Marshall Curry was panicked as he stood in the back of the screening room.
He was at the Full Frame Film Festival in Durham, North Carolina, a small, out-of-the-way showcase for documentaries, awaiting the April 2005 world premiere of his first feature-length movie, Street Fight.
The film chronicled a little-known neighborhood activist’s unsuccessful campaign, athwart the corrupt local Democratic establishment, for mayor of Newark, New Jersey. (Thanks largely to the favorable attention generated by Curry’s documentary, Cory Booker was elected mayor the following year, and later became a United States senator and 2020 presidential candidate.)
“I was trying not to throw up from stress,” Curry recalled about that premiere. “I was staring at the back of everybody’s heads and thinking ‘Please just don’t walk out, at least just stay till the end of the movie.’”
Nobody walked out, and, unbeknownst to Curry, the audience included legendary documentary filmmaker D.A.—for Donn Alan—Pennebaker and his artistic collaborator and wife Chris Hegedus.
Later on, Curry spotted the famous couple across a courtyard and introduced himself.
“You made Street Fight? We loved it—it was such a terrific movie,” Pennebaker told him, and then closely interrogated him about his filmmaking choices.
“It sent me over the moon for two months,” Curry said, recalling the beginning of a beautiful friendship—in many ways a mentorship—that lasted more than 14 years until Pennebaker’s death, last Thursday, at age 94.
According to Curry, Pennebaker had been at work on a memoir at the time of his death, and was pretty far along in the writing process.
“Over the years he was a bit less steady on his feet, but he was always an amazing conversationalist, and always had funny and surprising insights into what was going on in politics or movies he’d just seen, or things he was thinking about,” said Curry, who last saw Pennebaker a couple of months ago when the famed filmmaker attended a screening of Curry’s first fictional short, The Neighbor’s Window.
“He was a big fan of cutting-edge music,” Curry continued. “That was what was so cool about him. He was like everything that a documentary filmmaker should be. He was curious about the world. You’d have dinner with him and he’d talk about some brand-new band that you’d never heard of, that he’s been listening to, or some opera from the 18th century, or Ezra Pound, or a new documentary film that he’d seen at some obscure documentary film festival. He was just so enthusiastic about all of those things.”
Over a career that spanned seven decades, Pennebaker—known to his friends as “Penny”—created or helped create a massive body of work (more than 40 films) that pioneered and defined the cinema verité style of documentary filmmaking and, either through a sixth sense or dumb luck, nearly always managed to be at the white-hot center of the zeitgeist.
Shouldering his stripped-down 16 mm Auricon camera, Pennebaker followed Sens. John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey through their decisive battle in the 1960 Wisconsin Primary (for that year’s documentary Primary); tracked the Kennedy brothers, the president and his attorney general, Bobby, as they confronted racist Alabama governor George Wallace over the desegregation of the state university (for the 1963 film Crisis); and trailed Bob Dylan through a British concert tour for the 1967 masterpiece Don't Look Back.
He also made the mother of all rockumentaries, 1968’s Monterey Pop; captured a historic clash between entrenched male chauvinism and nascent feminism—a raucous 1971 debate pitting a charmingly belligerent Norman Mailer against a lethally brilliant Germaine Greer, among others, filmed by Pennebaker and distilled years later by Hegedus—in 1979’s Town Bloody Hall (adapted for the stage in 2017); and got inside Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign for the Oscar-nominated real-life 1993 political dramedy The War Room.
The latter film not only completed the transformation of James Carville and George Stephanopoulos from behind-the-scenes operatives to bona fide celebrities—the “Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid” of American politics—it also was the inspiration and model for Curry’s much-lauded movie about the 2002 Newark mayor’s race.
“His filmmaking is huge, but his legacy is even bigger than his body of films,” Curry said. “I bet if you asked 100 documentary filmmakers to list the most influential filmmakers that got them to decide to make films, he would be at the top of everybody’s list. And not just through his work, but through his support for filmmakers.
“There are just dozens and dozens and dozens of people who would tell you a story about how Penny and Chris loved going to screenings and watching films by up-and-coming filmmakers and talking to them and befriending them. I think that’s an important part of calculating Penny’s legacy and his impact.”
As a Style reporter for The Washington Post more than two decades ago, this writer joined Pennebaker and Hegedus for a wine-soaked dinner at a Manhattan restaurant after screening The War Room with Carville, who’d provided a running commentary as the movie unfolded while swigging Old Grand Dad from a paper cup.
At the time, Pennebaker was a startlingly boyish 68-year-old who shared two young children with his much-younger third wife. (He fathered eight kids in all, including his eldest son, Frazer, the longtime boss of Pennebaker Hegedus Films.)
At dinner, Hegedus and Pennebaker described their collaboration—especially the editing process for The War Room—as a merger of creativity and discipline.
“It's hard for Penny to give up certain things,” Hegedus told me. “He couldn't part with one second of the press conference with Gennifer Flowers. So he's rarely allowed into the editing room. When we get it down to like, 2 1/2 hours, then he's allowed in.”
“The editing is a lot of give and take—a marvelous process,” Pennebaker chimed in. “It's like playing piano duets. You don't even know when the other person's playing.”
They also acknowledged the white-knuckle terror of raising hundreds of thousands of dollars to embark on a documentary with little idea of its ultimate success.
“It was totally scary every second of the way,” Hegedus said about The War Room.
“You try not to let yourself think about it—it's like going off the high board,” Pennebaker added.
At which point Carville asked: “Tell me something. Why does a 68-year-old man who is, like, the preeminent documentary filmmaker in America, or certainly one of them—what drives you to go to Little Rock [the site of Clinton’s campaign headquarters], where you don't know if anybody's gonna give you access, you don't know what you're getting on film, you don't know if we're gonna win or lose, you don't have any money—and, by the way, it isn't like, when all is said and done, you got very much. I mean, you'll get some reviews and crap.”
“But you get a lot,” Pennebaker answered. “You get the best time you could imagine, James. But it's not something that translates very easily into the present market-driven culture… It seems insane?”
“No, it doesn't seem insane,” Carville said. “It just seems to me that you have this sort of station in life, both Chris and you, and you could do anything you wanted to do—and why?”
“That's just a total misconception of our lives,” Hegedus disagreed. “Like, no one is dying for the films we make at all. We have to go out and—”
“And make them anyway,” Pennebaker finished her sentence. “It's like, 'Up your ass!'... It's like knowing that the next thing you do, nobody else in the world will do, and it makes you want to just do it... I think Steven Spielberg makes terrible films, but the only way I can prove it is by making my own.”
As a documentary director, Pennebaker usually acted as his own cinematographer; as if by magic, he became invisible, giving his subjects the illusion that he wasn’t even there or, at worst, that his presence was unthreatening.
“I'm just sleeping behind the camera,” he told me. “It's like dancing—you don't want to see where your right foot goes. You kind of know.”
Pennebaker also liked to describe his cinema verité attitude as patiently awaiting the money shot—like a cat anticipating the sudden arrival of a mouse, “and then I pounce.”
“He could see things in his camera that other people couldn’t,” Carville told The Daily Beast. “That was his kind of genius.”
Carville added: “How many people have lived 94 years on earth and you can legitimately say about him that he had not made a single enemy in 94 years? Somebody that successful in a cutthroat business with a rather-see-my-friend-fail-than-succeed mentality? But I’ve never heard of a single person that didn’t like him. He was a man with no enemies.”
Meanwhile, George Stephanopoulos, these days the chief anchor of ABC News, texted: “Penny was a genius filmmaker and such a sweet man. He disappeared behind that tiny camera, saying little, smiling more, then let his work do the talking.”