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INTERVIEW | Director Richard Press on Capturing the Elusive “Bill Cunningham”

INTERVIEW | Director Richard Press on Capturing the Elusive "Bill Cunningham"

This interview was originally published during indieWIRE’s coverage of the 2010 New Directors/New Films film festival. “Bill Cunningham New York” opens March 16 in select cinemas.

In a city of dedicated originals, New York Times photographer Bill Cunningham stands out as one who both knows how to capture the essence of the singular personality and clearly represents one himself. Entering his ninth decade, Cunningham still rides his Schwinn around Manhattan, putting miles between his street-level view of personal style and what the titans of fashion will come to discover down the road.

This heartfelt and honest documentary turns the camera on one who has so lovingly and selflessly captured the looks that have defined generations. And in the photographer’s chronicles of the events and people that captivate our beloved city, the film is just as much a portrait of New York as of Cunningham. [Synopsis provided by New Directors/New Films]

“Bill Cunningam New York”
Director: Richard Press
Producer: Philip Gefter
Editor: Ryan Denmark
Additional Editing: Barry Alexander Brown.
Cinematography Tony Cenicola & Richard Press
Designer: Keira Alexandra
84 Mintutes

Responses courtesy of “Bill Cunningham New York” director Richard Press.

The journey to “Bill”…

I was born and raised in New York City. I studied photography and graphic design at UC Berkeley but as a career it soon left me unsatisfied. So I started making movies. I made several short films that did the festival circuit and then developed a project at the Sundance Filmmakers Labs. During that time the opportunity to make “Bill Cunningham New York” suddenly presented itself so this became my first feature.

People ask how long the movie has taken to make and I can honestly say ten years. Eight to convince Bill to be filmed and two to actually shoot and edit the film. If it had been any different –- Bill wouldn’t have been true to who he is, or nearly as interesting a subject to film.

My fascination with Bill has always gone beyond the work he actually does. His two weekly columns in the New York Times, “On the Street” where he’s been spotting and documenting emerging fashion trends on the street for 40 years and “Evening Hours” his page devoted to New York’s nightly whirl of social and charitable events – is more than mere picture taking — it’s cultural anthropology. But who Bill is as a person, how he’s chosen to live his life and his almost religious dedication to his work — that’s where the initial impetus to make the movie resided for me.

One of the challenges was how do you make a film about a man who’s so private that even people who’ve known him for years, know nothing about him personally?

Bill’s reticence to be filmed determined the practicals of how the documentary could be made. The spectacle of a camera crew; a sound recorder and boom operator would be impossible. I had to capture him the way he says he captures his own subjects — “discreetly, quietly… invisibly.” As a result, the movie was made with no crew, (and, on basically no budget) using small, hand held consumer cameras so Bill wouldn’t feel intruded upon. It had to be a kind of family affair, of people he trusted – myself, the producer Philip Gefter and Tony Cenicola, a New York Times staff photographer whom Bill knew and liked and who could operate another camera.

Dancing with Bill…

There was no scheduling of Bill’s time to film him. So it was a dance. For a year we spent all our time at the New York Times waiting for a moment or a mood that Bill would allow us to capture. I would casually hang out near the desk of John Kurdewan in the Times’ art department where Bill would work on his “On The Street” page. With no fuss I would turn on the camera and film Bill and John working together at the computer. But, then, I would have to wait weeks for Bill to cooperate again. It took a month for Bill to allow me to put a wireless mike on him, and, then, he would only allow it occasionally. We would leave notes on his desk (his preferred way of communicating) asking to follow him to an evening party, or to trail him riding his bike. Occasionally Tony and I would just show up on the street where he was shooting or at the lab where he develops his film or even more risky, outside Carnegie Hall, where he lives.

I began to sense that even if he wasn’t willing to be filmed at that moment he was developing a respect and appreciation for our dedication to doing our job; and as a result — he’d sometimes reward us – first by introducing us to his neighbors in Carnegie Hall Studios and then (and almost unheard of for him) allowing us into his apartment.

It began to dawn on me that the process of making the movie paralleled the slow revealing of the man himself and that his relationship with the filmmakers should be a part of telling the story. In looking for a way to do this, I thought of the early Andy Warhol/Edie Sedgewick movies with Chuck Wein as an off screen presence – a voice never seen but prodding and provoking– just as we were doing with Bill.

The sit-down interviews with Bill were conducted with Philip, the producer, and myself, with Tony occasionally chiming in. But in order to turn the filmmakers into a single palpable character, Philip’s voice replaced ours whenever they were heard. This also made the need for any clarification or exposition in any part of the movie easy — I simply recorded Philip’s voice making a comment or asking a necessary question.

A different approach…

Bill traverses so many disparate layers and overlapping social milieus of New York City. I thought it essential to interview people who not only have a relationship with Bill but who span the spectrum of New York to help tell his story. I tried to lessen the tyranny of the bland talking head by filming each character in the form of a photographic portrait – one that gives as much visual insight into who they are and how they live or work—and trying to make each person a character in the film in their own right.

I’ve been really fortunate to have two extraordinary editors working on the film. For a year Ryan Denmark and I with additional editing by Barry Alexander Brown wrote the movie line by line. We approached the movie’s structure less like a documentary and more like a narrative with a strong protagonist surrounded by a menagerie of characters — kind of early “Altmanesque” but with narrative threads that slowly build, so that when taken together — a portrait emerges and comes into focus. Like one of Bill’s pages — a collage, adding up to something larger than its parts.

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