By Aaron Hillis
[Photo: Tom Petty and Peter Bogdanovich during the filming of “Runnin’ Down a Dream: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers,” East End Management, 2007]
Hey, isn’t that Dr. Melfi’s shrink from “The Sopranos”? Maybe that’s all he is to a younger generation, but to anyone with half a clue about Hollywood history, the 68-year-old Peter Bogdanovich is sooner noted as the director of film classics like “What’s Up Doc?”, “Targets,” and two bona fide masterworks: “The Last Picture Show” and “Paper Moon.” Plenty’s been written about the bespectacled, scarf-wearing icon (His encyclopedic knowledge of John Ford and Howard Hawks! His affair with young Cybil Shepherd! His life-long friendship to Orson Welles!), so what more needs to be added now, except… How in the world did he end up helming a 253-minute documentary (yes, over four hours) about aging Southern rocker Tom Petty? “Runnin’ Down a Dream: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers,” which screened at this year’s New York Film Festival and which will be released this week as an extensive four-disc box set, is unmistakably the most comprehensive document ever recorded on the underrated, 17-time Grammy nominee. And to be perfectly honest, that running time breezes by quicker than a dissipating cloud of pot smoke, thanks largely to some well-curated performances, sharp editing and surprisingly intimate footage that the masses have never before seen. I was fortunate enough to sit down with the quite-avuncular Bogdanovich to talk about Petty and the director’s newfound appreciation for rockin’ out.
The film’s extended length may have been unavoidable since you seem to have made two full films in one: the artist’s portrait and the concert doc. Why not one or the other?
I felt that here we are telling the story of a guy and his band over a period of 30 years. What are they doing? They’re making music. Well, how can we really do a definitive work about this band without showing the result of what they were doing? In some cases, I felt the performances warranted being seen from beginning to end because that’s part of what Tom is. The songs aren’t just great, he’s a terrific performer. When you see him singing or the band playing their instruments, you’re interested because you get to know them. “Oh look, it’s Benmont, he’s really playing up a storm.” Or Mike, who’s so cool he hardly makes any expressions, listen to what he’s doing. It’s like if you’re making a film about a great filmmaker and you say he’s a great filmmaker, you have to show some sequences. You gotta let them run sometimes so you can see what you’re dealing with. That’s how I felt. You couldn’t really make a movie about a man and his music without showing a lot of the music. If you like rock and roll, I don’t see how you can resist it. I really wanted it to be comprehensive, the full monty.
Still, four hours might be a tough sell considering it’s more a celebration than a critical exploration. How do you think this will play to those who aren’t fans?
I don’t know. We were really thinking of the fans, people who like Tom Petty. That was our main concern, as was: how much did it interest me? I could have added another half hour, probably songs that I would have liked to play longer, like “Crawling Back to You” or “The Best of Everything,” which is a song I love. But we kept saying while we were making it: If it plays, it doesn’t matter how long it is. And if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t matter how short it is. The only way you can tell is if it flows, and the only way to tell that is to sit through it, and see if there’s any place where you say: “This isn’t working.” We talked at one point toward the end about making a shorter version for easier distribution. But Tom and I both felt that here we knocked ourselves both out to make this complete… how could we do that? If we could’ve made a shorter version that worked, we would have. And if we make it now, we’ll always be saying, “Well, you should see the longer one.” [laughs]
You were pretty unfamiliar with Petty’s work prior to jumping onboard, no?
Right, I wasn’t a fan. But I’m not of the generation. When rock and roll came in, I was into Sinatra, then I got into jazz and Armstrong, and then I got into country because I did “The Last Picture Show.” I did get into rock and roll, sort of, with The Beatles and then later, in the ’80s, with Bruce, because I knew him. So it wasn’t alien to me, but it wasn’t something that I was chasing after. I think that’s one of the reasons there’s a certain freshness to the movie, because it wasn’t old to me. It wasn’t like I knew any of the songs well. I had heard a few of them, but I didn’t know the story nor the music.
But I did use quite a bit of rock and roll in a film I made called “Mask.” In fact, we had Bruce Springsteen’s music and then we had to take it out. But now it’s back in the DVD version of “Mask.” We have the full Springsteen score, and Little Richard, Gary Bonds, and I got into some ’60s rock.
It’s funny, I find this collaboration so fascinating because of your tastes. I’d sooner associate you with Cole Porter than Bruce Springsteen.
That’s because I did a lousy movie with Cole Porter music… “At Long Last Turkey.”
Are you really that down on “At Long Last Love?” I usually find that the most notorious commercial bombs tend to be better than the masses like to give them credit for.
Well, you know, it wasn’t good enough. It should’ve been better. I’m going to see if Fox will put it out in a correct version, because there have been, like, six versions of it. But I’m not dying to put it out. It’s okay, it’s a curiosity.
What did you learn about rock music itself through Petty?
Size. It has enormous size for me. The concerts start kind of intimate, then build, and it finally has kind of the size onstage that you get from grand opera, a really great opera performance, which there aren’t very many of. But when they really get big, really good, they have a size to them that’s colossal, the music and the voice, it’s the best. I felt that with Tom, and I said that to him. He said, “I’ve never seen an opera.” I said, “You don’t have to, I’ll tell you.” The audience gets that lift, too. There’s enormous precision to the music and yet, it’s instinctual. It has to be a certain way. I don’t know if he could even analyze why, it’s just the way he works.
Petty’s sold the records, won the awards, and remained uncompromised. But in the rock pantheon, he’s fallen through the cracks compared to many of his peers. Did you feel that while making the film, like you were unearthing a treasure?
Yes, I felt he was underrated. He’s very popular with the people, but the critics seem to take him for granted. Or they seem to not understand the profundity, or depth of humanity, he brings to the work. I think they will, and maybe this movie will help. It’s an amazing career when you look at it. He’s kept the nucleus of that band together for 30 years. It’s extraordinary. As Warren Zane says, “Name me another.” The fact of the matter is, he has many loyal fans. They understand him and the work, and that’s what it’s all about for him. The more I worked on it, the more I said: “This guy is really top notch, you know?” He’s a very important artist.
You originally bonded with Petty over a single dinner conversation, ironically about four hours long. What did you two have in common to talk about?
Well, Tom’s a big movie fan. He watches Turner Classic Movies all the time. When he goes on tour, the hotel has to have TCM or he won’t stay in the room. One of the first things we talked about was “Rio Bravo,” which is the first clip [shown in the doc]. He loves that movie, and I do too. I think westerns, Hawks and Ford were a bonding element. He also loved the documentary I did on Ford, and volunteered to do a promo for it on TCM. He liked “The Last Picture Show” and “Paper Moon.” Those are a couple of his favorite films; that was why he had asked for me. The conversation, I’m told, is that [legendary producer] George Drakoulis brought my name up as a possibility to direct this, and Tom said: “Can we get him?” George said: “Can we get you?” I said, “You got me.”
But you’re not a guy who needs to take work-for-hire. Do you have personal projects in the works?
Yeah, I’ve got a bunch of things I want to make. The vagaries of the business are such that I can’t say necessarily which film I’ll be making first, but I’ve got a thriller kind of a trailer-trash melodrama that I’m working on called “Killer Joe,” based on an off-Broadway play by Tracy Letts, a very good writer. He’s adapted the script and I think we’re going to do that in the early part of next year. Where are we now, ’08? The ’00s have gone by so quickly. I have more things I want to do now than I think I ever have, it’s just a question of whether I’ll survive to make them all. I think so… I’m in pretty good shape.
“Runnin’ Down a Dream: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers” will be available as part of a CD/DVD box set on October 16th.