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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.

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.

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Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

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IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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