The Nonlinear Editor: The Promise and the Picture Show
Posted Nov 1, 2010

Two years ago, when my son was 4 years old, I read him a story before bed, as was our usual routine, and then he asked me to tell him one—that is, to recount a story from my own life instead of reading one of someone else’s invention. So I told him a story about a summer day between my first and second year of college when my roommate from school (who’s now my brother-in-law and a fixture in my son’s life) came to visit me at the resort where I worked in rural New Hampshire. With a sunny summer afternoon in the sticks at our disposal, we took off down a riverside dirt road, Bruce Springsteen's Greetings from Asbury Park, New Jersey blasting out the windows, and tracked down a rope swing on the Connecticut River so we could jump into the water. Except my buddy didn’t know how to do that. He climbed gingerly onto the rope, swung out over the river, and hung on for dear life as it swung perilously back toward the rock face. “Jump, [expletive deleted]!” I yelled. So he opened his hands and let go. In what seemed like excruciating slo-mo, I watched him slide down the rope and drop into the water. A couple minutes later he climbed back up to the riverbank with a rope-width red stripe running down the length of his bony, pale torso.

Telling the story 20 years later, I guess I’d described it well enough that my son could almost see it, but not quite. So he said, “I wanna see a movie of that.”

I laughed and told him, “I don’t have one.”

“You don’t?” he asked, not quite believing me.

“No,” I said. “Before you were born, we didn’t make movies of our lives.”

Though, until that moment, I’d never really considered something that was a given for my son, I suppose it would have been nice to have a personal videographer around all those years, quietly capturing some of those long lost moments of my life on video. But much more than that, I’ve always imagined having a fly-on-the-wall, all-access pass to the moments great and small that changed or formed the world I live in. Certainly, I’ve wondered about the defining moments in human history—say, the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt; Phidippides’ run to Sparta; Michelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel; the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk; the stormings of the Bastille, the Winter Palace, and the GPO; Bobby Thomson homering and Jackie Robinson stealing home; the March on Washington; and the moon landing—but more often I’ve wondered what it would be like to be there at comparatively minuscule moments of creation that are magnified by my own personal obsessions.

Unquestionably, one of those times, inconsequential to most yet huge to me (and, I suppose, quite a few other cultists), would have been the recording of Bruce Springsteen’s 1978 album, Darkness on the Edge of Town. What would it have been like to be there when those songs came to life, a party to the unparalleled camaraderie and empathy of the musicians involved, a witness to the explosion of all that song and fury into the world?

There’s a new film called The Promise that tells a great deal of the story. Directed by Emmy Award-winning producer Thom Zimny and incorporating a number of terrific interviews done over the last 3–4 years with all the major players, the heart of the documentary is a stunning trove of video footage shot during those long-ago sessions. The old footage documents not only the in-studio recording work on the album but also earlier sessions held in a makeshift rehearsal space in Springsteen’s small Holmdel, N.J., house while the band was still barred from entering a recording studio because of an ongoing lawsuit between Springsteen and his former manager.

It’s remarkable enough that the footage exists at all, considering that, at the time, Springsteen’s fame and selling power were relatively low, and making a film about him recording an album served no appreciable documentary or commercial purpose. So much the better; part of what makes the old footage so great is that Springsteen and the E Street Band (along with virtually everyone else who appears on-screen) seem to take no notice of the camera at all. We get the agony and ecstasy of creation, the joy and intensity and tedium of recording nearly 70 songs for a 10-song record, the revelation of unreleased songs never before heard, 27-year-old Springsteen (in his own words 30 years later) “skinny with a big Italian afro,” and perpetually do-ragged guitarist Steve Van Zandt with neither hat nor bandanna. Most of all, we experience the band’s absolute commitment to this record and whatever it might turn out to be.

In the total intimacy of this private world, where you’d never guess there was a rolling camera, you get the sense that life is spooling out exactly as it would if the camera weren’t there. What you see is music being made, not performed, which is the essence of what was happening in that house and that studio all those years ago.

In one of the interviews conducted in advance of the film’s Oct. 7 nationwide premiere on HBO, Springsteen vaguely described Barry Rebo, the guy who shot the documentary footage, as a buddy from the Jersey shore who liked to shoot home movies of the band—noting nothing particularly remarkable about him besides that Rebo was “the only guy we knew who had a camera.” But if Springsteen gave little thought to what he was doing, in his own mind, Rebo was clearly making a film, perhaps trying to (or at least practicing to) put his own spin on D.A. Pennebaker’s classic Bob Dylan documentary Dont Look Back (1967), a pioneering work in the cinéma vérité style (also known as “direct cinema”).

Rebo turned out to be much more than some guy who liked to hang around bands with a camera rolling. After starting out shooting Super 8 films of Springsteen’s performances in Asbury Park clubs in 1970, Rebo acquired an early video camera in 1974 and retrofitted it with security camera tubes to achieve a level of low-light performance that was virtually unthinkable at the time, and began shooting Springsteen with it on stage and in the studio. Unquestionably, the ability of Rebo’s jury-rigged camera to shoot without big lights contributed mightily to his ability to record the sessions without distracting the band. (Springsteen’s Thrill Hill Studios finally bought Rebo’s 100-plus hours of footage in 2005.)

In 1986, 8 years after the archival footage seen in The Promise was shot and tucked away for posterity, Rebo founded Rebo Studio—possibly the first HD production studio in the U.S.—and became known to some as the “godfather of the guerilla HDTV movement.” His current company, Emerging Pictures, has been a key player in the installation and proliferation of state-of-the-art digital projection equipment in movie theaters around the country. In September, Rebo’s latest contribution to the digital cinema and event video worlds was producing HD simulcasts of two Bolshoi Ballet performances, one in Moscow and one in Paris, to be shown live in Emerging Pictures’ HD digital cinemas in the U.S.

Watching Rebo’s footage in The Promise, along with cinéma vérité works such as Don’t Look Back, is a great reminder of the power of fly-on-the-wall documentary filmmaking, where the documentarian gets out of the way and lets history run its course. Pennebaker himself maintained that this style wasn’t documentary filmmaking at all; it was just “records of moments.” I suppose the corollary to this approach in the event filmmaking world is the unobtrusiveness school of wedding video that prides itself on being completely invisible at the wedding or event being shot.

The seven of you who read my columns to the end every month know I’ve criticized the unobtrusive videographer’s “you’ll never know I was there” credo as evidence of our industry’s long-held inferiority complex, predicated on the assumption that clients are buying our services with whatever is left in their budgets but they don’t really want us there. But even if invisibility and unobtrusiveness are essential parts of what you do—and self-doubt has nothing to do with it—I think there’s a more positive and self-affirming way to approach it with the client, asserting the fly-on-the-wall approach as an essential element of your filmmaking style and making it part of your common purpose.

Just as an acclaimed wedding filmmaker such as Ray Roman has earned the right to bring his command presence to a shoot, subtly directing the action and calling his shots, event filmmakers from the cinéma vérité school can strike a parallel covenant with their clients, shooting from the sidelines but doing their own sort of coaching in advance of the day: “I can’t guarantee I’ll be 100% invisible on your wedding day—and who are we kidding, I’m part of your team and I want you to know I’m there—but let’s agree right now that if I’m going to make the film we both want to make, I’m counting on you to never let the camera know that you see me. Because there are no cameras in the moments we’re capturing, in view or otherwise.”

Bringing that take-charge ethic to the fly-on-the-wall approach will help you maintain your edge if the recession finds you ceding hard-won ground in terms of the packages you’re selling, the prices you’re charging, and the artistry and luxury you’re able to justify at those rates. Event filmmaking (unlike freelance documentary) is commercial by definition. Nobody’s out there shooting on spec or just for the love of the craft. Acknowledging reality and sustaining some measure of artistry don’t have to be mutually exclusive, and there are some sacrifices that you should never have to make. As a document of a band re-emerging after a nearly career-ending lawsuit, if The Promise teaches us anything, it’s that the one thing you can’t sacrifice is authority over your own work, regardless of how circumstances—financial or otherwise—conspire against you.

What we’re talking about, as ever, is getting buy-in from your clients to the value and mission of your work. It’s not unrelated to closing the sale or avoiding the increasingly common pricing beat down, but it’s more than that. It’s trust; it’s shared purpose; it’s engaging your clients in the spirit of collaboration.

Maybe you’re not going to get the absolute commitment from your clients that you see from Springsteen’s band members in The Promise. Maybe the stakes aren’t that high. If any of those guys believed that Darkness on the Edge of Town would matter to people 30 years later as much as it does now—in some fashion, I believe they did—I guarantee that no one except maybe the cinematographer, Barry Rebo, thought that any of them would be watching that film 3 decades on, let alone sharing it with millions of fans.

But there’s no denying what making that record meant to the people involved and what it means to people such as me, who have so often imagined what it was like to be there, to see that film a generation later. And, of course, it’s all the more meaningful for the glimpses of a young, healthy, and impish Danny Federici, an integral member of the band for nearly 40 years who died from melanoma in 2008.

I’d guess that at least half the people reading this column have had to make precisely that case concerning the meaning and accruing value of a wedding film to their prospects. And you know that with budgets tightening and price becoming paramount, it gets tougher and tougher to get people to look that far ahead and to get the skeptics to pony up for a film that may mean much more to them decades later than it does today.

It’s lucky for Barry Rebo that he didn’t have to convince the guys in the E Street Band how much his film would mean to people 30 years down the line; they would have laughed him out of the room instead of letting him do his thing. But I sure am glad they did let him do his thing and that he pulled off his fly-on-the-wall approach so well that it in no way inhibited them from doing theirs.

Stephen Nathans-Kelly (stephen.nathanns at infotoday.com) is editor-in-chief of EventDV.