Drew offers reflections on presidents and pioneers

With the U.S. Documentary Channel currently airing a retrospective of his work, verite legend Robert Drew (pictured) talks exclusively to realscreen about his latest project, On The Pole: Eddie Sachs, while paying tribute to recently passed collaborator Richard Leacock.
April 1, 2011

When Robert Drew created Primary, an ob-doc following U.S. presidential hopeful John F. Kennedy on the 1960 campaign trail, the resulting film was influential in helping thrust a popular image of the young Massachusetts senator into the national limelight.

However, the film also had a monumental impact on the documentary industry in the States, helping popularize the then-nascent vérité movement and influencing generations of filmmakers for years to come.

To celebrate Primary (pictured below) and the portfolio of vérité films Drew went on to make, U.S. cable network the Documentary Channel has throughout March been airing a retrospective of the director’s work, and will tomorrow (April 2) air a newly restored version of Herself: Indira Gandhi, the 1982 classic produced by Drew and his wife Anne.

The film has been restored by the Academy Film Archive, which – with funding from the Documentary Channel – has transferred its original 30-year-old negative to a new master, in a bid to restore and preserve the film’s picture and color. On April 16, the net will also showcase Petey and Johnny, another Drew classic, which has been similarly remastered after some 50 years.

Talking to realscreen, 87-year-old Drew says he remains immensely proud of his factual portfolio, and reflects impassively on the ways in which the vérité genre has developed over the past half century.

“There are so many different kinds of films now,” he says. “There are all kinds of reality shows which are not really real, because they’re directed and scripted and so forth, but with cinema vérité, I think the early films were in some ways the best.

“Later, people began feeling they could break the rules that I lived by, believing that they could direct it better. But every time somebody tries to make reality better, it’s a disappointment. Real films about real people are harder to do, but when they are done well they can be sublime.”


Primary (1960)

While Drew is no longer active behind the camera, he remains involved in the vérité movement, with his main focus nowadays on ensuring his films’ survival and popularity as much as is possible.

“I’ve got more than 60 films, many of which haven’t been seen for 20 or 30 years,” he says. “So to get them out in some kind of form that people can see is doing a favor to both the films, and also to people who care about the history of our country – so I’m excited about the fact that they’re getting to be seen.”

In addition to working with interested parties to restore his work, another way Drew is keeping his legacy alive is by making new cuts of some of his most acclaimed films. In 2008, he assembled footage from his four Kennedy documentaries to make a new film, A President To Remember: In The Company Of John F.Kennedy, which aired on HBO and was narrated by Alec Baldwin.

Drew is now undertaking a similar expedition with his two vérité films on racing car driver Eddie Sachs, who died in a fiery crash during the infamous 1964 Indianapolis 500. The filmmaker is editing On The Pole (1960) and Eddie (1961) into a new single doc, entitled On The Pole: Eddie Sachs, which will hopefully be ready later this year.

“What I’ve done is combine the two versions,” he explains. “In A President To Remember, I concentrated on the parts of the film where Kennedy had to make tough decisions, and the parts where he showed his sense of humor. With Eddie Sachs, I’m doing a similar concentration on several characteristics.

“What impressed me about Eddie Sachs was that he was so human and vulnerable, and in a way childlike, in the face of this deadly sport he was doing. And he was so expressive about it all – that’s what really hooked me into the story.”

robert drew editing "a president to remember"

Robert Drew editing "A President To Remember"

Drew’s 1960 efforts, Primary and On The Pole, both saw him teaming up with men who would themselves go on to become hugely influential to the vérité sector. But while D.A. Pennebaker (Dont Look Back, The War Room) continues to film today, director Richard Leacock sadly passed away last week, aged 89.

“It was a great shock, the death of Leacock,” Drew says. “He was an extremely skilled talent. His life is worth studying for young people who would be motion picture journalists or television journalists, and his book – when it comes out – will be a source of great information for aspiring camera-people.”

Drew and Leacock met in the late 1950s, having both served the U.S. in the Second World War, and immediately connected over a desire to create a new form of storytelling which would forsake narration.

“It only took us about half an hour to realize that our thinking was along the same lines, which was to develop a journalism in which a story told itself,” Drew recalls of their first encounter. “He was a photographer on maybe a dozen films with me, and those films are worth looking at to see the sensibility behind the camera.”

Drew argues that the way those early collaborations were filmed means “they work for everyone and they work forever,” adding that young people who watch the early Kennedy films have the same reactions as those who saw them in the 1960s.

“Because it’s real, it’s a real thing and the honest character is there,” he says. “Young people never knew Kennedy, never saw him, so [Primary] is a revelation to them. I get this reaction so often; that it’s heartening to see an American president at work like that.

“I was lucky to pick Kennedy to be my first subject in a candid film, and my admiration for him has grown over the years, mainly by contrast – the contrast between Kennedy and the people who followed him is tremendous.”

The newly restored version of Anne and Robert Drew’s Herself: Indira Gandhi airs on the Documentary Channel in the U.S. tomorrow at 8 p.m. EST; while Petey and Johnny transmits on April 16 at 8 p.m. EST.

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