Arts: A marriage made in verite

DA Pennebaker chronicled the Sixties with his legendary rockumentaries. Dennis Lim caught up with him in New York
"Distributors and theatre-owners used to call documentaries the D-word," notes DA Pennebaker with a wry chuckle. Evidently unfazed by the widely held assumption that non-fiction films are box-office poison, Pennebaker - still youthfully enthusiastic at 72 - has been making documentaries for more than 40 years; Chris Hegedus, his wife since 1982, has been his directing partner for the past two decades.

Pennebaker was one of a team of film-makers (including Richard Leacock and Albert Maysles) who, in the early 1960s, devised the portable, hand- held camera equipment that formed the basis for the cinema verite movement. The documentary revolution was as much an ideological as a technological one; the verite films discarded preachy narration in favour of watchful fly- on-the-wall neutrality and championed non-judgmental observation as the purest form of documentation. While the definition of a documentary has grown ever more mutable (see Errol Morris's open-ended philosophical inquiries and Nick Broomfield's decidedly participatory free-for-alls), the abiding influence of the verite school is undeniable. Pennebaker, for his part, is wary of definitions. "The problem with everything getting labelled," he says, "is that people start looking for walls between the labels."

Arguably the pre-eminent chronicler of Sixties counterculture, Pennebaker is best known for the priceless rockumentaries Don't Look Back and Monterey Pop. The former, filmed during Bob Dylan's 1965 UK tour, captured an incipient messiah at his most human; the latter, with remarkable live footage of Janis Joplin, Ravi Shankar and an incendiary Jimi Hendrix, affectionately immortalised the Summer of Love and paved the way for Woodstock. Pennebaker and Hegedus's collaborations include The Energy War, an improbable five- hour epic about then-president Jimmy Carter's gas deregulation bill; 101, an undervalued 1989 Depeche Mode road movie; and, most recently, the Oscar- nominated War Room, a witty behind-the-scenes look at Bill Clinton's first presidential campaign, starring the candidate's intrepid strategists and spin doctors.

This year has been a successful one for the quietly prolific couple. Their latest film, Moon Over Broadway, was widely praised at the Toronto Film Festival in September (it opens theatrically in the US in February). A funny and often painfully revealing backstage documentary, the movie charts - from rehearsals to closing night - comedienne Carol Burnett's return to Broadway in the recent production Moon Over Buffalo. Also, Pennebaker and Hegedus have been attracting attention for their contributions to the new weekly public-television series Sessions at West 54th.

For American music fans sick of MTV's laboured hipness and VH1's fogeyish nostalgia, the Sessions are a godsend. Since its debut in July, the series has earned a reputation as the most adventurous live-music showcase on American television. Hosted and booked by influential Santa Monica-based DJ Chris Douridas (the man credited with turning Beck's "Loser" into a hit) and featuring interview segments filmed by Pennebaker and Hegedus, the show has attracted acts as diverse as Patti Smith, Philip Glass, Sonic Youth, Bill Frisell, Beck, Tricky, Tindersticks, Rickie Lee Jones, David Byrne, Yo-Yo Ma, and Wynton Marsalis. The amiable, laid-back Douridas is, not unlike Jools Holland, genuinely enthusiastic about his guests and nearly always capable of putting them at ease, as becomes evident in the interviews, which are shot in characteristic off-the-cuff style, zooms, pans and all.

Douridas says he approached Pennebaker because he "wanted to duplicate the intimacy of a radio interview. With Pennebaker, you forget the camera's there and yet he has it over his shoulder the entire time. He has a way of disarming people." Although Pennebaker's involvement is restricted to 10 minutes of interviews in each hour-long episode, he apparently exerts pulling power, not only among viewers but performers. Douridas says the prospect of meeting the veteran film-maker lured the chronically diffident Scottish band Belle and Sebastian into giving their first television performance (they had a song called "Like Dylan in the Movies" on their last album). "They were very shy," recalls Pennebaker. "I really liked them."

He found it invigorating being exposed to new music again, and enjoyed nothing more than sitting in on the rehearsals with his 15-year-old son Kit, a big Sonic Youth and Beck fan. "You could hear the ideas germinating and it was miraculous. A lot of the time, I was spellbound." Douridas says he's grateful to Pennebaker and Hegedus for participating in the Sessions, acknowledging that it's "not really what they do".

Moon Over Broadway is, however, exactly what they do, at its best - classic verite storytelling, defined by privileged moments and casually telling behaviour. "Sometimes you notice that you're filming something so incredible you can't believe you're getting this on film," says Hegedus, then adds with laugh, "usually you're missing it on film." The most fundamental aspect of their kind of film-making is, she says, "the gradual process of getting to know the people you're filming, gaining their trust and confidence". "Showing the completed film to them is always a different situation, though," she admits. "Most of them are in shock," laughs Pennebaker.

Before she saw Moon Over Broadway, Burnett was unaware that her famed fondness for histrionics - her speciality, no less - was causing the director and the writer some alarm. Nor did the writer Ken Ludwig (Crazy For You) know that the producers, hoping to spice up his feeble farce (supposedly modelled on Feydeau), had considered hiring a joke doctor - who, in a surreal twist, also happened to be a dentist. It turned out that no one was overly offended. "We're very lucky," says Hegedus, "that everyone stepped aside and was able to recognise the film for what it was and as what really happened."

The cumulative nature of these films means that it is an incredible effort to construct them; typically, a huge amount of footage (about 80 hours in this case) is pared down to feature length in the editing room. Hegedus jokes, "We usually get divorced once or twice during the editing process." The filming itself is a test of the directors' vigilance and unobtrusiveness. "You're not hiding, but you're not concentrating on the shot," explains Pennebaker. "You operate on a private impulse - you film when it crosses your mind, sometimes for no explicable reason. Chris may not even know I'm shooting, or I may not know she's taking sound, until later when we berate each other. People don't think of movies as being made this way, by two people with a camera. They tend to think movies are made in big factories on the West Coast."

For the verite documentarist, film-making can be a frustrating process, full of missed opportunities. Pennebaker offers an analogy: "It's like if you got permission to film Columbus, but then found out you couldn't film beyond the port. It's tough. You often miss things that you think are your reasons for making the film, but it usually works out." Hegedus says this was precisely the case with The War Room. "We went through the entire film upset because we were trying to do a film about a man becoming President and we never really got access to Clinton. It was only when we watched all our footage that we realised we had this other wonderful story."

The stresses are made more bearable by the fact that theirs is a close partnership (and, to some degree, a family enterprise; Pennebaker's oldest son, Frazer, has been producing their films since the early 1980s). "Making films together is a real act of faith," says Pennebaker. Hegedus adds, "It can be gruelling working on these movies. You don't know what's happening, you don't have a script, you're always hoping, you have to be there all the time. It can be very isolating. But," she concludes, "to experience it with someone you really trust makes it very worthwhile."

'Moon Over Broadway' will be on BBC TV in 1998.