There was history on the screen at Bay Street Theatre Saturday night, and history in the room.
The Hamptons Take 2 Documentary Film Festival’s gala honored D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus with a screening of “The War Room,” their Academy Award-nominated documentary on Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign, followed by a free-ranging discussion with the filmmakers and Susan Lacy, creator and longtime producer of the WNET/PBS “American Masters” series. The conversation was in part a master class in cinema verité, or direct cinema, a style of filmmaking pioneered by Mr. Pennebaker, Richard Leacock, and Robert Drew that relies on hand-held cameras, available light, and following the subjects of the film rather than directing them.
Mr. Pennebaker, Mr. Leacock, and Mr. Drew made “Primary,” which documented John F. Kennedy’s and Hubert Humphrey’s respective campaigns in the 1960 Wisconsin Democratic primary election. Mr. Leacock and Mr. Pennebaker left Drew Associates in 1963 to form Leacock-Pennebaker Inc. and four years later released “Dont Look Back,” a documentary of Bob Dylan’s 1965 concert tour of England directed by Mr. Pennebaker. This was followed a year later by “Monterey Pop,” the groundbreaking concert film that included performances by the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Janis Joplin, Otis Redding, the Who, and Jefferson Airplane, among some 30 acts.
Ms. Hegedus graduated from the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in 1973 with a degree in photography and experimental filmmaking and moved to New York two years later. Recalling those days, Ms. Hegedus said, “It was very difficult to be an independent filmmaker then because the equipment was very expensive, especially sound equipment. It’s not like today when you can make a film with your phone. I decided to look for work someplace where I could get my hands on some equipment.” She approached Mr. Drew for a job, and he in turn referred her to Mr. Pennebaker.
Ms. Hegedus and Mr. Pennebaker’s first collaboration was “Town Bloody Hall,” which she edited from footage shot at a legendary 1971 panel discussion on the subject of women’s liberation that pitted Norman Mailer against the feminists Germaine Greer, Jill Johnston, Diana Trilling, and Jacqueline Ceballos. Since then, the filmmakers have collaborated on nearly 20 films, including “The War Room.” They were married in 1982.
Ms. Lacy opened the discussion by asking how they got the Clinton campaign team to agree to being filmed. “We actually wanted to do a film about a presidential campaign in 1988,” said Ms. Hegedus, “but couldn’t raise the money. We were in the same situation in 1992 when Wendy Ettinger and R.J. Cutler approached us. They had never made a film, but they had seen ‘Primary’ and thought we should do something on the election.”
The filmmakers approached then-President Bush, Ross Perot, and Paul Tsongas, among others, but were turned down. When they contacted the Clinton campaign they were told they couldn’t trail the candidate but could follow his campaign staff. “We thought, okay, we’ll start with the staff and maybe Clinton will eventually let us follow him, but he never really did,” recalled Ms. Hegedus. “However, we stumbled on James Carville — he seemed like someone’s drunken uncle at a party — and he was by far the most colorful person in the campaign. George Stephanopoulos was his polar opposite, but they were buddies, and in a way it’s a ‘buddy film.’ ”
When they queried Mr. Stephanopoulos, then Mr. Clinton’s communications director, about access to the campaign, he referred them to Mr. Carville, the campaign’s manager, who at first didn’t understand why they would want to follow him around. Mr. Pennebaker recalled, “We showed him ‘Campaign Manager,’ a film I had made in 1964 following John Grenier, who was guiding Barry Goldwater’s primary campaign. As a campaign strategist himself, it appealed to James, and he let us in.”
In all, Mr. Pennebaker and Ms. Hegedus shot some 35 hours of film, not a great deal by documentary standards. Asked if somewhat limited access bothered him, Mr. Pennebaker said, “When you’re making a film, you’re caught in a circle and it just goes around. You can’t think about the costs or difficulties. You’re just driving toward the end.”
Ms. Hegedus added, “But access was a concern, because if Clinton lost we would have had a very ‘unvaluable’ film about the staff of a losing campaign. If we could have voted multiple times to ensure his election, we would have.”
After the first few days, the campaign team barely noticed the filmmakers. “We don’t look very intimidating,” said Mr. Pennebaker. “It’s just Chris with a tape recorder that looks like a pocketbook, and I don’t work too close to people with the camera. Nobody really seemed concerned about why we were there or what we were doing.”
After the film was completed, Mr. Pennebaker invited Mr. Stephanopoulos to a screening at the University of Virginia. “They offered us two chairs, and I thought they meant endowed film professorships. But in fact they sent us two chairs. After the screening, George said, ‘If I’d had any idea I would one day be watching this with 3,000 people in a movie theater, I never would have let you in.’ ”
Ms. Lacy mentioned that the role of cinema verité filmmakers has been likened to that of someone at a zoo, because they don’t interact with their subjects, they just watch them. The phrase “fly on a wall” was invoked several times during the evening as well. “It’s a real privilege to be let into someone’s life and follow them during an important time,” said Ms. Hegedus. “It is a watching kind of thing. You can’t intrude or let yourself be more important than your subject. You just have to be in the background.”
“I learned very early that it’s better to let your subject do what they want than to try to direct them,” said Mr. Pennebaker. “ ‘Monterey Pop’ was my first film with a lot of camera operators, including James Desmond, Barry Feinstein, Ricky Leacock, Albert Maysles, Roger Murphy, and Nick Proferes. I just gave them cameras and turned them loose to do whatever they wanted. ‘Monterey Pop’ was my lesson in directing-which is, ‘Don’t!’ ”
Mr. Pennebaker never went to film school. He graduated from Yale with a degree in engineering, which later played a role in his development, with Mr. Leacock, of one of the first fully portable 16-millimeter synchronized camera and sound recording systems.
One filmmaker who had an impact on his development was Robert Flaherty, whose “Nanook of the North,” made in 1922, was the first commercially successful documentary feature. “Watching it, I thought, ‘He’s just making this for himself, not to entertain anybody.’ It had such a direct quality, and I thought, ‘I can do that. I don’t have to write a script or hire actors.’ ”
Ms. Lacy asked the filmmakers how they choose their subject. “Most of the subjects choose us,” said Ms. Hegedus. “You just have to go by your instincts. We tend not to make films about people we don’t like. We’re not trying to play ‘Gotcha!’ You tend to want to make your subject a hero, but what you really find out most of the time is that they’re human.”