DREW, ROBERT

U.S. Documentary Film Producer

Robert Drew is a documentary producer, who, during the late 1950s and 1960s, pioneered a new documentary form for application in the network news departments. This form, which Drew dubbed "Candid Drama," also known as "Cinema Verite" or "Direct Cinema", did not, ultimately, reshape news programming, but it did provide the medium with a radically different way of covering historical and cultural events.

" Candid Drama", according to Drew, is a documentary filmmaking technique which reveals the "logic of drama" inherent in almost all human situations. In sharp contrast to typical television documentaries, which are simply "lectures with picture illustration," and for that reason usually are "dull," the candid drama documentary eschews extensive voice-over narration, formal interviews, on-air correspondents, or other kinds of staged and framed television formulae. Instead, through the slowly acquired photography and long, single takes--called real-time photography--of verite technique, the details and flavor of a scene become the important elements: the fatigue experienced by candidates on a campaign trail (Primary), the fervid concentration of a race car driver (On the Pole) capture our attention as much as the factual information about a campaign or the Indianapolis 500. According to Drew, the purpose of candid documentary is to engage the viewer's "senses as well as his mind." Over a career that spans more than 30 years, Drew has produced over 100 films and videotapes, most of which employ the theory and methods of verite technique; and unlike other practitioners of the form, he has also tried to procure a regular slot for verite on prime time network programming.

Drew was first introduced to the power of documentary photography just after World War II, while demonstrating a new fighter plane for a Life magazine reporter and photography team (Drew had served as a fighter pilot during the war). Struck by the power of the resulting article, Drew, at the age of 22, became a staff reporter for Life. In 1955 he accepted a Neiman fellowship at Harvard to formally pursue the problem of an alternative news theory in the medium of film. It was a time of rigorous talk, study and analysis, according to Drew, and upon his return to Life, he began making films as well as reporting. Some of these early experiments premiered on The Ed Sullivan Show and The Jack Paar Show. In 1960, Drew moved to Time Inc.'s broadcast division, where, with the backing of Wes Tullen, vice president in charge of television operations, he obtained the funds for his first project and the means necessary to develop lightweight portable equipment. The engineering of the first small sync sound and picture camera unit, which he undertook with filmmaker Richard Leacock, has undoubtedly had an enormous impact on numerous documentarians working both for the major networks and independently. Sensitive and ephemeral moments could now be more easily captured than with the cumbersome camera, large camera crew and lighting system that had been used in news coverage to date.

Also at this time, Drew formed his company, Drew Associates, which enabled him to hire freelance cameramen and filmmakers, some of whom, such as D.A. Pennebaker, Richard Leacock and Albert Maysles, have since gone on to establish celebrated careers of their own. By March of that year, Drew was ready to select their first subject and settled on the Democratic Presidential primary in Wisconsin, which pitted the young John Kennedy against Hubert Humphrey. For the last week of the campaign, three two-man crews tracked both Kennedy and Humphrey as they made their rounds of the hustings, photo sessions and the rare, private moments in between.

Primary, as this first film was named, still stands today as one of Drew Associate's best known and celebrated works. It won the Flaherty award for Best Documentary and the Blue Ribbon at the American Film Festival, while in Europe, according to Drew, "it was received as a kind of documentary second-coming." (The rough immediacy of the hand-held camera is said to have influenced Goddard's Breathless.) Kennedy, upon viewing Primary, liked it so much that he consented to Drew's request to make further candid films in his role as President. "What if I had been able to observe F.D.R. in the 24 hours before he declared war on Japan?" he said. And indeed, Drew Associates gained permission to film the president during a period of crisis. Called Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment (1963), this documentary chronicles the showdown between Alabama Governor George Wallace and the federal government over the integration of the University of Alabama. As in Primary, domestic and personal details of the two main protagonists (Wallace and then-Attorney general, Robert F. Kennedy) are intercut with the film's history-making moments---Wallace's initial refusal to back down and the government's decision to employ State troops. To Drew's great chagrin, however, the films were not broadcast over the networks. While regional outlets were found on occasion, the regular scheduling of these films and the many others he produced, proved an elusive goal.

A joint Time, Inc.-ABC sponsorship allowed Drew Associates, however, to produce a series of films that year, 1960, for television, including a portrait of Indianapolis race driver, Eddie Sachs, On the Pole, and Yanki No!, about Latin American reaction to American foreign policy in the region. These two films prompted a Time, Inc.--ABC liaison to offer Drew a contract for a regular supply of candid documentary and in rapid-fire succession the company made about a half dozen more. They form a diverse list, including a profile of Nehru (which grew to a twenty year documentary relationship with the Nehru "dynasty", with subsequent films on Indira Gandhi and her son, Rajiv). Yet the first season's series was to be the last produced under the arrangement; again, the regular scheduling of the films, which Drew had made the bedrock of his candid drama theory, did not materialize.

The reasons proffered for the ambivalence of the television industry include the political infighting that arose between Time, Inc. and ABC and the growing difficulty of attracting a single sponsor for the projects; but perhaps the most compelling reason was the networks' unshakable preference for correspondent-hosted or narrated reporting. The predictable, and containable, effects of a regular news anchor has prevailed, with exceptions, over more poetic candid documentary. (Moments of verite reporting have nonetheless been produced in a few instances by the networks, Drew maintains, most notably the network coverage of American troops in Vietnam.) Once the first season of programming was complete, the three-way contractual relationship between Drew Associates, Time, Inc. and ABC formally ended. The production company since then has managed to survive and produce prolifically on an independent contractual basis with a variety of sponsors, including ABC, PBS, the BBC, corporations, governmental agencies, as well with its own Drew Associates funds, as an independent producer.

The resulting oeuvre consists of a wide variety of historical and high profile moments, intermingled with scenes of the ordinary in modern life. Jane (1962) shows us a young Jane Fonda at her Broadway debut. A Man Who Dances (1968), produced as part of series on the arts for Bell Telephone, about ballet dancer Edward Villella, won Drew an Emmy. Many have dealt with subjects the networks have hesitated to tackle in house; responding to a request by Xerox Corporation for a film "that the networks won't touch," Drew made Storm Signal (1966), a documentary on drug addiction; a three part series on gangs, produced for PBS's Frontline (1983-1984) delves into the world of gangs and an inner-city high school. A full ten years later, Drew Associates completed L.A. Champions, also for PBS, about the basketball teams that play the streets of Southcentral Los Angeles, which like Drew's first films, unobtrusively follows its main characters, and without a word of narration tells a stirring story.

-Susan Hamovitch

 


Robert Drew
Photo courtesy of Drew Associates

ROBERT LINCOLN DREW. Born in Toledo, Ohio, U.S.A., 15 February 1924. Served in U.S. Army Air Force, 1942. Reporter for Life, 1946, Detroit bureau chief, 1949, assistant picture editor, New York, 1950, Chicago correspondent, 1951; documentary filmmaker for film and television. Recipient: Nieman Fellowship from Harvard University, 1954; American Film Festival, Blue Ribbon Award, 1961 and 1978; Venice Film Festival, First Prize, 1964, 1965, and 1966; Council on International Non-Theatrical Events, Cine Golden Eagle, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969 (2), 1970, 1975, 1976, 1977 (2), 1978, 1980, 1982, 1985, 1986, and 1991; International Cinema Exhibition, Bilboa, First Prize, 1967 and 1968; International Documentary Film Festival, First Prize, 1967; Emmy Award, 1969; Chicago Film Festival, Silver Hugo, 1978; Peabody Award, 1982; American Bar Association, Silver Gavel Award, 1983; International Film and TV Festival of New York, Gold Award, 1983; Education Writers Association, First Prize, 1985; DuPont-Columbia Award, Best Documentary, 1985-86.

DOCUMENTARY FILMS (selection)

Key Picture (Magazine X), 1954; American Football, 1957; The B-52, 1957; Weightless (Zero Gravity), 1958; Balloon Ascension, 1958; Bullfight, 1959; Yanki No!, 1960; Primary, 1960; On the Pole, 1960; X-Pilot, 1961; The Children Were Watching, 1961; Adventures on the New Frontier, 1961; Kenya (Part I: Land of the White Ghost; Part II: Land of the Black Ghost), 1961; Eddie, 1961; David, 1961; Petey and Johnny, 1961; Mooney vs. Fowle, 1961; Blackie, 1962; Susan Starr, 1962; Nehru, 1962; The Road to Button Bay, 1962; The Aga Khan, 1962; The Chair, 1962; Jane (The Jane Fonda Story), 1962; Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment, 1963; Faces of November, 1964; Mission to Malaya, 1964; Letters from Vietnam, 1965; In the Contest of the Queen, 1965; Assault on LeMans, 1965; The Big Guy, 1965; The Time of Our Lives, 1965; Men Encounter Mars, 1965; Storm Signal, 1966; Another Way, 1966; A Man's Dream: Festival of Two Worlds, 1966; International Jazz Festival, 1966; The New Met: Countdown to Curtain, 1966; On the Road with Duke Ellington, 1967; The Virtuoso Teacher, 1967; Carnival of the Menuhins, 1967; Man Who Dances: Eduard Villella, 1968; Jazz: The Intimate Art, 1968; Nelson Rockefeller, 1968; Another World, Another Me, 1968; Confrontation in Color, 1968; The Space Duet of Spider and Gumdrop, 1969; Songs of America, 1969; The Martian Investigators, 1970; The Sun Ship Game, 1971; Beyond the Limits, 1972; Late Start , 1973; Deal With Disaster, 1973; Saving the Birds, 1973; Helping the Blind, 1973; Junior Achievement, 1973; Teaching Reading, 1973; Children's Hospital, 1973; School Bus, 1973; State Legislature, 1973; Pittsburg, Kansas, 1973; Mississippi, 1973; Typewriter, 1973; Oceanography, 1973; Who's Out There? (Orson Wells and Carl Sagan), 1974; Life in Outer Space and The Mind of Man, 1973; Saving Energy, It Begins at Home, 1974; Junk Cars, 1974; A Feat of Talent, 1975; The Tall Ships Are Coming, 1975; Christmas Birds, 1975; Ohio River, 1975; Conserving Energy, 1975; Apollo Soyez, 1975; Children Learn to Write by Dictating, 1975; World Food Crisis, 1975; Things Are Changing Around This School, 1976; Los Nietos, Urban League Training Center, 1976; Lodi Lady, 1976; Mr. Vernon Distar, 1976; Congressman Ruppe, 1976; What's In a Name?, 1976; Men of the Tall Ships, 1976; Six Americans on America: Chatham Massachusetts; Morristown, New Jersey; Savannah, Georgia; San Antonio, Texas; Freelandville, Indiana; San Francisco, California, 1976; Parade of the Tall Ships, 1976; Kathy's Dance, 1977; A Unique Fit--LTV Merger, 1978; Talent for America, 1978; Grasshopper Plague, 1979; Maine Winter, 1979; One Room Schoolhouse, 1979; Undersea at Seabrook, 1979; Images of Einstein, 1979; The Zapper , 1979; The Snowblower, 1979; Freeway Phobia, 1980; 1980 Census, 1980; Durham Diets, 1980; Endorphins, 1980; Professor Rassias, 1980; Alcohol Car, 1980; Apex City, 1980; LTV '80, 1980; Spot Car , 1980; Blitz the Cities, 1981; Herself, Indira Gandhi, 1982; Fire Season (also director), 1982; 784 Days That Changed America: From Watergate to Resignation (also writer), 1982; Build the Fusion Power Machine, 1984-85; Being with John F. Kennedy, 1984; Frontline: Shootout on Imperial Highway, 1984; Warnings from Gangland (also director), 1984-85; Marshall High Fights Back (also co-director), 1984-85; The Transformation of Rajiv Gandhi, 1985-86; For Auction: An American Hero, 1985-86; OK Heart, 1985-86; Frontline: Your Flight is Cancelled, 1987; Messages from the Birds (also photographer), 1987-88; River of Hawks, 1987-88; Kennedy versus Wallace, 1988-89; London to Peking: The Great Motoring Challenge (also photographer, writer), 1989-90; Life and Death of a Dynasty (also photographer), 1990-91; L.A. Champions, 1993.

FURTHER READING

O'Connell, P.J. Robert Drew and the Development of Cinema Verite in America. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1992.

 

See also Documentary