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.”
“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.”
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.