This film is airing in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of JFK's inauguration.
The footage in this documentary is over 40 years old. Why did you decide to make the film all these years later?
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.
How did you get so close to the president for an extended period of time?
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.'
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.
What sort of hand-held cameras were available at the time?
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.
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?
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 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.