Filmmakers Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker tend to let the subjects of their documentaries find them.
“They almost always come to us. It’s very Zen. Zen [Buddhism] says ‘never look, never refuse,’” Pennebaker remarked leaning back in a wooden chair at his kitchen table in Sag Harbor on a warm weekend morning.
Above: George Stephanopoulos and James Carville in a scene from “The War Room.”
Their process leaves much up to chance, but the qualities that draw this husband and wife duo to a character or story has been consistent throughout their professional partnership, which started in the 1970s.
“We make films about people who really know something, are passionate and taking an enormous risk,” Hegedus noted.
An eight-film retrospective this September on the Documentary Channel highlights the charismatic figures and their pivotal moments that color a Hegedus-Pennebaker production. The series begins with “The War Room,” this Saturday, September 4, at 8 p.m.
The film tracks the journey of a young George Stephanopoulos and a sparsely haired, sharp tongued James Carville as they work on then-Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton’s first presidential election in the early 1990s. Charting their triumphs and roadblocks, like the public outing of Clinton’s infidelities with Gennifer Flowers, on the way to the Oval Office, “The War Room” acts as both a portrait of these deeply committed characters, and the campaign and election itself.
One of the more enigmatic personalities Hegedus and Pennebaker trailed for a documentary was infamous engineer and automobile executive John DeLorean in the film “DeLorean,” which was released in 1981. The documentary captured DeLorean after he had left a cushy job at General Motors to build DeLorean Motor Company. Betting his personal fortune and reputation, the automobile man created the DeLorean Safety Vehicle, a two-seater sports car made famous from its appearance in the “Back to the Future” movie trilogy. Through a friend in DeLorean’s public relations department, the filmmakers gingerly gained access to the motor businessman.
Above: The filmmakers with John DeLorean, the subject of their film “DeLorean.”
“John was much more weary [of us]. I thought of him as a Disney villain. You like him but something is evil about him,” Hegedus remarked. “I thought what he was trying to do was incredible. He wanted to make more of a people’s car. [But] almost everything conspired against him.”
Due to the British government pulling out funds from DeLorean’s factory in Northern Ireland, a recession, oil crisis and involvement in a drug trafficking case — charges in which he was found not guilty by entrapment — DeLorean’s company went bust in the year after the film was released.
Like DeLorean, in “Al Franken: God spoke,” the one-time Saturday Night Live comedian, former Air America political radio show host and current U.S. senator from Minnesota is on a mission. Instead of car companies and governmental agencies, Franken’s nemeses are right-wing pundits like Bill O’Reilly. Franken asserts these figures spread not only misinformation, but lies, to their audiences. Through the course of the film, Franken is transformed from an entertainer and well-spoken Democratic Party cheerleader into a senatorial hopeful. By the close of the documentary, Franken formally announces his intention to run for public office.
“It is an extraordinary film because you watch a person really change their life,” Pennebaker observed.
Viewers won’t find Pennebaker’s first breakout films like “Don’t Look Back” or “Monterey Pop,” but the Documentary Channel has unearthed gems from Pennebaker’s catalog. The retrospective marks the television premier of “Opening in Moscow” and “Two American Audiences.”
“It was my first long film which was basically never seen before. There was no interest,” Pennebaker recalled of his documentary of the Russian city during the 1959 American exhibit. The film depicts color images of Moscow during Soviet Union leader Nikita Khrushchev’s leadership.
“Two American Audiences” fascinatingly interspersed scenes from Goddard’s film “La Chinoise” and Pennebaker’s footage from a discussion on film and politics between the French director and New York University graduate students. The series will close with “Chiefs,” a short film on police officers, and “Daybreak Express,” Pennebaker’s first piece, which captured the movements of the now defunct Sixth Avenue El train in New York City to the music of Duke Ellington.
“Town Bloody Hall,” a film on the 1971 panel debate between writer Norman Mailer and prominent intellects in the Women’s Liberation movement like Germaine Greer, held personal significance for Hegedus.
“I was mesmerized because I grew up in the heart of the women’s movement. These women were my heroes. And a lot of the community sitting in the audience were New York writers and intelligentsia,” Hegedus remarked. Though filmed in 1971, she added, “It was a fascinating event to cap the 1960s.”
With their films, Hegedus and Pennebaker veer away from the likely ending to follow the story to a deeper conclusion. In their most recent work, “Kings of Pastry,” depicting 16 French pastry chefs vying for the Meilleur Ouvrier de France over a three-day competition, Hegedus pointed out that they could have wrapped up the film once a winner was named. The pair, however, opted to follow the lives of both the winner and the losers.
“We decided to wait and the waiting gave us much more,” Hegedus noted. “It turned out to give much more of an emotional impact.”
With the help of their producer and distributor Frazer Pennebaker, D.A.’s son and the man he affectionately calls his “boss,” Hegedus and her husband continue to pursue the unlikely subjects which attract their interest.
“We are equal to [our subjects]. We are also taking a risk,” Hegedus remarked. “For the most part our films aren’t funded before hand. It is hard to raise money without knowing what is going to happen.”
“It’s like getting a person to bet on just a Jack,” Pennebaker added, pantomiming a game of black jack on his wooden table.
For an investor the uncertainty might be high, but for the moviegoer a Hegedus-Pennebaker film is a journey worth the chance.
“The War Room” will play on September 4 at 8 p.m. On September 11, “Town Bloody Hall will show at 8 p.m. followed by “Two American Audiences at 10 p.m. On September 18, “DeLorean” will screen at 8 p.m. followed by “Opening in Moscow” at 9:30 p.m. On September 26, “Al Franken: God Spoke” will be shown at 8 p.m., “Chiefs” at 10 p.m. and “Daybreak Express” at 10:30 p.m. The Documentary Channel is primarily available through satellite television services DISH Network (Channel 197) and DIRECTV (Channel 267). ??