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Q&A: D.A. Pennebaker (Part II): Highlights from Issue 25: The Documentary Issue

Highlights from Issue 25: The Documentary Issue

Pennebaker filming the 1968 concert film Monterey Pop in 1968

Photography Courtesy of Pennebaker Hegedus Films


Monday, March 27, 2006

What follows is an excerpt from Issue 25: The Documentary Issue


By Nile Southern

Few seem as capable of handling frenzy on a gigantic scale as D.A. Pennebaker. From Crisis to Primary, Monterey Pop to Don't Look Back, each film captures a massive disruption of the status quo. Pennebaker, who was born in Evanston, Illinois, in 1925, confesses that besides luck (and the ability to be in the right place at the right time) his enduring good fortune may be due to the talent that has gathered around his nest.

The following interview (excerpted here from the extensive STOP SMILING cover story) took place in Pennebaker's office in the Upper West Side of New York, which he shares with his wife and collaborator Chris Hegedus, director Nick Doob and a host of talented, ambitious documentary filmmakers.

Stop Smiling: What are your feelings now about Don't Look Back?

D.A. Pennebaker: It long ago stopped being a work of mine. It's not even Dylan's. I don't know what it is. But it's what the documentary film can be, ideally, if everything works in its favor. It isn't a thing you do by editing better, or shooting better — it's somehow being in the center of the storm when the storm is really happening.

SS: Was the film popular when it came out?

DAP: Don't Look Back had very little immediate effect. Nobody wanted to distribute it or put it in their theater. The only way it ever got distributed was because a guy who had a chain of porno theaters wanted to get into a classier line of business. He gave me a theater in San Francisco to try it out, the Presidio. It was the seediest place you ever saw in your life! But with a line around the block, to me, it was a palace. It played there for almost a year before I brought it to New York.

SS: What did you think of Scorsese's No Direction Home?

DAP: I'm glad he did it. I would've hated to try to make a successor to Don't Look Back. It wouldn't have helped anything. It's better that he did it. It has more weight, at least for Dylan, and finally a lot of the fantastic stuff we shot that year got out of storage, onto a screen, and into the world. That's evolution.

SS: Scorsese used footage from Eat the Document — what was that film, and why is it so rarely screened?

DAP: ABC decided to do an hourlong TV program that Dylan was going to direct. I was to be cameraman. In a way, it was payback time and I was happy to do it. But it was immediately evident that neither of us knew how to direct anything. People would come in and go out of shots and Dylan would do his amazing performances. I got so interested in seeing Dylan onstage dancing like a cricket, playing music he liked with a band he liked, that I ended up onstage with him. I wanted to make it look like he was in a musical cocoon. He doesn't care about the audience — half of them are booing and yelling at him anyway. So, I made this super-wide-angle lens by taking apart an old Switar lens and putting a big reduction glass in front. It was very homemade, and looked it. I couldn't use a finder — I just pointed the camera. It was beautiful. The stuff I shot with that weird lens onstage with Dylan and the Band was some of the best concert performance I've ever seen. This was the early Kodak Ektachrome 7242 — it may have been the first batch they released. I think there was no backing on the film because it flared when it got back-lit. I loved that flaring.

SS: So the performance footage was the backbone for the ABC film?

DAP: The rest of the movie was just what happened — you know, goofy conversations, foolish people. Dylan and I were supposed to edit it. Then he had the accident on his motorcycle. I wasn't sure what that was. It sounded to me like rehabilitation of some sort. Anyway, by now, Albert Grossman [Dylan's manager] was after me, and the guy from ABC was calling up every day saying, “Where's our goddamn film?” But nobody was making the movie. I said, “Talk to Albert. I'm the cameraman, don't talk to me!” Finally Albert told me to make a version we could show ABC so we could get paid. Bob Neuwirth, who was Dylan's road manager in Don't Look Back, helped me put together a 45-minute version to show ABC, and we did. Then, one thing leading to another, the whole thing sank, as Leonard Cohen put it, “beneath your wisdom like a stone.”

Eventually we sent an editing machine up to Bearsville. Dylan, Howard Alk and I think Robbie Robertson put a film together that became known as Eat the Document. It had some screenings, but never on ABC. It would have been more interesting if Dylan had had a bigger role in making it — but as it was, the film looked like a struggle for who could have the longest guitar shots. The part that was really incredible — the performances — were all intercut and reduced to sawdust.

Now, Scorsese has taken, re-edited and made those performances work. It puts Dylan on a map that maybe he wasn't on before. You know, he was never looked at as Top 20 — he was always seen as somebody in the back room.

SS: Didn't you remove Don't Look Back from the Cannes festival?

DAP: The Cinémathèque Française had set up a projection theater, and Henri Langlois had persuaded me to come. So, I took a 16mm print. When I got there, the atmosphere of Cannes — the selling, buying and cheap promotions — was really difficult for me to handle. I told Langlois I wanted to leave, and he said, “But this is the way film is. You've got to understand it.” He told me I should never worry about a film when it's done — just let it go. But I couldn't. I left and joined Dylan in Manchester to finish shooting the color film that never got on ABC. It wasn't really a film, until Scorsese picked it up and finished it.

SS: You've cited the 19th century poet Lord Byron as an inspiration for doing Don't Look Back.

DAP: Byron's creation of an age is amazing. How many people have created an age? The whole Byronic concept was: “Fuck you,” says the artist. Before that, you kept the artist in the house on the edge of the estate, he came over and entertained the children on their birthdays, then went home and stayed out of trouble. Suddenly Byron is saying “I'm somebody you need, in your heads!” He made it stick, and that artist's mandate is still with us. It's an amazing thing for a guy less than 30 years old with a club foot to have done. When I think, “God, I could have been there with a camera.” What kind of a film would that have been? It would have been a film people would have wanted to look at hundreds of years later, because they'd want to know, Where did it come from? How did it all begin?


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