Being There with Richard Leacock

19 mins read

Few names in the world of documentary filmmaking are as highly esteemed as that of Richard Leacock. The legendary filmmaker, recognized most widely as a cinematographer but certainly not limited in accomplishment to that one role, was, along with his closest collaborators Bob Drew and D.A. Pennebaker, one of the central and defining figures of the direct cinema movement in the United States in the 1960s.

Many attribute the key tenet of that movement— an unobtrusive camera that observes a situation without interfering with or influencing it—directly to Leacock’s gifted eye, interpersonal acumen, and his flair for technological innovation. At the age of 86, Leacock continues to experiment with digital video, making DVDs of his films from his home in France. Despite a stroke two years ago that resulted in loss of memory—“great big hunks of memory just disappeared” he tells me—he is still sharp and spry, brimming with enthusiasm, opinions and conviction.

The focus of this year’s Outstanding Achievement Award Retrospective at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Film Festival, Leacock will be in Toronto in April and is looking forward to seeing his films in front of an audience again. The programme includes many of Leacock’s signature films— Primary, The Chair, Crisis —as well as a number of early gems, including a silent film about banana harvesting that he made when he was only 13.

Growing up on his family’s banana plantation in the Canary Islands, Leacock was one of those rare individuals blessed with knowing unequivocally from a young age exactly what he wanted to do with his life.

“I wanted to be a blacksmith,” he says. “My father was an engineer and had a huge estate there, and he loved my blacksmithing. He gave me my own anvil and several hammers, and I used to spend days down at the blacksmith’s forge and come home covered in dirt, which my mother didn’t approve of particularly, but my father did.”

By the time he was sent to boarding school in England, however, Leacock’s true purpose in life started to come more clearly into focus. By the age of 11 he had become very interested in photography, taking still pictures with glass plates and developing them in a makeshift darkroom at school, all the while driven by a desire to communicate through images what the Canary Islands were like.

“One day when I was 11 they did something extraordinary,” he says. “They showed at school a silent Russian documentary called Turksib by Victor Turin, about the building of the Trans-Siberian railway.” The experience proved transformative. Leacock began experimenting with a film camera, trying to emulate in his own moviemaking the experience of “being there” that Turksib had so powerfully conveyed.

“My girlfriend and a guy from my school went out to the Canaries for a summer and we made my first film, Canary Bananas.” A highlight of the Hot Docs retrospective, this silent documentary short is notable not only for its perceptive images, but also for the way its impressive editing and keen sense of structure evidence an intuitive understanding of cinema’s potential. “It tells you all you need to know about bananas,” Leacock says of his first film, “but it doesn’t really give you a feeling of being there. And this became an obsession all my life.”

Indeed, Leacock would come to perfect the art of capturing and conveying the character of a particular place as it exists in a specific socio-cultural moment in time—be it in Robert Kennedy’s office, as the legendary politician includes his three-year-old daughter in a conversation to alleviate racial tensions in Alabama, or in a Chicago attorney’s office as a lawyer tells a supporter on the phone that he’s praying for her, then hangs up and admits off-handedly that he doesn’t believe in God. Having achieved this long-sought goal through his filmmaking, Leacock continued to expound eloquently about capturing the ephemeral experience of “being there” during and after his 20 year tenure as a professor of film at MIT, a position he retired from in 1988.

If an obscure Russian propaganda film inspired his professional objective, it was shaped and molded by a serendipitous encounter with probably the greatest documentary filmmaker alive at the time, Robert Flaherty. “I was incredibly lucky,” Leacock explains. “Both of Flaherty’s daughters went to the same school that I did. One of my teachers showed him Canary Bananas, and he said to me afterwards that someday we’d work together. And I said to myself, ‘Yeah, sure. Likely story.’”

Flaherty proved to be true to his word, if not outright prophetic. After graduating from Harvard with a degree in physics in 1942 and working as a combat photographer in Burma and China for three years during WW II, Leacock worked for 14 months as a cinematographer on Flaherty’s visually magnificent Louisiana Story. “It was the experience of my life,” he says of his time with Flaherty. “I adored working with him. He knew more about filmmaking than anyone I ever worked with.

“He was an absolute genius at making sequences. At first I thought he was crazy, because most directors tell you what to do and he never did. If he saw something beautiful we’d stop and shoot it. There wasn’t any script. We were looking for things.”

The most important lesson Flaherty imparted on the young Leacock was to use the camera as an extension of his own eye, and to withhold information in order to create tension in the viewer. “That’s very important,” Leacock says. “All film schools tell you that you should start out with a long shot and then move in to details in close shots. Flaherty did the reverse. He was not setting up shots, he was searching for shots, looking through the camera, and he only knew he had them when he saw them on the screen. He said ‘a close-up is like a horse with blinders on; the camera only sees what’s right in front of it.’ It causes the audience to want to see more, so you give them a little bit more, and a little bit more. But the last thing you want them to do is to see the whole thing.”

This technique can be seen in much of Leacock’s best work, but is most dazzlingly on display in the spectacular 1954 film Jazz Dance, a frenzied, naturalistic, improvised short film that captures the electric energy of a crowd of young hipsters dancing the night away as trumpeter Jimmy McPartland and his band bring the house down. “I fell in love about a dozen times that night,” Leacock says, as he recalls dancing with one pretty girl after another in spite of his decidedly non-portable 35 mm camera.

While Leacock is famous for his sensitive, subtle cinematography, and for his ability to be entirely unobtrusive and poetically expressive all at once, some of his most important contributions to documentary filmmaking came in the form of his pioneering technological innovations. His background in physics greatly informed his filmmaking, primarily through his ability to do what many documentary filmmakers were struggling to achieve in the early fifties: shooting synchronous sound with light weight, 16 mm cameras.

“I got the idea of using the Accutron watch to make a 16 mm hand held camera synchronous with all tape recorders,” he explains. “[Thewatch] put out a 365 hertz signal from a tiny tuning fork inside it, electrically run, and I said to myself ‘you could put one in each camera, one in each tape recorder and they would all have exactly the same signal to use as a synching signal.’ That was purely a result of my [understanding of] physics.”

Leacock’s innovative approach was largely a result of the frustrations encountered in attempting to film unobtrusively on location with very heavy 35mm camera gear and sound recorders that were said to be portable but weighed 75 pounds. It was with this kind of equipment that he made Toby and the Tall Corn, a lovingly inquisitive portrait of the culture surrounding a traveling tent theatre in the American Midwest. Leacock wrote, directed, photographed and edited the movie. “I love that film,” he says. “It has some of the feeling of being there.”

By 1959, Toby and the Tall Corn, along with Leacock’s experiments with light weight, synchronous cameras, had attracted the attention of iconoclastic journalist turned filmmaker Bob Drew, who together with Leacock made such seminal direct cinema films as Primary, The Chair and Crisis. “Drew taught me a lot of things,” Leacock says of his key early collaborator. “We had a lot of differences, too. But he broadened my view. He expanded me enormously.

“Pennebaker was wonderful at getting things moving together. I loved shooting with him.Drew’s films always had some sort of a crisis involved. Will he win the race? Will she win the piano contest? With Pennebaker I got away from that. There’s no contest in Happy Mother’s Day.”

A portrait of a simple North Dakota housewife as she attempts to cope with the media frenzy surrounding the birth of her quintuplets, Happy Mother’s Day in many ways provided Leacock with a similar challenge to confront and cope with the demands of the media and to find his own voice and identity as an artist.

“I was asked to make Happy Mother’s Day by the editor of the Saturday Evening Post, a huge magazine in those days. But the publisher of the magazine hated it because it didn’t sell baby food. They wanted a film that sold baby food. So they got a copy of everything because they paid for it, and they had it edited by someone else and they made a film that sold baby food—Gerbers baby food. And my film never got shown until I sold it to the BBC.”

The tension between satisfying his artistic muse while placating the demands of the broadcaster would be a persistent theme throughout much of Leacock’s groundbreaking career, with many of his films deemed too esoteric for television, despite their now iconic standing. “Even Monterey Pop was refused by television,” he says. “We made it for them. We showed it to a television executive, and at the end of the film he said, ‘This film does not meet industry standards.’ I said to him, ‘I didn’t know you had any.’”

Fortunately, the innovations that have occurred vis-à-vis digital video and the Internet have allowed for the development of a distribution system that Leacock feels has much potential. “We don’t even have to make films for television. To hell with television. My feeling is that the DVD is the answer.

“I used to be a Communist at one time, like a lot of my generation. I thought we should make films for the masses, and that they should be political. I’ve learned that that’s an appalling error. I think that television nowadays is making films for the masses and they’re dreadful and boring. I’m an elitist now. I don’t want millions of people to see [my films]. I want to make films for people like you, or for friends
who see things the same way I do.”

Looking back on the accomplishments of his career, Leacock is remarkably candid about the choices he’s made and the quality of the films themselves. “I’ve enjoyed making these films,” he says. “I had certain little misgivings. Everybody loves Crisis. I think Crisis is fine. But to me, it makes it appear that the Kennedy’s were sort of responsible for the civil rights movement. And nothing could be further from the truth. [The film] somehow became a little bit pat.”

For Leacock, the secret to successful documentary filmmaking is to remember that it’s as much about people, relationships and interpersonal dynamics as it is about filmmaking. “When I went to Israel with Lenny Bernstein and his wife Felicia in 1957, I’d been a friend of Lenny’s since the old days in Boston. He was a very good, close friend. And I realized that if I kept shooting him we were going to lose our friendship. So I would go whole weekends, whole days, and simply not shoot. It’s very, very difficult for the subject to get away from this business of saying the right thing. I want them to be the way they are. And that sometimes involves putting the camera down, sometimes for days, and re-establishing your own relationship. It’s very complicated.”

He is equally as opinionated about documentary technique and production practices, and still takes issue with many prevailing theories and approaches to the concept of directing a documentary film. “The whole idea of [being] a [documentary] director is bullshit,” he says. “I don’t direct people, I observe.”

“Most people, if there’s a camera there they want to talk to it. And that’s not what I want. I want them to do what they would do if there wasn’t a camera there.

“I remember when Drew and I went to make The Chair. We went in to see the lawyer who was bringing in this extraordinary case. He looked up at us delighted to see a television camera, and said, ‘What can I do for you?’ beaming from ear to ear. And Drew very aptly said to him, ‘Nothing I guess.’ And we put our cameras down against the wall and went out for coffee. About 20 minutes later we came back and he’d given up on us and was talking on the telephone. That’s when we started filming.”

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