In Tune: Susan Lacy talks about Inventing David Geffen

Trevor Hogg chats with Emmy Award-winner Susan Lacy about the origins of American Masters and her latest documentary chronicling the life and times of David Geffen…


I’m the creator of the PBS TV series American Masters and it has been on the air for 27 years now,” states Susan Lacy who was in Los Angeles attending the celebrity studded premiere of her latest documentary Inventing David Geffen (2012).  “We’re approaching our 200th documentary.  The thing that separates my series from much of the other work in this area is I don’t do it unless I know I can get access to the material that is going to make the film sing so to speak.  That’s no small feat because every element in this documentary, from the music you hear to the photographs and the headlines you see to any archival clips whether its movies or stock footage, costs [money].”  When asked what makes music mogul David Geffen an ‘American Master,’ Lacy laughs,   “I had gotten to know him when I made a film on Joni Mitchell.  I interviewed him and then again when I did a film on The Byrds and the history of Atlantic Records.  I always found David to be remarkably and refreshingly candid, and funny.  Someone said, ‘He is also the person who discovered Laura Nyro.’  And I said, ‘Really?’  I knew about the whole Asylum [Records] era because that’s what I grew up with.  Laura Nyro and Joni Mitchell are two of the greatest songwriters of my growing up years. I thought what an amazing ear he has had because Laura Nyro wasn’t everybody’s taste.  I started looking into his story and realized David was one of the few I knew of who had succeeded in all three fields in the entertainment business: music, theatre, and film; he has an interesting story and is a really interesting person.”
“I was worried because there is little film on David himself,” admits Susan Lacy who had to devise a creative solution.  “I would fill in with animation and of course there is an incredible cast of characters. David has touched a vast array of people and many of them are in the film so that was what carried the day.  I had to have access to the music, DreamWorks, Geffen movies, none of which are owned by Geffen anymore, and to all of these people.  It was film with an unusually long creative time.  I started this about four years ago.  I stopped [for a year] and made the film on John Lennon for his 70th birthday.  Because I run the whole series I can take the time.  In this case it took a long time to get certain people’s schedules [to work].  It took two years to get Neil Young’s schedule but the film would be poorer without him.  It was important for him to be in the film so I was happy that I had the luxury of being able to wait until he could do the interview.”  Along with Young, who was once sued by David Geffen for making music uncharacteristic of him, a key figure needed for the documentary was the title character.  “I don’t think quite honestly that David realized he would have to do interviews which is hysterically funny. David said, ‘You did Leonard Bernstein and didn’t have him to do interviews.’  I said, ‘Well, he isn’t alive anymore. But I also had a thousand hours of Leonard Bernstein on film and don’t have that on you.  I can’t make this film without doing these long interviews with you.’ He agreed.”  The press shy Geffen speaks with a surprising frankness.  “David can’t help himself; he is a candid person and direct. When he is asked a question David gives an honest answer but is not used to that.  David doesn’t like to talk about himself; the biggest issue was him getting bored with his own story.  We would have to do it in increments.  Do other things and come back to it because he is antsy and can’t sit for long.  It was an interesting process of getting him comfortable with me, the interview process, and going into areas that he probably only talked about with his therapist.”

“It was fully explored,” remarks Susan Lacy when the issue of David Geffen having a legendary volatile temper is mentioned.  “It isn’t just Jackson Browne.   Everybody talks about it.”  On whether Geffen has mellowed with age, the Emmy Award-winner believes, “I think he has.  I also think he is not in business anymore.  David was a great dealmaker who got what he wanted and did what he had to do to get things to turn out the way he wanted them to.  Neil Young says, ‘David was a performance artist.  The art of the deal was his stage.’  He wanted to create the impression that people should be afraid of him.  Cher says in the film, ‘It is probably better to have people be afraid of you than to know your soft underbelly.’  David is an interesting mixture of an ambitious man who could get what he wanted and he is also a vulnerable and kind person.”  Lacy notes, “Steven Spielberg says in the film, ‘He goes to the barbed wire for you.’  David is a loyal friend. He is exactly the person we would like to be.  You treat him well.  He treats you well.  It is very direct with him.  David has an honest affect on people.  David was probably not more ruthless than a lot of other people; he is more direct about it.  David was also young.  David was the same age of the artists he was representing.  He wore jeans and T-shirts, and looked like them.  In some ways he was an easy target.  If you’re older you can get away but the fact that David was ambitious, got what he wanted, and didn’t let barriers stop him, people talked so much about that.  It had something to do with the fact he was young and rash.”

“The idea is that I wanted to immediately visually establish that there is this guy whose reach was so broad and the things that he touched,” explains Susan Lacy when discussing the visual collage at the beginning of Inventing David Geffen.  “It is a symbolic opening graphic and effective.”  Lacy was amused by suggestion that some of the animated sequences resemble a cross between Monty Python and Peter Gabriel’s music video for Sledgehammer.  “That is probably true of some it.  They are all a bit different.  My favourite one is the phone conversation between Clive Davis and David; I don’t think either one of them knew it was being taped.  We go under every rock when we’re making these films to find stuff.  We had tracked down a number of journalists who had covered David and aspects of his career.  I cannot remember the name of this particular journalist but he had written a lot about David in that whole era.  We found out that he had passed on and his family went through all of his papers and things in Texas.  We went there and found an audio tape with this phone conversation which is so funny and revealing.  We heard David negotiate.  They were talking about putting The Byrds together again.  He’s talking to Clive Davis because some of The Byrds were on Columbia and Clive is like, ‘We’ve had The Byrds for all of these years.’ And David says, ‘Yeah, but you’ve only got one Byrd.  I’ve got four.’  I love that animation.  Things like that I had to come up with stylistic solutions because I hardly had any film on David.”

“There were five areas of influence to be covered,” states Susan Lacy.   “When making a film about Joni Mitchell there is a long career but there is a real arc and it is all of her work.  It is all of her writing.  David had to deal with three different record companies, his own Geffen company, Geffen movies, DreamWorks, and political influence.  It was a huge story.  Structurally it was a challenge. They are all challenges in one way or the other.  There isn’t any blueprint for any of these films.  They’re all different.  They’re all carefully crafted.  We solve each one’s problems differently.”  Inventing David Geffen screened at the Toronto International Film Festival.  “I do a television series so unlike an individual filmmaker who makes a film and spends years on the festival circuit before it goes on television I do have a schedule I have to meet.  When I can make that work I’m delighted when I can and sometimes I can’t.  I can have a perfectly wonderful film and have to go on the air and missed all of the major festivals dates or otherwise I would have to hold it for a year or something like that.   We’ve been doing this for years. We even had films that had a theatrical release. That is something in retrospect I wish I had done with this film because people love it and it is an entertaining film.  It may have found an audience theatrically.  I didn’t think so initially but I probably couldn’t have afforded it.  To clear all of that music; there are a 114 music cues in this film and that’s unusual for any documentary even on a performer.”

“I’m very worried about it because there was a time when the DVD market was strong that we could count on that for revenue and that is pretty much gone,’ observes Susan Lacy who is concerned about the prospects for documentary filmmaking.  “We can get smaller advances now but not like we used to be able to.  In terms of the credit films I make which are cultural documentaries there are almost no slots left for them in the world of television market.  There are so few but they are all hour shows which are in terrible time periods.  All of the big major arts series that used to be on the BBC and ITV in London are all gone. There is a little remnant left but they are few and they have no money.  It will have to rely on in the future a great deal more on philanthropy. The NEA [National Endowment for the Arts] used to be a major funder of American Masters, which is probably the major television cultural documentary series that exists, has dropped their funding drastically in favour of the Internet implying that there is not even an audience for long form anymore.  We have to find some new paradigm quickly to protect the future of documentaries.”  As to what led her to come up with the concept for American Masters, the American Studies major remarks, “The relationship between a person’s life and what they put out in the world that literally changes the world are fascinating stories; I’ve always been interested in them.  I read biographies when I was a kid.  When I went to work in public television 33 years ago I was involved in arts programming and we were doing operas, ballets, theatre, and plays; there was a place for that but I noticed there was no place for this kind of documentary.  It didn’t exist and therefore it was hard to get this project off the ground.  The first thing I wanted to do was to make a place in the schedule for it, that’s what I did and have been producing them ever since.”

“Whenever you start any of these films you don’t exactly know what form it is going to take because they are not cookie cutter films,” observes Susan Lacy.  “Their structure and form is dictated by the subject to some degree.  If you’re making a film about Lou Reed it is going to be a gritty downtown black and white feeling to it.  Making a film about Leonard Bernstein, which I did, it is a magisterial feeling.   They are all different stylistically and that comes out of the material.  I don’t think I knew in the beginning how incredibly entertaining and funny this film was going to be.  But a lot of it does have to do with how we chose to edit the film.  It is purposely music driven.  Not all of them are of course.  We’re just finishing a film on Philip Roth.  It’s an entirely different film but it is a perfect film for Philip Roth.”  In regards to producing Inventing David Geffen, Lacy declares, “It is a vast subject matter with a subject who is renascent in many ways.”  The Los Angeles screening featured major Hollywood figures such as Warren Beatty (Reds), Bruce Springsteen, and Tom Hanks (Cloud Atlas) amongst the audience members.  “Every place you looked there was somebody.   Coppola.  Oh, my God!  Francis Ford Coppola [Apocalypse Now] was watching my documentary!  I was in heaven.  It got an incredible response.  I don’t think with maybe the exception of our Bob Dylan documentary [No Direction Home]that there has been a film that as wide a group of people have been interested in as Inventing David Geffen.  That seems surprising to me because we’ve made films on some pretty major and important people but they are more niche.  People are interested in this film because there is some aspect or another of David’s life that reaches a lot of different people.  There is The Asylum Period or the Geffen Records Period or the DreamWorks Period or David influencing the election of Barack Obama [not this one but the last one], and the fact that he is a mysterious billionaire who has stayed out of the press.  The interest in this film has been phenomenal.”

Photo credits: Joel Bernstein, Henry Diltz, Rahoul Ghose, and Graham Nash.


The television premiere of Inventing David Geffen airs Tuesday, November 20, 2012 at 8 p.m. (ET) on PBS (check local listings).

Many thanks to Susan Lacy for taking the time for this interview and make sure to visit the official website for American Masters.