By Gregory Crofton
Robert Drew, who invented a new way to tell stories with a camera called American cinéma vérite, also known as direct cinema, kept working right up until his death at 90.
“His mind was clear until the very end,” said Jill Drew, general manager at Drew Associates. “I mean he was working on getting the screening of the ‘Anne film’ while was he was in the hospital.”
“Anne: A Life Making Films” is an hour-long documentary Mr. Drew completed about his wife Anne Drew, who died in 2012. A public screening of the film is tentatively set for next month in New York City. It’s not a vérité documentary, but really a more “hand-stitched” one, Jill said.
The film is narrated by Mr. Drew and includes clips from films that Anne edited and produced, some of which include “Herself: Indira Gandhi,” (1982) “Man Who Dances: Edward Villella,” (1968) and “From Two Men and a War”(2005).
“Bob loves this film because it’s full of the shots he most loved of Anne as they were working together and living their lives,” Jill said. “So the film is a very personal film that was Bob’s attempt to tell the story of Anne as a filmmaking partner.” Anne joined Drew Associates in 1967. They married three years later and were together for 42 years. After her death from lung cancer, Mr. Drew wrote a tribute to his wife that was published in Indiewire.
Mr. Drew’s work had an epochal impact on documentary film and journalism. He, with Richard Leacock, a master filmmaker himself (“Jazz Dance” “Toby in the Tall Corn”), worked with an engineer and built a portable camera with a zoom lens that synched to a sound recorder. The equipment upgrades gave filmmakers mobility in the field, and allowed just two people to somewhat quietly follow the real action of a story. This replaced the lugging around of heavy cameras and tripods to get arranged shots, ones that Mr. Drew thought resulted in boring television. His new method was revolutionary — to capture what happened as it happened, then retreat to the editing room to craft a story.
“The technology was only a tool,” Jill said. “Bob’s real genius and contribution was seeing that you want to position yourself in a way that you can capture stories as they’re happening.” The film Drew is best-known for is the documentary “Primary,” which was released in 1960. It follows two Democratic presidential nominees, Senator John F. Kennedy and Senator Hubert Humphrey, as they meet and speak to voters in Wisconsin. It also features private and candid moments of Kennedy while he awaits voting returns.
Drew’s crew of cameramen for “Primary” was almost as astounding as the shooting technique he deployed. In addition to Leacock, his team included Albert Maysles, who went on to make films with his brother David such as “Grey Gardens” and “Gimme Shelter,” among many other documentary classics. It also included D.A. Pennebaker, who made Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Look Back,” “The War Room,” and more.
“Anne: A Life Making Films” will likely be released to the public via a streaming or video-on-demand service. The job of making that happen will be Jill’s, who has run the day-to-day operations of Drew Associates since Anne’s death. She married Derek Drew, one of Mr. Drew’s two sons, in 1987. Prior to that she spent 30 years as a print journalist, last working as a senior editor at The Washington Post followed by a fellowship at Columbia Journalism Review.
Derek also worked as print journalist before launching a consumer product review website that he sold to The New York Times in 2007. He is now president of Drew Associates but still involved in other projects. Over the years Derek was met with resistance when he suggested to his father and Anne that they put films online via services like iTunes.
“Bob and Anne both mistrusted online distribution because they had a lot of trouble with piracy of his biggest films,” Jill said. “You know when they would go online, somebody in Russia had put up a version of ‘Primary.’” But in more recent days, Mr. Drew watched Netflix often and seemed open to the idea of distributing his work that way.
Jill and Derek will get help with their strategy from Derek’s brother, Thatcher, who also founded a company related to information technology, and sister, Lisa, both of whom will serve on the board of Drew Associates. Their goal as a group is to restore, digitize and distribute many of the 112 film projects completed by the Drews.
All of the work is being preserved by the Academy Film Archives in Los Angeles, but not all of those films are hour-long documentaries. Some are commercial projects Mr. Drew did for companies like IBM, or short documentaries made for Time Life corporation like “Bullfight” at Malaga (1959).
“We have so much work to do to get Bob’s films digitized and get them distributed the right way,” said Jill, noting that 375 boxes of paperwork related to the films waited for her in Mr. Drew’s barn. “You know it’s really hard that Bob is gone, but at the same time, part of what our job now going forward is to preserve his legacy and to extend it and inspire young filmmakers today to do truly extraordinary journalism. A lot of reality filming has become very self involved. So much of documentary is advocacy. You’re putting together, showing things, to prove a point and make people come to your side. Bob was not like that at all.”
Below watch a clip of Robert Drew discussing how his work evolved and led to the making of his 1960 classic “Primary.” (Video courtesy of Barry Rubinow)