This is part two of a transcription of a Q&A D.A. Pennebaker did at the Poetry Project in May of 1994. To read part one, click HERE:
“I hate films about dead people, or dead events.”
D.A. Pennebaker: So it’s really hard to do a small film! This is where people coming into the field have a big advantage. Like the two girls who did Go Fish [Rose Troche and Guinevere Turner]; it was their first film. It’s a fantastic film. Their problem will be what they do next when there’s a lot of money being laid on them, when somebody says, “Okay, well, now we have a five million dollar budget…” All of the wonderful things that they did in Go Fish work because of the way the film is a little film. It’s a film that they could kind of make at night, in their spare time. And you can feel that… and all that love and spontaneity and imagination is just wondrous.
It’s hard to do that with forty people all saying: “What do you want, boss? I got a truck out here and he’s on double-time, what do you want?” That’s hard—then you’re in a different ball game. And it’s hard to avoid that because, where else are you going? Where were you going to make your films if not in Hollywood? You can’t make them in New Jersey; you can’t make them in your basement forever. So a person who breaks into the film business suddenly finds himself in mid-court at Wimbledon, and he doesn’t even have a tennis racket! It’s a harsh kind of thing, and I suppose it’s meant to take out about ninety percent of the newcomers. Just befuddles and destroys them. And I think that in a way, we’ve tried to pursue people who were interesting to us. Like Branford Marsalis… I mean, I guess I could have done a film on Winton, but I chose Branford. I really like Branford a lot… he’s kind of an interesting guy, I like the way he plays, I like his music. But I can’t release that film theatrically with any success… I do that, and we’d have to do it very swiftly, and inexpensively, because we can’t get the funding to do a The War Room out of Branford.
Someday, it’ll probably be worth it, but at this point, nobody wants to put the money up. So, you’re always fighting now, in terms of where you’re at in your filmmaking, and you can’t deny that. You can’t just walk away from it. It is a problem we think about sometimes. I mean, now we’re doing a film on Woodstock [Woodstock Diaries, directed by Chris Hegedus, Erez Laufer, D.A. Pennebaker, 1994]. We are investigating the history of Woodstock… and this was sort of thrown at us by somebody who wanted to do a three-hour film—Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, on the three days of Woodstock—with all the material that we were able to get from Warner Brothers that was not put into [Michael] Wadleigh’s film.
So we had everything… we had all nine hundred rolls of film… which is, in itself, a career… dealing with nine hundred rolls of film. And the first problem I had was, you re-make the concert so people sing different songs, you hear Janis [Joplin] and the band which you didn’t hear, but who even remembers the music from the film? It wasn’t about the music. It was about something quite different. The music was sort of the excuse that was used to put it into a certain frame. But the fact is that Woodstock was a major thing that happened in our generation in the last fifty years, maybe one of the most major. Maybe as important as the Vietnam War in bringing everybody into some kind of change of consciousness.
Which might never have happened otherwise. So it was sort of an interesting phenomenon: how do you deal with this as a documentary? Do you just re-make all the bands? Is it about that? It isn’t about that. So you kind of have to sit down and think: what would be interesting about it? How do you get at it without interviewing a lot of people, which we didn’t want to do. So we got a hold of the two guys that started it: Joel Rosenman and John Roberts, who are still doing the same thing they were doing then. These were a couple of kids who had inherited some money. John had inherited a large amount of money, and he decided to blow it… on this guy Michael Lang. It really intrigued me. Michael was a hippie, and John Roberts had never met a hippie before, but he got caught up in the whole fervor of it, and he just decided to roll the dice. Well… it came out a business!
“I let my feet sort of decide where I’m supposed to stand. And I never have time to think about composition. I’m really concerned about getting the exposure and getting the people, and figuring who’s about to come through the door. Your mind is going at a fearful clip. And you’re working half off of extra-sensory perception anyway, and about half of the time it works, the other half it doesn’t. But that’s not a bad draw.”
What people don’t know is that they ran an ad in the Wall Street Journal, which said: “Young man with unlimited capital looking for investors. Must be legitimate.” That’s what started the whole thing. Well, you can imagine, they did it, not to get investors, but because they were trying to sell a TV show. And it was a great idea: it was going to be about a couple of crazy business guys getting into all sorts of business problems. But they didn’t know anything… they were just out of college! They didn’t know anything about business; they had no idea what kind of business problems would come up. So they decided to put this ad in, and they got about ten thousand responses, you can imagine, with edible golf balls, and people from the eighth dimension… it was just unbelievable, the reaction to this stuff. But in it, they got a guy that came to them with an idea for a sound studio, and that’s how they met Mike Lang. Michael already had an idea to do something in Woodstock. He wasn’t sure what, but when he saw these two guys, he knew right away, he had them hooked. And that’s how it kind of began. Well, I wanted to find out… I wanted to see that happen, but I didn’t want to have people tell me in answer to my question, so we tried to figure out a way. We got a copy of the paper, which turned out to be much harder than we thought. We had to get it from Texas somewhere. And we took it into them, and we got them to agree to let us film one morning, just in their office. We showed them the paper, and then we filmed them. And for about an hour and a half, they just took off. It was marvelous. You didn’t have to ask them a question. They talked about the whole thing: their relationship with Lang, and John [Roberts] with his father who had been against the thing. There’s this wonderful story John Roberts tells of when his father found out he was gonna do this, he said, “Now, lemme get it straight. You’re planning on renting fifty acres, up in New York State, you’re gonna give a concert, and you’re gonna sell tickets to a lot of hippies, and you’re gonna get fifty thousand people to come to it?” And then he said: “I just knew it. I knew that this is what you were gonna do with your inheritance.” Well, he tells this story, and it’s kind of marvelous when he gets into it, so we tried to do the film on that, and making, and creating, and having these characters. And Lang came in all on his own. He knew we were doing this thing and he came to see us, he was kind of curious, I had never met him. So he walked in with Barbara Koppel—who is an old friend—and he sat down, and we showed him some stuff we’d done. I had had a camera there, and I said: “Can I film you?” And he said, “Sure.” So then he told his version of the story and we just let him talk. And then we’re putting it together around their recollections, and sometimes, they don’t remember the same thing at all! But at least it comes out of them, not us. We’re not interrogating them. But what you wanted to do was to do the film of the time. I mean, I hate films about dead people, or dead events. So hopefully you could have made this film then. But they were making another film. There was nobody interested in making this film, so you do the best you can. But it’s hard because you gotta make three hours of it, and you have a lot of people singing and performing and some of them have disappeared… you know… thankfully… over the years… because they weren’t very good at the time. But you’ve got to have it all. It’s gotta be, historically, as real as you can make it. You can’t just go for Janis and The Who. You’ve gotta have everybody. I like doing it because it’s kind of solving filmmaking problems, which is interesting for me, I feel like… you know, Stravinsky said: “Ees boringk, ees not creative…” And I kind of feel like that’s the key to any work as far as I’m concerned.
Q: Who shot the car ride with Dylan?
Q: Okay, because I was just wondering how it was cut…
P: Was cut? Well, in Eat the Document, now that was something that Howard Alk and Dylan amidst massive paranoia did up in Bearsville. And that film is kind of interesting, mostly because Dylan was partly responsible for it. It’s like if Abraham Lincoln had made a film, you know, you’d have to be interested in it. Or like Mussolini’s novel, you’d have to read it, just to make sure it isn’t totally terrible. Which it is… but uh… the original thing, [Bobbie] Neuwirth and I put together a version when Dylan was having his accident, or whatever he was doing. We started because ABC was looking to us to give them a program, they’d paid for this program… and they weren’t getting it, and Albert [Grossman] was jumping on me to do it. I said: “Albert, I wasn’t supposed to be the director on this film. The arrangement was that Dylan said, ‘You’ve got your film, now I want my film, and I want you to film it for me.’” So that was why I went along. Dylan was gonna be the director. Which sometimes he was, and sometimes due to chemical reactions beyond our ken, he wasn’t. But in the end, when I saw the film… my recollection is that they used about a third of the whole ride. But we also did another one, and in our thing, we used a little different cut. So it’s kind of different… there are two different versions, and then there’s a version in which Baldy in London got a hold of it, which seems to be the whole thing, and I assume that they got that from a lab somewhere.
Q: This guy saw a bootleg…
P: Yeah, there is a bootleg version of everything…
Q: He said that there was an agenda to it called “Car Ride With God.”
P: I don’t remember it having much to do with God. At the time, I think I would have remembered it… just because, I’m open to that sort of help… and need it, badly! But it was John [Lennon], and Dylan, who was really sick, and threatening to throw up on the camera. John and I were both very worried about him. We had to get him upstairs to the hotel room. It was quite a problem; it was at dawn… in London… so it was a somewhat harassing car ride. But it was funny.
“It wasn’t about the music. It was about something quite different. The music was sort of the excuse that was used to put it into a certain frame. But the fact is that Woodstock was a major thing that happened in our generation in the last fifty years, maybe one of the most major.”
Q: There was someone in London who had a copy of it.
P: Yeah… well, I have it… but we sort of never released it, we never even made a print of it. But these things get out. Somebody from Japan turned up with a print of the Yoko/Lennon thing from Toronto before we’d even printed it… we still hadn’t even cut the negative! They had it beautifully bound in a video case with a cover… the guy was very proud and showed me. I said: “Where the hell did you get this?” And he said, “Well, we made it. We’re very clever at this.” And I said: “You mind if I, could I use the cover, because we don’t even have a cover for it.” We were thinking of releasing it ourselves. And he said: “Well, I don’t know, I’d have to ask my boss.” Thievery on a major scale takes place in these things, I know. And mostly probably through the labs.
Q: So, you’re never going to release the full thing on video…
P: I don’t know. Never is a long time… Dylan’s not very interested. When we decided to release the video… Dylan and I are partners in the thing; so we have to… each is supposed to deal with the other on some sort of reasonable basis. And we… get together every once in a long while. But he came over, and when we were gonna bring out the video, he said: “Now is our chance. Now that we’re gonna re-do the thing for the video, we can get rid of all that hotel room shit.” And I said, “Bob, please… there’s no way you can cut one frame out of that film. People will descend on me like vultures, I’ll be shot in the night! It’s done! You’ve just got to forget it. You’ve got to pretend that it’s done, and you have nothing to do with it.” He sort of sat there and said, “Rrrr…” And I was thinking, How can I placate him? I was storing a piano for a past wife, a kind of wonderful old Dresden piano, with little candelabras on the side… it sounded terrible, but it looked beautiful. It was about one hundred and fifty years old. And it was sitting along the wall and I said, “Listen Bob… if you’ll forget about changing the hotel room stuff, I’ll give you that piano.”
And he looked over at the piano, and he began to really look at it. I could see that he was thinking about the piano. He’d given up totally, and then he said, “I don’t need a piano for chrissakes!” But for a minute I had him hooked. This is an insight into the peculiar, charismatic Dylan. The dual personality always at work. But I think eventually it will be released. Just because it is… I showed it to Greil Marcus once, and the sonofabitch wrote a huge review of it… I didn’t know he was gonna do that, so of course Dylan knew right away that we had this thing and we were showing it to people, and I said: “Listen, it was a mistake. I’ll never do it again.” He eventually got over it, but he was very piqued. He isn’t interested in television or film, per say… he’s interested in live performance. I don’t know why, I don’t know how that comes or anything else, but that’s where he’s at. Last year he wanted me to come and film this thing he was doing at this club in New York, and actually we were somewhere else and we couldn’t, but I said: “Why do you wanna film it?” And he said, “I don’t wanna film it, but these people that are paying a lot of money want it filmed.” So money entered into it. And he thinks about money, you know, he used to count the house. He’s the only one of us that ever counted the house. He likes the idea of people coming and seeing something that’ll never be the same way again. Film, and television, for him, that’s replication and it drives him crazy to think about it. So that’s kind of his take on it. So basically, that film, which was never really finished, it’s had two or three peculiar surfacings… the film which we call you know something’s happening. Eventually it’ll be released. But not now. He doesn’t even want Bobbie Neuwirth to have a copy of it. And Bobbie’s in it… so I assume he’s nurturing all sorts of strange and wonderfully colorful paranoias up there about it, and it’s not likely to change instantly.
“There’s this wonderful story John Roberts tells of when his father found out he was gonna do this, he said, “Now, lemme get it straight. You’re planning on renting fifty acres, up in New York State, you’re gonna give a concert, and you’re gonna sell tickets to a lot of hippies, and you’re gonna get fifty thousand people to come to it?” And then he said: “I just knew it. I knew that this is what you were gonna do with your inheritance.”
He hadn’t seen the film. Actually, I’d shown it to Joan [Baez], and I’d shown it to Sarah [Dylan]… but Dylan hadn’t seen it. And I was in California, and he was… I think he was either going, or just coming back from Australia with The Band. So he was out there, and he had just finished making Blonde on Blonde, which I actually helped Albert [Grossman]. When he came in, he said: “Okay, now I wanna see the film.” So I said okay. I arranged with a local guy who had a projector. God, it was the worst screening I have ever had. Sixteen [mm] is not a big event in California, believe me. To even get a guy with a sixteen projector was a find. And it was totally out of synch on the interlock… it was a disaster. But we got through it. The thing I remember most was that he arrived and then people just started coming in through the windows, like John Barrymore, all these people that knew Dylan. There were people there that I hated on sight, right… everybody in that room I hated. And they were all sitting there like… who is this person to make a film about Dylan, you know, he has no right to do this. So Dylan is sitting in the front row, and the film unwinds, completely out of synch. It was terrible. It was the worst screening. And at the end, I was so depressed, I was ready to go out the window, and Dylan jumps up and he says: “Well, we’re gonna have another screening tomorrow night. And I’ll bring a big yellow pad with me, and I’ll make a note of everything we’re gonna change.” And you can imagine how glad I was to hear that, life had just began to end, from every part of my body. And the next night, even more people are coming in the window. I never saw so many people in that room—it was maybe half as big as this, and there were maybe four hundred people in that room. And it was hot, and it was just as bad a screening as the first one. And he did; he sat in the front row surrounded by psychopaths, with his yellow pad and his pencil, all ready to make these notes. Filled with dread, the film went on, and at the end, he jumped up, and he had the yellow pad and it was totally empty, and he said: “It’s perfect.” And that was it! That was the end of the whole thing! I couldn’t believe that it ended like that. Everybody was sort of grumbling, they all had ideas they were ready to put forth. But, it was the end. And I thought, “Well, he’s got the wit to see that its drama… that you can’t fiddle around with drama, it isn’t a documentary, it’s something else.” And then about six months later he called me up from Bearsville and he said: “I’ve been thinking. I’ve got a copy of the film here, and I’ve been thinking about it…” There was a scene where he was sitting at the piano somewhere outside of Sheffield, or someplace… and he’s playing the piano, actually, he’s writing a song. And you can hear him kind of faking the lyrics as he plays… I guess it was Tom Wilson, was that his name?
One of his producers then. Tall black guy. Very neat guy. Tom. Tom Wilson, right. He was sitting there sort of half-asleep. And Dylan was banging away at the piano at a furious rate. And after about eight minutes of it I thought, when I was making my decisions about this general audience that I was somehow trying to perceive, that’s a little heavy for the general audience, I think I’d better cut that. So I had cut it… and he said: “I’m looking at this, and it isn’t as long as it was in the first cut.” And I said: “No, I cut it a little bit…” And he said: “You cut it, huh…” And I said “Yeah.” And he said: “I bet you never filmed anybody writing a song before, did you?” And I said: “No.” “Mmhm…” So, there was a long silence… and I said: “I guess I’ll put it back…” And he said: “Yeah, I would.” So back it went. We put that back in, and then he said: “And the stuff in the hotel room, you gotta take that out … my Mom and Dad would hate that…” And indeed, they came to New York to see me about it, to ask if I could take out the swear words. They always referred to him as Mr. Dylan. The father was the strangest man. I never wanted to accommodate anybody more in my life, but at that point, the idea of going through and taking all the “shits” and “fucks” out of that film was just unbelievable.
So I lived with that. I said, “Listen, I think that dramatically, that’s a very important thing in the film. You gotta have it. If you take that out, there’s a big hole in the film you could drive a truck through.” And Dylan said: “Well, I wouldn’t know about that. But, it isn’t me, it isn’t me…” And I said: “Well, I’m gonna try and live with it.” And he said: “Okay.” And that’s it. That’s the only discussion I ever had with him about the film.
Q: How often do you think about they way you construct a film …
“The thing I remember most was that he arrived and then people just started coming in through the windows, like John Barrymore, all these people that knew Dylan. There were people there that I hated on sight, right… everybody in that room I hated.”
P: You mean composition. I never do it. I go by my feet; I let my feet sort of decide where I’m supposed to stand. And I never have time to think about composition. I’m really concerned about getting the exposure and getting the people, and figuring who’s about to come through the door. Your mind is going at a fearful clip. And you’re working half off of extra-sensory perception anyway, and about half of the time it works, the other half it doesn’t. But that’s not a bad draw. You’re trying to figure out who’s gonna chime in, or where you should be looking, and composition is not a problem you even want to think about. So I never do. Well, when you take sunsets or something, you may try getting the sun in the right place, it’s very simple. I want to disassociate myself from being “Mr. Mechanical-Camera.” So I get the camera somewhere else. Under my arm, or sitting in my lap, and then people deal with me personally. And the camera becomes an interloper… and they handle that some other way. So a lot of the time you’re just pointing at the end of the room with a wide-angle lens and hoping that they’re going to be visible somewhere on the screen. It’s kind of chancy. But you figure out how to do it, and in the end everybody learns how to shoot a pig, it just takes time. It’s kind of a blunt instrument… and I like that aspect of it. I like it shaky… Chris Hegedus [D.A.’s collaborator and wife], I’m glad she’s not here tonight, because she’d really take an issue with this. She’s always saying: “It’s too shaky, get it out of there…” And I say god forbid… save me from the static camera! It’s all you see in Hollywood films—the static camera, and the lit wall—it looks totally un-life-like. It looks like there was no human anywhere connected with it. And it’s sort of too bad. There was a camera-man, and he was human, and he was probably fucking the star at the time… all of these things enter into the process, but they’re never going to in a film that’s already set up to be the wall… the glass wall. And I kind of like breaking through that wall. I don’t purposely shake… the Canadians will claim that what we have is known as “The Shakemaster,” and the focus-fuzzer. There was a rumor that we had a thing called “The Shakemaster.” In fact, at one point, we were doing a film on Indianapolis and Peter Powell, who had been working with us for a while—he was very incautious, you could say—he was unloading a magazine. It was the critical magazine of Eddie Sachs, after he had lost the race by one second, and it was the guy he always knew was gonna beat him, and he was at his wits end and his wife is berating him: “Why didn’t you keep going? Why did you change your tires?” And he says: “Because I would have blown up. I would have been killed, for chrissake… ” So the whole end of the world has suddenly come for Eddie Sachs. And that roll of film, Peter opened up the magazine. We’re all staring at it, it’s bright daylight, you know, and he closes it back. Instantly Drew saw this, and went over to the car after him… he would have killed him if he had got him. Well, we decided to process it anyway, and indeed it has this wonderful orange flash. Eddie is throwing up in the wastebasket because he lost. There’s this wonderful orange flash that appears. We couldn’t resist. So we put it in the film. Eddie is throwing up in the wastebasket, and a big orange flash is appearing. The Canadians assumed we had a Flashmaster, and wanted to know how we did this effect! And of course we never told them for years. But you’re constantly held hostage to this sort of intervention by fate. And a lot of the time it works for you, because the blunt instrument kind of takes care of things in its own way.
“We put that back in, and then he said: “And the stuff in the hotel room, you gotta take that out … my Mom and Dad would hate that…” And indeed, they came to New York to see me about it, to ask if I could take out the swear words. They always referred to him as Mr. Dylan.”
Q: How do you make sure that certain people in the film really get in, and when do you decide, while filming, what’s important, and what’s not?
P: You guess a lot. It’s different in different situations. It depends on your take on the people, on how much you sort of think [about] what they’re gonna do, and how much you’re finding out raw.
D.A. PENNEBAKER PART 1 is HERE
COPYRIGHT LEGS MCNEIL AND GILLIAN MCCAIN