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D.A. Pennebaker Discusses Richard Leacock and Leonard Bernstein.

by Eric Kohn
March 25, 2011 2:57 AM
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Yesterday's obituary for documentary icon Richard Leacock included quotes from some of the people he affected in his life who have since obtained influence roles in film culture, including Mira Nair, Albert Maysles and D.A. Pennebaker. That last source, the director of such cinema verité classics as "Don't Look Back," ran the production company Leacock-Pennebaker for several years, and shared a number of remarkable anecdotes about meeting and working with Leacock during the early stages of their careers. In the following excerpt, Pennebaker recalls his experience with Leacock during the production of "Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic in Moscow" in 1958. Bernstein was a friend of Leacock's in Harvard, but that didn't keep the documentarian from applying a true hands-on approach to the shooting process.

Here's Pennebaker:

I didn't meet Ricky until he was working with Willard Van Dyke [as the cinematographer for 1941’s “To Hear Your Banjo Play”]. I knew of him because I'd met Robert Flaherty at the Coffee House. Flaherty had talked about him, but my first sense of him was when I saw “Toby and the Tall Corn.” It might have been about half an hour. When I saw it, something clicked. It had a long narration on it, but it had people talking to each other--real dialogue. Documentaries back then generally didn't have dialogue. They told you what people were saying, or they had a reason for being--taking care of orphans, or selling lightbulbs. Here, you had a couple of interesting characters who talked to people, just like a play. It was like theater, and it was fantastic.

Robert Drew saw it and came down from Boston to find Leacock. I didn't go looking for him, but in my head, I thought, "that's what I should do, that's what my films should be like." Later, Shirley Clarke, Ricky and I all decided to share a space on 43rd Street. Ricky did a film with Shirley. This was around 1958, before I went to Russia with Al Maysles. While I was there, Leacock arrived and said, "I've got a synch camera." I was trying to shoot synch but I had a wind-up camera while I was in Russia and you couldn't process anything there. I was thinking about using synch sound noises like slamming doors and so forth. He had this camera that shot a 100-foot roll and it took one person to carry the battery, and he had this tape recorder, a noisy one wired to the camera. Three people all had to be wired together and the microphone, which was directional, was over three-feet long. We were trailing Lenny Bernstein, who was there to play with the symphony, and they had recruited Al and I to record the people there. The Russians were going to film it, but Ricky was directing it. Lenny was saying, "Get that thing [the camera] out of there!" Three people with equipment going through the door all at once -- I said, "we've got to find out a way to make this work."

The Russians had four or five cameras on the balconies, and Ricky couldn't speak Russian. He explained that when they weren't filming, they were to hang handkerchiefs over the lenses. In the beginning, Lenny was going to play the national anthem. I was sitting up in the balcony, Al and I had our wind-up cameras under a little blanket so people wouldn't notice us, and as the thing started, Ricky looked up and all the cameras had handkerchiefs on them. So he had to run down the aisle, pulling Lenny's coattails to stop him from playing the national anthem. He finally stopped him. Hearing the symphony orchestra come to a stop was like hearing a truck crashing. I think he had to do that three times over the course of the experience.


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