Interview With Richard Leacock and D.A. Pennebaker

Susan Gerhard March 7, 2006

If direct cinema pioneers Richard Leacock and D.A. Pennebaker were primarily considered history’s witnesses, they would be tragically misunderstood. They’ve more often made history – literally creating those iconographic moments chiseled into our heads with their movable cameras and even more agile minds. The Bob Dylan of “Don’t Look Back,” the Bill Clinton of “The War Room,” the J.F.K. of “Primary” were invented, not just observed. I got a chance to sit down with these two still very active filmmakers (Pennebaker, age 81, and Leacock, now 84) on their visit to San Francisco to pick up an award from SF State’s Documentary Film Institute.

SF360: Why were we on the topic of poetry?

D.A. Pennebaker: It was the concept of entwining – I thought we were entwining here. We once did an entwining film – where we were each a thousand miles apart filming a person on a telephone, and at either station, there was no evidence that it was an interesting telephone call. And he [Leacock] patiently went through all of it, and put them together, and they were absolutely riveting when you got them together. That was “Crisis.” I didn’t know he was even on the phone down there.

Richard Leacock: He may have gone out to get coffee. He could have gone to take a piss. We had no idea of what the other one was doing, until two weeks later, when we had the film back from the lab, in New York. Synched it up, put it on two projectors. It turns out we had the whole fucking thing.

SF360: I was watching “Primary” last night. The sense of Kennedy in person is so potent. What was the aura that you got from him?

Leacock: To start with, I was an old ex-Communist – very ex at that point. I was slightly against Kennedy, because he was at that point, wanting madly to go to war with Vietnam. He said it in the film: ‘We can see the campfires of the enemy on yonder hill and blah blah blah.’ But Drew was madly in favor of Kennedy. Drew and I chased Kennedy all over the country, and we finally got him nailed down in Washington. And Drew explained that we wanted to make a film without intervention, seeing the decision-making process, which we never got, of course. He wanted Kennedy to agree to have me and just my camera alone to be present in his hotel suite when he and his gang listened to the election results. And Kennedy said, ‘Well, that’s a very personal situation and you could make me look foolish.’ And I said, ‘I think that would be rather foolish on my part.’ I said, ‘Essentially you have to believe in me the way you believe in your secretary or something.’ Besides, I said, ‘We both went to Harvard.’ At which point, he laughed, and said, you can assume that you can do it, if you don’t hear from the contrary. So we made the film, and that night I walked into room with just my camera and a tape recorder, nobody else. Nobody to take sound. And he had said, specifically, ‘No microphone booms, no tripods, no lights.’ Just me and my camera.

I picked a chair in the corner of the room, and I noticed that Kennedy sat in the same place all the time. So I went around behind his chair and put a little microphone in his ashtray and put a tape recorder behind his chair and reloaded it every twenty minutes and went and sat in my chair. Never got up, never asked anything. It’s very limited, but to me, it’s very fantastic. You see Mrs. Kenney get up and walk across the room [whispers:] ‘Hiiiii, Sherry.’ It’ll never happen again. It’s unique to be in that situation.

Pennebaker: It’s backstage, which is where you always would like to be. But often when you get there, the camera focuses people’s interest in themselves to such a degree, you’re not in a situation of their choosing, you’re in one that you’ve created and you don’t mean to.

SF360: When did the “ex” part of the Communist happen?

Leacock: Not until ’54. I got into a huge fight with one of the Hollywood Ten, [Herbert Biberman]…. As a communist, I had run a free school, Saturdays, in Harlem, to train black technicians to work in the film industry. It was the most practical film school ever run. It was huge fun. Do you know “Salt of the Earth?” Biberman was going to direct it. And it was a communist-sponsored film. The union had declared that anyone who worked on this film would be blacklisted. I had worked very hard getting these black film technicians into the union and into the industry. Biberman asked me to film the film. And I said, ‘OK, I’ll take my chances.’ He said, but the important thing is that I want you to convince the black people you’ve gotten into the industry to work on my film. I said absolutely no, I refuse to do that. I said it’s immoral. They wanted to make money, to make a living. We got into a big fight, and I broke my party discipline and told him to fuck off. And that was the end of the Communist party for me. It was a disgusting organization.

Pennebaker: This is very interesting to me. I never knew that.

Leacock: It was a big deal. And thank God – I was pretty late already. 55 or something.

Pennebaker: To break with the party then, did you have to write them a letter? Tear up your card?

Leacock: I just stopped going to meetings.

SF360: It’s interesting looking at the scenes in “Don’t Look Back,” and “The War Room,” you get the feeling that people, these performers, are being so candid. Re-watching “Don’t Look Back” footage in Scorsese’s new Dylan movie reminded me again of how intriguing Dylan was, how amazing your footage is, the ambiguity there.

Pennebaker: He’s interesting and people don’t know why. And that always creates a mysterious attraction. I think Lincoln was probably like that. He was so peculiar and so interesting to people – and they didn’t know why – so they kind of held on to him. He’s not the kind of person you’d expect to be made the president of the class. People like that interest me. There are certain people that have a kind of dominance. I saw a wolf thing on television the other day, where the alpha wolf, his brother, who was a bigger wolf – how that happened, nature alone can tell you – he was in constant supplication, lying down, begging for his life, and the alpha wolf paid barely any attention to him. Because that happens in people all the time. People manage to overlord a situation and they don’t even realize they’re doing it. They don’t have to think up how to do it. They just do it. Certain people have that. Drew had that. It took me a long time to figure it out. Drew in a room, everyone knew that that’s where the answer was going to come from. That was interesting to me.

SF360: There’s a moment in seeing your own creative process in your collaboration with Godard for “1 PM.”

Pennebaker: That was shot by Leacock’s son Robert – who was 15-16 at the time. Godard said he wanted a legal piece of film in case a problem comes up that shows us what we said. Robert said, ‘OK.’ When I saw that footage, the film had already been made. I thought, the problem with the film is that no one knows what Godard is up to. We need to get him on stage. So I took that piece of film and didn’t cut a frame out of it. It’s just the way he shot it. It has that look of a person completely not connected to filmmaking, particularly, but he had the camera. And he knew where the interest was. He knew we were all going to do something with it. And I stuck that in the front and it’s never come off.

SF360: The film – that was yours at that point in time?

Pennebaker: The problem was – we had a deal. Godard is like a somewhat unsuccessful bank robber who’s looking for the next gig. We had sort of talked about doing some abstract idea, where he would go to some little town and rig it up and have all kinds of things happen with actors or nonactors.

Leacock: He was a very naive, crude Marxist. And obscurantist. Loved to make things complicated.

Pennebaker: Ricky’s not a big fan. We were going to do this little town, and Ricky and I would arrive there at a pre-set date. Things would happen, and we would film. And the idea was: Could we film what he had intended us to see? We would not know what was going to happen. We would just film what we saw. And that didn’t ever happen. But when he came to the U.S., PBS had decided they wanted to do something with Godard, and they had promised some money…. Godard explains what he’s going to do. We all sit there absorbing it with good nature. We just sat and listened. By the end of that morning, we really didn’t know much more what was going to happen than we had before. But at least it was on film: His view of America was a very very goofy French Marxist view of capitalism. It was all going to turn into revolution over night. He kept saying, ‘We gotta hurry. The revolution is going to happen and we’re going to miss it.’

SF360: I was interested to hear about your experiences as a combat photographer, Ricky.

Leacock: It was a very good experience. I joined the army, and they wanted to make me a clerk. Seven weeks, and I was typing seven words a minute. They told me to get out of there, put me in the infantry. And I became a combat photographer. I had just become an American, so they loaned me to the British Army in Burma. And I spent a whole year walking through Burma going bang bang bang and filming. Silent filming – nothing organized, and I got to be goddamned good at it. And I ended up in China for the surrender of the Japanese to the Chinese. Came back, saw Mr. Flaherty in New York, and he hired me on “Louisiana Story.” And I was on my way.

SF360: Donn, tell me about the making of the 1954 short with your daughter, “Baby,” which was scripted, but became more of an observational film. Was it a lesson?

Pennebaker: It turned out to be a lesson. I have to admit I didn’t learn it right away. And subsequently to that, tried to make myself a cinematographer, or an art celebrant, by doing “Daybreak Express,” which was a technical feat as much as anything. It came off of my feelings about the music that I had been exposed to since I came to Chicago, my early days in Chicago. What I came to realize was that my education had not been at Yale as an engineer, it was all those records that had created a sensitivity in my head that I wanted to get into film. Having made it, I didn’t want to go that way. Originally I wanted to write novels – “This Side of Paradise.” And it became clear as I got well into this book I started, that it wasn’t there. I didn’t feel that I wasn’t talented enough, or couldn’t do it, but that the time had passed. It was the early ’50s, and my friend, Francis Thompson, brought this film over. I had this booth set up, where you could play records while you watched movies… We showed it there, just to see if it would work. He played Bartok, which blew me away. What got me was not so much the film, though I was taken right away with it. But what interested me was that he had done it all by himself. And that hit me. Before that, I didn’t know how movies were made. I thought they were made in factories somewhere. The idea that you could make a film the same way that you could paint a picture… and that was it.

SF360: At the other end of the spectrum, the 1989 film “Les oeufs a la coque de Richard Leacock.” What are two or three images in that film you loved particularly? Was it made as a cultural contrast between the America you left and the France you arrived at?

Leacock: We spent two or three years, the two of us (partner Valerie Lalonde), carrying around this ridiculous little camera that had no zoom. We never asked anybody to do anything. We carried the camera everywhere. If I went out to buy bread in the morning, I took the camera. Ludicrous things – had nothing to do with each other. Farmers fishing for trout. And we did his for a year. And never asking anyong to do anything. Never talking to them. Never getting their names, permissions. The only thing we did ask is we asked our friends to eat a soft-boiled egg. I think it’s a lovely film. A lot of people think it’s a stupid film…. Documentaries should be about ‘social problems.’ Well, to hell with that. They can take their social problems and go shove them. I don’t have favorite films, I don’t have favorite children. Depends. I love it all. And I love making movies. I’ve never done anything else, except cook.