Robert Drew: The Backstory

Latest entries

“The Children Were Watching” Joins The Criterion Channel

The latest Drew Associates classic film to join the lineup at The Criterion Channel is The Children Were Watching. This 26-minute documentary, filmed by Richard Leacock, lets you feel what it was like to be there in 1960 when Ruby Bridges, Tessie Prevost, and other young African-American children bravely integrated the William Frantz Elementary School Read More

2019 Drew Award Winners Announced

Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar, the dynamic filmmaking team behind this year’s American Factory, shared the 2019 Robert and Anne Drew Award for Documentary Excellence. American Factory went on to win the Oscar for Feature Documentary, the third time the filmmakers who won this award went on to capture the year’s Academy Award. The Robert and Anne Read More

In Memoriam: D.A. Pennebaker

Our hearts are heavy with the news that D.A. Pennebaker, our friend and master filmmaker, has died. His passion to capture life on film, without artifice or interference, led him early in his career to three others who had similar visions: Robert Drew, Richard Leacock, and Albert Maysles. That team invented a new form of Read More

2018 Drew Award Winners Announced

Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, the filmmaking team behind Meru and this year’s Free Solo, are the winners of the 2018 Robert and Anne Drew Award for Documentary Excellence, which recognizes a mid-career filmmaker distinguished for observational cinema. They will share a $5,000 cash prize sponsored by Drew Associates. The award will be presented Read More

2017 Drew Award Winners Announced

Filmmaking partners Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady are the winners of the 2017 Robert and Anne Drew Award for Documentary Excellence, which recognizes a mid-career filmmaker distinguished for observational cinema. They will share a $5,000 cash prize sponsored by Drew Associates. The award will be presented at the Visionaries Tribute Award Luncheon at the DOC NYC Read More

2016 Drew Award Winner Announced

Dawn Porter, director of “Trapped,” is the winner of the 2016 Robert and Anne Drew Award for Documentary Excellence, which recognizes a mid-career filmmaker distinguished for observational cinema. She will receive a $5,000 cash prize sponsored by Drew Associates. The award will be presented at the Visionaries Tribute Award Luncheon at the DOC NYC Festival Read More

Richard Brody: ‘The Unified Field of Cinematic Activity’

In his inimitable way, Richard Brody of The New Yorker probes the connecting points between filmmakers and their art of observational cinema in his most recent review of Albert and David Maysles’ work (with a nod to Robert Drew), screening now at a beautiful retrospective at The Film Forum. Read Brody’s full essay here.

Disc Review: Boston Globe on Drew’s Kennedy Films

Watching the inter-cut scenes of Hubert Humphrey shaking hands with farmers, then John F. Kennedy stirring young women into a “pre-Beatlemania frenzy,” Boston Globe reviewer Peter Keough had this to say about the films in The Criterion Collection’s re-mastered disc release of The Kennedy Films of Robert Drew & Associates: “…the point is clear: The Read More

JFK’s Wisconsin Primary

Since 1960 every Democratic Presidential nominee has won the Wisconsin primary. Learn more about the 1960 Wisconsin primary where JFK solidified his position as one of the most important figures in American Politics at The Criterion Collection. Criterion provides insight about this historic election with clips from Primary, the revolutionary documentary providing never before seen insight Read More

Full Frame to Screen Two Drew Kennedy Films

The 19th Annual Full Frame Documentary Film Festival will feature two Drew Associates films as part of this year’s thematic program, “Perfect and Otherwise: Documenting American Politics.” Curated by filmmaker R.J. Cutler, the films will focus on the inherent drama of the American electoral system. The two films, “Primary” and “Crisis: Behind A Presidential Commitment,” Read More

Criterion Live! to Feature Drew Kennedy Films

On April 6, The Criterion Collection will host its first-ever “Criterion Collection Live!” event at The Metrograph in Manhattan. Designed to give ticketholders a peek into Criterion’s discriminating process for picking films to add to its collection, and its process of remastering them for optimal visual and audio quality, the night will also feature discussions Read More

Kennedy Films Join The Criterion Collection

Remastered for unparalleled visual and audio quality, the four Kennedy films produced by Robert Drew and his Associates, will be released on disc by The Criterion Collection on April 26. These are the classic films that form the bedrock of what President John F. Kennedy understood would be a new form of history. Drew and Read More

Rare Drew Films Streaming on SundanceNow

These are rarely seen, cutting-edge films that form the bedrock of early American cinéma vérité. Robert Drew’s vision went far beyond his breakthrough film, PRIMARY, when he and Richard Leacock trained the world’s first sync-sound camera rig on John F. Kennedy campaigning for president. Drew set out to prove that there was a superior way Read More

Filmmaker Kim Longinotto To Receive 2015 Robert and Anne Drew Award for Documentary Excellence

(from the Oct. 13, 2015 DOC NYC press release)  The Robert and Anne Drew Award for Documentary Excellence goes to a mid-career filmmaker distinguished for observational cinema. This year’s recipient is Kim Longinotto, who will receive a $5,000 cash prize sponsored by Drew Associates. For more than thirty years, Longinotto has made acclaimed documentaries that Read More

Laura Poitras to Receive First-Ever Robert and Anne Drew Award for Documentary Excellence

(from October 31, 2014 DOC NYC press release) Laura Poitras (CITIZENFOUR) will receive DOC NYC’s first annual Robert and Anne Drew Award for Documentary Excellence, a $5000 prize to celebrate the work of a mid-career documentary maker upholding the traditions of observational cinema. The award will be formally presented at the DOC NYC Visionaries Tribute at Read More

Robert Drew, Pioneering Documentary Filmmaker, Dies at 90

Documentary filmmaker Robert L. Drew, a father of American cinéma vérité, died today at his home in Sharon, Connecticut. He was 90 years old. Drew and his associates pioneered a new kind of reality filmmaking in the early 1960s that is now a staple of the documentary form. Drew made more than 100 films over Read More

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- September 1, 2015

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.

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