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Richard Leacock, R.I.P.: Pennebaker, Maysles, Nair and Peña Remember the Doc Pioneer

Richard Leacock, R.I.P.: Pennebaker, Maysles, Nair and Peña Remember the Doc Pioneer

Documentary pioneer Richard “Ricky” Leacock, considered a major force in the birth of modern non-fiction cinema, passed away yesterday in Paris at the age of 89.

The London-born Leacock, whose list of collaborators included Robert Flaherty on “Louisiana Story” and D.A. Pennebaker, died peacefully at his home, according to a report posted on the Flaherty Seminar. The site also noted that Leacock recently completed a memoir, “The Feeling of Being There,” which has not yet been released, and delivered the masterclass at the 2008 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Film Festival.

Leacock is perhaps best known for playing a pivotal role in producing 1960’s “Primary,” Robert Drew’s seminal portrait of John F. Kennedy during a Wisconsin primary election. Leacock helped conceive of an approach involving lightweight equipment, synchronous sound, and also closely advised on the editing process. He continued working with Drew on “Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment” in 1963, and was also involved in several Pennebaker productions, such as “Don’t Look Back.” Leacock fine-tuned a direct sound technique that became a cornerstone of the cinema verité movement, which eventually found its way to television with the PBS series “An American Family.” The tradition continued more recently in 1990s-era reality television, particularly with early seasons of MTV’s “The Real World.”

As news of Leacock’s death spread across the internet yesterday, many of his friends, colleagues, and those inspired by his work shared their memories. At All These Wonderful Things, A.J. Schnack rounds up a number of these items. Cinéma du Réel, the documentary film festival that opened yesterday in Paris, announced plans to dedicate a part of its program to the filmmaker.

“When I met Ricky, the thing that I felt from the very start was his sense that if you make a film, it should be first-rate,” Pennebaker told indieWIRE today. “Back then, if you had to make money, you had to condition yourself to making second-rate films. Ricky felt he knew the difference between that and first-rate. He wasn’t shy about making you know that. That’s been my guidance, and I’ve learned that from watching him.”

Pennebaker also spoke fondly of collaborating with Leacock on 1965’s “A Stravinsky Portrait,” which he currently unearthed from the archives for an upcoming screening in Washington, D.C. “I don’t think anybody will ever make a better film about Stravinsky or any functioning genius,” Pennebaker said. “The more I saw it, the more I realized what a great film it is. We don’t think the cameraman should be hidden or shooting through keyholes, but the focus should be on the subject. Nevertheless, you can feel Ricky’s presence in that film.”

In addition to his work as a documentarian, Leacock spent several years as a teacher, and many of his students went on to play significant roles in the international film community. “Ricky Leacock was my first teacher in cinema,” director Mira Nair, who studied under Leacock during his time at MIT, told indieWIRE in an email sent this morning. “In 1977, I crossed Cambridge, Massachusetts to take my first class in filmmaking with him, not knowing anything of his great antecedents, or the fact that he and Pennebaker had created the mobile camera. Ricky was enormously human, completely accessible, with a great curiosity about the world.”

Nair also recalled Leacock’s distinctive personality. “He was inimitable,” she said. “Enormously human, completely accessible, with a great curiosity about the world. I remember his gravelly voice, always a mischief in his eye, making great art look simple. With his teaching, he gave many of us the power to speak in images, to say what we had to say.”

Richard Peña, the program director for the Film Society of Lincoln Center, also took Leacock’s classes at MIT and offered similarly warm descriptions of the experience. “He was a remarkable person, fun and witty but very sensitive,” Peña said. “I’ve never met anyone who was better at discussing all the ramifications and possible approaches of a film project.” He also noted Leacock’s famously opinionated stances. “Discussing narrative films with him was tough,” Peña said. “He was pretty hard on them, but I never had a conversation or an argument with him from which I didn’t wind up learning something.”

Cinema verité icon Albert Maysles, speaking with indieWIRE prior to an event at the Brooklyn Academy of Music last night, echoed that perspective. “He loved to take the completely opposite point of view,” Maysles said. “[But] he did it with grace and a depth of understanding. He had such a kind face.” For Maysles, who contributed camera work on “Primary,” Leacock was a filmmaker “right up there with the best.”

[Additional reporting by Christopher Campbell.]

More resources on Leacock’s career can be found here.

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