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Interview with Robert Drew

President Kennedy at desk

Program Note:

This film is airing in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of JFK's inauguration.

HBO

The footage in this documentary is over 40 years old. Why did you decide to make the film all these years later?

Robert Drew

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.

HBO

How did you get so close to the president for an extended period of time?

Robert Drew

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.'

HBO

How did he react to seeing the film?

Robert Drew

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.

HBO

What sort of hand-held cameras were available at the time?

Robert Drew

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.

HBO

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?

Robert Drew

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.

"[This film] gave birth to a number of films on Kennedy in which reality filming was used and advanced. The coverage of Kennedy was different than it had been of previous presidents."

HBO

How much of an effect did your first film about Kennedy, 'Primary,' have on the president's legacy?

Robert Drew

It showed the filmmaking world the possibilities of conveying more than a lecture film would. That gave birth to a number of films on Kennedy in which reality filming was used and advanced. The coverage of Kennedy was different than it had been of previous presidents, in that you could see for yourself what was happening and get a feel for what it would be like to be there with the man.

HBO

You covered a lot of tense moments in the White House. When did Kennedy seem to be the most troubled?

Robert Drew

The president was given a description of the scene at the University of Alabama where the Governor was standing at the schoolhouse door to prevent the integration of two black students. As Bobby Kennedy, in his role as the attorney general, explained the situation to the president -- that's when he looked most grave and most concerned. I think that's clear in the picture.

HBO

In 2008, many people were drawing a parallel between Kennedy and another senator with an unorthodox background who rode a groundswell of support to secure his party's nomination. What do you make of the comparison of Presidents Kennedy and Obama?

Robert Drew

I do see similarities. First of all, they were both elected against terrible odds. Secondly, each of them is articulate and intelligent. They can express themselves and lead other people to do things... The similarities with Obama came as a surprise to me.

HBO

Your approach has been referred to as Direct Cinema. How do you feel about today's political documentaries and news?

Robert Drew

There's a wide range today of documentaries on politics. The central mass of it is made by networks, and nothing's changed. The only thing that has changed is that the numbers of cameras and reporters have doubled every few years. When we made 'Primary,' it was just one camera. We were trying to make ourselves inconspicuous. Today, people seem to dislike being inconspicuous.

A President To Remember: In The Company of John F. Kennedy