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Fearless Bravery: Pennebaker and Hegedus on Documenting Life as it is happening

The masters of the documentary on balancing artistic integrity with commercial success

“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players: they have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts, his acts being seven ages.”  — William Shakespeare. 

If all the world’s a stage, we can clearly state that documentary filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker literally invented a way to capture life as it’s happening without being invasive or intrusive.

They have captured some of the most exciting moments in rock and roll and real life. From Dylan’s Don’t Look Back to the debut of the Jimi Hendrix Experience in “Monterey Pop” to the behind-the-scenes Political documentary, “The War Room,”  D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus  created some of the most exciting and ground-breaking cinema  ever photographed.  But it’s not the type of footage you’ll see in mass market, but instead, they bring you into the story, into the lives and places, backrooms, dressing rooms, stages and airports, seeing the moments that make the difference, telling the story of life as it’s happening right in front of their very eyes, not sure what’s to come next….. Yet  captivated  by every new moment…because as documentary filmmakers, there is no script—ever, and they’re living through the moment as they’re looking thru the lens.

They have captured some of the most exciting moments in rock and roll and real life. From Dylan’s Don’t Look Back to the debut of the Jimi Hendrix Experience in “Monterey Pop” to the behind-the-scenes Political documentary, “The War Room,”  D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus  created some of the most exciting and ground-breaking cinema  ever photographed.  But it’s not the type of footage you’ll see in mass market, but instead, they bring you into the story, into the lives and places, backrooms, dressing rooms, stages and airports, seeing the moments that make the difference, telling the story of life as it’s happening right in front of their very eyes, not sure what’s to come next….. Yet  captivated  by every new moment…because as documentary filmmakers, there is no script—ever, and they’re living through the moment as they’re looking thru the lens.

Uncut and verbatim, the conversation we had many years ago reveals the inner workings of their creativity, what makes them tick…..and what gets them to talk. This conversation took place in 1994 at their home on the Upper West Side in New York City.  Broadband was new, we didn’t have the smart phones or the tech that we have today. Please keep this in mind as you experience the conversation.

 

There had to be a moment when you know what you wanted to do.

Chris Hegedus:   I always knew as a child I wanted to be in the arts, and I went to the Hartford Art School and then the Nova Scotia School of Art and Design, which had all sorts of interesting people there. People such as Philip Glass, and painters and filmmakers, and it was a very creative environment. Because the art world was burgeoning towards conceptual art and performance art, I didn’t really see how to make a living doing it, and after a while I lost interest in it because I really didn’t want to be a conceptual artist.

I didn’t see a place for me in the art world, and most of my work at the time had been photography and minimal art film making, and when I graduated from college, I got a job in Ann Arbor working for the University of Michigan Hospital working for a surgeon there, he gave me a job making films of surgery, and I got dropped into a career where most people have to go to medical school first.

And is was fascinating to me, and it seemed like this was a way of making films, getting dropped into peoples lives and getting into this inate voyeuristic scenario watching this entire drama unfold infront of you. In this case, it was the drama of what went on in the operating room. I used to make the analogy of this was like Doctor Marcus Welby or Mash—but much more like MASH. That really turned me around. That there was a job I could do in filmmaking, and that I could do films about the real world.

I had seen some of Pennebaker’s films, and as I graduated from film school, I knew I didn’t know how to be a Hollywood Director. I saw how to make these stories happen in real life. But the equipment became developed so where we could rent a rig in the late 60’s or early 70’s and we could get our hands on great equipment, and my interest escalated with the advent of more technology become easily available.

When you are documenting life as it is happening, do you feel it necessary to get into a comfort zone so that they audience can feel that they are there with the subject you are filming? In a way, filming so that the viewer can be part of it?

D.A. Pennebaker   I Don’t think it’s our problem so much, but I think that you’re not thinking about it this way. It’s like you are writing a play based on characters, whether you are Shaw or Aristophones, but you are writing a film about characters that you know, but in this case, the characters are right in front of you. And the instant is right now. And if they are going on the plane going somewhere, you make a judgement call to see if you want to film that. And why do you want to film it? Well—it’s a connective to where we are going. And where we are going is really what it’s all about. We’re not interested in airport conceptual filmmaking, but at the airport, they might make a phone call, they might look out of the window, they might say something, and those are the longshots…you say that you want to get someplace with them, so when you get to the place where you do want to film what we want to film, we’re part of that entourage. And that in a sense, is what guarantees you the continuous entrée. And it’s maintaining that entree as continuously as possible during the process of filming, but you are really writing a play, but the pencil is really uncertain and undetermined, and you can’t be sure if this line is what you want until you sit down to edit it, but you know you need to have something up on the screen to look at. It’s not a problem if the characters are going to act for you. If that were the problem, you wouldn’t even start it. Because if you thought that there is a chance that they would be acting, you would say, fuck it, I can’t do it, it’s too hard.

 

 

Obviously you must have their trust in you before you start the process of documenting them….

 

Pennebaker Maybe it’s not even trust. It’s trust in a way, like if you go out drinking with some friends you don’t want them to pull at you in some way, to get the fifty bucks you have in a pocket. But it happens is because they want to do it. Now why they want to do it is not our problem. When James Carville says “Why should I let you into my secret chamber?” which is the size of a basketball court, the only thing you can tell him is ‘because you want to.’ Now he has to figure out what that means. And when he does, you do it, and you’re not promising him any spiritual solution, but he has figured out what you are doing, and he figures out that out based on what I’ve done in the past, and he knew I had done Kennedy, and it was a politician, and he felt that the two of us didn’t have any other agenda. We weren’t going back on the air that night and put any footage on television and make him look like an asshole. That is something that he figures out, and when you come to a hard place, you don’t ever get to a place where you push a piece of paper in front of his face and say “James, you signed a contract, we have to do this.” They decided to initiate in a way, and the way you do it, gives them the sense that it’s their film. Whether or not they act is not the issue or important. Whether Dylan is acting. Now Chris, when you wanted to be in the arts, and you saw yourself as an artist.

 

When I grew up, an artist was a guy who painted a picture. Never in my life did I see myself as an artist. And my entire life, I was figuring it out, what was driving me. Because I was unemployable, I didn’t want to do what others were doing. I was trained as an electronic engineer. I was hired by a big company to build big projects. I was projected on a road, but I never saw myself wanting to be an artist. I didn’t know what an artist was. It took me years to figure out what the problem was.

 

As we are sitting here right now, Broadband technology is rather new, and there are companies who are making it possible for digital filmmakers to get their work out there.  Do you feel this is going to be the forefront for filmmakers?

 

Hegedus Sure! We wouldn’t have been able to make the last three films had it not been for digital. We’re doing a new film on digital. Startup.com was shot on a tiny DV camera. It makes it all possible. To do it on film would have been so costly and we wouldn’t have been able to raise the money to do it on film. The digital side is a definite reality of staying alive as filmmakers. Nobody was going to fund Startup.com, so we did it ourselves and we were able to do it. Moon Over Broadway was so expensive on film and so was The War Room. Because you had to pay the actors because of the unions, and we were filming in a Broadway theater. And it puts filmmaking in the hands of the multitudes now, you can edit on computers and it’s a whole different age.

 

Pennebaker     I think that what is going to determine if we’ve come to a branch in the road and there is no turning back, well, I think we’ve already crossed that path. The most interesting films we’re going to get as opposition to Hollywood films, which are predicated on a celebrity driven performance, that has been promoted and is so well known that people are going to see it—so you have something that is so conditioned by broad advertising appeal…but the young people coming in, the imaginations that are coming in, these people cannot afford to do it in film, they cannot afford the film stock, the labs, the prints. When a Hollywood Film comes out they are making 12-15,000 prints, and sending them out to theaters all at the same time, and running ads, and their ads and promotion is probably the same cost as making the film. And then you have independents turning out ‘crackers’ that some people are interested in seeing. So that aspect of the thing, driven by the fact that the theaters are going to show some of the films in video soon. Video projection is going to save the lives of a lot of smaller theaters who cannot afford to compete with the bigger theaters. And TV—well, TV isn’t interested because TV wants to sell cheese. They are not interested in the independent film making market. It contradicts everything they want to do.

 

I have always admired your commitment to quality…

 

Pennebaker   When you speak of quality, people know about intuitively, but in the end people only hear what they are prepared to listen to.

 

I remember listening to my 78’s, the quality of them is so much better than the LP’s….. I know that my brain is very seducible, I can’t say that is no good because I don’t hear it now. But I can hear and see what I want to hear and see, and the imagination is so powerful, that the new independent films are going to have so much imagination…people are going to make them, and theaters are going to run them. And they are going to be a little adjunct, but will never get 200 million heads…… So he really can’t worry about that major market. That’s only for the people selling cheese.’

 

You had mentioned Phillip Glass earlier in our conversation. He appears to be an artist who is able to balance and maintain artistic integrity and commercial success.  A rarity.

 

Pennebaker   Well he can make an opera and get it out. That’s a hard thing to do. We can make a film and get it into the theaters. That’s a hard thing to do. Most independents have a hard thing doing that, surviving from film to film. The question is, “is that journalism or is that art?” A lot of people are interested in knowing if these films are perceived as journalism. It doesn’t matter what our intentions are. But how are they perceived by a larger market…… Journalism doesn’t interest me so much.

 

 

Couldn’t “Don’t Look Back” be viewed as journalism, or a different kind of journalism, because you were capturing Dylan as it was happening, bringing and audience to witness the story as it is happening?

 

Pennebaker   But is that Journalism?

 

I don’t know

 

Pennebaker   I don’t know either!

 

Since documenting life as it’s happening right before your eyes, in order to create the mosaic you are looking for, does the editing process  become a grueling process?

 

Pennebaker    It’s like you are shooting again. And the difference in the process, I believe the difference, in a movie, the camera is part of the set, it is part of the actors, it moves like the actors, it is behind the glass. It moves like the actors. It doesn’t look around. For us, the way I see the camera, is the camera is the audience in the theater, and everything that happens on the stage is organized by someone else, someone else is planning their life day by day, moment by moment, and we’re not part of it. We have to make decisions what to shoot, when not to shoot, and we’re like the audience that is surprised because the camera is surprised in a theatrical kind of way. The editing takes that position and puts it is a more theatrical way. There is no certain way we always do it, but in the end, we come to an agreement about the way we want to be a pair of eyes, a pair of heads watching it.

 

 

Hegedus  There are two parts of our filmmaking. The first part is our detective work, it’s shooting the film and anticipating what we want to do, like in “The War Room” before we shot the film, we visualized the film as about a man becoming President. But when we got in there, we made decisions like “What is the story we are going to find here?” and who is passionate about what they are doing, and the stakes are high, and we were lucky to follow James Carville and George Stephanapolous. The second part is when you get the film back, is trying to make the story with the material you received, and that is an entire different kind of detective work. When you are making the film, the characters create drama. So before you are editing, you realize that the story line needs to create drama, so it’s all created in the editing room. The structure and the style, and how it evolves. And that is something you really think about when you are shooting, because when you are making the film, you are obsessed with capturing the moment and trying to figure out what the story is and how to get access to the people, and get what is there.

 

You seem to find a way to maintain your own autonomy, a rarity in this overly commercialized world run by a studio system whose only interest are profits.   What was it about growing up, your life as a child and your upbringing which may have implanted this way of being?

 

Hegedus    My mother was a teacher who loved the arts, and she fostered the love of learning. Somehow, and maybe it was inherit in growing up, there had to be some sort of passion that you have within you. And I don’t really where it comes from…..but it happens. So, who knows why you become passionate about what you are doing. My father was a corporate sales executive, not an artist so much. He was very much in the business world. A funny thing that happened recently at a family dinner, is my mother asked a question to everyone, “Tell me, if you weren’t doing what you were doing, what would you want to do?” And my father, who really surprised me, told everyone that he would have really loved to have been an artist!!! For me, I felt as if I was doing what I wanted to be doing.

 

Pennebaker   I think that the language acquisition moment—it can happen at any time in your life. It was when my friend Francis Thompson brought in a film and showed it on my wall. I had a projector in my apartment and a turntable underneath it. We used to show films like this with music going with a film, and I was about 25 or 26 at the time….and I had thought a lot about music, art and poetry, I was writing at the time, and doing a lot of stuff that was peripheral around the arts, and he had this film called NYNY and it was all abstract pictures of New York City.

 

It wasn’t that the pictures told me anything amazing, it was that he had done it by himself and I knew that I was probably not going to write a big novel, and while I had friends who were painters, I knew that I wasn’t a great painter, I knew that there were people who knew more than I did, and I couldn’t catch up with them, and I knew they would lead, and I became very depressed. But I had a company downtown that made computers and I abandoned it. And when I saw this film, and I realized “that’s it! That’s what I am going to do the rest of my life. I wanted to make films!

 

And I had all of these other things I have started, and I had a wife, and a child, and a life going, and now it became so clear to me…..and I knew how to make distorted pictures like Francis used, but I wanted to make a film by myself, the idea of controlling the work was so amazing….. and I loved working on films, and I learned how to make a scene, and how to make dialogue by doing it, but I couldn’t stand not being responsible for the final thing…. The final thing should be a jewel….and in most cases it was flawed and a badly cut film (by others) because they didn’t have the control of its final destination. It was a bad imitation of a jewel. And the first time I made a film the way I wanted to make it was don’t look back

 

Were you a Dylan fan?

 

Pennebaker    I knew that he was going to be a very important person.

 

So you weren’t a fan initially?

 

Pennebaker   Well, I became a fan because he was such an amazing musician. I was looking into the fiery furnace there, and I was about 40 watching a younger person trying out things, experiment. I had no doubts that the film I was going to make would be around for 25 years after I made it.

 

How long did it take to edit?

 

About three weeks.

 

 

Did you know what you wanted it to look like when you were done filming?

 

Pennebaker   No, I didn’t. I put off editing for about two months. I didn’t know what the film was about really, and it wasn’t until Michael Quinn said “If you’re not going to do it, I will do it. So I put my mind to it, and edited it on a viewer, not really an editing machine…”

 

How could you suggest to the up and coming filmmakers, art students, music students, anyone who is in the creative fields to find a way to maintain a level of autonomy, with the understanding that most of the people at the top levels of the studios, don’t really care about the story they are telling but are interested in the financial return.

 

Pennebaker     They really need feedback. They want somebody to tell them they love them, or that they have something good, it comes out of that need initially.

 

Hegedus     People in our career, you have to be incredibly passionate and have incredibly strong convictions of what you want to do. There are not a lot of financial rewards.

 

Pennebaker    You also have to be brave. Because with every chance, there is a chance of total disaster. And you have to be able to deal with that. But to deal with the idea that it might be a disaster. That is an aspect of independents that people don’t think about—is they are very brave. Bands such as Depeche Mode—are very brave….. But you didn’t answer my question. Art versus journalism.

 

I don’t really know. Isn’t life part of journalism?

Pennebaker     And now my final question….Do you have any sense in your own head of what defines art?

 

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