Charlotte Zwerin's Documentary Directions, by Lawrence Loewinger
"I'M FAMOUS, AIN'T THAT A BITCH!" so says the eponymous subject at the beginning of Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser. When Thelonious Monk said this in 1968, he was a known, if eccentric jazz musician, subject of a black and white documentary film made by Christian and Michael Blackwood, shown once on German television. When this same footage appears 20 years later, Monk is recognized as a major American musical figure. The stakes are much higher. He is now the subject of a theatrically released color film, produced by Charlotte Zwerin and Bruce Ricker, directed by Zwerin, and released by Warner Brothers through Clint Eastwood's company, Malpaso Productions, with Eastwood as the executive producer. Monk is truly famous.
A glance at Zwerin's career illuminates both the style of filmmaking in Straight, No Chaser and the personality of the filmmaker. She was known first as the co-director and editor of some of the more celebrated documentaries from the sixties, such as Salesman (1968) and Gimme Shelter (1970). Born in Detroit, Zwerin settled in New York in the late fifties. Her fascination with reality-based cinema developed very early. "When I was a little kid going to the movies," she said recently, "and the newsreels came on, they involved such a change in your feelings and attitudes. Even that small, I could understand I liked newsreels more than I liked movies."
Zwerin moved to New York at the point when documentary filmmaking was transforming itself. In the early sixties many of the documentary filmmakers and technicians, including Zwerin, Richard Leacock, Donn Pennebaker, and Albert and David Maysles, passed through the doors of Drew Associates. Robert Drew, who had contracts with Time/Life and the networks to produce films, acted as a kind of godfather to the filmmakers who would experiment with the technology and articulate the aesthetic issues that shaped the direct cinema movement. The most celebrated of the early direct cinema films, Primary (1960), about the Primary election campaign between Hubert Humphrey and John F. Kennedy, was a Drew Associates production.
In the early sixties, technology was a Primary force in molding film style. New, lightweight cameras from France and tape recorders from Switzerland entered the market. Film stocks were continually improved, becoming more and more sensitive to light. Since, by present day standards, film stock was cheap, vast quantities of film were often expended in the shooting of a film. These technical developments allowed filmmakers on relatively small budgets to go almost anywhere in search of a story. They also quickly influenced the manner in which documentary films were made.
The cinema verite and direct cinema movements developed most rapidly in France and the United States. The French variant of this style veered in a didactic direction. Jean Rouch, and ethnographic filmmaker and one of the prime exponents of cinema verite in France, said in an interview some years back, "I've never made a film where the editing didn't conform to what I wanted to do. From the moment that a documentary filmmaker changes the sense of the film he wanted to make in the editing, it's bad, it's false for me." The French attitude, as promulgated by Rouch, is substantially different than its US counterpart.
At first, the American version, influenced by the regnant aesthetic taste for naturalism, stressed the invisibility of the filmmaking team on location as a way of obtaining truth. Non intervention was the order of the day. Moreover, in the early films, emphasis was placed on shooting rather than editing as the paramount filmmaking skill. One of the results of this credo was to produce a series of fascinating, if loosely shaped documentaries in which the viewer had more creative space to form his/her own views. That was soon to change.
Enter the editor as collaborator rather than mere technician. Zwerin is the prime example of an editor who, not only consciously shaped mountains of formless material, but also urged the filmmaking team back into the field, usually after shooting was done, to film the connective threads that would make a film work. The outstanding example in Zwerin's career of this new, elaborated role of the editor-become-filmmaker are the scenes in Gimme Shelter with the Rolling stones seated before an editing console, commenting on the horrors of the Altamont concert. These scenes elevated the film into a complex statement about popular culture and human responsibility. Structurally, they made the film work. Moreover, by making the Stones witnesses as well as participants at Altamont, this footage also helped to convince the reluctant Rolling Stones to release the finished film.
By the mid-sixties, Zwerin and others could see both the strengths and the limitations of direct cinema. This approach worked best when one is limited to examining the lives of individuals or exploring a situation with a strong dramatic event. Films of this sort were often structured around the achievement of a goal. The film titles themselves suggest the subject matter. Primary follows the campaign battle between Humphrey and Kennedy during the 1960 Wisconsin Primary election. Zwerin's first editing job with Drew Associates was Susan Starr. The question posed in that film is whether Starr, a classical pianist, will win a major piano competition. Many of the Maysles' films, even up until the present day, are built around the outcome of a particular event. Running Fence, one in a series of Maysles' Films about the work of the artist Christo and a prime example of Zwerin's editing virtuosity, questions whether the artist will get his opportunity to build a fence, made of white fabric, across the rugged landscape of northern California. In short, the evolution of formal means was often limited by the demands of content and commercial considerations.
Charlotte Zwerin met Albert and David Maysles in the early sixties. That encounter was to have a profound effect on her life and our experience of documentary film. Out of those early collaborations come two of the most interesting and structurally complex films of the direct cinema movement, Salesman and Gimme Shelter. These two films would soar beyond the event and personality driven limitations of previous documentaries.
As a portrait of several Massachusetts-based bible salesmen and their working-class milieu, Salesman entails little overt drama and less glamour. The Maysles brothers had just completed a film portrait of Truman Capote, whose book In Cold Blood had profoundly influenced David Maysles' thinking. According to Zwerin, "David Maysles was going in the direction of making a nonfiction, novelistic film, a story film." With Salesman, the Maysles and Zwerin, who was the film's co director and editor, had discovered the perfect material to explore their new concerns. On its face, the material revealed no simple story, no goal to be achieved. Similarly, the men in Salesman were far different from the subjects of other Maysles' films from the same period, such as Truman Capote, film producer Joseph E. Levine, and the Beatles. Here was the first direct cinema style film in which form responded to the demands of content rather than the opposite.
Salesman gradually became the story of one man, Paul Brennan, whose elfin personality would shine through the film, even as his career was careening out of control. Says Zwerin, "The Maysles and I were trying to tell a story through character rather than events. Salesman is a character study in action, and the character happens to represent more than what he is. He represents dreams and reality."
Completely un-sponsored, Salesman is the purest of all Maysles films. It is the first direct cinema production to win theatrical release. It also one of the first in which the editor is recognized as a co-maker of the film. From the middle sixties until now, Zwerin has alternated between editing and producing and directing her own work, and over time she has produced more and more films. However, as long as she edited and co directed at Maysles Films the public and the professional community viewed her more as a technician than a creative force. She recalls, "To this day I still get the questions, 'what did you do on Salesman? What did you do on Gimme Shelter?' 0I remember someone who worked at the Maysles and left saying that they cast a long shadow. You have to get out of there in order to establish yourself as a filmmaker. Otherwise, no one is going to recognize what you do." Thelonious Mont: Straight, No Chaser is less a biography of Thelonious Monk than it is a presentation of his art and a striking, selective look at a powerful, if troubled, man. The film also offers a meditation on the evolution of documentary style between the loose, intense performance footage of the sixties and the cool, formal interview material of the eighties--by setting up a dialogue between these styles. The film's story is told through the performance material, letting the interviews and still footage form the necessary connective links.
Straight, No Chaser continues and enlarges on a series of biographical films about contemporary artists and jazz musicians which Zwerin has produced and directed. The first two, Dekooning on Dekooning and Arshile Gorky, were produced as television documentaries. But the Monk film is comparable in scale to the early, theatrically released Maysles films. Here, too, Zwerin both directs and edits. The new element is that she co-produced Straight, No Chaser with Bruce Ricker.
The trail that led to the making of Straight, No Chaser started with a casual street conversation between Ricker and Christian Blackwood, almost 10 years ago. Ricker discovered that Christian and Michael Blackwood, German filmmakers who settled in the United States in the sixties to make films for German television, had made one about Monk. It was shown once in 1968. The Blackwoods retained all of the rights to the material which had not been touched since then. Richer had approached Zwerin to edit his first foray into filmmaking--a film about Kansas city jazz called the last of the Blue Devils in 1974. She was unavailable at the time. When Ricker learned of the Monk footage, he telephoned her immediately. "In 1981, when Christian mentioned this," Ricker relates, "Charlotte and I knew Christian and Michael would never give up the footage. We also knew we needed something more than the historical footage. I asked Charlotte if she wanted to get involved, warning her it might be messy. We would have four producers [the Blackwood brothers, Ricker, and Zwerin] and two directors [Christian Blackwood and Zwerin]. I thought Christian and Charlotte would complement each other perfectly. Plus it was the reality." She jumped at the opportunity.
An arrangement "of sorts," Ricker says, was worked out, and Ricker and Zwerin were able to proceed. Though Monk was alive in the early eighties, he was not well enough to be approached. When he died in 1982, Christian Blackwood filmed the funeral. Zwerin and Ricker made plans to deal with the Monk estate. After Monk's death, the story became more complicated. Says Ricker, "Monk didn't have a will. While Nellie, his wife and Thelonious always thought they were married, New York State doesn't recognize common law marriages." First, the court held hearings to declare Monk's children legally his. Then, the children became executors of the estate. During this period Zwerin and Ricker thought they were securing the rights to Monk's life until a couple of interlopers from California arrived on the scene. Two young men, with a substantial chunk of money and no prior film experience, paid the Monk estate $5,000 to gain exclusive rights to Monk's life story for three years. For the duration of the option period, Zwerin and Ricker's project had to be put on hold.
Zwerin and Ricker saw Thelonious Monk as a major American performer and composer. They assumed that their potential funding sources would see him in the same way and gladly support their plans. Fundraising before, during, and after their enforced delay proved to be more difficult than they had imagined. By 1985, however, the money began to come in. The PBS series American Masters, the National Endowment for the Arts, Channel 4 in England, and Pioneer Laser Discs agreed to support the project. In securing promises for $200,000, they raised enough money for a one-hour television program to be finished on videotape and, due to the high cost of musical rights, with very limited, post-TV distribution potential. Then, in the summer of 1987, something happened to change the scope of the film.
Ricker tells the story: "In the summer of 1987 I got a call from David Valdes of Warner Brothers, asking about distribution rights to my film The Last of the Blue Devils." While Valdes, who works for Clint Eastwood's Malpaso Productions, was researching Bird, he came across the Ricker film. Like many stars, Eastwood set up a production company to produce his own films which the studio distributes. Unlike some stars, his company has produced serious work. According to the nonplussed Ricker, Warner purchased the distribution rights for his film that remained§France and Italy. "Meanwhile," Ricker continues, "I started talking to Eastwood, who knew I knew the Baroness Nica de Koenigswarter. He wanted an introduction to her to find out about Charlie Parker's death. He died in her apartment. Then I realized that Eastwood is really into bebop, and he plays jazz piano. I said to Charlotte, 'I'll give you odds I can get Eastwood to put up the money for the Monk film.' She started laughing."
After seeing a presentation reel, Eastwood and Joe Hyams, responsible for publicity at Warner Brothers and, along with Eastwood, a serious jazz aficionado, quickly agreed to have Malpaso produce the film. Ricker and Zwerin then gave Eastwood a budget detailing what they really needed to finish the film and distribute it theatrically. Eastwood called back 24 hours later to commit the money. "I don't know where I got the nerve," Ricker says, "but I said, 'Okay, Clint, what are the ground rules? Who has editorial approval?' He said, 'I'm too busy. I trust you completely. Go ahead and make the film. I'll have final approval.'" The parties then sat down and negotiated a detailed, lengthy contract. Once that was agreed upon, the television funders bowed out, some more gracefully than others.
The search for the historical footage used in the film proved as challenging as the fundraising. Straight, No Chaser is an amalgam of several different varieties of archival material: a CBS television show about beatniks filmed at the Five Spot Caf™ in 1956, another CBS television program The Sound of Jazz, Japanese footage of Just a Gigolo, French TV footage, and the extensive Blackwood material shot in 1968. Because the film is a celebration of performance, Zwerin searched diligently and exhaustively for newsreel material. She viewed each of the musical pieces of film as part of the canon of his work. Everything had to be found.
The story behind the discovery of the Five Spot footage exemplifies both Zwerin's attitude and the kind of luck occasionally needed to finish a film. She knew that the footage, which had been filmed by CBS, was in its library. The company had been unable or unwilling to find it. "I had endless conversations with the librarians," Zwerin complains with a sly smile on her face. "I kept coming up with more and more clues about where they might find it. I even offered to go out to New Jersey and go through the entire CBS warehouse," CBS still could not find the footage.
Once again an odd telephone call and the star power of Clint Eastwood resolved the problem. In the middle of Zwerin's search, Ricker got a call from CBS Sports as they were preparing their coverage of the 1987 NCAA basketball finals in Kansas City. Ricker explained, "This woman producer called me up, saying, 'I heard you made a film about Kansas City jazz. We would like to buy a clip.' I said, 'that's nice. Oh, by the way, I am producing a film about Thelonious Monk, and Clint Eastwood is our Executive Producer. He is doing a film about Charlie parker. . Parker's from Kansas City.' As soon as I mentioned Clint Eastwood, she forgot about The Last of the Blue Devils. I told her how to get hold of Eastwood, but I told her he wouldn't do it. Of course, he refused. She called me back the next day, really desperate."
"Then it dawned on me. Charlotte had been trying to find this footage for a year. I said if CBS found the footage maybe Eastwood would do the interview. I called him up. He said, 'Make sure you see the footage, and they give it to you for free. Then I will do the interview.' CBS called me back within 24 hours. They found the footage." For Zwerin it was one of her best days on the project. One of the more delicate problems that arouse during the making of the film was how the treat Monk's mental problems. To the outside world Monk probably looked like an eccentric character. To those who knew him well, he displayed a darker side, and Zwerin felt she needed an on-camera interview with someone in the family. Although his wife Nellie agreed verbally, each time a date was set she never kept it. "We were told she was ill," Zwerin said, "which I think was actually true. I also think she didn't want to talk about it." The Baroness de Koenigswarter, who was Monk's sometime companion, would not talk. That left Monk's son, Thelonious Jr.
Here, too, Eastwood was helpful. There developed a set of interlocking needs. Thelonious Jr. intended to set up a foundation to preserve his father's work. Eastwood does a lot of charity work. The power of his name would help to attract funding. Although there was never a quid pro quo, when Thelonious Jr. returned from a visit to Eastwood in California he consented to film an interview detailing his experiences growing up with his father. Reflecting on the difficulty of getting anyone within the family to speak frankly about Monk's illness, Zwerin said, "Thelonious Monk Jr. turned out to be the best person to do it. I was very impressed that he did it. I don't think it was easy".
The power of the Warner Brothers studio name was also instrumental in getting reasonable deals on the fees paid for musical rights. "Once we got Clint involved, "Ricker relates, "it was pretty simple. We were able to use Warner Brothers indirectly to find out who controls the music rights. We got much better deals for music clearances."
Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser premiered at the London film Festival in the fall of 1988. The plan was to open it in New York the next spring. It played at the Berlin Film Festival in the spring of 1989, where word of mouth began to build. At the same time, Ricker was trying to interest Columbia Records, whose musical library owns much of Monk's music, to release a soundtrack album, paralleling the film's New York opening. Finally, in March 1989 they agreed, which meant the record company could not do a release before late spring or early summer. Contemplating the options, Ricker and Zwerin decided that theirs was not a summertime movie.
"It seemed natural to open it in the fall," Ricker enthused. "I was talking to Ralph Donnelly of City Cinema. He said, 'If you waited that long, why don't you think of the New York Film Festival?' I spoke to Joe Hyams, Eastwood's publicity person, about it. Then Charlotte and I huddled. Hyams said Warner had good luck with 'Round Midnight and Bird at Lincoln Center. We knew that Monk had grown up around there. He's black and a jazz musician, and there is a woman director. Plus it's a good film. Let's take a chance at the film festival. It was the perfect launching pad."
After nine years of planning, negotiating, waiting, researching, filming and editing, Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser opened to strong reviews at the New York film Festival in October 1989. It was released on videocassette last month. Salesman will be highlighted in the P.O.V. series on PBS this summer. Charlotte Zwerin's career is in high gear.
Larry Loewinger is a film producer, sound engineer, and journalist.