The films of D.A. Pennebaker, now 85 years old, comprise one of the most formidable oeuvres of any non-fiction filmmaker. While concert documentaries like 'Don't Look Back' (1967), 'Monterey Pop' (1968) and 'Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars' (1973) are probably Pennebaker's most famous works, recent collaborations with wife Chris Hegedus, like 'The War Room' (1993) and 'Startup.com' (2001), have proven the durability of their brand of cinema vérité filmmaking.
Making roughly a film per year, Pennebaker and Hegedus have collaborated on numerous documentaries with their signature unobtrusive "fly on the wall" approach to filming. It allows them to better capture their subjects in their environment, reserving judgment for the editing room afterwards.
Pennebaker and Hegedus' new collaboration is 'Kings of Pastry' (2009), a new vérité doc that follows Jacquy Pfeiffer, a Chicago-based French pastry chef and founder of the French Pastry School in Chicago. Pfeiffer covets a celebratory collar awarded to winners of the famous Meilleur Ouvrier de France (Best Craftsman in France) award for craftsmanship in pastry. Competition for the collar is so fierce that it's a nigh-Olympic three-day event that, in some cases, requires knowledge of complex mathematics and even basic engineering. I sat down with Pennebaker and Hegedus recently at their office on Manhattan's upper west side to talk about filming Pfeiffer, how the two filmmakers work together and any number of films that the couple never made.
How did you get approached about 'Kings of Pastry?'
Hegedus: We heard about the project from a friend of ours, Flora Lazar, who went to the French pastry school in Chicago. She told us about the two French chefs competing for this collar that they wear on their jacket and this bizarre epic pastry competition. We had just finished a film and were looking for another project and it seemed interesting, so we flew out to Chicago and met Jacquy and Sebastien (Canonne) and looked at the French pastry school, which was really an amazing place.
The contest was so interesting to us because it's not a 'Top Chef' food show -- it's a 100-year old contest, almost, and it covers a lot of different arts and fields. It's really to honor and elevate and recognize the craft fields. The competition is unbelievably grueling. People train their whole lives for it so it has incredible tension and passion behind it.
Pennebaker: Of course, we didn't know any of that at the beginning. Our friend had told us that she had taken this course at what was probably the only French pastry school in this country. She told us about how one of the teachers was going to go into this thing and we went out to meet him. His partner -- the two of them ran this school -- had gone in and won and he didn't. Right away, I thought: "There's some drama here; we should see what's going to happen." We asked if we could go with him to France, because he was going to France to practice awhile on French (ingredients). The things the French use, the flour, are a little different from here. Whatever it was, he had to spend time there rehearsing, as it were. We thought, "We'll go along and see." And as always happens, you get drawn into that lobster trap and then you can't get out.
Part of the hook behind 'Kings of Pastry' seems to be the sheer novelty of the tension that these chefs undergo for the project. Is there an American equivalent or something that you think is comparable for Americans, foodies or otherwise?
Hegedus: I don't know if it's a foody thing, but it's almost an Olympic kind of thing. It's a real challenge and you think, "Oh, pastry. Anyone can make a cream puff." But they're not just making cream puffs, they're making these huge sugar sculptures and engineering and mathematics and all sorts of skills. Jacquy took glass-blowing to learn how to do some of the things he was going to use for his sugar sculpture. I think, because it's a life's goal, it's more like an Olympic competition than a food competition.
In France, things aren't driven, or at least the French culinary industry, isn't so much driven by a celebrity-based system like here. You don't get a movie star to come in with you on your restaurant. The only way you could move up in your field and get recognition was to win at this competition. It's interesting that while they compete for excellence, we compete for celebrity and money (laughs), in a sense. It's a totally different ideology.
Pennebaker: Here you just win a prize or a place for that night. But there you get accepted to a kind of club. Not just one person wins: They forever wear that collar and it goes on indefinitely.
Hegedus: Especially wearing the collar. They always say that the real work happens after you've won the collar because you have to live up to it for the rest of your life. You have to be excellent all the time. That's a real responsibility, but it's something they like. That aspect of teaching and mentoring is also a big part of that.
Tell us about Jacquy Pfeiffer. How would you describe him now that you've been so thoroughly immersed in his world?
Hegedus: The moment we met Jacquy, I thought he was interesting. We watched him at the school and some of the pastries that he was doing were sort of amazing. Then we went to lunch and he told us about how every night, when he's going to sleep, his wife wakes him up to tell him that the competition's been canceled because he has these nightmares about it. I thought, "Wow, this guy -- this is really important to him."
Pennebaker: When you see somebody that's as good at something as Jacquy was -- he was as good a person at putting things together and cooking things as I've ever seen -- when he seems somewhat nervous, or even frightened about putting his skills to the test, that's interesting.
How did you share responsibilities from shooting to post for this film?
Pennebaker: We don't. It's whoever's nearest the closet, opens the door. She's mastered (editing software) Final Cut, which I only know how to do the other version of (laughs) -- I don't even know what it's called anymore.
Pennebaker: Avid! I didn't make the jump and so that means I have to sit and watch, which is very frustrating at times. You want to get in there and change something, I have to say, "Please?" (everyone laughs) And sometimes she says, "Fuck you!" So it's not as simple as it appears. But somehow, in some way that confounds us both, we do manage to work together on everything even though she may have me shooting the camera, I'm watching her shooting the camera.
Hegedus: And eating the pastries.
Pennebaker: And eating the pastries. But our ideas do somehow meld up in thin air. It's hard for either of us to say, "I made that film, wake up!" She has made films by herself, totally and in this case, she shot most of this film. In many instances, if you were making a commercial film, you'd say, "Chris, you're the person who shot the film, so you're the person who really made the film." But it isn't always the case. Working together, you're thinking together. It confounds me a little bit how this works, too, because often we're strangling each other at the editing table trying to make our wishes known. But it comes out; we kind of figure it out, I don't know how.
Hegedus: We pretty much shoot our films together in some way or another. In the old days, these were our very first cameras (pictured above), kind of our "his and hers" 16mm movie cameras (laughs).
Pennebaker: That's right, his and hers: mine is red and her's is green. Those are hand-made cameras, our early equipment.
It seems like much of your films' footage are essentially shaped into a cohesive portrait in post-production. Is that fair?
Pennebaker: You mean in editing. Oh yeah. That's where you make the film.
Hegedus: It's how you're going to tell a story. The way you tell a story is premised on two things:To try to be truthful to what happened and to deal with the limitations of your footage, which are always enormous. When we shot film, it was 10 minutes long and each reel was $200, so you wouldn't be shooting a lot. You were always running out so you had certain limitations when you're making a story like 'The War Room,' which we shot on 16mm. Now we could shoot and shoot and shoot in this day and age [with digital], but you still have limitations.
While at the competition, as I was saying, we were the first people to witness this competition and film it so they were very nervous about it. Restrictions were that every single day that we shot, they would review whether they would let us in the next day. It was just Penny (Pennebaker), myself and Nick Doob, who we partnered with on several different films. By the third day, they said, "Ok, we'll kill you if you bump into anybody while they're moving any of their products or sculptures to the display table. So you can stand," and they actually taped a little square box about that big (torso-sized). "And that's where you can stand ..."
And you managed to stay in that designated area?
Hegedus: Yes. We had to stay in that little box to shoot the thing and ...
Pennebaker: The original ruling was nobody had ever actually filmed it and nobody actually had been allowed to watch it. We didn't really have permission (to shoot) until we got there. Finally, one of the people from the school who we knew, Jacquy's partner, he went and said we were harmless and wouldn't do anything.
Hegedus: That has to do with how you shape your story. On the first few days, I did a couple of interviews with the judges that you see (in the film) hanging around, but it was a lot of translating. At one point I had them speak English and they spoke English so poorly that they weren't interesting enough to put in. I had never watched this competition, so I didn't know what would happen. And everyone, as you can see (in the film) is totally quiet with the exception of their mixers. Nobody is talking to each other while everything else is going on. The form suited itself to be somewhat musical and I had put aside from the beginning this Django Reinhardt music I loved, so I just started editing with it and decided to use it as a structure to film around different days.
How do you think documentary filmmaking has changed its focus and its choice of subjects? Has it changed at all?
Pennebaker: Well, I think it's changed but it's like the hour hand on a clock. It's hard to read. You don't notice it but I think, in the beginning, I was part of a group of people -- I knew there was going to be five or six of us who wanted to make films but it never occurred to us that we could go to California and join the filmmaking society. So we were making a kind of New York version of the Hollywood film world. It's like an Off-Broadway version of a Broadway show. It's the Broadway show, but it's not really. Everybody knows the difference. There were four of five people that were making documentaries like 'The Quiet One' and they got some recognition: They played in a theater for a week and that was it. Everybody would write about 'em, everybody knew about 'em in that business, but they never got any real viewing around the country.
Then, little by little, I went and worked with (Robert) Drew at Life (magazine). The idea there was for Life to start making films that would be sort of like their stills were from the '30s and '40s, which were candid views of life and what was going on. But you needed a camera that was quiet, that could shoot sync -- which is to say you could shoot dialogue with -- to walk around in the streets with people, to ride buses with them or go in the desert with them -- there was no such camera.
[So we] put together a camera that was synchronous, that was quieter, it was portable. That changed the documentary to something that then could go outside and really start viewing the world. And there were a number of people that did that. I got more interested in actually finding people or situations in which you would use real people instead of actors, but you would do stories just like Hollywood stories. So they were not too different from Hollywood movies except that what they call the production value was zero.
It was so bad that when I took one of the first ones I did, which was the (Bob) Dylan film, 'Don't Look Back,' people didn't want to look at the second reel. They said it was too ratty-looking. "We don't want that in our theater!" I could see that was a problem but at the same time, from having shown it around at various places around the country -- I would get invited to show it at some library or school -- I knew there was an interest in it. I knew there was an audience for it but I didn't know how to get to them.
Then a guy came to me who owned a string of porn houses around the middle West; they were called "The Art Theater Guild," which I always thought was a good name for a porn operation. And he said, "Somebody told me you have a film I should look at." I was ready to show it to anybody because I'd spent four, five months trying to get a distributor to even look at it. He came in and said, "You know, it's exactly what I'm looking for: it looks like a porn film, but it's not. I'm going to put it in the Presidio," which turned out to be one of the big porn houses in San Francisco.. I thought it was a big movie theater. So I said, "Great," and it ran there for a year before we had even opened it in New York. In a way, that film probably couldn't have been distributed under a normal situation.
But from then on, we toured a lot around the country and abroad at a retinue of theaters. So when we did 'Monterey (Pop),' we had places it could be shown at. We distributed both of them ourselves. And that changed a lot of the thinking about the documentary. Because suddenly it became a film that you could distribute like a normal film.
Hegedus: That having been said, the distribution model has come a long way since then. I think it's in a total flux, as you must know covering the movie industry now. Nobody really knows what's going to happen with streaming and the Internet. Nobody knows what the (business) model's going to be for theaters. In some ways, we haven't learned very much from the music industry, who had this challenge earlier in terms of pirating on the Internet.
Things have really changed in that way and on a storytelling way. The medium once was very exclusive. Hardly any people could film and now, everybody can film, and cultures can film themselves, which is, I think, wonderful. I saw a film last year -- I've been on the jury of quite a few different festivals lately -- I saw some Mexican film about some indigenous Mexican tribe that takes a lot of cocaine and psychedelics as part of their religion. They (the filmmakers) gave the camera to them because they (the subjects) didn't want the filmmaker to see or be there for their ritual, but they actually gave it to them and filmed the whole thing themselves. It's interesting that it's gone to that degree and that area. I think short pieces of film on the Internet that become so wildly successful to a viewership of strange human relationships are really interesting.
Pennebaker: The big change -- when we did 'The War Room,' we did that on film, but when we did 'Startup(.com),' we shot on video. We would blow it up on 35(mm film) and all the labs would figure out a way to make a really good 35mm print from your video but you still had to have 35 prints. For any kind of national distribution, you had to be ready with 25, 35 prints, which is not cheap. Now you can have a video, almost with a DVD and most theaters can run it. So for the documentary film, you don't have to go into the terrible film cost exactly. But they still have the problem of promoting it and advertising it. And you're stuck running it in a theater, praying for good word of mouth and maybe some blogs if you're lucky.
Is there a figure you wanted to follow but never got access to or never got around to doing?
Pennebaker: Yeah, I wanted to do something with Nixon after he retired, as it were. I went to the head of the Republican Party, and knew some people connected with the Republican Party, but everyone assumed I was going to knock him. Which I didn't intend to do at all. He wasn't my favorite person in the world, but I wanted to do Thanksgiving dinner with Nixon and his relatives. I thought it would just be a marvelous thing to do straight. I had talked with somebody who had been to a family affair with him and they said that what was fascinating was here's this guy who knows more about what's going on in the world than any living creature and he has his own aunt saying, "Now Dick, don't worry about it. Just tell me what we're having for dinner." And I thought it'd be marvelous to see him deal with that because he could be a very charming person. I was told. I wanted to see that because he was going out as a villain, which always seemed to me a little before-the-fact.
I don't know why, but I've always thought, because you (Hegedus) have filmed Jimi Hendrix and you've filmed Bob Dylan and David Bowie, that you two would have been perfect to film Frank Zappa performing.
Pennebaker: I talked with Zappa about it. He was very protective of his public persona. If you did it, he'd want to edit it. I used to get notes from him about things. He was interesting, you're right. It was also on the other coast and the way it worked -- it was so hard. For instance, I started a project with (Robert) Kennedy, which was going to end just as he got into the White House. We talked about it and I actually filmed quite a bit of it before he was just going into the Senate and after he got into the Senate. But I couldn't keep up with him when he was doing his thing, going to California and running for president, then on the road. I had to abandon that. Well, I'm happy that I did because I would have hated to have been there when he got shot. That would have been really hard.