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Interview: D.A. Pennebaker on Don’t Look Back, Bob Dylan, and More

Pennebaker discusses Dylan as a “latter-day Bryon” and the Don’t Look Back’s enduring legacy.

Interview: D.A. Pennebaker on Don't Look Back, Bob Dylan, and More
Photo: Pennebaker Hegedus Films

D.A. Pennebaker has made a career out of finding unity within places where others only see chaos. For example, in Don’t Look Back, he helps discover the voice of a generation before it’s been officially anointed as such. When I spoke with the filmmaker, he was sitting at home, “looking at the sun falling all over the construction going on in New York.” Even his assessment of a city’s ongoing redevelopment is tinged with an eye cast toward the heavens. Usually the devil is in the details, but for Pennebaker, details are harmonious instances of chance to be discovered after the fact, gaining meaning only once they become “theater important,” as he puts it. Pennebaker’s knowledge of poetry and literature is extensive; he makes references to Lord Byron and theater arts as if they’re second nature. And in Bob Dylan, he believes he found a poet worthy of being deemed a “latter-day Byron.” On the occasion of the Criterion Collection’s newly released Blu-ray of Don’t Look Back, I asked Pennebaker to elaborate on the film’s enduring legacy, speak about his process for selecting film topics, and if he, even as a filmmaker, is engaged in a kind of ongoing performance.

I want to resist calling Don’t Look Back a documentary, because I know you’ve talked in the past about refraining from using that label for the film…

Well, that was just pure self-protection, because the minute you said documentary to a theater buyer or distributor they went somewhere else. It wasn’t an audience attractor, which was the problem. You know, the people who do things aren’t always entitled to name them. The people who use the films usually name them. It became a documentary because no one knew what else to call it. For me, I think of them as home movies, because they’re made by one person and not made with the expectancy of a large return. They’re made the way music is written, or books. It’s just one person’s take on what’s going on around them.

Sure, and since the film takes place with yourself enmeshed within these groups of people, there’s a feeling of being at home with them as it all unfolds.

Yeah, I think that’s true. That’s kind of the way I think films should be made. You shouldn’t be the adversary, with a lot of equipment to protect you. You should really be vulnerable just as the people you film are vulnerable.

Does that make the participants co-collaborators in a sense?

I don’t know. What I think these films do is use a language that’s still just getting invented. In 20 years or so, the technology will be used in ways we can’t even imagine now. What I’m doing isn’t really comparable to the Hollywood film. It’s a different kind of indulgence. I think what they show, when they work, is something everyone wants to know about.

I want to ask about your role in the making Don’t Look Now, because it’s conventionally discussed alongside Monterey Pop, because they’re both about music, but I’m more interested in the film’s commentary on the relationship between artists and the press.

Don’t Look Back and Monterey Pop have very little to do with each other, really. It took a couple of years for me to do Monterey, about a year after I’d done this, so people connect them, but Monterey was a bunch of vagabonds invading the palace grounds, and this was me, all alone—really all alone—with somebody that I started to see as a latter-day [Lord] Byron.

I’m fascinated by the relationship you have with a subject while making this kind of film. I imagine it could become slippery rather quickly, in this question of what your representation of someone gains for both the subject and yourself. In other words, you’re not necessarily making a portrait of Dylan so much as he’s assisting in making a portrait of himself, because there’s not that power relation.

That’s probably right. You know, I worked for Life magazine for several years with [Robert] Drew and I got to know a lot of people there very well. I really liked the place! It was not like Newsweek, or any other magazine that I knew. It had a family inside and you joined it for dinners and games and all kinds of things. It was sort of interesting because I never realized that large corporations operated that way. I kind of thought they were impervious to that. But as for this film, it was kind of just listening to Dylan tell what he thought he knew about the world. I thought that was interesting because many people think the same thing and they have no real evidence to go by to make it true. But Dylan had a funny street smarts. He was like a Kerouac kid. In some cases, he picked up information or he picked up a kind of attitude or insight that was kind of interesting and intriguing and, I thought, unusual. But there were a lot of times where he was very naïve. But that mixture was very interesting to me because so was Byron.

That mixture does seem important because, in the film, Dylan is very quick and sharp and able to consistently speak back to those speaking to him, in a manner that suggests he’s attempting to bridge certain gaps between himself and others, but those he’s speaking to seem to misinterpret some of his intentions. That certainly seems the case in the interaction or altercation with Donovan. I wonder about your role when shooting a scene like that. Is your filming of it truly as organic as it seems in the film or are you providing direction or staging in any way?

On no, no. I have no way of directing any of the people in that film, nor any of the films, really. I mean, for me to tell James Carville, “Please come through the door again,” would be ridiculous, even if I had a good reason for it, whether I was out of film or I wasn’t watching an important thing. Nothing is important in these films until it gets put into a piece of theater—then it becomes theater important. But when it happens, it’s not important.

You mention theater in the commentary for this Criterion Collection release, about Dylan understanding that you were trying to create a kind of theater or performance here. How did theater, as an underlying idea, inform your construction of the film?

Growing up, I went to the theater a lot. That was more important to me, in some ways, than movies, because they were real in a funny way. I didn’t understand it or think about it much, but when I read plays, they sort of came to life because I knew on stage that they did come to life. They came to life differently for the different audiences that watched them. There was no one production or performance that ruled all others.

When Albert [Grossman] first came to me to do the film, I didn’t know much about Dylan. I knew “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” from the radio, I guess, and I had read a piece in Time saying he wasn’t a very good folk singer, but that he was new, and that he was in the Village and whatnot. So, when Albert asked if I wanted to go along with them on the tour, I thought what he wanted to make was a kind of music film. That was interesting to me because I had made some films about music. The one I did out in California [Lambert & Co.], out on the beach there with all those junkies, about a trumpet player named David. So here was a musician I was going to be able to follow and film for the whole tour! [laughs]

At the end of about the third day, I started listening to what Dylan was saying and I realized the film to make was not a music film; he’s going to make those himself, with albums and records. I realized this is a person who might be a poet, but doesn’t know it yet. He’s trying to figure it out. And that’s such an interesting thing to watch, so I was going to record every word he said, if I could. I was pretty much alone. I had Jones Alk doing sound for me, but I didn’t know her. She was a friend of Dylan’s, really. And sometimes I didn’t even have her.

I liked the idea of trying to hear him pronounce himself and sometimes he would say things that were elliptical. They weren’t even words in a song. Things like “she’s pure like fire, like ice.” Things like that would just knock me out when I heard them. And it became something incredible to watch, because you don’t often get to.

And because of it, the film has only become more relevant over the years as a document of Dylan, but also the way one behaves when engaging in a kind of performance or when they know the cameras are running. Not just with stuff like reality TV, but surveillance technologies as well…

Yes. I think this is what artists struggle with their whole lives. That is, how do you speak to the future? How do you tell the future what you want it to know, because it doesn’t really listen to you much? Even movies that I like…my favorite movie in the world is Michael Powell’s I Know Where I’m Going, and every time I see that film, it just gives me chills because I love it so. I just want to hug it somehow! And I like it so much more than The Red Shoes or any of the other ones that he did because he was turned loose in a place that he kind of knew about, but didn’t know—and that, to me, kind of speaks to the future somehow. Powell and I were going to do a film together at one point, and I knew that he thought about that, as do a lot of people. I’m sure that all of the good dramatists that have ever lived have thought of that stage hundreds of years later. Can it still work? All those people in my head, can they come out and live for somebody else? This is what woke me up!

Have you found yourself gravitating toward topics you don’t already know a great deal about? It sounds like you really feed on that idea of chance.

They come to us. They all come to us—unasked. And often when they come…it’s like the film we’re making now [Unlocking the Cage]. This guy, somebody told him to come see us. And he’s a lawyer and I liked it right away, because he’s a lawyer who decided to be an animal lawyer and I thought it was a fantastic thing, because I had a couple of dogs and I loved them and I thought animals are great. I was a big animal protectionist without knowing how to do it, but he’d figured out a way to do it. And people thought it was a joke. I watched people I knew call him a kind of a clown and not take him seriously and I thought, “This is the beginning of something.” In my life and beyond, people are going to say, “Oh my God, how did that happen?” Because what he had in mind was an incredible idea, to protect animals from the law and to figure out how to do that. From the very start, I thought, “Someone has brought me this idea…thank you God for thinking of me.” I certainly wouldn’t have figured it out. I couldn’t have imagined it or written it as a play. There’s no way it could happen for me except for the way it did happen. When we took it to HBO, they said it was ridiculous, that he’s never gonna make it, that he’s a jerk, and that they didn’t even want the film. It took them two years to figure out that, indeed, they did want the film.

How about something like 65 Revisited? That’s a different case where you’re going back to a previous work. What prompts that interest?

Even that was someone else! A guy working for me, who I liked a lot, was just starting out, a young guy, said, “You know, I’ve been looking through the outtakes of Don’t Look Back and there’s a wonderful movie there.” And I said, “There was always a movie there and I think I already made the movie I saw there.” And he said, “I know, but I think you missed out.” [laughs] And then we had a long series of talks. I had cut the music out because I wanted the film to be about the poet. And he said, “The music is really the poetry. And you lost it.” So we put it all together, ran it and worked on it, and pretty soon I saw that he was right. And in England, where poets are really revered far more than they ever will be here, that’s what people went for. They didn’t go for smart talk or any of the bullshit things that came out of that whole period, like the dope stuff. They were in it for the poetry. And those songs are love poems and they’re wonderful love poems. It’s funny because, when some people saw Don’t Look Back, they said Dylan was a jerk—an asshole. But when they saw this they said, “Oh, he’s a wonderful person!” And I thought that was such a funny thing because I didn’t understand it, and I still don’t fully. I don’t think Don’t Look Back was the wrong film to make, because it was certainly the film I needed to make, but I think that the second one is just as good.

“Tell the truth but tell it slant”
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