Robert Drew: The Backstory

How did Robert Drew develop his reality filmmaking ideas in the first place? The short version of the story begins with a kid born in Toledo, Ohio who is energized by the impossible.

Drew quit high school just shy of graduation to fight Germany in WWII and joined the U.S. Army Air Corps as its youngest fighter pilot.

At 19, on his 31st mission, Bob is shot down over in southern Italy and survives for three and a half months in the Pollaca Valley, evading German capture and sneaking his way through enemy lines and back to his squadron. Impossible.

Air Corps rules prevent pilots from flying again in the same theatre in which they were shot down, so Drew returns to the U.S. determined to fight the Japanese in newly introduced fighter jets. But only college-educated engineers are allowed to fly jets. No matter. Drew finds a way into a six-month engineering training program run by the Army, gets his certification and then presents himself for duty. He is rejected. Undaunted, he continues flying at a nearby base and impresses — and angers — the squadron commander when he participates in a simulated dog fight above the airfield and bests two Navy fliers. He is then accepted into the jet squadron. Impossible.

The war ends before Drew’s unit is put into battle, but he continues flight training and becomes the subject of a Life Magazine cover story. He writes a first-person essay about what its like to be a jet fighter pilot. The story is so good he gets a job at Life Magazine. Impossible.

In 1947, at age 24, he sees the movie “A Double Life” starring Ronald Colman. Drew leaves the theatre devastated because he realizes he wants to make movies but fears he may already be too old. He keeps his day job as a Life correspondent, but teams up with Life photographer Allan Grant to make a couple of experimental films. Drew realizes that real life is more vibrant than fiction, and determines to take Life’s candid still photography into motion pictures, creating a new journalism of reality. He sees the perfect home for his vision as being in television. So he sets off to convince a network to fund a television series produced by a guy with no television experience. Impossible.

Drew gets $7,500 from NBC in 1953 to make a pilot, called “Magazine X,” or alternately, “Key Picture.” Drew is unhappy with the pilot, mainly because he’s frustrated by the bloated equipment and eight-person crews that make it impossible to shoot candidly. NBC cannot sell advertisers on the concept, so shelves the pilot, which is never aired. Drew still believes he can lead a revolution in visual storytelling, so even though he didn’t graduate from high school, he applies for a one-year Nieman fellowship at Harvard to develop his theories more fully. He is named a fellow for the 1954-55 academic year. Impossible.

At Harvard, Drew studies the modern novel and playwriting, fine-tuning his theories about developing narrative arcs in candid filmmaking. He contacts select filmmakers, including Richard Leacock, who are producing intriguing works, similar in character to the direction Drew envisions. He writes a manifesto for the Nieman magazine, “See It Then,” criticizing television documentaries as dull lectures and laying out the elements of his new journalism.

When he returns to Life, Drew prods management for money to build new, portable filmmaking equipment that would allow a camera and audio record to follow a character in action through a story. Although he’s a writer, Time Inc. transfers him to its broadcast division (which has a capital equipment budget), and puts up $250,000 for the new cameras and recorders. Impossible.

Now Drew needs a crew and a story. For the crew, he taps the brightest lights in non-fiction filmmaking: Richard Leacock, who brings in D.A. Pennebaker, who in turn, brings in Al Maysles. Terence Macartney-Filgate from the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. also joins. Drew finds a story in the person of John F. Kennedy, then a Massachusetts Senator making a long-shot bid for the Democratic Presidential nomination. They all fly to Wisconsin, where Drew, the equipment and crew candidly record the last five days of Kennedy’s primary battle with Hubert Humphrey, making a new kind of history, a new kind of journalism – the first sync-sound film ever made. Impossible.

The French loved it, but no network would broadcast it. The French embrace the free camera style of filmmaking and coin it cinéma vérité. That’s the backstory.

Vérité: Varying Styles

Just as there are many definitions of truth, so, too, are there many forms of vérité. Some styles are diametrically opposed, yet still fall under the vérité banner. For example, some, like Drew, take pains to be as unobtrusive as possible when filming, never directing what happens in front of the camera. Others use the camera’s presence to provoke their subjects to reveal themselves before the lens.

Vérité editing styles also vary widely. Some, like Drew, edit the footage with a sense of dramatic logic, often including limited narration to tell the story. Others convey filmed situations with little or no explanatory narration, giving viewers a more raw experience.

In 2012, Drew wrote an essay that he titled, “Vérité 101: The Good, the Bad and the Promising.” He looked back over a lifetime of filmmaking, a lifetime of experimenting, and came up with certain rules:

  • — Use your medium for what it can do unique and best.
  • — Leave to other media what they do uniquely and best. Do not ask a newspaper to excel at photographic storytelling. Do not ask candid filmmaking to thrive on facts or exposition.
  • — Do your best not to change the reality you are capturing — with your presence, behavior or apparatus.
  • — Do expect candid filmmaking to speak in visual terms that can touch the emotions as well as the mind.


“For American cinéma vérité,” he wrote, “that means focusing on stories that convey experience, a feeling of being there with characters, in the logic of drama that exists wherever people are born, strive, fall in love, produce, reproduce, and die.

“For candid photography, it means getting with your characters, looking into them, seeing events through them.

“In the editing, because we are dealing with character and feeling and the sense, there is a demand for a certain amount of artistry. And that opens the way for storytelling power that can go right through the roof.

“Promising is the fact that people can now walk into a corner store and walk out with cameras better than those used to film “Primary” — people and stores by the millions. That makes it possible — almost inevitable — that talents will be able to rise up and create advances in filmmaking we haven’t yet dreamed of.”



Producing for Public Television

The Drews found a friend in public television — Lewis Freedman, head of the program fund of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Freedman was interested in many of the same topics that intrigued the Drews, and he liked candid reporting. Soon, the Drews were busy with several films: Fire Season, a 90-minute drama on a Los Angeles gang member who joins the California Conservation Corps to fight fires in the mountains while his home boys fight each other in the streets back home.

Back at CPB, Ron Hull took over for Freedman. Hull also assigned films to Drew Associates. They cover gang attacks on a grocer in the Watts section of Los Angeles in “Warning from Gangland” and “Shootout on Imperial Highway” and also a high school that is turning itself around in a tough neighborhood in Chicago in “Marshall High Fights Back.” These all air on the public broadcasting series, Frontline.

Next up is a film that wins Drew the Alfred I. duPont-Columbia award for best documentary of the year  — “For Auction: an American Hero.” The film is true to Drew’s verite roots. Viewers step into the shoes of the Kolbo family, whose family farm must be auctioned to pay their debts. Leo Wolf, the auctioneer, also becomes more than an executioner, especially as he reflects on how his father had to sell out his farm when Wolf was a boy.

The Drews continued to combine their personal passions with their filmmaking. Later in life, when Drew reflected on his career, he talked about why he then decided to do films on wild birds. “The whole thing — war, flying, story-telling in still pictures, making the pictures move and speak, reaching for more human realities — had been a personal obsession,” he wrote. “But the bird films, “River of Hawks” for National Geographic, and “Messages From The Birds” for Audobon, are personal indulgences. I love birds, particularly hawks that fly formation with me when I glide along Pennsylvania ridges.”

Drew said he was thrilled to fly and photograph hawks and came to realize that nature photography in the wild is candid photography.

One of Anne’s passions was women in power. She had tried for years to sell a film series on powerful women, including India’s Indira Gandhi, Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto and Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi. Drew had produced a film on Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in 1962. Twenty years later, he introduced Anne Drew to Nehru’s daughter, Indira. Drew and Gandhi bonded and soon Anne spent time with Gandhi’s family and travelled with the Indian Prime Minister as she campaigned for her son, Rajiv, to win an election to Parliament. Anne Drew’s film, “Herself, Indira Gandhi,” was well-received. When Gandhi was assassinated in 1984, Anne Drew returned to India with Drew Associates’ cinematographer Coulter Watt to cover Rajiv’s election campaign. The resulting film, co-produced with the BBC, “Life and Death of A Dynasty,” aired on PBS on May 21,1991, two days after an assassin’s bomb killed Rajiv.

One of their last films, “L.A. Champions,” about two high school basketball team captains in South Central Los Angeles, had all the features of the candid drama that Drew prized. “This place is a bomb and I want to get out before it goes off,” Maurice Robinson, captain of the Crenshaw team, says in the film. For Rickey Brown, captain of the Fremont team, things look different. “I might he shot,” me says, “but I don’t want to get away. There are things that can be done here. It’s how you look at it, what you see. It’s what you see.”

For Drew, Brown’s last quote summed up a career in filmmaking.

As he got older, Drew kept working toward making an autobiographical film about his experiences in WWII, when he was a 19-year-old fighter-bomber pilot in active combat. On his 31st mission, Drew was shot down by German forces in Italy, and he survived behind enemy lines for three and a half months, eluding capture the entire time before walking through the front lines to return to his unit. Anne Drew finally produced that film in 2004. It was a different, more personal film. It used recreated scenes and lots of narration. It also highlighted a connection Drew made during the war that charted the course of his life: his time with war correspondent Ernie Pyle.

This is what Drew wrote about the film he and Anne made, called “From Two Men and a War”:

“I am 19, flying fighters against German Panzers in Italy, 1943-44. My father ferries bombers. Bunking with me is war correspondent Ernie Pyle, whose prose gives readers a unique sense of “what it is like to be there.”

Army photographers document my squadron in combat — moving pictures that, combined with stills and my recollections, compose this film.

I am shot down, then return after evading capture for three months. My father is killed in a crash. Pyle dies from a sniper’s bullet.

Pyle’s “what is is like to be there” stays with me. I develop it in stills at Life Magazine and in film with “Primary,” the first American film in which the camera moves freely with characters through a story. I produce 60 verite documentaries, a number recognized at Venice, Cannes, London and New York.

I like to think that if Ernie Pyle were looking on today, he would recognize in these films a drive to communicate “what it is like to be there.”


Love of Art and the Art of Love

With the network news departments closing their doors to independent film producers, Robert Drew looked to arts programming to keep experimenting with his filmmaking ideas.

For the Bell Telephone Hour he made films on jazz greats like Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Benny Goodman, classical musicians like Yehudi Menuhin, and the opening of the new Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center.

He started with just a few films in the first year, and by the second year Bell Telephone asked Drew to produce all 12 hours in its series. “For once I turned down business,” Drew later wrote. “I preferred to hand-make 6 hours myself rather than 12 through other people, a decision I found most rewarding then and a tendency I have cultivated ever since.”

Drew won an Emmy for the film “Man Who Dances: Edward Villella,” about one of the world’s great ballet dancers. Edward Villella was the principal dancer at the New York City Ballet and the film contrasts his grace and power onstage with the physical torture Villella endures backstage as a result of his punishing performance schedule.

The film, which the Saturday Review hailed as “the greatest dance film of the decade,” was edited by a new employee at Drew Associates, Anne Gilbert. Fresh from the graduate film program at New York University, Anne had risen quickly in the Drew organization and had won the job as the lead editor for the Villella film. Her experience as a dancer herself added an extra level of sensitivity and understanding to what Villella was experiencing. That expertise helped her edit an exquisite film, that interweaves flawless performances of Balanchine’s work with footage of rehearsals, down-time and doctor visits.

Drew and Gilbert worked closely, late into the night. There was a spark between them. Drew’s first marriage was already rocky. It wasn’t long before Drew got a divorce and married Anne Gilbert, now Anne Drew. The two were inseparable filmmaker partners for the rest of their lives.

The turbulence Drew was experiencing getting commissions to produce cinema verite films pushed the two Drews to take on other work. He pursued and directed his only feature film, “The Sun Ship Game,” which Anne edited, about the world of soaring — engine-less glider planes racing each other for time and distance. Soaring had become one of his personal passions; Anne also learned how to pilot a glider. They mixed their pleasure with business and produced a film that’s become a kind of cult classic in the soaring world, though it did not fare well at the box office.

Drew kept himself in business by producing commercials, corporate and industrial films. Drew’s eldest son, Thatcher Drew, joined the company as a producer, correspondent and cinematographer. He worked on films including “Men of the Tall Ships,” “The Sun Ship Game,” and “Who’s Out There?” before leaving to start his own film production company.

Here’s how Robert Drew later described the period: “Suddenly I was hit with the works — commercials, corporate and industrial films, for people many of whom knew or cared nothing about candidness or reality. They had many subjects and purposes — science and space for NASA; commercials and corporate films for IBM, Westinghouse and LTV; a feature-length film for theatres on my sport, soaring; “Images of Einstein” and “Parade of the Tall Ships.”

“It was fun to be unhinged from theories and responsibilities to them. It was a game, trying to write someone else’s postcards from home — how Orson Welles could use his “War of the Worlds” to open a Carl Sagan inquiry into “Who’s Out There?”

“Of course, I kept on finding ways to look into people, including a long-lens, slow-motion look at Apollo 9 astronauts bobbing inside their space helmets.”

That last film, titled “The Space Duet of Spider and Gumdrop,” features a soundtrack of a version of The Beatle’s “Yellow Submarine.” That note of whimsy was edited into the film by Anne Drew.


Developing a Journalism that is Fundamentally Art

(Robert Drew wrote this description of making films after the severing of Drew Associates’ connection to Time, Inc.)

“Go make a film on the funeral.”

“What kind of film?”

“Your kind of film.”

That was the assignment from Elmer Lower, president of ABC News, as if we were talking about some event outside ourselves. But it was inside. Everyone was trying to control inner feelings.

And that was the kind of film I made — photographed mainly by Jim Lipscomb — the onlookers and participants in Washington, DC that day, staring at the flag-draped casket of John F. Kennedy, watching the mournful parade, struggling to hide personal feelings that were so painfully revealed in their faces, the faces of November.

I also edited it my way, to the length it seemed to demand. That was 12 minutes, a non-television length. And with no narration. Juries at the Venice Film Festival gave it two first prizes. ABC could not cope with its odd length. It was not broadcast on American television until decades later.


Although it asked for a film that it never aired, ABC nevertheless contracted Drew Associates for a new series of candid documentaries.

Drew was thrilled. This was the kind of assignment he had been seeking: a regular prime-time opportunity to air candid dramas. He believed that if viewers could get used to the kinds of films he made, they would prefer them not only to traditional documentaries, but also to fiction programs on entertainment television. He was seeking big audiences and felt personally invested in the mission to bring quality programming into every living room.

Drew still believed in the vision he honed back in 1954 when he was at Harvard on a Nieman fellowship. He knew there was a way to film real-life happenings and render them into art — the art of simplicity, the art of reality, which would be far more glorious than anything from the imagination.

He and his remaining Associates scoured the news looking for human dramas that would make good stories. Some subjects: a huge, young heavyweight boxer in Madison Square Garden, the Queen Elisabeth of the Belgians music competition, Phil Hill at Le Mans, a mission by two Peace Corps nurses in Malaysia. The series, called The Daring Americans, climaxed with the first major candid combat film, “Letters from Vietnam.”

While most of the films got good reviews and broad audiences, Drew’s fervent wish to change television as he knew it remained elusive. His films were still on the outer edges, not in the center of what was driving news or features on TV.

As it had begun, so it ended. The final film Drew Associates made for ABC was not broadcast by the network. “Storm Signal,” a film about drug addiction seen from inside a marriage, was not seen on television until Xerox Corp. itself syndicated the program by directly purchasing an hour of air time on syndicated stations across the country.

This time the falling-out came because ABC wanted more control over news-related programming. Lower offered Drew jobs for himself and his entire outfit, but they had to come into the ABC News fold proper. Drew declined. He was adamant that he would not join the network, which he sensed would have meant the death of his kind of filmmaking. So the two parted ways.

The Private Crisis Behind “Crisis”

Robert Drew had been waiting for a crisis to film a President with his back to the wall. What he got in the summer of 1963 was not one, but two crises.

The first involved a standoff between President Kennedy and Governor George Wallace over the court-mandated integration of the all-white University of Alabama.

The second crisis was closer in, actually right in front of him. Time Inc. decided it no longer wanted to bankroll Drew Associates. Executives at Time Inc. had had a falling-out with ABC and now Time no longer had a national network outlet for the programs Drew Associates produced.

As money got tight, long-simmering tensions among Drew’s collaborators boiled to the surface. Richard Leacock and D.A. Pennebaker made it clear they were looking to leave, frustrated with Drew’s heavy-handed editing and his orders to produce more films, faster. Other staff members were told to go because there wasn’t enough production money to support what had grown to be an operation employing more than 80 people.

In the midst of upheaval, correspondent Greg Shuker read a story in The New York Times about two African-American students attempting to integrate the University of Alabama. Drew felt this would be the national crisis they had been waiting for. He got on the phone to Kennedy’s press secretary, Pierre Salinger, to get permission to film the administration’s response. Meanwhile, Shuker worked another angle. He took a copy of the prize-winning Drew Associates’ film “The Chair” and, communicating through a mutual friend, organized a screening for Robert Kennedy, JFK’s brother and the U.S. Attorney General, to view the film. Robert Kennedy loved it and kept the print to show the President. Drew’s relationship with Salinger and the President, coupled with Shuker’s end-run to the Attorney General paid off. They were in.

But, as Shuker recounts in P.J. O’Connell’s book, Robert Drew and the Development of Cinema Verite in America, there was a big problem: no money. “We had this remarkable movie that we were about to shoot and could not sell it going in, up front; the networks didn’t want to touch it,” Shuker said. “And so — I remember this quite vividly — we took, from Time, Inc., … what amounted to, as I remember it, like the last two months of the rent money, July and August rent money, and other overhead money — the phone and so forth — and physically put that money into buying raw stock and processing it. Gambling that we could sell that film after it was shot.”

The internal tensions at Drew Associates are not visible in the resulting film, “Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment,” which some consider Drew Associates’ finest film.

Drew assigned five teams including D.A. Pennebaker, Richard Leacock, James Lipscomb, Hope Ryden, Abbot Mills, headed by producer Gregory Shuker, to range from the Oval Office to the Justice Department to the University of Alabama.

As the crisis approached its climax, the Drew team was capturing the human details of a drama that would deeply affect the country, new civil rights legislation the President would like to have, and the Presidency itself. Using force on the Governor could destroy support Kennedy needed to further civil rights legislation. But allowing the Governor to block the students could set back the civil rights movement.

The remarkable filmmaking brings viewers into the Oval Office, as Robert Kennedy and various advisers cluster around President Kennedy,  hammering out a strategy: Allow the Governor to turn back the students, then nationalize the Alabama National Guard and return for another try. Faced with his own guard, Gov. Wallace backed down. Vivian Malone walked into the university. That night on television, JFK made an historic commitment – the first president since Abraham Lincoln to commit the power of the presidency behind civil rights as a moral issue.

A great story, captured in a unique way — no other independent filmmaker had been inside the Oval Office recording as a president made decisions. Quite a scoop? Not everyone saw it that way. When The New York Times learned that Drew Associates’ cameras were in the Oval Office, its editorial page and its film reviewer were aghast. Before the film was finished and without having seen a single frame of the footage, The Times‘ editorial page inveighed against it: “The use of cameras could only denigrate the office of the President…. To eavesdrop on Executive decisions of serious Government matters while they are in progress is highly inappropriate. The White House isn’t Macy’s window.”

Out of money and out of time, Drew began planning to close down the company. But on July 30, ABC sent word that it would broadcast the program and Xerox Corp. stepped up as its sponsor. The film was saved. The company could pay its bills and live on.

A month before the scheduled broadcast, Drew faced one last test. As he had initially agreed, he allowed the Kennedys to see the film before it went on the air. In exchange for the access Drew Associates’ received, Drew had told the President’s people that if there were anything in the film that they believed would be damaging to the Presidency, he would address it. Although President Kennedy himself hadn’t seen the film, his people had some objections. Thus began a delicate dance that involved trips from New York to DC, re-writes of re-writes of narration, and many tense phones between Drew and Pierre Salinger, President Kennedy’s press secretary; Shuker and Ed Guthman, Robert Kennedy’s press secretary; Drew and Elmer Lower, president of ABC News.

All agreed the film could be screened at the first New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center while their objections could be worked through; Drew wrote an announcement to accompany the screening, noting that it was still a rough cut. It read: “The following film is the first editing of a program scheduled to be shown on the ABC television network. Some of the events it reports are still in progress and may lead to further editing. Though it may eventually appear with new information and different factual emphasis, the essential drama shown in this film remains the same.”











Drew wrote notes from which he apparently meant to report to others what happened at the New York Film Festival screening. The notes read:

“Talk to Group. At Film festival — provisional. Reaction — electric. Provisional cause narration change. Word about why electric — character, humanity — discipline — only try to communicate what can show, leave rest [illegible] — a legitimacy — and impact, honesty — Don’t try whole story. Let people deduce. Within that discipline — that is, to keep drama working and not overlay killing narration — a new one. Assume fixed on these counts.”











In early October, after President Kennedy had seen the film, final discussions led to an agreement: the Kennedys would drop their objections if Drew agreed to cover over most of the dialogue during the Oval Office meeting with a voice-over narration that would describe what was being discussed. This was a one-time-only requirement, however; every other time the film has screened all the Oval Office dialogue is audible and intact, just as it was at its premiere at the first New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center.

Another crisis averted. Drew describes some of the intense pressure he lived through in the week’s personal diary entries, a photo of which is below:

Monday: Lunch Firman. I’m shot. Call Elmer [Lower, president of ABC News]. “Bring your wits, White House tomorrow.”

Tuesday: Shuttle to Wash. — Press club [meet at National Press Club] — See Pierre [Salinger] and [Ed] Guthman — “ok if you remove Pres. sound.” Return & Re-write narration very late, sack Algonquin [Hotel].

Wednesday: A.M. — 5 copies narration to Elmber — Lunch Greg [Shuker] at Old Burbon House — P.M. [attend] Waxman’s and Nizer play.

Thursday: ABC completes White House deal — I write & record & lay in narration — dinner La Strada — Jim [Lipscomb] and Greg [Shuker] — sack Algonquin [Hotel].

Friday: Mix “Crises.” ABC check for $34,000 arrives — a tear.











The one-hour program, “Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment,” was broadcast by ABC on October 21, 1963. Reviewer John Horn of the New York Herald Tribune called the program, “An unprecedented television documentary that is a milestone in film journalism.” The Times reviewer, Jack Gould, could not get past his pique. “Mr. Drew’s program offered nothing new of legitimate public concern,” he wrote. Others disagreed. The film won several awards and was named to the Library of Congress National Film Registry.

As for Drew Associates, it did lose Pennebaker and Leacock, who struck out on their own and went on to make some of the most important documentaries of a generation. The remaining Drew Associates — Drew, Shuker, Ryden, Lipscomb, Mills — gathered forces to take their new journalism and apply it to the infinite forms and subjects and possibilities that lay ahead.

Building a Team to Make Multiple Reality Films

(In his booklet, this is how Robert Drew described building his team at Drew Associates.)

ABC News President John Daly resigned, protesting that his management had not consulted him on Yanki No!

The sponsor, Bell and Howell, wanted more programs. ABC wanted more. Time, Inc. looked to me. I wanted to get organized.

I had been a lone producer with help from talented freelancers. I had researched the stories, outlined shooting, hired crews, field produced, taken sound and managed the editing. My business department had been the extension number on my telephone – 333 – which I gave out as a purchase order number when I needed to buy equipment.

This had seemed justified in the midst of a war, a one-time all-out emergency effort, which I considered making the candid breakthrough to be. But each film seemed to require a new breakthrough of some kind and together they suggested a need for continuous breaking through. Even if I were up for that, it would require organization and additions of very considerable talent.

The stakes were high enough. We had tapped into something television among the media could do uniquely and best. So, let the print magazines describe, analyze, and render pictures on Life Magazine-sized pages. Let the nightly TV news program summarize in words with picture illustrations. For ourselves, to engage the big television audiences during prime evening hours, let us develop television’s absolutely unique ability to transmit strong experience of the real world.

To begin to deal with these potentials, we would have to produce in volume – maybe 52 hours a year. Talent would be the name of the game. I formed Drew Associates. Early talents and associates included documentary cameramen Richard Leacock, Albert Maysles, D.A. Pennebaker; correspondents Gregory Shuker, James Lipscomb, Lee Hall, John MacDonald, James Goode; still photographers Abbot Mills, Bill Ray, Howard Sochurek; journalists Hope Ryden and Tom Johnson. Later talents included Mike Jackson, Tom Bywaters, Sidney Reichman, Anne Drew, Coulter Watt and Marc Curtis.

At an ABC pitch meeting, a producer had just completed an exhaustive report on sewage treatment. “And what have you got, Bob?,” came the question. I laid out some topics.

They were assigned and I produced a documentary series: “X-Pilot” – testing the X-15 jet airplane; “Adventures on the New Frontier” – inside JFK’s White House, “Kenya” – two half hours on its independence fight; “The Children Were Watching”  – a mother and daughter who refuse to boycott an integrated school in New Orleans and are hounded by white parents with babes in arms.

For the next eight hours, I decided to produce candid dramas on real people. Hope Ryden came up with “Jane,” for Jane Fonda’s star turn on Broadway in a play that critic Walter Kerr rated one of the five worst he had ever seen.

Next came “The Chair,” which started when Greg Shuker was shouting from a phone booth in Chicago: “The condemned man asked his best friend, warden Jack Johnson, to throw the switch on the electric chair!” Paul Crump was going to be electrocuted for murders he committed 19 years before, unless a parole board hearing panel recommended a last-minute reprieve. Lawyers Louis Nizer and Donald Moore pleaded for Crump and won commutation on the grounds of rehabilitation, a first in U.S. law. Paul went back to his cell for 30 years. At Cannes, “The Chair” was awarded a Grand Prix.

Then came “Nehru.” I told the Prime Minister of India that I would like the camera to live with him for three weeks. The look he returned was disapproving. Then he viewed some of my film on JFK, and smiled.

Greg Shuker and Ricky Leacock returned to shoot a portrait of a great leader losing out to the greater inertia of India, but only the beginning of a family saga I would continue recording over 30 years.

In “Mooney vs. Fowle,” two football coaches clash in the Orange Bowl for the Florida state high school championship. Jim Lipscomb went back to his alma mater to record coaches making and destroying teams before our eyes. It won “Best Foreign Film of the Year” at the London Film Festival.


Seeing the World in a New Way

(In his booklet, this is how Robert Drew described the directions reality filmmaking took after “Primary.”)


After “Primary” came two proposals, the first from Time to film an automobile race in Indianapolis, where it owned a TV station, the second from ABC to film Latin America, “because CBS just did Africa.”

I resisted the race as too trivial and the continent as too sweeping. But “Primary” had pointed two directions for candid filmmaking to develop and Indianapolis and Latin America led those directions.

“Primary” combined the subject matter of documentary and the progression of drama. The next step could be for this kind of filmmaking to be seen as an addition to existing forms or as an original form in itself. But adding candidness to documentary would not change its basic purpose – to convey information – or its basic method – exposition. Candid Drama, however, would add a new purpose – to convey, movie-like, strong experience – and a new method – story-telling through real characters in action. Drama and Documentary. Experience and Exposition. Indianapolis and Latin America.

At the Indianapolis race track I heard a driver telling how he turned a corner. He spoke with such passion that it raised hairs on the back of my neck. Eddie Sachs had driven faster than any other qualifier and would begin the race from the front row, inside – on the pole. Eddie was so excited that he could hardly control himself.

To me the race suddenly became untrivial. When Eddie led the pack roaring through the start, I had five cameras rolling. Eddie came within an ace of winning the race, then suffered a mechanical failure. Leacock and I were with him as he wandered dazed, waving at a crowd that was ignoring him. “Next year, Eddie,” his wife said.

The next year he again led and lost and the next he died in a fiery collision. When “On The Pole” opened a program of our films in a theatre in Paris, the top ten critics there rated it above all Hollywood films of that season.

Then came “Yanki No!” I protested that I could “do” a continent only if I found characters caught up in a story that would reveal a great deal about that continent. Then a story materialized.

At a meeting in Costa Rica, the U.S. would force the expulsion of Cuba from the Organization of American States. Latin America would then explode with protests. In Havana, Fidel Castro would whip a crowd of a million into a frenzy. I imagined mobs charging the camera shouting, “Yanki No!”

A week later in Caracas they were doing just that and Ricky and I, on the scene, were grateful to be able to duck into a parked car. But by combining candid humanity with documentary exposition, we were able to allow the actions of diplomats, slum dwellers and protesters to drive home the problems and attitudes confronting the U.S. south of its border.





Yanki No! was praised right and left.






ABC contracted for more documentaries. Now I would have the opportunity to produce a candid series.


(A hand-drawn graphic Drew used to plan out how to edit the footage for Yanki No! into a narrative. Drew and his yellow legal pads became legendary at Drew Associates. Drew insisted on screening all daily rushes of all films in production and he scribbled copious notes onto yellow legal pads. He carried these writing pads with him on the train [he commuted into New York City from his home in Darien, Connecticut] and often worked out strategic issues by drawing graphics.)



A Breakthrough Moment in Reality Filmmaking

(In a booklet he wrote decades later, this is how Robert Drew described the breakthrough moment in reality filmmaking.)

I followed the candidate through a doorway holding a microphone overhead. My sound recorder was connected by a wire to the camera in the hands of Richard Leacock.

It was 1960, the year of a presidential election. I had selected as a subject of my first candid film a young senator, John F. Kennedy, who was running in the Wisconsin Democratic primary. The urbane Kennedy faced a Midwestern senator, Hubert Humphrey, an opponent who was a favorite of Wisconsin farmers.

For John F. Kennedy, winning the primaries could be a political breakthrough. For ourselves, passing through that doorway, linked by a wire whose signal would allow us to edit our film and sound tape together, we were joyously aware that this passage was a breakthrough for candid filming. Leacock carried the only camera that had been synchronized to my recorder.

Kennedy and Humphrey quickly forgot the camera and those of the other photographers I had assigned to work with us: Albert Maysles, Terence Macartney-Filgate, Bill Knoll and, for one evening, D.A. Pennebaker.

For five days and nights we recorded almost every move the candidates made, the sights and sounds of the campaign and the way the public responded.

For one sequence at a sensitive time, Leacock and I split up. He filmed alone the tension in Kennedy’s hotel room as election returns came in. Four cameras converged on Kennedy’s victory.

With twenty hours of candid film in hand, I was able to plan the editing of a story that would tell itself through characters in action, with less than two minutes of narration. I was still ecstatic when I arrived in a Minneapolis hotel room that Pennebaker had worked tirelessly to outfit for editing, with 40,000 feet of films that, I found out, could not be edited.

It was an old story, the failure of one small part and an old struggle, to try to survive the malfunction. There had been a fault in the cable carrying the sync sound between camera and recorder. Picture and sound could not be synchronized.

That, however, was before we discovered in a portable editing machine invented for us by Loren Ryder a box with a crank on the side. Turn the crank and you adjust tape speeds versus film, allowing the two to be synchronized (laboriously) without having the audio pitch change. This miracle, a month of cranking and six weeks of editing by Leacock, Pennebaker, Filgate, Maysles, Bob Farren and myself gave us “Primary.”


(A page from Robert Drew’s handwritten notes detailing the assignments for editing “Primary.”)

The first reaction to “Primary” from the networks, Time Inc., and viewers of the five Time-owned television stations that aired it, was an overwhelming silence. Then came the Robert Flaherty Award, American Film Festival Blue Ribbon, word from the greats – John Grierson, Jean Rouch – and imitation by Godard.

After JFK’s election and before his inauguration I screened “Primary” for the President-elect and Mrs. Kennedy at their compound in West Palm Beach. A few minutes after the screening began Kennedy shouted, “Get Joe out here!” and his father, Joseph P. Kennedy, appeared.

Kennedy appreciated our filming as a form of history. I proposed to make a next film on him as a President having to deal with a crisis. “Yes,” he said. “What if I could look back and see what went on in the White House in the 24 hours before Roosevelt declared war on Japan?”

But he said that I had better do some shooting in the Oval Office to see if he would forget the camera there as he had in Wisconsin. Later, I went into the White House for a two-day test shoot with Lee Hall and D.A. Pennebaker. I felt that I was invisible, a kind of fly on the wall. During a meeting of the Joint Chiefs, when the subject of Cuba arose, a general had to remind the President that the camera was still there.

The test produced the first film ever shot on a president doing real work in the White House. I incorporated it in a special for ABC called “Adventures on the New Frontier” and began a mental countdown toward a presidential crisis.


American Cinéma Vérité: An Evolving Draft of its Development

(The following are a series of short essays that attempt to describe Drew’s ideas as they developed, drawing on his notes from the time and his later writings, as well as speeches and interviews with Drew and his collaborators, and the films themselves. These essays will be in a continual process of evolution, refined and expanded as we work through Drew’s voluminous archive of papers and other artifacts. If you have something to share that would improve this narrative, please email


Robert Drew’s vision of reality filmmaking – first sparked in 1951 when he was a Life magazine correspondent – led a revolution that came to be regarded as American cinéma vérité (or direct cinema).

In a vérité film, real-life drama unfolds before the lens and is edited into a documentary that follows a visual logic. This was a radical departure from what had come before. Documentaries of the day followed what Drew derided as “lecture logic.” They were dull. Most all relied heavily on on-camera correspondents reading scripts, telling viewers what they were watching and what they should think about what they were watching. “Real life never made it onto the screen,” he lamented.

While attempting to put his ideas into action in an early filmmaking venture with Life Magazine photographer Allan Grant titled “Key Picture” (1954), Drew encountered a thicket of technical hurdles. Cameras were so heavy they needed tripods. Audio recording equipment was so bulky and voluminous it couldn’t be moved. Crews often consisted of eight people, overwhelming whatever was happening in front of the lens.

Before he could capture real life as it happened, Drew needed cameras that were light enough to carry and could be synced with audio recorders. He also needed like-minded collaborators who shared his determination to capture the aliveness and surprise of real situations and real people. He wanted to work with others who were driven to make films with small teams that created a direct connection between their films’ subjects and their viewers.

Drew took a year off from his job at Life Magazine to attend Harvard University on a Nieman fellowship and work through the problems. He studied the modern novel and watched a lot of television, searching for the connections that would allow him to capture film subjects as they moved through their lives in an attempt to convey the truth of their experiences.

He found his filmmaking soulmate in Richard Leacock, already an accomplished filmmaker by this time, who had been making films since he was a boy. Drew was entranced with a television program Leacock had shot that aired on Omnibus called “Toby and the Tall Corn” (1954), which gave one the sense of being with the participants as they set up a traveling tent show. Drew and Leacock teamed up to make short films for Time-Life that would promote Life Magazine stories while also giving them experience working together to make films their way. They made films on a college football game, the B-52 bomber, on a scientist who wanted to see if there was water on Mars, on a bullfight. They brought on other filmmakers, including D.A. Pennebaker, who had a background in engineering and a love of candid filming. Pennebaker introduced Albert Maysles to the group and a dream team was formed.

The filmmakers began to envision what they would need equipment-wise to make films their way. Drew transferred from Life Magazine to the Time-Life Broadcast division, which had a capital expense budget to cover the costs of the equipment. Life had a substantial budget and Drew began ordering what was needed. He often laughed as he recalled the first time a vendor asked for a purchase order number. He had no idea what that was, so he gave the guy his extension number at Life — 333. Forevermore, whenever asked for a purchase order number, that was the answer he gave.

Drew commissioned a photo equipment genius in New York, Mitch Bogdanowicz, to re-make a film camera to be portable and quiet. He asked Loren Ryder in Hollywood to develop an editing system that could handle 16mm film with synchronized sound. In notes to his book, Robert Drew and the Development of Cinéma Vérité in America, P.J. O’Connell writes, “An important feature of this equipment development was that almost all the Drew-Leacock-Pennebaker equipment was based on pre-existing equipment — Auricon cameras, Uher and Perfectone recorders, and the watches. By adapting equipment, rather than designing it, Drew and his associates had cut months, probably years, off the development process and saved significant sums of money.”

Whatever the method of obtaining it, with sync sound equipment in their hands, filmmakers could for the first time follow characters as they moved through their lives, capturing their subjects in an attempt to convey the truth of their experiences. A whole new world opened up, a world where vérité was possible.