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Q&A: Chris Hegedus

Highlights from Issue 25: The Documentary Issue

Chris Hegedus with D.A. Pennebaker (left) during the filming of THE WAR ROOM (1993) / Photogr

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Wednesday, April 19, 2006

What follows is an excerpt from Issue 25: The Documentary Issue

STARTING UP WITH CHRIS HEGEDUS
(EXCERPT)

By Nile Southern

Chris Hegedus began making films while studying art at Vassar College in the 1970s. With Maya Deren as her role model, Hegedus became aware of D.A. Pennebaker as the cinematic draughtsman behind Primary and Jane — films she had seen in class. After meeting Pennebaker in New York, she began her life partnership with one of the titans of documentary film.

Hegedus has since become a formidable director and producer in her own right. Over the past five years, with co-filmmaker Nick Doob, she has made a number of films in the Direct Cinema tradition, including StartUp.com in 2001 (for which she received the Directors Guild of America Award for outstanding directorial achievement in documentaries). Now teaching at Yale, Hegedus has mentored many filmmakers, including Jehane Noujaim (co-director of StartUp.com), whose 2004 film, Control Room, a Sundance stand-out about the U.S. attacks on the Arab news channel Al Jazeera, went on to have a succesful theatrical run.

In their 30 years of collaboration, Hegedus and Pennebaker have made over 25 films together, and in 1993 were nominated for an Academy Award for The War Room.

For more on Chris Hegedus, click here.

Next up from Hegedus is the documentary Al Franken: God Spoke, which will be screened next month at the Tribeca Film Festival.

Stop Smiling: How do you choose a film subject?

Chris Hegedus: You’re not always given the kind of film that has both the subject matter and dramatic arc that can carry a cinema verité storyline. But when you use an observational way of going through this adventure with somebody in their lives — if you’re given that possibility — it can be one of the most exciting films out there, because you really experience something with someone, and you’re able to show that world to people in a way that is fully dramatic. Film can do that when it shows you what’s happening, and lets you intimately know the people who are taking whatever risk you’re filming.

SS: What drew you to make documentaries?

CH: I started out studying art in college and making art films. In the ’60s, many artists were making films: Maya Deren, Stan Brakhage, Bruce Conner, Andy Warhol, Stan Vanderbeek, Michael Snow — it was a real movement in the U.S. But with the Vietnam War, the women’s movement and everything else going on in the late ’60s, early ’70s, I just couldn’t make art films anymore. It was too much of a political time. It was also the beginning of independent film. The camera equipment became portable and somewhat easy to get a hold of.

SS: You’ve mentioned that the Leacock/Pennebaker films made with Drew Associates, like Primary, had a big influence on you.

CH: They changed my life, basically. The film that really influenced me was Jane — because it was like a Hollywood film, in that you had a very famous actress at the time, Jane Fonda, and you had this real-life story [Fonda rehearsing for the disastrous Broadway show The Fun Couple] that was just as dramatic as any Hollywood script. I thought, I can do that! I didn’t really know how feature films were made at all. In the arts, I did everything myself. I think what drew me to documentaries was that they were handmade. I didn’t really know any women filmmakers in the Hollywood realm, but in this kind of independent cinema, which was basically the documentary cinema taking shape in New York, there were other women filmmakers. The thing that appealed to me most was that you could do it yourself. That was very much an art model — you don’t have people painting your paintings for you.

*****

SS: How do you track your story as it unfolds? Do you and Pennebaker edit as you go, or shoot everything first?

CH: The main thing we do is follow our characters and keep on top of what’s going on in their lives. We don’t really edit as we’re going along — we don’t have that type of team. At the time I still had kids at home, and it was a lot for me to just shoot the film. Once we got through a majority of the story, we started to put together a half-hour “selling film” so that people could understand what we were making. We did that with The War Room and Moon Over Broadway — it’s a standard thing we do so that people understand there are characters and a dramatic arc to the story. Later, when we finish shooting, we really jump into the editing. I think one of the unique things about StartUp was that we actually began editing after our two characters had their falling out.

SS: Can you imagine going back to shooting on film?

CH: It hasn’t happened now for a long time. Our son Kit uses an Aaton. I don’t see going back to film — though I could see shooting a concert. We could have done it for Down on the Mountain if we’d had a little more money. It comes down to a question of money. Video has become so much more convenient — it’s hard to imagine ever going back and being restricted to a 10-minute roll of film and carrying all that stuff around.

SS: Has the emergence of the “personal documentary” changed things?

CH: Now that the DV/reality TV revolution has come about, people are making their own films about themselves and their lives. They don’t need to wait for documentary filmmakers to come and make a film about them. It brings the camera into an intimacy that I don’t think it’s ever had before. I think the most interesting part is that the camera is put in the hands of people in all different worlds. Before it was exclusive — not everyone could get these cameras, and film was so expensive that only certain people could make documentaries. It was other people documenting other cultures. Right now, cultures can make their own stories — that’s really unique. I think children will be making films from their perspective soon.

SS: What about exhibition and the Internet?

CH: Like the music business, the distribution of films on the Internet is going to shake up existing business models. Who knows where it's going to lead? Once large files are easily downloadable, films may be viewed online in ways that we haven't even thought of yet — like a kind of visual letter writing. I'm excited to see it.


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