art feature
 October 08, 2010

 

90 Years of Cinematic Confections: An Interview with Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker
by Dan Lybarger

Documentary filmmakers Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker may not be household names, but their films have captured Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, John F. Kennedy, Bill Clinton and future senator Al Franken as their stars were rising. Because the two have been making movies together and apart since 1954, there’s a pretty good chance you’ve seen some of their footage without even knowing it.

Donn Allen “Penny” Pennebaker was born in 1925 and has been making films since 1953. He edited the 1960 breakthrough documentary Primary, which captured the Wisconsin Democratic primary where Kennedy took on Hubert Humphrey. His 1967 documentary Don’t Look Back featured Bob Dylan touring England and giving reporters who hadn’t done their homework a much-needed scolding, while Monterrey Pop had star-making performances by Joplin, Hendrix and the Who.

DA Pennebaker filming Bob Dylan for Eat The Document

Pennebaker started working with Hegedus in the late 1970s and has been married to her ever since. The two have collaborated on The War Room, which chronicled Bill Clinton’s successful pursuit of the White House in 1992 and Moon over Broadway, which features Carol Burnett attempting a stage comeback. She also co-directed Startup.com, which unknowingly followed the demise of the dot.com bubble and Al Franken: God Spoke, which features the comedian becoming a forceful pundit.

Together the two have 90 years experience of making movies and have received an Oscar nomination for The War Room. They’ve also created thousands of indelible moments such as Dylan flipping signs to “Subterranean Homesick Blues” in Don’t Look Back and George Stephanopoulos calmly dressing down a Ross Perot operative in The War Room or David Bowie giving his last “Ziggy” concert in Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.

Their latest film Kings of Pastry proves that even cooking can be oddly engrossing even if you can’t try the dishes on screen. The two follow 16 chefs as they compete in the challenging Meilleurs Ouvriers de France (or Best Craftsmen in France) bake off. The event is held every four years, and only admits the best of the best as participants. The MOF is so prestigious that French President Nicolas Sarkozy is on hand to help reward the winners with a coveted red, white and blue collar. If you see a chef wearing one of those, your mouth may never recover from the joy of what you’re about to eat.

These chefs don’t make mere cakes. These are often delicately crafted sculptures that take an astonishingly amount of practice and precision.

If time has dulled Hegedus and Pennebaker’s skills, the wear and tear aren’t on screen. As of this writing, Kings of Pastry has an 82 percent approval rating on RottenTomatoes.com, and it opens at the Screenland Crown Center this Friday. Contacted by phone from their home in New York, Hegedus and Pennebaker have a fascinating past to recall, but it’s remarkable how easily both seem prepared to face the present and the future.

Chefs Jacquy Pfeiffer, left, and Sebastien Canonne at the French Pastry School in Chicago, as seen in Kings of Pastry. Photo Credit: Paul Strabbing

Dan Lybarger: In the audio commentary tracks for Ziggy Stardust and Don’t Look Back, you said that you really don’t direct your films even though you have that credit on your films.

D. A. Pennebaker: We don’t direct. If you have somebody who’s interesting, who knows something, you’re not really paying attention if you’re directing them. What you really want is what they know.

Chris Hegedus: Since we film real life stories, you’re not going to be directing real life, what you’re going to do is hook on to your subject and hold on and try to follow it. And that’s hard because a lot of times they’re not telling you exactly what’s going on. You have to figure it out, and I think that’s part of the gamble in making these films. You miss the playing field between you and the person you’re filming.

Pennebaker: You’re sort of solving the case. You’re like a detective, and you’re looking for clues because basically people who do know something or who are really smart generally don’t throw it out on the street. They kind of keep it to themselves because that’s their jewel that they trust. So you have to kind of be watchful and find ways of doing things they’re interested in and find ways of filming them so that you can see that.

Lybarger: That’s what you’re doing with Kings of Pastry because the chefs go to great lengths to make sure their creations don’t taste like anybody else’s.

Pennebaker: They produce material that is perceived as almost perfect. That’s the test of a good pastry cook. If you had somebody turning out the kind of things that I would turn out on a Sunday morning, they would not be an art form.

Lybarger: Interesting. What do you turn out on a Sunday morning?

Pennebaker: I make toast, usually. I’m known for my waffles with all my children because there are quite a few of them.

Hegedus: And those are pretty good.

Pennebaker: They’re OK. I have to admit; I get them right out of what’s-her-name’s cookbook. I add a few frills, but nothing serious. It’s not on the same level as watching (Jacquy) Pfeiffer making a round cake. That’s like somebody painting the Madonna. It’s heavy duty.

Lybarger: These folks are both visual and culinary artists.

Pennebaker: They’re artists in whatever kind of way you perceive artists. It’s interesting because you would never for your birthday have somebody make you a six-foot cake out of sugar.

Hegedus: The skills to make those type of things, especially the sugar sculptures, they’re much more than cooking. They’re more kind of chemistry and especially engineering and physics, really. Those things just don’t stay in the balanced way you see some of the sculptures you see in the competition without knowing that type of information.

Pennebaker: It’s a kind of theater: The theater of the kitchen, which you need because one kitchen is always competing with another kitchen for your breakfast money. They have to do more than just fill a bowl with some oatmeal. You have to put things on a table that you can choose. You’ve never had anything as good as that. That’s what they want to do.

Lybarger: From watching the film, it seems that food isn’t the most stable of construction materials. A sculpture that stands properly one day is fragile the next.

Pennebaker: Humidity is the great villain in sugar cooking.

Hegedus: There are so many different variables. They have variables in them that we don’t even know. A lot of the measuring is so precise. When we made this film, we couldn’t use radio mics because they would throw off their scales because they measured so minutely with these ingredients.

Pennebaker: Miligrams.

Lybarger: In addition to the mics, the hallways looked really narrow. Was it tricky negotiating them?

Hegedus: It was very funny, especially the doorway out. I just loved the shot I was getting of these chefs carrying these five-foot sugar sculptures, and they couldn’t get them under the doorway. So they’d be crouched down trying to carry them. It was pretty phenomenal.

Pennebaker: And they were running because they were short of time.

Lybarger: One competitor came within five seconds of failing. (To Pennebaker) Isn’t it true you used to be a linebacker?

Pennebaker: Actually, I was a quarterback, but then when I went into the Navy and later went to Iowa, the coach said I’m going to put you at linebacker. After first, they put me in as a guard, which I really didn’t want to do. I could be destroyed at that, and I wasn’t very heavy.

Hegedus: He didn’t have a serious sports career.

Lybarger: I mentioned it because from the photos I’ve seen of you, you appear to be a pretty big guy. Is it tough to be a fly on the wall when you stand out in a crowd?

Hegedus: He got a little bigger eating all that pastry (laughs).

Pennebaker: It’s all attitude. Attitude makes you big or small.

Lybarger: Now with you, Chris, I heard in an interview on Fresh Air that you said that being women helped you and Jehane Noujaim blend in more easily

Hegedus: I don’t think it was blending in. What we said there was that we were filming pretty much a male world also at that point, which was the beginning of the startup-entrepreneurs, where a lot of them were very alpha males — both on the entrepreneurial side and on the investment side. So being two women with cameras, it kind of gave us access in a way that was interesting. I think more than anything you have to establish a relationship with your subjects. And a lot of that is based on trust and respect.

I think if they think you take what they’re doing seriously, they’ll take you into their lives.

Lybarger: The MOF is such a cultural institution in France. Was it tough for them to trust a couple of Americans?

Hegedus: I think that was very much the case. They didn’t know who we were, and as a matter of fact, I don’t even think a lot of the films that people here might know of ours or Penny’s on Bob Dylan (Don’t Look Back) or Janis Joplin (Monterrey Pop) or Clinton (The War Room). They didn’t mean that much to the chefs. I think what they went on was the opinion of Sebastien Canonne, one of our characters in the film and a partner and coach for Jacquy Pfeiffer.

Pennebaker: He was our linebacker.

Hegedus: He was part of this chefs’ brotherhood, and he vouched for us.

Lybarger: Even though you have uncertainty hanging over your heads, your movies have tons of dramatic moments, like the one where George Stephenopolous chews out that Ross Perot operative or when one chef’s delicately crafted creation falls apart.

Pennebaker: Well, it’s chance, you know. Making these films is a game of chance, and the harder and more you do it, the luckier you get.

Lybarger: I’ve only seen Startup.com once, but the scene where dot.com entrepreneur Kaleil Tuzman refuses to get off the phone so that he and his girlfriend can start their vacation has haunted me to this day.

Hegedus: I know. He was obsessed. I think that’s a common denominator in a lot of our films is that these people are totally obsessed and passionate about what they’re doing, and that’s what makes it so riveting. And I think that what makes us be able to film in the way that we do is because they are so totally focused on what they’re doing that after a while, they just can’t worry about you filming.

Pennebaker: And also you’re holding up a mirror to them, and they are interested in kind of seeing how well they’re pulling it off.

Lybarger: From watching Bob Dylan, David Bowie, James Carville, Kaleil Tuzman and Jacquy Pfeiffer, it obvious they’re got the same obsessiveness, but they apply it to different fields.

Pennebaker: Well, they have to be. It requires that kind of concentration, but all hard and good work does. Writers have to take parts of their life and just abdicate them in order to be able to face the page or a machine or however they’re doing it.

Hegedus: It’s people going for the best and pushing themselves to the limit. They have to have that kind of personality where they really, really want to win and really have the outcome that they’re trying to do, whether it’s electing a president or creating a multimillion-dollar company. It’s a lot of work, and unless you work hard with that type of focus, I don’t think it’s going to happen.

Pennebaker: Just imagine making a cake over and over again. The guy (Pfeiffer) said there were like 20 different tastes. Imagine you had 20 different tastes, and you had to decide which one was the best. I can hardly tell the difference, so it did seem like the work of a genius to me.

Lybarger: I can see that in your musical films because to the untrained ear, one Wilson Pickett performance sounds like the next.

Pennebaker: Well, sort of. It depends how much you listen to, I guess.

But you’re right. With musicians, you don’t really have to make a judgment about which is their best anything. They’ve done that in their time on the stage. They’ve persuaded people that they know something that no other musician can quite get out. That’s what you’re recording on the film. Musicians are a little different from this, but there is an aspect of genius that you’re looking for.

Lybarger: You two have been pioneers at handling sound and picture at the same time. I can still see in my head that image of you hidden behind Dylan while he’s at the piano. We take it for granted today, but what was so tricky about handling the image and the sound in a documentary?

Pennebaker: Well, it took two people because the sound was recorded on a recording machine, usually a Nagra (a Swiss-made battery powered tape recorder, that used to be the industry standard) or a tape recorder. And the film was run on a camera. And they were usually run by two different people.

Our problem for a long time was to get them to sync up. The cameras that were around when we started didn’t do that. And that took a couple of years to sort out, so that when you were out somewhere in the desert filming somebody talking, that the soundtrack from the tape recorder would match the film that you were shooting.

Hegedus: Basically, you had to line up the audio and the picture to kind of run them together to make them sync sound. And both of the different machines would be running at slightly different speeds. So part of the challenge was to make some kind of common denominator so you could have them meshed in the end.

One of the challenges in following real life things is that when you’re not able to tell people to stop and do it over again, is that shooting on 16mm film only lasted 10 minutes for a reel. And then you had to step under a little black bag or do something and change the reel on your camera, which was a big interruption.

Luckily, the sound went a little bit longer, so you could keep recording sound, and the picture would come back in. The challenge was to shoot cutaways, do it other ways, find other stylistic means to continue your story. And we did that right through Moon over Broadway.

Startup.com was really the first film that we shot in digital. It was when digital cameras first came out and an acceptably sophisticated medium not only to record (film picture and) sound but also to be able to reproduce them on 35mm film so that you could save them on what was a stable medium.

Pennebaker: And put them in a theater.

Lybarger: Getting back to Kings of Pastry. Ms. Hegedus, you say that you’ve come from a long family of cooks is that correct?

Hegedus: Yeah, I do. In some part of my family, part of it is quite distant where it’s my great-grandfather and my grandfather, both of whom were chefs. One of them went along a path that was quite similar to most of the chefs in Kings of Pastry where at 15 you were an apprentice to a baker in Europe. And then he moved to the United States, and then he opened two confectionaries and chocolate stores in New York City.

My real influence was my grandmother I think on my other side of the family. And she wasn’t a professional chef. She was my Hungarian grandmother. She was a fabulous chef. I grew up with just incredibly complicated baking and food.

Lybarger: Your approach is just about the opposite of what I see on a typical Food Network show, where you have this almost Machiavellian competition.

Pennebaker: Well, they’re going for a different thing. Remember, in the MOF competition, you get no money, you just get this piece of ribbon to put around your neck for the rest of your life. I can see the producers on the TV show trying to persuade a big time chef that this wasn’t enough.

Hegedus: Not only do you not get any money but you practically mortgage your house and wreck your family life because you’ve been so obsessed at practicing this thing for so many years. The competition is just so incredibly grueling. That’s what you’ve seen in our competition. They had to do the same thing for two days in order to be chosen for the three-day competition that you see in Kings of Pastry. It’s just an enormous expense for chefs. And that’s a huge difference.

Chef Jacquy Pfeiffer Photo Credit: Paul Strabbing

And then it’s something that’s real for their lives. It’s an award that has cultural and historical value. It’s known throughout France. If you see a shop that has the tri-color sign outside saying that this chef has won this competition, people really go to that chef. They know that those people are the best.

I think we were also interested in who these people are, more than the cooking shows, and in seeing their lives and their families a bit and in seeing what the stakes really are for them.

Lybarger: It looks like the competition has taken quite a toll on Rachel, Jacquy’s girlfriend.

Hegedus: She should get a prize as well (laughs). Definitely. It’s horrible. They live those moments with them. One of the reasons we decided to do this film was when we went to lunch with Jacquy, and he told the story about Rachel waking him up every night and telling him that the competition has been cancelled so that he didn’t have these horrible nightmares about it.

It was kind of incredible because it was like, “Wow! This is so important to this person.” This means that much that he’s just having these fearful, terrifying nightmares.

Lybarger: Unlike your some of your previous movies, you actually have the subjects talk to the camera about what they’re doing. I don’t think this competition would be understandable to outsiders without them.

Hegedus: It’s a different culture, and people don’t know about it. And also there was a big language barrier for me and Penny because we don’t speak French, so to speak, enough to really make the film in a way that was...

Pennebaker: That you could just watch.

Hegedus: Or that we knew answered some of the things we were trying to get at.

Pennebaker: The thing is it isn’t like we’ve avoided doing interviews. The fact is in all our films the people who want to talk to us were perfectly happy to listen to them and talk back. And in many of the other films, you’ll find, for instance, in The War Room, James talks to us sometimes. It’s just that we’re part of the process itself. We don’t always mean to be, but we are because they take it into that. We’re part of their group. And exchanges with them are perfectly reasonable to us. That’s part of the filmmaking.

Hegedus: In our type of films, you have to work with the challenges and use them as excuses but use them to think of solutions. And stylistically we had a lot of them. In the competition, we weren’t allowed to have lights or boom microphones (large overhead microphones) or anything, so we had to find a way to tell the story using these challenges to our advantage.

Lybarger: How much sampling did you do of these pastries?

Pennebaker: From time-to-time you’d take a bite, but you’re so focused on the process of being sure you’re getting whatever it is that’s important at that moment, that eating is kind of not a big deal.

Hegedus: I didn’t eat anything during the three-day competition, which was a little bit difficult (laughs) after days of watching these delicious things being created. But during the practicing aspect we sampled what a lot of these chefs were doing, particularly our main characters, and their pastries are really amazing.

I think our favorite is that wedding cake that Jacquy made. It was so complex and delicious. Every bite had a different texture. I almost learned how to taste pastry in a way that you would learn to taste wine.

Pennebaker: It’s not a cake you generally see because I don’t think it’s cost-effective. You can’t sell it with anything like the amount it costs to make it.

Lybarger: You two have been really good about recording commentary track for the DVDs for your films, even with the older ones. Your comments sometimes help younger viewers better understand some of what we’re watching.

Hegedus: That’s nice. I’m glad you think that. A lot of that has to go to the skills of a lot of the people who are putting out our DVDs. And one of them is this woman, Kim Hendrickson, who’s worked at New Video and Criterion, and she’s just fabulous. And both of those companies, they love film, and they love the history behind film and especially at Criterion who are going to put out The War Room again for us. They just do things at such a high level of expertise and competence and archival restoration. They’re really a gift to the cinema world.

Lybarger: I discovered that I had seen more of your films than I thought I had because I’m a huge Dylan fan.

Pennebaker: It’s amazing how he’s persisted, and nobody knows why. Dylan doesn’t know why. The one thing that he’s determined to do is that he’s a singer. He’s like some medieval creature that goes around putting out lights in all the towns or something. That’s what he does, and he’ll do it till he dies. And it doesn’t matter if he gets 100 people in a gym somewhere or the biggest stadium you can find. It’s the same thing.

Lybarger: Speaking of Dylan, your footage of him flipping the signs to “Subterranean Homesick Blues” has recently been used in a commercial for Google. How did you feel about that?

Pennebaker: We were paid for the ad ... so any way that filmmakers can get paid for their films is to be sought after eagerly. Where are you calling us from?

Lybarger: I’m afraid to say Kansas City. One of our local critics blasted Don’t Look Back when it first opened. Dennis Stack, the Kansas City Star’s second-string critic at the time, called it “the worst movie I’ve ever seen.” (both laugh)

Pennebaker: Kansas City is the home of a lot of my favorite jazz musicians from the ‘30s and ‘40s. Everybody was working their way up to Chicago because that’s where all the crooks used to live and spent a lot of money in the clubs.

About the music, and what I remembered of the people who started and played it: It was a big name for me, Kansas City. Most of the musicians I associate with Kansas City really originated elsewhere in Missouri, but since the big clubs were in Kansas City, I always assumed that was where they lived, at least during the music part of their lives. 

I know that Benny Moten was Kansas City and Basie, stuck there in a band layover, took root with him and as well Walter Page, Lester Young and even, I believe, Coleman Hawkins. And some of my favorites, though lesser known, Red McKenzie, Pee Wee Russell, Teschemacher and of course Joe Turner, Mighty Joe Turner, the voice that replaced Rushing with Basie wailing “Shake Rattle and Roll.”

I'm sure that there were many others I don't remember or didn't know, but Kansas City was always the beginning of a certain kind of driving big band sound that led to Fletcher Henderson and the great swing music of the thirties. I know because I still have some of the old 78's to prove it.

Lybarger: Except for Don’t Look Back and Ziggy Stardust, most of your films have been domestic. Is that correct?

Hegedus: No. The largest concert we ever filmed was for a German rock star named Marius Müller-Westernhagen (Keine Zeit). And he loved Dylan also and had seen our films, and asked if we could do a film of his concert tour. We did it in the mid-‘90s. He played at stadiums that I think were the largest that we filmed because he was the German competition to say, the Rolling Stones if they came on tour in Germany. He was just as big as they were. It was incredible. It’s an interesting film, but it’s all in German so nobody sees it.

Lybarger: Would it be fair to say that a lot of your stuff is commissioned?

Hegedus: Well, no it’s not necessarily that it’s commissioned. Music stuff is often commissioned because you can get a record company involved in it. For example, when we did Depeche Mode, we had Warner Bros. involved with us, but for a film like Kings of Pastry, we’re still trying to raise money (laughs).

We get a lot of our support from European broadcasters. They tend to understand some of our films better. There’s very few slots for independent one-off documentaries on American television. In the U.S. there are some slots for individual documentaries, but they tend to be very political or somewhat sensational, so our films tend to fall somewhere in-between like Kings of Pastry or the kind of, you know, “delightful” film category. I don’t know where you’d put it.

Lybarger: Even though you shy away from sensationalism, the ending to Kings of Pastry is pretty dramatic and moving.

Hegedus: I know. There are a lot of twists and turns in the story. You don’t know when you start making these films, but I think they’re very moving for people because they reflect more people’s real life experiences because not everybody wins. Maybe your dream doesn’t get fulfilled in that way, but life steps in in some other way and fulfills it in some way that’s better than you could ever imagine.

It was interesting for me when I was editing this film because when you watch life kind of go by past a second time, you can see where things went wrong for people, and I probably understand what went wrong or right for some of these competitors more than they do.

Pennebaker: The fact is we’re making history by little chunks. It’s not the history that maybe your father was teaching, but in the long run, maybe years from now, it may be the history that people want to read. It’s a little like Herodotus (the Ancient Greek historian who lived from 484 B.C. to 430 or 420 B.C.). He’s one of the most interesting writers I’ve ever read. He took history just by tiny chunks. And when you read the whole thing, what you get is such a fantastic idea of what it was like to live back 2,000 years ago, that it’s like going there. It’s an amazing effect that taking tiny chunks ends up as something much bigger than you would expect. You can’t undertake to do the whole thing in one sweep.

Sometimes when people get a camera and decide “I’ve got to make a big film.” And first of all they think of the films that come out of Hollywood, in which a lot of money has gone into the conception and the writing. And of course, they don’t have that.

They think, “I’d better pick out an important subject, say orphans in Cambodia. That would be a good idea. That’ll be important.” The problem isn’t that they haven’t picked a good subject. They just don’t know enough about it. Therefore, there are films made by people who don’t know a lot, and you don’t want to spend time watching them because you’d rather read a book by somebody who knows something.

That isn’t always going to be the case. The talent is always drawn to money. As more and more documentaries get some kind of status and more and more get their costs back, smarter and smarter people are going to make them. And it’s going to be a different sort of voice than entertainment films, not just necessarily a more intelligent voice, a more wide-ranging voice. The furthest the Hollywood film has been able to range is cartoons. And that only holds you for a little bit, you can’t watch cartoons endlessly. So I think there’s a big future for this kind of filmmaking. It just hasn’t quite happened yet.

Dan Lybarger can be contacted at Lybarger@efilmcritic.com.