Features and Columns · Movies

6 Filmmaking Tips from Documentary Pioneers Robert Drew and Richard Leacock

Robert Drew Associates Criterion Collection
Janus Films
By  · Published on April 26th, 2016

Robert Drew‘s name is attached to a team of filmmakers who made revolutionary changes to documentary in the early 1960s. But today he’s probably the least-appreciated member of Drew Associates and the Direct Cinema movement after Albert Maysles, D.A. Pennebaker, and Ricky Leacock. Part of that is because he never became as well-known a solo director as his colleagues. He didn’t go on to make more revered classics like the Maysles Brothers’ Salesman and Grey Gardens or Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back and The War Room, and he didn’t have the kind of film history-spanning career and influence that Leacock’s legacy entails.

That’s why Criterion’s new set “The Kennedy Films of Robert Drew & Associates” is so important. Not that it totally isolates Drew from the others — he barely gets to stand out alone even in the new bonus-feature documentary Robert Drew in His Own Words — but it at least gives him equal if not more significant standing next to the other members of the Fab Four of nonfiction film (Thom Powers’s essay included in the set begins by comparing them to The Beatles). So, in honor of this essential collection, we’re devoting this week’s Filmmaking Tips primarily to the founder and namesake of the group behind such landmark films as Primary and Crisis.

Without meaning to slight Drew further, however, it’s necessary to include Leacock in this one, as well. We’ve already shared filmmaking tips from Maysles (here), and Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus (here), so it’s imperative that the John and Paul of the group now get a simultaneous spotlight. Plus their advice, even when perfectly conflicting, tends to go hand in hand. Below are six tips beyond their basic rules for Direct Cinema (no interviews, no directing the action, no lights, no light readings, no boom microphones, no headphones…) that came about from their groundbreaking combination of journalism and cinema.

Consider this a sort of how-to guide to making pure documentary films.

Make Compromises

All four of the Drew Associates legends have made masterpieces, but they’ve also had to do a lot of commercial work along the way, before and after. There’s nothing wrong with the “one for them, one for me” approach when those for them are still done well and with integrity while the those for you are such monumental works. Here’s what Drew says in an old interview now included in the Criterion doc Robert Drew In His Own Words:

Most of us had to make compromises with the real world and make other kinds of films. I would make a film in which an NBC correspondent talked throughout the whole film for 50 minutes to get a chance to spend 10 minutes in a one-room school in Nebraska and show what life was really like for a teacher and those children. The teacher may have 10 children in seven grades, snow outside to her hips, wind blowing, and she has to do education and they have to learn. That’s priceless to have a chance to make that film, and if you get to a point where you can’t make films any other way, you make them that way.

Find Subjects Who Are Too Busy To Notice You

“We are really only successful in finding out anything when we are filming somebody who is more concerned with what he is doing than with the fact that we are filming him.”

That quote from Leacock can be found in the 1971 book “The Documentary Tradition: From Nanook to Woodstock” and around the web, but I’m not sure where it originates. Maybe he didn’t even say it (he was sometimes misquoted). Regardless, it sounds like something he would say and is a good tip regarding the choice of subjects for an “observational” documentary. Because it’s not always enough for filmmakers to not interfere. Sometimes it’s the person being documented that might interfere with his or her own story in order to perform for the camera, whether obviously or not. Drew and Leacock wanted to avoid that kind of ego.

In a 1961 article, Broadcast magazine referred to the Drew Associates team as “television’s school of storm and stress” in response to (according to a 1991 Cinema Journal essay “Realism as a Style in Cinema Verite: A Critical Analysis of ‘Primary'”) this similar quote from Drew: “I seek people driven by their own forces — forces so strong that they can forget about me.” He elaborates on how that worked perfectly with Kennedy in their films on him, particularly with Adventures on the New Frontier and Crisis, in Robert Drew in His Own Words.

Watch Drew discuss how he convinced John F. Kennedy to let them film him in 1960 in the first place for Primary:

Always Be One Step Ahead of Those Subjects

“If you want to make a cinema vérité film, make sure the timing is right. That is, you want to imagine the story that will happen, be there when it happens, capture it on film or tape without directing or distorting the reality, and edit to convey the feeling of being there.” – Drew’s contribution to the 2013 coffee table book “Tell Me Something: Advice From Documentary Filmmakers.”

One of the aims of Drew Associates was to capture events as they happened rather than the traditional practice of reporting on them later. So they needed to be ever-present, but they also needed to sort of predict what could happen. Even though they would regularly go in expecting one thing and get another, they found that split-second foresight was necessary to follow those unexpected moments and pathways.

In a 1961 group interview by critic Gideon Bachmann that functions as an audio commentary played over Primary on the new Criterion disc, Drew explains that, contrary to belief, their films are not found in the editing, that there is a lot of planning involved, both before filming and during. “It’s almost totally pre-photographic except for the brief time — and it goes by like an express train when you’re on the scene — when you actually are photographing. Somehow it’s pre-intelligence.”

In the same conversation, he argues that this kind of filmmaking involves a lot more control and authorship than it seems:

On the scene, as things are happening, the filmmaker’s personality is in no way directly involved with directing the action. It’s completely involved and totally absorbed in recording it a certain way. The total effort that goes into arranging scenes and arranging what people are going to say in reporting films or documentary films, that same amount of effort maybe more goes into being in the right place at the right time, understanding what’s about to happen and understanding what we have to get as it happens and being ready and sensitive at the time. So the filmmaker’s personality I think has much more effect in this form of reporting. It has much less obvious effect on the apparent scene.

And here’s a funny bit of back story that Leacock wrote in 1993 about making his doc Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic in Moscow, shot just before Drew Associates officially got together (but with Pennebaker and Maysles in tow), that illustrates the frustration that led to or reiterated the Direct Cinema goals:

We had a wonderful time and made a nice film but I missed every exceptional and revealing event that happened. We were always too late. It doesn’t matter whether you are a second late or an hour late; late is late! You missed it and it doesn’t help, after the maestro has lost his temper during a rehearsal, to go up to him and ask him to loose his temper over again “for the benefit of the camera”!

Be a Conductor

Speaking of conductors, when working in a group like the Drew Associates team or when making films like theirs, it’s important to function like an orchestra. Leacock especially has often addressed their harmonic partnership — “The people taking sound were not ‘sound men,'” he wrote in 1993, “they were reporters, journalists, trained in finding and telling stories. It was a collaborative work, filmmakers and journalists; not cameramen and sound men.”

And in a clip from Robert Drew in His Own Words, Drew makes a good comparison:

The analogy of a conductor and his orchestra is as apt as any. There is a conductor. He does know the score. He knows the notes and he knows the intention of the composition. There are specialists sitting on each chair who are geniuses at playing the violin and playing the flute, the bass, and so forth. And these people all have to pull together to make a piece of music. And in the case of Drew Associates there was a conductor and that was myself, and there were individual performers, let’s say, who did individual jobs. Occasionally somebody rose out of the orchestra and took the baton.

Communicate Stomach to Stomach

The excellent phrasing of “stomach to stomach” actually comes from Gideon Bachmann during the Criterion Primary “commentary” interview, summing up Drew’s statements below on what his team does differently from traditional journalism to achieve a more engaging, more experiential, and more affecting report:

There is a relationship to television, there’s a relationship to the press. As far as reporting goes, it is an outgrowth of the US press in a way, in my opinion, because it is reporting on what is going on in the world but it is doing it in feeling and impression instead of words. That’s a basic thing in relation to the press. In relation to television reporting, which you might think is similar, [that] is still working on the guidelines of the printed press, it’s still a word story illustrated with pictures, sometimes illustrated well but usually not.

Here’s more of Leacock’s article from 1993 that also addresses the difference:

[Documentary “films”] were almost entirely verbal, illustrated radio programs whose effectiveness was almost entirely governed by the viewers trust in the man smoking the cigarettes. It certainly was not cinematic. My prime objective as a documentary filmmaker had always been to try and convey to an audience, what it was like “to be there”. To achieve this you had to go back to the original object of documentary: to observe; to replicate aspects of your own perception of what you saw and heard going on around you.

Watch a clip of Drew being interviewed by Alfred Norrins in 1962 (included in Robert Drew in His Own Words) that also deals with his aim to revolutionize television journalism:

Be an Explorer, Not a Voyeur

The Drew Associates and Direct Cinema method is regularly mistaken for simple observational cinema — “fly on the Wall” nonsense. And if the above tips aren’t already enough evidence against this, below is a bit from Drew and Leacock from a joint interview edited into the Criterion doc Robert Drew in His Own Words. First is Drew defending against the idea that they just stand back and capture reality:

If you’re a novelist, you have basic things. You have characters, and you have stories, and progressions, and things happen. If you’re going to get stuff from real life, you have to photograph characters, progressions, stories, things happening. That’s not peeking through keyholes, unless you’re peeking through keyholes. We don’t do that. We live with people, and we capture what happens.

Leacock continues the response and the claim that they are artists:

The difference seems to me is we’re exploring. There’s a notion, a problem, among, for instance Boris Kaufman, Dziga Vertov’s brother, [who] was deeply shocked by what we were doing, because to him, he was brought up to think that art implied control. If you weren’t in total control of every aspect of what you were doing, like putting paint on a piece of canvas, then it wasn’t art. Well, never mind whether it’s art or not. I come from [Robert] Flaherty, which is utterly different. Art is the discovery in things in the real world. The searching for, discovering of character, of light, of texture, of all these things, is the capturing and discovering of it, that’s what art is.

What We’ve Learned

Robert Drew and Ricky Leacock and their associates were revolutionary documentary filmmakers and journalists, and contrary to misguided belief, it’s not just because of their breakthroughs with camera and sound equipment nor their basic decision to closely follow subjects rather than tell about them. They weren’t mere observers but artists, sharing photographic nonfiction stories and creating cinematic masterpieces that give a sense of being there with the real characters, during real events. It was not easy to make these kinds of films then, however, and they’re not easy now, so they have to be a collaborative effort by likeminded filmmakers, so there’s more intuition than communication during the shoots, and who can do other things in addition to this so they don’t go broke.

Related Topics: ,

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.