Master Builders

How documentarians D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus find drama
by David Schwartz  posted April 26, 2010
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This article is part of a series of interviews with leading filmmakers and craftspeople, made possible with special support by the Academy Foundation of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The Academy series has so far featured Q&A;'s with director Noah Baumbach, production designer Rick Carter, composer Carter Burwell, and cinematographer Harris Savides.

D. A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus will be the subject of a comprehensive retrospective at Museum of the Moving Image in 2011. Kings of Pastry will open at Film Forum in Fall 2010.

D. A. Pennebaker's riveting, rarely shown documentary Jane (1962) follows Jane Fonda from rehearsal through opening—and closing—night of the Broadway flop The Fun Couple. The backstage scenes of Fonda and her director and then-boyfriend Andreas Voutsinas give us a privileged view of their collaborative process. But Pennebaker deftly adds a layer of drama by also following theater critic Walter Kerr; we're with him as he rushes to the New York Herald Tribune office to pound out his merciless pan. And then we're in the dressing room with Fonda, as she clutches the newspaper and gamely reads the withering review aloud. Pennebaker's camerawork and editing have turned a slice of life into a moment of theater more powerful than anything seen on stage that night.

Jane had a profound impact on a young aspiring filmmaker, Chris Hegedus. She was inspired not just by the subject, but by the filmmaking. Hegedus saw that with small crews and real-life subjects, documentaries offered women a chance to make feature-length movies; at the time, there were literally no women directors working in Hollywood.

Hegedus and Pennebaker started working together in the late 1970s, on the five-hour film The Energy War, about the 18-month fight in Congress over Jimmy Carter's energy bill. With films like The War Room, Startup.Com (produced by Pennebaker and directed by Hegedus and Jehane Noujaim), and their latest, Kings of Pastry, they have been keeping alive the tradition of cinéma vérité, which Pennebaker helped establish, first as a cameraman filming John Kennedy on the campaign trail and in the White House in Primary and Crisis: Behind a Presidenital Commitment. Pennebaker then pioneered the rock documentary with Don't Look Back and Monterey Pop.

Eschewing talking-head interviews, narration, and the certainty of hindsight, Pennebaker's and Hegedus's capture creativity and history in the making. Their quicksilver films are often bold gambles: drawn to a subject, they start shooting at the beginning of a process, without the comfort of knowing what the outcome will be.

Whether filming rehearsals of a Broadway show, a longshot presidential campaign, the creation of an Internet startup, or an intense French pastry competition, there is a common thread to their work. They are interested in people who try to build something from nothing; they capture the spark of the original idea, and then the collision between the idea and reality. As Pennebaker explains below, he thinks of his films as plays; his specific model is Henrik Ibsen's 1892 play The Master Builder, about a brilliant but stubborn architect who dreams of building "castles in the air."

In Kings of Pastry, the stakes are not as monumental as a presidential campaign. We watch a small group of pastry chefs compete for supremacy in a grueling three-day competition. But the subject is the same: the intensity of the creative process. After watching a number of Pennebaker-Hegedus films, one realizes that there is a reflexive element to the movies; like the people they are filming, they are undertaking a painstaking, entrepreneurial creative process that is both risky and rewarding.

In a breathtaking moment in Kings of Pastry that they capture with devastating directness, a chef drops an elaborate sugar sculpture. Yes, it's just a sugar sculpture, but within the film's riveting narrative flow (which is gracefully lightened by a bouncy Django Reinhardt music), the moment is almost as powerful as Solness's death plunge from his "castle in the air" at the end of The Master Builder.

There is an affecting scene in your new film Kings of Pastry is the one where a chef drops his sugar sculpture.

Pennebaker: That's the scene people remember. Everything comes together: the music, the crash, everything.

Hegedus: I shot that scene. It was Penny, Nick Doob, and me all shooting in three different kitchens. We would alternate in different kitchens, because we all wanted to be with Jacquy Pfeiffer, but I happened to be in the kitchen when the crash happened. We were the first people ever allowed to witness the MOF (Meilleur Ouvrier de France) pastry competition. Not even to film it, but just to see it. So they were extremely nervous about us being there. On the final day of the competition, they told us, "We're going to draw a three-foot box at the end of the long table where the chefs are working in each room, and that's where you can be. You cannot step outside of that box." The room was loaded with judges and jury people peeking over every chef. And they were watching us like hawks. I was stuck in this little box to film, which was really hard. it was one of the most exhausting things that we've filmed. You don't know what's going to happen. So you're just filming, filming, filming, hand-held, and the chef walked in with his large sculpture and, you know, it came down. But I didn't know if I got it. I knew I saw it, but because there was a chef in front of him with a tall white hat on, I wasn't really quite sure what I got. I kept shooting the entire sequence that happened and all the emotions that happened after it. But then once the kitchen emptied, I actually went in the ladies room and put that tape in and wound it back and looked to see if I got it, because I just wasn't really even sure what I got on camera, it happened so quickly!

It might be exhausting because, unlike a concert film, you don't know where the action's going to come.

Pennebaker: Right, there doesn't appear to be any action. They're all just cooking. So after a while, you think, "What should I shoot? Who's doing what?" It's like shooting a tennis match where somebody says, "Be sure to get the good shot." What's the good shot? You don't have any idea. So you tend to shoot everything.

How did you get the access that you needed?

Hegedus: We had our producer, Flora [Lazar], with us who spoke French. Flora had previously arranged most of our access but it wasn't until the day before the competition that we negotiated the final filming rules. Our assistant producer [Patricia Soussloff], who's very attractive, and a French-speaking friend named Susan decided to come over to France see the final buffet displays so we brought them to this meeting. The only word Flora could think of to describe Susan was Head of the Board of Directors of our company. You've seen our company: it's Penny, Frazer and me! But they thought, wow, she's really important. Penny and I were pretty much ignored. It was because of the three of them that the MOF decided to trust us and give us access.

There's a way in which your films are like self-portraits. In Kings of Pastry, you're using a painstaking artistic process to film people who are undertaking an incredibly painstaking process.

Hegedus: I thought of that aspect very much when I was editing. There were a few goals that I had for this film. One was that Penny and I would make a film again, because we hadn't been on a film adventure for a bit. And that I could shoot it myself. And finally that I could learn to use Final Cut as an editing system, which was one of the most trying things I've done. It's really like riding a bike backwards, because I'd edited for a couple decades on a Steenbeck [flatbed editing machine], and then used Avid [non-linear editing system] for another 10 or 15 years. So now I was learning a new computer program, and I found it incredibly challenging. It did remind me a lot of the creative process that I was filming.

Pennebaker: It's our sugar sculpture. Early in my career I worked with a filmmaker named Francis Thompson; he needed somebody to drive the car, which is what I did for a while, and I got drawn into what he was doing. He was an artist first. He almost didn't care whether his film won a prize or got shown. The doing of it was totally self-satisfying for him. He would watch variations of these distortions that he had figured out how to do with the camera. From that early experience, the concept of just watching was rooted in me. It seemed to me that the movie camera was most useful as a watching tool, and if you watched people who knew how to do something, you learned something. I've tried to do that with every film since. Sometimes, we've tried to contrive stuff. Occasionally, we've even said, "Let's do a film on such-and-such," and it's always turned out not to work out very well.

You're watching someone else's process.

Pennebaker: Yes, and these people know something about it that we don't know. And the camera, it's like cats' eyes; it just looks. That's our process of shooting the film. We keep saying if only we were doing fiction, we could have people do what we tell them and we wouldn't have to wait till it happens. The fact is that watching people do what they want to do is more interesting than trying to watch them do what you want them to do. Because you really don't know what you want them to do.

It also can lead to situations where you don't know what the outcome's going to be. To push this analogy between what you're doing as filmmakers and what you're filming, is about two friends who start a company; they have high hopes but don't know the outcome. When you commit to doing a film, you don't know what's going to happen. It's thrilling to see scenes like the one in, where the founders meet with Highland Capital Partners, and it's clear that they're just not prepared.

Hegedus: With, we were riding this wave that was happening in the beginning of the Internet. I started by actually filming with these venture capitalists; they were my contact first. And I was watching young entrepreneurs come in and pitch their stories. They'd come in and pitch some really stupid idea, and they'd go out with a million dollars.

It was mind-boggling. Eventually, we had a connection to Kaleil [Tuzman] and Tom [Herman] at We were hoping that our venture capitalists would give them a million dollars and we'd have the two sides of the story, the financial side and the entrepreneurial side. But unfortunately, the GovWorks idea was turned down. We thought, all right, now what do we do? We started following the entrepreneurs and their story; they were more at risk. Eventually, they latched onto Highland Capital in Boston. It was an extremely exciting moment for them. We flew up with them and went through the process. And you could see that they were totally green, that they didn't know what they were doing. They were way over their heads, basically. Although Kaleil was just such a charismatic figure. I love the moment when the Highland Capital financier pushes him on something, and he says something like, "Well, I'm thorough." I think he was maybe 26 years old, and he was really standing his ground with them. The process was interesting to watch. We thought we'd be making a film about them becoming millionaires and we'd end up seeing them at their mansions in their pools. We had no idea that we would be following this wave that would eventually crash. Although I think for me, because I'm so much older than they were, it just seemed like such an unreal situation. There were always the doomsayers that were saying, "This is going to crash, this is going to crash." And I think I fell more with them.

Pennebaker: We might not have been able to do the film if the wave hadn't crashed. Because they were starting to get locked up by the money, and the entrée that we had was sort of disappearing. The people who had the money really didn't want people around snooping on them. So in a way, the crash was what made that film finally come to an end.

Hegedus: I think that what is interesting about Startup is that it is about a broad historical moment, but it's really a story about friendship, and about deciding what to do, to go with your company or go with your friend. It was very hard to film because we spent a long time making it, and we became good friends with Tom and Kaleil. And you feel very protective of them. I admired both of them. I mean, they were young and taking on huge gambles. So when you were watching it unravel, you wanted to kind of speak up and say, but Tom, this; or you know, Kaleil, that. But you can't, because you don't know all the ins and outs of the situation. So you have to just film and watch and see what happens.

You establish this intimacy with them, and you're seeing them go through really rough moments. As a viewer, you wonder whether they are uncomfortable with being filmed.

Pennebaker: I don't think so. People always wonder about this, and you have to think about it. We only had one case, during The Energy War, where somebody came to us, and he'd said some things he shouldn't have said in a sort of exuberant moment. He was a Kennedy aide. He told us, "You know, if that appears in the film, I'll get fired." And I remember thinking, well, of course, we wouldn't want to get you fired. It isn't worth it. Film isn't worth that, you know? But we were stuck between PBS and CPB [The Corporation for Public Broadcasting], and we were told that if we took it out, we would have to put a disclaimer saying that lines were taken out, which was horrifying to us. That was the worst thing we could do. And we kept thinking we could fix it, but in the end we had to have two versions. We had a version that went on the air and a version that we kept for our own use, which didn't have the disclaimer. I remember thinking at the time that I never thought this would really happen to us.

Hegedus: I think that Tom and Kaleil probably had in the back of their minds, "Uh-oh, this isn't exactly the story that we thought we'd be doing here." Both of them felt so strongly about their positions. Tom really thought he was right and virtuous. And I think Kaleil felt he was right. It was really difficult showing the film to Tom afterwards because the event in the end did become very painful for him. He felt like he got kicked out of the company because he was inadequate. Which isn't necessarily the case, but it's the type of thing that one reads into a situation. I think Tom was very brave, and you have to really respect people who let you into their lives, who give their blessing to put the film out because they feel it was true to the circumstance

Another time we really had that very strongly was when we did Moon Over Broadway, with Ken Ludwig, who is a well-known playwright. The reviews for Moon Over Broadway were not the best, in part because it was a farce. It played on Broadway for nine or 10 months, and then around the world, so financially it was a success. But in our film, it shows that they didn't really like the writing of the play. So Ken watched it with us and he said, "Can we turn this off?" And we had to plead with him: "No, Ken, please, watch it to the end." His wife was there. He said, "I look like a nerd." And she said, "No, you just like your normal self." But he went along with it, finally, because he said, you know, "I love the theater." Actually, his play Lend Me a Tenor, which is about the theater, is on Broadway now. And he's told us, "It's the subject of my plays, it's the subject of Moon Over Broadway. And I think that your film captures it like it really is. And even though it's painful for me, I've never seen a film like this."

You have to get people to let their guards down, in a way. There's a scene in The War Room in which George Stephanopoulos is on the phone with a reporter, and he's threatening him, and you see all the tactics he uses to get his way. He's let his guard down, and you know he's showing his tricks. It's an amazing moment.

Hegedus: But he's also feeling pretty confident. He thinks he's going to win. That's kind of the gist of the problem of being a documentary filmmaker: they love you when things are going good, but they don't like you so well when things are going bad. In almost every other film that we've done, when things get hard, they don't want you to be at their parties. And that's a very challenging time for a filmmaker.

Pennebaker: With The War Room, two people had come to us and said, "Why aren't you filming this election?" We said, "Well, we don't have the money and we don't have any entrée." And they said, "Well, we can get you a little money and we can get you entrée." And we thought we were going to make a film with Bill Clinton, a man who was maybe going to be president, and watch him become president. That seemed like a fundable and reasonable thing to do. We fell, by accident almost, onto the only way you can do that film. Because had we tried to make a film with Clinton, it wouldn't have worked. Anybody who has to present themselves publicly has got to be very careful about what they say to anybody in the film.

In a campaign now, the behind-the-scenes people are used to being filmed. I don't think you're going to find David Axelrod or David Plouffe letting their guards down in the same way.

Pennebaker: There has to be some theater going on. And that's what you get with people that can throw it away. That was the thing about Kennedy. Kennedy was one of the few people who was in a total position of power. Both Kennedys actually, Bobby and Jack. Jack was so arrogant that he didn't give a shit what you showed. And as long as he knew I wasn't filming him for the 6:30 news, it was okay. That's all they think about in the White House because they're under siege. But he would let me film things that normally you wouldn't get to film with a president. There was the morning where he was on the phone. I came in and I had my camera, and Jack was on the phone, so I started to film him. He looked up, and he didn't smile, and he went back to talking. And he was saying, "Yes, Mrs. Auchincloss. No, Mrs. Auchincloss. You're right, Mrs. Auchincloss." And I kept filming. And I started to smile because I knew that was his mother-in-law. It turned out he was getting bawled out because the chef had quit. He finally put the phone down, and he looked at me and said, "Oh, boy." And I thought, now, that's the kind of thing—that's drama, of sorts. And most people would never let you film that. But he didn't care.

Another time, I was at the UN, doing a film with Lester Pearson, the Prime Minister of Canada. Jack knew him and offered him a ride, and I was with Pearson, so Jack said, "You don't mind if he comes?" Pearson said, "No, no, he's been filming me for a couple of weeks." So I got in the front seat of the car, filming back, and Jack and Pearson rode down, and Kennedy was using the most incredible four-letter words you ever could imagine. And I was filming him. Afterward, Pearson said, "I can't believe he let you film him doing that." And I said, "Well, he does it because he knows there's no way to use it."

That was something that's interesting about him. He was smart, and most presidents don't want to be smart. Smart doesn't help them. They need to be liked and have their connections. And anything you film that might disrupt that, you're not going to get to do. But Kennedy knew that I was not connected with a network. He figured we were a couple of loners, you know? And he loved the idea of history; that's why he let us do Crisis. He'd always said the one piece of film he'd loved to have seen—although it was never shot—was when Roosevelt had to declare war on Japan. He said, "I just would love to have been there in that hour." And that's why he let us film almost anything he did.

Another scene that I think of where you capture somebody struggling is Elaine Stritch in Company. She's trying to record "The Ladies Who Lunch," and just seeing her struggle with it so much is a great moment, and so intimate. You're really close in, and the camera is running.

Pennebaker: It was sort of curious because you only got one chance, and I was filming with a camera that was sort of noisy. I remember the man who was running that recording session said, "If I hear one camera, you're out. I don't care what the situation is or who loves you, you're out, because I've got to make this recording." There were mics all around me, and I had no idea which ones were live and which weren't. And I was moving around, because it was such a moving performance that she did. I was really stunned by it. I thought, I've just got to do this in some way that works for it. I can't just stand in one place and shoot it. In my head, I was trying to make it what I knew that she was trying to make it, but I was trying to do it with the camera. It was hard. I still remember mic stands all around me, thinking I'm going to knock one over.

Another aspect of your films is that you often develop narrative throughlines. In Don't Look Back, you have a rivalry between Bob Dylan and Donovan, and the film culminates in a scene where Dylan performs "Baby Blue." He blows Donovan away, and it's so devastating to watch Donovan's reaction and to see that performance.

Pennebaker: We talked with Donovan about that. Somebody asked him, "Well, were your feelings hurt when you saw that film?" And he said, "Well, not really, because I was much better known and a much bigger star in London at that point than Dylan was. I had three hit records out. Everybody knew me. I was doing concerts." I don't know how it happened, but when we were first in Dylan's hotel room, Donovan came up. He had his guitar and he took it out and he started to play something for Dylan. And-we couldn't believe it—he played "Mr. Tambourine Man." But it wasn't "Mr. Tambourine Man"; it was the same tune, but he made up different words. And Dylan never cracked. He sat there and listened, and he didn't smile or say anything, he just listened. We were really having trouble not cracking up because it didn't seem like he was doing it as a joke, he was totally reverent to Dylan. And later, Dylan said, "You know, it's true I haven't always written my own songs. I've used other songs. But," he said, "That was one that I did write." And Donovan said, "What?" Dylan said, "Yeah, that's one of my own songs." And Donovan said, "Oh, I thought it was an old folk song. I heard you play it, and I just rewrote some words to it." And Dylan said, "Well, it's pretty good." It was a funny situation, and Dylan was very gentle. He liked Donovan, and Donovan knew that. I would catch Dylan sometimes, when nobody was watching, doing a needle drop on one of Donovan's records, because he dug the lyrics. Later, when we were doing all the signs in the alley for "Subterranean Homesick Blues," Donovan helped and did a lot of them. He was a terrific drawer. So did Joan Baez. We all had to do them because there were just hundreds to do.

At one point, after we had gotten the film cut and there was a 16mm print of it, Dylan saw it. He was up at Bearsville and he called me up. He said, "I've just looked at the film, and you know the scene where I'm playing the piano?" In that scene, someone is sitting there next to him, and you don't know whether they're asleep or not. The light's coming in, and Dylan's banging away on the piano. I thought some people might resist his somewhat insensitive piano playing. The film was not just for Dylan fanatics, so I had cut that scene a little. And Dylan said, "I wanted to ask you a question about that scene. Have you ever filmed a person writing a song before?" And I said, "No, I guess not." He said, "Uh-huh." And that was it. So I put it all back in. That was as close as we ever got to discussing a change in the film. And he was quite right. At the time, I didn't understand how moving an image that was. That was really the first film I had done.

You booked Don't Look Back into the Presidio Theater in San Francisco?

Pennebaker: The guy who ran the theater had a huge chain of pornography theaters all over the West. He said, "It's exactly what I'm looking for. It looks like a porn film, but it's not. So I'm going to give you the Presidio." And that sounded like a great theater. It wasn't till I went out and saw it, after we'd shot Monterey Pop, that I realized it was the rattiest place I ever saw in my life. But it ran for a year there and it did great.

Do you remember where it premiered in New York?

Pennebaker: We opened it at the 34th Street East, after a year in San Francisco.  Normally, you come into New York first. But I couldn't get anybody in New York to even look at it! I took it to the three or four distributors. It was in two reels, and by the end of the first reel, everybody had left the screening room. It was too muddy. It was really a ratty-looking thing. They said, "We're not going to run this in our theater; you must be crazy."

There wasn't much of a precedent at the time for rock music documentaries.

Pennebaker: Right. I was interested in Dylan, and I thought, this guy is really a poet who's very complicated. And I've got to film him in some way, but I wanted to make it like a play. I wanted to be Ibsen. All the decisions were made thinking as if I were putting it on as a play on Broadway. Which of course, looking back on it, was goofy. I don't know what I had in mind. But I think after that, all the films that we've done, particularly the films that Chris and I have put together, I think of as plays. Because I think if you don't show character under pressure to define itself, it's not theater. And if it's not theater, it can't be a good movie.

Is that what Ibsen means to you? The heightened moment and the realism?

Pennebaker: Yes. I think the most extraordinary play I ever saw was Master Builder. All current theater comes out of that, like all current novels come out of Stevenson, who got up out of his office and desk and went out into the world and saw what the world was like. For me, Master Builder was about a person trying to control whatever was interesting to him and what he cared about, in a world where you had no idea what was going to happen. Lightning could strike at any moment. That's a world that theater normally hadn't dealt with, and it's a world that documentary seldom deals with. But to me that's what the theater of documentary could be. People say, "You made a film about pastry?" Or, "You made a film about Dylan, and Depeche Mode [101]?" They can't see that the theater here is these people are going out, and we're starting with them at the beginning, not looking back on it or doing interviews. With Depeche Mode it's a group that's going out, and in the face of Warner Bros. saying, "We don't want you to go to the Rose Bowl," is saying, "We're going to do it anyway. Fuck you."

You're often filming people trying to create something. Master Builder is about an architect. And you have a presidential campaign or a start-up company.

Pennebaker: That's what makes the film, when we're there when it's starting up. That's really what stories are. That's what Ibsen was.

Hegedus: I think in our films, we get those people at the beginning moment of hope. It's that moment of their hopes and dreams that makes whatever the end is be so powerful. It's like that light bulb on top of somebody's head. That desire or hope that they see in the future.

Pennebaker: Imagine the Pastry film if you had to do it with interviews afterward. That's basically what documentary mostly is. And the networks are never going to go with the "let's see what happens" approach that we take. So by our own natures, we're outside of the television world, so we can never expect funding from any normal source. Except for BBC. Nick Fraser at BBC bought Pastry before we even showed him anything.

Hegedus: Even before Nick, BBC has supported documentaries. Without that, we wouldn't be here.

Pennebaker: And they bought The War Room, when nobody else would touch it.

Can you name films, or even specific scenes, that were influential to you?

Hegedus: My background was in art—I went to art school and the first type of films I made were art movies. A lot of them tended to be more formalistic, because that was where art was going. So I started with experimental films. And also, people have to realize that it was very hard to get your hands on equipment at that point. So I liked a lot of experimental films. I was very influenced by Maya Deren and Meshes of the Afternoon, in part because there were so few women filmmakers. There were no role models out there. You'd hear about women in the editing room with their white gloves, but no studio heads or cinematographers or anything like that. So she was a person whose films I latched onto. But eventually, the entire art world just became uninteresting to me. It was a very political time when I went to school. There was the civil rights movement, the women's movement, the Vietnam War, and making formalistic films just wasn't interesting to me anymore. And most people were very influenced at that time by foreign films. Fellini is one of my heroes. Spiritually, I feel like he's always been like a mentor to me, whether it be his subjects, his approach, or the journeys of his films. I've been very moved by them. But when I first decided to go into documentary, the films that interested me the most were the films of the Living Camera movement—the Drew Associates, Penny and Ricky [Leacock] and [Albert] Maysles were all a part of it. I had never seen anything like that. It was very hard to see documentary films. Most of those films weren't even on television.

But I remember I really wanted to see them, so we rented Crisis. And that's the most influential film for me, because I don't think you can ever make a film like that again. You can't get that type of personal access to the White House and to a critical situation. It's really impressive and moving. And to see it in such a personal way, where you're in the home of Robert Kennedy or Governor Wallace. But most powerful for me was the idea of simultaneity in filmmaking, which is something that's very rarely done. And from that point on, I tried to do it in every film. I guess the best example is when Robert Kennedy is talking on the phone to Nicholas Katzenbach, who is down in Alabama, and they're talking about bringing in the National Guard. And then in the middle of the scene, Robert Kennedy's daughter Kerry comes running up to him, and he puts Kerry on the phone in the middle of talking about this amazing national crisis. It's just one of those moments where you can see both places at the same time.

It's a very powerful thing, and we tried to do it in many films, and we do it in The first time we did it together was on The Energy War, we followed Jimmy Carter trying to pass an energy bill. We have a very funny scene where Ted Kennedy is talking to the mayor of this little town called Crystal City, Texas, that had their natural gas turned off. He's trying to figure out the situation. The secretary calls up the office and gets the mayor on the phone. The mayor's sitting there. And then Ted Kennedy gets on the phone. And the mayor stands up to talk to him. He's totally reverential like he's right there in the room. It's just such a great moment, because you really feel like you're in both these realities at the same time.

Pennebaker: For me, it's been certain films, at different times. Michael Powell's use of a real dancer in The Red Shoes really intrigued me, because I thought that in Hollywood, Loretta Young would have had to pretend that she was dancing. The idea that Powell took the best dancer he could get his hands on and made her into an actress, I thought, was very documentary. My favorite film of his probably is I Know Where I'm Going, which is also like a documentary in many ways. I still think of those things as being real, like that whirlpool is a real place and I can go see it. And Flaherty's first film, Nanook of the North: the idea of filming a friend and making the movie about a friend, and showing what it is that he does that's special. Had it been a sound film, you know that they would've been talking to each other. Normally, that glass wall is impervious in theater films.

I remember seeing a film, before I ever even decided to try to make films, called La vie commence demain, by Nicole Védrès, who was a French filmmaker. And she did a film about people you've heard about—Sartre and Gide and Picasso—people whose names you know, but you've never seen them in normal situations, you've never seen them in conversations with people they know. The whole film is them in these normal situations. It's an amazing film, and it disappeared. But at the time, I thought, "That's what television could be." We can actually see people, and it could do what the still camera did for Life, which was go through doors and be places where normally you can't be. And that intrigued me from the start.

Where did you first see La vie commence demain?

Pennebaker: I worked at a place on Fifth Avenue. It wasn't an embassy, but they used to have parties there and celebrated French people would come there. There was a guy there who had been a hero in the underground, and somebody introduced me to him. He said he wanted a little sound studio in the back, and at the time, that's what I did for a living: I built amplifiers. It had nothing to do with film. And then he said, "You know, what I'd really like is a TV in my office." I'd always wanted to be a designer, so I designed this wonderful-looking modern TV set. And then I actually built it—I remember I built a TV set for him myself. I don't know why, I just decided I wanted to do it. He said, "I never look at television, so it doesn't even have to work." It just had to look like it would work. But he said he loved the cabinetry, and he'd even had a picture in The New York Times of it somehow. We became very good friends. He told me, "I'm going to show this movie, and I want you to come see it." And that was La vie commence. The Museum of Modern Art showed it; they had a 35mm print. And somewhere or other, I got a 16mm print and showed it to people that I knew. And then one day I went to get the print, and it was gone, it disappeared. And the print at the Museum of Modern Art disappeared. Nobody knew where it went. For years, I've tried to find it. The Americans thought it was Communist and didn't want to show it. And the French denied it had ever been made, practically. I had Henri Langlois looking for this for years. And then one day, just by pure accident, I found it at the British Film Institute. A woman there said, "Oh, I know that film. There's a copy of it downstairs." I said, "Could you make me a copy?" And she did. So I got it, after 40 years of looking for it, and it's just as amazing as I remembered it.

Hegedus: The film that really pushed me to be a documentary filmmaker was Penny's film Jane. I didn't know how an individual could make a feature film. But for me, that was as close to a feature film as you could get, because you had this famous movie star. And it was a very feature film story, putting on a play. It's absolutely my favorite film. It has a very dramatic film structure, and it's told like a fiction film. I felt like, okay, it looks like somebody just shot it themselves. I'm a cameraperson; I know that I can do that. And that was it. You just find a real-life story, somebody going through something really dramatic, and you be there for it. That was it. I was trying to make a living with graphic arts in New York, and I just threw everything away. After that film was when I made the commitment.

Pennebaker: Toby & the Tall Corn is really the film that started it all. It was made for a 1950s educational TV series called Omnibus, which came on every Sunday. They showed different films. They got Ricky Leacock, before I even knew who he was, to do the show. He'd done a show about a tent show out west in Illinois, or in Iowa. They put on plays, like hillbilly plays. It's hard to describe but they were full of funny jokes, and they weren't at all sophisticated. But people loved them, and they filled the tent every night. And so Ricky made a film about this guy who had a show. I don't know how he did it, because there were no sync-sound cameras then. But he somehow made this film, and it looks like a single person made it. When I saw it, I thought, holy shit, somebody's done it.

And Ricky was working with Willard Van Dyke, and I had done some stuff for Willard, the loop films for the Brussels World's Fair. I met Ricky at Willard's, and when I realized he had done this film, Willard and I and Ricky and Shirley Clarke all banded together. We started a little company down on 43rd Street. And that was where I began to really seriously think about how to make films. 


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Bob Dylan in Dont Look Back, directed by D.A. Pennebaker
Photo Gallery: Master Builders
Video: Company
Video: Crisis
Video: Jane


David Schwartz is the Chief Curator at the Museum of the Moving Image. He is also a Visiting Assistant Professor in Cinema Studies at Purchase College.

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