Filmmaker Robert Drew on light cameras and light rifles.

| 16 Feb 2015 | 06:27

    "Give me a hand with this, will you?" The 79-year-old filmmaker Robert Drew poses this question to a journalist standing with him in the basement of a Bay Ridge house he shares with his wife, Anne, also a filmmaker, and her mother. He points out a couple of hard, silver-colored equipment cases stashed beneath a table. The visitor slides the cases out and opens them, revealing two pieces of filmmaking history.

    One is a late 1950s portable Nagra sound recorder?the workhorse of the movie industry, a bit of equipment that hasn't changed much in a half century and is still used by quite a few filmmakers. The other case contains a battered 16mm camera with a zoom lens and a split-focus viewfinder. The camera has clearly been messed with nine ways from Sunday?part of long-ago efforts by Drew, his collaborators and various hired-gun technicians to jury-rig a device that would record a new kind of nonfiction film. Some parts of this camera have clearly been removed, torn off like needless extra limbs. Other parts seem to have been inappropriately soldered on.

    It's a hard, heavy, angular camera that looks like a metal toolbox with a spyglass stuck in the front. But when you put it on your shoulder, it feels good. Like an extension of the body.

    Drew is an imposing man in slacks, a dress shirt and suspenders. His physique suggests a backwoods sheriff who may be an old guy but can still hurt you.

    "We knew what we wanted to do," he says. "We didn't have the equipment because it didn't exist. So we had to make it."

    Drew was the leader of Drew Associates, a group of filmmakers who altered how movies were made. Their ranks included D.A. Pennebaker (Don't Look Back, The War Room), Richard Leacock (A Happy Mother's Day) and Albert Maysles (Gimme Shelter). They created what's now known as cinema verite?or as Drew calls it, "direct cinema."

    The first example of this new type of film was Primary, a documentary shot and released in 1960. Filmed in collaboration with cameramen Maysles and Leacock, it was about John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey facing off during the Wisconsin Democratic primary.

    While Primary got a theatrical release in Europe, compared to the typical top-of-the-line Hollywood picture made during that era?or even a Roger Corman-type exploitation movie?it wasn't seen by that many people. But many who did see it were filmmakers, and they were stunned by what they saw: a documentary with no title cards, no onscreen host, little narration and almost no music. They saw a nonfiction film that was more concerned with observing people in action than in verbally summarizing them. Drew and his collaborators simply hung out with the candidates and observed them interacting with voters and the press, or absorbing information from staffers, or eating lunch, or riding on a bus looking out the window at livestock zipping by. It was all so simple that it felt revolutionary.

    Drew's esthetic, and the equipment required to create that esthetic, encouraged the industry to create smaller 16mm and 35mm cameras and indirectly spurred the invention of Super 8mm, which remained the consumer format of choice until the mid-80s, when cheap home video came in and replaced it. That camcorder you used to tape your friend's wedding exists partly because Drew and men like Drew believed that everyone should have the ability to make movies?preferably on a moment's notice. The unspoken mantra behind Drew's process was, "smaller, lighter, faster"?a school of thought that continues to drive not just filmmaking, but every aspect of media technology.

    More than 40 years later, Primary has been released on DVD, along with its follow-up JFK feature, Crisis (1963), about the showdown between JFK's administration and Alabama governor George Wallace over desegregation. It's hard to imagine that two little movies about JFK could have so much impact, but they did. They were bolts of lightning that started a fire. Without Drew's early documentaries, there might have been no Gimme Shelter or Domestic Violence, no Paradise Lost or Crumb. Nor, for better or worse, would there have been COPS or the Anna Nicole Smith Show.

    The direct-cinema style was also borrowed (and exploited) by fiction filmmakers, as well everyone from Madison Avenue commercial directors to American and foreign independents to Hollywood filmmakers. Michael Mann and Lars von Trier, both of whom encourage handheld camerawork and semi-improvised performances, were given permission to do so by Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets. Scorsese was given permission by Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut and other 1960s exemplars of the French New Wave, and by the French filmmakers' American counterparts, whose ranks included Shirley Clarke, Sidney Lumet, John Frankenheimer and John Cassavetes.

    The latter developed ideas similar to Drew's around the same time. But there can be no doubt that like-minded trends in fiction and nonfiction filmmaking nourished one another like water and soil. Drew, Cassavetes, Godard and their assorted colleagues and descendants weren't running buddies, but they were like-minded artists. Throughout the 60s, through increasingly loose, inventive films, they legitimized and emboldened one another.

    Primary had as immense and measurable an impact on nonfiction filmmaking as The Birth of a Nation had on fiction filmmaking. Drew is the D.W. Griffith of documentaries?the guy who figured out how to show a story rather than tell it.

    Robert Drew conceived, produced and oversaw Primary. (I'd say he directed it if he did not consider the very idea of anyone directing a documentary to be heresy.) Leacock, Pennebaker, Maysles and Terrence McCartney shot it.

    In the weeks and months leading up to Primary, the cameramen worked with Drew and various technicians to develop camera and sound equipment that met Drew's specifications.

    "Nonfiction filmmakers were afflicted by two problems, one technical, the other spiritual," Drew says. "Technically, they did not have the equipment to do the sort of work I had in mind. Spiritually, they didn't care about the work because they'd been mistrained. They'd been mistrained because their equipment was so heavy and complicated that it made it impossible to shoot in situations where you could really capture reality. This problem couldn't be solved until somebody figured out how to cut the equipment down to a load that anybody could carry."

    Drew wanted a lightweight camera and lightweight sound equipment that would sync up automatically, without requiring a slate to give picture and sound a common marker. The camera would have to operate on a battery, and the current had to be delivered in a way that would minimize or eliminate flicker.

    He might as well have asked technicians to build him a ray gun. But he kept pushing until he got what he wanted.

    "Leacock and I ran into a guy who knew how to carve up a camera, and we had him carve one up for us," Drew says. "We had him chop it down and change the gears from metal to plastic, which would cut down on the sound it made when it was running. The front end was rebuilt to take a zoom lens, which these cameras couldn't do? The thinking was that if you change how movies are made, it might be possible to make a different kind of movie."

    Maysles, a New York-based filmmaker who has stayed friends with Drew, describes him as the second-most influential nonfiction filmmaker after Robert Flaherty, whose heavily narrated, scored and manipulated documentaries include Nanook of the North (1922) and Louisiana Story (1948). These movies are in many ways amazing, but they're a far cry from spontaneous. Flaherty wrote storylines and gave his subjects dialogue to say onscreen, and he worked with crews that were far larger (and therefore less flexible) than some medium-budget Hollywood dramas being made today.

    "I suppose Flaherty would have liked to have done what Bob decided to do, but Flaherty couldn't have done it because the equipment didn't exist at that time," Maysles says. "It didn't exist during Bob's time, either, which is why it had to be created. To this day, moviemaking equipment has gotten better and better, smaller and simpler and more portable. With video, it's gone way beyond even what we invented so that we could do Primary."

    Drew Associates kept exploring the direct- cinema idea in follow-ups, including Crisis and Yanki No!, about Fidel Castro's Cuba.

    Drew did not believe then, and still does not believe, that the presence of a camera changes nothing. But he did believe, and still believes, that a filmmaker can minimize a subject's awareness that he's being filmed.

    Some of these steps are behavioral: Stand off to the side, shoot with a zoom lens and don't say anything unless you absolutely have to.

    Others are technological: Screw in brighter lightbulbs if you think it will make subjects' faces show up more clearly, but be sure you do it before the subjects arrive. Don't use movie lights on stands. Don't ever tell your subjects where to stand, what to say or how to say it. Unless an interview is the entire point, don't ask a subject any questions while the camera and tape recorder are running. Use cameras and sound equipment that is small, plain and as quiet as possible. Bring extra batteries, film and more tape stock than you think you'll need, so you don't have to tell a subject to hold that thought for the next hour.

    And for God's sake, quit worrying about whether everything is up to Hollywood standards. It is better to have less-than-perfect lighting or sound than to miss a critical moment.

    "The idea is to hang back and not be too obvious," says Drew.

    Drew was inspired to become a journalist as an Army Air Force pilot during World War II. He had the good fortune to meet the war reporter Ernie Pyle, who was famed for his ability to make soldiers open up to him and then tell their stories with as little condescension as possible. "I thought a bit about what it was about Pyle and his writing that made an impact on me, and I think it had to do with the fact that he was recording what life was like for these men?the little details of their days."

    The idea of direct cinema came to Drew back in the 1950s, when he was running a documentary film operation for Life magazine. Drew believed that movies, for all their esthetic virtues, were incapable of recording life as it happened. The ossified culture of filmmaking reflected its obedience to cumbersome technology.

    Before the direct-cinema revolution, Drew oversaw a documentary short that began with an assistant director walking up to an interview subject, sticking a clapboard in front of his face and bellowing "Action!" Later, during that same shoot, a sound man terminated a subject's on-camera comments by hollering "Cut!" "He said, 'I thought I heard an airplane,'" Drew says.

    Drew thought this whole mindset bordered on deranged. He hated it, and thought it was partly responsible for the uncinematic state of nonfiction filmmaking at that time.

    "As Bob always liked to describe it, nonfiction film was then, and still is now, an illustrated lecture," Maysles continues. "With the equipment we have today, which is directly descended from the equipment we made?you could go beyond the illustrated lecture for the first time. These innovations made it possible to get what was happening so clearly and directly that the person viewing the film would feel as though he was actually present at those events. For the first time, it was possible for someone watching a documentary to feel as though he was standing in the shoes of the person he was seeing onscreen."


    JFK was easily the most important person in Drew's career, the nonfiction equivalent of a powerful but generous movie star whose participation in a movie helps a young director realize his vision.

    "The first time I dealt with him was to make Primary," Drew says. "I found him very refreshing. Straightforward. He had questions, we had answers, and we made a deal. He was quite different from Hubert Humphrey, or anybody else for that matter. My proposal to him was that we would simply see what happened to him in his life for a certain period of time. There would be no interviews, no lighting, no direction. We'd just see what happened. He liked that idea.

    "Later, when I showed him Primary and our film on Castro?over two nights, again I found him straightforward, smart, curious. When I showed him Primary, he'd been elected but not sworn in. About 10 minutes in, he yelled, 'Hey, get Joe up here.' Joe, of course, was his father [Joseph Kennedy]. He liked the movie.

    "He hadn't seen himself this way before. If you think back on how television was, and how in some ways it still is, you realize that Kennedy had never really seen himself in action. He only saw sound bites?little pieces of himself giving a speech someplace. In Primary he saw himself day after day in different situations. There had never been a film like that on a president. That was the whole idea.

    "After the screening of Primary, he said, 'What do you want to do next?' I said [that] I'd like to do a film about a president in a crisis, having to make decisions with his back to the wall. He liked that, and again, think about why he would like it. He'd seen images of presidents before, but they had no connection to the job as he knew it. They were all just pictures of people shaking hands in front of automobiles. He thought about it and said, 'Yes, I can see the idea. Imagine if I could see what happened in the White House in the 24 hours before we declared war on Japan.'

    "I was staggered that the president would not only get the idea, but take it away from me and run with it. The process of making Crisis started with Kennedy saying, 'If you want to do a film like that, you better come down to the White House and shoot in the Oval Office for a while and see if I can forget you.' In the Oval Office the president is absolutely alone unless he invites someone else in. It's an intrusion. But I was feeling my oats at the time, so I said 'I don't want to shoot a picture of his man at a desk. I want to shoot a picture of a man with his back to the wall, making decisions.' He'd been very pleasant up to that point, but then a steely look came into his eye, and he said, 'You'd better come down and shoot a test.'"

    About eight weeks into JFK's tenure, Drew and his crew filmed Kennedy in the Oval Office, footage of which ended up being cannibalized for an ABC documentary titled Adventures on the New Frontier. Drew's crew included Pennebaker, Lee Hall and an assistant who sat under the desk of JFK's secretary, Evelyn Lincoln, and fed Pennebaker fresh magazines of film. If the experience yielded no great art, it made JFK trust the filmmakers, and trust himself to be unaffected in front of a camera. Drew's gang went down for one day of shooting the Oval Office and ended up staying for eight.

    Adventures wasn't a good example of direct cinema. To get an hour-long program out of the Oval Office footage, Drew had to intercut it with newsreel images of Kennedy outside the White House, which made the whole thing feel more conventional. But the tv special still contained moments of candor that were never equaled in any subsequent documentary or news story about a president.

    "You saw the president serious, angry and laughing. You saw him slapping his sides and kidding around with his sister. Nobody outside the White House had ever seen a president depicted in that way before. Even during Crisis you saw a more somber president, during a more one-note, difficult time."

    "He forgot about us so completely that at one point he was talking about joint maneuvers off Cuba," Drew recalls. "The country hadn't gone into Cuba yet. A general who was there had to remind him there was a camera in the room shooting. He looked at me and grinned. I grinned back, and we walked out."

    Like everyone else, Drew was devastated by JFK's assassination. For a summation, one need only watch his 1964 short film, Faces of November, which is included on the Crisis DVD as a supplemental feature. The film silently observes a three-day long procession of average Americans visiting the president's coffin in Washington. It is a gallery of grief.


    Drew has continued to work in nonfiction with his wife, Anne. Nothing else he's worked on has had the impact of those first few movies. But that's to be expected. Even Welles only had one Citizen Kane.

    He thinks about those early days, especially when watching other peoples' documentaries. It bothers Drew that so few contemporary filmmakers are committed to direct cinema as Drew and his collaborators conceived it. He has no patience, for example, with Frederick Wiseman, a documentary icon whose movies Drew dismisses as propaganda with a defeatist mentality.

    "We had an affection for people. He had a dislike for people," Drew says.

    He has more affection for COPS, where "at least they show you situations without constantly telling you what to think."

    Drew is thrilled at the small size and simplicity of digital-video technology. He shoots on tape now and assembles his footage on a computer in his basement using Final Cut Pro to edit (like every budding filmmaker). Along with Maysles, Pennebaker, Pennebaker's wife and partner Chris Hegedus, Barbara Kopple (The Hamptons), and other major documentarians who came of age in the era of film, Drew embraced video at a certain point and never looked back.

    "If you're concerned with production value, you're part of the Hollywood mindset, no matter how you try to justify it," says Maysles. "Hollywood has always been concerned with production value, to a degree that drives out other considerations. These things are less important than the content of a movie?and in nonfiction they're less than irrelevant. Bob always understood this. I wish everyone did."