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DA Pennebaker: A Community Remembers

By Tom White

DA Pennebaker, speaking at an IDA Conversation series in November 2016. Photo: Laura Ahmed

In the week since the passing of DA Pennebaker, we have been honoring the great pioneer with social media posts, repurposed content, and recommendations for viewing from the prodigious Pennebaker Hegedus canon. And we’ve been reaching out to the friends who knew and loved him best.

By my lights, Pennebaker, along with his many great collaborators—from the merry band of groundbreakers at Drew Associates to his longtime co-conspirator in art and love, Chris Hegedus—produced a inspiring body of work that showed us America in action—from the odyssey of presidential campaigns to the magical mystery of the creative process. He came to the art form as an engineering major from Yale, and put that discipline to good use, working with Richard Leacock and Robert Drew to create the cinematic tools that would transform how we create and how we experience documentaries. But beyond his renown as an artist, he was a great teacher and mentor—generous with his wisdom, abundantly curious about the world, and openly enthusiastic about the new works by emerging filmmakers.

We thank the respondents below for sharing their reflections about Penny and the great gifts he and his collaborators left us—including his recipe for paella!

When I first met Penny in the early ’70s, he took me to his office in midtown Manhattan, where he had a screening room with an amazing sound system. He showed me a collection of footage about famous dead people, many of them musicians (Janis, Jimi, Otis), but also, there were the Kennedys, Norman Mailer, Germaine Greer, etc. He could pan the sound around with a joy stick to the many different speakers, and he delighted in playing “pilot.” Eventually this beautiful, intimate footage became films when Chris Hegedus came into Penny’s life.    

He was such a charmer—not only the Kennedys but even crusty Bob Dylan allowed Penny to be present with his camera. Penny liked to describe his approach to shooting as wanting to be perceived as a “friend in the room.” And that he was. He was so interested in people, so nonjudgmental, so engaging, nobody could resist him.  

In 1995, Alan Barker and I were shooting with Penny and JoJo (one of his eight kids). Penny and Chris were doing a film called Searching for Jimi Hendrix, and we were shooting musicians playing their favorite Hendrix song and then talking about what Jimi meant to them. We were filming Los Lobos, and then it was time for the interview…but Penny doesn’t do interviews! So the band quickly turned the tables and started asking Penny questions about Dylan, John and Yoko, David Bowie, Depeche Mode. Penny held forth happily for quite some time.  

His love of music shone in his choice of films, but he also had the most extraordinary collection of early 78 records, mostly jazz. They took pride of place in their living room, lining the wall. He would put on a record and listen with rapt attention. He had stories about all the musicians, many of whom he knew from his youth in Chicago or had filmed subsequently.

And then there was Penny the gourmet. Barzini’s grocery store was right around the corner from their office on W. 91st Street. Even after everyone begged him to stop walking to and from home and office, he insisted on making the journey to buy his forbidden pastries. And cheeses. And bomba rice for his famous paella. 

Here’s a snippet from his paella recipe:

Paella for 16 normal people, or 8 Pennebakers:

As rice takes on broth, and clams begin to bite at the air, add shrimps, chicken, chorizo, ham, hot sausage and with chaotic charm strew the emerging paella with artichokes, olives, capers, pimentos, and anything else you need to get rid of, ending ultimately with the baby peas, which should not get too cooked. Stomp around with big spoon, or end of a broomstick. Don’t stir. Just stomp at it. Cover with aluminum foil and let sit for an hour.

To a long and wondrous amazing life. RIP Penny. Or as Chris Hegedus wrote: “As many of you know, he was obsessed with how the universe began. Hopefully he’s somewhere figuring it out now.”

—Joan Churchill (Filmmaker/Cinematographer—Down from the Mountain; Searching for Jimi Hendrix)


His number was in the phonebook. He picked up the phone. "Come on over," he said. And our lives were changed forever. He was artist and teacher both. That very first day, he taught us to enter the room as human beings, not as a bunch of people with a camera—folks with a job to do, just like the people we were filming. But he also warned us that ours would become the outlaw's life. "You gotta travel light and always be ready to make a run for it," he said. "You need a bank robber's mentality." He taught us that truth reveals itself over and over again, that cinema can render the most personal mythic. "This one belongs in a movie theater," he'd say again and again. And he knew this truth and preached it through his every action: Trust was the most valuable commodity between subject and filmmaker; trust was all. When we went to visit James Carville to ask him to be in The War Room, he turned to Penny and said, "Why would I say yes?" "That's up to you," Penny said. Within hours we were back in the War Room, filming for good. Penny knew: The story belongs to the subject, not to the filmmakers. The liberation was mind-blowing. One day late in the process, I asked for career advice. "Make a movie," he said. "Wake up screaming in the middle of the night. Then you'll be a filmmaker.” And he always showed up. Premieres. Festivals. Opening weekend at his beloved Film Forum. Penny came to see his friends’ work. Always, there with that twinkle in his eye that called out, “Comrade!” There he was, ready to stay up late talking about the film, telling tales, drinking, dining, laughing. Not too long ago, I asked him about getting around at a certain age. "The secret,” he said, "is watching your step.” Hardly a day goes by that I don’t think about that one. How best to celebrate this great man's work and memory? By treating yourself to one of his masterworks. Do it soon; I promise you won't be sorry. Give a watch to Original Cast Album: Company, to Dont Look Back, to Monterey Pop, to any of the others. See his extraordinary collaborations with his wife and the love of his life, Chris Hegedus: Kings of Pastry, Moon Over Broadway, and yes, The War Room, and so many many more. Watch as many of them as you can. It's as great a way to celebrate his life—indeed, life itself—as any I can imagine.

—R.J. Cutler (Producer, The War Room)


The confounding thing about entering the enclave known as Pennebaker Hegedus films in 1991 was the nature of the place itself.

We had done our due diligence and landed at their doorstep after a request and a “sure, come on over” call, and there we were, theater background in hand, and a dream to do a film about what was shaping out to be a lively three-party presidential race. Of course R.J. [Cutler] and I had seen Primary, Crisis and Company, and been in awe of Penny’s work, but the world, the cocoon he had spun around himself, was extraordinary.

First of all, in my experience, there was never just Penny; it was always Penny and Chris and Frazer upstairs in his office—whose office, like theirs downstairs, was filled with memorabilia, posters, kids’ drawings and awards. The editing room was upstairs, too, with a commanding looking Steenbeck and someone always in the middle of a project, looking up and saying, “When you get a moment let me know what you think.” Downstairs there was Nick Doob, the incredible DP/director, and Davis Dawkins, the soundperson...I felt I had stumbled into a slightly dysfunctional, brilliant, long-lost family. 

It was this crazy, bohemian style, slightly magical working space. It gave the name “home office” a literal feel. When we first visited, it was everything I'd imagined a documentary filmmakers lair to be. There were shelves filled with film canisters and VHS tapes. There were posters of Dont Look Back and Monterey Pop on the walls. There was a comfortably worn sofa to sink into while watching a rough cut on a giant TV screen. There were family pictures and shots of musicians; some items were framed, others were not. It was an incredible mish-mash of a mad genius' life full of curiosity, history and accolades, and it was all reflected in this room. 

Meeting Penny for the first time as we pitched our idea, he assumed his listening stance, one that is so familiar to those who spent time with him. He leaned back in his black leather swivel chair, glasses perched precariously on his ever youthful crop of hair, his eyes would close and he would muse. His lips might curl up a bit, and you waited. Then he would say something simple like, “Why not?” or, “What do you think, Chris?” before laying out an array of possibilities that could come of the idea, or he'd somehow connect filmmaking to a book he had read on Chaos Theory. Out the back door was an arbor/trellis with vines draping over for shade. It was there for years where we would throw together mini-feasts. I would shop at the Broadway Farm around the corner and add to whatever they had stocked or the Thai take-out that was a favorite. Upstairs the Steenbecks were busy, his son Jojo might be assembling a camera, his daughter Chelsea would be cutting and pasting press.

Penny was a fantastic engineer, a brilliant filmmaker to be sure, but what I saw—after years working with Penny and Chris and Frazer and Jo Jo and Chelsea, with Kit and Jane running around the office—was a man who was so clever he had managed to have it all. His family worked side by side with him, as if growing up and making films and meals together as a family were inextricably linked, and in Chris, he found his life partner to love, to deeply collaborate with, to squabble with over opening sequences and fair use music. It was an incredible privilege to watch this kind of negotiating, keen creative minds crafting films together. 

I miss Penny. I last saw him about a month ago, I think at the Metrograph. He and Chris were there supporting yet another filmmaker’s work. I was so lucky to stumble into their universe, I learned that patience counts for much, as THE moment may come when you least expect it; trust your gut; and family is everything. 

—Wendy Ettinger (Executive Producer/Producer, The War Room; Producer, Moon Over Broadway; Consulting Producer, Al Franken: God Spoke; Executive Producer/Producer, The Return of The War Room)


Oh, no, dear Penny, you have given us immeasurable gifts. I'll always treasure bringing Kings of Pastry to POV and how much you taught us all. You leave behind many symphonies of film, and we are all richer for that. As you said, "The very nature of film is musical, because it uses time as a basis for its energy. It needs to go from here to there, whereas pictures and paintings are just there. With movies, you’re putting something together that’s not going to be totally comprehensible until the end. It’s the concept of the novel and the sonnet—you need to get to the end, to see if you like it and decide what it’s about. With stills, there’s always the same instant, frozen and beguiling, but lifeless. A single note. With film, the moment doesn’t hold—it rushes by, and you must deal with it like you do music and real life.”

—Simon Kilmurry (Executive Producer, Kings of Pastry)


On August1, 2019, I lost someone irreplaceable in my life, my friend and inspiration DA Pennebaker. Penny was one of the first filmmakers to ever really support me. I remember being a very young and very nervous first-time director coming to his office for a screening of Harlan County USA. He had offered to bring his friends in the industry there to see it, people I so respected and revered. I have never forgotten his incredible generosity in doing that, using his position to advocate for me, a young unknown filmmaker, and to amplify the hopes for my unknown film. That was Penny. A few years later, he, Fred Wiseman and I were serving together on the first jury for Sundance. I soon came to know the love of his life and his greatest collaborator, the wonderful Chris Hegedus, an absolute joy to spend time with. Whenever I saw them, Penny would embrace me and we would talk endlessly about film and life and everything in between. He had such enthusiasm for all of it. Over the rest of his life, he and Chris made a point of showing up to screenings of almost every film I ever made.  This kind of graciousness and love and support has meant everything to me. Even if you never knew Penny, you can come to know him now through his incredible movies. The first time I saw his Bob Dylan film Dont Look Back, I thought it was just about the coolest thing I had ever seen.  That movie and Monterey Pop were two that helped spark my passion to spend my life telling true stories that excite me.  Many of his films over the years, from The War Room to one of his last, Unlocking the Cage, hit me like a punch in the stomach. They reminded me of just how close an audience can be brought to the subject of a film, how along-for-the-ride and visceral it could be, and how much energy and joy could come out of the screen and into our hearts. Unlocking the Cage in 2016 really put Penne’s compassion on display, going beyond human people to animal people too! I am sad that my friend is gone. I will miss him dearly. In this moment, though, I am also overwhelmed with a feeling that is hard to describe, one of great privilege in having felt this incredible person’s presence in my life. That presence I will continue to feel always.

—Barbara Kopple (Director/Producer, Harlan County USA)


I worked at Leacock-Pennebaker when I was just starting out in 1968, and it was an amazing place to start out. When the elevator pinged and the door opened, you never knew who would step out. Norman Mailer, then in his filmmaking period, might arrive to look at a cut; Henri Langlois, director of the Cinémathèque Française, would drop by whenever he was in New York. And Jean-Luc Godard was there for weeks making the film 1 AM with them. Heady stuff for a 22-year-old. But the thing I also remember clearly, today, is stepping off the elevator myself, looking down the long corridor in the office and seeing Penny hunched over the workbench in the workshop, just noodling, making things. I think at the time he was working with the camera batteries, trying to get more long-lasting juice out of them. 

I learned so much during the year and a half I worked there, because at Leacock-Pennebaker, Inc. we all did everything. I mixed the sound for their short films in the small screening room they had, I “took” sound on shoots, I cut the negative for finished films and I was given opportunities to cut myself. Penny was generous in many, many ways, and always direct. “Well, I needed a camera” he once said. “There was no camera that would do what I wanted, so you had to make a camera that would.” And so he did. And then, of course, he made many, many films….  

—Mary Lampson (Assistant Editor, Monterey Pop; Sound, Town Bloody Hall)


Penny wanted little recognition and needed no assurances.

He wanted the film to belong to the subjects. He never got in the way of a story.

He was a bear of a fellow with the heart of a dove. 

To work with him was the key to self-effacement and a recognition that true talent needs no phony embraces from the crowd.

He is the end of the vérité group of silent truth-tellers.

Penny, you are forever as we remember and forever sorely missed.

—Sheila Nevins (Executive Producer, Elaine Stritch at Liberty; Addiction; Unlocking the Cage)


Penny embodied the wisdom of an old soul and the wonder of a child seeing the world in a way you never imagined. It was infectious to be around. Everywhere they went, Penny and his soulmate Chris Hegedus, touched people with their work, and their love.

Meeting Penny and Chris 20 years ago changed my life. I went to see the 'Legends of Vérité  Filmmaking' in their brownstone office on the Upper West Side. We were going to talk about the making of the film that would become

Chris and Penny had been looking to make a film about the dot-com craze, and I had been filming my roommate starting his internet company. Penny invited me back to their offices to talk about whether we might work together. I was a bit afraid. It was an incredible opportunity to potentially make a film with these icons, but I was not sure what use I could be to them!

Penny sat me down and said, "Listen, you will make a film and it will be great, and we will make a film and it will be great—or we can make a film together, have a partnership, and it will be a lot more fun!"

I was speechless at their generosity of spirit. "Now let me show you one of my favorite films—it's called Victoria." I had of course seen and admired The War Room, Dont Look Back and other works, but I had never even heard of Victoria. I was embarrassed. He played this enchanting little film about a musician and at the end I apologized for my ignorance. Laughing, he pointed to the hundreds of copies of films that lined the shelves, and said, "Oh, don’t worry about it. Half of these films no one has ever seen; that doesn't make me love them any less!" Penny would do that—continue to express the value of craft over commercial success—and it was absolutely freeing.

This began a relationship with Chris and Penny that would shape my life in innumerable ways. Over the two decades that followed, I had the privilege of witnessing, in their union, what it meant to live with a creative partner—making films, friends and children together, dreaming of the world, and going on filmmaking adventures. As Chris would put it, "Uniting in every shoot, getting divorced in every edit, and then getting back together again."

I fell in love with this Pennebaker-Hegedus tribe and my old friends started to call me "Jehanebaker” as I disappeared into their brownstone for work, went for walks with Bix their dog, and enjoyed delicious dinners that Penny and Chris would cook at the end of the day. They made me feel a part of their big and bighearted family. Thank you, Chris, Jane, Kit, Jojo, Chelsea, Zoe, Fraser, Linley, Stacy…

A couple months after we had started shooting, Ricky Leacock (Penny’s best friend) stopped by the office and looked at some of the footage. When I got there, Penny lightheartedly relayed Ricky’s feedback: I was too short to shoot the film, and every scene would be a view up the characters' nostrils! He was not wrong. Penny and Chris graciously chose to ignore his reservations about my camerawork, and we continued the ride together. I was to learn that this defiant optimism was an integral part of his philosophy.

I recall sitting in the edit room with Penny studying a shot that I filmed out of the car window in the rain, considering whether to use it. "Crap, I made a mistake; the shot moves in a weird way; we can't put it in," I said. "No, no, no! It's the most perfect mistake! It is just right for this scene." Penny replied. He loved the perfect mistake, the happy accident.

Just like the vérité films that Chris and Penny made—going with the flow of life with no guarantee of how things would turn out—conversations with them would begin somewhere and arrive someplace utterly unexpected. They had a dizzying range of interests that could range from where to find the best apple pie, to Faith Hubley's work, to Vermeer's paintings, String Theory and Schopenhaur's philosophy on love.

I remember seeing Penny right after the summer I fell in love. He looked at my face as I was telling him about it and started yelling excitedly, "You have been Schoped! You have been Schoped!" "What??" I asked. He went to his bookshelf and handed me Schopenhaur's The Metaphysics of Love. "Read it, you will understand everything," he said.

Speaking of love, his and Chris' relationship was true and destined. My dear friend Orwa Nyrabia just shared a conversation with Penny that perfectly describes this. "It's hard making documentary films. You’ve spent your whole life doing that. How do you manage?" Orwa asked. "It's like taking a trip around the world in a broken car. All you can do is make sure you have a great companion," Penny answered with a smile looking towards Chris in the front row of the cinema.

After experiencing the beauty of their bond firsthand, I could not imagine living, loving or creating any other way. Just as a good film might offer a new way of seeing, their lives presented a luminous way of being.

Back to the filmmaking…After a few months on, they invited me to join their filmmaking family to shoot Only the Strong Survive and Down from the Mountain with them. In the years that followed, I cherished their advice and turned to them for every major decision, from making films to making babies. I will never forget what Penny told me after showing a rough cut of my film Control Room: "Wow! I felt like my hometown of Chicago was being bombed," he said. "But the edit is still messy, the arc is a bit lopsided, it needs more work," I protested. "Look, Jehane, if Jesus had a broken leg, he would still be Jesus—right?" This was mentorship, the kind I encourage every filmmaker to seek.

Penny and Chris gave of themselves wholeheartedly to young filmmakers in the US and around the world, unlike anyone of their stature and experience. When I tagged along on a trip to Syria for a retrospective of their films, I was moved to see the time and care they took with every filmmaker, honoring their potential. The thing that made Penny a great filmmaker is the same thing that made him a great person: He was patient, genuinely curious about people and completely immersed in the moment. When you were with him, that is exactly where you were.

When I got the news of Penny’s death, my heart broke. Even at the age of 94, it felt too soon. Then I began to realize that his voice would live forever in my head. When it is elusive, I ask myself: What would Penny say? Countless times, I have been stuck or questioning and reached out to Chris and Penny, to leave with a deep clarity of motivation.

As I arrived at the airport, soon after hearing the news, I was staring into space thinking: What would Penny say right now, to everyone in shock about his passing, with no time for a hug goodbye? Suddenly, Chelsea Pennebaker, his firecracker, ukulele-playing daughter whom I adore, appeared before me and we hugged for a long time. It was if he had answered and I got to hug a little piece of him.

Not wanting to lose the sound of his voice, I have been reading and playing old recordings. In an episode of Fresh Air (that his daughter Jane posted), Terry Gross says, "There must be a moment in your career when you think back and think to yourself, Why wasn’t the camera running when that happened?" Pennebaker replies, "No …That's the wrong thing to worry about…In the end, you know you're going to miss 90 percent, anyhow. I mean, movies are made with 10 percent of what happened. But that's better than no percent, which is what generally people get.”

Bless you, Penny, for unstintingly sharing your wisdom. I am deeply thankful for the life-altering percent of time I was able to spend with you. It defies logic that you were making films, writing a memoir and gracing those same long dinners still at 94.

Thank you, Chris and the Pennebaker tribe, for sharing your soulmate, father, grandfather and brilliant, quirky, twinkly-eyed guiding light in the way that you have. The world is a much brighter place because of him.


—Jehane Noujaim (Director/Producer/Cinematographer/Editor,; Cinematographer, Down from the Mountain; Cinematographer, Only the Strong Survive)