July 15, 2011

The Feeling of Having Been There: Memories of Richard Leacock 1921-2011

Richard "Ricky" Leacock, who, with Robert Drew, Albert Maysles and DA Pennebaker, helped revolutionize documentary filmmaking with a dynamic, transformational style known as cinema vérité, passed away on March 23. He was 89, and lived in Paris.

Throughout his remarkable career--one that began at age 14 with his first documentary, Canary Bananas, about growing up on his father's banana plantation in the Canary Islands--he strove, as he puts it on his prodigious website (www.richardleacock.com) "to give my viewers a sense of ‘being there.'"

He graduated from Harvard University, with a degree in physics--which he used "to master the technology of filmmaking." He worked as a combat cameraman in Burma and China during World War II, and later shot Robert Flaherty's seminal Louisiana Story. "More difficult for me to explain is Flaherty's way of looking at things," Leacock writes. "We were constantly panning, tilting, moving the camera, searching. There is rhythm in the filming, rhythm in the captured movements and compositions that are completely at odds with the compositions that work in static imagery."

In the 1950s, with television in its nascent stages, Leacock was invited to make a film for the cultural program Omnibus. The film, Toby and the Tall Corn, documented a traveling tent show in Midwest; it would be his first film since Canary Bananas--and "my final attempt to make a documentary using classical film industry techniques." 

Filmmaker Roger Tilton, a fellow veteran combat cameraman, invited Leacock to film at a jazz club in New York's East Village, and encouraged him to shoot as they had during the war: "We shot wild! No tripod! Move! Shoot! I was all over the place, having the time of my life, jumping, dancing, shooting right in the midst of everything. We spent a fabulous evening shooting to our hearts' content. Roger and his editor Richard Brummer laid these fragmentary shots in sync with the four pieces of music selected for the film; slow, medium, fast and faster! It worked! On a big screen in a theater, Wow! You were there, right in the midst of it, and it looked like it was in sync... it was in sync! We couldn't film dialogue or sustained musical passages this way. But it gave us a taste, a goal."

The quest was on: "I needed a camera that I could hand-hold, that would run on battery power; that was silent, you can't film a symphony orchestra rehearsing with a noisy camera; a recorder as portable as the camera, battery-powered, with no cable connecting it to the camera, that would give us quality sound; synchronous, not just with one camera but with all cameras. What we call in physics a ‘general solution.' Filming an orchestra with two or three cameras, all in sync with a high-quality recorder and all mobile...This became a goal that took another three years of intensive effort to achieve. Remember that the transistor, without which none of these goals could be achieved, was still in its infancy."

By this time, Leacock had found a kindred spirit in Robert Drew, a reporter for Life Magazine, who himself was exploring a less verbal approach to television reporting, without interviews or narrators--purely observational. Leacock had also met DA Pennebaker, who had majored in electrical engineering at Yale University, so with their science degrees they spent the next few years with Drew developing portable synchronous equipment. They were later joined by Albert Maysles, and the four of them headed for Wisconsin to follow Senators John F. Kennedy and Hubert H. Humphrey in their quest for the Democratic presidential nomination.

"We were breaking all the rules of the industry," Leacock writes. "We were shooting and editing our own footage on location. The people taking sound were not ‘soundmen'; they were reporters, journalists, trained in finding and telling stories. It was a collaborative work, filmmakers and journalists, not cameramen and soundmen.

"There were no interviews and little narration," Leacock continues. "Bob Drew was executive producer and had final say; he bore the burden of responsibility for the outcome, he worked with us and took sound and sweated over the editing. Primary was shot in about five days with four two-man crews; no script, no lights, no tripods, no questions, no directions, never ask anyone to do anything. Just watch and listen. Then the same people that shot moved into a hotel suite and edited with little film viewers and sound heads. We worked hard and fast; I think we had a cut of the long version in about two weeks."

Over the next four years, Drew Associates would continue to raise the bar for documentary filmmaking. Leacock and Pennebaker would later form their own company and produce such classics as Dont Look Back and Happy Mother's Day. Leacock would later film Pennebaker's Monterrey Pop and Company.

In 1968, Leacock and Ed Pincus were invited to create a new film school at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and, over the next 20 years, his students would include Ross McElwee, Robb Moss, Steve Ascher, Jeff Kreines, Joel DeMott, Michel Negroponte, Mira Nair and many others.

Leacock retired in 1989 and moved to Paris, where he met and married Valerie Lalonde, who would be his filmmaking partner. The couple embraced the digital revolution, beginning with the Video8, and continuing with every versatile, cost-efficient piece of equipment that followed. "With this new equipment it is possible to make not just documentaries...fiction...whatever you want for very little money. What we will then need is a distribution system more like the book industry, a whole infrastructure that must and will be developed. Then we can make shows that are more than a stop gap in an entertainment industry. Works that can combine written and motion-picture material in a complex manner that can be savored, thought about and enjoyed where the dreadful people that run Hollywood and television will have no influence whatever."

In his last years, Leacock was working on his memoir, The Feeling of Being There, a transmedia project that would include a book and a digital video book.

Richard Leacock took us there.

What follows are reflections from collaborators in Leacock's life--fellow educators, students, and of course, his great teammates at Drew Associates.

--Thomas White
Editor,Documentary

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Ricky Leacock--did you ever hear anyone call him Richard?--is gone. A man who actually was a legend in his own time, certainly among all who love documentary film. My experience of Ricky, in life and in death, feels very personal, even if in fact it was mostly observational. This is in part because I have seen much of his work, many times. And, as an historian, I feel close to some who are gone.

It is a truism that Ricky's camerawork is observational; actually there is a distinctive style in almost every frame. His eye can be sensed, twinkling at the subject. Ricky's camera was kinetic, like the man himself. One may have to look carefully at the collaborative films to pick out his shots, but the style, the quickly moving eye, are there. And to see those images on the screen means that we will have him with us always.

I cannot remember ever not knowing about Ricky, or not knowing him. The personality was so big, so enthusiastic, so attractive, and his embodiment of documentary so real, that I fell immediately under his spell, as did so many others. 

The three International Documentary Congresses of the 1990s, under the partnership of the IDA and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, brought together hundreds of diverse, passionate documentary people. These were the first of what are now much-imitated documentary conferences. Here there was no market, no festival, no prizes or awards--simply a very special gathering of people screening films, leading discussions, telling stories, arguing and having fun.  Lunch was served at long communal tables set up in the Academy lobby. At one point Mikel Kaufman, our partner at the Academy, stopped me to say she had just overheard a young man very excitedly talking on the telephone, "I just had lunch with Ricky Leacock. Can you believe it? I just had lunch with Ricky Leacock!"  The Congress' goal was met in that moment as living film history awed a new generation.

At the 1998 Congress, a panel, which we worked hard to arrange, brought together Bob Drew, Al Maysles, DA Pennebaker and Ricky Leacock in one room. This had not happened since the 1960s, when they stopped working together as a foursome. That they all agreed to participate meant the time was right for a reunion. There was tension, and decades-old arguments lurked. The panel began stiffly, but moved along cordially and became revelatory. Then at the reception, things broke loose. Each of the "fab four" pulled out a camera and began shooting. They got excited about each other's equipment, were showing off their latest gadgets, and really seemed to be having a ball. Many more panels and tributes followed over the years, where various combinations of the guys shared their films and expertise with audiences around the world.

Another memory: Sitting on the floor of a packed classroom at UCLA, we listened to Ricky--then an artist-in-residence--tell stories in that gravelly baritone of his. I knew most of them, but here was a fresh audience. The students marveled when he demonstrated his new hand-made mic, an ordinary tea ball complete with its own little boom. After he told his "shooting the spider web with Robert Flaherty for Louisiana Story" tale, I raised a challenge: Would Flaherty have embraced this new equipment, since it could never capture the stunning filmic beauty found in every one of his shots? Nonsense, said Ricky. Flaherty was interested in the moment, waiting until it unfolded and then catching it in an instant. Wrong, thought I. Flaherty would never have settled for anything less than, yes, the perfect moment, but the perfect moment in the perfect light, thought out very carefully, captured on sensitive film stock. True, even though Flaherty did shoot thousands of feet of film to get that image. He would have hated the video image--at least how it looked in its early stages. That's how I see it, but I was not about to refute Ricky in front of a class. We did argue the issue on other occasions, neither of us convincing the other. 

Of course, Ricky was there, shooting Louisiana Story with Flaherty in 1948. For his personal knowledge of Frances and Robert and the Flaherty girls alone, he was a treasure.  With Ricky's death goes the last living link to the man many still consider the father of documentary film. Anyone who wants to know what working with the Flahertys was like must read Richard Leacock: The Feeling of Being There, a book and digital video set to be published by Semeïon Editions. Contained in it are letters Ricky wrote to his then-wife, she in New York City with their first child, he toiling for months in the Southern swamps. The letters are marvelous. Not only are they a record of the Flaherty filmmaking experience (much of it fixing broken equipment); they reveal a young man deeply in love. Ricky loved life and people, and over the years more than a few people fell in love with Ricky. I confess to being a little bit in love myself.

Thousands of filmmakers have studied and will continue to study his work. The early cinema vérité classics that Ricky made with Drew Associates, and then in partnership with Pennebaker, need no further analysis here, except perhaps to note that Ricky's ability to fix equipment played a big part in keeping the cameras rolling. Drew and the Academy of Motion Picture's Film Archive are properly preserving the work of the Drew Associates team, safely on film for at least the next 100 years.

My favorite Leacock film is Jazz Dance (1954), which he was asked to film by Roger Tilton. This non-sync, high-speed poem vivifies an East Village New York nightclub full of people dancing to brash Dixieland music. Ricky and his small 35mm camera are everywhere-down on the floor, up on a table, whirling with the dancers.

Tilton wanted Jazz Dance to use the hand-held techniques he and Ricky both learned as World War II combat cameramen. When we view clips of WWII footage, remember that behind the lens is solitary man, carrying cumbersome equipment, trudging through mountains, deserts or jungles. Maybe we are looking at something shot by Ricky Leacock. He filmed in Burma and China, including the surrender of the Japanese to the Chinese.

Then there are the stories of the wild early teaching days at MIT. But far more importantly, that late 1960s era produced radical experiments in sync-sound and Super-8 cameras, conducted by Ricky and Ed Pincus. Although never much used, this elaborate contraption is typical of Ricky's constant quest to create new ways to capture moving image and sound. Many people who went on to shape their own film histories studied with Ricky there, including Ross McElwee, Mira Nair and Richard Pena. And there are dozens like Joan Churchill, who learned from him on location in films like Monterey Pop (1968). Ricky was also, of course, a participant in the Flaherty Film Seminars, those myth-shrouded documentary marathons first organized by Frances. He remained on the faculty of MIT until 1989. 

Much later, the career tributes were fast and furiously being staged, for it seemed that every organization had to do one, and everyone was not so secretly afraid Ricky might die before they got to bestow an honor.

 Ricky died without owning his work, except the later films made while living in France. This makes the publication of his autobiographical book/DVD problematic and expensive. But every film he made was in some part his. Film is almost always collaborative, and none more so than America's early cinema vérité. Documentary is forever sorting out who gets credit for what, and perhaps that is how it should be. 

We know that Ricky died on Wednesday, March 23, in a most beautiful way. He was home in Paris. A few nights before, Anne and Bob Drew, DA Pennebaker, Ricky's daughter Victoria, and others were gathered in New York to celebrate the Drew Associates film Mooney vs Fowley. Of course, there was a great deal of talk and laughter about Ricky. He was scheduled to do a seminar at the Pompidou Center in Paris on Friday, and hopes were high that he would be there. He was completing work on a new kind of autobiography. And most importantly, according to friends, he slipped away quietly, holding the hand of his beloved long-time partner in life and work, Valerie LaLonde. She attended the event at the Pompidou in his stead. All who know Valerie cherish her for her talent and generosity, and also as the woman who kept Ricky with us for so long.

Documentarians will all die, but few of us will leave lasting work, made with such innovation and artistry. More of us must have his stamina, will and heart to share love and respect for the documentary process. Those of us who knew him were lucky, but the films, here for everyone, are the truly lasting gift of Ricky Leacock.

--Betsy A. McLane, Ph.D.
Director Emeritus, International Documentary Association; author, A New History of Documentary Film.

 

Richard Leacock pioneered the capturing of real life on film. It was a dance--the footwork, the hand-eye talent to capture, the facility and endurance and emotion to make the images speak.  All so busy that a lifetime could go by. All so brilliant that Richard Leacock--guiding spirit, choreographer and principal dancer--will be honored as long as the dance goes on.  

--Robert Drew
> Drew Associates

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In the forefront of the direct cinema movement, Ricky was a true believer and model practitioner. I can see him now, a kindly face, a great sense of humor, a cameraman immediately to be trusted. Equally important is the image I have of his hand on the lens, cradling it in such a way that you knew he knew how to take care of the person he was filming.

--Albert Maysles
Maysles Films

 

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The first time I saw the name Richard Leacock was after I watched Toby and the Tall Corn, a film he made for Omnibus in the mid-'50s. I had no idea who he was, but when I saw that film, I remember thinking, "Whoever he is, he's done it. He's got people talking to each other; he's turned home movies into theater."

Several years later, we actually did meet and worked together on the Loops films commissioned for the Brussels World Fair. This led to a partnership with Shirley Clarke and Willard Van Dyke and eventually our alliance with Bob Drew at Time-Life. Ricky's success in making Toby the kind of film I dreamed of making was not easily come by. He used heavy studio cameras and tape recorders but somehow made documentary footage about a real-life story seem like a theatrical fiction drama. With Drew, we set out to make portable camera rigs that we could carry on airplanes, jump into cars with to follow our characters wherever they'd go. And when, after months of experimentation, the problems got solved, the incredible era of cinema vérité, direct cinema, fly-on-the-wall--whatever you called it--filmmaking began. For Ricky, an admitted elitist, it was none of these things. He was simply using the camera for the inspirational purpose of "being there."  And "there" was where theater took place, with characters who talked to each other and told stories.

This has been my life ever since, and I sometimes wonder at the chance of it: That a man I'd never met who surprised me one day with a film, the manner of it a mystery I would engage my life in solving, would become my teacher and, in a way, my father.

--DA Pennebaker
Pennebaker-Hegedus Films

 

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I met Ricky early in my filmmaking life, at the MIT Film Section. He was open to people in the most spontaneous way: Jump in the car, we're shooting; come over, I'm making dinner. The things he responded to in film were about freedom: Let's cast off the restraints (of story, of exposition, of tripods) and just experience the world. Ricky's teaching wasn't in a classic, professorial style, but he did impart his restless feeling that spontaneity counted above most everything else. Ricky lived in a very public way, opening up his life and exposing his vulnerabilities. I think Happy Mother's Day, which he made with Joyce Chopra, is my favorite of his films. It has the deadpan irony of this aristocratic Brit let loose in America's heartland--but it's never unfair. Knowing Ricky when I did, and his support for what I was doing, had a huge impact on my career. Years ago in a bookstore, I came across that old Reader's Digest column, "My Most Unforgettable Character."  I remember thinking: In my life? Ricky.

--Steven Ascher
West City Films

 

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During his tenure as professor at the MIT Film Section, Ricky Leacock seldom professed. His films did the professing for him, and stood as an example for us, his students.  Ricky was too antsy to sit at an editing table with a student and suggest different strategies for editing. He did not work from any syllabus, and seemed, in many ways, ill-suited for the classroom. In fact, his own documentary work served as a manifesto for getting out of the classroom, out of the television studio, out of academia and into the world itself-preferably with a movie camera on your shoulder. I remember Ricky telling my fellow grad student Michel Negroponte and me to leave MIT and not to come back until we had a movie. We did just that, spending a month in Cape Canaveral where we shot the first installment of our documentary, Space Coast.   

Ricky's enduring lesson to me--and I am sure to dozens of his students--was to take risks, make up your own rules, expect the unexpected as you film, and stay open to the complex possibilities of real life as it unfolds around you. Many of us took what was useful from cinema vérité--the movement that Ricky and others had founded in the 1960s-discarded the rest, and created our own approaches to filming the world. This was totally in keeping with Ricky's way of making films: Find your own way of filming, sponsors and funders be damned.

He was cheerfully irreverent, a gifted chef, an unapologetic womanizer, a bon vivant with little spending money in his pocket.  (He dubbed the source of his penury "ali-moan-y.") He loved long lunches at the F&T Diner around the corner from the MIT Film Section, where he would hold forth with anecdotes from his colorful career while flirting with the waitresses. He had friends in high places, but kept a large, grainy photograph of a desperately poor young woman--a frame enlargement from Yanqui, No! --on the wall of his office at MIT--just to remind him, and, I guess, his students, that there was another world out there. I remember him remarking, "When we filmed her, she was living under the foundation of a wooden house, like a dog. I wonder where she is now?"

Ricky will be missed. 

--Ross McElwee
Homemade Movies

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Ricky never took anything for granted, especially tradition. He was always inventing, and this seemed to delight his mischievous spirit. He encouraged his students--and I was one of them--to never aim the camera at the obvious. He insisted that we look beyond the edges of the frame to find the essence of an image because it was always lurking nearby. Ricky's passion and his spirit for the unexpected inspired a whole new generation of filmmakers. Those of us who knew him will never forget how lucky we are. 

--Michel Negroponte
Blackbridge Productions

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In 1979, I was a broke graduate student at Harvard, studying politics--mainly the politics of the American South and the impact of the civil rights movement. I was also the only person in my circle who owned a car, an old beat up Dodge Dart. My friend Tommy was getting his MFA in sculpture at MIT, and he'd been experimenting with a video camera he'd borrowed from MIT's tiny documentary filmmaking program. Late at night, I'd drive up and down Storrow Drive, along the Charles River, with Tommy hanging out the side window, taking what he described as art shots.But he also told me about this wild guy who ran the MIT film program, a Brit, supposedly famous for making documentaries. I'd in fact never watched a documentary I could remember, but Tommy said that this Leacock guy had worked on a film about George Wallace, told fabulous stories about making the film in Alabama, and maybe I should go and check him out.

A few days later, I took the Red Line subway a couple of stops to Kendell Square and hunted around for a while until I found the documentary program in a basement office. When I walked in, there was this white-haired guy sitting in the middle of the front office, hands flailing as he talked, mostly baiting everyone who worked there. When I introduced myself as someone studying the South, he launched into a series of stories about George Wallace, filming in the South as an expat Brit in the midst of the tension of the civil rights movement. And his stories were just hilarious. He went on and on and at some point, Ricky said that maybe I'd like to see the film they'd made about Wallace standing in the schoolhouse door, barring two black students from the University of Alabama back in 1963--Crisis.

We went upstairs and he put on an old 16mm print onto a projector. And I was transfixed. There was George Wallace walking around the governor's mansion, spouting off about the federal government, as his little daughter banged on a piano in presence of their African-American maid.  There was footage of him on the morning of his confrontation with federalized National Guard troops, talking to supports, getting into his car to drive to campus. And much to my amazement, there was footage from both sides of a phone call between Attorney General Bobby Kennedy, in his office in Washington, and his Assistant AG, Nick Katzenbach, just around the corner from that schoolhouse door, moments before the schoolhouse door stand. I think I turned to Ricky and said, "How did you do that!" And he just lit up and smiled.

All things considered, in hindsight, that afternoon with Ricky changed my life. Years later, I saw him in Paris. He was still a great storyteller, excited with the new digital technology, eager to show me a film he'd just finished about an Eastern bloc woman who'd aspired to be a singer in Cuba. Just wonderful and funny. Like him. Truly unforgettable.

--Paul Stekler
Chair, Radio-Television-Film
College of Communication
University of Texas at Austin

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