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Jefferson Root Written by Jefferson Root
Mar. 24, 2011 | 5:39 PM

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Interview: Richard Press, Director of BILL CUNNINGHAM NEW YORK

Regular readers of the New York Times Style section are well versed in the work of Bill Cunningham.  He has been capturing the fashions of New York City life through his street photography for the better part of five decades.  But the appeal of director Richard Press’s documentary BILL CUNNINGHAM NEW YORK extends well beyond fashion.  Cunningham’s passion for his work and fierce integrity make him a worthy subject regardless of the viewer’s interest in haute couture.

Director Richard Press spoke with FilmRadar about the process of making the film and his relationship to its central subject.

FILMRADAR: How did you meet Bill Cunningham, and what made you decide that you had to make this film about him?

RICHARD PRESS:  When I first starting making movies I supported myself as a graphic designer.  I was freelancing at the New York Times as an art director and met Bill because I worked on his page with him.  Soon after I met him, I said to Philip Gefter, the producer, who was an editor at the New York Times and who knew Bill for 15 years, “I want to make a movie about Bill.” My interest in Bill went beyond the work he actually does. Who he is as a person, how he’s chosen to live his life and his almost religious dedication to his work—that was the inspiration for the film.

FR: The film begins with the title “The New York Times Presents”.  Obviously the Times is a big part of Bill’s story, but did they also assume some of your production costs?

RP: The opening title says “The New York Times and First Thought Films Presents.” Philip and I are the co-partners of First Thought Films. The Times provided initial funding for the film and we provided the rest. That said, the movie was made for “bupkis”

FR: You had a record opening recently at FilmForum in New York.  Are you at all concerned that the film might have difficulty attracting an audience outside of Manhattan?

RP: When the film was making the festival rounds, both around the United State and internationally we were really gratified by the audience response to it.  The film won the Audience Award for Best Documentary at the Sydney Intl Film Festival, the Melbourne Intl Film Festival, and Best Documentary at the Abu Dhabi Film festival. These were places where the audience had no idea who Bill was before they saw the film. It seems that people are responding so strongly to Bill as a person and that the movie transcends any geographic location—it even transcends fashion. 

FR: In the film we learn about the plight of the last remaining tenants of Carnegie Hall Studios, who had formerly housed a long list of notables including Leonard Bernstein and Marlon Brando.  A title card in the closing credits tells us Bill had been relocated to an apartment overlooking Central Park. What became of his 96 year old neighbor, Editta, who was also facing eviction?

RP: Editta Sherman ended up moving into the same building that Bill moved into.

FR: Much is made of Bill’s egalitarian approach in the film, yet at one point, a staffer at a Paris fashion show refers to him as “the most important person on Earth.”  Which was closer to your experience of Bill?

RP: It’s both—they don’t cancel each other out. Bill is completely egalitarian, he doesn’t care who you are - you could be an uptown society woman or a downtown drag queen, but if you’re dressed terrifically, then he’ll take your picture. He’s only interested in clothes and how people wear them. That said, many people in the fashion world do consider Bill if not THE, then one of the most important people on earth. But Bill certainly does not think of himself that way. He just sees himself as a hardworking journalist.

FR: The movie features interviews with both Tom Wolfe and Vogue editor Anna Wintour, among others.  Was there anyone you wanted to talk to but couldn’t get?

RP: Anyone we wanted to appear in the movie was happy to do so, because of their regard for Bill. It had nothing to do with us.

FR: This is the first film you’ve made where you were also the cinematographer.  What made you decide that you wanted to shoot this one yourself?

RP: The challenge of making this movie was how do you make a film about a man who is so private that even the people who have known him for years don’t know anything about him personally? Bill’s reticence to be filmed set the practical terms for how the documentary could be made. The spectacle of a camera crew, sound recorder, and boom operator, and a DP who Bill didn’t know would be impossible. We had to capture him the way he claims to capture his own subjects: “discreetly, quietly, and invisibly.” As a result, the movie was made with no crew, relying only on small, handheld consumer cameras so Bill wouldn’t feel intruded upon. It had to be a kind of family affair with people he trusted—myself; Philip Gefter, the producer; and Tony Cenicola, a New York Times staff photographer whom Bill knew and liked and who was the other cinematographer.

FR: You’ve directed a number of shorts, now a documentary, and your next project is a narrative feature.  Which genre do you enjoy the most ?

RP: I really loved making this documentary. And would do another. I did though approach it more like a narrative film than a doc. And conversely I think my next film, which is a narrative, will be influenced by documentary filmmaking. 

FR: Bill doesn’t reveal many personal details in the film.  Did you find he was more forthcoming about himself as you got more involved with the project?

RP: It began to dawn on me that the process of making the movie paralleled the slow revealing of the man himself and that his relationship with us, the filmmakers, should be a part of telling the story. But the facts of Bills life were important to me only to the extent that they reveal the contours of his life. But it’s not what he’s about, even to himself. I wasn’t interested in making a bio-pic. Rather, I wanted to capture something more intangible—though no less powerful—which is the essence of him, that joy—his way of being. Bill has dedicated his life to documenting what is unique and individual and I wanted the movie not only to be a portrait of him and by extension New York, the city he loves, but a celebration of self expression and self invention.

FR: The film is currently playing in New York and LA.  Are there plans for a wider release?

RP: The film opens April 8th in San Francisco then 50 other cities nationwide. Anyone can check out for play dates and cities.

Bill Cunningham New York opens March 25th at the NuArt Theatre in West Los Angeles.  Director Richard Press will be present for Q & A after the 7:30 screening on Friday.


First Comment:

  1. How big is the Abu Dhabi Film Festival? And for along this festival exist?

    Posted by roy on 05/02 at 11:52 AM