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DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus on Don’t Look Back

The influential duo behind some of the century’s most essential cult docs talk Bob Dylan, Bill Clinton and six decades of shooting from the hip

We’re backstage – a London hotel room, actually – in the court of Bob Dylan, 1965. Some five decades before he would win the Nobel Prize in Literature, the 23-year-old singer-songwriter is on the cusp of his first historic shift: from folk troubadour to reinventing electric rock, establishing his persona through protective shades, wire brush hair, and caustic – sometimes cruel - wit and diffidence. Young rival Donovan is playing a sweet acoustic ditty, ‘A Song for You’, while Dylan looks on impassively from behind his sunglasses. When Donovan has finished Dylan launches into a stunning, stripped down version of his own ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’.

As the camera drifts and zooms from Dylan to a pensive Donovan, the popular interpretation has always been of one young master schooling another in public, for daring to challenge his mantle. In fact, as the wonderful new Criterion version of seminal documentary Dont Look Back (1967) demonstrates, with its enhanced visuals and audio, Donovan actually requests the song from Dylan, changing the dynamic of the scene entirely. Nevertheless, it’s the fact that we’re so up close and personal in such intimate moments that makes the footage so endlessly fascinating. And for that, we need to look back at the hugely influential career of one man.

If D.A. (Donn Alan) Pennebaker had stopped making films after his pioneering music documentaries in the 1960s and early ‘70s – his Dylan tour exposé, flower power festival epic Monterey Pop (1968) (which predates Woodstock) and David Bowie’s final Ziggy Stardust (1973) concert film - he’d still be regarded as one of the medium’s giants. Alongside colleagues Richard Leacock, Robert Drew and Albert Maysles, these men didn’t just develop Direct Cinema’s handheld, fly-on-the-wall verité aesthetic, they actually helped fashion the technology to make it possible. For Pennebarker himself, even without legendary sequences like Bob Dylan’s ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ cue card sequence (the first-ever music video?) or Jimi Hendrix setting fire to his guitar onstage at Monterey, the camera developments and techniques he pushed into feature-length work became an industry standard for behind-the-scenes ‘rockumentaries’.

But that’s only part of Pennebaker’s story. Subsequently collaborating with his partner - and later wife - Chris Hegedus, the pair have continued to insert themselves into extraordinary cultural stories for decades. Music docs still played a role, as with intimate band-and-fan portrait Depeche Mode 101 (1989); but their scope widened to include Bill Clinton’s presidential election backstage campaign in The War Room (1993), the dot com boom in (2001) and this year’s case for animals to be given legal rights in Unlocking the Cage. Honoured at this year’s Sheffield Doc/Fest, Pennebaker – or Penny, as he likes to be called – is still astoundingly engaged, aged ninety-one, while the younger Hegedus remains a calm, guiding presence. We sat down with them to look over a lifetime’s work and influence.

What prompted the move you and your colleagues made towards ‘Direct Cinema’? 

DA Pennebaker: People were starting to make films on their own, as opposed to having a big crew the traditional Hollywood way. You didn’t have to have a script. And films like Maurice Engels' Little Fugitive, had a huge effect on us in New York.

 So naturally, you just built your own cameras!

DA Pennebaker: Well, you had to! We wanted to walk around like you did with a stills camera. We started with Auricons. It was made to go on a tripod, but if you took it and remodelled it to fit on your shoulder, and made it sync [sound], it was the ideal camera.

 Did you realise the impact that Dont Look Back would have?

DA Pennebaker: I didn’t know what I was doing was revolutionary. I wanted to make a film that I could do all by myself. About a person that I thought might be a poet, who was looking to find out who he was. And you could do that if you watched him carefully.

What did Dylan make of you and your constant filming?

DA Pennebaker: He knew who I was, because I knew his wife Sarah, she’d worked at Life. But it didn’t really register because he wasn’t interested in filmmaking. He was only interested in the music.

And you’re able to be discreet – a true ‘fly-on-the-wall’.

DA Pennebaker: Hollywood films did close ups really well, but they had to shoot it as a different shot. We could do it as one shot, you just had to zoom in. And on Dont Look Back and particularly on a film like Monterey [Pop] that was really important because you wanted to see what these performers looked like. If you shot them from a distance, it took away the excitement of the performance.

“I didn’t know what I was doing was revolutionary. I wanted to make a film that I could do all by myself. About a person that I thought might be a poet, who was looking to find out who he was” – DA Pennebaker on Bob Dylan


And whereas Dont Look Back is all you, Monterey Pop was the first time you employed multiple filmmakers to capture an event.

DA Pennebaker: I had no idea how to direct them! I’d hand out four or five rolls of film, but I had no idea what they were shooting, so a lot of it was as much a surprise to me as to you! But I think that’s the best way to do a concert film.

But some of your own filming is that really striking onstage footage of Otis Redding, behind him into the lights.

DA Pennebaker: I kind of fell in love with Otis Redding and I was about to start editing when I heard of his death. So I decided to use my own footage. [The Band’s] Robbie Robertson scolded me for not using the more traditional front-on shots, but I told him, “I can’t explain it Robbie, but that’s what God told me to do.”

Chris, what encouraged you to start working with Penny?

Chris Hegedus: Both of us pretty much started in experimental films. I had no idea that a woman could be a Hollywood director, there were none, basically, or very few. When I first saw the work of [Penny’s] group, it changed my life because I saw that you could make it yourself. It was totally seductive for me.

DA Pennebaker: When Chris came round looking for a job, my company was almost in bankruptcy. And after an hour talking with her, I thought that’s the kind of person I need as a partner and I mustn’t let her leave! So the next day I called her up and told her we had a job – although we didn’t really! And she came in and started editing stuff that I’d shot.

How do you tend to collaborate?

Chris Hegedus: Often if we’re a two-man crew, I’ll do sound and Penny will do picture, because he does terrible sound, he’s always moving his hands, making lots of noise! And sound is a lot harder because he’s hiding behind the camera way over there, whereas the sound person is up close. You have to form more of a relationship.

How harmonious is it?

DA Pennebaker: We don’t always agree…

Chris Hegedus: You need to really respect each other and respect each other’s vision. One of the things that’s kept us together is we really look for the same goal – mostly following a real life story through a person, so there’s not a lot to deviate from.

“Robbie Robertson scolded me for not using the more traditional front-on shots, but I told him, “I can’t explain it Robbie, but that’s what God told me to do” – DA Pennebaker


What’s your take on “objectivity” in documentaries?

DA Pennebaker: I don’t really think about that. I don’t think of ourselves as journalists, maybe more as sociologists - or like a bathysphere, this big round ball that they lowered deep in the ocean and you looked through this little hole and saw the fishes… I feel like I’m in the camera that way, subjecting myself to a world that isn’t mine and I’ve got to watch everything that happens.

Your films are generally very empathetic to your subjects. Do you ever feel you go too easy on them?

Chris Hegedus: Lots of people make adversarial films. We always try to find people we genuinely admire, who are sticking their neck out and trying something new. But it doesn’t always turn out how they like. Like in, the relationship falls apart between [business partners] Tom and Kaleil, it was very painful for Tom to relive that situation, where he’s kicked out of the company. But in the end, it’s what happened.

And what about projects that don’t develop the way you were hoping?

DA Pennebaker: On The War Room, we started with the idea that we’d somehow be able to get close enough to Clinton to follow him around. But that’s kind of unrealistic, because we’re making a sort of home movie and he’s worried about real press, the six o’clock news. But by luck, we ran into two other people – James Carville and George Stephanopoulos - who were interesting characters in their own right, and that allowed us to carry on. That kind of determines where your film goes.

Chris Hegedus: It is a privilege to film a person going through something really important in their life and you get very bonded with them. I mean, the whole War Room group, we meet up and it’s like we went to camp together!

DA Pennebaker: Or when we see Depeche Mode it’s the same.

“I had no idea that a woman could be a Hollywood director... When I first saw the work of [Penny’s] group, it changed my life because I saw that you could make it yourself. It was totally seductive for me” – Chris Hedegus


Do you still keep in touch with them?

Chris Hegedus: On and off! Like, when they come to New York to do a concert, we go backstage and kind of fall back into that thing because it was a special time for them, to take that risk. All the record companies were telling them they can’t play the Rosebowl-

DA Pennebaker: - and they said, “Fuck you!”

Surely by now someone has asked to follow you both around and make a film…

Chris Hegedus: A German filmmaker did a film on us but in the end he forgot that, when he used our films, he has to get the rights to the music, things like that, so he ended up not having the right budget. It was a little bit of disaster…

You must be aware of your influence on documentaries. What work out there today impresses you?

Chris Hegedus: We love Michael Moore. I really think he’s an incredibly brave person, and has the amazing ability to explain things in an entertaining way. And our student Josh [Kriegman] did Weiner, which is a wonderful film.

And very much in the vein of your work…

Chris Hegedus: I know. He said, “I blame it on you, Chris…!”

What’s interesting about the new film, Unlocking the Cage is that, by the end, it morphs into a kind of thriller…

Chris Hegedus: I’m glad you felt that! We were just dog and cat lovers, we didn’t have any great animal rights knowledge, really. What interested me was not seeing abuse to animals in our film, but rather see these animals that were so intelligent and cognitively complex that you would want to give them rights because you see that they deserve it.

Where do you see documentary making in the future?

Chris Hegedus: There’s always a huge synergy with the technology available and that continues to this day. People make films on their phone and that leads to something else… 

DA Pennebaker: The thing is, regardless of the technology, you should be there at the beginning. Otherwise you have to have somebody tell you what happened. You want to see how the thing started and then be there at the ending. And sometimes these can be films of extraordinary length, they can last a lifetime! But somebody has to be prepared to do it.

Finally, is there a secret to such an enduring creative and personal relationship?

DA Pennebaker: She’s my partner. And we also got married and had children and all that, but the filmmaking part is such a personal thing and you feel like it’s your baby, nobody else can touch it. To have another person who’s just as good at touching it as you are, that’s the world.

 The Dont Look Back Criterion Collection Bluray is available to buy on October 17th.