The documentary In Search of Kennedy was one of the films the press pre-viewed ahead of the official Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) opening. In a special memo, I noticed that the director, Chuck Workman would be in Seattle to promote the film. I contacted his publicist Leaonard Morpurgo asking for an interview and he paved the way for an opportunity to converse with one of Hollywood’s most revered filmmakers.
A slice of Workman’s accomplishments would include his Oscar win for Best Live Action Short (1986) in Precious Images. This short, one of five of his films in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, is historically the most widely shown short film.
Workman has earned the right to appear on almost any screen, big or small, because he is a master at being a “jack of all trades” in filmmaking. He is a master of what he produces, directs, writes or edits. I have a feeling that in his world it is not only about perfection, but also precision, timing and the wonder of making the project shine—the gratification of finding the “extra” facet to set the piece on a pedestal. He is so accomplished that even some of the sequences he’s made for the annual Oscar shows (he has produced many) have often been nominated for an Emmy.
Matt Zoller Seitz of the New York Times called him one of the three most influential editors of the past 50 years. He has directed dramatic independent films, i.e., A House on the Hill; directed several documentaries, i.e., Superstar: The Life and Times of Andy Warhol; produced many shorts, like Words for the Writers Guild or A Tribute to Charlie Chaplin screened at the Cannes Film Festival. Yet, others marvel at his generosity to give back to the film industry and local community. Workman was the president of the International Documentary Association; a Santa Monica Arts Commissioner; a visiting lecturer at the USC Film School and major art centers and contributes articles on filmmaking to various magazines.
In anticipation of my interview with Mr. Workman, I prepared questions in reference to his documentary, In Search of Kennedy. I could easily have gone off on many tangents discussing other aspects of his career and works. I tried to keep focused and got to work.
Karen Pecota (KP): When did the idea for In Search of Kennedy documentary begin?
Chuck Workman (CW): Well, I wanted to make a movie about a rehab in Malibu and I was trying to raise money for it (I eventually did make the movie which became a TV show). One of the guys I asked for financing was Stephen J. Kern, who heard me out, but, said, “Well, no, I am not interested in the Malibu idea, even though, it would be a challenge; I am interested in making a film about John Kennedy.” Kern is about my age and we both have a lifetime of looking at John F. Kennedy movies. We were kids when Kennedy was president. Regarding his idea, I could not get past the fact that so many films were made about him (as a hero or his scandals, etc.) and I didn’t think there was anything new to say. Kern told me to think about it. I did and realized that what had not been filmed was an overall view of Kennedy or an exploration of his place in history. The youth of today were either not alive or were very young when Kennedy held positions of influence. I suggested to Kern that this is the way to approach the movie: to look at who he is, what he stands for and how he influences people today.
KP: What was the timeframe you and Kern worked from the “just talking” stage to the début?
CW: It was about three years.
KP: What did the beginning phase of filming look like?
CW: Kern liked my idea for the film’s approach and we started working on it a little bit. We filmed in Washington, D.C., and a few other places, and then stopped, just so that we could figure out where we were at with our idea. The beauty of working with Kern was that he fully funded the film and he could shoot his ideas right away. I would then work with his stuff. I eventually brought my expertise as a director, writer and editor. We later used my production company when we had something to shoot. We waited a lot! We would make a plan and often waited to film because we either couldn’t get the interview at the time or something else wouldn’t work out. It was not easy to capture over 50 luminaries for interviews.
KP: How did you proceed to finish the film?
CW: We were going to re-start the shoot again (now 18 months ago) but decided to wait and see what would happen on the political scene. I said, “I don’t think there will be much happening in American politics.” (Breaking into a hearty laugh) I thought there would be something but not what we know now. In fact, I just looked at a film dealing with six congressional elections to which I was an advisor. The interesting thing was that in suggesting that we wait to see the developments on the political scene, suddenly we were thrust to shoot films of the 2007 presidential candidate debates. All the candidates were claiming a connection to John F. Kennedy: they all related to Kennedy, they knew Kennedy, or liked Kennedy. Kern and I began to feel that we had a story. So, that became more important to the movie around the current elections. In addition, when I showed the film (I had a lot of footage) and explained that it would be a little bit of a re-hash about Kennedy in the beginning (The Myth), but then get into the Obama stuff; the test audience were fascinated with the Myth, the old stuff. It confirmed the idea that there is a whole group of people that either know all about it and still want more or don’t know much about it but want to learn.
KP: How difficult was it to get the various “luminary” interviews?
CW: The subject matter interests people and they like talking about it. Some people who have heard of me said that they checked me out and knew that they wouldn’t be taken. It was funny… the political people were afraid I had a Michael Moore style and that I was going to set them up or trick them or something. I had to get over that concept. I recently made another film about the American Presidency called the People’s President aired on PBS. I also made a film right after 9/11 called The Spirit of America that was a montage and it played in theaters. In Washington the Republicans loved it, so the Republicans liked me. And, the Democrats liked me because of the subject. Between the two projects I was able to convince the political people to partake in the Kennedy film but then it was a question of finding the dates when they were available. Michael Moore is in the film and he actually agreed to do the interview two years before and then dodged it. Finally, while working on the 2007 Oscars, I interviewed the recipients who had won an Oscar. I don’t know if you saw it but we featured Barbara Streisand and a few others but had more interviews than we could use. Michael’s interview was one of those not used. During that 2007 Oscar evening he sought me out in the lobby and he said, “Hey, I owe you that interview!” and I said, “Yeah, you’re right!” He gave us a very nice interview about Kennedy and what he said is a very important part of the movie. We got almost everyone we wanted to interview, even the Mayor of Berlin and a guy at the Kennedy Museum in Berlin.
KP: The interview with Garrison Keillor surprised me. (laughing)
CW: He wanted to be interviewed but just because I wanted him didn’t mean he would end up doing it. You know as a journalist, we have to go thru these guards that celebrities have. It takes a lot of time trying to convince them and sending numerous emails as to what questions will be asked, and then they have to think about it and on and on. My philosophy was to go after one person at a time. Some celebrities were flattered and as long as they know it is not going to be controversial they were ready to join the project. I didn’t want to be too soft on the subject because I wanted them to go and get something meaningful to talk about. I was happy I could do just that! Even Senator Ted Kennedy, who speaks all the time, looked like he was reaching for the words. He was sincerely thinking with careful respect as he connected his thoughts and words. It wasn’t an everyday performance but it was special.
KP: Given your 30-year filmmaking experience, is it easier or more difficult to film documentaries in other countries today?
CW: I asked that very question to Robert Shaw who was in JAWS. He used to play in these awful Eastern European films, where he would get a lot of money. I asked him if there was a difference making films in all different countries. He said, “Yes! Lunch! Because you will get the local food.” (a delightful laugh from Chuck) It is basically the same with other aspects but often technical things are different. Obviously, the varied languages factor in but one gets by. In terms of 30 years ago, today there is so much on television and with the help of reality shows, ordinary people understand what you are doing when filming on location. Years ago you never put a “real” person on television but today you can, i.e., the Boston bar scene in the documentary, where the people were singing happy birthday and beautifully articulated what they were doing; or the high school students at the memorial came dressed up for the scene and they acted natural. People are better on camera now days because they are not afraid of it.
KP: Is it difficult to be objective while you are filming or editing?
CW: It is hard to remember not to lead people in a direction that you want. i.e., asking the young people questions that I knew they could not answer whereas an old person could. In editing it is easier to flip things around to make an idiot look smart. You can manipulate and move the material in a number of ways. The trick is not just to understand what you want to do but to go on a journey with the material to discover what you want and have some kind of integrity that you are not going to cheapen it too much!
KP: Do you like to put your films in a festival show case?
CW: Well, In 1999 I had a film at Sundance and at that time I counted up my festival attendance and it was my 100th festival – since then twenty or so more. (Laughing)… well, it’s getting a little tiring, but I am still not the oldest person at a festival. My son is a filmmaker and festivals are more for him or for a generation which wants to network and meet people to get their films out. I like festivals because I used to say that the only ratification of making any kind of film is going to a film festival. If you get to go to a film festival you are treated nicely and sometimes you win a prize (or, not) but you get to talk about your film and watch it with an audience. Watching with a smart audience is good! The people that are around the festival, whether they are covering it or the people that are just paying for it are generally more interested in the Independent film industry and they are the people I want to view my work. When I think of an audience to view my films, I’m thinking, the festival audience is going to get my message and that is the gratifying thing about a film festival. It is fun to go to other cities too. I love going to the Berlin Film Festival. The great thing about it is that it is February and it’s dark, it’s cold, horrible weather but I still like it. The last time I was there was when the wall came down (1989) so it has been a while. It is a good festival and since then, I had two films that I edited that screened, a feature that I directed myself, and two shorts. This year I was in Cannes (2008). Warner Brothers hired me to do a short about Chaplin that screened. MK2 bought all the Chaplin films and they were promoting them so they commissioned me to make a short ten-minute movie about Chaplin. I have been going to Cannes since I was 25 years old. That is very heady when you are that age.
KP: What do you want the audience to walk away with from your film?
CW: I want the audience to make up its own mind about Kennedy, but I certainly hope that audiences understand that there may be a need for his kind of inspiration today.
KP: As a history maker, you leave a rich legacy in filmmaking, what else would you like to add to your accomplishments?
CW: (A hearty laugh) Well, I am not done yet!
KP: No, let’s hope not!
CW: Because of the Oscars and other stuff that I do, I am able to make a living. So, I would like to keep working and doing what I do best. Whatever project I pursue, I want to enjoy it and experience the gratification from my work. I want to do it my way and not necessarily a commercial way whether right or wrong. I want to keep following my dream because that is the legacy I will leave one day. I want to keep making those kinds of films I enjoy. And, the more the merrier! This is what I want to do!
KP: I hope so!
CW: I hope so, too! (He graciously smiles and chuckles one more time).
After the interview I was thinking about how much I would like my kids, both of whom are in the entertainment industry, to meet Chuck Workman – a seasoned filmmaker who is characterized by his integrity and systematically unfolds an interesting legacy for generations of filmmakers.