When people ask how long it took to make Bill Cunningham New York I say ten years: eight to convince Bill to be filmed and two to shoot and edit the film. Had it been any different, Bill wouldn’t have been true to who he is or nearly as interesting a subject to film.
My fascination with Bill has always gone beyond the work he actually does. Who heis as a person, how he’s chosen to live his life and his almost religious dedication to his work—that is where my curiosity initially resided.
But how do you make a film about a man who is so private that even the people who have known him for years don’t know anything about him personally?
Bill’s reticence to be filmed set the practical terms for how the documentary could be made. The spectacle of a camera crew, sound recorder, and boom operator would be impossible. We had to capture him the way he claims to capture his own subjects: “discreetly, quietly, and invisibly.”
As a result, the movie was made with no crew, relying only on small, handheld consumer cameras so Bill wouldn’t feel intruded upon. It had to be a kind of family affair with people he trusted—myself; Philip Gefter, the producer; and Tony Cenicola, a New York Times staff photographer whom Bill knew and liked and who operated one of the cameras.
There would be no scheduling of Bill’s time for the film. We just had to be at the Times with cameras, ready and waiting, the same way Bill goes out onto the street and shoots—without a preconceived notion of what he’ll find. He says that he lets the street speak to him, and I knew we’d have to take the same approach—believing that over time, the man and the story of the film would begin to reveal itself.
Making the film was a dance. For a year we spent all our time at The New York Times waiting for a moment or a mood that Bill would allow us to capture. I would casually hang out near the desk of John Kurdewan in the Times’ art department where Bill would work on his “On The Street” page. With no fuss I would turn on the camera and film Bill and John working together at the computer. But then I would have to wait weeks for Bill to cooperate again. It took a month for Bill to allow me to put a wireless mike on him, and then he would only allow it occasionally—whenever the mood struck. We would leave notes on his desk (his preferred way of communicating) asking to follow him to an evening party, or to trail him riding his bike. Occasionally Tony and I would just show up on the street where he was shooting or at the lab where he develops his film or even more risky, outside Carnegie Hall, where he lives. I began to sense that even if he wasn’t willing to be filmed at that moment, he was developing a respect and appreciation for our dedication to doing our job, and, as a result, he would sometimes reward us—first by introducing us to his neighbors in Carnegie Hall Studios and then (and almost unheard of for him), allowing us into his apartment.
It began to dawn on me that the process of making the movie paralleled the slow revealing of the man himself and that his relationship with us, the filmmakers, should be a part of telling the story. In looking for a way to do this, I thought of the early Andy Warhol/Edie Sedgwick movies with Chuck Wein as an off-screen presence—a voice never seen but prodding and provoking—just as we were doing with Bill.
The sit-down interviews with Bill were conducted with Philip and myself, with Tony occasionally chiming in. But in order to turn the filmmakers into a single palpable character, Philip’s voice replaced all of ours whenever they were heard. This also made the need for any clarification or exposition in any part of the movie easy—I simply recorded Philip’s voice making a comment or asking a necessary question.
Bill traverses so many disparate layers and overlapping social milieus of New York City. I thought it essential to interview people who not only have a relationship with Bill but who span the spectrum of New York to help tell his story. I tried to lessen the tyranny of the bland talking head by filming each character in the form of a photographic portrait—one that gives as much visual insight into who they are and how they live or work—and trying to make each person a character in the film in their own right.
The use of music throughout the movie is spare—I initially envisioned a more scored film but for most scenes when I tried adding underscore the music invariably worked against the scene—cluttering the immediacy and emotion of the moment. Where music did work, I was excited to discover that John Lurie and the Lounge Lizards was just the right sound for Bill: urban, quirky, fun and with heart.
In the editing room, I approached the movie’s structure less like a documentary and more like a narrative with a strong protagonist surrounded by a menagerie of characters (kind of early “Altmanesque” and seemingly loosely structured) but with narrative threads that slowly builds, so that when taken together—a portrait emerges and comes into focus. Like one of Bill’s pages—a collage, adding up to something larger than its parts.
The facts of Bills life were important to me only to the extent that they reveal the contours of his life. But it’s not what he’s about, even to himself. I wasn’t interested in making a bio-pic. Rather, I wanted to capture something more intangible—though no less powerful—which is the essence of him, that joy— his way of being. Bill has dedicated his life to documenting what is unique and individual and I wanted the movie not only to be a portrait of him and by extension New York, the city he loves, but a celebration of self expression and self invention.
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