High Times Greats: D.A. Pennebaker

The late cinema-verité pioneer D.A. Pennebaker reminisced about Jack Kerouac, Bob Dylan and John Lennon in this 2001 interview.
High Times Greats: D.A. Pennebaker
D.A. Pennebaker in 1968 (AP/Wide World)

For the July, 2001 issue of High Times, Carlo McCormick interviewed one of America’s greatest documentary filmmakers, D.A. Pennebaker (1925-2019). Known best for Don’t Look Back, his 1967 portrait of Bob Dylan; Monterey Pop in 1969; and The War Room, his Oscar-nominated portrait of the Clinton presidential campaign, in 1993, Pennebaker also captured David Bowie, in Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, and the raw experiments of the Plastic Ono Band in John Lennon. For over five decades, he defined our collective history with an honesty and immediacy that transcends time. In honor of Pennebaker’s birthday July 15, we’re republishing the interview below.

High Times: Are you able to enjoy filming, or is it always about doing the job at hand?

D.A. Pennebaker: For us it’s never a job. We’re there because we have to be. We don’t know where else to be. Our role was not to comment on what we saw, just to watch it.

You perfected that fly-on-the-wall perspective, but was it participatory as well?

You participate in that you’re hanging out with these people. It’s a dialogue. In the second half of most of my films I go from the long photographic zoom lens, where you get people’s faces recognizable up on stage, to a wide-angle lens. With the wide-angle, which is a fixed lens, you not only don’t have to focus or do any of the other things a lens requires, you don’t even have to look through it. You can pretty much hold the camera where you want, so you can face the people you’re filming and become more of a participant in what’s going down. It creates more of a sense of being in an inner circle, which is what you want—to be in a place where most people can’t.

This kind of documentary intimacy that your generation created with direct cinema, or cinema verité, is something you helped develop by coming up with a new camera technology that allowed filmmakers to go into situations that were previously inaccessible. Though unwieldy by today’s standards, your camera was suddenly portable.

We wanted something you could use to shoot in the desert or the Metropolitan Opera House. There was no such camera, so we invented one. It didn’t exactly come about overnight, but by the time we got that camera to work it was very portable and quiet. I used that same camera to make Don’t Look Back and Monterey Pop. You could still use it today.

Everyone now looks to verité as a style, the fluid mobility and rough, hand-held look. But I also think of it as a philosophy.

The philosophy follows. You tend to justify what you do. We didn’t set out to make shaky, bad-focus narrative films, though people still think we did. It wasn’t anything we intended to do, it was all we could do. You couldn’t carry tripods or lights around, you couldn’t even take a person to do the lights. We developed everything down to a carryable state, which meant there were certain things you weren’t going to do with a camera, and that determined our style. We never even remotely examined the aesthetics of how a picture should look.

As much as it was practical more than aesthetic, wasn’t it also about going against Hollywood’s fictional construct of reality?

I’ve always hated that. When I see the lighting in most Hollywood movies, and the camera that never shakes, it’s all so dead. I like to see some life behind the camera. For years I listened to my 78 records, and I never heard the surface noise. It’s the same when it becomes the defects in our filmmaking. The shaking, the zooms you get when you have to focus, I don’t notice them. All I see is that these films are alive in ways that you can’t help. Now they have shake-masters for tripods and you can reproduce a lot of these effects with video. People have accepted them, so you no longer have to fight for them. But in the beginning it was a struggle. People would say, “It makes my eyes hurt.”

Your pioneering work has had considerable influence. I don’t know how much you want to take credit or even responsibility for what has followed, but French New Wave cinema, the reality-based TV of Cops and Survivor and music videos all owe you a considerable debt. What do you think of these things?

It’s like MTV using the beginning of Don’t Look Back. I don’t feel that I totally own this anymore. You put something out, it’s like a footpath. If enough people use it, it becomes public property. I don’t take credit for it particularly, but I don’t feel guilty about it. Occasionally you do something that becomes fixed. Why? I don’t know. But everyone says that’s the way it should be done, until somebody else comes along with a better way. I think what people saw in my early films was that finally it wasn’t what the actors do in carrying out a writer or director’s vision. They could see these people we’ve come to adore, in ways that don’t require any of that theatricality, and make their own judgments about them.

It’s as simple as this: In the ’60s, every kid would buy certain records. To their parents, the record covers were just pictures. But for them it was a whole secret symbolic language that told them what kind of dope to smoke, where things were hidden, where to go and all kinds of things they naturally needed to know. Film is one more way you can convey secret information. Don’t Look Back provided coded information for people who didn’t want the other generation to know what they were really into. When the older generation looked at it, all they saw was out-of-focus, shaky pictures they weren’t used to. But younger audiences dug it because this was not the old, it was something new. That it lasted this long is not just a test of the process, it’s a test of Dylan.

Allen Ginsberg was in Don’t Look Back, and Dylan certainly took a lot of his persona from Jack Kerouac. In terms of the evolving lineage of this coded language, what sort of influence did you take from Beat literature?

Allen was a Kerouac kid. I knew Jack. In fact, for a long time Jack wanted me to make a film of On the Road. Of course, I had to say “I don’t know how to do that kind of movie. That’s actors, and you don’t want to do that with me.”

You also did three films with Norman Mailer that make me think a bit of Beat films, like Robert Frank’s Pull My Daisy.

I knew Robert. It was different with Norman, because he saw that we had succeeded with Monterey Pop. He thought, if they can do it with their home movies, with my literary connections I can put something together using this inexpensive technique, put it in the theaters and make a lot of money. His lawyer was not so sure. In fact, by the third film he was forbidden to do it again. It was a funny problem for me, because I wanted Norman to direct, and I would shoot it for him. But he didn’t know how to direct, and I didn’t know how to tell him how to direct, because I didn’t know how to direct either.

When it came to these private signifiers of ’60s youth culture—the politics, music, drugs, lifestyle and philosophy—how did you try to relate all this in visual and narrative terms?

Don’t Look Back was an attempt to do that in the only way I knew how, by watching somebody who’s inventing themselves as they go along. What you look to in artists, or anybody else you follow, is if they know something. And if we think they do, then we better figure out a way to find it out. It goes back to when the guy who threw the spear best was the one everyone else watched.

Monterey Pop certainly offered that opportunity.

No one had ever made a film about a festival before. I knew that it would be difficult. We had some cameras that could shoot only ten minutes at a clip, and we weren’t going to shoot 35mm. So how were we going to do it? We also had to have some sort of recording set up. Luckily Brian [Wilson, of the Beach Boys] lent us his two Ampex 8-tracks. He had the first two 8-tracks in California, and if we hadn’t gotten them, I’m not sure what we would have done. Things like this hadn’t been solved yet, but I thought this is where we ought to be. So you work out a little construct that helps you make the film. In the case of Monterey Pop, I wanted it to be a momentary history of music and I knew I had to end up someplace that people had never been before. That of course was Ravi Shankar. So Hendrix and all the rest had to build in that order. Generally in this type of film you have a narrator, but what was wonderful was I had the music, and that became my narration.

You left some bands out of the movie. How come?

In the case of Monterey we shot a lot of bands, like Electric Flag and Paul Butterfield Blues Band. Paul was a friend, and Electric Flag I had spent three days with in L.A. while they were rehearsing. Everyone thought then that they were going to be the big band of the whole thing. So Electric Flag, as well as Butterfield, were in an early version of the film, and it wasn’t until it was almost released, when Truman Capote pointed it out to me that they didn’t belong in there. Electric Flag was kind of now, but you couldn’t do that and then go with a half-hour of raga music. And Paul’s band was really good, but who needs that when you’ve got Otis Redding? I had to make choices that I never thought I’d have to make, but in the end the film kind of made itself. A lot of people got left out, but when we do the DVDs, we’ll put them all on there after the film.

Having shot all these pop stars and even future presidents, what sort of boundaries between what’s private and personal, versus public, have you had to be aware of?

I don’t know what those boundaries are. It probably depends on how you’re brought up. I don’t think porno films are necessarily evil, but I don’t want to make them. Certain things are hard for me to embrace, and you have to be ready to embrace what you film. That has something to do with where you go and where you don’t, but what really determines it is access.

So there isn’t an unseen inventory of scandalous footage hidden somewhere here?

Not at all.

How about all the footage of Bob Dylan and John Lennon?

That was for the film Bob was making that never got finished but sort of came out as Eat the Document. And the reason it wasn’t included in that was John was so nervous about Dylan, and Bob was really sick. I have no interest in filming people shooting up. The only things I have are these all-night music sessions with them where they clearly had some source of energy. And I was actually kind of in awe of it. I thought, “Jesus, this is what drugs can do? It’s incredible, I’m all for it.” But I knew that there was a heavy price to pay, and it never interested me to pay the price.

I never got into drugs. I knew they were around. I sometimes carried them for people. Every once in a while someone would pass me a joint and I’d puff on it to be social, but I didn’t even smoke pot. From time to time I’d encounter drugs. Aldous Huxley tried to interest me in peyote. I tried mushrooms once and they made me really sleepy. I know that they laced my drink at Timothy Leary’s wedding. At Monterey they slipped me Owsley’s Purple Haze that Jimi was on—but it didn’t affect me. I was always so involved in my own head, trying to figure what to do next for the film, the last thing in the world I wanted was to be removed from that.

Looking at your films from the ’60s, I can’t help but think it was a more innocent time. I don’t know if it’s my nostalgia, but people just seem not as self-conscious or aware of the camera.

I wonder about that also, and I don’t know if it’s nostalgia. They certainly didn’t know what our cameras looked like in general. There were television people going around sometimes with sort of similar cameras, with wires going into tape recorders, and they were really clumsy. But if anyone did notice us, they probably just associated it with TV.

Politics has also gone from an age of innocence to media savvy. You filmed the young Kennedy for Primary and Crisis. You caught the birth of the Clinton era with The War Room. And, it seems that Rip Torn playing a celebrity turned president in your Norman Mailer film, Maidstone, is in retrospect certainly very prescient of Ronald Reagan. How did you skip Nixon?

I would have loved to make a movie with Nixon. I tried for years, but they thought I was out to trash him. I wanted to have Thanksgiving dinner with him. To think about all that he knew, it’s incredible, and he’d sit at the table with all his relatives who never wanted to hear a word from him. Losers are interesting too.

Young people today inherit the ’60s like this split-screen projection, Monterey Pop meets Altamont, the Mamas and the Papas next to Manson, the optimism and the disillusionment simultaneously. When did all it change for you?

What guides me is the Byronic paradigm that the artist has to create his own paradigm in any way he can. That’s what you do, and if somebody like a Manson comes along with a different paradigm that by contrast is dark and grisly, the only way you can deal with that is to bolster your own. I was approached to do the Altamont movie. I spent two weeks out there with Jagger and the Stones, and I walked on it.

You could feel the bad vibes already?

Very bad. I didn’t want to do anything with Mick, and I still don’t. They asked me recently, but they just don’t interest me. I’d rather hang out with someone like John Lennon, who was really nuts. In the end John was in such questionable shape I think somebody did him a favor by knocking him off. He was so crazy, he couldn’t tell up from down, but you couldn’t help love the guy.

Part of the Byronic paradigm some take too literally is the heroic romance of a tragic end. In your experiences with Janis Joplin and Hendrix, did you ever get a sense of this pathos?

Not really. I knew Jimi here in New York, and he was very laid back, not at all the wild tempestuous rock star sort. Once when we were shooting down at the Generation Club and I couldn’t get anyone to do the sound for me, Jimi ran the tape recorder. He was supposed to be there up on stage, but that was the kind of guy he was—not at all full of himself.

Speaking of death, your friend and Monterey organizer John Philips recently passed away.

I really loved John. He was a consummate songwriter with that wonderful sense that when it was there he knew it, and all he needed was to get his hands on the music. But at the same time he had that crazy Indian thing, that I’m going to beat myself to death and go over the cliff with it.

So many of the people you have worked with have become revered icons. When we look at your Films what we see is Hendrix, Bowie, Lennon, Kennedy, Dylan. Do you wonder what it might be like if we could watch them now without all the fame, personality and history attached?

I don’t think you can strip them of what it is that they’re recognized for. You can’t take Kennedy outside his surroundings any more than you can separate Hendrix from his performance. In the end, it is up to the people to make up their own mind. Working as an independent filmmaker, sometimes it’s hard to get my films to an audience. But I know the audience is always out there, and I trust them. That’s the only thing I trust.

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