Jonathan Marlow: I recently watched Primary (1960) and Crisis (1963) again. I first
saw them many years ago and watched them this time with your commentary with
Richard Leacock. I imagine it was a little awkward for you to record then. Did you
enjoy that process?
Robert Drew: I admit that I didn't. I hate to talk over my own film. I understand that I
am a little old fashioned and I have to get used to it. I did like joking around with
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
That's right. It was easier with Primary. Crisis is harder to talk over because some real
things are going on.
Life Magazine of the Year. How did that project originally start and how did your
disappointments with it and how that eventually started the path to the process of
My greatest interest was still-picture essay, shot with a 35mm candid 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 a 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 and 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 any more. We started rolling again and I heard someone yell, Cut. I looked
around and wondered, Who was 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
with and I couldn't figure that 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
In a sense, you were trying to capture what you believed was possible in
photo-journalism and communicate that in motion pictures?
That's exactly right.
That is where the working process came from? The idea of no interviews, no repeats, no
direction what-so-ever and the idea of finding talent to put behind the camera. Quite critically,
in the case of Primary, you have Albert Maysles, DA 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.
Yes, I did.
One of the key elements of Primary is this mass of talent that you were able to put
together on the film.
I'm agreeing with you on that 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 it. They've all done a wonderful job.
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?
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.
I don't endorse all cinéma vérité activities but I appreciate the good ones.
Are you interested in the work of Frederick Wiseman at all?
I am, indeed. Wiseman takes the tools that I developed and uses them for purposes
that 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.
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.
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.
Was it there at Harvard that you went from this idea of word logic to an approach of
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.
What was the kernel of the idea that got you to Wisconsin?
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.
Obviously at the time, you had no way to know what would come.
Actually, if you were a betting man, you would have bet that he would lose.
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.
What is also critical is that this was one of the last times when the convention
actually played a large role in deciding whom the eventual candidate would be.
That's true. He had put himself in position at the convention by winning a lot of
primaries. They were both important. The primaries and the convention.
Ever since, candidates rely heavily upon the press to craft (and perpetuate) a persona.
They can go into a convention where it is already largely decided in advance. It is no
longer the case of bartering at the convention to shift delegates around. Usually,
the favoured candidate has most or all of the delegates they need going into a
convention. It's rather disappointing, really, since it changes the whole purpose of the
convention. With Primary, you're dealing with the experience of the candidates and
their day-to-day life on the campaign trail. More recent films which have tried to do
the same thing seem to be the anti-thesis of Primary, where they are creating a story
where there may not be one.
That's true, too. You're very perceptive.
[laughs] I don't know. Maybe I have a grim outlook on what has come since your film.
I'm afraid the picture has gotten grimmer.
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.
The thing is that we had jumped out of 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
You're absolutely right. What was the flaw in the equipment?
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.
Oh, no! So, that footage is all wild-sync?
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 crack 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.
A very clever solution. 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 Filgate would tail
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.
Much like in Crisis as well, you have convergent point where these different threads
come together. In Primary, it's at Kennedy's speech, where Albert Maysles has the
celebrate 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.
That's Nehru, actually. We get to Indira later.
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
I didn't think that way. I wasn't calculating on who would win. I was just calculating on
if we getting the story and if it was a story. That's what interested me.
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?
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 (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.
With Adventures on the New Frontier, where could someone see it? It isn't on these
No. The History Channel is running four of my programs on the anniversary of his
That will be the first airing of Adventures in forty-some years. It's not a great film but it
is the first film to show a President really at work in the Oval Office.
Like Primary (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?
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.
What was the composition of the crew like on this film?
By this time I had four teams out there and I had to be command central.
You were doing that out of the White House?
No, I was in New York City.
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
Well, it was. The funny thing is Nick Katzenbach who said that - you know, That can't
hear us now - knew that we were shooting and that we could hear him but he
differentiated between us and the press.
Also in Primary, 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 who didn't make an issue of themselves being filmed,
whether they didn't think it was a legitimate production because of the size and
portability of the equipment.
People didn't know what we were doing and we were grateful for that.
It just couldn't be done again.
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.
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.
I'm afraid you're right.
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?
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.
What was her memory of the event?
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 became an office in different federal
departments dealing with relief and things like that. She's retired and now she is writing
I'm sure with some hesitation you came to make Faces of November which, unlike the
earlier films, is completely devoid of any narration what-so-ever. It's a rather short
piece made for ABC News.
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, you probably heard, 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
You edited the film yourself?
I edited the film with another editor and 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 the way that I felt about the film.
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 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.
With Primary, about how much footage was shot?
And with Crisis?
I don't know. It was probably two or three times that amount.
Of course, there is whole career outside of your Kennedy films. How did your project with
Duke Ellington in 1974 come about?
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.
You toured with his orchestra?
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.
One thing feeds off another.
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.
What are a few other films in the series?
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 come back. 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 Leventrit competition.
That's another kind of a story.
With Drew Associates, you and your wife are trying to get these films back out to the
That's absolutely true. We're thrilled to death that Steve Savage [President and
Co-Founder of Docurama] has decided to release our films on DVD.
Will there be other films released through Docurama?
We've talked about it and we think that it's coming along. These films have been
reconstituted by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and they are
working their way through all of my films to go back and find the original negatives.