Editor’s note: Robert Drew passed away today at age ninety. Here we revisit a 2003 interview with the filmmaker.
Wisconsin, 1960. An unlikely setting perhaps for one of the most crucial showdowns in the wide-open race for the presidency. The Democrats had to decide whom to nominate to run against Richard Nixon. John F. Kennedy realized that if he beat Hubert Humphrey in the Wisconsin primary (and if he could prove that a Catholic senator from New England could triumph over a Protestant senator from a neighboring state), he could also prove his national appeal. It’s quite a story and Primary tells it like no documentary ever had before.
Jonathan Marlow: I first saw Primary and Crisis many years ago but watched them again last week with your commentary with photographer Richard Leacock. I suspect that it was a little awkward for you to record them.
Robert Drew: I hate to talk over my own films. I understand that I am a little old-fashioned and I have to get used to it. I did like joking around with Ricky.
Marlow: It seemed as if it were easier for you both to add comments to Primary. There were long passages in Crisis where it seemed as if you were caught up in the moment of the film.
Drew: That’s right. It was easier with Primary. Crisis is harder to talk over because some real things are going on.
Marlow: Life Magazine of the Year. How did that project get started originally?
Drew: My greatest interest was the still picture essay, shot with a 35mm camera. I spent six weeks at the University of Michigan just shooting candidly. That’s the way we got feeling and emotion into pictures. Spend time with people. I felt if we could put sound and motion against these candid pictures that we were shooting, we could develop a lot more power. At the same time, television was coming along and the documentaries on television were all posed, lit and sort of manipulated. Directed. So I thought that we could do something that would have a lasting impact on the medium and advance the medium. I managed to get some money from NBC (I was at Life but NBC put up the money) to make Magazine of the Year. I made four or five pieces and put them together into a magazine. In the process, I found out first-hand how primitive ‘reality’ motion picture photography is. For instance, the first project I shot was on a house in Illinois. It was built by a great German architect and the lady that lived in it hated it. It made a funny story. For that purpose, I was interviewing Philip Johnson in his glass house in Connecticut and I wanted to shoot candidly. I wanted to get him being himself. After I got my eight-man crew in there, we set up our two-hundred pound camera and got the cables out of the way so that people wouldn’t trip. I put Allen Grant behind the camera; he was a Life photographer. My whole theory rested on getting talent behind the camera. We started shooting and the soundman jumped in front of the camera and clapped some clap sticks right in the face of Philip Johnson. It was alarming and quite upsetting to the atmosphere and so forth. I told him not to do that anymore. We started rolling again and I heard someone yell, ‘Cut.’ I looked around and wondered, ‘Who’s running this show?’ It was the soundman again. I said, ‘Why did you holler ‘Cut’?’ He said, ‘I think I hear an airplane in the distance!’ The whole apparatus was absolutely unmanageable. When I put the film together, I didn’t like it very much. It wasn’t very candid and there was something basically wrong and I couldn’t figure it out. So I went off on a Nieman Fellowship to Harvard and studied storytelling for a year. During that year, I found out what was wrong with my film.
Marlow: In a sense, you were trying to capture what you believed was possible in photojournalism and communicate that in motion pictures?
Drew: That’s exactly right.
Marlow: That is where the working process came from? The idea of no interviews, no repeats, no direction whatsoever and the idea of finding talent to put behind the camera. Quite critically, in the case of Primary, you have Albert Maysles, D.A. Pennebaker, Terrence McCartney-Filgate, Richard Leacock, of course. You have folks who went on to do rather incredible work outside of this film as well.
Drew: Yes, I did, and the fact is, most of these people (all but Leacock) were completely unknown at the time. They took the ideas that were behind Primary and ran with them. They’ve all done a wonderful job.
Marlow: They all essentially took that aesthetic to their own work. Would you say that is also the case with other filmmakers that work in the Direct Cinema vein?
Drew: The variety of things that have grown out of it is staggering and beyond my imagination. Some of it is good and some of it is terrible.
Marlow: Of course.
Drew: I don’t endorse all cinéma vérité activities but I appreciate the good ones.
Marlow: Are you interested in the work of Frederick Wiseman at all?
Drew: I am, indeed. Wiseman takes the tools that I developed and uses them for purposes for which I would never use them. I look at his films with some kind of an edge. The idea of making a film to prove a point is as old as film and I consider that a propagandist’s job. That’s the farthest thing from what I am trying to do.
Marlow: My understanding with Primary is that you were somewhat neutral on the outcome of the 1960 Wisconsin primary. You were essentially, quite to the intent of your process, trying to remain neutral and trying to simply observe. A lot of what happens in the film, story-wise, comes out of the careful editing of the footage.
Drew: That’s all true. I went off on this Nieman Fellowship to study storytelling. The modern novel, the short story and so forth. During that year, I found out that my film had been a lecture with picture illustrations. Everything depended on the narration. I realized that what we had to do was shoot enough real, candid footage that we could edit more or less like a movie and let the story tell itself without a lot of intervention by a narrator.
Marlow: Was it there at Harvard that you went from this idea of ‘word logic’ to an approach of ‘dramatic logic?’
Drew: That’s right. I value very greatly the ability to be with people. My definition of cinéma vérité is simply that we’re with people and conveying their experience and what it was like to be there. The French considered cinéma vérité to be ‘accosting people on the street with a microphone’ and the Canadians considered it ‘getting the camera moving.’ My view was to get the camera moving with people through stories.
Marlow: What was the kernel of the idea that got you to Wisconsin?
Drew: When I finally got the equipment ready that we could actually walk with, I was looking for a story. This young senator was running for President. He was up against the whole Democratic Party. He was too young. He was a Catholic. He had everything stacked against him. I liked the story.
Marlow: Obviously, at the time, you had no way to know what would come.
Drew: Actually, if you were a betting man, you would have bet that he would lose.
Marlow: I think it’s difficult for audiences today to put the film in that perspective. At this point, people look back and say, ‘Naturally, Kennedy would win.’ But clearly, when you started the production of Primary, it seemed highly unlikely that he would get the nomination of his party.
Drew: That’s right.
Marlow: You mentioned that during the Kennedy photo shoot (a real moment which most films would not include since it seems incidental and outside of the context of any narrative necessity) it was the sort of real moment you were trying to capture; it was then that you and Leacock thought were actually on to something.
Drew: The thing is, we jumped out of our car, ran into a photo studio, shot a sequence, back into the car and we stopped only once to reload. But it was otherwise continuous. You hadn’t ever seen that in a film before. It sounds funny now but that’s the way it was. After we had completed that, we knew a lot of things. One, the idea was right. Two, the equipment worked. Seemed to work. There was a flaw that we didn’t know about but it seemed to work. We both felt that it was the start of a whole new way of seeing.
Marlow: You’re absolutely right. What was the flaw in the equipment?
Drew: We had spent a year or two trying to get a camera and a recorder to synchronize together. We wanted it to be wireless but we still needed the wire. We started shooting with the wire running from Leacock’s camera to my tape recorder. When we got into the editing room a week later, we found out that the wire had been broken the whole time. There was no sync signal.
Marlow: That footage is all wild-sync?
Drew: We had a very ‘wild’ program. I had commissioned a machine from Ryder Sound Services in California that would allow us to edit in a hotel room. It was basically a tape recorder with six tracks tied to a projector. In this thing, he stuck a box that we didn’t know anything about. He called it a ‘Resolver.’ We’d never heard of a ‘Resolver.’ It had a crank on it. If you turned the crank one way, you slow the picture down versus the tape. If you crank it the other way, you speed the picture up versus the tape. I must say, Pennebaker spent six weeks turning that crank and that was how we were able to resynchronize the film.
Marlow: A very clever solution.
Marlow: First, you approached John Kennedy, before you went to Hubert Humphrey, to see if this film would actually happen. How was it decided that you and Leacock would follow JFK while Pennebaker, Maysles and McCartney-Filgate would tail Humphrey?
Drew: I wanted to be everywhere. Ricky and I were with Kennedy most of the time. Several days we broke out and were with Hubert. I had enough photographers that we could switch around like that.
Marlow: Much like in Crisis as well, you have a convergent point where these different threads come together. In Primary, it’s at Kennedy’s speech, where Albert Maysles has the celebrated shot where he follows Kennedy from behind and slightly above. For me, when I first saw the film, I had the same sensation that I think many people must have felt at the first Lumiere Brothers‘ screening with the train arriving in the station. You really feel like you are there, like you are moving through the crowd with Kennedy with the crowd moving around you as you get to the stage. It is an overwhelming moment. I notice in the added footage on the Primary disc, the montage 30/15, footage from your other films, you open with a similar shot of Indira Ghandi, I believe, following from behind.
Drew: That’s Nehru, actually. We get to Indira later!
Marlow: There is a lot of power in the subjective camera. At that point in the film, at Kennedy’s speech, was it clear that the tide was turning? That Kennedy would win in Wisconsin?
Drew: I didn’t think that way. I wasn’t calculating who would win. I was just calculating whether we were getting the story and if it was a story. That’s what interested me.
Marlow: When you completed Primary, you said that you wanted to make a film of a president dealing with a moment of crisis. When I first heard about Crisis, I mistakenly presumed that it dealt with the Cuban Missile Crisis. The actual film is much more complex, following Vivian Malone and James Hood’s efforts to attend the University of Alabama against the anti-integration wishes of Governor George Wallace. Was Kennedy initially receptive to this idea?
Drew: He went along with it. He wasn’t suspicious. He was judicious. He was trying to figure out what was up and whether he agreed with it. He had written a book of history himself, or at least got it ‘ghost written’ or whichever. He was interested in history. After Primary, he said, ‘What do you want to do next?’ I said, ‘I want to do a president in crisis.’ Then he said, ‘Well, you better come down and shoot for a day or two in the Oval Office and see if I can forget you the way that I did on the campaign trail. We took it step by step and we shot for two days and I made a film out of that, Adventures on the New Frontier [in 1961]. I would say that he was interested and wanted to see it happen but he was also cautious enough to make sure of his footing. It’s not a great film but it is the first film to show a President really at work in the Oval Office.
Marlow: Like Primary (or like any documentary, really) it was unclear how the crisis would resolve itself. What was your ultimate concern about the stand-off between Wallace and Attorney General Robert Kennedy’s efforts to end segregation in Alabama? Particularly when there was a proclamation to nationalize the National Guard, did you fear that things could get quite out of hand or did it seem to be the necessary step to stabilize the situation?
Drew: I thought that it was very tricky and I couldn’t imagine the outcome. If the Guard had been called in the wrong way, there would have been another riotous situation like there was in Mississippi, and if you didn’t call out the Guard, probably the governor would win somehow. My heart was in my throat have the time.
Marlow: What was the composition of the crew like on this film?
Drew: By this time, I had four teams out there and I had to be ‘command central.’
Marlow: You were doing that out of the White House?
Drew: No, I was in New York City.
Marlow: A few of the many remarkable sequences are the two sides of a telephone conversation or the conversation in the car where it is believed that they cannot be heard. It’s pretty revolutionary.
Drew: Well, it was. The funny thing is Nick Katzenbach who said that (you know, ‘They can’t hear us now…’) knew that we were shooting and that we could hear him but he differentiated between us and the press.
Marlow: It is a situation that could never be repeated. You were the only crew that had a mobile camera. You’re not surrounded by thirty other media outlets trying to cover the same event. You had flexibility. You also had access. Even the people on the periphery of the story didn’t make an issue of themselves being filmed, perhaps because they didn’t think it was a legitimate production because of the size and portability of the equipment.
Drew: People didn’t know what we were doing and we were grateful for that.
Marlow: It just couldn’t be done again.
Drew: It hadn’t been done before and it wasn’t possible to do afterward. The press picked up on our equipment and started multiplying it. You have twenty-five photographers where we had one. That erased the possibilities. They picked up the equipment but not the spirit of the thing. They got some spontaneity but they kept talking over it.
Marlow: There is a fear of allowing the images to speak for themselves. When you take a photo-journalistic approach, which you were able to so well in these two films, television in general doesn’t have the confidence (or the talent) to make those things happen.
Drew: I’m afraid you’re right.
Marlow: Did you follow up with Vivian Malone and James Hood after the film was made? Have they commented on their experience since the film was released?
Drew: It’s funny. I’ve been appearing with Vivian on programs. We’re scheduled to be on a program at the Kennedy Library later this month.
Marlow: What was her memory of the event?
Drew: It was a battle for her. The white people at the University didn’t treat her well. She spent several years in a sort of frozen environment there. She was grateful for being there, but it was a battle. Afterwards, she worked in different federal departments dealing with relief and things like that. She’s retired and now she’s writing a book.
Marlow: I’m sure it was with some hesitation that you came to make Faces of November which, unlike the earlier films, is completely devoid of any narration whatsoever. It’s a rather short piece made for ABC News.
Drew: The president of ABC News was a friend of mine and he called me up and said, ‘Go make a film on the funeral.’ I said, ‘What kind of film?’ He said, ‘Your kind of film.’ I wasn’t going to make a film on one person, which I usually try to do. The question was how to get the feelings which were rampant among everybody, how to get that on film. It finally hit me. I was in Washington with three or four crews at the time before I got the idea to shoot backwards, to shoot faces and let those communicate the feelings. It worked well enough that the film won two prizes at Venice. They said ‘your kind of film,’ so I made my kind of film, which was twelve minutes long, and ABC didn’t have a slot for it. They reported on the news that it won a prize, ran a little bit of it on the news show and never showed the film in its entirety.
Marlow: You edited the film yourself?
Drew: I edited the film with another editor. Basically, their job was to sit there all day until I could break away and come in and reorder the faces for a couple of hours and leave. I did that for a couple of weeks until I finally arrived at the way that I felt about the film.
Marlow: I am really fond of the cyclical nature of the film, how it begins and ends with the same shots. Particular when it begins, where it is not clear what we’re hearing and what we are about to see and, by the end, seeing it again, you have all of this information about what you’re seeing. Within merely twelve minutes you have a complete shift in your emotions about the same images.
Drew: That’s true.
Marlow: With Primary, about how much footage was shot?
Drew: 40,000 feet.
Marlow: And with Crisis?
Drew: I don’t know. It was probably two or three times that amount.
Marlow: Of course, there is whole career outside of your Kennedy films. How did your project with Duke Ellington in 1974 come about?
Drew: I made about nineteen films in a rush at the beginning. They were all candid and on different subjects. A test pilot, a high school football team, a piano competition, Jane Fonda on Broadway. Then Time Inc. and ABC had a falling out and then I didn’t know what I was going to be doing next. The Bell Telephone Company came to me and said, ‘Would you make documentaries on the arts?’ I was delighted to do that. I made up a list of documentaries that I wanted to make and they assigned three of them to me the first year and six the second year. Duke Ellington was one of the six.
Marlow: You toured with his orchestra?
Drew: His life was composing music. But in order to compose the music, he had to hear it played. To hear it played, he needed an orchestra and to support the orchestra, he had to keep touring.
Marlow: One thing feeds off another.
Drew: We’ve got this guy caught up in this creative cycle which demands a great deal from him and his musicians and produces some marvelous music. The film just gradually gets to know him. In the end, we know a little about his romantic life, his musical life and so forth.
Marlow: What are a few other films in the series?
Drew: The New York City Ballet and a film on Edward Villella (who was their great male dancer) and it was called Man Who Dances. He was guy who had a wife and he was on a boxing team and a baseball team. Unlike a lot of dancers at the time, he was a real male character. During the course of the year that I shot him, he collapsed in the middle of a performance and then made a comeback. So there was a kind of drama that developed within it. I made films on a violin teacher [Joseph Fuchs] at the Julliard School of Music in New York City who had two stellar students. One was a Japanese girl and one was a German girl. They both end up playing in the Leventritt competition. That’s another kind of a story.
This interview was initially published in 2003.