Richard Press’ portrait of the massively influential New York Times photographer Bill Cunningham, “Bill Cunningham New York,” hits DVD today after breaking box office records at New York’s Film Forum when it opened back in March.
indieWIRE caught up with Press to talk about why the film caught on the way it did, and how he managed to nail down the ever elusive Cunningham for such a revealing study.
The film’s done great business since hitting theaters this spring…New York’s IFC center just recently brought it back for another run. What do you account the continued interest for?
I really think it’s all about Bill. I think he’s just touching something in people that’s kind of extraordinary. And I think maybe it’s also just the time we’re living in. The economy’s tanking, everything’s tanking and here’s this guy saying, “Oh you don’t even need money. The way you should live, the values you should live by are this other thing, as opposed to the sort of way mainstream culture is.”
Were you fully aware of this outlook of his prior to taking this journey with him, or did you just know Bill Cunningham, the guy with the eye?
Yeah, that was really the impetus of the movie. I grew up in New York and I knew his column and thought it was fantastic. I always thought that was important, but really for me it’s about him as this unique person who’s living his life in a certain way that’s really kind of inspirational. And so it’s really about him and his values and his ethics and his sort of bohemianism. I mean he’s like this rare bird.
How did you meet Bill?
It happened when I first started making movies about ten years ago, when I was making short films. I was supporting myself as a graphic designer and so I was working at the New York Times and that’s how I met Bill. Because I worked with him on his page.
And it was really like within probably, I don’t know, two weeks or something, I thought oh my God this guy is like incredible. He’s this amazing character.
What was Bill’s reaction when you initially approached him to make the film?
My partner, Philip Gefter, who is also the producer, he was an editor at The New York Times, a photo editor. So he knew Bill as well. So, since he really knew him well, we dragged Bill into a conference room at the New York Times. We just said, we want to make a movie about you and he just laughed. He just thought it was the most absurd, ridiculous thing.
Which is absurd in its own right.
Yeah exactly. It’s like why would you want to make a movie about me, like who cares about what I do? It was really genuine, like he really could not imagine anybody being interested in him as a person or thinking that what he does is important. And so it just became this eight-year thing of just trying to wear him down and trying to just get him to agree.
Why did he take so long to finally come around?
He is so profoundly allergic to any attention. I just think he’s just very shy, incredibly modest. And also professionally, he didn’t want any attention put on him. He doesn’t want the camera on him, anything on him. He wants to remain anonymous. And that’s obviously the most important thing in his life is his work, so he doesn’t want anything to compromise that.
The sort of joke on me was that even when Bill agreed, when he finally said yes, he never really agreed. He thought it was going to be like a week or two. So it turned out to be this constant negotiation of access.
So this wasn’t an easy film to make, by any stretch of the imagination.
No, it wasn’t.
But I’m guessing you got him to sign whatever release forms you had to prior to even picking up a camera, right?
We didn’t even get him to sign a release form until after it was in the theater (laughs).
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