Interview: Robert Drew
“I was at Life magazine producing picture stories, and I wondered why documentaries on television were dull.” That was something probably a lot of other people were wondering in the 1950s, when Robert Drew set down the road of re-casting documentary film as a mobile art form with a journalistic approach to story and an idealized in-the-moment aesthetic. Helping set both images and talent into motion, the Life magazine veteran was a galvanizing force through Drew Associates and his creative collaborations with Richard Leacock, D.A. Pennebaker, Albert Maysles, and others less frequently mentioned but also deserving of recognition. Many of the works he produced are classics—Primary, Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment—and still others await rediscovery.
Drew passed away this past July at the age of 90. Two years ago, he generously spent a long time sharing with me firsthand recollections of documentary’s historic shift in the 1950s and 1960s. All too often the history of what’s usually called cinema verité tends to coalesce around the same names and victory-lap claims to “capturing reality,” and sometimes Drew’s role seems relegated more to textbooks. In our interview, his journalism-derived criteria for what makes a good story are evident, and he’s not shy about his role in guiding progress, but he also recognizes the influences of other filmmakers and the role of money in putting obviously appealing ideas into action. He also goes into gratifying detail about the engineering knowhow behind crucial camera modifications, both the people and the parts.
It’s all part of a story that still remains to be expanded and elaborated upon with further chapters. With the nonfiction festival DOC NYC kicking off this Friday and awarding its first Robert & Anne Drew Award for Documentary Excellence to CITIZENFOUR director Laura Poitras, here are a few more stories from Drew (1924-2014), in memoriam.
Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment
Could you talk about how it all began, and how important the changes in camera technology were? You’ve said you proceeded from the assumption that lighter cameras were possible…
The camera gets credit for making the breakthrough, but really the camera and all the films were the result of an intention—a desire to make a better film—and the camera was just part of that. It was obvious something could be done.
On a technical level, who came up with the key advances?
Mitchell Bogdanowicz was the technical genius who allowed us to change the gears in the camera from metal to plastic, which would make the camera quiet enough. Bogdanowicz was able to adapt the camera to take the zoom lens, and he engineered a device to change battery power. He had a studio in New York, which I think was mainly devoted to the CIA. It was rather a large place, and he wouldn’t talk about the work he was doing for the government. When we ran into a real problem, we had to go to him.
But I have to talk about Richard Leacock because that’s where the intention started. I was at Harvard on the Nieman [fellowship] looking into why documentaries were dull. And I saw a program on television called Toby and the Tall Corn. It was about a Midwestern kids show, and what sold me was that you had the real feeling of being there, and it was obviously not directed. That is, it was obviously spontaneous, the shooting and the editing, and I came down to New York to find out how this miracle got made. It’s a long story, but Leacock made it, and I found him to be a very frustrated man with the way documentaries were made. He made Toby and the Tall Corn with a large crew with the big cameras. So Leacock and I talked together and outlined what needed to be done to the camera. Leacock wanted Pennebaker, who was a technical person who had run an electronics company.
The Children Are Watching
It sounds so straightforward when you put it that way, but I’m sure this involved a great deal of experimentation and repetition.
It was exciting and engaging by itself. It was Mount Everest: it was there to be done. The steps were complicated, but basically it was our disappointment with the way documentaries were made that drove us to try to fix the problem. I had a hope that we could fix it in a week or two, maybe months, and I’m now 88 years old and still trying to fix it.
The first steps were to get backing. I was a “picture story” man, and my job was to find the picture stories, and to get [Alfred] Eisenstaedt shooting something, get talent, and then I would write the story for Life. Later I just sat in a cubicle and wrote stories, period. And I planned a “Life magazine of the air,” and the magazine of the air would start off with stories that were short and exciting and could not be turned off. I had a mind and a desk drawer full of ideas: some were long, cinema verité types that required new cameras, and some were these short, sensational things. I went to the publisher and said, let me make some short films, and if I do, they’ll get run on television on prime time—that was a leap for me to claim that, I wasn’t dead sure—and that will help the magazine, and your job is to sell magazines.
I started making short sensational films that were run on The Ed Sullivan Show, which was the number-one show at the time. And in the process, over several years, I built up enough films, enough material, to make a rough approximation of the magazine show. I showed it to Roy Larsen [president of Time, Inc.] and Henry Luce [co-founder of Time magazine]. Luce didn’t like it. I had an ideological philosophy and a direction—he liked the words. Larsen on the other hand liked the films.
Some weeks after the screening I got an invitation from Roy Larsen to lunch. Roy drank a martini and so did I. I had expected to get fired because I was doing so much work on motion pictures, and Life in a way was paying for the work I was doing. Larsen said he wanted me to work for his broadcast division. I said why? He said: “I want you to teach those guys, teach them how to do it, how to do what you do.” I was a little doubtful, but what he said next hit me like a two-by-four: “The broadcast division has a capital equipment budget.” I was a writer making $16,000 a year, and I needed a million dollars to change the technology—and this was my avenue.
I started making films for the stations [which Time, Inc. owned] and spending Roy Larsen’s money until I had a rig that one man could carry, barely. Leacock was the guy selected to do it, and eventually I had a two-man team: Leacock on the camera, and me on the sound and writing and so forth. Getting financed was the start. Once I knew what I needed to do, once I had Leacock to help me, Pennebaker and other people, and once I had the money, then we could work in earnest. And I made the film Primary which you probably know about.
What sort of impact did Primary have?
Primary had a revolutionary effect, but that film had a strange life: it began by being rejected. A friend of mine was vice president of NBC News, Elmer Lower, and he looked at it and said: “Bob, you’ve got some good footage in there…” But the fact is without voiceover and a sense of narration, he didn’t see a film. In Europe it had a revolutionary effect. It was shown in the prestigious theaters and got the highest ratings from the French critics of any film opening that year, including West Side Story. The fiction filmmakers began picking up on those things—Godard and the rest of them. The first thing they did to imitate us was to shake the camera. Everything I did was handheld. If you put the camera on the tripod, it would kill the story.
Robert Drew during his time at Life magazine
How did you manage the sound?
In order to make films in the television stations, or in hotels, I needed a way to edit films with multiple soundtracks and in order to do that I needed a machine that would allow us to edit the multiple soundtracks. The way that Hollywood did it, and the way that Ed Murrow and everybody did it, was to go into a multimillion-dollar studio to mix the sound, but I needed a system to do it in a hotel room. I went to Loren Ryder, who was a Hollywood sound engineer, and I had him fly to New York from California and booked up an arrangement to make this revolutionary editing machine.
In fact, while I was shooting Primary, I had Pennebaker setting up the new system in a hotel room in Minneapolis. When Primary was shot, I moved to Minneapolis to see the new system. Pennebaker flung open the door to the hotel room—it was a ballroom, gigantic—it was filled with wires and cables and heat. Pennebaker said: “Don’t worry, Bob, I’ve wired the fuses.” So we were drawing tremendous power, and I was afraid the hotel would burn down.
On Primary, Leacock had the principal camera, and I had the principal sound, and we were bound together by a wire. But we found out the wire had been broken the whole time, and there was no way to edit the film with the sound. Until we looked into Ryder’s machinery and found this crank that would change the speed of the film versus the tape. Pennebaker found we could actually synchronize these, shot by shot—for 40,000 feet. So Pennebaker became the man at the crank, and we all stood around him, shouting: “Turn it to the left, turn it to the right, faster, slower.” For five or six weeks.
The technology is obviously very important, but it also strikes me that you chose some amazing subjects, and that’s just as important.
It is exactly. Choosing the right subject is an ignored subject, but it’s a fundamental thing. If one wants to make films, one has to find a story.
There was a lot of innovative filmmaking going on at the time in New York, much of it pursuing the same spontaneity you were interested in. Cassavetes, Shirley Clarke, and earlier, Morris Engel. What did you think of those films?
Shirley Clarke and the people like that were making do without the tools. The stuff they put together was different, but they weren’t getting anywhere near close to telling the story as it happens with people. Cassavetes is a very interesting subject to me because of how he handled the equivalent problems, but not because of the spontaneousness. The spontaneousness he was after was forced—what I wanted was a real spontaneousness. But I appreciate Cassavetes a lot. Morris Engel was a lone genius—actually, he wasn’t alone, his wife was very instrumental in his work. I looked into what he did and spent time with him, and so did Leacock. He was a central figure, but he was not in the position to make reality documentaries. But at that point, many things could develop into good things.
Leo Hurwitz is another fascinating figure in the early history of cinema verité.
Hurwitz’s stuff was very instructive, and I learned a lot. He made a big difference in my work. Take The Young Fighter . He set out to tell a story of a young man deciding to stop doing something. Now, I don’t know anybody who can make a great film on that. He made a film on somebody’s mental processes regarding a problem, and that is not a story that he could take the camera to and record and edit. But he picked a good subject with the film on the clinic, Emergency Ward . It was a stronger film. And there’s another man you haven’t mentioned yet. Fons Iannelli, I think, was the genius who allowed The Young Fighter to be made. It’s hard to convey the difficulty of the problems that Leo had [faced] and that he solved to a certain extent. I think a lot of people involved were a little bit like Einstein trying to solve his ultimate problem, in their attempts to free the camera.
Another hot spot of innovation at the time was in Canadian documentary. How did that fit into all of this?
The Canadians were tremendous at what they were doing. They developed candid filming with their own equivalent. They made a fascinating series of films called The Candid Eye. They went round and shot everything they could in Christmastime in Montreal and made it into an impressionistic view of Montreal at Christmastime. I traveled up there and was on their programs. Finally I began hiring their people. One of the cameramen on Primary was straight from the National Film Board, Terence Macartney-Filgate. Leacock and I alternated between Kennedy and Humphrey, and we needed people to film when we weren’t there with the other guy. We needed the second and third cameras, in complicated situations, and I was determined to incorporate some talent from the Canadian experience.
Obviously you were on the move a lot but where were you living all this time when you were in New York?
I was living in Darien, Connecticut. I took the train in every morning, train back every night. Nights I’ll often spend on the floor somewhere. I was a fighter pilot in World War II and shot down and had all kinds of adventures. Nothing was as strenuous as making these films.
Ten films from Drew Associates will be available for streaming on SundanceNow Doc Club starting December 1, including Jane, The Chair, The Children Were Watching, Mooney vs. Fowle, On the Pole: Eddie Sachs, Letters from Vietnam, and Storm Signal.