There aren’t many filmmakers who can claim to have changed the face of their art form, but D.A. Pennebaker could make a strong case twice over. As a sound recordist on Robert Drew’s 1960 documentary Primary, he helped invent what would become known as cinéma vérité, as well as the tools that were critical in its establishment. And with Don’t Look Back, which has just been reissued on Blu-ray, he effectively gave birth to the modern concert film, shadowing Bob Dylan on a European tour just as the literate folk singer was reinventing himself as a plugged-in poet. Thanks to Don’t Look Back, Monterey Pop, and films on Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon, David Bowie, and Jerry Lee Lewis, Pennebaker is best known for his music documentaries, but he’s made landmark films in many other areas, many co-directed by his wife, Chris Hegedus: The War Room, which documented the rapid-response strategy of Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign; Company: Original Cast Album, a fascinating look inside the recording of Steven Sondheim’s Company; and Town Bloody Hall, a confrontation between Norman Mailer and the leading lights of ’70s feminism. In the process of reflecting on Don’t Look Back, Pennebaker talked to The A.V. Club about Dylan, Depeche Mode, Jean-Luc Godard, and his many films that have disappeared from the public eye.
The A.V. Club: What sort of context was there for Don’t Look Back? Had you seen Lonely Boy, the portrait of Paul Anka?
D.A. Pennebaker: Lonely Boy, I think, was done before, but I didn’t see it until later. We went up at the [National] Film Board [of Canada] and they showed it. I kind of felt a little uneasy at first, because when he was doing his song, they were narrating over it. Whether I like his music or not, that sort of seemed like a poor thing to do. That depressed me a little bit. I had done a film—we just saw it last night, oddly enough—with Jane Fonda, called Jane. That was done when I was with [Robert] Drew at Time-Life. For years, since it was about play she was in on Broadway, which folded the next day, it’s always been sort of a sore point for her. But she’s finally decided she rather likes it, and we’re going to release it. It was a precursor to Don’t Look Back in that when I did it, it was only going to be half an hour, and it was supposed to part of a bunch of shows we were hoping to get on television. It didn’t have quite the, I don’t know, whatever you call it, the angst that I thought was there, that we could have gotten. When I did Don’t Look Back, I no longer had Time-Life looking over my shoulder, so I could kind of do it as I wanted, and it was like I was really correcting Jane.
AVC: When you and cinematographer Ricky Leacock decided to split off from Robert Drew and Time-Life, was editorial independence the crux of it?
DAP: Well, I could see that we weren’t a big hit at Time-Life anymore. I think that what had been going on in the heads of those far above us was that maybe they were going to buy ABC, or get a network, or something where they could join TV the way they had magazines. I think they were looking for something that would play on TV that would have that same sort of behind-the-scenes quality that their candid photography had. They welcomed us in at the beginning because they needed to train people and do it. I think their expectations were a little beyond us. They were looking for a film a month, and we were lucky if we could do one in a year. It wasn’t very well thought through, but I don’t think anybody, even us, understood what would happen when we got the equipment, which was what we were able to do at Time-Life, when we were able to develop the equipment. When we got equipment in hand, what was possible was so much more incredible than we had ever imagined. I think Drew thought that we were going to be making documentaries, which is to say, we would be interviewing people about things going on and it would be kind of a journalism thing. I had no such intentions, but I didn’t quite know what else to do. There was nobody else in town, there was no place you could sell a film. Well, The Quiet One I think got into theaters, but it was a written film, it was acted and written. The idea of a documentary, whatever, that was anathema. Nobody quite knew what it was or quite how to handle it when you got one.
AVC: Speaking of technological developments, one of your major contributions to Primary was to put the sound back in sync with the picture after the fact, right? That could easily have ruined the whole film.
DAP: Well, Ricky too. Ricky was a physics major at Harvard, and I was an engineer at Yale, in electronics. So I had some idea, but really we were dependent on outside engineers and people who had gone much further with camera development than we could. We just knew what we needed. We knew what the parameters should be, that it should be light, it should be quiet, and it should be sync [sound]. At that point, there was nothing, so we had to make a camera, and the making of a camera got us into working out things that if we had just gone to a camera designer and said, “Make a camera,” we would never have gotten. So in a way, it formulated us, and it formulated the thinking of the films. Because the problem was, how do you keep a camera steady when you’re walking around with it? It took us a while to sort of understand that it should be against your eye socket, your forehead, and probably on your shoulder. But getting it on your shoulder, that had to be figured out. It had to come to us that we needed a handle on the front that you could to hold onto and turn it on. We were making what we now have as a video camera, but at the time, we didn’t really know that that’s what we needed.
AVC: So it was trial and error, mechanical problem solving?
DAP: It’s like going into a hardware store and seeing what you want for Christmas. It was weird.
AVC: With Don’t Look Back, how much did you envision beforehand?
DAP: Nothing. I didn’t really know much about Dylan. I had heard one of his songs on the radio, and I had read in Time magazine that he was not a very good folk singer, which interested me a little bit because I didn’t think that their recognition of folk singers was going to be world-renowned. I didn’t really know what to expect. I had made a film with [jazz singer] Dave Lambert, he was a friend of Bob Van Dyke’s who was doing sound for us. He had put a new group together. And I knew him because I had the earlier record that he’d done for Columbia. I also knew that he’d been an arranger for Gene Krupa, when Krupa had his orchestra. He’d been arranging for two or three trumpets, which was astonishing. So I was always intrigued by him. When I met him, it turned out he was also a carpenter, and he helped us build our studio. So we got to be very good friends with him. He brought his little group in that he’d been putting together, and had written three or four new songs for. He was going to go to RCA to do a tryout to make a record. We were doing films then; anything we should shoot in a day we would try to do, because the film was cheap; we were shooting black and white. We were trying out the cameras, which by then I had made three or four of them, and we were renting them out to the film board, in fact, in some cases. And we were walking in place, as it were, with no idea what we were doing. That is, we no longer had a job. Ricky and I were sitting there staring at each other. There was no place to sell these films. They were little 10- to 12-minute films. TV didn’t buy films from us. You couldn’t show them in movie houses. They just were something that we did. So this film [Lambert & Co.], when we got through with it, it was kind of a nice little film, but I didn’t know what to do with it. I didn’t even edit it. I just put it up on the shelf in our little editing place on 43rd Street.
Some weeks later, Dave got killed in an automobile accident on the Merritt Parkway, and Art DeLuca was going to do a little thing for him, some sort of a memorial, and a guy came over—I think he was from Europe some place—and he said, “I understand you have a film. Could we show it at the memorial?” I said, “Well, we haven’t edited it or anything.” So [we] stayed up all night editing all this material into a 10-minute film, and the next day we got it to a lab, and then we got it down to them. I didn’t even go to the memorial, I had to do something else, but months later the guy came back and said could he take a print back to Europe, cause Dave was very well-known in Europe. I gave him the only print we had, and I didn’t think about it again until we started getting letters from people saying, “Where can we buy the record?” Of course, there was no record, because RCA decided not to make it, and so this whole thing was like a ghost presence, and I loved the songs, but they were never going to be released because nobody was ever going to sing them except David’s little group. So I said in my head that maybe my reason for existing was to make films of people that nobody else was going to make films of because I like the music or I like them or whatever.
So when Albert [Grossman] came in and said, “Would you like to make a film with my client, Bob Dylan?” I said, “Sure.” It seemed like a reasonable thing for me to do. It wasn’t like he was saying, “We’ll pay you a lot of money to do it.” It was, from the very start, apparent that I was going to pay for it. But that seemed all right, too. I felt that that’s the way it’s going to be. The rest of my life I’ll be shoveling out to make all these films of these musicians, because I had a huge record collection and had grown up in Chicago amongst this whole exploding music scene that was going on there. I had to buy the records to hear them; you couldn’t hear them on the radio. No black performers were allowed to be on radio. They only existed as names. I had no idea what Fats Waller looked like. But they were our heroes. So the whole idea of being able to now film these people seemed to me very appropriate, very historic, so I fell into that without even thinking. So the whole thing with Dylan just emerged as some psychosis of my own. And then when I met him, he was really interesting. The way he talked, he would change words around in a funny way. It was very original, and I noticed it right away. And I thought, “Well, he’s some kind of poet.” Everybody kept saying, “Oh no no, he’s not a poet, no, he’s just a folk singer. That’s not poetry.” But I kept hearing poetry in things he would say or words in his songs, so I thought, “Well, this is more than a music thing, this is a person of interest.” So I was intrigued by the whole trip.
AVC: You’ve done so many films of musicians, whether documentary or concert films, and so many different kinds of musicians. Is liking the music a prerequisite? Do you end up liking The National or Depeche Mode as much as Jimi Hendrix or David Bowie?
DAP: We don’t sit there with our yellow pads in hand cogitating who would make a good film or what we could do that could make a lot of money and pay our rent for the next year. It isn’t like that, because I don’t know how to do that, and I’ve never been partners with anybody else who did. We sit here and, on the basis of a film we’ve made or somebody’s heard we wanted to make, people come to us and say, “I have an idea for a film. Would you be interested?” And we have to be interested because, unlike when I was at Time-Life, we have people from all of the world throwing ideas at us to do and all you had to do was say, “Okay, we’ll do this one,” or somebody there in charge would say, “Do this one.” And then you went off and did it. In our case, we have to commit to what is going to be maybe a year of our lives to a film. But in general, if it appeals to us and we can get it going and somehow we can raise the money for it, these films come to us to be made. We don’t initiate them very much.
When Depeche Mode came in, we didn’t know who they were or anything about them. I went out to listen to a concert in California or Oregon or some place, and I came back and said, “The audience for this band, I don’t think they go to any other music concerts except Depeche Mode. I don’t think they have any other life except for Depeche Mode.” They have mystic signs they make with their hands. It’s like some sort of a Celtic assemblage, and it’s so interesting that we would be crazy not to get with them and make a film. So we did. It was just out of that, because the music made no sense to us at all in the beginning—we couldn’t even hear it—but by the end of it, of course, we loved it. When you live with something you get to like it.
AVC: You did a film about Jennifer Lopez that was meant to be released with her album Rebirth. What happened with that?
DAP: I really liked her husband. I thought he was pretty nice. But she wanted to sell jewelry or something. She was not looking to get into the film world at all other than as an actress. She wanted to be a movie star. We weren’t who you hired to become a movie star. It doesn’t work that way. I think she was curious to see what we might do. I rather liked her, but there was no story there. We were just doing a kind of a music promo.
AVC: And it ended up just not being what they wanted?
DAP: I don’t know who did what, but I never saw it. It may have been used somewhere, and I think somebody else came in and did something. I don’t even know what happened, because after we spent all that time with her we just went on and did something else. It got lost in the fog.
AVC: Town Bloody Hall is one of your great films, an onstage debate between Norman Mailer and the leaders of the feminist movement, including Germaine Greer, in front of a very vocal and engaged audience. It’s an amazing piece of history as well as drama. How did you come to make it?
DAP: Town Bloody Hall was something that Norman persuaded me to do. It was at the Town Hall on 43rd Street, or 45th, maybe it was 44th Street. It was a place that did not want us to be filming, so the manager was chasing us around, turning the lights out, making it as hard as he could for us to shoot, and there were only three of us shooting. We had three cameras. I could only find two people to go with me there that night. I had to get onstage because that was the one place the manager didn’t dare go to chase me. So I was filming from the stage. It was such an interesting thing to see Norman in that assemblage, because I think a lot of the people there in the beginning assumed he was the enemy. By the end, I think maybe half of them changed their minds. Norman, he was at the height of his powers. I just loved him that night.
I was thinking last night, because we had the screening [of Jane], Jane Fonda came and we showed the film at the Paley Center. This was a fundraiser for a women’s group that she’s head of or involved with. I kept thinking, in 10 or 20 years, almost all the history of what’s happened will all be in documentary films. And they won’t be proper films. They’ll just be people who’ve saved the tapes and they’ve been put somewhere and they are now history. I think the films we see, the Hollywood films, which are basically entertainment, will still be there, but they’ll be in a totally different category. People won’t take them seriously. They’ll kind of end up the way comic books have. A side view of things.
AVC: With each passing day, it becomes easier for people to capture something visually; anyone with a smartphone is walking around with a video camera in their pocket.
DAP: And they don’t have to have any authorization, they don’t need much money, they just do it because they kind of want to do it. The best documentaries, the ones that get prizes and things are, for me, what television should be doing but doesn’t, because their main interest is in selling cheese and paying mortgages for people. It does a lot of work that everybody needs done, probably, but it doesn’t commit history. Even if they saved it, nobody would want a history of the 9:00 news, because it would be boring in 10 years. But they do want to see what happened to Marilyn Monroe or whatever, and if somebody had made a film of that, that’s what people would be charmed by.
The whole way in which the candid still photography had taken over—I mean, it’s hard to remember now, but every week everybody got Life magazine. It just didn’t fail. And the best things in it were not—the writing was usually somewhat fallible. It needed Hemingway or Norman to do something, but generally it was just circumstantial. What was interesting was that the photographs came without any intention of instructing you. You just saw them. Of course, they always had to have underneath them what they were about, but you could almost not even bother with that. They were just such amazing pictures. I think from the very beginning, I felt it wasn’t our business with this incredible device, which cannot lie. If you point it at something, it’s what you see. We would just watch. We wouldn’t instruct, we wouldn’t confirm, we wouldn’t say anything, we would just watch what was happening in front of us, and if we could get into places where that was interesting, that would be the movie. That’s pretty much the way we do it now. That’s hasn’t changed much.
AVC: Once you get in the door, the battle’s half over.
DAP: You’re like a cat looking out the window. You don’t have to even know what you’re watching, but you’re watching it, and you’re watching it very accurately.
AVC: How did what became 1 P.M., your film with Jean-Luc Godard, come to be? Has anyone tried to put it out on DVD?
DAP: Believe me, it’s not legally anybody’s except ours, but that has never stopped anybody. I know that most of our stuff is on YouTube. So, you know, what can you do about it? Hire lawyers, and nothing changes? What happened was, I had met Godard through [Henri] Langlois at the Cinemathéque [Français] at one of our various things in Europe, festivals or whatever. We had sort of talked about doing a film in which he would go to a small town in France somewhere, and he would arrange everything—bodies would appear, and then fingerprints, and then guns and whatever—and Ricky and I would come in and we would film what we found and see if we could get the story that they had planted without our knowing. It was one of those intriguing cocktail conversations that never goes anywhere, but he remembered it a little bit, so… We had guy who’d come to work with us from Goldman Sachs, and his intention was to make a lot of money for us, which, of course, never did happen. But at the time he took Godard very seriously, because he could see Godard could be a moneymaker if you just promoted him correctly.
He arranged somehow that the incipient PBS, which was PBL then but it became PBS, would pay us. I think he even signed a contract in which Godard would come over and make a film with us, and it would be called 1 A.M. One American Movie. And he would have Ricky and I be the cameras and he would be the director and tell us what to do. And since we were going to be paid something too, this seemed like a good idea. Not something to be struggled against. He appeared, and his plan was that we would load up, because he knew the cameras worked, he used a cameraman, a 35 cameraman, who was really good. We’d have these 400-foot magazines, which would be 10 minutes of film. We would shoot them continuously; we wouldn’t stop. We would figure out a scene that we were going to cover and we would shoot 400 feet in one continuous roll, and we would never edit it. We’d just put it with another 400-foot roll similarly shot in some other scene. That was the plan.
AVC: Kind of the Rope of documentary film.
DAP: Sort of. Yes. It didn’t really matter because Godard was there with Anne Wiazemsky, who was delightful, and in the beginning he had her over at the hotel right behind us. What is it? The place with the round table.
AVC: The Algonquin.
DAP: The Algonquin. She was supposed to sit up there and listen to her records. Well, she didn’t want to sit up there, she came right over to the office and hung out with everybody, and she herself, she had a camera and was taking stills of things. So she was terrific. We kept her around. I think Godard was a little miffed at this; he kind of didn’t like to be outgunned by anybody, but I loved him. He’s one of my favorite filmmakers because he never did the obvious, you know? He always surprised you. And in the course of the filming, we shot the film and he was in a big hurry because he thought that revolution was going to envelop his country. It might have looked that way from Europe, because they’d gone through one themselves, but we kept saying, “I don’t think it’s going to happen, Jean-Luc. I wouldn’t wait around for it if I were you.” In the course of it we shot the thing, we got some people to tell us whatever was going on in California, which was always very ripe, and then he went away. He met the guy that he did Wind From The East with.
AVC: Jean-Pierre Gorin.
DAP: They got bored, I think, with doing it. And I was left with a contract, or I was told a contract, and a lot of footage, with 400-foot rolls of footage. I was told I had to deliver on the contract, so I just decided to put it together, and when I did, I found that the idea of the 400-foot rolls was really very boring. I mean, after a while you just cried out in pain. So I made a film, which we called 1 P.M. [One Pennebaker Movie] That film was kind of interesting. Just because Godard was involved, it kind of caught an urgency that was going on in this country in terms of filmmaking. It got shown a few times. It got shown out in California at some theater where the police were throwing tear gas down the ducts of the air conditioner because everybody assumed what was going on was illegal.
AVC: We’ve been talking a lot about movies that aren’t out on commercial DVD. Are there people working on that?
DAP: Well, we’re a family operation. There’s not many of us. My son runs it. Chris and I work. We have a couple people who come from time to time who work with us. Two of my sons are themselves filmmakers, and we can’t afford them nor they us. They work in the real world and earn money and are pretty good at it. One of our problems is that we’ve set ourselves up as having this archive, which a lot of the material we shoot is sort of bound to go to if it doesn’t go to YouTube only, and the problem with that is that it’s film, and it has to be turned into video, and every few years the video has to be turned into a new kind of video, so it’s way beyond us in terms of the funding necessary to keep this thing in the real world where people can come and look at things. Because it’s not just the films, it’s also all the outtakes. So this is a thing we’ve now sort of taken on as our next problem, which is to say, we’re going to have to raise a couple million dollars to do this. I cleaned up one of Ricky’s films, a thing he did with Stravinsky—we both actually worked on it. I edited, but it was mostly his shooting with Stravinsky over a period of six months or so, and it’s just the most wonderful film. It’s one of the best films he ever did, and certainly the only film of Stravinsky in which Stravinsky is a real human being. We took it out—somebody wanted it in Washington, to show it—and it was so dirty that they said, “We can’t show this film.” In the old days, when you showed film, it was like the scratches on 78 records; you didn’t notice it, cause you’re used to it and you looked around it. Now, video has no such things on it; it’s just pure, perfect picture. So if you’re going to reuse this with video, it’s got to either be cleaned up, or I don’t know what you do with it. It’s hard to interface it. So cleaning it up is a frame-by-frame procedure, which is very expensive. I spent maybe $15,000 cleaning up this Stravinsky film in order that it can be shown at this Washington showing. So I can see that all of our films—Don’t Look Back, all of them—are going to have to be dealt with in this way. And that’s not something we can just do as we go along. We’re going to have to really do that in a very serious fashion, I think.
AVC: It would be great to see some of them out there. We were talking, a few years ago I think, about Criterion doing The War Room?
DAP: Yes, and they are doing The War Room. They’re doing that, but they can’t take on all of them. We have maybe a hundred films here. So Criterion is only going to save one or two of them, even as Steve Savage did with Don’t Look Back.
AVC: Watching The War Room now, you seem to have been there at just the right moment. With the way information gets out now, there’s no chance anyone would allow a camera inside the strategy meetings of a political campaign.
DAP: When they did the Obama film, they came to us and asked if we had any suggestions on how they could prevail, and the problem that I saw, and I saw it very quickly… I had started a film with Bobby Kennedy, which I had to break off because I was in way over my head, the cost of doing it full-time was way beyond me and I couldn’t raise any money for it. This was going to be watching somebody become president, we were just going to do the same thing with Clinton and try to raise money to do it. And I could see right away that you couldn’t actually occupy space with a person who intended to become president in a very interesting way. They were constrained to act; as soon as the camera appeared, they had to pretend to be something else. That was never very entertaining. But with somebody like [James] Carville or [George] Stephanopoulos, they didn’t give a shit, you know? They didn’t see us as the press because we weren’t the 6 o’clock News. We actually hung out in the war room, in which no press was supposedly allowed.
AVC: And they knew that it the film wasn’t going to be out until after the election.
DAP: We were recording what happened that year, and I think it allowed us to get access to real events that normally you’re cut off from. People could say “shit” if they felt like it. To set out to make the film of the guy running for president, I think is maybe a mistake. I could have done it with Kennedy because he was so arrogant he didn’t care what anybody thought. I mean I sat in the car and watched him swear with the prime minister from Canada, and afterwards the PM said, “I can’t believe that Kennedy would talk that way seeing you filming him,” and I said, “You have to understand, he knows that I can never use that material.” So it isn’t a problem for him if you think about it. But you’re right. It’s like Crisis. Nobody would let us do Crisis again. Bobby, he helped us sneak into the White House. He took us over there through the back door because they wouldn’t let us in the front door. So we had people on our side who saw more than just news footage, they saw it as some sort of history. That was crucial.