An abbreviated version of this story first appeared in the Dec. 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
On Dec. 1, at the Academy Governors Awards, a private dinner at Hollywood & Highland, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will bestow special honors upon four filmmakers whose work reaches from classic Hollywood to the latest computer animation. Stuntman-turned-director Hal Needham, 81, documentary filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker, 87, 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 veteran studio executive Jeffrey Katzenberg, 61, will be recognized for his philanthropic work with the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award.
Below, you can read highlights of THR awards analyst Scott Feinberg’s recent interviews with Pennebaker, Needham and Stevens, as well as former Paramount chief and 2007 Hersholt Award recipient Sherry Lansing‘s tribute to Katzenberg.
The Hollywood Reporter: How did you learn that you had been chosen for the honorary Oscar — which has only been presented to one other stuntman in history, Yakima Canutt in 1967 — and what was your reaction?
Hal Needham: Well, I first heard it from Hawk Koch, the president of the Academy. He and I are pretty old friends; I worked with him many years ago when he was an assistant director. He said, “You got it!” It was 10 o’clock at night, and I didn’t sleep for the rest of the night. I’ve never been presented anything this prestigious in my life, and there’s gonna be a lot of folks there, and they’re all gonna be picture people, so yeah, it makes you a little nervous.
THR: What do you think enabled you to become such a great stuntman?
Needham: My first job was as a treetopper, 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 in life 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. That’s where you could really shine if you were really good at it. 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 worked every day. I never turned down a stunt.
THR: Over the course of roughly 300 movies and 4,500 television episodes, 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. How’s that? 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: One of the things that you don’t get enough credit for is inventing several devices that changed stunt work forever.
Needham: I came up with the air ram, the air bag, the car cannon turnover, the nitrogen ratchet and the jerk-off ratchet, and I was the first one to use rocket power. These made the films more real, more exciting to watch and a lot safer for the stunt guys.
THR: You also directed some very commercially successful films that starred your close friend 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 and to do things your own way. That was great. That was the best part of my life.
THR: Today, fewer real stunts are performed because filmmakers can just use CGI. What do you make of that?
Needham: I want to throw up. I just hate it. I hate CGI. I mean, it’s perfect for commercials and Avatar — the kids love it and I could care less. But when they come to doing live action with supposedly real people doing stunts, I hate CGI. And not only do I hate it, but so do audiences. When I go to movies, you can this groan throughout the theater. They don’t like it either.
The Hollywood Reporter: Were any films or filmmakers particularly important or influential in your decision to become a filmmaker?
D.A. Pennebaker: Definitely [the pioneering documentarian Robert] Flaherty, because he did what nobody else had done. He opened a door that I thought was so interesting, and I thought, “I’m surprised that nobody else has ever done it.” When I saw Nanook [of the North, a 1922 doc], it really was very interesting for me. I kind of had an idea of what films could look like.
THR: When you were starting out, virtually no documentary films got theatrical distribution. Did you ever worry about whether or not this sort of a career could put food on the table?
Pennebaker: I did worry about putting food on the table, 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 spent your formative years at Drew Associates making the “Living Camera” docs for Time-Life, the most famous of which is Primary (1961), along with many of the people who would shape docs for the next half-century.
Pennebaker: Drew persuaded Life magazine to put up some money to do a series of films which would be kind of in the style of one that Ricky [Richard Leacock] had recently made that had impressed both him and me. I had met Ricky, and he was gonna go be part of this, and so I joined him, along with Albert Maysles. And together we did Primary. We sort of took our cue from the still photography that Life had done. The lighting was just whatever it was. You didn’t try to make the thing look like a beautiful picture. You made it look like real life. I really learned a lot with [Robert] Drew.
THR: You not only shot great docs but also invented much of the portable, lightweight and sound-synced equipment that made it possible to do so.
Pennebaker: There were cameras and they could work on batteries, but some of them were noisy, and they weren’t synchronous. I wanted dialogue. I wanted the story in the films to be driven by what people said to each other, and in order to do that you had to be able to shoot sound in weird places where generally people didn’t shoot sound. We had to figure out a way to do that, and Ricky and I and [Mitch] Bogdanovich and a few others worked on that for three or four years to get it right.
THR: In the 1970s, you met and married Chris Hegedus, a talented filmmaker in her own right, with whom you began collaborating regularly, most notably on The War Room (1993), which brought you both a best documentary feature Oscar nomination.
Pennebaker: I finally had a person who was a real partner, who was looking to do the same thing that I was. That was a big thing for me. I think that the family operation is sort of suited for this kind of filmmaking. I’m not sure it would be if you had a crew of 50, but for what we do it sort of suits us.
THR: You are widely regarded today as one of the fathers of what we now call cinema verite. What does that term mean to you, and do you think it accurately describes what you do?
Pennebaker: It’s a term that was devised originally by a French filmmaker. I think it referred to newsreels. I didn’t have any name for it all. Al Maysles liked to call it “direct cinema,” which sounds OK. I’m very wary of trying to label things. That wasn’t the important thing; the important thing was what was being put on a wall with a projector.
THR: That being said, isn’t it true that most of your films feature fly-on-the-wall camerawork and shun the use of narration and on-camera interviews?
Pennebaker: I don’t like to be a fly on the wall. I’d kind of rather be a cat, because cats can look out windows for hours, and you don’t know what they’re watching or how they’re reacting to it.
THR: Your films have provided us with so many unforgettable moments — Kennedy walking through a crowd, Dylan flipping through the cue cards, Jimi Hendrix burning his guitar, and the list goes on. As you look back, when did you first realize that everything was gonna work out OK for you?
Pennebaker: When I look back, I think it was when Chris came into my life. Up until then, we were in terrible shape; we were almost bankrupt, and it looked like these good ideas and these good films were gonna disappear into a box somewhere and never appear again. And I thought, “That can’t happen.” And the only way to keep them alive was to keep making more of them.
GEORGE STEVENS JR.
The Hollywood Reporter: This year’s Governors Awards are scheduled for the same night as the State Department dinner honoring this year’s recipients of the Kennedy Center Honors, which you have attended for the past 34 years, and just 24 hours before Honors themselves, which you have produced for the last 34 years. How are you going to make this work?
Stevens: Well, I’m taking one of those pills that puts you in two places at once! [Laughs] I am going to be at our rehearsal here until 3 o’clock on Saturday afternoon. My partner in the honors is my son Michael Stevens, who’s produced them with me for six years, and I will leave the Honors in his good hands, fly to Los Angeles, enjoy the ceremonies in Hollywood and then go to the airport and fly back. And I’ll be here on the stage of the Opera House at the Kennedy Center at 9 in the morning on Sunday.
THR: I understand that you had a very close personal and professional relationship with your father, the great director George Stevens.
Stevens: The first job that 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, and 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. And then five or six years later we worked together on The Diary of Anne Frank; I directed all of the location scenes for that picture for him.
THR: When you were just 29, you went to Washington, at the request of Edward R. Murrow, to direct the new motion picture division of the U.S. Information Agency and became a great champion of the arts. It was largely because of you that film was included as one of the arts of the National Endowment of the Arts and that the American Film Institute was created in 1965. What was AFI’s original mission?
Stevens: In short form, to advance the art of film in the United States, and that involved preserving the great films of the past and training the filmmakers of tomorrow. We put 20,000 films into the Library of Congress, where they are now preserved. And, of course, we started a conservatory for filmmakers, and in the first class was Terrence Malick, David Lynch, Caleb Deschanel and Paul Schrader. And through the years so many have gone through those doors and come out as filmmakers. We also started the seminar program, which we named for Harold Lloyd, who gave the very first seminar, and great people would come there and talk about their work: Federico Fellini, King Vidor, John Huston, Howard Hawks, Gregory Peck, Jack Lemmon, writers, cinematographers.
THR: As you prepare to receive this great honor and reflect upon the life that led to it, how would you describe your outlook?
Stevens: One of the pleasing things about my life is that every day I get up and the only limitation is my imagination. To be able to function in this creative world is a great privilege.
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.