Looks Back... and Forward
Documentary Film Pioneer D.A. Pennebaker
There are precious few living filmmakers today as influential as documentarian D.A. Pennebaker. Best known for his enormously influential film Don't Look Back, which followed a young folksinger by the name of Bob Dylan on his 1967 British tour, Pennebaker has also chronicled Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin in Monterey Pop, and (with his wife and partner Chris Hegedus) Bill Clinton's 1992 bid for the presidency in The War Room (which was nominated for an Academy Award). Pennebaker and Hegedus' new film, Moon Over Broadway, has just been released and documents the behind-the-scenes machinations involved in the creation of a recent Broadway play starring comedienne Carol Burnett. Throughout his body of work, Pennebaker has pioneered the so-called "fly-on-the-wall" style of documentary filmmaking, allowing his subjects to speak for themselves without benefit of voiceover narration or other cinematic scaffolding, making him literally one of the most imitated and praised filmmakers working today.
I spoke with him recently while the director was in town for the 30th anniversary re-release of Don't Look Back at the Dobie.
Austin Chronicle: Don't Look Back, Monterey Pop, Depeche Mode 101... you seem to have this affinity for musicians and music and it's a topic you consistently return to. Why is that?
D.A. Pennebaker: Musicians are interesting to me because they're different from normal people and yet they are expected to have the same reactions, and so there's a constant struggle going on there. They want to perform for people, but at the same time they want to get theirs, and the two don't often go together. I think that they lend themselves to performance, and as a filmmaker that's something you look for.
You realize that people who make films like I do don't have a lot of options, you know? We don't write our scripts, we don't have movie stars at our beck and call, we have to go with things which are kind of indigenous to normal life, like aspiring politicians, performances by musicians, maybe dancers.
You can always make a film about your barber or maybe your aunt, but you're going to have a pretty hard time getting a theatre to run that. If you have any serious theatrical ambitions, you have to pay a little attention to the marquee. That doesn't mean you have to make all your films that way, but the ones you want to have work and pay off, part of what you have to do is make those judgments. If people don't think that your work has some bearing on their lives, there's not much reason for them to go and see it. Unless you get your barber at some incredible moment in his life that everybody will instantly see reflects all of our terrible troubles, you're gonna have a hard time. It's a little like trying to figure out who's going to win the lottery. You have a hard time finding subjects that will really work.
AC: Have you found it easier to gain access to musicians than, say, politicians?
DAP: It totally depends on the musician. And it depends on the moment, the timing. Let's take some group that's very big now, let's say Beck: You might have a hard time following him around, his management might say, "How much you gonna pay us?" Usually you have to have something in mind and you have to have some way to do it. Maybe you're going do it on your own nickel, maybe you've got someone who's going to put up money for you... that's possible, but you're never going to get a free ride on anybody that's got any kind of clout.
AC: What about Dylan in 1967 in Don't Look Back? Wasn't he at the height of his powers back then? Was that difficult for you to get to him?
DAP: Well, when Albert [Grossman, Dylan's manager] came to see me, I don't think he was quite at the height of his powers, that is he didn't seem to me that way. I didn't know him that well, I didn't know that much about him. I only knew that down in the Village he was fairly well known around the Kettle of Fish and those sorts of places because he performed there, but in general, in the music business, I don't think that people took him that seriously.
That was a different situation, though. I don't think that people had an idea that a movie like this - a home movie that somebody would shoot on their own - would have any kind of commercial value, or it was perceived that they were giving anything away of any value.
Albert, I think, had other kinds of reasons for doing it. I think he wanted to have Dylan go through the experience and see how you could make that kind of a film because I think he had in his mind the notion of havixng Warner Bros. buy Dylan for some kind of heavy feature. He kind of wanted to see if Dylan could handle it.
AC: Did you perceive much difference between documenting the music scene in the late Sixties and then doing Depeche Mode 101 in the late Eighties? As a filmmaker, I mean?
DAP: It certainly got bigger, but you know, I wasn't really interested in becoming the king of the concert film, so I really didn't exert myself in that direction too much. In fact I sort of ducked everybody on Woodstock; I didn't really want to film that.
Remember, there was no MTV, there was no music video format, there was nothing that you could do with a music film on television except maybe sell it for stock footage. You couldn't do much in the theatre either. I distributed Don't Look Back myself and that was really very hard and I think I was very lucky.
AC: When you were making Don't Look Back, did you realize what an important film it would be and how much of an impact on popular culture it would have?
DAP: In my mind I had an intimation that it was going to be of some historical value. I did know that and I'm not exactly sure why, except that I saw in Dylan a kind of Byronesque figure who was inventing himself as he went along. It seemed to me that people didn't really understand what he was up to at that time. Even people that liked the music didn't understand why he was so peculiar, why he wasn't like all the other musicians. And it seemed to me that a film about him, that I could do then, would, at some future date, make sense of all that.
AC: Whose idea was the oft-imitated "Subterranean Homesick Blues" opening? Because, you know, that idea's been swiped by everyone from INXS to Tim Robbins (in Bob Roberts) to Kevin Smith for his Mallrats Goops video.
DAP: That was Bob's idea. We were talking in a bar and he said, "Do you think this is a good idea for something to do in the film?" and as he described it he would have these cards and the cards would have things written on them and he would hold them up. What he'd do with them after he'd finished - whether he'd throw them away or whatever - we didn't even talk about. I said, "That's a great idea, let's bring a lot of cards with us," which we did. That was shot in the alley behind the Savoy Hotel.
[As for the homages,] we have no cable in our house - as a protection against homework stealing, which cable does - so if it doesn't come in on the rabbit ears, I don't see it. I don't know how I feel about it. They're not sending me checks, so whatever copyright I had on it doesn't seem to be providing much protection. That's the thing about documentaries, though. The very things that copyrights are thought to protect you against aren't covered. I mean, if that was a scripted film and somebody did it, they'd be all over you like a tent. I don't know. I don't feel particularly litigious, so I don't feel like grabbing a lawyer and going after the various people who have done this, but I'm a little bemused.
AC: Tell me about your working relationship with your wife Chris [Hegedus] and your son Frazer. It sounds like a very unique situation you've got going there.
DAP: I even have another son, John Paul, and he's the one who keeps the AVID going, he's the computer whiz. But working with Chris, she's a partner first and foremost, and then everything else after that we do together. She isn't the editor and I'm the cameraman - we both do it all. I like it that we both can do everything, and in the end, no matter how fiercely contested the editing gets to be - and it sometimes does, you can't deny yourself the greed of authorship because it's an overwhelming emotion - we do it together. And I really like that. I like doing it with somebody like that, and having total faith that whatever she does, in the end I'll like it as much as anything I'll do.
AC: Is this husband-and-wife filmmaking partnership something that you had sought out? Was it planned or was it just a lucky coincidence?
DAP: I never set out to have a partner. In fact, I was very wary of partners because it gets hard, especially if you both do the same thing. Chris just came in one day, and I had a couple of films that I had shot but hadn't edited - one of them was Town Bloody Hall, which was a film about a feminist meeting in New York with Norman Mailer - but Chris had maybe been there an hour and she saw exactly how to make the film and was really, in fact, instructive. And she did it with material that was so badly shot that I was almost ashamed to have people look at it. And it worked. When I saw what she could do with that, I thought "I must never let her escape." That's pretty much the way it's been.
AC: Let's talk about The War Room, which is your film about then-governor Clinton's '92 presidential campaign. How did you get access granted to you to pursue all these high-ranking candidates around the campaign trail?
DAP: Well, George [Stephanopolous] and James [Carville] to some extent, but George was the one who really had the say. He was the sort of dictator as to who could go into the war room. And basically, the press were never allowed inside. Our being there, we were not perceived as "press" but as visitors. And in a sense we weren't press, because whatever we did wasn't going to come out for at least a year after the election. We were an invasion by the media.
I think that they knew that I had shot stuff with [John F.] Kennedy, and that, as far as George was concerned, put us into a region where they felt they could trust us, and that was important. After a day or two we just became part of the whole operation and nobody paid any attention to us. I don't think they thought about it much.
AC: Were there any particular events from which you were barred?
DAP: Nope. What we could get, we could keep. But they didn't even know what we were getting most of the time because they weren't paying any attention to it. We looked sort of innocuous, too. We weren't really a heavy operation, just really the two of us. Chris was doing sound and I was shooting film.
You're not shooting all the time, only when it's warranted. You're doing a lot of sitting around and listening and being part of a group that was very busy and very proud of itself and really dug what it was doing. It was like we were part of the team.
AC: Having been in that close proximity to President Clinton, did you see any portents of his current troubles back then?
DAP: I would never feel like making any kind of moral judgment on anybody because I don't know all the circumstances and in a sense it seems to me to be a private matter. I certainly am not surprised that he's allowed himself to get shot in the foot, so to speak. From the very beginning, with Gennifer Flowers, it seemed to me that he had somehow... something had gone on there. What, I don't know, but that was his business and if she wanted to bring it out in the open that was her business, you know? I think George's sense was that [Clinton] would be reminded not to do that again, or at least not to jeopardize what they were doing. That was kind of their bond, although it was never spoken of.
AC: Depeche Mode 101. Were you a fan of the band previously to doing the film?
DAP: Never heard of 'em.
AC: So how did the film come about? Apart from being a music-oriented documentary, it seems quite different from much of your other work, not only because it follows a British techno/electronic band, but also in the coverage of the group's many fans.
DAP: These films are all basically the same film, but we try to make them a little bit different so that if you had to see two or three of them at the same time you wouldn't be seeing petrographs, you know?
Some guy called us up and said, "Hey, would you like to make this film?"
AC: Who called you up?
DAP: Some representative of the band here in New York City. They were actually with Sire Records, which is a Warner Bros. deal, and they were very highly regarded, having sold a lot of records for Warners.
I arranged to go out to a concert in Oregon, actually, and I was kind of intrigued by the audience as much as the performance. The performance was hard to evaluate because the songs all sounded exactly the same, to my ear. I wasn't used to them, so I had no sense of the music and all I saw was people standing up on stage whacking away at the keyboards. I couldn't make a musical decision, but I thought it was a very interesting phenomenon to go to a concert where the entire audience appears to never go to any other concerts. The only concert they go to is Depeche Mode. It was intriguing. It had about it a kind of a quality of sort of early pagan English tribal rites. That what was going on here was somehow this prehistoric outgrowth of the music scene.
So we said we'd do it, but we quickly realized that these guys didn't have the hippies' spiritual personas, like Dylan did; they were just working-class kids who had figured out this wonderful way to make a lot of money easily.
We were gonna go with the tour, but we had to concoct a little extravagance which was a busload of kids who were going out to the Rose Bowl to see the band. They turned out to be a really fantastic group of kids, and very interesting to me. As interesting as the band in many ways.
I really liked doing that film because they let us do anything we wanted to do. If we wanted to run around on the stage after them, they didn't say a word. I think they themselves took chances and they liked the fact that we took chances, so we got along very well.
In the end, I really like the film, and you're right, it is different. It's unlike any other film we'd done before and probably ever will again, but it has a quality of "at that moment this was what was happening musically, and will probably never happen again." The whole idea of a group of young Americans who are really interested in music and hip to the clothes and everything, saying Elvis Presley was boring, was really interesting to me. I thought, "God, there's been some kind of turnaround, and we're on it, we're there." And that was a good thing to do.
I think that film will probably survive a long time just because it is a funny moment in American music, just before we got hit with a whole other kind of music. Later, after Nirvana, everything was up for grabs and Depeche Mode has kind of fallen by the wayside, although they still record.
AC: What do you think of this sort of documentary renaissance that we seem to be experiencing right now? It's really getting big.
DAP: I don't know, but yeah, you're right. I think partly it's like in the music: A lot of genius music was spawned in the Sixties and out of it came an enormous body of musical possibility that's everywhere today. I think that film also kind of got spawned in the Sixties, and I think that when you see the films that have been made in the last 25 years or so, young people look at them and say, "I can make that." The fact that they see how to do it - it doesn't matter if they have any reason to do it, or if they should be doing it, whether they have the money to do it, they just do it. And that's the wondrous thing about it. It's like poetry, it writes itself. Either you write it or you don't, it's there or it's not.
What's happened in the last five years is that people can take a Hi-8 camera and go out and film something that they see. They can make a film about it, and they know how to make a film because there's a lot of them around to look at (and maybe they'll even make up some new ways). They can take it out to Los Angeles, have it blown up to a 35mm print, and release that in theatres. And they do that a lot. Half of the films probably at Sundance are shot in Hi-8 or some kind of video format. In the end, the cheapest and most efficient way to distribute a film is in 35mm - the prints last longer, they look and sound better, and the theatres know what to do with them.
AC: Your celebrated style has been called "fly on the wall" filmmaking, but it's really not, since you're a visible presence in any given situation; you have the camera and the sound gear in people's faces and so forth. Is there any way to get around that; is there any way to get a "pure" documentary recording of a given event?
DAP: No, I don't think so and I wouldn't want to. I never try to pretend that we're not there. That would be Candid Camera. I don't care if people know I'm there and most of the time they understand very quickly what we want to film and what we want the film to do. They understand that we want to see what their lives are like, and really see it as it really happens. If they wanted to they could invent something false, but I doubt they could do it for long. In general, if they feel that we're trying to get kind of a picture of what it is they do as truthfully as we can, they can go with that. They know what a camera does as well as I do. They know how it's going to make them look and if they want to be self-conscious or nervous or do anything weird, that's their business. We might not in the end use it because it might seem to us irrelevant to what might be happening in that scene, but I would never try to stop them from doing anything. I let them figure it out.
AC: Your new film [with Chris Hegedus], Moon Over Broadway, follows a Broadway show from first rehearsals to opening night, and really exposes the backbiting and rabid hubris of showlife that goes on. How did this one come about?
DAP: Both Chris and I have been fascinated with Moss Hart's book, Acting Life, which is just one of the great American sagas about playlife. We'd been looking for plays for about two or three years, and we wanted to get access to something that was going to come to Broadway and we wanted to see it all the way through. One of our producers on The War Room - Wendy Ettinger - told us about this play with Carol Burnett, and that seemed to me a very real possibility for having some drama. And the worst that could happen is that we'd end up with a somewhat off-the-cuff version of the Carol Burnett show.
It had a quality of a person coming in to do something with people who do a different thing, you know? They're not the same kind of creatures, and we liked the idea of seeing that type of drama unfold behind the scenes on top of the thing itself. It ended up being very hard getting everyone to sign off on us so that we could come in and do what we had to do. I think the first two or three weeks we shot, the deal with SAG was that at the end of that period, if anybody, anybody in the crew felt that this was not what they wanted, we would burn the print. So we went into it with a lot of faith. As it ended up, everybody was terrific, but going in you had no way of knowing that.
AC: What next?
DAP: We're thinking about doing something with golf, with the qualifying round, which is what you have to get on to get anywhere else, and it's a killer. Everybody hates that. They don't get paid anything, they live in their cars, it's hateful. Out of a thousand who go into it, maybe 35 will succeed, and then the rest will go back home and try it again next year. I don't play golf, but a friend of ours got us to go down and watch some of this in Florida and it was kind of intriguing. What you see is a lot of human angst leaking out all over the green sod. That and the crocodiles coming to eat you. So we might end up doing that.
Moon Over Broadway opens at the Dobie Theatre on Friday, April 3.