6 Filmmaking Tips from D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus

Image via Documentary.org

Last Fall, the New York Times reported that D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus were searching for a suitable home for their vast archival arsenal of nonfiction filmmaking materials, including “vintage camera equipment, hundreds of file folders and boxes and crates filled with outtakes, correspondence and many, many reels of 16-millimeter films.” The story not only illustrated the difficulty of finding a suitable place to house the holdings of even the most respected filmmakers, but stood as a testament to what Pennebaker and Hegedus have done over decades of filmmaking.

Individually and together, Pennebaker’s and Hegedus’s cameras have been present for, amongst many, many other events, Bob Dylan’s 1965 UK tour, the Monterey Pop festival, David Bowie’s retirement of Ziggy Stardust, Bill Clinton’s ascendance to the presidency, and even a renowned French pastry competition. And “present” is the operative word here, as these filmmakers have sworn to a style of shooting that patiently allows for events and personalities to unfold in front of them. Pennebaker and Hegedus’s archive isn’t merely a record of filmmaking, but a record of history, with filmmakers as its witness.

So here’s a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from two essential figures of “direct cinema.”

Don’t Label or Narrate; Watch and Explore

“…it’s possible to go to a situation and simply film what you see there, what happens there, what goes on, and let everybody decide whether it tells them about any of these things. But you don’t have to label them, you don’t have to have the narration to instruct you so you can be sure and understand that it’s good for you to learn.”

– Pennebaker interview with G. Roy Levin, 1971

When photojournalist Robert Drew made a transition into an observational style of filmmaking (with Pennebaker, the Maysles brothers, and Richard Leacock in his employ), he pursued a type of documentary filmmaking that established a distinct break from the staged, anthropological styles of Robert Flaherty or the digestible polemics of newsreels ‐ a style of documentary that observed life as it unfolded.

But Drew’s style, as exhibited in television specials like Primary, still maintained certain narrative and instructional aspects even as their style communicated something radically new and intimate. When Pennebaker started directing films independently in the early 1960s, he wanted to take this approach even further, to truly use the camera to observe everyday life unfolding without the constraints and fabrications inherited from documentary’s prior conventions.

“Let The Person You’re Filming Decide What To Do”

In an interview with fellow documentarian Ondi Timoner, Pennebaker reflects on arriving at the realization that “directing” a moment prevents it from existing. His advice can be distilled into two words: “Just watch.”

He expands upon this idea by emphasizing the radical simplicity of such an approach, the trust that, with patience and an eye for nuance, a film will come into being:

It’s not surprising to me, but to most people it is. You begin and shoot these films without really having any idea what you’re doing most of the time. You just follow what you did yesterday with what you’re going to do today.”

Realness Is What Makes It Bite

“This type of filmmaking ‐ I look at it like a volcano going off. And you don’t have much time. Whatever time it took for the event to take place, that’s really about all you want to show people if you can help it. Whereas dwelling on it or referencing it or discussing it takes place from its realness. And realness is what makes it bite.”

Pay Attention To Unexpected Subjects

Melissa Denes: Did [Depeche Mode] approach the band or did they approach you?

Hegedus: They approached us. They weren’t really familiar to me, and to be honest every song sounded the same at the beginning. Now, they all sound so unique I can’t believe I even thought that. But what was interesting was that they were a band who wanted to go their own path. They didn’t want to idolise the music of the 1960s or their parents’ music, they wanted to find something really new ‐ and I think they did. Then there was the type of fans they had. When I was younger, in the 1960s, everybody was very individual and wanting to be in their own space. But the whole thing with Depeche Mode was you had this costume.

Pennebaker is perhaps best known for his music documentaries of the 1960s and 1970s: Dont Look Back, Monterey Pop, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. When Pennebaker decided to return to music documentaries in collaboration with Hegedus for Depeche Mode 101, it wasn’t out of outright appreciation for the band. But once Pennebaker and Hegedus lent their attention to their subjects, what they found surprised them, and it changed the way they looked at the group.

This can be said for their approach to documentaries writ large: by attentively observing a person, event, or phenomenon, you see it differently and more clearly. Their filmmaking isn’t in service of existing fans to the subject matter, but rather an opportunity to dive into a subject, whatever or whoever it may be.

The Key Subject Might Not be the Most Obvious One

When Pennebaker and Hegedus were commissioned to make a film about Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign for the presidency, their natural assumption was that their obvious and most interesting subject would be the candidate. But when Clinton proved difficult to document within a campaign navigating controversy and amongst so the many other media practitioners following his every move towards a variety of ends, the filmmakers focused their cameras on the campaign managers, James Carville and George Stephanopolous, who proved to be fascinating and charismatic documentary characters, and whose enduring celebrity more than twenty years later can arguably be credited in part to The War Room, one of the best political documentaries ever made.

You’re the Least Important Person in the Room

Time: There’s a dictum in anthropology that the observer changes the behavior of the observed. Have you been in situations where you felt that your presence was really affecting things?

Pennebaker: Not a lot. Your attitude towards the camera determines that. If you’re setting up lights and tripods and you’ve got three assistants running around, people will want to get you out as fast as they can. But if you go the opposite way, if you make the camera the least important thing in the room, then it’s different. I’ve left it on the floor. Sometimes, I’ll shoot with it on my lap. Other times, I’ll put it on a table and turn it on. You don’t make it a big issue.

Practitioners of direct cinema were as much makers of cameras as they were makers of films. Albert Maysles fashioned a 16mm camera whose whirring wheels photographed silently in order to lessen his subjects’ self-conscious awareness of its presence. And Pennebaker, who has a background in engineering, developed portable and sound-synch 16mm technologies beginning early in his career. It’s a technical process exercised toward a philosophical ideal: a camera as an extension of a filmmaker who removes her or himself as much as they can from whatever is happening now.

As explained by Pennebaker, the camera possesses an uncanny and unique ability to perform its own type of creative work:

“It’s something unique to the camera. Writers have to remember it and redo it in their own way. But the camera does it its way.”

What We’ve Learned

Pennebaker rejects many labels that would otherwise categorize his work, preferring to call his films “records of moments” rather than documentaries. This rejection of labels is important to understanding his and Hegedus’s work, for their filmmaking has rarely conformed with the ever-shifting boundaries we’ve placed on what constitutes conventional non-fiction filmmaking. Above, Pennebaker discusses his work on Norman Mailer’s Maidstone, a fiction/non-fiction hybrid that he served as cinematographer for, and a movie that has as much, if not a great deal more, spontaneity than so many traditionally understood “documentaries.”

There isn’t much of a sharp distinction in his recollection of filming between “fiction” versus “non-fiction.” Instead, when he looks through the lens of a camera, he values simply what is “real” and what is not ‐ that which “bursts into flower in front of you” and stays alive.

“Well made” and not well made, “documentary” or “narrative,” these distinctions fall apart in the face of capturing an uncanny, authentic moment and preserving it on film.

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