Richard Leiterman

August 17 and 18, 1986
Mont-Tremblant, Quebec, Canada

       Richard Leiterman started his film career as a free-lance news cameraman in the mid-1950s. Within a few years, Leiterman, fellow Canadian Allan King, and several other colleagues were pioneering the form in Britain and Canada that would be later known as direct cinema. The year that Leiterman photographed High School (1968) with Wiseman he also shot Will the Real Norman Mailer Please Stand Up? for the BBC. In Armies of the Night Mailer describes the filming of his participation in anti-Vietnam War protests and recalls Leiterman’s physical skill, his tenacity, and his encouraging smile, “which seemed part of his photographic technique.”[1]

       After a distinguished record as a documentary cinematographer and director, Leiterman turned his attention to feature-length fiction work, including the Universal biopic Silence of the North (1981), directed by his long-time colleague Allan King. Leiterman won a Canadian Oscar for his cinematography on the highly regarded My American Cousin (1985), written and directed by Sally Wilson. In the 1990s Leiterman shot a cluster of American made-for-tv movies, such as Stephen King’s It (1990), and the Canadian television series Cold Squad (winning three Emmy awards). In his final active years Leiterman taught cinematography in the Advanced TV & Film Program and Media Arts Program at Sheridan College in Ontario. Leiterman died in July 2005, of complications from amyloidosis.

       We interviewed Leiterman on August 17-18, 1986, in Mont-Tremblant, Quebec, where he was on location as director of photography for a feature comedy, eventually released as State Park (1988). In the interview we referred Leiterman to drawings of stills from High School that appear in our book, Reality Fictions: The Films of Frederick Wiseman (1989, 2002), 112-117.

Question:    No one to our knowledge has ever talked in any detail at all with any of the cameramen on these films.
Leiterman:    No, Fred’s been very secretive about that, you might say. It’s always seemed to me, and I know Bill Brayne, who shot so many of his other ones—and as far as I know, the only credit Mr. Brayne has ever received has been the credits in the film itself.
Question:    It matters how that collaboration works.
Leiterman:    Exactly. It’s extremely important.
Question:    So, we’d like to reconstruct that to the extent that you can, for the making of High School. We can prompt your memory.
Leiterman:    Yes, I hope so. It’s been a long time since we made the film. It’s been even longer since I’ve seen him. I’m trying to recall when we did it. 1968. Yes, I did it before A Married Couple. A Married Couple was 1968 [released in 1969].
Question:    You were with Allan King both before and after High School?
Leiterman:    Oh, yeah, yeah. I started out my career basically with Allan King in London in 1962. It was with Allan I was learning what the business was all about. I was a stringer for CBC [Canadian Broadcasting Corporation] and just about anyone who would hire me. And as that progressed, I started doing documentaries both for Allan and for other people, NET [National Educational Television], CBS, BBC and what have you. I’m not sure how it came about. It came through Allan King’s office, a job offer. Fred Wiseman was someone I had heard about, and Titicut Follies. I hadn’t seen it; still haven’t. But it was just a very vague name. I don’t think it was Wiseman’s name, as I recall, as much as Titicut Follies. We’d been experimenting a lot with direct cinema, hand-held cinema, in a lot of the films Allan and I had done. We had introduced it basically to England as the Leacocks and Pennebakers had done in America.
Question:    Had you worked on Warrendale [1967]?
Leiterman:    I was not working on Warrendale. Bill Brayne shot Warrendale while I was off in New Guinea working with Margaret Meade. But at any rate, it came up that this guy, Fred Wiseman, wanted a film and he wanted it done in the Pennebaker-Leacock fashion. Why he didn’t hire them, I don’t know—maybe he should have. At any rate, he had seen some of the work out of Allan King’s, primarily mine, I guess. Bill Brayne had just joined us. So I said, “Sure. Fine.” And we went off to Philadelphia. I can’t remember, I think I might have met him once before. Yes, before we went to Philadelphia. At any rate, we arrived in Philadelphia, I met this very strange guy. Very affable fellow, bouncing along, shirt tail usually hanging out the back of his trousers, or in front of it. Just a kind of guy you would never suspect would be a filmmaker or could be a filmmaker. Or would maybe—who knows what a filmmaker is or should look like, but all the ones I’ve seen, he looked least like a filmmaker. He kind of talked in a vagueness, but interestingly. I said I noticed you didn’t order any lights or anything. He said, “No, no. We’ll do this straight.” I said, “What about sound?” he said, “Oh, I do my own sound.” I said, “Do you have an assistant? Someone who could at least change magazines?” You don’t have time to stop and reload magazines. He said, “Oh, yeah.” The fellow’s name I was trying to remember—
Question:    David Eames?
Leiterman:    Yes. And he showed up. And it was fine. David had worked with him in Boston, I guess, on the Follies. So I said, “Okay, that’s fine. What do you want to do?” He said, “Well, we’re going to go to this high school and we’re just going to float.” Float was his favorite—“we’ll just float around.” I said, “Fine. Do you have permissions?” He said, “Yes, we have permissions to go anywhere at any time. We can go and walk into somebody’s classroom, walk out again, shoot or leave. We’ll just see what makes a high school work and what they’re churning out.” It seemed to me, at that time anyway, it was an extremely exciting thing to do. I had done a number of social documentaries and it just seemed very important. I had already done high schools in Britain and U.S. and Colour in Britain [1964] was another one for NET years ago. It shows Americans going over and looking at the color problem in Great Britain in 1964, which was an interesting situation.

So, it was something completely unstructured, and completely floating. I asked him, “Do you have any kind of idea or schedule? Are we going to do Social Studies this day, or History another day, or English another?” He said, “No, we’ll find out who the interesting people are. And when we do, that’s something that we’ll concentrate on.” And that basically was it. You know, we started shooting the next day. We had a look at the high school the first day and we started shooting the next. We went into various classrooms and talked to various teachers. I don’t think we talked with students. We talked with the principal; we talked with the guidance teacher, and, you know, various people along the way.

Question:    When you say you talked to them do you mean as far as getting consent?
Leiterman:    Well, no, we already had consent. It seemed that we had full freedom to go where we wanted already. But at this point it was just a matter of coming in and introducing ourselves. He kind of said, “Well, this is my cameraman, blah, blah, blah, and we’re going to be around,” in a this very vague way. If I was a teacher, I would have slammed the door on him. He’s not telling anybody anything. He has this marvelous way of waffling around and making them feel very, very important, but telling them absolutely dick. You know, nothing. I wish I had that gift, because it’s a very, very good thing. And in his very amiable way, he said, “Fine, that’s super.” “Glad to have you.” “Sure.” You know. “We’re really proud of our high school. We don’t feel that there’s anything to hide from you.” And it was marvelous. So off we went.
We’d get there about nine o’clock in the morning when school’s going on. A couple of mornings we got there a little early to get some outside activity. And that’s exactly what we did. The first week, we floated around, nothing much, I don’t think anything—maybe in Fred’s mind there was some kind of logic—we go here first and we’d go to this class and then go to that class because he did have a schedule of what classes were in session at what times. But the first week was mostly trying to find the teachers that he felt he could get the most out of in whichever way he wanted to use it. Which in hindsight was very, very interesting, because I think we went to a number of classrooms and some of them, after the first time there we just rejected them and said, “No, we’re not going back there. Dull, dumb.” And so, in a very strange way, a kind of schedule was evolving, a kind of direction was evolving in his mind: “This one is going to give us excellent material; this one is going to give us excellent material; this one is good; the gym class is going to be superb. The guidance teacher is going to be ace and now we’ll have to watch and listen for when we may get a confrontation or that kind of thing—such as the fashion show and those sorts of things.”
You know, I thought, “Fred, what are you doing?” Well, I knew what he was doing. After a week I said, “Hey—.” We started to talk in the evening about various things that were happening to children going to school in the society of the 1960s, the mid-sixties. What they weren’t being taught or what they were being taught and how dangerous this kind of educational system was; that this was exemplary of what U.S. education was about. Whew. And the more we talked and the more we saw this, it evolved; the more ridiculous it became watching these people doing well and not knowing that they may be made a mock of by a certain group of filmmakers who were there just reporting exactly—I mean we weren’t doing anything except filming what was going on. The things that I guess, in our mind, we all felt about the educational system. I quit early because of the same things, except I was too dumb to realize it, because I wasn’t educated enough to know why I quit.
Question:    Were you looking at rushes in the evenings as you were going through this process?
Leiterman:    No, no. As I recall, I don’t think I saw anything until afterwards when we went up to Boston.
Question:    So you were basically talking at the end of the day about what you had seen.
Leiterman:    What we had seen, yes. The thing that impressed me very, very much about Fred was the confidence that he put in his cameraman, and Bill will corroborate this statement. I mean he’s going off doing sound because he felt your mind was in sync with his and running on an exact parallel. Once we realized, I mean once I realized where the film was going, there was no problem.
Question:    He did not give you directions while shooting, or set-ups?
Leiterman:    There were no set-ups at all.
Question:    Did he give you gestures, for example, when he wanted a close-up of something?
Leiterman:    Seldom. In that type of shooting, you work very, very closely with the sound man and he was the sound man. Being the sound man and the director, he can dictate where your frame’s going to be. See, if I’m talking to you, and he’s got the microphone up there, and I’ve got a camera here—it’s that sort of thing. But indeed, that was not unlike the style of shooting that I had been doing anyway. And in this kind of shooting, you are your own director. Married Couple had no director as such. Allan King was watching rushes and we’d talk afterwards, but the same effect. Wiseman had a terrific memory on what had been shot and he would talk about so and so and would say, “I’ve got to know that you were that close on so and so.” We’d go and get reactions—listen to her droning on, knowing that he is picking up the sound of that teacher. But, no, there’s no actual direction given, or sometimes you get the odd motion to go in a little more and we’re always watching each other for the most part anyway, just as a matter of course in that type of film, in that technique. It was starting to get exciting.
Question:    Did David Eames play much of a part in these discussions?
Leiterman:    Very much in the discussions, very much. He was seldom around while we were shooting. He was around the corner, out in the corridor, changing magazines, running for more film, whatever. But in the evening discussions, yes. He was very active.
Question:    Did those discussions concern both the evolution of your sense of what was going on at the high school, what sorts of things needed to be shown, and also semi-technical matters? Did Fred say, for example, “I want long takes?” Or did he say, “I want a lot of close-ups,” or “lots of cutaways”? Was there a sense of a visual style that was going to give him what he needed later, in the editing room?
Leiterman:    I’m not sure that we ever discussed that. At the end of a class, for instance, I might make a mental note of wanting to shoot a certain person again, if it was available, a certain look, or a certain thing, that might enhance it. Or Fred might talk about it. But for most of it we would just roll the camera from the start to the finish of the roll, on the speaker, or on the reaction. I always picked my cut-aways to make sure that you had cut-aways depicting what the class was feeling back. That way we had more latitude.
Question:    There are several places in the film where the editing is done in the camera, where the point is made by uninterrupted camera movement.
Leiterman:    That’s what Fred wants, and I felt that was important. He felt that anytime I saw something in my eye, by all means, get it all. Any documentary filmmaker who has done direct cinema will be aware of those things and how they can work. Whether they can come back and be used as a cut-away if you need to or whether they can be used as one. And one always hopes that it works. You choose the right time, and it’s very important in that kind of filmmaking. What I think works so well with Pennebaker, with Allan King, with Fred, is that his cameraman and the people that were using the camera listen as hard as anybody else does because it is more important to actually hear, for the cameraman to hear what is going on almost than the sound man because it directs them. You can anticipate if you can hear. If you’re just watching, you miss the nuances as they break; you know, “The next few minutes he’s going to pause, and I can do something. I can either get over there in time to pick up a reaction or else I can do something, or I can pull focus, or do something else.” You’re watching a frame and moving and watching out of both of your eyes to see where you want to go next, because it can sometimes be very boring just staying in one place.
Question:    This happens in the scene with the parents and the counselor and the girl who did “marvelous, wonderful” work on the paper and who failed.
Leiterman:    How could she fail? Marvelous girl! Yes. To me, they’re all the players and each one is important. And who’s doing the talking in that scene is important and who’s doing the listening. And who does the talking when and the interjection. And I guess it’s that sort of thing that can make those films successful or not. It’s the anticipating.
Question:    The teacher [counselor] says to the father, “Sir, if you don’t perform,” and you come back to the father who’s crushed, and you pan slowly to the right and get the wife—
Leiterman:    You had enough of him to show his despair, you know, his feeling, but what’s mum doing? I did feel pretty strongly, and mum was, in that shot, I felt that that was mum’s scene. Was really mum’s scene. I think I have read criticisms of High School where they say, “You don’t have to hit us over the head anymore.” When I saw a cut of the film I was quite pleased that he left the blatancy in there as well as some of those dramatic subtleties.
Question:    Were you surprised at the final cut?
Leiterman:    I’m not sure what my reaction was.
Question:    You saw it before it was released?
Leiterman:    I don’t think that I did. No, I don’t remember where I did see it.
Question:    Did you see any of the film before the final cut?
Leiterman:    After the filming I went up to Boston and stopped by for a day, while he was editing, and he showed me some select pieces. He said, “What do you want to see?” And he ran it on the Moviola and we took a look. By that time, I was so up-to-here with High School that I didn’t want to see it. When he came to the end I was quite happy indeed. I had a very odd feeling about Fred and I’m not sure I can put my finger on what exactly it was. But there was a feeling that he was exploiting these people and at the same time they needed to be exploited. But I wasn’t sure whether he was being completely honest with them. But, being a lawyer, he was not telling them any lies. There’s that lovely fine line. “Didn’t tell you that I wasn’t going to do it; I just didn’t tell you what I was going to do.” It’s like going through customs. “I didn’t tell you I had that stuff; but then you didn’t ask me, either.” It’s that sort of thing.
Strangely, some years later, in 1972 or 1973 I was asked to do a film for the Ontario Board of Education on high schools. And the high school that had been chosen said, “Yes, that’s fine.” And then they heard that I was the cameraman that had worked on Wiseman’s High School, and they had seen it and they were declining. They were saying, “Well, no, we thought we had better not. Why don’t you go to another high school?” So we went to talk with them, the director and myself, and we talked about High School and what they were doing in their school, and they said, “Well, we’re all very frightened that we might be exploited the way the teachers were in High School. We all feel we are doing a good job, but it can be put together in such a sense that maybe it looks like we’re doing a hatchet job on these kids.” So, there was quite a lot of talk and they finally consented to let us film. And they wanted to see what the final film was going to be before it was released. They didn’t have editorial privileges as such. Not, “We don’t like that; we don’t want it in,” but they did say, “Would you consider?” I guess you could say they were allowed to express their feelings about it and if it was strong enough, we’d change it. With High School, the—not deception—but just not entire honesty, was something that I was curious about and questioned.
Question:    You questioned Fred about it?
Leiterman:    On occasion, but not very much. I guess I questioned my own self. After I saw the film, I questioned myself even more. Was this entirely honest? It was, but when you condense how many ever thousands of feet we shot—
Question:    Do you feel that you had quite a bit of material of better teaching than you [Wiseman] used?
Leiterman:    No.
Question:    So you feel that what Fred chose was fairly representative of what you shot?
Leiterman:    What Fred chose was fairly representative of what was going on. Yes. At the same time, I think some of the editing might have made it stronger by condensing and also by the structure of his editing.
Question:    Some documentary filmmakers have commented unfavorably on the film’s use of extreme close-ups of parts of faces, of mouths, and so on.
Leiterman:    We got lots of that and it was done for a purpose. It was a long time ago, but I know I was enraptured by the close-up, the extreme close-up. Hands are expressive. Hand movements, motions. Eyes are always real expressive. Mouths, the set of a mouth—are expressive. And it was so new and refreshing and perhaps a little stylistic to go into something like that and to say, “Hey, I see a marvelous pair of hands, look what’s happening over there: Why not just pick it up?” If it’s in context, such as, that example where you’re traveling up something, or go to a hand because that hand is expressing something that may be more expressive than what he’s saying. He’s pointing the finger at somebody. And what’s coming out of his mouth I think is pretty exciting stuff. I certainly did then. Considering that that was twenty years ago, this was very, very new stuff, new material. And I think when you’re on to something like that, there’s no limit as to what you can get away with. You’re looking for, I suppose, symbolism, all those things you learn are important in cinema. That’s a long time ago.
Question:    Let me recall for you a couple of shots that seem to be framed by you for that sort of symbolism: The Dean of Discipline is framed in a close-up with a flag on his office wall. There’s a case in which a woman is lecturing to the girls about sex, and you zoom out. There’s a motto on the lectern—
Leiterman:    “Whatever your hand does your mind follows,” something like that. Yes, yes. Sure.
Question:    The gestures of the male gynecologist.
Leiterman:    Yes, that’s my business. At least I felt it was my business—to search for any clue.
Question:    The film is full of those jokes.
Leiterman:    Yes, and Fred’s mind was working like that, you know. When we’d have our recaps in the evening and things would come back, what I had done, and he’d say, “Did you get that shot?” “Yes.” Or I’d miss it, and we’d go and get it again sometime.
Question:    The activity was that repetitive? If a teacher said something, and you miss it one day, you can go back another day and she might possibly be saying the same sorts of things?
Leiterman:    That’s exactly so. Saying the same sorts of things and be getting a different reaction. I’m not sure how many times we shot the male guidance teacher—boys’ guidance teacher—in different circumstances until we got the right one that worked. There were always teachers or people saying, “Oh, you must come and see this,” and “You must come and see that,” or “I’m having a—” the teachers were extremely helpful— “and next week we’re teaching so and so—”
Question:    Did you have refusals?
Leiterman:    One, but I can’t remember what it was. It seems to me we had one where we went in and the teacher said, “I don’t like my classroom interrupted in this way.” And that, in fact, there was a bigger interruption when we went out in the courtyard and talked about it, than if we went in and filmed.
Question:    You can’t remember students who refused to be filmed?
Leiterman:    No, I can’t. In the morning the loudspeaker system—the things of the day—was that, “Boys and girls, there’s a film crew—they’re going to be in the school for a little while and we want you to give your full cooperation—” I think Fred had to get up at an assembly and talk.
Question:    Did you film that?
Leiterman:    I can’t remember. You might want to check with him. I have this picture in my mind of him up there in a kind of sloppy way and trying to explain what was going on. Now it may be just something I conjured in the mind, shirt kind of poking out—marvelous picture, I can see him with that half-smile. Who wouldn’t believe this guy? But I can’t remember whether that’s just something that’s in my mind or whether it’s a reality.
Question:    Did you bring your own equipment with you and specify the film stock and that sort of thing?
Leiterman:    Yes. I shot it all on Double-X negative and pushed it all at least one stop and sometimes two stops. As I recall, the normal rating was 200 and we were pushing it to 400 and on occasion 800.
Question:    Did Fred discuss with you that choice or what that would mean in terms of the way the film would look?
Leiterman:    Well, I think we talked about it, and I think we talked about his experience in Titicut and my experience in choosing Double-X rather than Tri-X. Tri-X is much faster film, but the grain size in Tri-X is something that I couldn’t abide by, and you get much better quality and much better control of the grain by pushing Double-X. It had been our experience in England, at any rate. So, we chose to go that way because it was very smooth stock. Tri-X looks horrible. And, you know, even Double-X doesn’t stand up very well. But it certainly was a way to go about it.
Question:    Wiseman had a Ford Foundation grant for High School?
Leiterman:    He had a Ford; he had a grant from a church or some organization or outfit in New York. Amazing where he got them from, I felt. We had never tapped those resources. Two or three grant outfits.
Question:    Is there a certain standard way of hiring a cameraman in the business, for a wage or a piece of the film?
Leiterman:    Oh, no, the rate is x number of dollars per day. It’s a daily rate, or a weekly rate, or whatever you figure on, but it’s mostly daily and it’s five times that per week. No share of the royalties, but I’ve done that with some feature films.
Question:    And you filmed six weeks?
Leiterman:    Filmed six weeks.
Question:    Would you have liked to have worked on the next film with him? Did you have other commitments?
Leiterman:    I did go out on the next one. We went to LA to shoot it, LAPD, and they kicked us out after three weeks. Two and a half to three weeks. We were supposed to be out there for six weeks. And I guess they weren’t so dumb as Fred might have thought they were. Because, all of a sudden, they said, “Well, listen, we don’t feel like we want to cooperate. What you’re demanding of us is too much and we’d just better call it quits while we’re still ahead.” You can cut your losses and so it was fine. I was to go to Kansas City. He said, “It will be a little while before I can find out where I’m going to shoot, but it’ll be either Pittsburgh or Kansas City or”—he couldn’t go back to Philadelphia. I said, “That’s great. I’d love to do it with you.” But at that point Allan King was gearing up for Married Couple and I had made that commitment a long, long time ago. And I worked alongside of him on the project and when Fred called back and said, “Listen, we’re going to Kansas City and these are the dates,” I said, “I can’t make it.” So, I said, “I can’t,” and he said, “Who am I going to get?”
In Los Angeles we’d go around to the station for drill and for the meeting before they go out, the Sergeant gives them all a run-down and shakes them up and the locker room chit-chat and out in the patrol cars. I think that might have been the thing that turned it on us was they weren’t really fond of us being in the patrol cars and they said, “Okay, you can put your camera in, but you can’t put your sound man in,” or vice versa. And we’d have to follow them and then they thought, “Well, if they’re following us and we have to put on the lights and the sirens we are jeopardizing the people’s lives.” So, it got to be kind of confusing, but actually we started to get some very interesting stuff. I’m not sure whether it was straight old logistics, but I think that they were getting hot. There was one scene, one stabbing, that started out as what they call a domestic dispute, and it got a little nasty and I think one of the officers didn’t conduct himself in a way that was proper. And they got a little upset. And then they brought in the idea of safety laws: “we don’t want you guys to get hurt” and that sort of thing.
Question:    In High School, you seemed to be seeing kids who were brimming over with unfocused sexual energy, and teachers who contrasted with that, or delivered scoldings about the dangers of sex.
Leiterman:    It’s very strong, and I think you’re very right, in bringing that up. Those are very formative years, you know, certain things—the gym baseball practice was something Fred would not let go. The fashion show and the sex education. That’s very important in a teenager’s life. And it’s something that we all know goes on in school and it’s time to talk about it. But I think, you know, Fred was very correct in bringing this out in the way he did. I don’t feel bad about it.
Question:    Did you ever talk with him about it? Was he saying this is the kind of thing we’re looking for?
Leiterman:    Yeah, I said, “How come you want to go back to the gym again?” And he said, “Well, you know, it’s good material and we should have more of it.” For no specific reason except, again, it’s something you noticed at the high school. There is an electricity between girls and guys and that you’re walking by, and you watch them sitting in class and you watch their eyes looking over at Johnny and Johnny may make a look. Or you can point the camera at someone long enough—at a girl—and she’ll do something. Fred is not oblivious to sex. I think Fred was onto that line, to a point, and not overblowing it, but he did use it, in some instances.
Question:    The long take permits him in a scene that, in which somebody is repeating themselves, to leave that in, and frequently he lets them—
Leiterman:    Let’s them muddle along.
Question:    There’s a long scene in which a young woman is being criticized for the dress that she wore to the high school prom.
Leiterman:    Yes, that’s right and I think that is one of my favorite sequences—individuality was not allowed. And what about that lovely sequence of the English teacher? I felt very sorry for her. I felt she was trying to bring something to the class, and, for whatever reason, it wasn’t working. It was kind of a nice idea, Lord knows, bringing in something they may have been able to work with, that was contemporary, and it was something that just wasn’t working.
Question:    They look awfully bored. Those are actual cutaways that were from that event?
Leiterman:    Those were. Believe me. Yeah. Oh, yeah, I’d dare say 90% is actual time and place. Yeah, I would say that. I couldn’t be absolutely sure they’re all that way, but I certainly feel very strongly—I may be wrong in a couple of instances.
And that is what is suspect about these kinds of films, and it makes me really angry when someone who knows nothing about the film and how it was made will make these allegations that you can’t get that sort of thing. I get really quite upset. I’m sure they’re made about Fred’s films, and they’re certainly made about Allan King’s films and about various others that I’ve been involved with. Certainly, there have been filmmakers who will transpose material, go back to the same sequence, and put in a cutaway of something else and, Lord knows, that’s the sort of dishonesty I don’t think Fred used. And, like I say, I haven’t worked on any of the others, so I’m not aware of whether he has kept that integrity. If it’s going to work, it’s got to be honest. If he’s going to be interviewed or asked questions later, then he’s got to be able to stand up and say, “Hey, this is the way it was.” And if it was anything else but that, I’d feel badly in doing it.
Question:    It is occasionally said that Wiseman’s films are not sympathetic to their subjects.
Leiterman:    Yes, not sympathetic. “Why weren’t you more sympathetic?” Oh, you know, you could perhaps cut the film in another way, using the same material. And maybe it might have been a little more sympathetic, but if he goes into a situation and has a very strong feeling about whatever it is, be it Meat [1976] or Juvenile Court [1973] or Hospital [1970] and he feels that his thesis in his mind is correct, then he’s correct in making it look that way.
Question:    Wiseman speaks frequently about the discovery process in filming. Do you think he went into High School with a thesis that high school is regimented and boring, rather than discovering it while at Northeast?
Leiterman:    I think he discovered that what he felt was absolutely right. That what he had preconceived was proved right there in front of his eyes.
Question:    Did you talk about that sort of thing those first weeks? About, “Oh, my God, it’s as bad as I thought it would be”?
Leiterman:    Yeah, this is really happening in front of our eyes. Yes, but couldn’t you turn it around and take it a different way? Yes, you could do that, but let’s look at it again and sometimes we would go back, it seems to me, go back to class again with a different group of students.
Question:    So you tried to give them an extra chance?
Leiterman:    Well, not an extra chance, but in our talks, there was a certain amount of talking in very broad terms, about the position the filmmaker is put in in regards to integrity and honesty. When you have a small group of a few people going for supper every night, you’ve got to talk about something. Can’t be all sex and booze. And so these things crop up.
Question:    Would this be a fair restatement—that although perhaps Fred Wiseman, on the record, has not been generous about the contributions of his cameramen, that in working with cameramen, he is pretty open about letting them make their contributions?
Leiterman:    I wouldn’t dispute that at all. But he’s very loath to give back. In none of his interviews that I’ve ever read has he ever mentioned who shot the films.
Question:    What is the film you’re shooting now?
Leiterman:    It’s called National Park [released in 1988 as State Park]. It’s kind of a more subtle Meatballs [1976].
I think Fred’s a marvelous filmmaker; he’s really great. When you’re doing camerawork for a theatrical feature film, it’s a whole different type of work. It’s lighting; it’s creating atmosphere, rather than creating a film. You’re creating an atmosphere for a director to come and direct performances through film, to make a film, and your input obviously is important, but it’s creating stuff with light. It’s cinematography rather than being a filmmaker.
Question:    How did you get started? How did you learn the craft?
Leiterman:    It was by accident, more than by design, I guess. I was 26 years old and didn’t know what I wanted to do. I think I wanted to be a writer at one time, but nothing was coming together, and I was frittering more and more years away. I got married. I was a garbage collector, after being a beachcomber and a truck driver and a logger and a fisherman and a dock worker and this and that. We were in Vancouver. I’d left Europe, just finished 14 months in Spain, working on a charter boat and life was kind of dreary. We got married and she said, “Well, you can’t be a garbage collector all your life. You’d better get your act together and do something.” So there was an offer at the university extension course, a kind of Be-your-own-film-director-in-six-easy-weekends. It wasn’t exactly called that, but that’s what it was. This was in 1961. She said, “Get your ass out there and go and do something, learn something.”
I had met Allan King again in Spain, although I had known Allan King for many, many years. He married a sister of mine. And he at one time in the late ’50s in ’58, ’59, tried to make his office out of Ibiza in Spain, where I was working, so I saw a lot of him and he’d gone off to Morocco to make a documentary and he was going off to Yugoslavia to make a documentary and I said, “This is okay. You can travel and somebody actually pays you for it.” So I thought if I was going to do something, it was kind of okay. So I took this course and it seemed like when it was my turn to do the camera, that it was kind of neat. It was a little 16mm Beaulieu. I sold my car and bought a wind-up Bell and Howell camera, and nothing happened. I went back to beachcombing. I was back in the cottage we were living in. There was a big storm. We lived right on the ocean in a little shack. I got my Bell and Howell and two hundred-foot rolls of film, and I shot this storm that was pushing trees, and waves were bashing up against the sea wall and very soft windshield wipers going through puddles and all kinds of neat artistic stuff. And I shot these two hundred-foot rolls, rushed over to the CBC office and said, “I’ve got the most dramatic stuff you’ve ever seen on the storm. It just happened, only just one hour ago.” So I gave it to them, I rushed home and I waited for the 7:00 o’clock news and sure enough, it was on for 43 seconds. And I phoned the next day and I said, “Thanks very much. Do I get my film replaced, or what?” And they said, “Oh, yes, we’ll replace the film.” And they gave me a check for $35. So I thought, “This is not bad.”
So that was the beginning of it. Nothing, no more storms happened for another three or four months. The instructor at this course had given me a nice letter of recommendation, so I wrote to Allan, who had then moved to London, and I said, “If there is any opportunity at all, just moving your bags, or carrying equipment.” Nothing happened until on into December. I was back to beachcombing. Beachcombing is not raking the beach with a rake, it’s going off in small, very flat boats collecting logs during a storm. I was twenty miles up the coast and by an extremely good break I called home and Margaret said, “Allan King has called and says he wants you to be in London by Monday for his picture.” And I said, “Sure, of course.” [King said] “Well, we’re going to film the Queen and you’re going to travel through Europe.” Here I am in a place called Alert Bay. It has no roads, no airplanes, and the only way back is by boat. I went to London and as it turned out, I was second camera. There was a series of documentaries about the Common Market. And we did travel all over; shoot and travel; shoot and travel, with Auricon cameras, which I had never heard of, let alone seen, had magazines on the top, ran on electricity. I made a number of mistakes, but, anyway, it worked out, so I stayed. Then, as I said, I started as a stringer; got into documentaries. CBC News.
Question:    When you were working with CBC was there an initiation process into a journalistic perspective, or a network perspective?
Leiterman:    Yeah, you learned what you could and what you couldn’t get away with.
Question:    So it wasn’t a matter of attending a school of journalism?
Leiterman:    Yeah, I guess there was nothing like that. You went out with a correspondent, and you shot what you thought was—in fact, the correspondent was indeed a sort of director, but at the same time there was very little directing, because the correspondent is not a film director; he’s not a film-oriented person. But he said, “Okay, these are the main points of the issue,” whatever the issue may be. Whether it’s Oswald Mosley speaking his lungs out in Trafalgar Square. “We’ve got Oswald Mosley, he’s pro-Nazi; we’ve got a group of in-between people; we’ve got the cops. So, let’s work on all of those things. Add as much excitement to it as you can.” And you’d have something better than what you’ve been watching on prime time. Then A Married Couple in 1968. I felt that in those few years, from ’62 to ’68, was pretty short, but I’d done an awful lot of things. I’d been around the world a couple of times; I done some very interesting documentaries—I’d done Fred’s; I’d done A Married Couple, which to me was one of the pinnacles in this type of filmmaking, and thought: There’s two ways to go from here, either carry on documentary and produce and direct, or else maybe I should try something I’ve never tried before, a very creative, artistic form of cinema. And there’s not much room for image creation in documentary, but a lot of room for it in the creation of atmosphere and using light in feature film work. In documentary you don’t have the opportunity to use very much else but available light and that’s exciting, too, but in a much different way. Here you’re given all these tools.
Question:    How did you learn to use these tools?
Leiterman:    Trial and error. And there were some very patient directors and producers, believe me.
Question:    When you became conscious of yourself as a documentary maker, were you in a group of people, or were you personally looking back on a kind of tradition started by [Robert] Flaherty and [John] Grierson?
Leiterman:    I barely knew who Flaherty or Grierson were. The only people I was aware of were Pennebaker and Leacock, Allan King, a couple of guys in England, and later I began looking at the films of Grierson and said, you know, “That’s terrific; that is really art.” But it was not something I was aware of, I have to admit, and that’s probably, I shouldn’t say that, but that’s how ignorant I was. That’s as honest as I can be, because it was really—Allan King was at that time my mentor, really, and he’d start talking from time to time in London. We’d get films and we’d start talking about the aesthetics of film.
Question:    Do you see big differences between the U.S. and Canadian versions of direct cinema?
Leiterman:    Yeah, I have some feeling of that. I looked at, for a long time, a lot of stuff that Pennebaker did. Pennebaker would choose a subject that has, inherent in it, action. And it was not a hit-or-miss situation. It was a surefire situation for a lot of the films. And I think that we didn’t have that kind of opportunity in Canada. We had it in a much smaller way and there were some good ones made. There was not the kind of market for distribution in Canada.
Question:    Was the National Film Board [of Canada] supporting direct cinema?
Leiterman:    National Film Board was doing their own thing. They tend, the same as any large organization, to take a couple more years to get caught up to whatever’s happening and then, all of a sudden, there’s a glut of hand-held material. But it’s usually a couple of years beyond the time it takes to go through the bureaucracy, the quality control, “You can’t use this. It’s shaky—it wobbles all over the place. This is terrible.” So you call it “wobbleyscope” and run it.
Question:    Not “broadcast quality.”
Leiterman:    That’s exactly so. When we started in London, in England, they’d never heard of quarter-inch recording. We had the first quarter-inch sync recorder, that we had taken from the BBC. It was a windup machine, an adaptation of the Second World War correspondent’s radio. We had the big Magnasync for location—it was 16mm—that was the best portable machine. I said, “Well, there’s no reason you can’t do it on quarter inch and reduce this huge machine that you had to tuck away in the back room because it clanked and clunked as the 16mm went through the sprockets and took up on the split reels.” So we got one of these old Altons from the BBC and put a pulse on it and attached that pulse to a shutter mechanism on the old Arri—the Arri 2. Every time the shutter went by, it had an electrical pulse that went down the recorder head. “You can’t do that!” “Oh, we can’t? Look, we’ve got a sync recorder and tape.” I guess three years after that [Stefan] Kudelski came out with a Nagra.
Question:    Did you have much connection with what was going on in France during this period, with the experimentations of Jean Rouch and his associates?
Leiterman:    No. I guess we knew of them, but we were pretty busy doing what we were doing.
Question:    Is there a living in documentary filmmaking? Is it true that there really aren’t many opportunities for the feature documentary?
Leiterman:    I guess that’s true. I’m not entirely sure anymore, because I’ve not been familiar as much as I might be, because of other work I’m doing. I know that there have been a number of ideas my colleagues in London who are still doing documentaries have submitted and they have more and more trouble in getting them made. There seems to be a thing about the networks saying nobody wants to know any more about documentaries. There’s not a big market. If you’re going to do it, then do a series of 13 or something. The one-off documentary is getting tougher and tougher to sell. There’s a lot it depends on. The schools are still churning out filmmakers and some are terribly interested in documentary and social documentary. What are they doing? Fortunately, there are all these small tv stations, I guess, that take up so many of them shooting little bits of news, becoming studio directors and managers—it’s a good thing. And some of them make bucks. I have a feeling that this is really what they want to do and it’s amazing still the number of students going into schools and taking their BAs in film or going to a three-year film course who are determined that documentaries still have a place in the world.
Question:    Because so little is written about the actual craft of documentary camerawork, perhaps you could recall for us some of the specific shots in High School and the choice-making process of the shooting of some of these images. [Richard is handed figures 1-99 from Chapter 3 of Reality Fictions.]
Leiterman:    There are no books that can tell you this. I’m not aware of books.
Question:    At the beginning of the film, there is a shot of a truck that says, “Penn Maid Products.”
Leiterman:    Yeah, it was there; it was there. We said, “Hey, did we luck out, or what?”
Question:    Figure 7 is the teacher reading the thought for the day. And then Figure 8 is this girl listening to him and then a shot of what she is looking at, the close-up of his mouth.
Leiterman:    And out come these words. Words coming out, balloons. I saw it, not as a cartoon so much, but the words are as meaningless as the rest of that person’s head. What is happening is his mouth is uttering something that’s gone on in here that he’s read somewhere that these are important things that you should know about. And out come words. And I think it’s reflected in his students. “What?” I mean, they’re not even listening for the most part, maybe one or two.
Question:    And then, Figure 12, we start “existentialista.”
Leiterman:    Oh, yes, that’s it.
Question:    You tilt down from 13 to 14, then you pan across to—
Leiterman:    But that’s all one shot. Yes. I’m sure—or my feeling was—that amongst the teachers in the school, she was perhaps the most flamboyant of them all and she knew it. And she put this out and she put out a little for us. I believe that this—I’m sure that she did it if we weren’t there, but this was the case. Again, you know, I guess if I was a student, listening to her talking about something—mmm—nice hips?
Question:    So some of these people are playing to you, and you’re playing to each other?
Leiterman:    Well, isn’t this the problem of this kind of filmmaking? Are the people doing what people would normally do? Would people normally show you their innermost thoughts?
Question:    And you’re kind of courting that a little bit, aren’t you?
Leiterman:    Be careful. I will court it on occasion if I see it as part of the situation. If I can substantiate it or feel right about it myself that, yes, this could be a student’s point of view. Not my point of view. I’m not a dirty old man, but—I would not want to feel that I was putting something out that may not be there on a normal day. Now, it’s true, and I guess this would be the biggest argument about this kind of film. Would they do that if the camera wasn’t there? What is the answer? I don’t know. I like to feel that in some films that the crew has indeed—those two people—have become a piece of furniture. Who knows? When I’m asked that question, I’ll say, “Now, there’s different attitudes you take with people when you’re doing that kind of film.” One, such as in High School, I think we didn’t put up any barrier with the teachers or the students, not that we wanted them on our side, but we were affable, friendly with them, answered questions, and talked.
In another situation, during A Married Couple more strongly than the other films, we never said, “Good morning”; we never said, “Good-bye.” We never accepted a cup of tea or coffee or sat with them, except with the camera and sound recording, and put up an absolute barrier, and told them that this was going to be the case. They tried to break it and offer us coffee and say, “Hey, how are you?” To me, A Married Couple became the ultimate and that’s why I’ve mentioned it a couple of times. I didn’t want to do any more after that. I didn’t want to be a piece of furniture. In this way, you become a piece of furniture, except that you have something to give to them because you want something back. There’s an honesty in that. How can we give something back to them?
Question:    Were you aware of Fred, at any of those points, showing interest, encouraging?
Leiterman:    To the people? Yes, yes, sure. Sure, he’s a charming guy. There’s no doubt about it. He obviously had them charmed. And it was very pleasant. And I don’t think he—I don’t know. Do you want to talk about the pictures?
Question:    In Frames 74 & 75, you do a very funny thing. It looks like a joke, and I wonder if you deliberately framed it that way. At the back of the room, in Figure 74, is a chart of the ascent of man. You start at the back of the room, and you go down the chart. You keep panning, right to left, from man, descending down to ape, and pan to the front of the room and stop on the Dean of Discipline. At the bottom of the evolutionary chain.
Leiterman:    Yeah. And there he is. At the bottom, yes.
Question:    That’s a “yes,” is it?
Leiterman:    That’s a “yes.” I don’t think we had the school cased out. And I can’t recall for a moment if I was in that room before or not. But there it was. It’s listening. Listening and thinking and not just framing something up because that’s where the action is. What else is happening in the room? What else is happening in there? And I suppose working on the same wavelength with Fred all along, in parallel, and that is what is absolutely necessary to make these films work, that the director and the cameraman are working in absolute parallel. And you talk to each other continually.
Question:    It’s unusual, isn’t it, for the director not to be the cameraman?
Leiterman:    Well, no, I think it’s very good. It is very good. He doesn’t have a creative eye. He wants to be there and where else is he to be? Except there? There is no other place for anyone, the assistant, the director, and if the director’s there—Fred was very good, because he was there and he knew what was going on and he could see and, as I said, he can control the frame to a certain extent with his microphone, like a conductor waving a baton. I mean, if it’s there, you’ve got to frame it out. But if you’re not actively involved in the process, then you stick out. What are you doing? What are you doing? You can’t hide. I can hide behind my camera and to me I’m not being seen. If I go out to do stills, I feel conspicuous as can be. And it’s a very fine stills man who is not conspicuous. If I’m filming this or any other film of this nature, I feel I am not being seen. The sound man is not looking at them, but he’s holding the microphone and he’s watching his little needles. He’s, you know, an extension of the camera.
Question:    And then looking at you sometimes to see what you’re doing, but not so much looking at them?
Leiterman:    Never. As soon as you make eye contact with someone, you’re conspicuous. They are aware that you are there. On the other hand, in Will the Real Norman Mailer Please Stand Up? [1968], if I had not made some kind of contact with him, we’d have been out on our ear. And that’s what I was talking about earlier, about this barrier. That it can work in one situation and can’t work in another. In the situation here, I would never look with my open eye to a teacher or a student that I was filming. But many times, it seemed to be a matter of necessity.
Question:    Were there times you stopped filming because people looked at the camera and noticed it?
Leiterman:    No, I’d just go away and shoot something else. I mean I would just pan off whoever’s looking at me.
Question:    In Figure 80 we see a Black student, who starts to speak, and then is interrupted by the teacher we have seen in Figure 79. Instead of panning to frame her while she speaks, you stay on him as he copes with this interruption.
Leiterman:    She was being terribly condescending to him. I think you stay on him to try and experience the humiliation. That’s the thing to me. You can hear what’s going on.
Question:    In Figure 28 there is a student in a French class, framed in the lower right-hand diagonal of the frame and then the teacher is framed in Figure 29 on the upper-left diagonal.
Leiterman:    When one action opposes another, the action is equal to the reaction. I guess that sort of thing does come with visual images. If you can make sense, and this is further along into feature films or watching movies of this sort of thing. You can see a balanced cut that worked very well. And I guess you watch for those sorts of diagonals when you work so long. We work a lot of the time on a triangular situation. Because a lens shows who is big and who is small. It’s an important thing to know. To have one be on one side and one be on the other side. Trying to be everywhere at the same time. To combine two people, to have the continuity of two people in the frame, one has got to be dominant; one has got to have the focus; mind you, you lose that domination, you need to rack focus. All of a sudden, the face is a blur. Back there is where your eyes are drawn immediately, because you can’t see this blur anymore. I don’t like to say that it’s easy or that it is subconscious, but I’m oftentimes not aware until I look at the frame again and something says, “This is fine.” Or else I’ve gone to the wrong place, you know, this is a much stronger picture if I can get around somehow to another side and accomplish it without interrupting the scene. Particularly something with strong confrontation, you don’t want to move. You don’t want to break any concentration by movement or making people aware that, “Oh, he’s filming.” So it’s again imagining where people are going to sit when they come in, and if the people are there already, say, “Okay, where do I have to be to get the best out of this picture without making a move? And if I’ve got to move, where am I going to move? And this is all right, but once I’ve started, what am I going to do? I can’t stay here all the time. And when can I go? When is there a break? It’s slacking off, but it may come on again, but I better get out of here and get to another shot, so I’ve got somewhere to go.”
Question:    Wiseman’s films feel as if they are shot with more than one camera, from a naïve viewer’s point of view.
Leiterman:    Yes. Most anyone, including filmmakers, think there are two cameras.
Question:    In High School people pretty much stay in their places—they are sitting in chairs or working in fairly confined physical spaces.
Leiterman:    Yes, and those are ideal situations; they are absolutely ideal. Still, listening is so important. “Who is the antagonist? Or is there an antagonist? What is it we’re trying to make out of this and by doing so, what is predominate?” When you talk about the film, you know, the crew, three people involved in this and what do you talk about, when you do have time to talk. So it’s kind of embedded that it becomes instinctual. It’s the same as working the camera; it’s instinct and it becomes subconscious and, all of a sudden, you’re focusing, and you’ve got your frame. “There, that’s it”; rather than, “Oh, maybe it should be over there.”
Question:    In the early days of direct cinema, one saw a lot of self-consciously nervous camerawork. A lot of zooming and groping and wandering and focusing. One sees little of that here.
Leiterman:    The zoom was new. The zoom was very, very new.
Question:    In Figures 38, 39, 40, there is a teacher, the hall monitor, going down the corridor. We hear music, “Simple Simon Says,” and he looks through a window. Then we cut to the girls in the gym, Figure 40. Do you recall, is that is literally what he was looking at?
Leiterman:    That is what he was looking at. That is what was happening. I sincerely believe he was.
Question:    In the “Casey at the Bat” sequence, the teacher is reading, and the class seems to be daydreaming.
Leiterman:    She’s going on and on, and Casey came up to the bat, and it’s two strikes and dah, dah, dah! What are the kids doing? Thinking about Saturday night dates, thinking about whatever. They’re mostly not thinking about “Casey at the Bat.” No way, I don’t believe.
Question:    You’ve got this kid in 50, who’s asleep or daydreaming.
Leiterman:    Dreaming.
Question:    And then we see what he’s dreaming of, presumably.
Leiterman:    Well, yes. Something comes to mind.
Question:    It’s a very funny sequence.
Leiterman:    I can’t believe that Fred did any more than depict it in the way the kids must have felt.
Question:    You mentioned earlier the question of point of view and that seems to be an instance of reconstructing what it’s like to be sitting in these chairs.
Leiterman:    Well, a certain amount of that was evident. You know, it was there, and it was talked about, too. “What is school about? What is education? What did you learn? What did you learn at school? Were you smart? Were you an A student? Were you a C student?”
Question:    Some people have complained that you make some of the teachers in the film look needlessly unattractive: the counselor talking about financing a college education—she is framed as if crouching behind a row of books; or the teacher with the coke-bottle glasses. Surely, you’re not to blame for people’s interpretations, but what do you tell a young filmmaker, 19 years old and just out of school, who asks, “Is it unfair to do that kind of stuff to people? After all, that’s the way they look. And they were there.” What do you do?
Leiterman:    What can you say? I don’t think it’s unfair. You shoot what you see. You, I suppose, take advantage of what you see, sometimes. It’s material. It’s material that’s been shot on a ratio of 20:1 to 30:1. Interpretation of the picture, I suppose, is interpretation of what the camera has in mind. It’s not looking for unique qualities in terms of physical look, looking at what you feel the person in that frame is exuding. I’m not saying that people with thick glasses don’t have trouble seeing, restricted broad vision that could be interpreted as such. The person behind the books may not see well.
Question:    And seems not to in that sequence.
Leiterman:    You know, I think that, that one can, can kind of write in anything you want to write in about, about things. You can write in “unfair”; you can write in “taking advantage of a person’s deformities”; or “setting up things to exaggerate the case.” Sure, filmmakers do that. There’s no doubt. Any film, among others, makes symbolism a great thing. [John] Huston is down and dirty in a lot of his movies and, because they are actors, does this make it any different, actors depicting people of the same narrow-mindedness or lack of vision or lack of consciousness or comprehension of what they’re saying?
Question:    Would you be willing to be the subject of a documentary?
Leiterman:    Not unless I knew the filmmaker very well. And then I think it’d be wrong. People like to see themselves on the screen. I think this whole idea of documentaries—the camera does something really wild to people. People that you’ve never known before, except for a half hour and you’ve sat in a sitting room and, all of a sudden, they’re telling you their deepest things. They’re crying and they’re doing all kinds of things. “Why?” It’s the thing that goes through our heads continually. “Why do people do this? Why?” It’s not intimidation. If it was intimidation, they’d clam up, but very few people do that.
Question:    Do you feel that High School was ethnographic work?
Leiterman:    No, no, I don’t think so. I felt that he was trying to show America what’s happening to their kids; what they could expect coming out at the other end. You’ve got to choose a place that is typical or representative, or else you go from one school to another. We talked about whether this is representative. It is middle America; it is middle class. And it was chosen because it represented a great chunk of the population of the U.S. that was in the same type of rut, as far as education was concerned.
Question:    Would you talk about some of the technical innovations that made this sort of filmmaking possible?
Leiterman:    Yeah. Let’s see, where can I start? First, the mere fact that the cameras became mobile. In fact, the first mobile camera was one that had been used considerably for years, but nobody had ever thought to put it on their shoulder. It required a certain amount of adaptation to the eye piece, and the magazine, and the weight distribution of the camera, called Auricon Cine-voice, which was one of the first sound cameras that was used in news shooting. For a portable news crew, they were very popular, because they were sound-blimped. They were self-blimped cameras; they didn’t make a great racket. Well, then came the zoom lens, which enabled a cameraman to stay in one position and make various focal lengths, to get a close-up from standing in the same positions, without having to move the camera or stop and change lenses. They were developed, I guess, in the late ’50s, ’57, ’58. The first zoom lenses, SOM-Berthiot, a French company, was the first one to develop them. And so this was a pretty big breakthrough, also being able to facilitate shooting. I guess Pennebaker and Leacock together were probably the first crew to do hand-held work extensively and use it as a mobile camera.[2] That came, I guess, through wanting to go where the action was, not having the action come to you.
A documentary was set up earlier in scenes and you had the worker, or the person come toward you in a close-up, or you’d stop and change lenses and have non-actors doing what actors do. And I think that was when a director was really a true director, because you’d go into a factory or into an office or into wherever he was making his film and with the use of non-actors make them perform for him. It was a stop-and-start situation in most cases. So I think the change was the fact that you could move the camera on your shoulder. There was no elaborate set-up necessary. The advent of faster lenses and faster film also helped. You could go into places and use available light much easier than previously. Tri-X had always been on the market. It was Plus-X and Tri-X. And they came out with the Double-X in 1958 or 1959. And that was my favorite stock. I’m not sure what other people used, but you could push it and get a pretty fair quality picture out of it. The lenses became better. The quality of the glass or whatever they were using just seemed a lot better as the years progressed. Angenieux came out with a 10-1 zoom, another great coup. The first Berthiot lenses, as I recall, were 17mm to 57 and Angenieux came out with the 10-1, which was from 12mm to 120. I mean, this is fantastic; this is able to get a fantastic close-up seven or eight feet away from the subject. Full mouth, two eyes, that sort of thing. And they were, I guess, used extensively by people in any kind of film at that point, it seemed. And they still are extremely good lenses in 16 [mm] and 35 [mm].
The quarter-inch synchronous tape recorder became fully used, I guess, by 1963-64, during the advent of the perfect tone and Nagra tape recorder. Before this, it was 16mm magnetic sound or else you used strip film, sound-on-film, which was never very satisfactory. It would have holes in it, and you’d lose it, and the coating was never perfect. It was used mostly for single-system sound, which was used mostly on newscasts.
I think the biggest developments probably happened within a period of five or six years. Going from 16mm sound to quarter-inch sound, adapting cameras, and then, let’s see, 1964 was the first change in the camera and that was with the Éclair NPR. And I guess we were one of the first countries to have one in Europe and certainly there had been none in the States when we got ours. And it had troubles that had to be ironed out and there were certain ideas we went back to.
Question:    “We” is Allan King Associates?
Leiterman:    Well, yes, these were people shooting for Allan King Associates. We had trouble with camera jams. We had trouble with camera mounts, and the lens mount was very weak, and we went back to them and said, “This is why your camera’s not working very well.” One of our colleagues then [Jean-Pierre Beauviala] was very keen on cameras and he went on later to develop the Aaton and it’s been very good for him, because the Aaton’s become very, very popular.
But the Éclair and then Arri made a portable camera even lighter. And there was the ACL, also made by the Éclair people. Even the sound recorder, the Nagra, became lighter; you could get a different model which was lighter than a Nagra II, which I think was the first commercially used Nagra. And they made lighter models of that. But the system remains the same. The wireless system, wireless sync, was one of the real breakthroughs. It enabled the cameraman to go wherever he wanted and not have to tow the sound man with him. Up to this point, there was always an umbilical cord between the two. And if you’re in a crowd situation, or anywhere, you were always aware that this damn soundman was at the end of this cable. And with crystal sync, there was a whole new freedom, absolute freedom. You could go wherever you wanted to go and still have perfect sync control.
Question:    In the early days of filmmaking, there were a lot of people involved on the artistic side who had scientific or technical backgrounds. Did a lot of cameramen at this time have technical backgrounds?
Leiterman:    Yeah, and I think that certainly gave them an edge and it’s kind of an interesting combination, someone who’s had that kind of training and put it to use in the cinema. And they certainly were on the right track. How it happened, I have no idea. But you’d look around for someone who had some technical training and could adapt themselves to the problems that we had. One was working out of London and shooting a lot in the States on a different cycle. Here it’s 60 cycle and in London it’s 50 cycle. So, to transfer quarter-inch sound tape, it had to go through a generator, to generate the extra ten cycles. We found an electrician who was around, and I said, “Can this be done?” And he said, “Oh, I don’t know. Let me think about this for a while.” And he came back with a box of tricks with a big chain-drive thing that actually did what it was supposed to do. I’m afraid I’m not that technically involved and never have been, but we’d find somebody who could do it. It was, you know, kind of a bodkin. He fiddled around with this stuff, and he was able to overcome this problem. And again, I think we were the first in Great Britain to have this ability to transfer sound on a different cycle.
Question:    When you first began to get trained in this area, was it with a slightly older style equipment?
Leiterman:    Yes.
Question:    So you can recall suddenly these new things were being put in your hands?
Leiterman:    Oh, yes. It was, “Try this.” I went to New York to an outfit called Magnasync. I was on my way to do One More River [1964]. And we heard of this guy who was making a tuning-fork wireless sync. It was a tuning-fork device. You tune up a little pack on the Nagra and also a battery pack that had a tuning-fork device in it, to run the camera and keep them both in sync through the fine tuning of the tuning fork. “Well, it sounds good to me. Does it work?” And he said, “Oh, yeah, it’ll work.” So I went out and tried this. Mind you, the battery pack was a little heavier, but, I mean, so who cared? It was what it was. Although if you got too close together, you could hear a very fine, high-pitched whine, just a very, very high, high frequency sound. But there it was. That was the first one that we had. And I was absolutely delighted about the freedom. And then that was replaced by a pulse generator in the Nagra itself, so there are no bits and pieces hanging off it. One’s likely to stay together. And that system has remained since 1964, I guess, when Kudelski brought out the Nagra. They were expensive. The first tuning fork, I remember, cost over $1,900 and, to us, that was a lot of money, at that stage in the development as far as the company was concerned. But if it made something possible that wasn’t possible before, then we’d go for it.
Question:    How many people were involved with the Alan King Associates at that time?
Leiterman:    Originally, we were seven. And we were seven, I guess, up until about 1966 or 1967 and then we started bringing in more associates and then later we expanded to an office in New York and one in Canada, both of which closed in 1968-69.
Question:    Who were the seven?
Leiterman:    Allan King, myself, Chris Wangler, Peter Moseley, Bill Brayne—I guess it was five we started with. I’m trying to think of who came later. And then there was Mike Dodds, who was English. There were four of us Canadians: Bill, myself, Allan, and Christian were Canadian. And I don’t know how we all found ourselves in London at the same time, but it was one of those meetings. It seemed to be right.
Question:    Was there a division of responsibilities or interests?
Leiterman:    Well, I think like any group at that time, we thought of ourselves as basically filmmakers, but we all knew each other’s craft pretty well. Or we knew what the craft was all about. I knew how to sync, how to transfer sound from quarter inch to 16. And when you’re on the road, everyone pitched in, carrying things, and it was a group of filmmakers. Although I may do the camera and Christian may do the sound and Allan was the producer-director, that was it. It was a nice feeling that everyone was involved in one way or another. When we’d get back from a job, we’d all pitch in together and sync rushes or do that sort of thing. It wasn’t just, “All right, my job’s finished, because I’m a cameraman, then I quit.” You know, “I’ll wait until the next job comes.” But you’d go back down to the office and spend the evenings transferring sound or syncing up rushes or screening material. I think it was the same sort of situation with Leacock and Pennebaker.
Question:    Was Drew Associates comparable as far as their organization and their aims?
Leiterman:    Oh, I would think so, yeah. I went down to their offices one time and introduced myself and was shown around. We had heard of each other through one thing or another. And it was a nice feeling. They had, you know, it was the same office I’d left in London, or much the same. The same kind of feeling; young people involved in something that was really, really exciting at the time. So I do, you know, I feel quite strongly that there was this thing going on.
Now I didn’t know what was going on in France or anywhere else. Although they had the cinéma vérité and all, I don’t know who was involved. Rouch I never met. I didn’t have much association with what was going on in France. Not through any design, but just because it never happened, I guess. Strangely enough, I think that the Americans had more connection with the French. And I’m not sure why that is. Maybe our films weren’t getting the same distribution and the same international acclaim as some of theirs and, consequently, we kind of took a back seat to it.
Question:    Did you feel as if you were part of some other context? Or were you a group of independent people?
Leiterman:    Mavericks. In a way, when I say that all of a sudden, there were four Canadians involved in the same thing, who came together for a common end, I think that indicates something in its own self. Well, what the hell were we doing there, anyway? You know, Allan had gone there to make films and it felt exciting there. I had gone to Europe for a completely different reason. Chris Wangler, the sound man, had equally kind of bummed around and wasn’t sure. He’d gone to film school for half a year and got into theater. I asked him if he wanted to be a soundman and he said, “What’s that mean?” And I said, “I don’t know, but come down and we’ll give you a lesson and we’ll go out and shoot some stuff tomorrow.” Because I was still picking up the odd sound job and I had met him and he became a very good friend, so why not get involved and, you know, he’s been involved ever since.
It was that sort of feeling. And I think we all look back at those days as something special; that we were a group of people that some fate had brought us together and it worked extremely well, as long as it worked. When it stopped working, as far as the company was concerned, there was not a great deal of animosity anywhere and it was time for that group to split and try other things. I went off and started features and they continued doing what they were doing. And we still worked together. I had Christian come over on numerous occasions and do sound on something I was doing. And I’ve been back on numerous occasions doing projects of theirs. I think that kind of excitement is gone and there hasn’t been anything else to take its place. Or maybe we just got older. And things aren’t exciting anymore.
I don’t know what else I can say about that period. The sixties were an exciting time for a lot of people. Pennebaker came to Canada to shoot a rock-and-roll revival called Sweet Toronto [1971]. And immediately when he got there, he came to Allan King Associates and said, “Listen, I want five of your best cameramen.” I happened to be there, and he said, “Well, listen, why don’t you come and do some shooting?” And it was just good give-and-take. There was no feeling that we were enemies. We were all in it commonly for something. We made good films; they made good films. He made bad films; we made some bad ones.
Question:    So there was plenty of room for people?
Leiterman:    Yes. It was, “What new innovation have you found?” And there was no secrecy or hiding of things. No, “We’ve got this, and they haven’t got it yet.” I don’t think they ever thought: “Oh, watch out for this; we don’t want anybody to know what we’ve developed.”
Question:    And where would you place Wiseman within that context?
Leiterman:    I don’t know. I have no idea because he didn’t develop anything in those terms. I’m sure I asked him when we were down in Philadelphia, “What’s your background?” He said he was a lawyer. “What are you doing making films?” “Liked it.” He thought it was something to be done that he wanted to do. I think Fred himself was not a developer, but he made terrific use of what was developed. When he found out what was available to us, “This is going to be terrific; this is really going to be super.” The easier it was for him to do his work, the happier he’d be, of course.
Question:    So, in a sense, he was a second generation, an inheritor of all those technical innovations?
Leiterman:    I would say, “Yeah.”
Question:    And he worked with some of the best people who’d been involved—
Leiterman:    He used some very good people. Absolutely, yeah.
Question:    I’m trying to think of a way of asking this without being unfair or judgmental about Fred, but, in comparison to those early AKA [Allan King Associates] days, his method is different. He keeps his privacy during the editing process. He hasn’t drawn a group of people around him. He doesn’t train a lot of young people. It sounds like a somewhat different working style.
Leiterman:    Yeah, yeah, for sure. I was surprised when I went to Boston after High School and I expected to find an organization, again like AKA in London or Pennebaker’s in New York, except there it was: it was a cutting room and Fred was there. And that was, you know, pretty much it. He maybe had a secretary.
Question:    In your work, you have treated an enormous range of subjects.
Leiterman:    Yes. The most interest, I think, was in ordinary people doing ordinary things. That’s why I think all of Wiseman’s films are important because they are not taking a special thing, such as Pennebaker, who chose subjects for his films very, very well. They were going to be active people or else they were celebrity people or people who had a name or people who did things or, or a situation where action was inherent anyway. And I think that’s fine. I have nothing against it. They’re sure-fire. You hedge your bets pretty nicely. Whereas Wiseman took things that we all take for granted. They’re there; the institutions are there. How they’re run or whether they’re run well or badly we seldom take into consideration. But they are institutions. And, bingo, we’ve accepted them. And when somebody starts taking a look at these, I think that’s extremely important and when I hear he gets good distribution on a lot of the subjects, I think that’s great. And the fact that he does them well, I think that’s extremely important, too. And I think people have to know these things. A lot of times, we’re under the misapprehension of what goes on in our society—those everyday things that we take for granted. It was obviously in his mind.


[1] Norman Mailer, The Armies of the Night (New York: New American Library, 1968), 155.

[2] In addition to Pennebaker and Leacock, Albert Maysles and Terence Macartney-Filgate were also cameramen on the film Primary (1960), produced by Robert Drew.

Suggested Citation: Benson, Thomas W., and Anderson, Carolyn. “Richard Leiterman.” Making Documentary Film: Frederick Wiseman and His Collaborators, Penn State Libraries Open Publishing, 2024, pp. 31-58.

Return to top