The Governors Awards
On Dec. 1, at the private dinner at Hollywood & Highland, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will bestow honors on four filmmakers whose work reaches from classic Hollywood to the latest computer animation. Documentary filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker, 87, stuntman-turned-director Hal Needham, 81, and George Stevens Jr., 80, founding director of the American Film Institute and co-founder of the Kennedy Center Honors, will receive Honorary Awards, while Jeffrey Katzenberg, 61, will be recognized for his philanthropic work.
THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER: What filmmakers influenced you taking up a camera?
D.A. Pennebaker: Definitely [the pioneering documentarian Robert] Flaherty, because he did what nobody else had done. When I saw Nanook of the North, his 1922 film, it was very interesting for me. I kind of had an idea of what films could look like.
THR: When you started out, virtually no documentary film got theatrical distribution. Did you ever worry about putting food on the table?
Pennebaker: I did, and I had different things I did to sort of do that. You could kind of survive, but there were no fancy cars or partying going on. We were all just messing around. Nobody thought what we were doing was very serious. [It wasn't until the 1967 Bob Dylan concert doc Don't Look Back that] we decided to go into a theatrical release, and that was a whole new game for us. Nobody I knew had done that successfully.
THR: You are regarded today as one of the fathers of what we now call "cinema verite." What does that term mean to you? Does it accurately describe what you do?
Pennebaker: It's a term that was devised originally by a French filmmaker. Al Maysles liked to call it "direct cinema," which sounds OK to me. I'm very wary of trying to label things. The important thing was what was being put on the wall with a projector.
THR: What led you to a career as a stuntman?
Hal Needham: My first job was as a tree-topper, and I was so damn good at it, they called me "Squirrel." And then I joined the military and became a paratrooper. And later on I raced motorcycles and cars. So I had a pretty good background for it -- plus, I was a pretty good athlete. When I came in, Westerns were the big thing, so I did horse falls, transfers, bulldogs, big fights. But then all the Westerns stopped, and I was capable of doing car stunts, motorcycle stunts and high falls. I could do it all. I never turned down a stunt.
THR: You experienced a lot of injuries, right?
Needham: Well, I broke 56 bones. Broke my back twice, punctured a lung, dislocated a shoulder, knocked out a bunch of teeth. And I don't have any ill effects. I had to have a shoulder operated on, and that bothers me a little bit, but basically I'm in good shape.
THR: How did you come to direct Burt Reynolds?
Needham: We met on a show called Riverboat. I doubled him there and then moved over to Gunsmoke, and then he moved to the big screen and I doubled him for 14 years. Then I wrote Smokey and the Bandit, gave it to him, and he said, "If you can find someone that'll give you the money to do this, I'll star in it and you can direct it." And the rest is history. I loved to direct, to be in charge.
GEORGE STEVENS JR.
THR: The Governors Awards are just 24 hours before the Kennedy Center Honors themselves, which you have produced for the past 34 years. How are you going to make it work?
George Stevens Jr.: Well, I'm taking one of those pills that puts you in two places at once! I am going to be at our rehearsal in D.C. and then leave the honors in the hands of my son Michael, who's produced them with me for six years, fly to Los Angeles, enjoy the ceremonies in Hollywood, and then fly back. I'll be on the stage of the Kennedy Center at nine in the morning on Sunday.
THR: You had a very close personal and professional relationship with your father, the great director George Stevens. When did you first work together?
Stevens: The first job I had was the summer before I went to college. I had two things to do: One was to read Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy and list every scene and character because my father was about to begin work on the screenplay of A Place in the Sun. And the other was to read the things that came from the studio, and among them was this little novel. I took it over one night, and he was in bed, and I said, "I think this is really a good story, and I think you ought to read it." And he said, "Well, why don't you tell me the story?" So I walked around his bed trying to tell him coherently the story of Shane. And then the next summer, I worked with him on Shane.
JEAN HERSHOLT HUMANITARIAN AWARD: Jeffrey Katzenberg
In her own words, Sherry Lansing, the award's 2007 recipient, hails Jeffrey Katzenberg for his own efforts in 'giving back'
As much as I loved making movies, to be honored by your peers for giving back is, to me, the greatest honor of all. When I looked at the people who have received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, I was very humbled to be in their presence, as I continue to be now that Jeffrey is receiving it.
Jeffrey has always been a leader, and because he's a leader, he leads in philanthropic ways just like he leads a studio. He's obviously been touched by the people in the Motion Picture Home, he cares for them, and it's a way for him to give back to an industry that has been so good to him. We all care so much about our work, but we also hope to have a balanced life. We're all thankful for the gifts this industry has given us, and one of those gifts is the ability to get your message out about the things that you care about. In my current career, for example, Stand Up to Cancer has been a case of the industry coming together and using the power of the media to get the message out.
Giving back is not necessarily about giving money -- I want to stress that. Philanthropy is about good ideas and getting other people to join you in something that you care about. In that way, it's like making a movie. And Jeffrey's done that in the midst of an extraordinarily successful career.