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Pioneer Award--Mel Stuart: Mastering the Rhythm of the Real

By Tom White

What is a pioneer? We generally think of pioneers as explorers, innovators, trailblazers. People who open up new possibilities, new ways of thinking, seeing and doing. When Mel Stuart lit out for the media-making territory some 50 years ago, television had just begun to insinuate itself as an artistic medium that provided young filmmakers like Stuart with the opportunity to become pioneers.

Stuart's first artistic impulse lay not in the media arts, however, but in music, a discipline he followed while a student at Columbia University and New York University. He may have abandoned music as a possible career, but the discipline itself has never left him. "I think the deep-down, principle essence of movie-making is rhythm," says Stuart. "Especially in editing. My musical feelings and background have been of help in the pacing of a movie--knowing how long a cut should be and whether words should pop over to the next scene from the first scene. It's just a lightness that you see with good work. It's very essential in a motion picture art form, whether it be television or features, that that sense of rhythm--knowing when to cut is always there."

Fittingly, Stuart's initial foray into film was as an editor, at New York-based Ted Nemeth Studios, which produced commercials. Nemeth's wife, Mary Ellen Bute, had some renown as an experimental filmmaker, so it was the odd combination of editing commercials and experimental films that enabled Stuart to segue from music to film. Subsequent stints as a production supervisor in Miami and an acting coach in Los Angeles further broadened and deepened his education--and readied him for the next level.

He landed a job at NBC in New York, with the group that had produced Victory at Sea, the celebrated series about America's naval operations during World War II. The group, headed by Henry Salomon, had launched a new series called Project XX, which, with its predecessor, would set a standard for the history documentary on television. Documentarists had antecedents in the Path and March of Time newsreels, but television was an ideal medium for filmmakers to delve into the vast reservoirs of historic footage and create grand, sweeping novelistic works. Stuart was brought on both as an editor, and, most crucially, as a researcher.

"Television was a catalyst for all documentaries," Stuart maintains. "But there was a particular genre that came about that had never been done before. It was the brilliance of Harry Salomon, who said, 'Wait a second! Why don't we do the Russian revolution? Nazi Germany? The Jazz Age?' That started it because he had a market, some place to play it. If you did a documentary on the history of Nazi Germany, nobody would go to a theater to see it. But suddenly television was here; Victory at Sea had made its mark, and he said, 'Let's do more about the history of our times.'"

From NBC, Stuart migrated to CBS, where he continued as a film researcher for The 20th Century, a compilation history series hosted by Walter Cronkite--and developed a reputation for knowing where the footage was. Executive Producer Burton Benjamin gave Stuart his first opportunity to direct, assigning him to interview avant-garde artist Man Ray for Paris in the Twenties, an interview Stuart would use 40 years later in his Man Ray: Prophet of the Avant-Garde, which he made for PBS' American Masters. Incorporating interviews into the compilation history format was an innovation at the time--something that Project XX hadn't employed. "There was a technique which didn't use any interviews," Stuart recalls. "Nobody even thought of having a talking head. The whole thought was, these are documentaries. We're going to illustrate it with film, like the earlier documentaries--there wasn't a talking head in The River. We didn't have experts coming in and telling you all about it. You did it with film."

Following his tours with Solomon and Benjamin, Stuart joined up with another rising star in the television landscape--David Wolper, who had set up camp in Los Angeles. And soon Stuart landed his first directing job outside of historical retrospectives. Given his experiences in editing and research, the transition was remarkably easy: "I had seen so many films and had worked so long in the editing room that I knew every shot I wanted before I could look at a scene," Stuart recalls. "And I knew exactly how I wanted it broken down." Following aspiring Los Angeles Dodger Willie Davis from training camp to his first at-bat, Stuart employed a technique that few other documentarists had tried at the time. "I said, Why don't we get the guy to talk and use inner monologue? Somebody else might have been doing it, but nobody in the world I was brought up in was doing it--all those newsreels, you never heard the guy who was involved."

As the Wolper Organization gained renown on the West Coast, Drew Associates was staking its claim on the East Coast, and two distinct styles of documentary filmmaking for American television were emerging. "Though nobody made a statement about it, the statement was there," Stuart maintains. "There was a split between the East Coast and the West Coast. I'm not saying it was a conscious split, but the major documentary makers in the East--Bob Drew, DA Pennebaker, Al Maysles--were more interested in cinema vérité. They tried to be as true to the situation as possible, trying to capture the scene just the way it was. Out here in Hollywood, because we were so involved with retrospective, as well as live shooting shows, we felt that if we could do music, which we believed in, and sound effects and a narrative track and inner monologue, we would do it."

And both produced different ways of looking at history. While Drew Associates made Primary, which followed presidential candidate John F. Kennedy in the days leading up to the Wisconsin primary in 1960, Stuart directed The Making of the President 1960, which covered the whole presidential race. "They're both good," Stuart maintains about the films. "They both have a purpose, but I was more interested in the big scope of history. I still am."

As a coda, of sorts, to The Making of the President, which aired in early 1964, Stuart made Four Days in November(1965), about the Kennedy assassination. Stuart combined stock footage of the seminal events preceding and following that day with interviews with people who knew and worked with Lee Harvey Oswald. For example, Stuart takes viewers along with Oswald's neighbor as he follows the route he took when he drove Oswald to work that day, and relates what happened. "I decided it was so valuable to hear those people--the guy who drove him that day, the bus driver who took him from place to place, the woman who saw Oswald run in and get the gun," Stuart reflects. "I did a technique where I didn't recreate in the sense that I put Oswald in the car, driving to the book depository. Is it cinema vérité? No. Is it regular footage? No. It's somewhere in between, but that's what I like about making documentaries. I wanted you to see that route. You got a greater feeling than having a guy sit in a chair telling you about it."

This drive to animate his subjects would inform such work as George Plimpton and the New York Philharmonic (1968), where the host and the character became one, as Plimpton rehearses and performs with the orchestra, talks about his experience in doing so--and interviews other musicians.

In Stuart's Wattstax(1973), it was the dynamic presence of legendary comic Richard Pryor that turned what was originally a concert film featuring some of the greatest R&B artists of the day into a scintillating look at Black America in the early 1970s--complete with shrewdly hilarious commentary from Pryor, as well as reflections from the African American community. As Stuart related in an earlier interview with International Documentary, "What I wanted was somebody like the chorus in Shakespeare's Henry Vone voice that tells you what's going on.... The film is really in three parts--the concert, the voice of the people and the voice of Richard Pryor."

"Character is everything," Stuart maintains, on considering documentary subjects. "You should be able to tell if a character is going to come alive when on screen, if something's going to happen when the camera starts to roll."

With one of Stuarts' recent projects, a series on American poets, the challenges of finding a poet who can transcend a monastic life for a cinematic one, albeit temporarily, have been palpable. "The first reaction is, 'I'm a private person,'" Stuart says. "But if you talk to them, you start to joke, you reach that point where there's a simpatico on both sides and you go ahead and do it."

What has fueled Stuart through his 50-year, 150-film career has been a curiosity, a passion and an ever-growing need to push forward. With the expansion of the telecommunications universe, however, Stuart has seen a contraction in opportunity, or at least in the kind of freedom and respect afforded the individual artist.

"The advent of television was absolutely necessary to the growth of the documentary, but today, because of the 500 channels, documentaries aren't seen as much as when there were only three networks," Stuart observes. "They were playing documentaries as part of the programming. There's been pressure from the cable channels to interfere far more. People who are not able to make a movie are giving notes because they all want to be creative. And they're cutting it up and there's no credits and lousy pay. At least with the networks, if your documentary got on, you knew millions of people would see it. Not that having 750,000 or a million people see your documentary isn't an interesting thing to happen to you. But they shouldn't think that they're better off today than they were then."

Not that Stuart is ready to exit the stage. His current project, tentatively titled The Hobart Shakespearians, follows a teacher in South Central Los Angeles who is teaching his nine-year-old students to read and perform Shakespeare. "What this film is about is how you can take kids whose families don't even speak English--and it's an inner-city school--and how by assuming they're going to get it, they get it," Stuart notes. "[The teacher] assumes they're going to get it. And at the end of the year they're going to do Hamlet. I'm doing this to say that the way we're teaching kids may not be the best way, [but] his feeling is that if you can understand Shakespeare, you can understand anything."


Thomas White is editor of Documentary.


Mel Stuart--Select Filmography

  • Biography of a Rookie (1961)
  • D-Day (1962)
  • The Making of the President 1960, 1964, 1968 (1964, 1965, 1969)
  • Four Days in November (1965)
  • China: The Roots of Madness (1966)
  • The Secret Musical Life of George Plimpton (1968)
  • Wattstax (1973)
  • Life Goes to the Movies (1976)
  • Inside the KGB (1994)
  • AMERICAN MASTERS: Man Ray: Prophet of the Avant-Garde (1996)
  • AMERICAN MASTERS: Billy Wilde--The Human Comedy (1997)
  • AFI's 100 Years-100 Movies (1998)
  • Still Perfect--Twenty Memorable Photographs (2001)
  • John Ashbery: A Poet's View (2002)