The Taming of the Shrew: Pennebaker & Co. Capture Elaine Stritch
by Tony Phillips
After a chat with the brass of Pennebaker-Hegedus Films, one wishes for a rosier picture of documentary filmmaking to emerge. After all, D.A. Pennebaker is the Oscar-nominated genius from Evanstown, Ill., who practically created the field. One certainly couldn’t talk about the idea of cinema verite — the fly on the wall technique that rejects voiceover narration in favor of recording real events as they happen — without including Pennebaker. Along with his colleagues Richard Leacock and Al and David Maysles, he established the style when they all worked under the same roof for a filmmaking outfit called Drew Associates that in 1959 dedicated itself to advancing the use of film in journalism. But even if one were to don the rose colored glasses so favored by later Pennebaker subjects like Janis Joplin, Ziggy Stardust, Jimi Hendrix, even Depeche Mode, it would still be quite clear that the maestro himself interrupts a half-hour interview in his New York offices three times to complain about cash flow.
“You can have a film and show it on an Avid and it looks like a finished film,” Pennebaker explains, “But theaters require a big jump in technical increments. You have to blow it up to 35 and make a 5.1 mix, which is extremely expensive. There are various things that you have to do like get releases on all the music. The jump from what you can show in your studio as a complete film to what you hand over to a distributor who’ll run it all over the world is huge. And that’s the point that nobody is really able to do alone. You have to bring in investors or get a distributor that’s ready to put up that kind of money. And generally these films don’t look like as good an investment as ‘The Passion.’” Chris Hegedus, who first began collaborating with Pennebaker by editing his 1979 film “Town Bloody Hall” — the chronicle of a public debate about feminism chaired by none other than Norman Mailer — doesn’t put too fine a point on the money issue. “It never goes away,” she says simply. She would know, she’s been co-directing with Pennebaker since 1977 and married him in 1982. She even calls him Penny.
On the last project they co-directed together, their first feature for HBO, money was the least of their problems. Instead, they had to wrangle with a self-described “existential problem in tights,” the Tony-Award winning Broadway legend Elaine Stritch, as they made a film documenting her one-woman show “Elaine Stritch at Liberty.” Their film of the same name (playing all month on HBO) is not mere concert documentary, but rather a meditation on what when on behind the scenes during the run of her show. Thought they both cringe at the suggestion that this is Elaine Stritch’s “Truth or Dare,” it does feature Stritch performing signature songs like “The Ladies Who Lunch” and “I’m Still Here,” while also grapples with everything else that goes into putting a show together. They capture everything from bouts with alcoholism, shrill ambushes on her assistant, and stories about everyone from Marlon Brando to Noel Coward. So much is packed into this hour and a half, in fact, that it seems like they must have shot hundreds of hours of footage. “It wasn’t actually that many,” explains Nick Doob, the third co-director on the film, “It was 30-40 hours? We didn’t shoot long. We just sort of poked in on her life from time to time figuring that offstage she’s fairly consistently what you see. You don’t have to stay with her very long.”
Doob’s comment speaks to a star who can be cantankerous at times, but the filmmakers and Stritch are old friends. Pennebaker and Doob both worked with her before on the 1970 documentary about the recording of Stephen Sondheim‘s Tony-Award winning musical called “Original Cast Album Company” and bits of that older film show up in the new one. “The footage — specially what we shot for “Company” — gives you a way to reference what she’s talking about in her show,” Doob says. “It’s another angle on her. Unlike being in a theater, it gives a dimension to her.”
Pennebaker adds, “Elaine’s one-woman-show is such a complete thing that the only thing you can do is make a movie out of it, which is not what we really know how to do. It’s frustrating because you think there’s a movie here somewhere and then you see the show and think there’s the movie! We had to figure out how to make it because it’s still complicated and expensive and beyond what we’re normally able to do.” All three filmmakers are quick to point out that their film is not a presentation of the stage show. That concert DVD has been out for two years. Their film is more a companion piece about the show’s creation. “It’s kind of complicated,” Pennebaker explains, “The thing that made us want to do the film was seeing the one-woman show, but I had long ago thought that there was some kind of film in Elaine.”
Still, it was Stritch who got the ball rolling. “Elaine called us up,” Hegedus remembers. “We knew we wanted to have the show and the real-life Elaine.” But that’s as far as they got with an organizing principle before they shot. “It’s like trying to compose a song,” Pennebaker explains. “There are really no rules when you begin and then it begins to set its own rules, but you want it to get up and flying and then keep its momentum. It’s a self-propelling thing that’s hard to sit down and figure out on a yellow pad. You just have to keep rolling with it and see where it wants to go.”
So how did Stritch square with the trio’s cinema verite principles? “Nothing escapes her,” Hegedus laughs. Pennebaker agrees, “She has a sense that she’s onstage at all times. Even though I had already made a film of her that she knew and liked, the first thing she said to me was, ‘Okay, you’re the director, tell me what to do.’ You look at her a little astonished and say, ‘Elaine I have no idea what you should do.’ But then she understands it’s a different kind of thing and you don’t get that again, but initially that’s the way she’s used to working. She puts herself in the hands of somebody like George Wolfe and they tell her what to do. But she does it as if she made it up. That’s her secret weapon. It always looks like it came out of her head and no one else’s.”
“We spent a little time after she finished doing the show in New York filming several things that aren’t in the film,” Hegedus adds. “We filmed her with Michael Feinstein. We went across on the [oceanliner] QE2 with her, which you see a little of in the film. We went up to her house in Sag Harbor where she was having a yard sale. She’s a real taskmaster.” Pennebaker says with a laugh, “She was offering to autograph all her dishes one by one for a huge amount of money.”
Still, though they bursting with anecdotes, they both have a profound respect for the performer. “She’s the last of a breed of consummate actors who were part of the American Broadway theater, Hegedus says of Stritch, “The theater just doesn’t have the same stature when Elaine began. She’s really the last of them. She dominated the theater for decades.” Hegedus then lists Stephen Sondheim and a host of other musical theater greats who’ve all written parts for Stritch. “Elaine had a unique position,” she concludes. “I don’t think that kind of thing exists anymore.” Her husband doesn’t agree. “I think people like Elaine are always possible,” he says, “No matter how many fences or guards are set up to keep the system the way it is, she’s really able to knock ’em all down.”
Not everyone gets off so easily. When asked if there was ever a subject who didn’t hold up under the scrutiny of Pennebaker-Hegedus Films’ fly-on-the-wall technique, Pennebaker quickly offers, “Barbara Harris, the actress. I wanted to do a film with her so I met her at the theater where she was performing and drove her back to her apartment in a cab. By the time I got her to her door it was clear to me that you could never make a film with her. I don’t exactly know why, but she was so aware and neurotic about her appearance that it was like taking the picture of the inside of a computer.” Instead Pennebaker decided to make a film with Jane Fonda. “While she was very conscious of herself as an actress, she didn’t worry about what we were doing with the camera,” he remembers. That film, entitled “Jane,” chronicled Fonda’s Broadway debut. Pennebaker also made the film “Moon Over Broadway,” which captures Carol Burnett‘s return to the stage.
Pennebaker’s music films capture everyone from Bob Dylan to Jerry Lee Lewis. His political work, going all the way back to “Primary” — which followed Kennedy and Humphrey on the campaign trail — and “Crisis” — which famously captured governor George Wallace blocking entry to black students the University of Alabama — all the way to 1994’s Oscar-nominated “The War Room” suggest Pennebaker is a filmmaker obsessed with few topics he keeps returning to again and again. But Pennebaker is more practical in why he chooses his subjects. “People who make independent films aren’t going to make the life of Napoleon because you couldn’t afford all those people dressed up in old worn-out uniforms. You tend to look at things that are pretty much axiomatic around you. They are performers, politicians, and musicians. You don’t have a wide range of subject. Films like the ones you’ve done tend to replicate themselves. People say, ‘I saw the film you did and I know of a subject that would be like that.’ So they’re your researchers and your writers too. You don’t write these films. You shoot them and organize them by editing. That’s really the writing process, but it takes place after you shoot. The process is almost like stalking people. You have to follow them around and watch them live their lives in front of you.”
Still, even given the narrow confines of his subjects, in such an important election year, how is it that his company made a film about a Broadway diva? “The problem always with political films is entree,” Pennebaker explains. “We were able by luck and happenstance to get entree to James Carville and George Stephanopoulos as the guiding hands of Clinton’s campaign, but it would have been very hard for us to have done a sustained film on Clinton. We’re not a major network, so we couldn’t offer him anything in return. He might dig that, but the people around him would say, ‘You can’t do that because ABC won’t like it.’ So that was a lucky break for us that we were in a place where there was no other press around and that’s crucial. The thing with this election is, again, we’re not a network and for us to be in situations that politically make things happen is hard because there’s 40 people from every kind of major outlet with big cameras and tape recorders waiting outside that door. And for us to join that group, what are we going to do that they aren’t doing? We have to find a way to get in the back door because we’re underprivileged and it’s a point of contention. That’s why our next project is about Al Franken. Somebody like Al Franken gives us that possibility.”
While Pennebaker is feeling ripe with possibility, it’s suggested that his first project for HBO could mean the end to his company’s never-ending money woes. Haven’t they, along with record box-office numbers for docs last year, indicated that the field is changing? “It is changing,” Pennebaker agrees, “But it’s changing in the way the lottery changes. There are more states you can buy lottery tickets in now, but I don’t think your chance of winning the lottery goes up at all. A few people are going to be able to come up with a film one way or another that can stand up to that kind of distribution, but I think it’s still considered a long shot. And generally the people who run the system have first crack at them. HBO is now getting into film distribution so that means they can pick through 50 projects that might do well, but the independent has got one that he’s been working on for a year and half. He’s in love with that project, not because it might make a lot of money, but because it’s near to his heart. He’s like a poet with his poem. Nobody is that anxious to buy it, but he loves it anyway. You start these films and it’s like walking into the woods. You have no idea what’s going to happen, but the people you’re with have always made it happen in the past so there’s no reason to think they won’t again. You try to cover yourself with the sense of what’s possible, but you don’t know.”