Perhaps before anything else, Perri Peltz is a storyteller. Whether she’s donning the hat of a journalist, a radio show host, or a documentarian she’s interested in telling the stories that come to her. Seemingly without ego and without a certain sensationalism that we’ve all come to expect from news stories and—yes—even documentary films, she presents compelling narratives like the one we experienced in Remembering the Artist: Robert De Niro, Sr.. That she was able to capture the attention of the subject’s son, the great Robert De Niro, is impressive. That he went on to entrust her with what was initially meant to be a personal project for his family speaks volumes about her talent and integrity.
We can’t help but be thrilled that De Niro ultimately decided to share this intimate and powerful documentary short with the rest of the world. Remembering the Artist premieres tonight on HBO, and the film will give us a rare glimpse into the lives of two great artists—a father and son who have both left their marks on the world in very unique ways. Paste caught up with Perri Peltz to talk about this exciting project, art history, and her recent experience as a college dropout.
Paste: First of all, I was just blown away by how much you managed to work into a thirty-minute piece.
Perri Peltz: Thirty-nine, but who’s counting? (laughs)
Paste: It was fantastic. Now, I’d read that you went to medical school, but you work in media and film, so I was wondering if you could talk a little about that journey.
Peltz: Well there was about twenty years in journalism work before medical school.
Paste: Ah yes, I see.
Peltz: For a very long time since I got out of college, I was working in television news. I’d worked in local news at WNBC, and then went to NBC network, and then to ABC. And then I did something else and wound up coming back. But I’d always dreamed of going to medical school. So about six years ago, I decided that I would try to make that happen. I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity, but after a year it just proved to be too difficult with my young children, so I decided to drop out—which I thought sounded pretty youthful (laughs).
I then decided that what I wanted to do was to try and and combine journalism with public health issues. I wound up getting involved in documentaries, and doing a film about two women with breast cancer—one with health insurance and one without [The Education of Dee Dee Ricks]. Because, really, my interest in medicine was an interest in public health. That’s how I wound up in documentary!
Paste: You and De Niro have a mutual friend in Jane Rosenthal. What was your reaction when she first approached you with this idea for a film? It was initially supposed to be a documentary for the family, right?
Peltz: Jane is absolutely one of my closest friends in the world, and we have done several projects together over the last twenty years. I’ve had the opportunity to interview Robert De Niro several times when I was in news. So there was some familiarity there. I think that Jane felt that I was somebody who De Niro would be comfortable with. And—to your point—this was not something that was supposed to be broadcast. Bob wanted to do something for the family, for the family archives, but the process just really grew. When you start doing something like this, you think you’re going to be doing it about one person. But, in fact, Robert De Niro, Sr.’s story is bigger than that. It’s not only about figurative painters at a very difficult time in American art history, but it’s also a father/son story, which makes it this universal experience on some level. It’s also a story about the meaning of fame. So when we got to the point where we realized it was bigger, he decided that he was going to allow this to be broadcast. And, very happily, HBO decided that they wanted to get involved.
Paste: Yes, that’s one of the things that I really appreciated about the project— that it’s such a personal story in addition to being an informative piece about the art world. Were there any questions that De Niro wanted to leave unanswered? Was it difficult to get him to open up about certain things?
Peltz: Robert De Niro is an intensely private man. Intensely private, especially given that he is someone who is well within the public arena. But even outside of that he’s very private. It took several interviews for him to really start to open up about his father, and these very personal issues. As you can see from the film this is still a very emotional relationship for him. And so it was difficult—no one wants to interview someone to make them upset.
At the end of the day, I think he’s happy with what came out of this. And I also think that Robert De Niro, Sr. would have been really happy with it, too. I may be presumptuous, but I think he would have liked it. Bob always really wanted people to see the art. It doesn’t mean you have to like it, but he wanted to at least share it.
Paste: For many people the big draw to the story might be the fact that De Niro is opening up about his father’s sexuality a little. But by the time I finished the film, I’d almost forgotten about that part. It’s interesting that it sort of gets marginalized. Can you talk a little about how you handled that material?
Peltz: It’s a great question. We didn’t want this to become a documentary about how Robert De Niro’s father was a gay man. That’s a very difficult line to walk because, obviously, there’s something more sensational about that.
That being said, my partner, Geeta [Gandbhir], and I felt that it needed to be a part of the story. Robert De Niro, Sr. wrote a lot in his journals about being gay, and it was a great source of frustration for him. He never found a long-term partner, but he wanted to have one. And we felt that we needed to not only show his art but also show the full person—a gay man. So, on the one hand we wanted to embrace that, but not make it the center of the documentary. We wanted his art to be front and center.
Paste: Your partner Geeta has worked on so many important films, like When the Levees Broke, and Bamboozled. Can you talk a bit about how the two of you started working together, and her role on this particular project?
Peltz: You’re right—Geeta has a tremendous history in documentary film as an editor, and we worked together on The Education of Dee Dee Ricks. She was assigned to me, and from there we decided we wanted to make another film together as co-directors. It’s in edit right now, and it’s about puppies who are trained by prisoners to become guide dogs for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. We were working on that when this opportunity came about, so I said, “Do you want to do this with me?” And that was that.
As far as how the responsibilities were divvied up, I was more in the field doing the interviews and Geeta was involved in the look of the film. Everything else, we worked on together.
Paste: I took an Art History course before, but I’m not exactly well-versed in this subject matter. For me, Remembering the Artist was an eye-opener on a lot of levels. What was the learning experience like for you? Were there things that surprised you about the art world?
Peltz: You have no idea! I also took an Art History class in undergrad, and that was about the extent of it. I love art and I was delighted to have this experience, but I don’t know a tremendous amount about art. We wanted to get things right, and for that we have several people to thank. Most notably is Megan Fox Kelly, who was the art advisor on the film. She really kept us honest in terms of making sure the paintings we used were reflective of the right time period, and making sure we were using the right pieces of art. That was enormously helpful, and we were very lucky to have her.
And then of course we had the experts—Rob Storr from Yale, and Irving Sandler. They were helpful in placing and contextualizing Robert De Niro, Sr’s art in the actual history of the art world.
Paste: What’s next for you?
Peltz: I’m privileged to be able to work on a few different documentaries right now. One is the one about the puppies, and I’m working on another one with HBO about the new definition of alcohol abuse in the United States. It’s about really not looking at it as a black-or-white situation—something that’s more on a continuum. So I’m working on that, and we’re also hoping to have a few more in the pipeline.
Paste: Exciting! I’m really looking forward to more of your work.
Peltz: Thank you!
Shannon M. Houston is Assistant TV Editor at Paste, and a New York-based freelance writer with probably more babies than you. You can follow her on Twitter.