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Sundance ’10 | Doc Legend Leon Gast Eyes a Paparazzo Superstar

Sundance '10 | Doc Legend Leon Gast Eyes a Paparazzo Superstar

Leon Gast’s filmography includes some of the most influential documentaries investigating American popular culture. He won an Oscar for directing the “Rumble in the Jungle” doc “When We Were Kings.” He has pointed his lens at B.B. King, Celia Cruz, and the Hells Angels in other documentaries. For his new film, he focuses in on Ron Galella, the rambunctious celebrity photographer. “Leon Gast masterfully profiles Galella and places him at the center of the debate about the First Amendment right to privacy. Galella’s work and tactics have their critics, but his influence is undeniable. In a career defined by perseverance, he has created some of the most lasting, iconic photographs of our times.

Paparazzi might be the norm in our celebrity-infested times, haphazardly snapping every movement of the rich and famous. Ron Galella, though, is the original paparazzo. He elevated the celebrity snapshot into art and, at 78, remains a stalwart in the business. Dogged in his quest to photograph celebrities in unguarded moments, he defines his passion for his work by the ups and downs of his career—documenting the parade of stars at a thriving Studio 54 and having the dubious honor of being sued by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (his favorite subject) and having his jaw broken by Marlon Brando.” [Synopsis courtesy of Sundance Film Festival]

“Smash His Camera”
U.S. Documentary Competition
Director: Leon Gast
Producer: Adam Schlesinger, Linda Saffire
Composer: Craig Hazen, David Wolfert
Cinematographer: Don Lenzer
Editor: Doug Abel
Creative Consultant: Roger Rosenblatt
Sound Recordist: Mark Maloof
88 min.

Gast introduces himself…

My name is Leon Gast. I was born in Jersey City, NJ, in 1936 and now reside in bucolic Woodstock, NY. I attended Seton Hall University for two years and the Columbia University School of Dramatic Arts in NYC, where I studied Film Design with legendary instructor Paul Falkenberg and Animation & Film with Abe Liss. But I was most influenced by a Cecile Starr class on Documentary History and Filmmaking that featured the work of Leni Riefenstahl, Pere Lorenz and Robert Flaherty.

Gast on his long history in the business…

I dropped out of Columbia to work as a production assistant on the “ High Adventure With Lowell Thomas,” a CBS TV series in 1957. The following year, I embarked on a still photography career, shooting editorial pieces for magazines like Esquire, Female Mimic, Glamour, High Heels, and Modern Bride.

In 1967, I photographed the First Fania All Stars Concert album cover “Live At The Red Carter.” Four years later, the owners of Fania decided to stage a second concert at a much larger venue. I convinced the label owners, Gerry Masucci and Johnny Pacheco, to let me direct a film about the emerging Latino culture and music scene in New York City. The film “Our Latin Thing: Nuestra Cosa” was released theatrically in 1972—my first documentary.

Gast on coming to Galella as a subject…

“Smash His Camera” director Leon Gast [Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival]

In 2006, my friend and colleague Linda Saffire recommended that I talk to a producer she knew who had an interesting idea for a film. I’d worked with Linda on a couple of Barbara Kopple films: “Mike Tyson: Fallen Champ” and “My Generation.” Linda set up a meeting with her friend, the producer Adam Schlesinger.

When we met, Adam told me how much he admired Muhammad Ali and loved my film “When We Were Kings.” He said he had obtained the rights to develop and make a film detailing the true-life story of photographer Ron Galella. “Have you ever heard of him?“ Adam asked me. Adam is 43, I’m 73. So he was probably two when I first heard about Galella. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, Ron Galella was characterized as a menace, unscrupulous and a stalker. He was in the newspapers, on radio. and on the TV news constantly. He was “that guy” who stalked our beloved former First Lady, Jacqueline Kennedy.

“Would you like to meet him?“ Adam asked.

Gast on meeting Galella…

A few days later, I met Galella at his mansion in New Jersey. We sat in the “big room,” a gallery with a cathedral ceiling and gigantic windows looking out at a half acre of verdant foliage and plants. I commented on Ron’s gardening, mentioning I too did some gardening.

“See that row of evergreen trees over there past the patio?“ Ron said, pointing. “Every other one is fake, yeah, fake; you can buy them at Home Depot or Lowe’s after Christmas for twenty dollars or less and sometimes they come with lights. The real ones cost over two hundred dollars and they die after a couple of years.”

I asked him about all the stories I’d heard and read: Jackie Kennedy and the false arrest, a raft of court cases, Marlon Brando knocking out five of his teeth, Richard Burton and his bodyguard breaking his ribs, Brigitte Bardot and her friends chasing him into the Mediterranean—and all the other abuses he had to endure during his career as the self-proclaimed “Paparazzo Superstar.” And Ron, like Atlas, just shrugged.

Gast on gathering the courage to make the film…

Adam, Linda and I met the next day in the city. We knew that the film inherently would deal with contemporary First Amendment issues like freedom of the press versus the individual’s right to privacy. But we also knew that the film needed to be personal,
structured around Ron’s point of view—contrary to the public perception—of his profession and work as noble and heroic.

The challenge for me initially was logistical. My wife Geri and I had given up our Manhattan apartment and lived since 2005 in Woodstock full-time.

Got The Shot Productions, Adam’s company, had assumed that the film would be edited at their office in New York City. I wanted to do the edit at my place upstate. I thought the issue would disqualify me. Miraculously, Adam and Linda agreed to make the 110 mile trip upstate to have a look at my editing facility. They liked the set-up. However, the biggest obstacle I faced was finding a qualified film editor acceptable to both the producers and me. I contacted every editor and filmmaker I knew in the region and nobody was available. Certainly the producers were talking to other directors.

Gast talks about his miraculous editor…

And then a miracle happened. Linda called to tell me she knew an editor that lived in Woodstock who had a great reputation. The Miracle’s name was Doug Abel. When I met Doug for the first time he had a black eye, and I naturally thought he’d been in a fight but he explained that a “house goat” had kicked him in the face. Doug is not only the best editor I’ve ever worked with but also owns and operates the Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary with his wife Jenny Brown.

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