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Career Achievement Award: DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus

By Shelley Gabert

Chris Hegedus and DA Pennebaker, 2005 IDA Career Achievement Award honorees

Tracy and Hepburn, Bogart and Bacall... There are some partnerships where it's difficult to consider one without the other, so indelible are their entwined identities. The same is true of filmmakers DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, whose 30-year collaboration has yielded many award-winning documentaries and advanced the cinéma vérité filmmaking style to capture historical moments and movements in music, entertainment and politics.

 "I sort of feel like making films is like trying to have children in that you desperately need a partner," says Pennebaker. "I've had other partners and collaborators like Ricky [Richard Leacock], but when Chris came bounding into our operation, I knew she was it."

Hegedus began her career as a cinematographer for the University of Michigan Hospital. She moved to New York City in 1975, and was director of photography on Lizzie Borden's Born In Flames. Hegedus had originally called on Robert Drew, but he didn't have any positions open so he sent her to meet with Pennebaker. That was in 1977 and by then Pennebaker had been making films for 20 years, with such works as Dont Look Back (1967) and Monterey Pop (1969) having earned their places in the documentary firmament.

While at Drew Associates, Pennebaker had helped develop the first fully portable 16mm synchronized camera and sound system, which was a turning point in the nonfiction film world. He, along with Leacock, Al Maysles and Terrence McCartney Filgate, worked with Drew (an editor at Life magazine who had formed Drew Associates in 1960) on such classic films as Crisis (1963) and Primary (1961), the latter of which followed John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey as they ran for the 1960 Democratic presidential nomination. The team, along with Hope Ryden, also made Jane, which focused on young Jane Fonda as she rehearses for her first acting role in a Broadway play--only to receive negative reviews.  

 "I had been inspired by films that Pennebaker had collaborated on at Drew Associates," Hedgeus recalls. "Seeing Jane was just fascinating to me and it really changed my life and made me focus on a different path.

"One of the things I admired about those early documentaries was that they were made without narration, and followed a real-life situation or person during a period in their life where they're doing something that means a lot to them," she continues. "The films were as developed in terms of story and character and as dramatic as a fiction film."

Smitten by the cinéma vérité style, Hegedus joined Pennebaker Associates. "Chris already had the ability to see what we were doing and why we made our films," says Pennebaker. "All she needed was to get her hands on the equipment." Their first project was Town Bloody Hall (1979), chronicling a debate held in April 1971 between Norman Mailer and Germaine Greer about the women's liberation movement. Pennebaker had already shot the documentary, and Hegedus edited it. But after that, they co-directed most of their films. In the field, initially he shot and she did sound, and they both edited. Eventually, they both did everything.

 "We never stuck to the idea of one person, one vote," Pennebaker explains. "We did whatever had to be done, and everyone knew how to do everything. Shooting and editing are so similar in what they require, so if you can do one you can do the other." 

 "Fiction films and even more so documentaries tend to be a very collaborative medium," Hegedus maintains. "There are many teams that are well known--Al and David Maysles, Alan and Susan Raymond, Nick Broomfield and Joan Churchill. The process just lends itself to that kind of situation. We've been able to work together for so long because we have a similar vision and a great respect for each other." 

While Hegedus is probably the more laid-back of the two, things do heat up most in the editing room. "When you're out shooting, you need each other; but when you're editing, that's the creative foundation," she says. "That's where things start happening, and we usually get divorced once during every film." 

In recent years, collaborating with Nick Doob, a member of Pennebaker-Hegedus Films, they've made Moon Over Broadway--a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the Broadway production Moon Over Buffalo, which The New York Times called the best documentary of 1998--and Down from the Mountain (2001)--a concert film with a number of celebrated bluegrass artists performing music featured in the Coen brothers' film O Brother, Where Art Thou?

"We're really moviemakers, and when there's an interesting story that contains truth for us--that has information that we think we need--we grab on to it for dear life," Pennebaker explains. In addition to documenting some of the most influential performers, politicians and musicians of our time, the pair has captured events that occur at significant times in history. In The War Room (1993), the filmmakers provide an intimate look of the inner workings of Bill Clinton's first presidential race through advisors James Carville, George Stephanopoulos and the rest of the campaign staff. The film received an Academy Award nomination.

 "When you have a child, he's bound to be president, but early on I knew The War Room was a theatrical film and a film that people will want to see," Pennebaker recalls. They had planned to cover the campaign in a totally different way--by following Clinton--but one day they found themselves sitting at a table listening to Carville, so they filmed him speaking to the staff. "We didn't even know he was running the campaign, but he was like this fireball and when you run into somebody like that, then you have to change everything you have in mind," Pennebaker says. "Most of the time, it's almost like ESP.

"We don't plan as a rule but usually the interview comes out of something while we're filming, often spur of the moment, and we figure out what that means and keep going," he explains. "When we found out who [Carville] was, we gave up on shooting Clinton because we knew we were going to get front parlor talk, but with George and James we could get under the porch and into the kitchen."

 "It's amazing when you can be at a certain place in history and feel like something happens, like you are documenting real-time events," says Hegedus. "When Penny did Monterey Pop, California was the place to be in the world. There's a little of that sense in the Clinton film too because there was so much hope in the country then and so many people who wanted a change in the administration."

When Hegedus did (2001), "I was also looking for what was happening in the world and here was this dot-com revolution," she recalls. She directed with Jehane Noujaim, and Pennebaker produced the film--which follows two friends who raise money to start a doomed dot-com company. The film earned the Directors Guild of America Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Documentary and an IDA Award for Distinguished Feature Film.

Pennebaker received the IDA Mentor Award in 2001, and he and Hegedus are the first couple--they married in 1982--to receive IDA's Career Achievement Award. "We're honored to be receiving the IDA Career Achievement Award because it means that somebody else has eaten your apple pie and thought it was great," Pennebaker remarks.

But he's not one to spend a lot of time looking back. "Picasso said you don't study your own work," he notes. "We make our films and once they're shown, they have to make their own way. If it can take on all comers and survive, that's pretty good. If it disappears overnight, we go on to the next thing."

Currently, Pennebaker is executive-producing Al Franken: Flaming Sword of Justice, which Doob and Hegedus are co-directing. The team also made Fox v. Franken, one in a four-part series entitled The First Amendment Project that aired on Court TV and the Sundance Channel in 2004 and is available on DVD.

"It's hard to remember how much change can occur in 40 or 50 years," Pennebaker observes. "It's kind of like someone wandered by and saw the Wright Brothers take off in their plane and said, ‘I want to do that,' but there's nothing to use except a 20-foot glider.

 "In those days, no one was really making independent documentary films because there was no place to show them," he continues. "But I did and I approached a film like a novelist or painter and I was young and full of beans and infused with a lot of energy."

 "Primary and Crisis are two of the most amazing political documentaries ever made," adds Hegedus. "Pennebaker and the other filmmakers had access to the presidency in ways that will never happen again."

"There are very few narrative films out of Hollywood that are going to survive, but they keep on being made, telling stories that have already been told so there's not a long life there," Pennebaker maintains. "But in the documentary world, when a film is focused on something that really happened that is part of our history, it remains relevant. And the good ones, well, they stay on forever."


Shelley Gabert is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer covering television and film. She previously wrote about Murderball for Documentary magazine.