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Remembering Oscar-Winning Documentary Filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker


This is FRESH AIR. We're going to listen back to an interview with one of America's foremost documentary filmmakers, D.A. Pennebaker. He died last Thursday at age 94. When presenting Pennebaker with an Oscar for lifetime achievement in 2012, Michael Moore called him one of the filmmakers who, quote, "invented nothing less than the modern documentary," unquote. Pennebaker was a pioneer in creating the documentary form known as cinema verite, which did away with scripting, narration and staged scenes.

His political documentaries included the 1993 film "The War Room" about Bill Clinton's presidential campaign. It was nominated for an Oscar. Pennebaker edited the groundbreaking 1960 documentary "Primary" about the primary race between John Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey. He's best known for his music documentaries. He captured the making of the original cast album of Stephen Sondheim's musical "Company." In the film "Don't Look Back," he captured Bob Dylan's first tour of England in 1965. He made a film about David Bowie's final concert performing as his Ziggy Stardust character. And in his film "Monterey Pop," he captured Jimi Hendrix setting his guitar on fire. I spoke with Pennebaker in 1989.


GROSS: Where were you during "Monterey Pop"? Were you behind one of the cameras?

D A PENNEBAKER: I was on stage most of the time, partly because Bob Neuwirth, who kind of represented our stage direction, if there was such a thing - that is, he had a red light that he could turn on and off. And the red light meant that when the red light was on, all the filmmakers were encouraged to film if they had film in their cameras or could see anything. It didn't mean they necessarily had to. And in fact, if it weren't on, they could still shoot. There were no rules that strongly. But when someone like Hendrix or Otis came on, even though our general strategy was to shoot one song with each performer because there were so many performers and we would've run out of film somewhere early in the game if we just, you know, shot our whims away - but that each performer, when he came up, Bob would kind of decide which song, and I would sort of be there to kind of just hear myself what we were doing. I would pretty much let him be the judge of what to do.

But in somebody like - the minute Hendrix started the play, we were all - I mean, I was somewhat bemused because Hendrix walked out on stage chewing gum - it looked like he was chewing gum - and totally disconnected. And it did not seem to me - I mean, I didn't know much about him. I had heard that he set himself on fire, which didn't seem to me a very heavy musical aspiration. But we kind of watched, and I think somewhere about three seconds into the first song, Neuwirth and I sort of - I just looked over there, and the red light was on, and it never went off.


JIMI HENDRIX: (Playing guitar). Yeah, what I say now? Hey. (Playing guitar).

Yes, as I said before, it's really groovy. I'm about to bore you for about six or seven minutes to do a little thing here. Yeah, you have to excuse me for a minute. Just let me play my guitar, all right? Right now I'm about to do a little thing by Bob Dylan. That's his grandma over there. It's a little thing called "Like A Rolling Stone." (Singing, playing guitar) Once upon a time, you dressed so fine. You threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn't you? People call, say, beware, doll. You're bound to fall. You thought they all were a-kiddin' you.

GROSS: When you look back at how you shot the "Monterey Pop" film, what do you think you'd do differently now from then?

PENNEBAKER: Not much. I'd probably do it the same way - no directing. I'd get people that I really liked, and I'd let them go their own way - I mean, whose work I liked and who I knew were filmmakers - and let them figure it out themselves. I think that's the strongest way you can film.

GROSS: Let's talk a little bit about "Don't Look Back," your movie about Bob Dylan, about his British tour in 1965. I believe that you did this film because Albert Grossman, who was Dylan's manager at the time, suggested that you accompany them on the tour and shoot the movie. What kind of agreement, if any, did you have about what you'd be allowed to shoot and what would remain off camera?

PENNEBAKER: There was no agreement or arrangement. It was really just a handshake. And I think that that's fair enough. I think that although there was nothing on paper, I think there was a kind of conceptual - well, I don't know. It's like a gravitational rule that held - and that I could do almost anything I wanted, but I had to be prepared that if, in some way - I don't know - I did something - and I'm not sure what it would've been - that, in fact, was really lame or that didn't appeal to everyone - that the entire thing could collapse instantly. In other words, I was there under a kind of peculiar rule that was only understood, but it was never actually laid out. And I think to this day, neither Dylan nor I have any idea what it really consisted of. But it was a real kind of force that controlled what we both did.

GROSS: Well, it's a fascinating film to look at, especially from the vantage point of over 20 years later. And one other thing that's so interesting is that you see Dylan outside of the performance mode. He actually comes off as pretty arrogant in a lot of the movie. And I want to play a brief clip from the film.


GROSS: And this is an encounter that he had with a reporter from Time magazine. The reporter wanted to do a story on him, and Dylan's explaining that he really has no interest in Time or this reporter.


BOB DYLAN: Are you going to see the concert tonight?


DYLAN: Are you going to hear it? OK. You hear it and see it. And it's going to happen fast. And you're not going to get it all. And you might even hear the wrong words, you know? And then afterwards - I won't be able to talk to you afterwards. I got nothing to say about these things I write. I just write them. I'm not going to say anything about them. I don't write them for any reason. There's no great message. If, you know, you want to tell other people that, go ahead and tell them. But I'm not going to have to answer to it. And they're just going to think, you know, what's this Time magazine telling us? But you couldn't care less about that, either. You don't know that people that read you 'cause, you know, I've never been in Time magazine. And yet this hall's filled twice. I've never been in Time magazine. I don't need Time magazine. And I don't think I'm a folk singer. You'll probably call me a folk singer. But, you know, the other people know better is the people, you know, that buy my records, listen to me don't necessarily read Time magazine.

GROSS: That's Bob Dylan talking to the reporter from Time. Now, he might be right about how the Time magazine reporter would've totally misinterpreted what was happening. But he treats him with real contempt in that scene that we were hearing. Did he ever regret, do you think, being captured in that way on camera?

PENNEBAKER: Well, I don't know. Dylan's very mercurial. What he feels in the morning he may well not feel by the afternoon. And I know that there's some things in that movie because he's been after me for years to take them out. That's not one of them. You see him as being overbearing and, in a sense, making use of his peremptorial (ph) position to put down the Time writer, whom I knew. But in the end, he kind of laid back off him in a way that I thought was very - I think he took the curse out of the thing. And I think that the reporter felt that. It was a strange - it's a way that Dylan had of coming down - being extremely abusive and then just, almost as if by comparison, pulling back. And the person felt like it was really not aimed at him. It was aimed at something else. And it missed him - and felt kind of a sense of relief. And I think that that's - I know because I read his story that he filed. I have a copy of it, in fact. And it has absolutely in it no vindictiveness toward Dylan.

GROSS: Can I ask which scenes Dylan wanted to take out of the film?

PENNEBAKER: Oh, the haranguing in the hotel room, with everybody screaming and yelling and the - about the glass being thrown out the window. And it's just because he hated the idea of being seen in that kind of a situation, I guess. Or - I don't know. See. I don't think he had the slightest idea of how that film would look when we began. And what he wanted to do - in a way, he hoped to get something out of it, too. He wanted to find out if you could make a movie by yourself because that's the way he did music. That's the way he did everything. And he didn't want to go to Warner Bros. and be cast in the Bob Dylan film the way, you know, Elvis had. So he was looking at - to see if there was some other option.

And I'm not sure, you know, that that's the movie he would have made. But in the end, he recognized that it was a movie. He was enough of a dramatist, enough of a whatever it is that looks at movies to see that it did work, that it would catch an audience interest. And it was about him in some way. But it's - the same time, he felt ripped off, as you as you would or anyone would, in that his life had sort of been used without his total permission. But that's what's required. That's why it's hard to make. So I don't - you know, again, I'm not trying to explain anything. I feel in the movie all I can do is to sit in a corner of a room and show you what it would be like if you were sitting in the corner of the room. And I don't really have much advantage over you. I don't know anything you don't know.

GROSS: We're listening to my 1989 interview with documentary filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker. He died last week at the age of 94. We'll hear more of my interview after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my 1989 interview with documentary filmmaker Donn Pennebaker. He died last week.


GROSS: When you first started making documentaries, it was essential to have camera equipment that made it possible to follow people around and to be as unintrusive (ph) as possible. I think you contributed a lot to redesigning camera equipment to make it more portable.

PENNEBAKER: Well, we had to. You know, in World War II, which was supposedly the war about which (laughter) all the movies were being made, the only cameras were 35-millimeter hand-wound cameras that would run about 18 seconds - the Eyemos, the Bell & Howell Eyemo. And that meant that in the end, almost all the films that you'll ever see about World War II are fake films. Any cannon is - looks like the cannon you need. Any bomb bursting is the bomb you need. So in a way, it's put together like Hollywood movies are.

No - there's very little continuity of reality, except for one film, which was made on a carrier. And that they made with 16-millimeter. They were able to use long runs, 400-foot rolls so they could have 10-minute runs. And while it has no sound, it has the realest feeling you ever saw in a movie of that period. And it stuns you. And it hit me when I saw that film that that's the way real life could be recorded, with long runs.

But you had to get out of the studio. You had to get away from things to plug in. You had to find ways of getting sync sound in a desert or in an opera or any place interchangeably. You couldn't have a special solution for each movie. You had to have a general solution for anything you decided to do that morning.

GROSS: So you designed what to make this more possible?

PENNEBAKER: Well, we designed a camera that you could hold on your shoulder and only ran - mine eventually ran less than two or three watts to run. It's still less than most cameras that you can buy. And you could look through it. You could turn it on. It would lock into sync. So when you played it back, it would play back in real time.

And we did work on many aspects, lights, the Nagras - we worked with Kudelski on the Nagra - to develop something that was also portable. I think, in the beginning, we put clocks on everything. We had clock cameras and clock recorders because we were using the Bulova Accutron watch, which was fairly accurate. And by using that to trigger the motor in the camera and the motor on the tape or record a single tape, we were able to lock them together and make them sync up.

GROSS: There must be a moment in your career when you think back and think to yourself, why wasn't the camera running when that happened?

PENNEBAKER: No, because if you get that way, you get a little - you can get suicidal (laughter) because, you know, you keep wanting to have people go back and come through the door again or do something or say something that just seemed to you fantastic. And you just learned to not listen to that or to let it happen because sooner or later, what you know is that people will do everything over and over again. They always do it over and over again.

And they know what they're doing. They're watching you. They're watching you as much as you're watching them. And they want you to get their lives. They really want you to do it. It worked with Kennedy that way. It's worked with - I mean, Kennedy had to sneak us in the back of the White House because he wanted us to make that film. And it happens over and over again.

So you begin to not worry about that. That's the wrong thing to worry about. You worry about - I don't know what - you worry about everything. You worry about whether you have enough film, and you're going to get it processed. And - but you don't worry about what you don't get because you - in the end, you know you're going to miss 90% anyhow. I mean, movies are made with 10% of what happened. But that's better than no percent, which is what generally people get.

GROSS: Documentary filmmaker Donn Pennebaker, recorded in 1989. He died Thursday. He was 94. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be New Yorker staff writer Jia Tolentino. In her new collection of essays, she writes about feminism, social media, growing up in a Southern Baptist megachurch and why she left the Peace Corps before her time was up. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.


Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.
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