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A Modern-Day Master & Apprentice: The Collaboration Between Ricky Leacock and Valerie Lalonde

By Richard Wormser

Valerie Lalonde and artistic/life partner Richard Leacock

Ricky Leacock tells the following story about Robert Flaherty: "Flaherty was filming in the Arctic when he saw a man carving a piece of wood. He asked the man what he was carving. The man replied, 'I don't know. I got to find it.'"

The anecdote encapsulates Leacock's philosophy of documentary filmmaking, an approach that was partially molded in the crucible of his experiences as Flaherty's cameraman on Louisiana Story. "I never worked with anyone who had an understanding of film like Flaherty," Leacock says. "He taught me how to look. Before then, everything was controlled. Most filmmakers would have been shocked to find out that we were depending upon chance that we would find something. To them, the whole essence of art was control. Flaherty was the opposite of this. He believed you were always looking for something. You don't know quite what it is until you 'find it' on the screen."

Now 83, Leacock still remains one of the foremost practitioners of "direct cinema," a style he was instrumental in developing both technically and creatively with Robert Drew, DA Pennebaker and Albert Maysles in the late 1950s. Leacock explains that his mission was to enable filmmakers to capture a sense of "being there" as life was unfolding in all its spontaneity and immediacy. He was not primarily interested in narrative-driven films but in filming sequences that were complete in their own right without being a part of a larger story.

In 1988, Leacock moved to France . "I went to Paris because I thought they understood what I was trying to do," Leacock explains. "Especially Henry Langlois and the Cinemathque. I screened Primary [the 1961 film by Drew Associates about the Democratic presidential primary campaign between John F. Kennedy and Hubert H. Humphrey] and after it was over, Langlois stood up and said this is the most important film made since Lumière." Leacock remembers that after the screening a monk told him, "You have invented a new form of film. Now you must invent a new grammar."

In 1989 Leacock met Valerie Lalonde, his partner and collaborator for the past 15 years. Lalonde had studied classical literature in France , and had built her perfume company until, she says, "I got bored with the business side of perfume." She sold her factory and eventually studied drawing at the Musée des Arts. "I had thought about making films, particularly of capturing spontaneity on film, but a number of filmmakers whose work I respected told me it was impossible to capture it on film. Things had to be set up, they said. It was not until I met Ricky years later that I realized he was doing exactly what I had thought of."

Before meeting Leacock, Lalonde was also trying to capture life on the streets directly as an artist. " I was practicing sketching people in streets and câfés," Lalonde relates. "Ricky had this little camera with him and he seemed to be doing the same thing, but I felt his way was more appropriate than my pencil."

Lalonde and Leacock began working together. "I inched my way in gradually," she says. She observed him shooting and editing, and made herself useful wherever she could. "It was a remake of the medieval method of master and apprentice. I needed a master I admired. Not only did I admire this one, but also I fell in love with him and he with me." Thus began their partnership and collaboration.

Lalonde's first film project with Leacock was Les Oeufs la Coquede Richard Leacock, which means "soft-boiled eggs" in French. Leacock and Lalonde describe Oeufs as a film about "nothing in particular. We never asked people to do anything." Lalonde explains. "Except occasionally we would ask a friend to eat a soft-boiled egg. The film contains scenes of French men and women going about their daily lives, fishing, drinking and talking in a bar, and young women shopping for clothes intercut with someone eating a soft-boiled egg."

After Oeufs, Leacock and Lalonde made a number of films together, including Hooray We're Fifty, a chronicle of Leacock's 50th reunion at Harvard University; A Hole in the Sea, about life on both sides of the new tunnel that connects England and France; and a rehearsal of John Webster's Elizabethan tragedy The Duchess of Malfi. When shooting, Lalonde and Leacock tend to complement each other's camera work. "Ricky tends to be a little conservative to make sure he covers everything," Lalonde says. "Thus, I can take all the risks I want and capture little things and do difficult shots." Leacock adds, "We have a rule that at the end of a day's shooting, we look at the rushes and make separate notes. If we don't agree, then we try out each other's ideas and look at it together. For us the joy of working together is what it's about. If it isn't fun, why do it?"

Lalonde also makes her own films. "Once, when he was away, I bought a second-hand video camera and practiced and practiced and practiced," she recalls. Her first solo film was a portrait of an art gallery that exhibited the collection of Marie Laure Noailles, an ardent support of the surrealists and other great artists of the 1920s and '30s. "I wanted to show the maestro he had done the right thing as taking me as his apprentice," she explains. "We both loved the film, so all was well."

Today, Leacock and Lalonde make their own low-budget films using mini-DV cameras. They are thoroughly disillusioned with television, which they feel has completely succumbed to the idols of the marketplace. "The two of us were very lucky when we did the egg film," Lalonde says. "We had carte blanche and no deadline. And the French were very happy to produce a Leacock film. They were very generous and they didn't know what the film was about at all. Today that is no longer possible; television has so changed."

A former Marxist, Leacock notes with irony, "Lenin used to say that we should make films for the masses. And that's what I've concluded that television's doing. It's not just in America; it's international. I don't want to make films for the masses. I want to make films for intelligent, perceptive people." He and Lalonde are planning to distribute their films themselves on DVD over the Internet.

Today, Leacock has one foot in the past and one in the future. In addition to planning new work with Lalonde, he is presently writing his memoirs and planning to produce a set of DVDs that will contain samples of his films and other memorabilia from his remarkable career that began 70 years ago on his father's banana plantation in the Canary Islands. A now long-forgotten Russian film, Turksib, inspired him at the age of 14 to make an eight-minute silent film, appropriately called Canary Island Bananas. "Of my 93 films, it is the only one that I own the rights to," he laughs.

Having pioneered the use of hand-held, small-format cameras in his work with Drew Associates in the 1950s and '60s and in his subsequent years teaching film at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Leacock is extremely pleased with the new digital equipment. Although he has yet to switch to computerized editing (Lalonde has), he considers mini-DV technology a "godsend," believing it offers the possibility of fulfilling Flaherty's prophecy, made in 1925,  that film would one day be made by amateurs. Leacock interprets this to mean, "Films would be made by people who loved the art, the act of filming; who loved creating sequences that did justice to their subjects, that conveyed an exquisite sense of being there."


Richard Wormser has written, produced and directed over 100 programs for television, educational institutions and government. He was the originator, series producer and co-director/writer of the award-winning PBS series The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow (2002), the story of the African-American struggle for freedom during the era of segregation, 1880-1954.