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DID YOU READ

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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Final Countdown

The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at IFC.com

IFC_Portlandia-S8_pick-a-lane_subaru-blog

Rev Up

Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

Uncle-Buck

Give Back

Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

It’s the final countdown to Christmas and thanks to IFC’s movie marathon all Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, you can revel in classic ’80s films AND find inspiration for your last-minute gifts. Here are our recommendations, if you need a head start:

Musical Instrument

Great analog entertainment substitute when you refuse to give your kid the Nintendo Switch they’ve been drooling over.

Breakfast In Bed

Any significant other or child would appreciate these Uncle Buck-approved flapjacks. Just make sure you’re not stuck on clean up duty.

Cocktail Supplies

You’ll need them to get through the holidays.

Dance Lessons

So you can learn to shake-shake-shake (unless you know ghosts willing to lend a hand).

Comfy Clothes

With all the holiday meals, there may be some…embigenning.



Get even more great inspiration all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC, and remember…