Documentary Filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker Gets His Oscar



DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus (Patricia Soussloff photo)

By Annette Hinkle

Sag Harbor has a new Academy Award winner.

On December 1, D.A. Pennebaker will receive an Lifetime Achievement Oscar for his six decades of nonfiction filmmaking. He’s the first documentary filmmaker to win such an award.

“It’s a surprise,” confesses Pennebaker. “What I do, and now, what a large number of people do is make independent films — independent of whether they should or not. It’s like home painting — you just do it.”

“You’re always surprised when you’re included in Hollywood,” adds Pennebaker,

who suspects his friend, and fellow documentarian Michael Moore is behind the award (Moore’s currently a member of the Academy’s Board of Governors).

But Pennebaker is truly a founding father of the documentary as we know it. He’s perhaps best known for “The War Room” — the behind the scenes look at Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign. But Pennebaker was there long before then, filming before the invention of on-location sync sound. He’s worked with the Kennedys — John and Bobby —  and was the documentarian of choice for many a rising rock star in the 1960s. Dylan, Joplin, Hendrix — he filmed them all.

But still, when it comes to Hollywood, the problem with documentaries, notes Pennebaker, is they don’t have much “star power” to show for themselves.

“They don’t have movie stars and things people have gotten to like about movies. So they’ve kind of gotten left out,” says Pennebaker. “They gave Godard an Oscar a few years back and he wouldn’t come. Which is like him.”

But Pennebaker will be accepting his Oscar which he feels belongs not just to him.

“It includes a lot of people who make these kind of films,” says Pennebaker, noting that chief among them is his wife and long-time filmmaking partner, Chris Hegedus.

“We’ve been partners for more than 35 years –  it’s like giving one parent a prize for a child’s success,” he adds. “We’ve been working together for so long and are a team.”

Today, digital technology means practically anyone can make a film at the press of a button — even on their iPhones. But when Pennebaker was starting out as a filmmaker in the 1950s, it was impossible to shoot 16mm film on location with sync sound.

“Documentaries tended to be voice-over narrative,” explains Pennebaker. “Without dialogue, you’ve got someone explaining why this man is putting the knife in a women. It’s being told to you later. All because there was no sync sound.”

That’s why Pennebaker’s earliest films had jazz soundtracks from his record collection — including “Daybreak Express” from 1953. The five minute film of elevated trains around Manhattan was backed by a Duke Ellington number that Pennebaker was given the rights to use by Ellington himself (he went to his office in the Brill Building to show him the film in person).

In the late 1950s, Pennebaker hooked up with Richard Leacock and former Life magazine editor and correspondent Robert Drew. Time-Life broadcast wanted candid films for its “Living Camera” series that were reflective of the magazine’s still images from the 30s and 40s.

“It wasn’t quite so simple with no sync sound,” says Pennebaker. ‘Unbeknownst to Time-Life, they were funding our search for someone to design a small portable camera that would shoot sync sound.”

They found Stefan Kudelski, a Polish inventor who designed a recorder that Pennebaker and his associates synced to a film camera by way of watches mounted to each. Kudelski went on to invent the Nagra —the recorder that would become the standard for on location film production.

While Pennebaker’s own musical tastes leaned toward jazz, as a filmmaker, he developed a reputation for documenting the burgeoning music scene in the 1960s. It began with “Don’t Look Back,” a film about Bob Dylan’s 1965 tour of England. That was followed by Monterey Pop, a concert filmed in California in 1967 that introduced the Mamas and the Papa, The Who, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix to the world.

But Pennebaker recalls it was an obscure musician from India who really captured the crowd’s attention that day.

“I had to make a film about something I had never thought about before. I was very uncertain even what to do,” says Pennebaker. “I didn’t want any sociology – no interviews. I wanted it to be like a record you put on and it runs continuously throughout the film.”

“That was a film that tested my ingenuity,” adds Pennebaker who had five cameras rolling during the concert. “When it was done and we were driving back home, we were not sure what we would have. I didn’t expect Ravi Shankar would be as interesting as he was.”

Among the cameramen on Monterey Pop was young Nick Proferes from Sag Harbor (son of Ted Proferes, founder of the Paradise café). Nick wanted to get away from his post office job, and went to Pennebaker looking for work.

“I hired him – that was almost the first thing he did — Monterey,” recalls Pennebaker. “I said here, shoot. I thought this guy [Shankar] is from India, we’ll take that time to look at the audience we have.”

But as Pennebaker and Leacock were shooting the audience, they realized the audience was staring in awe at Shankar on stage. It turns out Nick Proferes and fellow cameraman James Desmond were where the action was.

“They were both working away,” says Pennebaker. “I realized it represents the half hour situation in which they both learned to make films.”

The advent of sync sound allowed Pennebaker to explore the “fly on the wall” type of documentary filmmaking — not a term that Pennebaker embraces by the way.

“I never quite bought it. I know my presence is absolutely necessary,” he says. “I can’t be unseen. They know I’m there, though they don’t know what I’m going to do with it. You’re part of a group – if they’re successful, you become like one of the team.”

For Pennebaker and Hegedus, perhaps the best example of that came with “The War Room” which offered a behind the scenes look at Clinton’s presidential campaign in the run-up to the 1992 election. The stars of the film are not Clinton, but George Stephanopoulos and James Carville the two young masterminds behind the campaign.

The film was nominated for an Academy Award, but ironically, it wasn’t Pennebaker and Hegedus’ idea. Instead, it was producer Wendy Ettinger and director R.J. Cutler who suggested a film about the election.

“Clinton was number four in New York at the time. We went to the convention, looked around for people to film, but most of them were pretty boring,” says Pennebaker.

Then they met George Stephanopoulos.

“He looked 18 and he had that funny certainty about the things he did,” says Pennebaker.

While following Clinton on the campaign trail seemed unrealistic, Pennebaker was intrigued by the notion of a behind the scenes film starring Stephanopoulos and Carville, who he says was “like a crazy uncle.” The filmmakers went to Arkansas followed the course of the campaign from the War Room (a phrase coined by Hillary Clinton).

“We weren’t thought of as press and were brought into the fold,” says Pennebaker. “James appreciated we weren’t the 6 p.m. news. We were interested in what he was doing historically.”

Pennebaker notes the idea for the War Room had come from a film he had planned to make for the presidential campaign of his good friend Bobby Kennedy. Knowing Kennedy was considering a run in 1968, Pennebaker suggested a film about the process of him becoming president. Though he had filmed a couple scenes, Pennebaker couldn’t afford to dedicate himself to the project full time. As a result, he wasn’t present when his friend Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles in June 1968, bringing a tragic and abrupt end to that project.

From politics to popular culture, Pennebaker has witnessed more than half a century of American history through his lens. For his part, Pennebaker understands the importance of the Lifetime Achievement Oscar in relationship to his own history as well as that of other documentarians. Though he’s still not sure where he’ll keep the statuette.

“It’s special and many people will want to see it,” says Pennebaker. “I don’t know. I’d like to grind it up and send it to all the people I know who should have gotten it.”