you mentioned, Albert Grossman offering you Don't Look Back?
In the beginning, Drew could go to the Kennedys by way of the Time Life reporter in Washington. He could get to Kennedy and asked if we could be with him. We got a kind of an uncertain "go ahead" on that, so we were able to shoot Primary. For the next film, we had a kind of idea of what we were going to film but we had no story. We never tried to script it but it turned out to be really interesting when we got out and did it. Then we did a series that got us further into the refining of the process. "Did you have to process everything you shot?" Decisions like that, which the Film Board had long ago gone through. We had to replicate their experience. I worked with Drew for three years. The last film we did was Crisis. It was an extraordinary film. We'll never do another film like that again.
Certainly, no one would give you that kind of access again.
The most interesting thing for me was Jane Fonda. I could see that if you understood what the limitations were in the process, and didn't try to make it via a Hollywood movie, you could make a real drama that you could also distribute theatrically. The stuff was there to do it if you did it right. That convinced me that is the way we had to go. The fact that we had Jane Fonda was interesting because you had a real actress, so you saw her. But she was over-acting. It wasn't necessarily a film that was like Hollywood films. It just was like something that you knew had a real nest to go to. After I’d left Drew, within a couple of years Albert came and asked, "Would you want to go with [Bob] Dylan?" I didn't know that it was going to be a feature film but that was the way I intended to shoot it. And I didn't even know that much about Dylan…
I think that helped.
It was really kind of gratuitous. But, when I was asked to do Monterey Pop, I thought immediately [to shoot it the same way] -- even though it wasn't intended for the theater -- it was intended as an ABC show. ABC was putting up money for it…
And, once again, they rejected it.
In the end, they rejected it because television wasn't ready for Jimi Hendrix and Janis [Joplin]. That was the conflict between "popular mode" and the perceived "family popular mode." It was really quite wide then, but within a couple of years after it had been rejected they bought it as a movie because they didn't have any problem with that. That was somebody else's "egg." So it sort of solved itself and we were able to distribute it theatrically. Distributing the first two films, Don't Look Back and Monterey Pop, was fairly easy.
To be continued…
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