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.
But what about the film Yanki No!, wasn’t that a political film?
– Yes. Yanki No! was the only film that questioned Castro. Everyone just thought Castro was amazing. I remember it made my co-worker Mazels very upset, and he left us. Yanki No! is a very good film which still is true today.
Leacock takes a pause, stares into space in the hotel lobby in Helsinki. We wonder where he is. We look at Valerie, who then takes his hand. Suddenly he is back with us, and this time we turn to the more modern topics of new media:
– Youtube is an interesting innovation when it comes to film distribution. Can you comment upon that?
– Yes it’s interesting, like Flaherty said: “You should be able to see what you want, when you want, when you want at a reasonable price.” But then Leacock turns back into his memories, and we let him talk: – I liked making movies from early on. I remember wanting to be a blacksmith when I was a little boy, and make horseshoes. Same thing.
– What was the turning point in the 60s when you established the rules of direct-cinema?
– Technology. We had to create the equipment [that] could make it possible to do what we wanted. I studied physics in order to make that technology possible. And if I worked with somebody, I almost only worked with women. It made it nicer. But when I worked with a film on the Ku Klux Klan: no women. I used a male friend, a left wing-man. Oh, he was good. It was he who made me get in. I spent 3 months living with the Ku Klux Klan. And I couldn’t imagine why they let me make the film. I said I have no control over the editing. I said it was going to be an anti-Klan film for CBS. And the clan people said “yes, yes go ahead”. And so we made an anti-Klan film. And it won all sorts of prizes and was very successful. And I wondered why the clan let me do this. So I called up the head of the clan, and I said “How do you guys feel about this?” He said: “Oh Rick, it´s fine! We got lot of applications to join the clan.” All publicity is good publicity.
«i learned a lot from Flaherty, he was my God and my teacher»
What were the film preferences, from the early days of documentaries, of a young man who started working in the 1940s?
Leacock also worked as a war photographer:
– John Huston was the only one who could make good films during WW2. He was a good friend of mine. Let there be light is fascinating. How you seen it? It’s about the mental hospitals during WW2 and the treatment of patients with electroshock. Huston doesn’t direct the film, he just lets the camera stand there and the psychiatrist work with the hypnosis and the medication. In the film you discover that the patients were living out what made them crazy. I mean Let there be light is the first cinema-verité film.
«i spent 3 months living with the ku klux klan»
Later Huston made The Battle of San Pietro which is the only realistic film about WW2. You mustn’t forget that during the war, losing your mind was very looked down upon at the time, but thanks to Huston these traumas got a respectful name like post traumatic stress. I discovered that I had it after having lived in the Burmese army.
I could wake up at night with a strong feeling that I was going to do something terrible, like killing someone. I was sweating and shaking on the floor. These panicattacks lasted for years.
– You were traumatised in the war, weren’t you?
– Yes, by the fighting. You walk until they shoot at you, and when they shoot at you, they kill you. In the artillery you could choose a tree and hide behind it. That’s why I was afraid of the navy, because I knew I would be in the bottom of a ship. And there were no trees down there.
– Did your experiences as a war photographer influence your filmmaking?
– I learned to be a very good cameraman during the war. Have you seen Jazz Dance? 35 mm handheld. One minute per roll. The longest shot is 20 seconds.
– Was there any ideological or political motivation behind the handheld technique in the old days?
– We talked about kino-pravda at the time. It means that film creates another reality. Not saying that is the truth. Everything is reconstructed. It’s a different truth, it’s the film truth, and it has nothing to do with the real truth.
1 See http://richardleacock.com