This is an interview with filmmaker Robert Drew about the documentary A President To Remember: In The Company Of John F. Kennedy. On Thursday, January 20th HBO Documentary Films presents A President To Remember: In The Company Of John F. Kennedy. Fifty years ago this month, John F. Kennedy was sworn in as the 35th President of the United States. To commemorate his inauguration, HBO is presenting two personal profiles of one of America's most admired presidents. Directed by pioneering verite filmmaker Robert Drew and narrated by Alec Baldwin, A President To Remember: In The Company Of John F. Kennedy is an intimate portrait of JFK, the candidate, the President and the man.
Question: The footage in this documentary is over 40 years old. Why did you decide to release the film all these years later?
Robert Drew: I made four films on John F. Kennedy, filmed when he was running for office, in office and after his death. This type of candid footage was new at the time, and it showed the man at work, at play, and many different parts of his life. All these years and presidents later, there have been periods when the presidency was not highly regarded. We've had generations that have never known a lively, active president who was well-regarded. I had this great footage, and it occurred to me to put it together to inform later generations about a president they never knew and that they should know about.
Question: How did you get so close to the President for an extended period of time?
Robert Drew: First, I was developing a new form of reporting and wanted a good story to tell with it. I found this senator who was opposed by the current President, his own party, people who didn't like Catholics and people who didn't like millionaires. I sat with Senator Kennedy and we had a long conversation that went something like this:
He came down the stairs of his Georgetown townhouse in his bathrobe, suffering from a bad cold and said, "What do you want?"
"I want to make a film like you've never seen before," I said. "And I want it to be about you running for President."
"What do you mean by that?"
"There are no questions, no interviews, no lighting, no directions. We simply look at what happened and edit it together. It'll be the best reporting you've ever seen, and it'll be good history."
"If I don't call you tomorrow, that means we're on."
He didn't call, and I followed him to Wisconsin and made a film called Primary.
Question: How did he react to seeing the film?
I showed it to him after he was elected but before he took office. A few minutes into the film, he brought in his father, an invalid in a wheelchair, to watch the rest of it. He'd never seen himself like that before. After that, he allowed us to make the next film, about a president making decisions during a crisis, which is what I had wanted to do from the very start.
Question: What sort of hand-held cameras were available at the time?
Robert Drew: All my films are shot on hand-held cameras. These cameras took five years to build and had to be light enough to be carried. The entire thing was rebuilt and weighed about 50 pounds. A strong man could carry it for 30 minutes, but I made my people carry it all day long. These were the only hand-held cameras at the time that could shoot as well as record sound.
Question: Like all of your films, there are no talking-head style interviews, and the only element in addition to the raw footage and sound is a sparse narration by Alec Baldwin. What effect do you hope to achieve with this method of filmmaking?
Robert Drew: The conventional documentary at that time, and even now, is basically a lecture. You can turn off the picture and you'd get the full story in the sounds. If you take off the sound, the logic of the picture turns all turns to ash. That word-logic documentary doesn't work too well on a living medium like television. My hope was to get a treatment of the subject that was visual and filmic. It's a dramatic-logic film.
I did employ more narration than usual in this film, but that was only because I was integrating four films with other films that I had not photographed. To make those transitions, I had to use more narration.
Question: How much of an effect did your first film about Kennedy, Primary, have on the President's legacy?
Robert Drew: It showed the filmmaking world the possibilities of conveying more than a lecture film would. That gave birth to a number of films on Kennedy in which reality filming was used and advanced. The coverage of Kennedy was different than it had been of previous presidents, in that you could see for yourself what was happening and get a feel for what it would like be there with the man.
Question: There have been some recent revelations about infidelities and painkillers during Kennedy's presidency. Given your level of access, did they hide these from you?
Robert Drew: I never saw him romancing a woman or taking pills. He did those things, we now know, but he handled them in a circumspect manner.
Question: Did you have to self-censor anything from the films?
Robert Drew: When I proposed the idea for the second film to Kennedy, about a president with his back to the wall making decisions during a crisis, he said he wasn't sure if he could forget about us in the Oval Office the way he did on the campaign trail. When we were shooting test footage a few weeks later, he was discussing Cuba with the Joint Chiefs of Staff. One of the generals said something to him about us being there. The President looked at me and smiled, and we left the room. My proposition to him was that we would be free to shoot everything, but if something was said or revealed that could compromise the presidency or his relationship with other diplomats, I would narrate over it.
Question: You covered a lot of tense moments in the White House. When did Kennedy seem to be the most troubled?
Robert Drew: The President was given a description of the scene at the University of Alabama where the Governor was standing at the schoolhouse door to prevent the integration of two black students. As Bobby Kennedy, in his role as the Attorney General, explained the situation to the President -- that's when he looked most grave and most concerned. I think that's clear in the picture.
Question: In 2008, when the film was made, many people were drawing a parallel between Kennedy and another Senator with an unorthodox background who rode a groundswell of support to secure his party's nomination. What do you make of the comparison of Presidents Kennedy and Obama?
Robert Drew: I do see similarities. First of all, they were both elected against terrible odds. Secondly, each of them is articulate and intelligent. They can express themselves and lead other people to do things. I didn't make the film with Obama in mind; I actually made it with the previous president in mind. I hoped the film would show a contrast between Kennedy and that president. The similarities with Obama came as a surprise to me.
Question: Your approach has been referred to as Direct Cinema. How do you feel about today's political documentaries and news?
Robert Drew: There's a wide range today of documentaries on politics. The central mass of it is made by networks, and nothing's changed. The only thing that has changed is that the numbers of cameras and reporters have doubled every few years. When we made Primary, it was just one camera. We were trying to make ourselves inconspicuous. Today, people seem to dislike be