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D.A. Pennebaker on Working With Rock Royalty, Fighting for Access, and His New Animal-Rights Film

Photo: Jemal Countess/Getty Images

Last week saw the release of a beautiful new Criterion edition of D.A. Pennebaker’s seminal documentary Dont Look Back, about Bob Dylan’s 1965 concert tour of England. At the time, the film was like nothing anybody had seen before: less a concert movie than a mesmerizing portrait of rising young folk poet Dylan – right before he went electric – at work and at play, as he made his way through testy press tours, freewheeling hotel-room conversations, and the concert stage. Pennebaker had already helped pioneer the concepts of “direct cinema” and cinéma vérité – even building some of the very first 16mm sync-sound handheld cameras that allowed this kind of filmmaking to happen in the first place – but Dont Look Back’s success marked a turning point in his career.

In 1967, he would film the equally seismic Monterey Pop, about the music festival, which resulted in some of the most iconic footage of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and others. Over the years, he has put his name on some of the most important documentaries of our time, including Town Bloody Hall, about a fiery debate between Norman Mailer and a panel of feminist thinkers, including Germaine Greer, and The War Room (made with his wife and partner Chris Hegedus, with whom he’s collaborated since the late 1970s), about James Carville and George Stephanopoulos’s successful management of Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign. Pennebaker joined us recently for a wide-ranging discussion covering everything from Dont Look Back and Dylan, to Jimi and Janis, to Carville and Stephanopoulos, to his new film, and, of course, to his revolutionary approach to filmmaking.

Did you know much about Bob Dylan when you first started filming him?
When Albert [Grossman, Dylan’s manager] asked me to make the film, I didn’t know much about Dylan. I’d just heard “The Times They Are A Changin’” on the radio. I didn’t think much about the person who was singing it, except that Time magazine had said that he wasn’t a very good singer. That interested me; I was not sure I trusted Time magazine’s view of Dylan, for a number of reasons – although I’d worked at Life magazine for three or four years.

So, why did they come to you?
I’m not sure. I do know Dylan had a copy of my short Daybreak Express, because he asked me about it later. I know that Albert wanted to get Dylan into some sort of movie mode, and then try to get Warner Brothers to pick up on him. If Dylan could’ve been a movie star — for Albert, that would have been a move up. I had done a sort of music film when I was working with Life magazine, about a bunch of junkies out in Los Angeles in a home on the beach. The arrangement was that anybody who was a junkie could go there and hang out and get clean, which provided a lot of social excitement, which is kind of what junkies like. There were no bars or anything; you could leave anytime you wanted, but you could never come back. We went out and spent three or four months out there, living in this place and filming it, and I made a film called David. David was a trumpet player for a very good musical group that lived there. This was sort of my first attempt to make a feature film, and it was about a musician.

Do you think Dylan and his team expected a concert film, or something else?
I don’t really know what they expected. But I thought, “Well, this is another musician, so it’s probably going to be another musical film.” We recorded every concert, and I had a guy with me as an extra cameraman, so we could have made a reasonable concert film. But about three or four days into the project, I was listening to Dylan, and I got intrigued by the way he used the language. It got me thinking, “Maybe I don’t want to make a music film.”

I was reminded more of when Byron fled England with Shelley and they went to live in Italy — the whole nature of people creating an art form of their lives, of where they lived and their roots. That intrigued me more than making a musical film. Dylan understood what poets were; he wasn’t sure that he was one, but it interested him. So he’d say phrases like, “She’s true like fire, like ice.” When I heard that stuff, it riveted me. I wanted to find out where this comes from. This changed the nature of the film. In fact, we wound up missing a lot of music. Later, somebody who was working for me saw the outs and said, “You missed a lot of stuff.” So then I made a different film, and when you made it with the music, that was Dylan’s poetry. It certainly gave a much fuller view of him than the first one did.

How did the “Subterranean Homesick Blues” sequence at the film’s opening – which has become such an iconic bit of footage, much replicated over the years — come about?
That was seen as something to be used as a promotional thing. There was a program on BBC called “Ready Steady Go,” on which bands like the Beatles would go. They were not allowed to play their music on the air, so they would pretend to play it. But they would do things that would give it away and make a joke out of it, and everybody thought that was very cute. So we had something like that in mind. Dylan said, “I have an idea for a film. We make cards for the lyrics to the song I’ve just recorded, and I’ll hold them up in front of the camera.” I said, “That’s a terrific idea.” We didn’t do it until the last couple of days in London. Everybody helped write the cards. Joan [Baez] did some, I did some. Donovan did some; he was actually a very good drawer.

Did a lot of planning go into the shooting of it? The cards are timed pretty well with the music.
No. It was just raw. We started to do one in the garden by the hotel, and a policeman came up. After about two or three times of trying to shake the policeman off, the whole scene was gone. So then we went up behind the hotel in the alleyway, where there was nobody to give us any problems. And we just set up the tape recorder to play one time. We only did one take. Allen Ginsberg was there, and Bobby Neuwirth. I didn’t even think about them; they were sort of in and out of the frame. It was all very circumstantial. We never really even thought that much about it, because we saw it as some kind of promotional thing. They used these in Europe: They had these machines that could play those short musical promo things. I think maybe Dylan thought it was going to be like that. For a long time nobody gave it much thought. When I was editing the film, I originally had a beginning with him just before a concert. But then I thought, “We have to know who this guy is.” So I took that thing and put it in front, and I didn’t cut a frame. I used the whole thing. That became the beginning of the film. It always made me think that any kind of filmmaking that was really successful was just largely chance.

This was right before Dylan famously went electric. Did you get a sense that something was about to change?
Yes. I could see that he was getting bored up there onstage rattling off these long poems that he’d written. What was amazing was that the audience in the U.K. was so different from the audience in the U.S. I had watched Sinatra when he went from Harry James to Tommy Dorsey; the screaming bobbysoxers would just die for him and throw themselves at his feet. Then, in England, what I saw was such a different audience. They were older, and they also understood what poetry was. Most of them had probably read the great English poets. They were coming to see someone who was an heir to all that.

How did Dylan respond when he saw the finished film?
It was not like a movie. When I showed it to the Beatles — we had a screening for them one night — afterward I could see that for John and Paul this was kind of Dylan’s home movie. It was something he could do and there wasn’t any point to it. Except George, who came and said to me afterward, “That’s a real movie, isn’t it? It can play in theaters and stuff!” I said, “Yeah, if I can get it there.” He said, “It’s really interesting to me, because I can see that that’s what’s coming.” When George died, I went to this funeral tribute in London. I talked to his wife there, who said that after seeing the film, every day he went out and shot stuff.

I still find it fascinating that George was the cinematic visionary in the Beatles. He later became a great movie producer.
I didn’t know him very well. But I liked him a lot, and I liked his wife a lot, too. They were so different than John, who I got to know very well in New York later. They were all different people, and the fact that they were all stuck together and lashed together as Beatles was very hard for them.

For Monterey Pop, which came after Don’t Look Back, you helped pioneer a kind of concert film that hadn’t been done much before.
They hadn’t done it for a very good reason. There wasn’t a sync camera that you could walk around with. You had to set up big 35mm cameras, which needed two or three people to operate, and were immobile, so you just watched the thing from a distance. People going to concerts didn’t want to watch it from a distance, although many of them had to. They wanted to see the faces close up. So when we made those cameras, the whole idea was to be able to follow people around and shoot dialogue. You could shoot stuff that would sync up with music and talking and everything else. We had five of those at the time. We were making them in our office, practically. When I got a call saying, “Do you want to do a music festival in California?” the film that Bruce Brown* had done about surfing, Endless Summer, had just come out. Of course everybody thought it was about surfing. When I went to see it, I realized it was about California. They all talked of California. Of course, every guy graduating from high school wanted to get to California for all sorts of reasons — the chemistry, the magic, whatever it was.

I agreed to do the film, but I hadn’t thought about it. All the films I’d made had been by myself or with one other person. For this, you had to have a lot of people here, because we were going to be shooting multiple cameras. I wasn’t the person to direct them. I thought, “I’ll get five people I work with from my office, I’ll give them each a camera, and turn them loose. And we’ll see what we get.” They knew the music, and they knew how to work the cameras. I think the only real camera person we had there was [Richard] Leacock. At the end of the day, they’d give me the stuff that they exposed, and I’d give them new rolls, and that’s how we shot the three or four days.

Did you have any sense that the footage you were shooting – with Hendrix, with Joplin, and all these people – would become so famous?
I didn’t have any sense of it until the end, when Janis came out and sang a combination or two. When I heard her sing, I said, “Holy shit!” We had been told we couldn’t film her; there was some kind of contract issue. I said to Albert, “I don’t know what you have to do, but we have to get her in the film.” He was after her because he wanted to sign her. So she came out and said, “I’m going to do a second show.” And we could film that. That’s how we got her, at a second show in the afternoon.

What was Jimi Hendrix like?
Everybody thought of him as some bear running around the world, but he was a really gentle person. I got to know him in New York better. We were doing a thing with Janis, and he did sound for me! With the Nagra recorder and then slating at the beginning of takes and everything! I really liked him a lot. He was not outrageous at all. He had somehow gotten into certain drugs. I think it was mostly marijuana, but I didn’t ask. The reason I stopped filming Janis was because the drugs were a problem and I didn’t know how to deal with them on film. But Hendrix was the most reasonable person to spend time with, and not at all the crazy person he was made out to be.

He was also a terrific songwriter, but because the albums all seem kind of mystical and majestic, nobody ever really gets a sense of him as a songwriter. But we did a film once called Looking for Jimi Hendrix. We got a bunch of different people to play his songs, and they all fell in love with the songs. We filmed them recording the songs. You could sense that when you took the songs away from that really incredible Hendrix overload, they’re wonderful songs, really appealing. We had a few people who hadn’t given much thought to him who listened to his music and picked out a song to record. They became such different songs. You had a really different sense of him.

What is it with you and rock stars? Do you find them, or do they find you?
What interests me is filming people who do something really well, and understand how to do that. That’s what people are constantly looking for. That’s what people go to schools for — to find out what it is they have to know to succeed. That’s what makes for interesting cinema. I’ve filmed lots of political people, too. When we did Primary with Kennedy, just watching Kennedy – Jack and Bobby – deal with large crowds of people, you could see right away why [Hubert] Humphrey wasn’t going to be president. You just watch people, and you learn more from watching them than you ever could from being told about them.

Access is the lifeblood of your filmmaking approach. How do you get people to trust you and let you shoot them?
If you’re filming people doing something that really matters to them, it’s possible. When I was very young, I took up skiing. And there was a ski jump in Salzburg near where I went to school. It was a pretty big ski jump – about 40 meters. And there were rocks on both sides, so if you missed it, you’d be dead. I decided to do it. I had a friend at school who was a photographer. I brought him with me and said, “I want you to be sure to get me jumping, because I’m probably never going to do it again.” So I went and I did it and I landed. Afterward, I asked him, “Did you get it?” He said, “No, my camera jammed.”

For years afterward, I felt deprived that I would never see what I looked like at that jump. So you can see that the idea of seeing yourself doing something difficult is intriguing to people. With JFK, he’d never tell me to stop, because he knew that we weren’t trying to get on the six o’clock news. We were doing history in a sense, and history in the White House was as interesting as any other history. It interests people to be filmed by somebody who isn’t trying to catch them doing something wrong, but is just interested in what they’re doing.

Of course, the cameras that you developed also helped in this. Tell me about developing the first hand-held sync-sound cameras.
It was essential that you could walk around and shoot dialogue. For the film, David. I spent all this time with these junkies who were nothing in the world. What went on in that place was so dramatic, so interesting. But you had to learn how to watch. You couldn’t sit dumbly in the corner. You had to be part of the group. You had to take part in it. It was the same with George [Stephanopoulos] and James [Carville], when we did The War Room. We were just a part of their operation. We didn’t have a lot of equipment, or all these lights and things photographers often come in with. It was just Chris [Hegedus] and I sitting there.

How did The War Room come about?
Two people, neither of whom had made a film at that point, came to us at the start of the 1992 election. Wendy Ettinger did casting for theater shows. R.J. Cutler, at the time, was a director for an off-beat theater group in the Village. They said, “Why aren’t you making a film about this election? It’s so interesting.” And we said, “Well, we don’t have any money, and we have no people inside that are going to help us get entry.” They said, “We’ll help you.” Pretty soon they came back with a little money. And they knew George Stephanopoulos. So we spent a couple of days shooting different people in the party. I thought, “Wow, this is unbelievably boring. I’m not sure we can make a film about this.”

And then we met Carville. We didn’t know who he was at the beginning. He seemed like somebody’s drunken uncle who’d gotten loose in the campaign. Pretty soon, we were following Carville. And not long after that, we started to do him and George, because it became a buddy movie. And that was so much more interesting than filming Clinton. With candidates who are actually campaigning, it’s hard, because what you’re doing isn’t for the six o’clock news, it’s for much later, and that doesn’t help them. Though we did shoot Clinton: When he saw a camera, he’d come immediately charging up to it. But you couldn’t be with him at important moments. Jimmy and George, though, everything they did was an important moment. So we just moved down there, to Little Rock. When Carville saw us, he asked, “What are you doing here?” We said, “Well, we just want to hang out here for a couple of months.” He said, “Well, why should I let you do that?” And when somebody asks you that, the only answer is, “Well, because you want to.” So we became regular participants in that huge basketball-court-sized office they had. We weren’t making a film, we were just hanging out, making a kind of home movie. That’s how it had to feel. We didn’t want it to feel like we were making a feature film.

Later, George saw the movie. They had a screening at the University of Virginia, and said, “If you can get George to come for the screening we’ll give you a couple of chairs.” I thought “Holy shit, we’re gonna get a couple of documentary film chairs at the University of Virginia!” Of course they just meant a couple of chair chairs, to sit on. [Laughs] George laughed all the way through it. At the end, he said, “If I’d known you were going to do this, I’d have never let you in!” Their best impulses fooled them into letting you in. Same with Dylan.

Watching The War Room again, I’m struck by the combination of cynicism and hope. These people are very much true believers – they genuinely believe the country will be better off with their guy in charge – but they also have to do the gotcha stuff, the mud-slinging, etc. The two concepts are not mutually exclusive. If anything, they’re sort of directly related.
You get that kind of complexity when you can really capture real life. We’re just observers. We’re not going to run for office afterward, and we’re not going to publish a tell-all book or anything. So these people can be themselves in front of us, and we’re not going into it with an agenda. All we have is what took place in front of the camera. When I worked at Life, those photographers were my heroes. My sense of the camera was that when you pointed it at something, it couldn’t lie. It told you exactly what was there. It was like some kind of scientific instrument that you could explore things with. What I saw was the coming of a time when people knew people by what they saw in their home movies. It was like a new language. And I think in 20 or so years – because technology is still changing so much – people will depend on this kind of observance much more than anything we have.

Have you changed your opinion at all vis-à-vis the notion that “the camera cannot lie”? Given the rise of so-called reality television in the ensuing decades?
No, because people who watch that know that it’s often not serious. I can see that with digital you can manipulate the image. I don’t mean lie in that sense. I mean that when people really voice their convictions, or argue the fate of some particular notions, you can write it many ways – in different languages and different styles – but if you film it, and you film it honestly, then that’s all there was. That’s the only true version that lives.

Obviously, when The War Room came out, we had all just been through the election and didn’t need a lot of explanation as to various figures and events referenced in the film. And the film doesn’t dwell on that. But years later, a viewer coming to it who wasn’t there for the election might not know all these things. Which takes precedence when you’re structuring a film: posterity, or the demands of the contemporaneous viewer?
That’s the composing aspect of it. From the very first film I ever did, I’ve always asked, “What can you tell the future that nobody knows about now?” But yeah, you have an audience now, too, and they’re going to pay for it, too. But the question of what to tell the future — that guides you in everything you want to do. It guides you in deciding what to shoot, that guides you in building the cameras, to what you leave in and what you leave out. And when you make a documentary, you should start at the beginning. But most of the films that get paid for, they begin somewhere later on, because they don’t want to pay for it. And often they get somebody to tell you what happened — usually in interviews. And interviews are just news reports: If Shakespeare had had everything happen through interviews, there wouldn’t be any theater there. You have to see things happen. That’s what this can do. You can watch George and James argue over something they haven’t decided on yet.

Tell me about Unlocking the Cage, the film you’re working on now, about animal rights. You went to Kickstarter to help finance it.
We got a good start with it, but Kickstarter’s a hard way to go, unless you’re a celebrity. It sounded like a lot – we got about $80,000 for it. But when you’re doing a film like this and you’re working for years and years, it’s not a lot of money. It was a good thing to do, though, because it got us in touch with an audience that I know is there. I know that people’s ideas about animals are changing. The time will come when we won’t be eating them anymore. It costs too much to eat them. We don’t have enough water to keep breeding them. We’ll have to see them as a group that we share the planet with.

But again, when a person is really passionate about what they do, and you can watch that happen in the real world, that to me is what makes a movie interesting. We don’t have to love this lawyer – he’s a guy who wants to have chimpanzees legally declared persons. The idea that this guy is going to do this, that to me is a film for the future. When we started it, about five years ago, he was a clown. Nobody took him seriously. They barked when he came into the room to give a speech. And I thought, “He’s the only person in the world who’s come up with a way to protect animals.” Animals are outside the law right now; they’re just things. But you’re making a movie to show people how something can begin.

And I can see that this guy is going to win. Chimpanzees were brought over for the space program. They went out into the woods, and killed all the mothers and took their babies away, and brought them to the States. And they put them in rockets, because it was too dangerous to put people in them at the time. And these little 3-year-old chimps could be taught to fly a rocket, because they’re such smart creatures. When they decided that people could fly rockets, they didn’t need them anymore, so they gave them to the drug companies to test drugs. But chimps live to be 60 or 70 years old. So all the time you have one, he has to be in a cage. So this was what bothered our lawyer so much: You’re enslaving them for their whole lives just because they were useful at one moment. And they’re so smart. The chimps that we filmed – they learned to sign, but they were taught to sign by other chimps!

Does working on a film like this change you?
Sure it does. My dog was old, and his legs couldn’t hold up, and the doctor said, “The kindest thing you can do is just put him away.” I didn’t want to do it. He was my dog and he was like my child. But we put him down. We gave him the shot, and I watched him die. And I thought, “I murdered that dog.” I’ll never get over that. I have a picture on my desk of the last moments of his life, and I see it every day. It’s like he’s saying, “I’m watching you.”

I’m sure you see a lot of documentaries as well. What are the ones you’ve liked in recent years?
Well, we’re in the Academy, so we get to see a lot of them. And most of them are rhetoric. But even rhetoric is pretty interesting sometimes, because so many of them try to make it at least amusing if not interesting. But watching films, it’s like poetry. If you read all the poetry in the world, most of it’s terrible. But every once in a while, there’s Keats. And he’s only 18 years old, but he knows instinctively he knows how to do it. When you find talent or ability anywhere, you kind of want to take notice of it, because it’s so rare. I’ve seen maybe a dozen in the last couple of years that I think are interesting. One of them was this film in Mexico about the drug trade: Cartel Land. It was so interesting because the kids that do it, it’s just a job. It’s like the way kids here go out and wait on tables, because they need money. They’re treated in movies like they’re demons. But they’re just doing what nobody else wants to do. You really got a sense of that. The film showed you something nobody else was able to.

* This article originally referred to Bruce Brown by a different first name. We regret the error.

D.A. Pennebaker Reflects on His Storied Career