There have been few more important moments in either the history of documentary film or the history of rock ’n’ roll than the release, of D. A. Pennebaker’s masterful Bob Dylan documentary, Dont Look Back (and yes, the omission of the apostrophe is intentional). To celebrate the 50th anniversary of that release, the Criterion Collection has come out with a fully restored version of the film, with all kinds of juicy bonus features. But the main event, of course, is the historic film itself, which somehow manages to seem as fresh today as it did five decades ago. Pennebaker, possibly the greatest living documentarian, sat down with Paste recently to discuss Dont Look Back, a few other of his films, and even the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump.
Paste: Tell me about first concepts for Dont Look Back.
Pennebaker: There was a book I had read by an English guy – can’t remember his name. He had collected all the letters to and from Lord Byron. And when Byron, because of his angry wife, who held the daughter — who incidentally interestingly enough invented the software for computers in the 1860s!
Pennebaker: Isn’t that interesting? And the reason she was able to do it was because the mother was so pissed at Byron was she wanted to be sure the daughter didn’t turn out to be a poet! (laughs) So she hired a math guy to teach her math. And it turns out she was a math genius. And she worked with a guy who invented a way of adding things with little gears. But in the course of it she figured out you could do much more than just add numbers. That’s what she devoted her life to. And in fact the whole concept of a computer is really more based on what she did than on what the other guy did.
Anyway, Byron had fled England with Shelley. He was very young you know, he wasn’t even 30. They took off and he had hired or gotten hold of a big carriage. A green carriage. And on the side they put his initials. And he went by Noel.
Pennebaker: So when they went roaring through France to Switzerland, people thought it was Napoléon Bonaparte! So everyone thought Bonaparte had come back! (laughs) They had the best time riding on that adventure! They finally got to Italy and they took up residence in this huge big compound. What was interesting was all the intellectuals all came down there to hang out. It was like San Francisco during the ’60s. They all came down to hang out with Byron. Here in the U.S. we were fighting Indians, so the struggle against Indians was a big excitement. So they even at one point had a row with the local cops and they pretended they were in a compound fighting Indians, shooting out the windows at them! (laughs)
But if I’d been there with a camera, and been able to film Byron and Shelley and the whole bit…people would still be looking at that film. Because everybody wants to know what was going on at that level of intellectual excitement. And I thought, when I started to do the Dylan thing, this is similar. People will be looking at this film not because it’s a good or bad film, but because Dylan has produced something interesting even 50 years from now. So, you know, I thought I was making a film for the future. More than Monterey or any of the others.
Paste: Because of the centrality of his figure and his significance.
Pennebaker: Yeah, yeah!
Paste: You know it’s interesting you say that because I looked at the original New York Times review…
Pennebaker: “In 50 years I won’t be interested in that!”
Paste: Yes! “The joke will be on us if in 50 years Bob Dylan is regarded as a major poet.” So I guess the joke is on the New York Times! (laughs)
Pennebaker: Well, it is curious what lasts and what doesn’t. Publishing empires and what not would pay anything to figure it out. But they can’t figure it out. And why you can’t is because you also have to take into consideration…it’s like…Trump now. Everybody can’t understand why Trump’s got the center of the stage. But boy I can. He’s saying these guys are all assholes!
Paste: Right! Right! Throw the bums out!
Pennebaker: And that’s kind of what lasts. Is somebody who’s willing to take that role. And can take it. Whatever it is. The savagery and the intellect. Dylan had that. I saw the poet more than I saw the musician. That’s why I sort of cut the music short and just listened to every conversation he had and filmed it. He used language in an interesting way. Not in an effective way necessarily, but in a way that you remember. It’s stuck in our head the way Byron’s poetry is. And I thought that was an interesting person to film, a person who was trying to figure out who he was. In effect, that’s what all poet’s struggle with.
Paste: It’s funny to me that you’ve struck on such an interesting interplay between what makes the marriage of you and Dylan – especially in 1965 for each of you – so interesting.
Pennebaker: Which was chance too!
Paste: Well let’s go back there for a second.
Pennebaker: Albert Grossman walked into the office. and said “I’ve come to see if you’d be interested in doing a film on my client Bob Dylan.” And Ricky says “Who’s Bob Dillon?” And Albert said “Maybe I’d better wait for your partner!” (laughs) So when I came back from lunch, there was Albert and he was all alone, and he said “I’m going to England with Bob Dylan.” I had maybe heard “The Times Are A-Changing” on the radio but I had no idea who Dylan was. No idea. I was out of the Village by then. But I had done a film with a musician. And I kind of liked the idea of filming musicians. I could like a musician, and know at the same time maybe nobody else maybe liked them much, or appreciated them. Like somebody like Jelly Roll.
Pennebaker: And I knew Alan, and I knew the book, and I knew something about Jelly Roll but I’d never met him. I had no idea what he was like. But I thought he would have been a good person to make a film about because he’s gonna live for a while. He’s started something that isn’t gonna stop. So when this thing happened, it was a musician and what I thought at the time was that Albert wanted me to make a music film that would promote his concert tour or something.
Paste: Along the lines of the Beatles films?
Pennebaker: Well they hadn’t been done yet!
Pennebaker: They hadn’t been done, because people had a problem with synced sound. We did the first synced sound concert, which was Monterey. Because up to then, there was no way to get cameras that were hand held and portable to get them synced. And that’s what we spent a couple of years, really building. It had that quality of theatre reads, which is dialogue. And up to then, it was all narration, which is not theatre. Narration is “I know more than you and you’re gonna listen.” So it’s sort of an interesting time because equipment played such a huge part. Which now people don’t understand because now you buy a camera and it’s all there.
Paste: Sure. Just press here, right?
Pennebaker: So when I got to England and started shooting Dylan – the dialogue interested me more than the music. So I set it up that I had a guy come with us – Bob van Dyke – he was doing music for us then. I had him come and record every concert on tape with a time code on it because we had figured out how to do that. We had a clock built into the recorder. So we had everything so anything I shot I would have it in sync. So I shot what seemed to be interesting from what I heard during the day or so before of his dialogue.
And that’s kind of how I did the film…but I didn’t really know what I was doing. I was just sort of following along, which is what you can do when you have this camera, is you can watch people. And be able to watch people and not tell them what to do or interfere with them is an enormous jump in filmmaking from what had been done before. Even in the documentary. The only person I think that I thought understood that was Flaherty. He just was willing to watch alligators all day long because he thought maybe alligators had some part in the film. But he didn’t tell you about it or wonder about it – he just did it.
Paste: He just did it. Well that’s what I was alluding to earlier was something so interesting to me and is certainly one of the goals of documentaries, certainly of verite, is to reveal. To capture and reveal. And Dylan at this point in ’65 seems like a lot of his persona is about concealing and constructing. And so it’s a fascinating collision of these two impulses.
Pennebaker: Yeah…Dylan wasn’t trying to do what he was doing…he wasn’t trying to do it the way I was trying to do the film. But he certainly had some parallel aspect. In a way, he helped make it happen. What was interesting was that a person could understand what you’re doing and you didn’t have to explain to them to make something additional happen that might not have. I was accepted into that group completely. I never had to interview. None of that construct ever appeared. And Dylan, that would’ve really bored him, the idea of explaining. You know, people saying, well ask him why he changed his name. (laughs) That’s not my business. You ask him.
Pennebaker: So in a way, it worked out that I learned a lot about how to make that kind of film. And I was learning all the time. And Dylan was learning about being watched. And that was interesting to him. Because everybody else didn’t watch him; they just sort of did whatever they thought he would have liked, to get along with him. The idea of anybody watching him didn’t occur to anybody. In a way it was like nobody watching Byron and the only thing we now have is his letters, but when you read the letters, wow…it’s just an amazing persona going along at full speed and people not recognizing his role.
Paste: It’s so interesting because the ’60s to me there’s so much of the British romanticism in the ’60s. That sort of Rousseauian wild spirit.
Pennebaker: I know! When I got there, one of the things I found fascinating was – and I had the idea of the concert and the god of the concert is the performer and the people who came to see him were so different than the people that came to see similar concerts here. They were in a sense much more mature. It interested me just watching them coming into the halls. It was like they were coming in to find out something they needed to know. Whereas most audiences here were just kids wanting to be where the excitement was.
Paste: What was it like editing the film? I mean, there’s not a traditional plot.
Pennebaker: I edited it myself. I did it in about three weeks; it was very easy to do. I didn’t have an editing machine. I had a fifty dollar viewer that you’d buy in a camera store. And then we had a synchronizer. When we did Primary, we took the film out of editing places in which the soundtrack was all optical. And it was recorded optically, usually, in the camera. Tape.
The very first thing I ever did, I was doing some work for the French Cultural Center. They wanted a little recording set up. And I got wire. A wire recorder. The wire came off spools, and to cut and edit, you tied it together in little square knots. Can you imagine? For about six months, that prevailed. And then somebody brought out quarter inch tape, and that prevailed. But you couldn’t do much with quarter inch tape; you couldn’t put it against the film.
But then out came a mag track. It had sprocket holes; it matched film. So you could lay it against the film. But there was no splicer to do it, nothing. There was a synchronizer that you could run it through, and then we made little blocks of wood with nails in them, for splicers. So for Primary, we had all these little homemade splicers. It was home movies! But what was cool was, Drew dug that. It didn’t bother him. I’d take lights sometimes to shoot something, and they’d be lights you’d get in a hardware store, or a five and ten. And people would say, “That’s not professional. This guy is bullshitting me.” But Drew was not that way at all.
But for Dont Look Back, the footage was all transferred in the order I shot it. I think the only thing out of sync was the stuff that the guy gave me that he’d shot in Greenville of Dylan singing for the group. And I just assembled it pretty much as I shot it, with the exception of that one thing I laid into the track. Editing it was very simple. I pretty much shot it the way I wanted it to look. I hadn’t overshot; I didn’t have a lot of concert stuff to go through. I remember thinking, it’s really easy to edit when you shoot this way. Later people saw different things in it, so they thought that maybe I had some profound insight when I edited it. But I didn’t; I just put it together the way I shot it.
Paste: Sometimes the film gods work with you, right?
Pennebaker: I know, I know. Now, Monterey was quite different. I had never really shot with a big crew before. Usually it was just me and another person, and that person did sound. And later, when we did Monterey, suddenly I’m going to have five or six people filming. The idea of hiring six cameramen – I couldn’t imagine how I was going to that. So I just took guys that had worked with us and gave them the cameras; by then we had made five cameras. And we were a little uncertain about how they’d all work, because they were homemade cameras. But they did all work.
Now, I had no idea how you directed this kind of thing. Every morning, we’d give film out to the five or six people shooting, and every night they’d give me what they’d shot. And I had no idea what they were shooting! But they were all into it in their own way, and I came to realize that that might actually be the best way to shoot a concert film. But at the time, I was really underwater. (laughs) But this idea of just turning people loose is terrific, if you really know the people. In 24 hours we’d run rushes, and everybody would come in to watch. Bringing in all kinds of drugs with them when they came! I was fearful that we’d get busted before we ever got a chance to finish the film.
Paste: When you finished editing Dont Look Back, what did Dylan think about it?
Pennebaker: He didn’t ever really say much. He sort of just accepted it, the way he does certain things. Once he called me up, when we still hadn’t released it. We had a 16mm print, and I had sent it to him. There’s one section where he’s working on a new song, although I didn’t know that. He was just banging on the piano, in a certain way that he did, which is not what you’d call stylized piano playing.
Paste: Not beautiful.
Pennebaker: Right. It’s more like someone who’s just come across the machine for the first time, and is just making noises with it. But you could tell that he was trying to figure out something by doing it. I had shot this whole session, and it lasted – I don’t know, I seemed like it lasted ten minutes. And I had cut it down a bit because I thought, maybe this isn’t for a general audience. So he called me up and said, “I just saw the new thing you sent me. I just wanted to ask you a question.” I said, “Yeah?” And he said, “Have you ever filmed a person writing a song before?” And I said, “Actually, no.” And that was the end of our conversation. And I put the whole thing back in.
Pennebaker: That’s the way we dealt with each other. He’d figure out what I knew and then it was up to me to figure out what to do with it.
Paste: That’s fantastic!
Pennebaker: Isn’t that incredible? I mean, that was the whole phone call.
Paste: The whole thing.
Pennebaker: There were probably other times that he was pissed off at me or thought we hadn’t done something right. But he never communicated it to me. Although, one time he came over to the office when we were in the hotel on 86th Street. We had a couple of steambacks there, and we could run the outtakes. And we were going to put the thing onto video, and he said, “Can’t we take out some of that drunken stuff at the end?” I said, “Well, we could take it out, alright, but I would probably be shot before I got out of the building. Because people, by now, that’s the film they want and you’re not going to change them.”
Now, at the time I was storing a piano for someone. It was an old Dresden piano, and it had two candelabras so you could read the music. And I said, “You know, if you’ll just forget about changing anything, I’ll give you that piano.” And he looked over at the piano for a minute, and I could see he was thinking, “Well, I could get a truck and we could move it out…” And then he turned to me and said, “I don’t need a fucking piano!”
Paste: One more piano!
Pennebaker: When we were at the end of Dont Look Back, we were at somebody’s house, and I gave him the camera and he shot a whole roll of film himself, just went around the place. And he said, “I don’t want anything to be in sync.” I said, “OK. It won’t be if you don’t have a Nagra with you, don’t worry.”
That was the big thing we kept worrying about, was sync. Sometimes, when nobody was there to do the Nagra, I’d just take it and put it in the middle of the floor, and put a mic on it, and just turn it on. All that stuff when they were singing with each other. But the Nagra was such a great machine, you could do that. You didn’t have to have a big crew of people, which is what people had come to think having a film made about them was. You move all the equipment and people and electric wires and everything. But you didn’t have to do any of that. You’d just sit there with the thing on your lap.
Paste: Less intrusive.
Pennebaker: Well, it made you something different; you were a person. You could talk to people, and look them in the eye. You didn’t have this thing to hide behind: “I’m making this film now.” You threw that away. When we did The War Room, that’s why James (Carville) let us in. We weren’t filmmaking; we were just sitting with him, listening to his stories. Eating popcorn and drinking beer. That’s what everyone did there. So we were just part of the group; we weren’t “the filmmakers.” And of course, they had no idea it was a movie that was going to play in theaters. You just couldn’t imagine – I mean, here were these homemade cameras.
Later, the University of Virginia said, “If you can get George (Stephanopolous) to come down, we’ll play it here and have a big opening. And I can get you a couple of chairs.” And I thought, “Documentary Chairs at the University of Virginia, holy shit! This is a big deal!” So I told George and James that they both had to do it. George sat right next to me, and had never seen the film. He laughed all the way through. And at the end, he said, “You know, Pennebaker, if I had known you were making that film, I never would have let you in the door!” And then, of course, the University sent a couple of wooden chairs, one of which you’re sitting in right now. Those were the chairs they had in mind.
Paste: Well Penny, this has been great talking to you about all of this.
Pennebaker: Thank you for coming. It interests me that people are interested in the film, not so much because I made it, or because it’s a good film, but because it’s a profound change because it’s so experiential. When we started to make these films, no one knew what to do with them. Television wasn’t interested. Movie theaters certainly weren’t interested. Everybody knew what movies were – they were these big, profoundly elegant things that were projected at the end of a big room and people watched them in the dark.
But now, this kind of filmmaking, where you take a camera anywhere you want to go, and you explore with the camera, has changed people’s views of film to the extent that it’s a type of language. I think one day it will be used as language, and films won’t be perceived of primarily as entertainment. It’s the way people will learn about the world, through what people they know have shot. And it’ll all be online. It’s so different from what anybody thought we were doing. Including ourselves!
In the beginning, we struggled a lot to have these films shown in theaters. It was impossible. But for us, it was absolutely essential to get critics to deal with them seriously, to get them into a theater.
I just knew from the start that what we were doing with these films was a good idea. And I knew it watching Flaherty’s film (Nanook of the North), before I even knew I was going to make films. That filming an Eskimo in the North Pole was a good idea, that people would remember that as long as they lived. And the idea that you could find someone like Dylan, who led a kind of Byronesque life in a way, you could just film that. You didn’t need an actor to play Dylan. You didn’t need any of that stuff. You could just do it. It was such a simple solution.
After I quit Life, which was a hard thing to do because I had a child, and we started making these things, we didn’t know what to do. If we had asked ourselves reasonably, “What the fuck are we doing here?” we’d have had to say “Let’s get out of here and go get jobs somewhere. But we didn’t. We stuck with it. And that was when Albert walked in. If he didn’t, I’m not sure what we’d have done.
After we got Dont Look Back done, I knew there was an audience for it. We’d do these little local screenings, and they’d be packed with people wanting to know who the fuck Dylan was. But when I talked to the people who did theatrical releases, they had no idea. They didn’t care who Dylan was. And I spent about a year trying to figure out how to get this film out of my hands and into some kind of theatrical release. And I got a call from a guy who said, “I’ve been told you have a film I need to see.” Have I ever told you this story?
Pennebaker: “Well, sure,” I said. I mean, I’d show it to anyone at that point. And he came around and looked at the film. This was when we had our place on 45th Street that had a pretty nice screening room. And he said, “This is exactly the kind of film I’ve been looking for. It looks like a porn film, but it’s not.” He was in the porn film business, and I think his wife was trying to get him out.
Pennebaker: He said, I’m going to give you my best theater, The Presidio out in San Francisco. Which sounded to me like a huge theater, but it was a little porn theater. So we gave him a 16mm print, the only print I had. And it played there for a year; I kept worrying whether the print would hold up. And after a few weeks, we had made enough money to pay off our processing bills and to get a 35mm print to open in New York. So we opened in New York with our 35mm print and pretended the porn theater didn’t exist. But if that guy hadn’t come along, I’d probably still be trying to sell Dont Look Back.