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…
“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.”
“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.