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Documenting Life: A Conversation with D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus

It’s impossible to discuss the cinema verite movement without taking the work of this illustrious pair into account. From politics to music, the husband-wife team of D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus have been able to not only capture pivotal events, but to make them compelling and entertaining for decades. filmcritic.com caught up with this highly respected team on the re-release of Town Bloody Hall.

filmcritic.com: Why do you think there’s been a resurgence of your films lately?

D.A. Pennebaker: Because we go out on the street with sticks and beat people until they buy them. (everyone laughs) I think people are always interested in history, but it’s selective history. It’s hard for people to really know what’s going to be valuable years later.

Chris Hegedus: This film, Town Bloody Hall, was an incredible event. It had a little distribution in the late 70s when we finished it, but because there was so much swearing, it had a limited television life. Now, with the advent of cable, it’s an entirely different story, and maybe it will have a life again. There are still people who know about it, and it’s been written about by the participants.

Before you filmed Town Bloody Hall, wherein Norman Mailer is grilled by a group of feminists, had you talked to the panelists, or read them?

DAP: Norman was a friend, and I knew some of the planted audience and the organizer of the event, but it was a big surprise. That’s the way these films always are. I read Germaine’s book [Greer, The Female Eunuch] and Norman’s article [Mailer, The Prisoner of Sex].

Did what you read effect what you captured on film?

DAP: It helped me identify people that I’d never seen that I’d read, and that’s always interesting. But when you do a film you don’t have much control over what happens. All of your biases intact don’t amount to much when they are screaming at each other.

You never know what is going to happen, but I felt it was pretty seamless in terms of getting action and reaction. Did you have a lot of cameras?

DAP: We had three cameras, but I think Chris did a really good job of editing. It’s pretty ratty, probably as badly shot as anything I’ve ever done. Chris edited it for content, and content always wins over form. Nobody ever pays attention after the worst five minutes of the most horribly shot movie you can imagine, even if it’s about something interesting.

At the end of the film, even after the mud-slinging, they turn to each other and say, ‘I’m glad you were on this panel.’ Did that amaze you at all?

DAP: (laughing) You’re right, it’s like the Kellogg-brand peace treaty. They all sit around and figure out what the new species is going to be.

CH: It was especially amazing to hear it from Jaqueline Ceballos, who was the President of the National Organization for Women at the time. She had taken a lot of grief from Norman and wasn’t taken that seriously in comparison to the other people on the panel.

Jill Johnston just left.

CH: It makes her angry to see it now because she wishes she had done something more political that would have destroyed the entire event.

How do you pick your angles, especially when you’re in a crowded room like that?

DAP: Aim for the light. Actually, it was an ambush. They wanted to kick us out. I’m on the stage where the manager couldn’t grab me but the two people in the audience had to find places to hide. The idea of aesthetics in a situation like that is impossible.

More than some of your peers, you concentrate on audience or observer reaction instead of just the subject. Any catalyst for that?

DAP: You’re always playing that game. The two are equally important and you try to do swing-offs to learn their reaction. The swing-off guarantees that you’re not just faking a cutaway. You look at the audience to see who you recognize, who is interesting, or who is in enough light to get a picture of. It’s a matter of constant problem solving, but everything comes back to that event.

CH: In some ways, particularly in this film, it was appropriate that it took place in Town Hall. Everyone was participating, screaming and yelling back, and they were as much a part of the event as those on stage. I felt when I edited it, it was important to keep that feeling of excitement. Those swing pans were helpful for knowing this person made that comment or look.

DAP: It’s harder, in a way, to film an audience than a performer. This is why I get on the stage. I’m as interested in the audience as in the performers. This audience was incredible, not just people sitting in seats and staring at the stage. They were popping up and down like popcorn, filled with every kind of angst you could imagine. It was marvelous to shoot them.

Your subjects vary immensely, how do you pick them, or do they pick you?

DAP: They usually find us. I say that laughingly but the most of our films do come to us. We wouldn’t know where to find them. If someone said, ‘there’s a great film to be made about Sting’, and you go to Sting’s manager, they ask how about money. So you can’t do that. If someone comes to you and says, ‘I’d like you to make a film about me’ at least you don’t have to argue that point. The only question that remains is who owns it, distributes it, and what it’s going to look like. Those battles we’ve learned how to fight. When people came to us to do The War Room, we didn’t know them. They’d never made a film. Their vision turned out to be accurate, though it wasn’t what we thought going in. We thought it was going to be about the President but instead it’s about these two individuals working for him. It was probably a better film because of that. But you need to get started with the money because you just don’t have the facilities to research all the stories going on at a given time.

CH: It’s really uncanny how it happens sometimes. On our last film, Startup.com, it was a subject we were trying to do. We had been meeting entrepreneurs to follow around. One just walked in and wanted to film his experience. The interesting thing about these films is you get dropped into these amazing worlds and get an inside view of something you’d never be able to see.

You’ve never done fiction.

DAP: I’ve been approached with scripts and considered it. It’s not that I wouldn’t. The camera is normally under control of the script in a fiction film, and I think if we were able to keep the camera away from that control, it might be interesting to do. It would be hard for me to do ten takes of something; I’d probably fall asleep. In what we do there are no second takes, you just keep going.

It’s a fascinating challenge in that way too.

DAP: It means you’re really paying attention, and when it works it’s terrific. The real conceptual work is probably done in the editing when you suddenly have to make this thing fly. Until then, it’s a bunch of grab shots left and right and you had no idea what you were doing or what was happening but you were filming everything you could that seemed to have a bearing on it.

With your reputation and experience, has it ever been difficult for you to make a film? Have the subjects always been cooperative?

DAP: The subjects are usually cooperative. Often when you’re making these films, you’re left to your own devices and you feel unloved and it’s frustrating. The hardest thing, I think, is editing, putting it together so it won’t make people sleepy when they watch it.

CH: Access is always critical in these films and someth
ing you can never take for granted. You can have it and it could disappear if the situation becomes more difficult for the people you are filming so it’s a challenge.

DAP: You have to be able to follow them home. You can’t just stop at the door and say ‘see you tomorrow’ if you feel that the film is going to take place in the house. Maybe they watch you, realize how driven you are, and take pity on you enough to let you in.

CH: We rely on pity. It’s a cross between pity and charm.

When in the process of shooting and editing, do you find that your ideas change?

CH: They always change because you never know what’s going to happen. We do little research when we do these films so we’re really finding out about it while we’re shooting. When we start these films we’ll try to raise money, which means writing some type of proposal. So you make things up and anticipate what your film is going to be about, but quite often it ends up differently. As Penny said with The War Room, we thought we were going to try to make a film about a man becoming President but what we found were these two great characters (George Stephanopoulos and James Carville), and their adventure. You have to be able to go with what you’re going to get.

Has anybody ever complained about how they came across?

CH: Not violently. I think it’s hard for people to see themselves afterwards. Especially when you condense a year and a half into an hour and a half. It’s difficult for people to watch that if they’ve gone through something painful. Especially in Startup where you had unfulfilled dreams. You hope that people, in the end, are able to stand back and look at the film and think that what you’ve done has been an honest portrayal of what they have gone through,

DAP: It’s never going to recall the last year and a half of their life. You couldn’t do that, even if you sit down hour by hour and traced it because people don’t see the same thing the same way. You begin to make jumps like fiction. In a way, what we do is not too different from fiction. Not like written fiction, but like theater. A lot of the same laws apply. You put characters on stage in a way that people recognize them. You can only have so many people on stage because it won’t hold any more. You have to keep building up expectancy so an audience will think the story is going somewhere. All the time, there are certain things you try not to do, like having a narrator tell the audience what’s going on because you want them to figure it out for themselves. You don’t put peoples’ names under their picture the way television does because you want them to look at the people and try to figure out what they’re called.

CH: One thing that happens though, in terms of the people we film and their reactions, they see other people who are talking about them or doing something that they didn’t know about. For instance, Moon Over Broadway was following a Broadway show that Carol Burnett was in. Some of the reactions to Carol and her acting were things she had never heard before. A lot of times when you show the film, especially when you film multiple people, it can be painful.

DAP: She saw it in the movie first, unfortunately.

Bad politics.

CH: One of the offshoots of making these films is you get all sides of an issue. Which is one of the incredible things that I think film can do, to show different things and times simultaneously.

Now you guys have collaborated on many films together. Do you ever find in a project, that roles or ideas change?

DAP: You mean fistfights?

(laughs) Well decision-making changes…

DAP: Those things change overnight. You put something together and, foolishly, think to have friends look at it. You have to prepare yourself for that onslaught, and to regroup. You learn to recognize when it doesn’t work. You have to be tough and cut things out that you didn’t want to part with. Shorter is better but it’s hard to remember that when you’ve worked for weeks on a scene. The thing to remember is you do move on.

And you learn from one to the next.

DAP: You certainly do but I’m not sure if whatever you learn applies to the next film, is the only problem. It seems to only apply to the next day or two.

Do you and Chris argue?

CH: Yeah, we almost got divorced tonight over a detail.

DAP: The whole creative process is such a strange one. You feel once you’ve done something, you’ll never be able to do it again. When anybody casts the slightest imprecation on it, you immediately take to the fields. You want to hide and you get defensive about it. It’s hard not to. That is the process. At the same, I always know instinctively in the end that Chris will make it better. But at the time I lose track of that. I fight like a crab pulled out of water. You have to have a long view of the world to survive.

CH: It’s the opposite extreme when you’re shooting films. We almost never fight because so much of the process of these films is so long and you’re unloved for a lot of it. They want you to do the film, but they don’t want you hanging around all the time. It’s a continual process of trying to talk yourself into someone’s life, and it can be lonely and boring. It’s wonderful to have a partner to do it with.

Because you’ve been making films for decades, how do you keep it fresh? How do you not get stuck in a pattern?

DAP: I don’t know. If I had to think about it, I would probably panic. The thing that gives films their bite is that they are placed in a certain time. In keeping up with filmmakers, and not just documentary filmmakers, that are doing it on their own and not as part of a company, you get an idea of what others see. That makes you look harder at yourself, and you change. The ideas you used last year you don’t want to use again.

CH: I think what keeps it interesting for me is that it’s always a new world to get to know. You keep variety going after a long haul like Startup by filming musicians for a few days.

DAP: The subjects provide a lot of the milieu. You don’t tell them what to do. It puts you in a position where the target area is clear, you can’t go too wrong. Whereas if you were putting it together, like Jane Austen, you have to be absolutely accurate and I don’t have the patience to do that.

CH: Sometimes I would like to try something different with the style of a film, but at the same time I am striving for films that give me the same excitement that the first cinema verite films gave me. Those were films where I felt I was inside this world getting a peak at it, the primal voyeurism we all have that early verite films gave, with a story as dramatic as any story can be.

Do you view Town Bloody Hall differently now?

DAP: No, because each film takes you to the next film. It’s hard in the middle of anything to try to rethink the whole game again. You plod ever onward.

CH: Town was interesting to watch at the time. I found it fascinating in historical perspective because these were women I admired. By the time we released it (eight years later), it still had a fascination because people knew about the event. I remember watching it again in a university class in the 80s, and the kids had no idea what it was all about. It didn’t seem relevant. Now it has another meaning entirely. There has been a resurgence in women’s issues as to how women have gotten where they are.

Documentaries are normally dubbed ‘talking head videos’…

DAP: Some of them are, but not the ones with animals in them. They don’t talk much.

(laughs) Has that ever affected the way you compose a film?

DAP: We like dialogue — dialogue drives drama — but it’s hard to contrive dialogue which is what generally happens when sitt
ing people down to question them. It’s supposed to provide information, which is what everybody assumes an audience wants from a film. I assume the opposite. I think people go to films to avoid the information so I’m hesitant about ever putting it in a film. But that’s a position I take today and tomorrow I might decide against it. I don’t want to be imprisoned by my position so I don’t have any rules. I think drama, the instinct for story, is in everybody. A movie has to operate on that basis.

Where do you see documentaries headed?

CH: I think it has incredible potential to go in ways we can’t even know now just because video has put the process in the hands of children, even. Kids can make films and edit them on computers. They can do things that weren’t possible when I started making films. Back then, filmmaking was for the elite because the equipment was expensive. The distribution of films will also be changing to do what music can do, downloading and sharing through the Internet.

DAP: Do you think we’re going to get something more interesting of content?

CH: Sure, you’ll get personal visions of peoples’ lives in ways you wouldn’t have gotten.

Are there going to be more reissues?

CH: Monterey Pop is going to be reissued on DVD, as 3-CD offering with the Otis Redding and Jimi Hendrix films, and performances that haven’t been released yet. I think the David Bowie film is going to be put out again.

DAP: He says he’s going to remix. I’ll wait to see if he does it. (chuckles)

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