Richard "Ricky" Leacock, the London-born filmmaker whose work with Robert Drew and D.A. Pennebaker would revolutionize and come to define a generation's view of documentary film, has died in Paris at the age of 89.
Reports of Leacock's death began to circulate on Twitter several hours ago and the French film site Allocine.com confirmed Leacock's passing. The Paris-based documentary festival Cinéma du Réel, which opens today, is planning to dedicate a portion of the festival to Leacock. Leacock and his partner/collaborator Valerie Lalonde moved to Paris in 1989 where they made such films as LES OEUFS ET LA COQUE.
"I wrote a detailed script with little drawings of each shot. Polly was script-clerk, Noel was my assistant. My father provided us with an ancient Morris-Oxford touring car. We made reflectors of plywood covered with silver paint, and we smoked cigars because that is what they did in Hollywood! Back at school I edited with rewinds and cement splices. Then we projected. I knew even then that the script was not sacred, that in filming you found things to be different and adjusted accordingly."
Soon after making CANARY BANANAS, Leacock would have the opportunity to meet Robert Flaherty, who happened to be the father of two of Leacock's classmates.
"He was outside in the schoolyard with a 16mm Kodak Cine-Special (a very fancy camera) mounted on a huge tripod (an Akeley-Gyro) and was filming Barbara McDermott combing her long blond hair. He went on and on. He changed angles, he changed lenses, but he went on and on and I thought, “He must be mad!” and she just kept on combing her hair. Later that day, Bill Hunter brought me to his room and introduced me to Mr. Flaherty and his wife Frances. Hunter had shown them my film and they said some nice things about it, though Mrs. Flaherty mentioned that they were not that impressed by the chop-chop editing of the water sequence. Mr. Flaherty concluded by saying that “Someday we will work together...” or some such, which I took with a huge pinch of salt."
"When Robert Flaherty invited me to go with him to Louisiana, it was not exactly clear that I was to be the cameraman for LOUISIANA STORY... It was 1946, World War II had ended and I had been discharged, along with literally millions of other young men, from the US Army. Three years as a combat veteran, partly in the soggy wilds of Burma. Flaherty did not ask to see my work, lucky for me because I hadn't seen much either; in the army you "shoot" and send your film in and that is usually the last you hear about it unless there is something wrong. He took me on and what was to be a fourteen month filming saga, began. Filming, day after day, often seven days a week, in the swamps, marshes and Bayous of Southern Louisiana. A radical transition, yet the hazards, both natural and combative, of the towering forests of Burma were certainly a better preparation for life with the Flahertys than working with what I regarded as a "normal" documentary film crew."
Leacock's next assignment would be for the US cultural documentary program, Omnibus, which at one time or another in the 1950s aired on all three major American television networks. Leacock's project, TOBY & THE TALL CORN, would take him to Missouri, to report on a traveling tent theatre troupe, known as The Toby and Susie Show. Again, from his website:
"This was to be my final attempt to make a Documentary using classical film industry techniques. We worked very hard using a 35mm Mitchell BNC camera (weighing about 100 pounds with its massive tripod and power supply) that shot in synch with our Reeves 35mm magnetic tape recorder (weighing about 80 pounds with its attendant vacuum tube amplifier – it was said to be “portable!”). I shot a lot of wild, hand-held footage with a new French camera, the Éclair Cameflex, which took four-hundred-foot rolls. Not synch and not very handy but it made less noise than my old Eymo."
Just a few years later, Leacock began working with Robert Drew, who was an editor at Life Magazine and who, according to Leacock's recollection, "had an obsessive need to reform Television Journalism":
"to get rid of the interviews, to get rid of the narrators and to get the camera back to what it should be doing; observing... While I thought in terms of a "project" Drew thought in terms of reforming an industry and he had both the vision and the contacts to do it. We were able to have equipment built for us and we did. We made several small films such as BULLFIGHT AT MALAGA where our new equipment failed to work. The same was true on PRIMARY where we had a weird mixture of equipment but by sheer hard work we managed to achieve some of our goals, it was a beginning. Pennebaker, who was trained as an electrical engineer, joined us and spent much of his time in a hotel room fixing our equipment. Al Maysles and Terry Filgate were filming with noisy old Arriflex cameras while Drew and I had the only "synchronous system" a modified Auricon which took 100 ft. reels (2 1/2 minutes) of film and had a cable connecting me to Bob Drew's recorder. We were breaking all the rules of the industry. We were shooting and editing our own footage on location. The people taking sound were not "sound men", they were reporters, journalists, trained in finding and telling stories. It was a collaborative work, filmmakers and journalists; not cameramen and soundmen."
Writing about his experience making the landmark film, PRIMARY, Leacock noted that it was this new way of making films - along with the new equipment - that would give that film its intimacy, as well as how their new ways of working allowed for more creative approaches to the form:
In order to be sure that we had access, Bob Drew and I had spoken to Sen. Kennedy before, in Washington. He had agreed that I alone, with no lights, no tripod, asking no questions... could film discretely in his private suite when election results were coming in... a first (and probably a last). I was very much involved in the final editing of all these films. For me the art of filming is inseparable from that of editing. Clearly we are selecting when we shoot and also when we edit, I am trying to convey "aspects of the film makers perception of what took place..." For example: we had a shot of the large audience waiting for "the Senator" to arrive, a lady announces that "someone smoking a cigar has burned the dress of a lady..." we found a shot of a man smoking a cigar, we found a shot of an irate looking lady, we put them together, it is fun and true to the sense of the occasion, this is film making.
PRIMARY, and the films that would follow in Leacock's collaborations with Drew and later in his partnership with D.A. Pennebaker (including DON'T LOOK BACK, COMPANY and MONTEREY POP), would dramatically change the public's view toward documentary filmmaking and would inspire generations of filmmakers (including yours truly).
"My prime objective as a documentary film maker had always been to try and convey to an audience, what it was like "to be there". To achieve this you had to go back to the original object of documentary: to observe; to replicate aspects of your own perception of what you saw and heard going on around you."
Update: The Flaherty announces Leacock's death and posts an interview with the filmmaker. David Hudson has more links at Mubi. Thom Powers and Raphaela Niehausen remember Leacock's last visit to Stranger Than Fiction in NYC. Ray Pride runs a gallery of photographs he took of Leacock during the Hot Docs tribute to him in 2008.
More: S.T. VanAirsdale remembers Leacock's 1954 short JAZZ DANCE ("few films...wield (its) awesome, spiritual power") at Movieline. Eugene Hernandez writes about Leacock for FilmLinc and finds another choice Ricky quote: "I hope to be able to create sequences, that when run together will present aspects of my perception of what took place in the presence of my camera. To capture spontaneity it must exist and everything you do is liable to destroy-it... beware!"
Still more: AP's Tom McElroy writes the obit and talks to Al Maysles: "Maysles said that when he thought of Leacock he had two images: 'a wonderful, loving face and his hands.' Richard Brody remembers a phone call from Leacock - "you know nothing about Godard" - at The New Yorker. indieWIRE's Eric Kohn has remembrances from Maysles, Richard Peña and Mira Nair.