Flies on the Wall With Attitude
Cinéma Vérité Pioneer Robert Drew on the Films He's Made and the Documentary Style He Helped Create
By Anne S. Lewis, Fri., Feb. 16, 2001
Robert Drew, at 77 and with 60 films in more than 40 years under his belt, is widely viewed as the father of American cinéma vérité, a style of documentary that emerged in the Sixties, throwing off what it viewed as the medicinal yoke of talking heads and narrators in favor of a spontaneous, observational approach, fueled -- always -- by the conviction that the truth reveals itself most when the filmmaker intrudes least. Of the original pantheon of cinéma vérité-ists (or direct cinema filmmakers, as they're often called), Drew is the third to bring his films to the Alamo Drafthouse, following colleagues D.A. Pennebaker and Al Maysles, who were both here last year.
Starting out as a Life magazine correspondent in the Fifties, Drew took a long look at the essence-capturing photo essays produced by the magazine's legendary cadre of still photographers and wondered why the motion-picture journalism of the time was so ham-handed by comparison. A terrific raconteur, Drew paints a vivid anecdotal picture, even over the telephone: "I was covering the breakup of the monopoly between GM and DuPont. A Life photographer and I walked into a Chicago courtroom to shoot what was happening. On one side of the courtroom there were 100 lawyers, including the head of the Bar Association -- every big-name lawyer was there on that side of the room. On the other side, there were only two lawyers, the government's lawyers, a man and a young woman. Right there, visually, you could see where the power lay. What happened that day was dramatic and interesting, and we got it all in still pictures. As we walked out at the end, there were all of the TV people lined up outside with their cameras, and as the lawyers filed out, they shouted, 'What happened in there?'" He laughs. "It was too overwhelmingly obvious that the TV people weren't in any way equipped to walk in the door and shoot what happened."
It didn't take a rocket scientist to realize that major impediments to any sort of fly-on-the-wall, candid camerawork were the cumbersome tools of the trade and the size of the crew. Drew would subsequently enable all the doc makers who came after him when he helped develop a camera that synced with the sound recorder using just one cable. With the necessary crew size reduced from eight to two, the doc-making process now had legs.
Next, Drew fixed his sights on that most traditional tool of the doc maker -- narration -- and shot Primary (1960), one of the two films he's bringing to the Alamo next week as part of the Austin Film Society's Texas Documentary Tour. With Maysles, Pennebaker, Richard Leacock, and two others behind lightweight, sync sound cameras, Drew shadowed, with the mike, the young patrician, matinee idol-esque, and Boston-accented John Kennedy and the "you betcha"-ing, Minnesota-accented Hubert Humphrey through the Wisconsin presidential primary. There's terrific footage of the doe-like Jackie, innocent, beautiful, adoring from afar of her husband (whom we never see so much as look at her). The camera zooms in on Jackie's white-gloved hands, nervously twisting behind her back, as she wows the Polish Catholic crowd with a few lines of perfectly inflected Polish. The film's signature scene in which the camera -- overhead -- follows Kennedy as he walks through this crush of Milwaukee supporters to deliver his campaign speech was revolutionary at the time. Today it's part of the cinematic lexicon.
Drew wasn't done with JFK; he would later gain permission to shoot Crisis: A Presidential Commitment (1963), a film documenting the showdown between the White House and George Wallace over the integration of the University of Alabama. And then later, all too soon, Drew was called to Washington by ABC News to film JFK's funeral. That short film, "Faces of November" (1963), which was never shown on television, will also be shown at the Alamo.
Austin Chronicle: Although 40 years later, Primary's candid, fly-on-the-wall, day-in-the-life-of filming feels familiar, in 1960, you were breaking new ground. How did you do it?
Robert Drew: I told John Kennedy that I was developing a new form of reporting, filmmaking reporting, and that the idea was to be with a subject throughout an experience and to render it just the way it happens and that he would be the first subject. I explained that for this to work, we'd have to be with him day and night for five days and shoot what happened -- the same with Humphrey. At the outset, JFK's chances were considered slim, and I didn't care if he won or not but knew it would be a great story. Kennedy asked if I was out to get him -- not in those words -- and I said, no, I planned to edit fairly and he'd just have to trust me or it wouldn't work. He said, "Well, if I don't call you tomorrow, we're on." He never called. We shot the film in five days, with four cameras working. Primary is the first film in which the sound camera got to move freely with the characters throughout a story. It broke all the molds and made new ones, and since then, the form, which is called cinéma vérité, or direct cinema, or whatever, has developed in many, many ways. And I get the blame.
AC: Did either candidate want to set any conditions or restrict access? Did they know what they were getting into?
RD: No, they didn't set any conditions. I had my own stipulations. If I thought someone was acting or posing, I would stop shooting, because I had to get what was real. That was never a problem because they were both politicians out to get votes and they weren't holding back, so we got the best of both. They might have been acting in terms of the audiences they were addressing but not in terms of us. The thing about Primary -- it's an old film, but people tell me that it rings fresh and true today because we weren't talking or narrating -- there wasn't three minutes of narration in the whole film.
I've dealt with a lot of politicians since then, and I think that what Kennedy had that others didn't was confidence in himself and in what he was doing. Dick Nixon would have been a completely different story. Actually, his people came to me and asked me to make his campaign film (when he was running against Rockefeller). I said the worst thing you could do for Nixon would have been to put a candid camera on him.
AC: There are some amazingly candid shots of Jackie -- who became so notoriously media-aversive later on. She seems so oblivious to the camera's presence. How close was the camera to her?
RD: The cameraman was about three feet from her. Once we were with them, the first hour, we became just part of the wallpaper. When we showed the completed film to JFK, after about five minutes, he hollered, "Hey, get Joe [his father] out here!" Nobody had ever seen anyone candidly this way. Jackie was amazed, too. After the screening, she came up to me -- and I hadn't realized that she was a very short woman -- so she was looking up into my eyes and asked, "Did you do that all by yourself?" in a kind of a baby voice, which kind of knocked me out because she was quite a beautiful woman.
AC: What were the circumstances behind the making of "Faces of November"?
RD: When Kennedy was assassinated, I got a call from the president of ABC News asking me to make "one of my kind of films" of the funeral. So we went to Washington with three crews and sat in a hotel lobby drinking a little bit, discussing what would be "our kind of film" of a funeral. We decided it would be not to look at the funeral but to look at the people attending the funeral, to look backward. The heart of that film was the faces of people passing the casket. Not one face but the fabric of all those faces, the succession of people and the emotion is what got me.
AC: Of course, at JFK's funeral you were just one of who-knows-how-many cameras, right?
RD: Yes, but no one did what we did. We started shooting at 3pm next to the casket. After an hour, I realized that I would stay there as long as people kept coming by. At 10pm, my cameraman gave out. I called New York, and they sent another cameraman who arrived at 1am. We shot on and on. No one could have made "Faces" without doing that. You could have gotten faces just by shooting for an hour, but to get that feeling, you had to shoot like we did.
AC: What is your underlying philosophy of documentary filmmaking?
RD: The subject must be communicating with the viewer. In most TV documentaries, there's an interlocutor, a reporter, a narrator-somebody who's telling you what you're seeing and what you should be taking away. I consider that to be death in a living medium like TV or motion pictures. If the logic of the film is coming from a lecture, it's boring; it's not if it's coming from the subject of the film. You have something like Cops, which is a trashy subject matter, but it's great TV because there's no narration, you just see what happens. That's an odd example, but my aim is to make films where you don't have to listen to what I write to see what's happening. Now Al Maysles and Pennebaker and others might disagree with me on how much narration is necessary in a film. I use narration where I think it is necessary, as a support.
AC: Is your objection to narration, or any intervention by the filmmaker, the interjection of subjectivity?
RD: No, it's just that it's boring. It's boring to listen to someone talk while something compelling is happening. If nothing compelling is happening, you shouldn't be there.
AC: You're not saying your filmmaking is objective are you?
RD: No, I'm avoiding the word "objective." Here's why: Good films have to be subjectively made -- the viewer has to be seeing them subjectively. If he's seeing it objectively, it won't work as film. So, if the viewer needs a subjective experience, then the filmmaker has to render a subjective experience -- something that's from the viewpoint of the filmmaker. My ambition with a film is [like Flaubert did in Madame Bovary] to take the viewer into a scene very economically, to evoke a scene, rather than describe it. The filmmaker's job is to tell a story, but he doesn't want to stand off and not be involved or have the camera on a pedestal that doesn't move. The camera must go with the action or the characters and to that extent, it's subjective.
AC: But it is the filmmaker's vision of what the story is, right?
RD: Yes, that's true in every film. Although, I would add that cinéma vérité is a big claim that probably can't be supported. But the "vérité" part of it, if you make a film the way we're talking about, it may not be the complete truth, but it's more true than any film that's gone before because you're relying on seeing what really happened.
AC: But it's still what the filmmaker considers to be what's really happening.
RD: Yes, yes. Here's an example. Take Fred Wiseman [Titicut Follies, High School, Public Housing]. He uses the same tools that we do, but, to me, he starts off with a premise that he's going to prove and generally, in the past, it's been that people or institutions are no damn good. I start off with a different premise -- it's that I'm going to see what happens and let people reveal themselves, but I'm not going to judge them in advance. So when you say that a film is a filmmaker's view, yes, that's true, but in the kind of films I treasure, a lot of that opinion or view comes from the characters in the scene instead of from the filmmaker. If the story is well-told, the viewer won't have any trouble forming his own opinion and being right. In Primary, for instance, I got lots of calls from JFK supporters saying, "Boy, you sure slaughtered Humphrey," and vice versa. For me, that was perfect. I wanted people to look and see what they saw.
AC: Have the filmmakers that have followed in your footsteps remained true to your original concept of cinéma vérité?
RD: Cinéma vérité that doesn't work is something else. It may seem laughable, but I think Wiseman's films don't work. He's got money and audiences and so forth, but if you look at one of his films, it's kind of hard to look at it all the way through and come away with something -- with feeling. Others who are starting out today to do cinéma vérité don't know not to pose or direct or even light if you can help it. There are people who think they can direct and still get reality. It won't work. You won't get great films that way. I was photographing someone once in a doorway, and light was coming through this doorway, but this person was not standing in the light, and he was saying important things, but I would not ask him to move a foot to get into the light because once you start directing, you have to direct always. People start looking to you for what they should be doing. I'm talking about what can go wrong with cinéma vérité, but a lot of stuff has gone right, and there's good cinéma vérité today.
AC: What have you liked?
RD: I thought Pennebaker's War Room was good. I think Cops is good, for what it is. One of best films ever made was A Lady Named Baby, about a 300 lb. woman who begged outside of Bloomingdales. I've made about 60 films, and maybe 40 are really good. Maysles' film Salesman was good. It was never a crowd pleaser, but it was a good film. Oh, and Susan Frömke, Maysles' associate -- it's getting harder to distinguish between who did what -- but they did a film about Rostrapovich's return to Russia that I thought was just glorious [Soldiers of Music].
AC: And what recent cinéma vérité have you not liked?
RD: Two big series on PBS, one about a farmer's wife which was really bad, because it was so verbal -- talk, talk, talk, or have the characters talk, talk, talk. It was so posed that they had scenes with people in bed exchanging pillow talk -- that was well-lit! This filmmaker was making his dream. He wasn't conveying their story as perfectly and directly as he could. They switched over to a verbal logic in the directing of the movie, and this has bad effects. As far as An American Love Story [Jennifer Fox's documentary about an interracial couple], I think it was atrocious. She lit every scene, including bedroom and living room scenes. She thinks you can light and direct. I find the work intermittently interesting but mostly boring. So these are two people who do not represent my offspring.
AC: Was the film doomed because Fox moved into her subject's apartment? How would you have done An American Love Story?
RD: No, it depends on how you move in. If you move in and say, "Look, I'm making this film, and I want your cooperation, and I want you to contribute, and I'm going to light the place and tell you what I want." You do that, and you're never going to get a film. You'll get what she got. I would have moved in and not asked for their cooperation or showed them the rushes, or consulted with them and not have lit or directed. I would simply have gone with whatever happened in their lives and then composed it and made a film out of it. I seem to be complaining about those who have been successful, but I think it's too bad, because I think lots of young people will take their cues from these.
If Maysles or Leacock or I had done this film, we would have photographed the whole thing without lights or direction and would have gotten a depth and character that would have made you cry or laugh. This lady never made you cry.
AC: What are you working on these days?
RD: A project called War Story. Every film I've made has been about something happening to someone else. War Story is about me, my experiences in WWII, my squadron, my family, and Ernie Pyle, who was involved with us.
I've probably been too negative about some filmmakers, here.
(Post Script: I must say that it gets fun, sitting here in the catbird seat, when a little point/counterpoint sparks up between the filmmakers who come to Austin for the Documentary Tour. Curiously, it's been the cinéma vérité [dare I dub them "-istas?"] bunch -- those with the most understated styles and least-evident screen presences -- who've been the provocateurs, the ones with the strongest opinions, often at cross-bows with each other, about the most legitimate way to capture the "truth" on film. See the Q&A with Al Maysles, Feb. 11, 2000, online at austinchronicle.com/issues/dispatch/2000-02-11/screens_feature.html for further evidence. Note to Fred Wiseman: You really need to get down here.)
Primary and "Faces of November" will be presented as part of the Texas Documentary Tour on Wednesday, Feb. 21, 7:30 & 9:30pm, at the Alamo Drafthouse, 409 Colorado. Filmmaker Robert Drew will introduce the film and conduct a Q&A session following the screening. Advance tickets are available for Austin Film Society members only by calling 322-0145. Tickets will go on sale at 6:15pm on the day of the show. Admission prices are $6 per show for the general public; $4 for Austin Film Society and KLRU members and students. The Texas Documentary Tour is a co-presentation of the Austin Film Society, the University of Texas RTF Dept., The Austin Chronicle, KLRU-TV, and SXSW Film.