Tribeca ’08: Robert Drew on “A President to Remember”

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04272008_apresidenttoremember3.jpgBy Stephen Saito

[For complete coverage of the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival, check out IFC’s Tribeca page.]

If there’s any truth to the idea that what’s old can become new again, Robert Drew’s “A President to Remember: In the Company of John F. Kennedy” is a prime example. Free of the pressure to film sound bites and be caught up in a campaign’s spin room, Drew simply let the camera roll during the campaign and all-too-brief presidency of John F. Kennedy, creating an influential group of documentaries between 1960 and 1963: “Primary,” “Adventures on the New Frontier,” “Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment” and “Faces of November.” With an assemblage of filmmakers and journalists from his days as an editor at Life magazine (including Richard Leacock, D.A. Pennebaker and Albert Maysles) by his side, Drew pioneered the practice of cinéma vérité on what now seems like the least likely of subjects — the president. While Drew’s four films on the Kennedy Administration have been long available on DVD, “A President to Remember” is a bit of a CliffsNotes for the uninitiated, weaving together fly-on-the-wall footage from Kennedy’s early days on the campaign trail to his invasion of Cuba and his untimely death, with narration from Alec Baldwin tying everything together. But what sets “A President to Remember” apart from being just a greatest hits collection is how innovative Drew’s approach to filmmaking still seems (aided by the eternally fresh-faced Kennedy), especially when compared to the coverage of the current election cycle. On the eve of the film’s premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, Drew discussed why Kennedy was such an appealing subject and why, with no false modesty, all his films are masterpieces. (No disagreement here.)

How did this film come about?

I was struck by the fact that a number of generations have gone by since Kennedy’s death, which means that a number of generations of people never knew him or weren’t around when he was alive. The memory fades fast. At the same time, we’ve had a series of presidents and vice presidents who were quite different than Kennedy and some people feel badly about that and I had all this wonderful footage. I wanted to make a film that would tell people what it was like when we had a man who was generally admired in this country, 70% admired, and generally heralded around the world. I had a feeling that the country really needs a picture of itself at its best and people need to have hope and feeling that we have the right stuff, and so I thought if I made a film that showed this man the way he is, it might help establish a better feeling about ourselves.

What was it like for you personally to revisit the material and editing it together?

I’ll tell you I was stunned. I thought I had all this stuff in my mind already, but that man’s sense of humor and his wit kept me rolling in the aisles, especially the stuff which I didn’t shoot of his press conferences. He had a way of answering a hostile conference question — everybody would laugh, but he wouldn’t. Then he would. [laughs] And there are many other parts of the film where his decency and sense of honor and good thinking and good humor all came through — early on in the film, he responds to questions about his Catholicism and in the middle of it, he breaks into a laugh. And he’s quite serious. He doesn’t want to break into a laugh, but I have a feeling we’re seeing the man in a new way. Even though we might’ve seen some of these things before, being able to put them together like this moved me.

Had it long been an idea of yours to put these films together in some form?

Yes, but it had been back in the back of my mind. I’ll tell you, George W. Bush gave me a real impulse.

04272008_apresidenttoremember1.jpgDid you have to add footage to what you previously had?

Oh, yeah. It turned out that when I wanted to make a Kennedy film, not just [about] getting elected, not just about moving into the White House, not just about dying, but when I wanted to put all that together, I wanted material that I hadn’t shot, so I looked through all the Kennedy material that exists and selected items that would help connect the pieces I had.

Does it surprise you how fresh this still feels nearly 50 years later?

Yes, it did. It’s funny — when I’m editing, I’m usually a very serious guy and it’s usually a painful process for me, but in this film, I found myself laughing here and there and admiring here and there and wondering here and there. I was reacting to my own work and other people’s work, but it was more of an enjoyable experience than I’ve ever had editing a film.

You’ve said that Richard Nixon approached you to make a film about his presidency, but that it would have been a disaster. What was it about Kennedy that appealed to you as a filmmaker and what was it about Nixon that didn’t?

I’m going to give you the negative side first — people who are trying to fool you always reveal they’re trying to fool you. I don’t know how they do it — eye movements or word movements or stuttering, whatever — but Nixon simply gave himself away whenever he spoke, whatever he did — not enough not to get elected, but when his people came to me and asked me to make a film like “Primary” on Nixon, I said, “Listen, the worst thing you can do is make a candid film on Nixon.” And they said, “Oh, but he’s changed.” [laughs] I got a big laugh out of that, but I actually did put them in touch with a filmmaker who’d worked for me, knew how to do these things. They did commission a film and they liked it, but I thought it was devastating.

The main thing [with Kennedy] was the story. My job at Life magazine had been finding good stories for good photographers and that meant that some time in the future, something will happen and if we’re there and shooting in the right way with the right photographer, we can get something wonderful or amazing. I was looking for a story to use our first lightweight camera, which only weighed 50 pounds, and I saw the story of this young senator running for president — his own party was against him. Harry Truman, the previous president, was against him. His religion was against him — there had never been a Catholic president. And he was rich and he was campaigning mainly when I first saw him in the Midwest with a bunch of farmers who distrusted eastern people and rich people. So I thought what a wonderful story, and then I went to talk to Kennedy and I was confirmed that he would be a wonderful character.

How do you feel about your own legacy being tied to Kennedy’s?

Well, I considered that every film I made was a masterpiece and I thought that every film I made was worthy of whatever attention it gained, but as the time goes by, and it has — I’m now 84 — it turns out that the subject matter matters too and the subject matter of Kennedy has gained more attention for my films than any genius I could’ve display in editing them or making them. So it’s definitely helped shape my career in the sense that it helped shape the backing I could get for making other films.

How do you feel about how politics are being covered during this current election cycle?

From my standpoint, politics now are impossible to cover. That is, the network nightly news or CNN are about as good as you can get because none of the candidates have the confidence that Kennedy had to make their own decisions and let things happen. Everything is planned and plotted, and for somebody who wants to make candid films about what’s really happening, that’s impossible. You’ve got people looking over your shoulder when you shoot, people looking over your shoulder when you edit, and I would rather bow out than jump into it. If it were possible somehow to find a candidate who could allow the camera to shoot what happens, I would change my opinions, but right now, it’s much too organized to hope that you could shoot candidly.

[Photos: “A President to Remember,” Drew Associates, 2008]

For more on “A President to Remember,” check out the official site here.



Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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GIFs via Giphy

Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”


IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?

Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!

Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.

Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 


IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.


New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…


IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.


IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.


The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”


Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).



Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.


And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.