(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.