By Annette Hinkle
David Geffen — it’s one of those Hollywood names most everyone knows, but when hard pressed are at a loss to say exactly why.
But come November 20, television viewers around the country will get to know the man behind the name when American Masters premieres “Inventing David Geffen” on PBS channels nationwide.
The film, which screened at the Hamptons International Film Festival last month, was written and directed by Susan Lacy, a Sag Harbor resident as well as the creator and executive producer of American Masters — the series she founded in 1986.
For the record, David Geffen is the G in SKG DreamWorks, that Triumvirate of movie studio royalty which also included Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg — the names behind blockbusters like Shrek, Gladiator and American Beauty.
And while Lacy knew a fair bit about Geffen’s Hollywood history before setting out to make the biography of his life for American Masters, she wasn’t sure exactly what she was going to get when she sat down with him face to face.
“I didn’t know what he was going to be like,” confesses Lacy. “But he’s one of the most real people I’ve ever met.”
Geffen is exactly the kind of person that Lacy likes to profile on American Masters. Though the show has focused on the lives and careers of fabled authors, actors and musicians — she also strives to seek out individuals and stories that are a bit more hidden from public view.
“I’m interested in the people behind the scenes who are shaping people in silent ways,” explains Lacy. “Some of the most important people are those you don’t know anything about.”
People like David Geffen who, before co-founded DreamWorks, was David Geffen, the son of poor Brooklyn immigrants looking for a way out his working class neighborhood.
Geffen was a huge fan of the movies growing up and his education in the entertainment business began in 1964 in the mail room at William Morris. There, he learned the basics by surreptitiously reading upside down memos on the desks of the agents to whom he delivered mail.
He quickly moved into the music side of the business, became a manager for singer/songwriter Laura Nyro and finally joined forces with Elliot Roberts in Los Angeles where the pair eventually formed Asylum Records.
Theirs was one of the most successful record partnerships of the era and by the early 1970s, they had became friends with many of the artists they represented. Geffen struck the deal that brought Crosby, Stills and Nash together for their first album and worked with likes of Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Jackson Browne, the Eagles and countless others.
Geffen is even the subject of Joni Mitchell’s song “Free Man in Paris.” And though he was good at promoting others, as Lacy found during production of the film, he’s not the kind of guy who willingly self-promotes.
“He’s not someone who likes to talk about himself,” says Lacy. “When I started this he said, “I have to do an interview?” You did Leonard Bernstein and you didn’t interview him.”
“I told him I had archives for Bernstein. But he was still reluctant. He doesn’t like to talk about himself,” adds Lacy. “So tried to be sensitive to him and not schedule interviews for too long,” she adds. “I had to push him to talk about things he didn’t want to talk about.”
Besides a somewhat reluctant subject, Lacy had other big hurdles to clear in the making of “Inventing David Geffen,” which becomes obvious to viewers in the first minutes of the film when some of the biggest names in show biz are asked on camera to describe Geffen in three words.
The interviews Lacy lined up for the film are impressive to say the least — Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg, Warren Beatty, Elton John, Cher (with whom Geffen had a passionate relationship despite being gay). These are not people you can call up and interview with a day or two notice.
“It took a while because of the nature of the subjects,” admits Lacy. “I wasn’t willing to not have Neil Young, Cher and Don Henley. It took over a period of years.”
But that’s the way films are made for American Masters — meticulously, methodically and in-depth.
Lacy first envisioned the series back in the early 1980s while she was serving as the deputy director of arts and performance programs at WNET in New York producing PBS shows like Great Performances and American Playhouse. She felt there was room for a biography series focusing on the creative minds and talents that defined the culture of the nation.
The problem was finding support for an idea no one thought would work.
“When there isn’t a place for something on TV, the thinking is that means no one’s interested,” says Lacy. “But form follows funding. People would make these films, and they looked like home movie. So they put it on at 4 a.m. and it had no audience.”
“I saw the problems, I thought I’m going to approach this in a different ways and make them like movie — these are dramatic stories,” recalls Lacy. “If you do it right with great material, and not build a documentary around five photos, but go under the rocks and have the real material, construct and structure it like a real movie — it could work.”
In 1984, Lacy left WNET for a few years to go work at the Sundance Institute. But she didn’t drop the idea for the series.
“Before I left, I begged to be able to continue to develop the idea I had,” says Lacy. “They said, ‘Oh sure. But if it happens, we own it because it happened while you were on our payroll.’”
“That was the stupidest non-Geffen deal I ever made,” confides Lacy.
American Masters went on the air in 1986, and she says no one at PBS was supportive of the project at the time — “They didn’t believe in it because there was no model of success.”
But, she adds, if it hadn’t been at PBS, Lacy doesn’t believe it would have ever gotten on the air at all.
“Did I ever think it would go on 27 years? Not in a million years. I didn’t think people would embrace it,” says Lacy.
But embrace it they have. In the years since, American Masters has offered a full range of biographies on cultural icons and institutions. From the Actors Studio and Harper Lee to George Balanchine and David Hockney. And each one of them has something in common.
“At the bottom of everything is a good story,” says Lacy. “Not every artist has a good story and not every artist is a good story teller — and not every artist has the kind of material you need to build a film. Everything is about what you have to work with.”
“I’m also looking at balance between ‘high culture’ and ‘popular culture,’” adds Lacy. “Not only the Pearl Jams and Woody Allens, but the Ernest Hemingways and the Martha Grahams.”
“You also have to ask, ‘Is it a strong story with ups and downs, conflict and transcendence?’”
Sounds like Susan Lacy knows a good story when she sees it.
American Masters “Inventing David Geffen” premieres at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, November 20 on PBS (Thirteen/WNET).
Saturday, December 1, 2012 Susan Lacy will be honored for her work on American Masters at the Hamptons Take 2 Documentary Film Festival at Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor. The evening will begin at 6:30 p.m. with a cocktail reception followed by a 7:45 p.m. screening of Lacy’s 2006 American Masters film “Leonard Bernstein: Reaching for the Note.” A director’s panel will follow with Lacy and three of her American Masters directors: Michael Epstein, Anne Makepeace and Roger Sherman. The Hamptons Take 2 Documentary Film Festival is November 30 to December 2 at Bay Street Theatre with documentaries throughout the weekend. For schedule and tickets, visit ww.ht2ff.com.