INTERVIEW: D.A. Pennebaker & Chris Hegedus Do Look Back

The documentary masters ignore the title of Pennebaker's landmark Bob Dylan film to reminisce about their 40-year partnership and discuss their latest film.

On Wednesday, July 6, the Hollywood Theatre will screen a double feature of two of the most impactful pop-music documentaries ever made, 1967’s “Dont Look Back,” starring a 24-year-old Bob Dylan, and 1973’s “Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars,” which captured the swan song performance of David Bowie as the titular, iconic persona.

Both were directed by D.A. “Penny” Pennebaker, who helped to invent the observational, handheld technique known as cinema vérité in the 1950s and 60s, and whose partnership with Chris Hegedus marks its 40th year in 2016. The couple, who married in 1982, have covered topics as diverse as Presidential campaigns (“The War Room”), the Internet boom (“Startup.com”), and dessert chefs (“Kings of Pastry”). On Thursday, the Hollywood will screen their latest film, “Unlocking the Cage,” which follows the seemingly quixotic efforts of attorney Steven Wise and the Nonhuman Rights Project to convince a New York court that apes (and some other animals) deserve recognition as legal persons under the law.

I’ll be moderating a Q&A session with the 90-year-old (same as the Hollywood!) Pennebaker between the two films on Wednesday, and both directors will join Wise in attendance at Thursday’s screening. In advance, I had a chance to chat with Pennebaker and Hegedus by phone last week. What follows is an edited transcript.

D.A. Pennebaker & Chris Hegedus

D.A. Pennebaker & Chris Hegedus

Oregon Arts Watch: Almost every description of you two says something like “the legendary documentary duo.” How does it feel to be described as legendary.

D.A. Pennebaker: Heh. I don’t know, you tell me.

OAW: I have no idea. I’ve never been described that way.

DAP: I mean, I know that we talk to people and we show films to people, and sometimes they like them, sometimes they don’t. Legendary doesn’t seem to quite describe how I feel, but who am I to say?

OAW: This year marks the 40th anniversary of your creative collaboration. I was hoping that you could relate how your working relationship started, and also when you had the sense that this partnership was really going to last for decades the way it has? If there was a sort of light bulb moment.

Chris Hegedus: Well, I was looking for a way to get my hands on a camera. Because 16 mm equipment, back in the 1970s, was very expensive and pretty exclusive. But it wasn’t like today. I really didn’t know how a woman could become a director of a Hollywood film. There were very few women in that role in the 1960s and even in the 70s, so when I first saw some of the cinema vérité films that Pennebaker and [Richard] Leacock and [Albert] Maysles and Bob Drew were involved with, it was a transformative moment for me. These were very much like fiction films–they had a character, and a drama, a storyline, but it was with real people. And it instantly changed my life from being a filmmaker that was making experimental films to a documentary filmmaker. So I thought it would be better to team up with somebody who had equipment, and I went to Bob Drew, because he was the executive producer of all those films. He apologized that he didn’t have a job, and suggested I go see Pennebaker up the street. So that’s how I landed on Penny’s doorstep. We had a fabulous conversation, but he didn’t really have a job, and he sent me away. Then basically the next day, he called up and said he had a job.

OAW: And then the rest is history?

CH: It is history, you know? He pointed me toward a wall of films that he had shot but hadn’t edited, and we began with those. For me, it was like being a kid in a candy store, but I’m sure it was different for Penny.

DAP: Well, we had come to the abrupt end of Leacock-Pennebaker [Films] and I was not quite sure what to do next. I knew I needed somebody to help me. I work better with a partner, and when I talked to Chris, I got the feeling that this was the person I was looking for. So I handed her a whole bunch of films that needed editing and I figured, let’s see what she can do.

OAW: Has that sort of division of labor, in terms of one person doing more planning and shooting, the other person doing more post-production or editing, stayed constant? Or has it evolved over time?

DAP: I don’t think there’s any rules about what you do, or that both people have to make the same film. For instance, “Unlocking the Cage” is really a film that Chris has done, from almost the beginning. But I kept up with it because the film interests me, and I feel that my partnership with Chris is still ongoing, even thought I’m not making that film.

CH: I think what really worked for us is that we had very similar ideas of what we’re looking for in the material, and the story. And that helped us form a very strong partnership. We’re both very technical people – we both can shoot and take sound and edit – so we’re pretty much hand-making the films. In the beginning, we even cut our own original negatives. So it really was a shared vision and shared labor. It’s only changed now in the last few films because, you know, Penny is 90 years old.

DAP: I had to stop shooting.

CH: And it’s harder for him to get around. But for decades that was the type of partnership we had, where we really shared the making of the films together.

DAP: I could probably still operate a camera, but the fact is, if you’re a filmmaker and you’re armed with a camera, you have to be able to move around a lot, and sometimes very fast. And that’s just not something I can do anymore, and it seems to me that I shouldn’t try, because it just gets in other people’s way.


Bob Dylan in "Dont Look Back" and David Bowie in "Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars"

Bob Dylan in “Dont Look Back” and David Bowie in “Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars”

OAW: You’ve singly or together been involved in some of the most influential documentaries about politics, “Primary” and “The War Room.” Both of them broke new ground in terms of unmediated access to campaigns. I thought of both of those movies when I recently saw “Weiner,” which felt like one more step in the direction of intimacy and immediacy, almost to an uncomfortable level. Is there such a thing as too much intimacy when you’re covering something like that?

DAP: Well, that’s like when you’re writing poetry or a novel: you may not even intend it to be one particular way, but you follow your instincts, and your instincts aren’t always what you think they are. And what comes out is surprising to you and maybe to other people.

CH: I don’t know. It’s fascinating how close [co-director] Josh [Kriegman] got to Anthony Weiner, and I remember in the beginning he was always vacillating between whether he should just do politics or be a filmmaker. [Kriegman worked for Congressman Anthony Weiner, the film’s subject, before becoming a filmmaker.] It had this comfortable, close situation already built into it, from their previous relationship.

OAW: That’s true, he already had that access.

CH: But it’s fascinating to get to the candidate. That’s what we always wanted when we did “The War Room,” you know? See a man become President, or see a man become Mayor, or whatever. In the end, we didn’t get the type of access we wanted, but it ended up being a unique vantage anyway: having, James Carville as a character is almost as good as having Bob Dylan!

DAP: I think the way a film turns out, is usually dependent largely on the character you’re filming. And you may want to make a love story, and Anthony Weiner is trying to make a political one. So it’s hard to invent the story within the filming.

OAW: And therein can lie some of the tension that ends up in the film, maybe?

DAP: When you watch Carville do anything it becomes Carville-time, and you can’t change that much by re-editing and cutting in stuff. And that’s probably as it should be, because that’s who you’re following.


A promotional image for "Unlocking the Cage"

A promotional image for “Unlocking the Cage”

OAW: Well, speaking of leading characters, in “Unlocking the Cage,” you have attorney Stephen Wise as the star of the movie. How did you first hear about his efforts to get apes granted legal personhood, and when did you decide that he would be a good centerpiece for a film.

CH: Well, like most of our films, even “Don’t Look Back” or “Ziggy Stardust,” somebody came to us and suggested we meet Steve Wise. In this case it was Rosadel Varela, a friend, who became one of the producers. She brought Steve to our office, and he proceeded to tell us what he was going to try to do. It sounded very novel, slightly bizarre, but interesting. We look for people who are entirely passionate, and about to take a big risk – and this is really where Steve was. He was about to embark on this journey that he had spent 30 years on and written three books about. In terms of the subject matter and animal rights, we loved animals and lived in New York with a huge 80-pound dog and two cats. So we’re animal people, I guess you’d say, but I didn’t really know a lot about animal rights, except that I felt that it was something in the zeitgeist, because of “Food, Inc.” and some of the other stories and films that had come out, like “The Cove.” There was like this undercurrent of interest.

OAW: Would you say that your opinions or your perspectives on the issue evolved with the making of the film?

CH: Yeah. I’ve totally evolved. I’m evolving. In the beginning, I said to Steve, “What about zoos? What about elephants in zoos?” He said, “Well, you know, they probably won’t be there anymore.” And I stopped and thought, “Hmm.” And now it just seems crazy – of course they shouldn’t be there. I really have changed so much of my life and opinions.

DAP: When we decide to start a film, we don’t do very much research at all. The film is the research, and the making of the film is, for us, like studying the subject in depth, because you’re usually working with a person who knows quite a lot about it. And that engagement is what makes the whole adventure of filmmaking exciting and interesting for us to pursue. It’s curiosity that drives it.

OAW: That seems like the one indispensable quality for what you guys do, an unquenchable curiosity about everything.  

DAP: I mean, if somebody said they were going to Mars, would you like to come along, you know, we’d be tempted.

OAW: Yeah, as long as you can beam back your footage for the rest of us. You’ve been part of a generation of documentary filmmakers who revolutionized the form. Who do you see today taking the next step and continuing to push documentary forward?

CH: There’s so many amazing filmmakers out there. I think Laura Poitras has done some amazing things — her Edward Snowden film [“Citizenfour”]. Our friend Matt Heineman, who did “Cartel Land,” he’s doing incredible stuff. You know, we still love Michael Moore, and think he’s a very brave soul that tries to use humor to get really important topics out there.

OAW: Does this feel like a golden age of documentary? With so many outlets available, there’s a real groundswell now, right? Or am I just now catching on, and it’s always been the case?

CH: No, there definitely is a groundswell. I think you’re absolutely right. I think it is a golden age of documentaries. And it’s in an interesting time, because when I began, it was pretty much something that white men made, you know?

OAW: Like movies in general.

CH: Like movies in general. And they filmed everybody’s culture. Now people can film their own cultures, and that’s an enormous difference. So many people are making movies now, and the whole distribution model has changed. Reality shows and blogs, some are better than others, but I suppose they are forms of documentary. Some are less real than others, but it can be an ongoing story. There’s amazing, new ways, to tell stories using real footage.

DAP: For young people graduating out of college, who don’t want to go immediately into a job somewhere, the idea of getting ahold of a camera and going out and making a film is such an intriguing notion. I think that a lot of films are going to made – whether they all will be successful or work, it almost doesn’t matter. It’s like when people started writing novels, you know? Everybody had to try it. It’s a one-person thing. That’s what makes it interesting.

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