D.A. Pennebaker began his career in film over 40 years ago. After having attended Yale and M.I.T., and spending time in the Navy, Pennebaker worked a variety of jobs, including stints as a painter and an advertising copywriter. His first directorial triumph was 1960's Primary, a cinema-verite account of the 1960 Democratic primaries that helped establish him as a major figure in American film. Since then, Pennebaker, now 72, has filmed or collaborated with some of the century's most important cultural figures. In the '60s, he made a pair of landmark music films: the much-heralded 1967 Bob Dylan documentary Don't Look Back and the 1969 concert film Monterey Pop. In the '70s, Pennebaker's projects included collaborations with Norman Mailer and Jean-Luc Godard, and he filmed David Bowie's last performance as Ziggy Stardust for Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars: The Movie. In the '80s and '90s, Pennebaker has made a number of concert films, in addition to directing the Oscar-nominated documentary The War Room, which followed Bill Clinton's campaign strategists during the 1992 election. His well-received documentary about Carol Burnett's stage comeback, Moon Over Broadway, is being slowly released across the U.S., as is a re-released Don't Look Back. The Onion recently spoke to Pennebaker about his films, his subjects, distribution, and more.
The Onion: What was behind the reissue of Don't Look Back?
D.A. Pennebaker: Well, what happened was that some people wanted to show some films from the '60s down at the Forum, and there was a pretty good turnout for that, I guess. So it was suggested that maybe we should consider re-distributing Don't Look Back. Actually, the people who were distributing Moon Over Broadway said they were interested in distributing the Dylan film as well, and luckily we had a new print. Since we had such a good response, we started distributing it all around the country.
O: It seems like a number of your films aren't available on video or anywhere else.
DP: Well, sometimes they are, since we're such an independent, and we own almost all our own films. You get caught in that a little bit, because you don't represent anybody else's immediate interests in the commercial possibilities of what you're working on. We do these things on-and-off as we go along, but sometimes we'll turn a film over to someone like Warner Bros. or somebody, and maybe they do a good job, or maybe they don't do such a good job of distributing it. It's kind of like making a record for a record company, and they don't know what to do with it. They have their own people they've been pushing, and their salespeople don't respond to what you're doing. and when something comes in out of the blue, it's very seldom that they can take something on full-time. I mean, if it's incredibly successful, or it's done by Madonna, then, of course, they jump on it, but with us, that just hasn't been the case. But there have been a few exceptions, one being the stuff we've done with Rhino, which is terrific at dealing with certain kinds of musical things. They've done a terrific job for us in the last year, whereas a number of people like Sony just don't understand what Monterey was about or why it would have such ongoing appeal to audiences. So you don't expect a whole lot from them, but you don't know what else to do. The alternative is to do it yourself, which we're also considering. We're actually thinking about distributing Moon Over Broadway on-line. It's tempting, because when you go to a major studio, it's sort of like a farm, you know? They make all the money, since it's kind of a buyer's market.
O: You'd figure there would at least be a built-in audience for the music films you've done, like Depeche Mode 101.
DP: Well, Warner Bros. owned that pretty much from the start. And actually, we tried a peculiar kind of theatrical distribution for that. We had a guy out in Los Angeles who would run it during long weekends in various mall theaters where he thought that audience would abound. And it did marvelously in the beginning, but pretty soon Warners decided it wanted to sell it on home video, because that's where all the money is. They weren't really interested in a theatrical release, although we were and the band was, just because it was such a terrific experience for a lot of the fans to go see the film. But eventually, people just didn't want to tie up their theaters, even at two or three days at a clip. But by then, the video had gone platinum in about six weeks, so it was really out of our hands.
O: How did you become involved with Depeche Mode?
DP: Well, they came to us.
O: The band or the record company?
DP: A guy who managed the band, who is now with Capitol; he represented the band in the U.S., and he came to us and said, "Would you like to do a film with the band?" We didn't know who they were. We had no idea. We had never listened to them. The first time we listened to them, we thought it was nice, but that all the songs sounded the same—as is always the case with anything, you know, even if it were Brahms or anything else. So then I went off to one of their shows… Were you ever a fan of Depeche Mode?
O: No, but my sister was.
DP: We were a little uncertain about the whole project, because they really wanted a big film. So I went to one of their concerts in Oregon, and I was really knocked out by their audience. It came over me that their audience only went to Depeche Mode concerts. They didn't go to any other concerts, so it wasn't like a shared audience or anything. So I was kind of intrigued that they had this strange audience that was kind of like a Druid ceremony, you know, all making mystic signs and whatnot. So we got kind of intrigued by [Depeche Mode] and the possibility of making a film with them, and by the end we had gotten to like them a lot.
O: Well, the band has kind of a reputation for leading wild, hedonistic lives.
DP: Well, actually they don't. There are three guys: Alan [Wilder] was never really part of the original group, and I think he's out of it now, but he was the consummate musician of the group, so they all turned to him to see that they played the right chords and whatnot. But they really were just three working-class kids who came from a little place outside of London, and they had all grown up together and gone to the same school, and they had doped out together. They had no manager, so they really managed themselves. I mean, they had this guy from Mute Records who would advise them on certain things, but he basically just liked them. He didn't try to tell them what to do or anything. But they had figured out this incredible system for making money where all of their stuff was on a pre-recorded tape, so they didn't need drummers or the rest of the band. And there were really only two of them, because one of them, his keyboard wasn't even plugged in, since he was such a terrible musician. So it was really just two of them doing all this. It was kind of wonderful that they had figured out this system, and they could go in and take hundreds of thousands of dollars out of a town, and the people of the town didn't even know who they were, except for the kids. They were like buccaneers who'd go down around the Caribbean looting little islands. We kind of dug that about them.
O: How did you become involved in Don't Look Back?
DP: Somewhat similarly. [Dylan manager] Albert Grossman called my office and spoke with my partner Richard Leacock, and asked if we'd be interested in making a film with his client, Bob Dylan. And Leacock said, "Who's Bob Dylan?" So they waited for me to come back from lunch, and I actually knew who Bob Dylan was. I had never seen him, but I had read about him a little bit. I had heard something he did, I don't remember what, but I said, "Sure." It really appealed to me to go with someone who was at that point in his career. So I went along, and at that time, nobody had any idea what would happen. I mean, the question of why I was filming never even came up. And it was sort of assumed that if anything came of it, we'd come to some sort of shared arrangement. I mean, we never really even had anything on paper. It was kind of a handshake deal. That and a little thing we wrote on the back of a menu to the effect that if the film grossed more than $100,000 or something, we'd set up some sort of fund for it. But that amount seemed to me to be so astronomical that I didn't even think about it much.
O: What was your first impression of Bob Dylan?
DP: He was very assured of who he was, but he was actually kind of inventing himself as he went along. I didn't start to understand him until I had spent a little time with him, and that was interesting because he was kind of a Kerouac kid. He was like a person who had just stepped out of a Kerouac book, and there he was, in front of your eyes, and you were reading about him at the same time you were watching him.
O: It seems like with both Don't Look Back and Ziggy Stardust & The Spiders From Mars: The Movie, you were capturing a performer as he was moving from one phase in his career into another.
DP: If you're making this kind of film, that's really an important aspect to try to capture. It's hard to determine exactly if you're at that crux, but to get a person at that point means they're somehow reflective that this is kind of a dynamic that's carrying them along, and you can witness that with the camera. What you don't want is someone just sitting there with his eyes focused on some distant mountain, not saying anything, because then he just becomes sort of a human sculpture or something. What you really want is somebody who's about to go around a corner and talk to people about it.
O: Did you know before you filmed Ziggy Stardust that you would be filming David Bowie in his last performance as that character?
DP: No. I think people in the record company probably knew. I mean, RCA got me to go there, since I didn't really know David Bowie at all before I started filming, and I'm sure they had some sort of intimation as to what was going on, but that was sort of beside the point, since he had already done a grand tour with that band, both in the U.S. and in England. It never occurred to me that he would discontinue performing as Ziggy on stage; it was just some sort of arrangement he had made with his press people and management beforehand. Again, I didn't feel like this was any sort of huge loss to the music world. At the time, I think they all wanted to make something more out of it, and I don't really know why, because they really weren't very big on making the film. David wanted to make the film. RCA really didn't, though: They wanted to sell it off to ABC for one of those late-night shows that showed music films. That was all they really wanted from it. Originally, they came to me because they had this invention in New Jersey that the head of RCA had invented, a machine that showed something on a disc. So they wanted the first hour or first half-hour of the film to be the first thing shown on this new machine. And I had to go out and talk to all these technicians and tell them why it was important to put someone like David Bowie on a disc. And none of these people had the slightest idea who David Bowie was. I mean, they were all just engineers. So it was kind of a peculiar problem. But then the more I looked at it and showed it to people, the more I felt that it was really a theatrical film. It was totally unlike Don't Look Back in that it never really broke the private life of David particularly, but he wasn't really that interesting, in a way. He was kind of a businessman more than anything else. I mean, he may very well have been interesting, but it wasn't really anything you could put on a screen. So it came down to that incredible stage performance, which I felt was worth trying to sell as a theatrical film. But it took me many years to get everybody to agree to that. What finally happened was that David came over, and we spent a month remixing tracks so it would work as a film.
O: You made a film called Wild 90 in the '60s. What was that about?
DP: Well, Norman [Mailer] and a couple of friends of his set up a camera in a big empty loft I had, and they put on this thing where they made it up as they went along. It was like something you'd do in a bar with a couple of friends, you know? But it wasn't professional actors doing an improvisation; they did it more as a gag thing, as three guys who were kind of putting it to each other. It's hard to describe. We talked about it one night, and Mailer said he wanted to do it. So I said, "Let's try it and see what happens." So I went in, and Bob Neuwirth did the sound, and we filmed it in a place where the acoustics were not that good. It was sort of an experiment. But when it was done with, Norman was determined to get it released as a film, even though I warned him against it because no one would know what it was about.
O: In the '70s, you also worked with Jean-Luc Godard on One P.M. What was that experience like?
DP: Well, it was also peculiar, because he wanted something which was, again, something of a furthering of the concept of a documentary, in which we'd take a roll of film and not stop it until we had finished an entire roll, which would be 10 minutes long. And we did this succession of sequences, some of which he would work out with Rip Torn or whoever was in the scene, where we wouldn't know what was going to happen, and we weren't supposed to know. We were just supposed to film it as we saw it, like a newsreel. And then he had other scenes that were completely documentary, like Jefferson Airplane playing on a roof and getting all of us arrested, which we would film as it happened. The idea was that he would first have a scene that was worked out, but that he called documentary, and then a scene that was documentary in nature but that he called something else. He was pretty perverse. Not uninteresting, mind you. I really love Jean-Luc—he's a terrific filmmaker, I think—but I didn't think he had the slightest idea what we were trying to do. He was paid to do this, so he did the film. Unfortunately, the original film we did, which was called One A.M., was never really finished. But I had signed with PBL, which was the precursor to PBS, to deliver a film with him, so I sat down and edited One P.M. very fast, because I just thought it was very interesting at the time. It had to do with a peculiar political agenda that none of us really understood at the time. Godard thought America was going to burst into the flames of revolution at any minute. He was always in a hurry. He felt we had to get to California fast before the revolution was over. And I was like, "Before what's over? I'm sorry, Jean-Luc, but it's not going to happen. There is not going to be any revolution in America." But he was convinced that there was, so we were kind of keeping one step ahead of this tidal wave that Jean-Luc imagined. But that was all just kind of a chimera that existed only in his head. But it was an interesting film to do, and in the end, we get the building coming down by pure accident. I don't know if you've ever seen the film…
O: No, it's not available on video in America.
DP: No, it's not. Ultimately, we haven't put these things on video, and we plan to, but we haven't gotten around to doing that yet.
O: It kind of seems like your experience with One P.M. illustrates the link between the cinéma vérité movement and the French New Wave.
DP: I think everything influences everything else. I think the people who work in these movements meet one another and influence one another. Each person is kind of reaching out and seeing both what they can do and what kind of an audience there is for it. I don't think people pay a whole lot of attention to whether something is cinéma vérité or New Wave or whatever. I think in general, independents don't have a lot of access to really good scriptwriters or actors or actresses, so they're very limited in what they can do. But the camera, in a sense, takes the same pictures, whether it's looking at a film like Independence Day or looking at your grandmother on a couch. It doesn't know the difference. You can take films that kind of look like films, without doing a big stir about it. The question is getting them seen, getting people to see them in theaters, and that's a whole different ballgame, where the independents have had the hardest struggles just to get seen. And there are really good filmmakers around, both here and abroad, who make really interesting films, but they make them and then there's really no place to go with them.
O: Have you considered doing a scripted film?
DP: Yeah, well, the closest I think I ever came was with Norman Mailer. We made two films after Wild 90. We did one about a police court [1968's Al Di Là Della Legge] that was also a disaster, but everyone in Hollywood has been copying it, even to this day. And then the last one was a huge bonanza that cost a lot of money and almost broke Mailer. I think his uncle, who was a lawyer, wouldn't let him make more films after that. The last film was called Maidstone, and it had him biting off Rip Torn's ear. That was the last one I did with him. After that, he did get involved with some real movies, but more in the context of being a writer rather than a director. In the ones I did with him, he dominated them. He was like Little Caesar. He'd jump up and down and throw tantrums until everybody did what he wanted.
O: So he bit off Rip Torn's ear?
DP: Yeah, he bit off a whole chunk of it.
O: What were the circumstances behind him biting Rip Torn's ear? Was it part of the script?
DP: No, it was stranger than that. The movie had kind of finished, and it was not really as interesting a film as he had hoped it would be. But all these people were so engaged with the idea of Norman The Hero that they didn't care about how bad a movie it was that they had made. I didn't know Rip very well, but the movie was about a guy running for president because he's a celebrity. He is actually a film director, but he has become a big celebrity, so the idea is that in the future, being a celebrity will be enough to rule America. So throughout the film, people are trying to kill this presidential candidate, played by Mailer, and at the end of the film, Rip was supposed to come up from behind him with a hammer and try to kill him. But he hadn't bothered to tell Mailer what he was going to do, so Norman actually thought he was trying to kill him, and they got into a huge fight, which I filmed. But it took me months to figure out exactly what I was doing. Still, it was kind of an interesting film.
O: Was it ever released?
DP: Yeah, it was released. I don't think it did very well, but none of them did in a sense. But they were such extravaganzas that they've kind of taken on a life of their own, to some degree. I wouldn't imagine that they are the sort of thing where, if they put them in theaters tomorrow, people would line up to see them.
O: Although perhaps it would do all right if you played up the whole Norman-Mailer-biting-off-Rip-Torn's-ear angle.
DP: Yeah, but movies don't really work that way. Television might work that way, but there are so many movies that people can pretty much say, "Oh, I don't want to see that." So you'd probably get some people who'd be interested, but not the sort of hordes of people where you'd have to start throwing people out.