When I first started working at the legendary Poetry Project in 1991, my boss, Ed Friedman, suggested I do a Friday Night Event Series and gave me carte blanche to do whatever I wanted.
It was a dream come true. Now I had a reason to contact people I admired, and the Poetry Project’s reputation did the rest. In 1994, D. A. Pennebaker spoke to a fairly non-existent audience in the parish hall, the fault of no publicity and bad weather. He simply walked up to the podium and said, “Any questions?” So although this isn’t literally an interview, it reads like one. – Gillian McCain
D. A. PENNEBAKER:… I was kind of interested in doing something on music. But, until he walked in the door, it had never occurred to me to do a film on Bob Dylan. I’d read a few of the trashings that he’d gotten at the hands of Time magazine and so forth… so I knew he had to have something going on… or they wouldn’t have bothered to beat up on him. So he kind of did interest me… I started out just sort of hanging out; I never intended to make it a concert film, I never intended to find out, you know, why he didn’t call himself Bob Zimmerman… I never had any questions to ask him, actually. I think I only asked him a question once… I don’t even remember what it was now… but most of the time I just watched.
“Our brains have all been trained, in some wondrously dexterous way, to perceive life in ninety minute chunks. As a result, of all the movies that have been made since 1926 or whenever they started doing ninety-minute films, we think of everything in our marriages, our love affairs, our pets, are all kind of ninety minute dramas for us.”
Q: Where did the title of the film come from?
P: Dont Look Back? Uh, well, actually it came because of Satchel Paige. I liked that idea of “don’t look back.” It may be gaining on you. And later he said, “Maybe it came from, [Dylan’s lyric] “she’s an artist, she don’t look back,” and I had never thought of it until that minute. And then when he said it, I said: “Maybe you’re right!” You never know where things come from, and I don’t worry about it too much.
Q: Was the title your decision, or was it his?
P: No, it was my decision. [Dylan] stayed out of the film totally until it was done. Then he looked at it and he whined about a couple of things… as is traditional, right? I mean, I knew I was making a film for theatrical release, even though nobody else thought so. I don’t know why Albert [Grossman] wanted to make a film; it had something to do with hoping to get some kind of a deal with Warner Brothers, so that a lot of money would change hands.
And I was to be the Judas goat somehow… to bring the whole thing together. And I know that nobody believed in it because I took that film around to about twenty distributors and I couldn’t get people to sit all the way through the first reel, much less the whole film. And I still have the letter from Warner Seven Arts from that time where the guy said: “There’s this film that this guy has made about Dylan. And he’s looking to get it distributed and one of the people in our company suggested that we distribute it.” By that point we had already opened it at the Presidio out in San Francisco. So he arranged for some guy who was working for Seven Arts at the time to go see it. And the guy had written back this letter which I still have a copy of that said: “Well, I went to this movie they told me to go see, and actually, I took my sixteen year-old daughter, because these people looked so weird I really thought I had to have some orientation along with me…” So he described the film, and he then said: “It’s just unbelievable. First of all, you can’t see anything, it’s so dark… secondly, even if you do see anything, the guy is a filthy nut and you don’t wanna have anything to do with him. Believe me this is not a film Seven Arts ought to distribute. But you know what, there was one weird thing… my daughter loved it!”
So at that point I knew it was going to be a hard film all the way down the line to sell. But for some reason it absolutely never dawned on me that it wouldn’t eventually be an important film historically. But it was a very hard film… we, never… well, it made money, but not for us. It made a little money. Dylan always thinks that we got rich off of it, you know, but that was because Albert was always whispering in his ear for some reason. But the fact is that it was not… I mean, it’s really hard. The War Room hasn’t made any money for us; we’re still totally broke from doing it. It’s really hard to make money out of a one-shot film because you’re going into theaters that are slow payers and if you don’t have a distributor to hang an axe over their head, they never pay. I don’t think there’s ever a week where Dont Look Back isn’t playing in London and we have never taken one pound out of London. When I tell Dylan that his eyes get red and start to pop. He gets so enraged! And I say, “Well, why don’t you take London? You can have the English rights to it, go over and try to get the money out of them, because it’s impossible!” You can’t get any money back. But they all love you for doing it, so after awhile you just realize you’ve become some sort of public plant, and all the dogs can come piss on you and that’s the way it’s gonna be! And you just… you don’t think about it anymore.
“It’s just unbelievable. First of all, you can’t see anything, it’s so dark… secondly, even if you do see anything, the guy is a filthy nut and you don’t wanna have anything to do with him. Believe me this is not a film Seven Arts ought to distribute. But you know what, there was one weird thing… my daughter loved it!”
Q: Is there a moment when you start thinking of an audience?
P: There is a moment when I do start thinking of an audience and there was a moment in The War Room when I did. I said to Chris [Hegedus—Pennebaker’s collaborator and wife], when we had only started at the convention and we hadn’t shot very much, “You know, this is a feature film, a theatrical film.” And she started to giggle… she thought I was kidding. She said, “That’s a wonderful idea, but we don’t have the footage for it.” And I said: “Well, we have to find some.” And luckily, we ran into Kevin Rafferty [cinematographer] and we talked to him… he had shot the stuff in New Hampshire, which provided a lot of the beginning stuff. And then Chris went out, and dug up about two hundred and fifty tapes from every local TV station in New England. And we went through everything.
A very strange thing happened in this last election. In fact, a lot of things were tipped over that were the way things had been and were expected to be forever. One of them was the networks in their wonderful greed. And we can all be thankful for that greed because it makes life change constantly for us in various ways that nobody can expect. The networks had decided that they could make more money than they were making by selling footage that they shot, as a network, to local stations. They figured by the time the local stations figured out how to use it, they would have already sent their programs down the line, so it wouldn’t cost them anything and they’d get double the income out of it. Well, they hadn’t reckoned on the Jennifer Flowers story, which all the networks agreed, in their wonderful pompous virtue, that they would “never” touch. “This is a sleazy story, we’re not going to have anything to do with it.” But the locals didn’t give a shit, they couldn’t get it on the air fast enough! So the networks were in this funny condition of having the locals upstage them with this story! Pretty soon they were squeezed into having to do it. It was a really strange arrangement because all the locals suddenly realized that they were in a position of great power, at least momentarily. Most of the good stories were coming out of local stations! So if you could get the tapes from them—and they were all over the place—they couldn’t even remember what they’d done; they didn’t even keep track of it. It turned out later that most of the stuff was out in Little Rock. They had been collecting all of the tapes and one of the functions of The War Room was to put onto tape everything that happened, twenty-four hours a day, anywhere in the United States, anything that had to do even remotely with the elections. So they had this incredible collection of tapes out there, which we kind of began to use as research. And little by little, Chris put together the whole front end of that film. But there was a moment, somewhere, and I can’t remember exactly, but it had to do with watching George [Stephanopoulos]’s and James [Carville]’s roles change. I could see that the relationship of the acolyte to the
Zen Master was slowly shifting and then there was this wonderful moment where James said: “Bye-bye” and strode out, you know, like Gary Cooper into the sunset and left George in charge! And the thing had just turned. And it’s things like that that intrigue you when you’re making this kind of film because it’s like if somebody said: “I’ll pay you huge amounts of money if you film somebody really telling a lie.” You know, how would you do it? I mean, you’re gonna have to get an actor. It would be really hard to catch that kind of thing on film. But that is what we do all the time, in real life, so you keep wanting to get into that kind of role with the camera, with the film-making technique. And to watch this kind of subtle thing happen, it was wonderful, because you didn’t have to explain it. But it was what interested me there, and I began to think that when you get that kind of level going, you have a feature film. And you need to think that way, with imagination, because films are works of the imagination… I don’t care whether they’re non-fiction, or cinéma vérité, or anything else you wanna call them, they’re works of the imagination. Which doesn’t mean you’re inventing things necessarily, but you’re figuring them out, in some way that has to do with your imagination. And films like that, when you finish them, in order to have them taken seriously, you must put them in a theater. You have no choice. It will probably cost us to have done that, although I think down the line we’ll get a return for it. Eventually it will become a more valuable thing: an artifact. But initially, if you could have gotten television interested—and we did, we got the BBC interested, and we got foreign television interested—we could have sold it, maybe, a shorter version and a cheaper version. But for us, getting it into the theater was important, so we had to look for a more elegant story in some way. But at the same time, not a more complicated story. I think that’s the thing that makes these films work in theaters, all of them, and it’s a lesson I kind of learned on Dont Look Back. I’d made several films before that which could have gone into theaters… I did one with Jane Fonda, and I did one at Synanon with Joe Pass [jazz musician], who just died last week, I’m sorry to tell you, and he was a very good friend; he was out at Synanon at the time. Those were films that we made for television. But as we made them, and particularly David, which was the one at Synanon, even as I was starting to make that film, I knew that that was a theatrical film. And we didn’t know anything about theatrical films. We were making it for Time/Life, and [they] only had a television audience in mind, so [the film] had to be squeezed down to an hour, and I saw what that did to a ninety-minute film. Our brains have all been trained, in some wondrously dexterous way, to perceive life in ninety minute chunks. As a result, of all the movies that have been made since 1926 or whenever they started doing ninety-minute films, we think of everything in our marriages, our love affairs, our pets, are all kind of ninety minute dramas for us. And if you try to do it in an hour, that’s a different conceit. You lose elements of character that are fundamental to that… to watching Mickey Rooney finally be on the winning horse. Instead you get the news that there was a winning horse. And that’s what television has enabled us to do; to now think in half-hour chunks, in which we don’t have to think about anything really. It’s all just totally scribbled in front of us and then it disappears. But the ninety minute stay is the equivalent probably of the early novel, which had to be of a certain length, or it was something else, an essay or whatever. And it probably came from the major poetry, which, before Stendhal, was the way these things were dealt with. I mean Byron had reams of chapter headings for those poems, and they were long things! You had to sit down and really spend time reading them, and it meant that it was a serious thing. If you could read it in, you know, two pages, it was just a little something or other, but the fact that it was forty pages long, and it had the Don Juan going through whatever, meant that you were really at the height of intellectual perceptions somehow. And the ninety minute film has a lot of that going for it. Even when it’s filled with the most silly panderings—to twelve year-olds—I go to see those with my twelve-year-old and I sort of see them seriously. I’m sitting there watching them over his shoulder, but I’m starting to take seriously things that I can’t believe I’m even watching! And we’ve all been kind of trained this way, we’re like dogs, you know, looking at the “X” and the “0” and we’re picking out which one is where the food is and it’s… I don’t think it means well for society, but it is the way we are!
Q: Yes, but you just said that everything’s shortened but… what would you suggest, longer?
P: Well, the theaters… but you know, originally both Dont Look Back and Monterey Pop were two hours. And I really liked Dont Look Back at two hours. And I thought: “Well, it’s just not going to work for a general audience.” And I don’t know even what a general audience is, maybe I was thinking of my mother, who wouldn’t have even gone to it for ten minutes! But, I’m thinking of people who are not won over by Bob Dylan, no matter how… scrofulous he may appear, but, who really think that there’s something there that they have to find out about and perceive that strange kind of eccentric whatever it is that he did put out. And I think two hours is too long. You’ll lose people. You’ll never get them… they’ll never come in the first place.
Q: I think there’s a market for it nowadays; I think you can get them.
P: I think later there is …
Q: What about now?
P: Now there’s room… the director’s cut, the director’s mother’s cut and you can go on indefinitely and extend these things… I mean, that’s what [Michael] Wadleigh is doing right now on Woodstock; he’s making a four or five-hour version. And there are gonna be people that will sit for a five hour version. But at the time there weren’t. And I think Warner’s saw, very wisely, that he had a four hour version and that must be two-and-a-half, or whatever.
“Editing is in a way kind of like discovering North America, it’s very exciting, and you really get caught up in it and it has as much in it as shooting the film does in some ways, because it’s discovery, but it’s your discovery, it’s this private, secret horde that you have in front of you.”
Q: I’m curious about something. Dylan’s film was five hours or something…
P: Yeah. It was four hours or something… very long, yeah.
Q: Now, when I saw it, [it] looked like it was a film…
P: You saw the long version?
P: The long version’s hard to get your hands on, I’ve been trying to…
Q: Maybe it wasn’t the long version, but it looked like it was unedited… I don’t know.
Q: So that seems to suggest that there’s something else going on, a kind of way of putting forth an idea…
P: Well, you do it in two stages. It’s like a love affair. First you have a big dinner and then you go to bed. You’ve gotta get the film into the camera. You’ve gotta get the person really living his life for you and wanting to. And wanting to invent his life, if he has to. Then you bring it back and you get another crack at it because you make mistakes all the way through. I mean, first of all, you’ve got to realize that in Dont Look Back I had a homemade camera that took a lot of repair. Nights! And it was really a homemade camera and it was very autocratic and it worked when it chose to. So I missed many things that I was just dying to get. But I finally came to a kind of philosophic plateau, where I took the position that if God wanted me to get it, he would arrange it that way. I mean, very fatalistic and I didn’t worry about what I missed. I just knew I was going to miss ninety percent. And I thought: “I’m a ten percenter and that’s not so bad!” Because I’m getting ten percent of something that nobody else is even bothering to look at. And so I kind of got through it on that basis. But I know that when you then sit down and edit your huge amount of stuff of which only ten percent is gonna be usable. People make these films all in a different way. Fred Wiseman makes his films one way and we’re very good friends, and we sort of agree never to look at each other’s films, and that helps preserve the friendship. And then Al Mayles… he has no idea how to edit film. He loves to shoot, and he’s a fantastic photographer, but he brings it back and that harem he has up there, they sit around and they edit it all. And they’re terrific editors. But he had no interest in editing. He would just run the film back and forth through the viewer, just endlessly fascinated with watching the thing, and I would say: “Well, can you cut it, Al… it’s a little long.” “But why would I cut it, it looks wonderful!” So everybody has a different way of arriving at a film. And there is no one way. For us, the process of setting out all of that material that you’ve lived through yourself… I mean, you watch the cake being made, and you know what’s really in it and you know how much you should eat and everything else. When you edit it, you bring that. That’s why I say it’s a work of imagination. You bring all of that into it and then you’ve got the footage that you shot, that somehow has hiding in it all these little clues. You’re like the Great Detective who’s totally failing to solve some case and everybody’s sitting around tapping their feet waiting. You keep going through it, and going through it, and memorizing it. The War Room was just replete with this kind of thing, where we didn’t find things until two days before the thing got locked for mix. And we suddenly found where somebody said something and we said: “My God, this is what this referred to…” I mean, we didn’t really find the Brazil tape thing, we never solved that problem until very late in the film. Editing is in a way kind of like discovering North America, it’s very exciting, and you really get caught up in it and it has as much in it as shooting the film does in some ways, because it’s discovery, but it’s your discovery, it’s this private, secret horde that you have in front of you. And it isn’t like you’re out in broad daylight, trying to figure out which end of the room is interesting, when neither of them really are. Then you have a really clear, open choice, but in editing you don’t have those choices. You have other choices… of where to look, and how far to keep looking, and when to stop. It’s like, remember Gulley Jimson, when the women are painting the wall as it’s being beaten down by the bulldozers and she goes to put one more thing, and he says, “No, it’s finished.” And she says: “How do you know?” and he says, “Well, look at it.” And she looks, and of course she has no idea. This is The Horse’s Mouth, I don’t know if any of you have seen it. It’s a wonderful film. Gulley Jimson is the painter and he says: “It’s finished,” and she has no idea what he’s talking about, but… there’s a point where it’s finished.
Q: How would you explain the popularity of your documentaries in other countries?
P: Where? In Europe? To what, The War Room?
P: Well, Europeans have quite a different take on documentaries, and it’s partly because of the way television has been put to them. It’s partly the way they’re raised! And political documentaries are of course a complete anomaly to them. For most Europeans, politicians are people who personally signed the Kellogg-Briand Peace Pact in 1926, so they’re all well into their nineties, and they exude nothing but wisdom. The idea of a thirty-one year-old person, like George [Stephanopoulos], inventing a political concept as he went along, is unthinkable to them. I mean, they see this as an example of the ridiculous take that Americans have on politics. But at the same time—and this is what drives them nuts—around the world there is the perception that in the United States people have figured out how to make something work. Which usually comes down to money.
But it’s in general, that we know something here that the rest of the world is still chewing over, and it must come out of our politics. I mean, I think this is probably a bent perception, but it’s one that they share. And therefore they’re intrigued by the political process in America. but they don’t trust it. They know that theirs is better, because it’s older and hasn’t changed in two hundred years. When the The War Room would play, they would stand outside grumbling and whining about how shallow the whole thing was, and yet this is the way it works. We were very careful… you tended sometimes, like, when you need a cutaway, you just pull the first face you’ve got hanging on the barrel. It’s a cutaway, who knows when it was. You get very careful in these things because you don’t know when you’re going to get that call saying: “I’ve just been looking at your film and you’ll be interested to know that the person holding up the piece of Jimi Hendrix’s guitar… you’ve got it in a scene that takes place ten minutes before he breaks his guitar!” So then you have to back straddle. And this happens to you enough times so you get very cautious. And you become very honest. That’s why I think this kind of filmmaking works, because you can’t really fool people very easily with it. A smart person is looking at the whole edge of the picture, not at the center where you usually concentrate when you’re editing. You’re cutting for dialogue, you want this face to talk to this face… you forget that there’s this cat in this scene, and he’s dead in the next one. So you tend to get very careful. And I think that for people who get into these films it’s like an acrostic. A very complicated, three-dimensional acrostic. And that kind of makes it, so that it carries some weight down the line.
Q: Did you feel, in the making of these films that you somehow blended in while you were filming… what I’m trying to say is, did you think people could relate to them in a documentary sort of way?
P: When I was in at Synanon, hanging out with a lot of junkies, they just took me for another junkie. I mean, that wasn’t the problem, the problem you have making these films is, they’re usually big deals now… it’s hard for us to make a little, short film. I used to make them all the time… anything I could shoot in a morning, I would make a film about it… whether it was Dave Lambert doing an audition, or going up to Tim Leary’s wedding in Connecticut or New York or wherever it was. In order to do something like The War Room… we’ve got a couple projects we’re sort of interested in doing, and we’re trying to raise money for them now. You can’t get money from one source for these films. It’s no longer possible. And American television is a very poor source of money for outside programming. They want series, not single programs. They want stuff that they can do in-house. And they wanna make all the money; let’s face it, they don’t wanna share it with you. They certainly don’t wanna share it with somebody from left field such as myself. You have to have something that you can kind of sell around the world, in Japan, in England, in France. So, if I do one on my barber, who I really like a lot, I have a hard time selling him in England, to BBC, you know… “He’s a great barber.” “I know, but do we really need him here? We’ve got barbers in Gloucester, why can’t we use them?” So you’re stuck with people who have already somehow acquired some kind of fame, and it is a problem… it does lead you toward celebrity. You do find yourself pursuing it, in spite of yourself… you might not want to, but that’s where you are. People will bring you the material, or respond to your search for funding and backing. You kind of need people who are known. I mean, people come to us and they say: “We’ve got a great idea for you…” “Yeah?” “Hillary Clinton.” And you wait… they’re looking at you, and you’re trying not to crack-up, because of course, three million people are thinking of this every day and they’re all in better positions of getting to Hillary Clinton than you’ll ever be. But that’s kind of the way their minds go, you know, or Frank Sinatra … and you say: “Well, what can I do that hasn’t already been done? What, do you wanna see him fall off the stage or something? What is it that you haven’t seen?”