Interview done by Truls Lie (DOX) and Orwa Nyrabia:
We met Richard Leacock at DocPoint in Helsinki, where we, with the help of his partner Valerie Lalonde, talked about the use of the camera, and his opinion of current technological developments in documentary. Richard Leacock (1921-2011) is well known for being the first cinematographer to use small handheld cameras. In 1960 the search was on for high-quality, mobile, synchronous equipment to facilitate observation. It took time, money, and physics to solve the problems. But it came with Robert Drew’s film Primary, which is an intimate observation of a primary election involving John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey in Wisconsin. At that time, a new way of making films gave the feeling of being present, including synchronous dialogue. Then an avalanche of wonderful films followed, made by Drew, Pennebaker, Maysles et al. But as Leacock writes, the US networks were not impressed, whereas in France at the Cinematheque Francaise when Drew and Leacock screened Primary and On the Pole, Henri Langlois introduced the films as “perhaps the most important documentaries since the brothers Lumiere”. And after the screening, a monk in robes came up to them and said: “You have invented a new form. Now you must invent a new grammar!”1
“i hate celluloid film”
After retiring from the position of Professor of Cinema at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which he had held since 1969, Leacock moved to Paris in 1989, where he met Valerie Lalonde and, together, they made the first major film shot with a tiny Video-8 Handycam to be broadcast on prime-time television in France. Their combination of talent and love continued into the digital age with both of them making films of their own choosing without the pressures of TV producers – films that finally do give you “the feeling of being there”.
Leacock is old, but still makes some strong statements. Sometimes during the conversation, he suddenly forgets where he is, takes a pause, but then again gives us insights into his own experiences as either cameraman, director of photography (DoP), director, or producer in around 70 films. We first asked him about his use of the camera in one of his latest films, Filming in Siberia, where he was in 1996:
– Filming in Siberia was for me perfect. The cameras were small. I could take the cassettes home, I got to edit them. I didn’t need to go to a laboratory, and it was very, very cheap.
– But nowadays the companies that make cameras are making it more and more complicated. Wide screen, high definition, it’s all unnecessary. They’re ruining it. All they want is to sell cameras and make money. And that’s not what we were aiming for. When the TV-stations insist upon using these techniques, it’s crazy. They won’t accept film made in the way of the old school. High definition is nonsense. If you’re looking at the moon, that’s different, but if you want to look at human beings and a beautiful woman you don’t want to see all her pock marks, or problems. How many pixels did Renoir use in his paintings? It’s nonsense. They’re not helping, they’re hurting.
«i can’t look at television. it’s so bad»
– Are you critical towards celluloid film in general?
– I hate celluloid film, and I will never defend it. I spent years making spices [sic] 35 mm film for other peoples films. It scratches, and it gets dirty and shrinks. It’s horrible. I much prefer digital. – … and critical towards television? – They don’t like my films. I don’t like what television does, I don’t like what theatres do. I distribute my films on DVDs. They’re made for intelligent people, not for idiots. I don’t know who television makes the films for. I can’t look at television. It’s so bad. Or some things could do. It was interesting to watch the inauguration of America’s new president, but otherwise it’s nonsense.
– You have always defended freedom of movement in film. Is this a political or philosophical statement?
– A tripod will always be in the wrong place, and is a clumsy element. For example, you arrive with a tripod. In a way you say you will make a play. I don’t want actors in my films; I want people to be themselves. – I remember when BBC let seven large Englishmen arrive in barracks in a small apartment to film there. They changed the furniture, they turned off the refrigerator. They did this and that. It was awful and stupid. But that’s the Union rules.
«wide screen, high definition, it’s all unnecessary»
The rumers about Robert Drew’s film Primary, is that Leacock was doing most of the work on Kennedy alone, because Drew was mostly back in his office:
– I was stopped by the cameramen because I filmed Kennedy alone. I had no cameraassistant, no soundman, no union this, no union that. They wanted me to have five people, but I couldn’t do what I wanted with 5 people. I could only get it alone.
– Do you think the best director of documentaries today is the auteur who does everything himself?
– Oh yes! But I don’t like the word “director”. I like the French word better, réalisateur. You realise the film, you don’t direct it. You don’t tell the film how to be.
– Did you know that documentary was going to be so important?
– I didn’t know. I just knew I loved to make films, and I still do. I learned a lot from Flaherty, he was my God and my teacher. He loved to film. The camera was an extension of his eye. He was always searching, always exploring, and as an explorer he didn’t exactly know what he was looking for. It’s the same thing for me with the camera. Sometimes it’s very surprising what I will find.
– Did you use handheld cameras as a statement of something political?
– I don’t think there is anything political about that. Political for me was being a communist for years. I thought Stalin was going to lead us to a wonderful world. Bullshit.
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