Q&A with D.A. Pennebaker

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Documentary filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker films Bob Dylan for the documentary motion picture Don't Look Back.

When filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker hit the road with Bob Dylan in 1965 to shoot a documentary of the musician's tour of England, he was unaware that he would make history. For one, Pennebaker barely knew who Dylan was. In addition, he couldn't have predicted that his Spartan black-and-white documentary, which eschews traditional storytelling techniques such as narration and interviews, would be hailed as the greatest rock documentary of all time. Forty years after its debut, Bob Dylan: Don't Look Back has been lovingly remastered and will be released this week as a two-disc set (with plenty of worthwhile extras) by Docurama. Pennebaker, who has also filmed dozens of other well-known documentaries, including Monterey Pop and the Oscar-nominated The War Room, chatted with TIME's Carolina A. Miranda about the Dylan conversation he wished he could have filmed and how the movie almost didn't get released.

TIME: The documentary chronicles Dylan's last tour as an acoustic performer. Did you realize that you were capturing such a significant moment in his career?

Pennebaker: Not really. I was about as ignorant as you could be. I didn't know that he was going to leave acoustic. I did know that he was getting a little dragged by it. It was definitely a bore for him to have to go on stage every night while the rest of us were sitting around getting high in the greenroom.

You also filmed him the following year, for an unreleased film, after he added the band and had gone electric.

Oh, yeah. And he was having such a fantastic time. He was jumping around like a cricket out there. The whole scene had changed instantly. It was a different kind of music.

He was having a fantastic time even though there were audiences booing him for not sticking with his folk roots?

He didn't care. He wanted to entertain himself. If people wanted to yell "Judas," that was part of the entertainment. Besides, there were plenty of people who dug whatever he did. Dylan wanted to be a successful [Jack] Kerouac: a total romantic populist at a time when, basically everything — movies, musicals, writing — was encased in intellectual confinements. You had to be one type of writer or another. Dylan didn't bother with labels.

Much of the film is devoted to Dylan tangling with the press. Why do you think he played so hard-to-get with reporters?

The poor souls, they were sent out to interview him and they didn't know much about him. He turned it into a circus. He was enjoying himself. But I never felt that he was being particularly mean in those interviews.

There's a scene, though, in which Dylan directs a lengthy recrimination of the media at TIME magazine correspondent Horace Judson. I have to be honest: I would have hated to be in Judson's shoes.

I have the story [Judson] wrote. He wrote a very good piece on Dylan. I thought Dylan was kind of nice in the end. He made jokes out of it. When I show the film, especially to kids, they want to see that as someone thrashing TIME. But it isn't that. He's thrashing a whole system of media that people had been thrashing for a long time. I never thought of it as mean-spirited.

Were there any moments with him that you didn't get on film that you would have liked to?

Yeah, when [pop singer] Donovan first came to meet him in his room. I had a camera there, but Dylan said, "I don't want you to film any of this." So, I didn't. Donovan played a song, which was set to the tune of "Mr. Tambourine Man" but with different words. Dylan didn't crack. He just listened. Finally, Donovan realized that the rest of us were sitting there kind of cracking up. Later, he said [to Dylan], "Well, I heard you sing this somewhere and I thought it was a folk song so I thought the tune was up for grabs." Dylan said, "There have a been a lot of songs that people said I swiped, but that wasn't one of them." And he let it go. It was kind of a funny moment. It would have been nice to get it, but with this sort of filmmaking, you begin by knowing that you're going to miss 90% of what's going on.

What was Dylan's reaction the first time he saw the film?

When I finished it, he saw it out in Hollywood at a dreadful screening. Afterwards, he said, "We'll have another screening and I'll write down all of the things we have to change." Of course, that made me a little gloomy. The next night, we assembled again and he sat in the front with this yellow pad. At the end of film, he held up the pad and there was nothing on it. He said, "That's it."

The film almost didn't get released. In fact, you say in the DVD commentary that one distributor referred to it as a "disaster." How did it finally break out?

The distributors thought it was much too ratty for the theater. I would go to places with two big reels and give them to the projectionist and three or four people in suits would come in and sit down. By the end of the first reel, when the lights came on, they'd all be gone. We got a little discouraged. One day, this guy called up and said, "I'd like to come see it." He was manager of a string of porn houses all over the West. At the end of the screening, he said, "It looks like a porn film. But it's not. It's just what I'm looking for." So it ran in this theater in San Francisco for the better part of a year. The papers started to review it. People started coming in large groups. Pretty soon, theaters were coming to us.

I understand that you had similar distribution problems with Monterey Pop, your film about the music festival, featuring breakout performances by Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix.

Yes. I put that in a porn house on [Manhattan's] Lower East Side. It was the only theater I could get. It ran for a year. People would come. In fact, the same people would come every Friday — and they'd all be smoking grass in the johns. The guy who ran the theater was so happy. He was making money left and right. He didn't want it to ever stop.

In that film, you recorded the now legendary footage of Hendrix's first major American concert. What was the mood in the audience like when he played?

John Phillips [of the Mamas and the Papas] had told me ahead of time, "There's this great blues player and he sets his guitar on fire." I didn't know what to expect. For some people there, his performance was noise and it upset them. In the first three or four minutes, it was noise to me, too. I didn't know what to think of it. I did know that we needed to shoot everything he did. We knew that this was different and that it was something amazing and historic.

Why do you avoid the use of narration and on-camera interviews in your films?

Really, I'm trying to be Ibsen. That's my secret hope: that I could somehow turn into [the playwright Henrik] Ibsen. There are things happening all the time to real people. You don't have to enact them or write them. I'm trying to make a play, not an educational device.

There's a dictum in anthropology that the observer changes the behavior of the observed. Have you been in situations where you felt that your presence was really affecting things?

Not a lot. Your attitude towards the camera determines that. If you're setting up lights and tripods and you've got three assistants running around, people will want to get you out as fast as they can. But if you go the opposite way, if you make the camera the least important thing in the room, then it's different. I've left it on the floor. Sometimes, I'll shoot with it on my lap. Other times, I'll put it on a table and turn it on. You don't make it a big issue.

What's the next subject you'll be tackling?

Next month, we're releasing a thing we did with Al Franken. It's kind of wonderful because you watch this delinquent Saturday Night Live character reform himself and turn into a political dynamo. We filmed him for over a year and a half. It's called Al Franken: God Spoke. How it got that title, I'm not sure. But it hung on and everybody remembers it that way.

What are your home movies like?

I think of all my movies as home movies! It's just that some are more expensive than others.