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Interview: Michael Wadleigh on "Woodstock"

by Peter Sobczynski

The director of the legendary concert documentary talks about bringing three days of peace and music to the screen and to DVD.

Almost from the moment that it made its theatrical debut in 1970, “Woodstock” has been cited as one of the greatest rock documentaries ever produced and while that is certainly true, it almost seems as if to say that is to damn it with faint praise. In fact, it is one of the most extraordinary documentaries of any kind ever made and I would go so far as to say that if it never existed, those three days of peace and music held on Max Yasgur’s farm in upstate New York in August of 1969 would have long since faded from the collective memory. After all, if you were actually there, you were assuredly tired, dirty, hungry and uncomfortable for the most part, you probably weren’t able to see and hear the acts with any real degree of clarity and you most likely didn’t get to experience much of what was going on beyond whatever bit of field that you were able to carve out for yourself. What director Michael Wadleigh and his crew of cameramen and editors (including a little-known guy by the name of Martin Scorsese) were able to do was capture all the facets of the event--from the performances from such artists as Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, The Who and, of course, Sha Na Na to interviews with concertgoers, support staff (including the immortal talk with the Port-A-San Man) and locals who offered their varied and vivid views of the scene going on around them--and put them together in such a direct and intimate way so that viewers really got the sense that they were actually there. Not only did they pull this off beautifully, they did so in such a way that even forty years down the road, it still has a freshness and vitality to it that is almost startling to behold.

Just as startling to behold is “Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace & Music Director’s Cut,” the jumbo-sized DVD/Blu-ray set being released by Warner Home Video this week to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the festival. Originally released as one of the company’s first DVD’s back in 1997, a new version was probably inevitable--those round anniversaries are too much to resist--but even the film’s most ardent fans probably never dreamed of the elaborate set that has been presented to them here. For starters, the full-length 224-minute Director’s Cut that Wadleigh prepared for the film’s 25th anniversary in 1994 has been fully restored and the results are so striking that it looks as though it was shot only a few weeks ago. The second disc also contains “The Museum of Bethel Woods: The Story of the Sixties & Woodstock,” a short documentary/infomercial about a museum up in Bethel, NY (where the concert actually occurred) dedicated to the festival hosted by former Living Color frontman Vernon Reid. It is the third disc, however, where the meatiest extras are contained. “Woodstock: From Festival to Feature” is a fascinating 15-part collection of featurettes covering the entire history of the festival and the film that includes intriguing vintage material as excerpts from the old “Playboy After Dark” show featuring Wadleigh being interviewed by Hugh Hefner himself to new interviews with many of the key surviving participants (even Scorsese pops up here and there). The biggest extra, however, is the deceptively titled “Woodstock: Untold Stories,” a two-hour collection of no less than 18 previously unseen musical performances that includes additional tunes from artists already in the movie (such as The Who, Jefferson Airplane, Santana and yes, Sha Na Na) as well as the first-ever official release of Woodstock performance footage from Creedence Clearwater Revival and the Grateful Dead. While it is easy enough to see why some of this material wasn’t used in the original film (even the most passionate Deadheads will find it difficult to defend the band’s extra-long and extra-draggy take on “Turn On Your Love Light”) but fans of the film and the musicians are still likely to be overjoyed by what is essentially a quasi-sequel to the original. The set also includes such bric-a-brac as a 60-page reprint of “Life” magazine’s coverage of the festival, a patch featuring the show’s distinctive logo, a paperweight and numerous replicas of notes and letters seen in the film--all of which are contained in a faux-buckskin container that comes complete with fringe. (For those who don’t want the extras, there is also a two-disc version available containing only the movie and the museum infomercial.)

This restored version of “Woodstock” had its premiere last spring as the opening night film of this year’s Ebertfest, the annual film festival in Urbana, IL put together by film critic Roger Ebert, with Wadleigh, who would go on to direct only one more feature film (the underrated 1981 ecologically-minded werewolf thriller “Wolfen”) before leaving Hollywood for good. The next day, Wadleigh and I sat down on the campus of the University of Illinois to discuss the history of the project, the making of the film and the new DVD and why the Grateful Dead never made it into the finished product.



How did the job of filming the Woodstock concert come your way in the first place?

Of course, I was a filmmaker and I had done dozens of documentaries, mostly on political, economic and aesthetic issues and a lot of it involved black civil rights in America. One project that I was very interested in was to combine black rock and roll and black politics and so I had done projects with Aretha Franklin and James Brown and other prominent black artists. I didn’t like “We Shall Overcome”--I liked “Say It Loud--I’m Black and I’m Proud.” I wanted to merge the two things into a sort of history of black music and black politics. I started doing experiments with multiple images using the Aretha Franklin footage and others as I did in “Woodstock” as a technique to make 16mm footage into a wide-angle 70mm movie. That was the idea.

Into my office came a couple of guys who were going to do this festival in Woodstock, New York. I had made a film about the American Communist Party which, no one knows now but I well knew, had started in Woodstock in 1911. Woodstock somehow got going as a revolutionary little village outside of New York where in the summertime, a lot of intellectuals who were radical political people--some of whom were wanted for murder and anarchists from Europe--would meet to get out of New York and plot strategies. After World War II, Allen Ginsburg, who was very aware of the earlier history through his ancestors, started going there and then Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, The Band, Joan Baez and so on followed. It had a continuum from 1911 on into the Sixties and so when these guys came in, they told me that they originally wanted to do the concert in Woodstock but there was no field large enough for it. They started moving further and further away but they told me that they wanted to continue the sort of left-wing political ideology and invite the same kind of musicians to get that sort of feeling.

I thought that was a great idea and I made a deal with them. It was not an easy situation. What happened is that they were looking for filmmakers who would put up their own money to make the movie because they were tapped out from the concert. They went to famous filmmakers in New York and Hollywood and none of them were interested in putting up their own money for one big reason--films like “Monterey Pop” had made no money at all. Everyone was looking for someone like Warner Brothers to come in and bankroll the film but no one did. I thought that it was a great idea and so I put up my own money to guarantee that a film would be made.

How far in advance of the actual concert did all of this take place?

It was over a period of months but it only really came together in a few days and the reason is because the festival was shot down at four different locations--every time they would secure a farm, there would be political opposition for one reason or another because local people didn’t want to have it there. Therefore, there was a feeling among all parties, including the promoters, that the damn thing was never going to get off the ground. There was real doubt that it would happen right up to the Wednesday before the festival--there was still a feeling in the air that Nelson Rockefeller, the governor, would shut the fucking thing down and if he had taken away the permits, it would have collapsed immediately. The police would have put up cordons and no one would have been able to get to the site. As I say, a lot of the townspeople and farmers were voting Republicans and they were contacting his office and telling him that they didn’t want this nuisance.

Although I have seen the film several times over the years, something struck me while watching it again last night that never occurred to me before. In most concert movies, there is usually one performer or group being filmed and even if there are others, they usually fit in together in terms of sound and performance style. In “Woodstock,” on the other hand, you have this incredibly eclectic group of performances styles throughout. There is someone like Joan Baez who basically just stands behind a microphone and lets her voice do all the work. Then there are performers like The Who and Jimi Hendrix who are literally all over the place. You even have a group like Sha-Na-Na whose performance is almost like a highly choreographed skit. Considering the lack of actual planning time, can you talk about the logistics of shooting all of these different styles essentially on the fly and then putting them all together into one film in a way that flows and makes sense to viewers.

I saw the disparateness of the performers as a tremendous advantage. We were in August of 1969 and people were already talking, even as the concert was going on, that maybe it would be called “The Woodstock Generation.” Reporters were calling it a “seminal event” and that was a phrase often associated with the concert and the film. If “seminal event” means “summation,” how better to show that than to have a great variety of musicians. One of my great regrets is that there weren’t more speakers there--that there weren’t more Ginsbergs or Wavy Gravys or political activists that could have been more reflective. We shot a few of them but they weren’t particularly effective. One of my favorite speeches comes from the kid sitting by the side of the road--I thought that he was such an eloquent audience member and Sixties experiencer that in that 10 or 15-minute interview that he really summed up, perhaps even better than a Ginsburg could, what the angst of the Sixties generation was.

How did we go about it? First of all, I had no hand in selecting the artists that appeared there. We were dealt that deck and I thought they did a damn good job. What I tried to do was cover every single act. We of course had limited footage and so what we would do was first get a list of the songs that the performers were going to perform and from our own knowledge of their music, we decided on certain songs that we wanted to cover. As you know, the film is very lyric-driven--there are no throwaway lyrics--because I wanted to include songs that were meaningful. I went through and selected the songs but the problem with that strategy was that the fucking musicians would just throw away the set list and start performing everything. What we had to do was start every song and then after about 30 seconds, because I didn’t want to waste the footage, I would make a decision about whether to cut it off or keep going. That was really the only sensible strategy.

About how much footage did you wind up shooting overall and how long did it take you to edit it together into the final film?

We shot a world record at the time--we were the cover story of “American Cinematographer”--of 200 hours. After all, remember that for most of the performances, we were shooting with four or five cameras, which was necessary because we wanted to do the multiple images. In the 4-hour cut that you saw last night, there is about 16 hours of footage. I think that it was a tremendous misjudgment that the Academy didn’t give Thelma Schoonmaker the Academy Award for editing “Woodstock” because there was nothing like it that had every been done, either aesthetically or logistically, in Hollywood at that time. Of course, she has received two Academy Awards since then but she has always maintained that was the most aesthetically and logistically difficult editing job that she has ever done.

When “Woodstock” originally came out in 1970, it was less than a year after the actual concert and was viewed for the most part as a film about current events. Forty years have passed and while the film has now inevitably comes across more as a historical document commemorating the show, the era and the performers, especially those like Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin who are no longer with us, it doesn’t feel like history--there is still a freshness and vitalness that is both surprising and strangely touching.

Don’t you think that the reason might be that a lot of the issues are still with us? The music is still valid--when are we going the great sheer poetry and genius of singing “Parents, be the first to have your boy come home in a box”? We don’t get brilliant songwriting like that today. Even with all the Iraq War stuff, where are there any songs that have come out like that?

How did the restoration process for “Woodstock” come about and when did the whole thing begin?

That goes back about 15 years to the Director’s Cut that you saw last night where we really started cleaning up the footage. I think that the general progress in terms of digital restoration has been phenomenal. Of course, I could tell you that the secrets behind why it looks so good also go back to Technicolor in 1969. When we put to them the problem--we wanted to make a 70mm film but had shot with a 16mm positive--they said that they could rig up a liquid gate and a liquid optical system that would take the 16mm positive and got to a 65mm negative in one go with no possibility of dirt or scratching or anything. That was a miracle in itself--they specially rigged up a system so we could do that. All of the footage that you see in the film was made that way and without that, we would have to go back to the 16mm footage, most of which has been destroyed thanks to a serious flood in their vaults years ago--the 65mm stuff was kept separately. Also, as you know, there have been many improvements over the years in sound. This was originally recorded in eight-track--actually seven-track because there was also a sync track. Eddie Kramer and others were able to go back and work miracles in order to give it improved sound.

In adding the extra footage into the Director’s Cut from the large amount that you had on hand, what were the governing reasons behind what was included and what was once again left out? For example, the longer cut still doesn’t have any footage of the Grateful Dead performing even though I can only assume that there must have been some pressure to include it.

[On the DVD], You will now get to see the Grateful Dead and I think you will see why they weren’t included--their performance was dreadful. The Dead always had the problem that you had to be there and you had to be loaded in order to fully appreciate them. So often, their stuff was really disappointing if you weren’t with it, so to speak.

Let’s go to something else. It is a myth, in case you are leading towards it, that some groups would not give us the rights to put them in the film. The opposite was true--everyone desperately wanted to be in the “Woodstock” film. Why? It was like printing money and ego. The Band, for example, was really pissed off at me that they weren’t included but we had voting sessions back during the editing. We brought in people like Roger Ebert and others and asked “Hey, what do you think?” It was not me dictating--it was a simple system to decide what were great performances and the people who weren’t in the film weren’t there because they weren’t great.

In terms of the Director’s Cut, I had a very good idea of what I wanted in it. Unfortunately, some of it was just gone--either we couldn’t find it or it was so seriously damaged that we couldn’t use it. It breaks my heart because I had some fantastic documentary sequences and interviews but I couldn’t find it anywhere. We had meticulous records and extremely well-organized. We had dozens of editors and Thelma set up a system so we knew exactly what we had and had seen it many times. We looked at those hours of footage many times and had all the notes. Thelma and I also knew what we had left out of the 195 minute version that we wished we had put back in. It was simply a matter of finding the stuff.

In the years after making “Woodstock,” you wrote a bunch of screenplays that did not get made for various reasons and only directed one more feature, the underrated 1981 ecological werewolf thriller “Wolfen,” before leaving the business entirely. Since that time, has there ever been a point where you wished that you were still in the game or have you been content staying out of it?

I think that I wrote some great screenplays that I was paid a lot of money for and there are two big movies out there that I took my name off of because my scripts were ruined. I think that the problem was that I went to Columbia Medical School and was always a serious guy and got into filmmaking with a political agenda. When it became clear to me after 15 years that it just wasn’t happening, I blamed myself because I had an agenda and I didn’t have the personal ability to get the films that I wanted made. Therefore, unlike other directors like Scorsese, I was never in love with filmmaking. I was in love with certain messages and if I couldn’t make them, fuck--I was wasting my time. I’ve had a great time in Africa and Asia doing other things--I’m playing in a smaller arena, you might say, but I love working with these Nobel Prize-winners because they are so fucking stimulating in their ideas. I don’t regret it in that sense.


link directly to this feature at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/feature.php?feature=2774
originally posted: 06/09/09 12:03:52
last updated: 06/09/09 12:12:06
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