Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Interview: Richard Press & Philip Gefter (Bill Cunningham New York)

Published on TheVine
Bill Cunningham New York is the easily one of the most delightful documentaries you’ll have the pleasure of seeing. In 2010 it took home the audience awards at both Sydney and Melbourne Film Festivals, and now, finally, it’s getting an Australian release.

Celebrating the vivacious life of bicycle-hopping New York Times photographer (and priceless fashion historian) Bill Cunningham, this feature debut by Richard Press is a collection of fantastic characters, dazzling fashion and his utterly humble and charming subject. Visiting New York earlier in the year, TheVine ventured to the West Village to sit down with Richard and his producer and partner Philip Gefter and discussed all things Bill.


TheVine: I hate to start with the obvious question, but I have to know, how’s Bill?

Richard Press: Bill’s great. He hasn’t seen the movie. He knows what’s in it. He’s given us his blessing, but he just says, “Kids, you’ve made a movie. Have fun. I’m too busy.” 
Philip Gefter: Shall I tell the funny story about when the movie opened? 

Richard Press: [Nodding] It’s a funny story.

Philip Gefter: When the movie opened a month ago The [New York] Times reviewed it. So I went to Bill and I said, “Bill, have you seen the review in The Times?” He said, “Well, I was sitting here reading the paper and I turned the page, and there’s a picture of a photographer kneeling over shooting women’s shoes. And I thought to myself, ‘Who is that foot fetishist?’” This is Bill talking, so we both had a chuckle.

Richard Press: But then he said, “Then I realised it was me!”

Philip Gefter: So then I said, “Did you read the review?” And he said, “Oh I don’t know what all the fuss is about. But as long as it’s good for you and Richard[pronouncing it ‘Reechard’].” Now the thing is Bill calls us ‘Phillipe’ and ‘Reechard’ and we don’t know to this day whether he does that with affection or in mockery! 

A little from column A, a little from column B, right?

Press: Exactly! Exactly! 

Do you think Bill will eventually see the film?

Press: With Bill you just don’t know. It’s possible. I can’t imagine him going into a movie theatre and seeing it. 

His nights are too busy!

Press: That’s the thing. He’s always working. It’s not like he’s just not going to see this movie. He doesn’t go to the movies. He doesn’t go to the theatre.

Maybe he’ll see it on the plane?

Press: When he goes to Paris for the collections! Oh that would be great.
Gefter: He’s never even listened to his On the Street narration that he does every week for The Times. He does it, but he doesn’t listen to it. I think he doesn’t want to see himself reflected back to himself. At all. I think that that would take him away from that purity he has.
Press: It’s just not on his radar screen. I think it so doesn’t concern him.

It’s interesting though, because later in life you feel like people tend to get a bit more reflective and think about their legacy. Was there ever that idea of reflection with Bill? Is that why he let you make the documentary?

Press: I think it was almost the opposite in terms of reflection. I think he actually doesn’t think he has a legacy; he doesn’t think what he does is important. And I think that’s truly sincere. He’s really just completely humble and modest, and he does not see the importance of the work he’s done.


Press: He gets total pleasure out of it. And he knows he’s sharing something [but] he thinks it’s small. He thinks there are people who are interested, but it’s not something that would require a movie about a person, or that his archives would go to an institution.

But he keeps archives, so does that suggest...

Press: It’s for himself.

Gefter: It’s for his own reference. If he needs a picture, he knows where to find it.

Press: And he also jokes that he keeps the photos so he has them for the New York Times for the obituary. He jokes that he has it in case they need it for references.

Gefter: I write about photography, and I keep bringing up his archive to him and he just doesn’t want to talk about it.

But he’s a living archive!

Press: Exactly. He’s an historian.

Gefter: He’s chronicled the intersection between fashion and society for the last fifty years. And it is cultural anthropology. It’s an amazing resource. But he doesn’t see it that way.

His reticence does make you wonder: are we just the Oprah generation where we want to share and talk about everything? Bill is from an older generation that lives a quiet, reserved, dignified life. Do you think you kept hitting up against that? Wanting him to divulge more?

Press: For me, I wasn’t really interested in doing a biopic. I feel like the facts of his life are only interesting in that they give the contours of his life, but what I was really trying to capture was his spirit. And the way he’s chosen to live his life, and his joy for living and his obsession with his work. I think that says more about who he is than the biographical details. And I don’t think he defines himself by those either, they’re just not important. It’s not who he is. I think it’s actually in some way how he’s wired. He said, “When I was a kid I used to go to church and look at women’s hats.” That was when he was five. So what was interesting to me were not the facts of his life but the sort of more intangible things: his spirit.

This documentary was ten years in the making. It took you eight years to convince him to come on board. Now that’s a labour of love on your end as well. What finally won him over? 

Press: The short version is that we wore him down! At one point I thought maybe he needed to be around a camera because he’s so shy. So I said to him, “Bill, I might be on the street with a camera, and if I’m there and I see you, I might film you.” So I go out on the street with a video camera - this is like eight years ago - and I film him for an hour, and he ignores me, and I’m very discrete. And then as he’s getting back on his bicycle, he looks at the camera and he waves me over and he says, “Come back to The New York Times if you want to film me doing my work there.” So I thought, “Oh my god, he’s going to let me make the movie.” I go back to The New York Times and I film him for the afternoon and at the end of the day he says, “Richard, that’s all there is. This is your movie, there’s nothing more to know. You have your movie.” I was like, “Oh no!” So I had all of this footage that I put away in a drawer. Then about three years ago, he was being given a living legend award in New York City at the Waldorf Astoria. He didn’t want to accept the award, he didn’t want to make a public appearance, so I said, “Well I have this footage, I’ll cut together a little three minute short film to show.” Which I did, and he saw it. He was actually there covering the event - not getting the award! [Laughs] 

Just like in Paris, right?

Press: Exactly, exactly. So he saw the film and he really liked it. And The New York Times was there and they really liked it. So we started talking to them about them supporting us in making the movie, and Arthur Sulzberger Jr, the publisher, called up Bill and said, “Bill, Richard and Philip want to make this movie and we want to support them, so it’s time.” So it was all those factors: that Bill kind of saw that I got him, his relationship with Philip, because they’ve been very close for fifteen years...

Gefter: What did you call me?

Press: ‘The Bill Whisperer’. I call Philip ‘The Bill Whisperer’ because Philip was very instrumental in sort of navigating Bill into getting his cooperation. Because even when Bill agreed to do the movie, he didn’t really agree to do it. It was constantly a negotiation getting him [to] allow us to film him. I lived at The New York Times for a year with a camera, but I wasn’t shooting all the time because...

Gefter: You had to navigate his mood.

Press: When he was ready. It wasn’t even his mood, it was more...

Gefter: His work.

Press: His work. He just wants to do his work. He’s allergic to any attention. It was so anathema to him. We had to find the right time when it didn’t intrude on what he was doing.

And show him that respect.

Press: Exactly. It was more about that. But over time, he eventually introduced us to his neighbours at Carnegie Hall. He started to open up. And so it really became this revealing of the man mirroring the filming of the movie.

You feel that. That he’s letting you in and you’re letting the audience in. And to that end, the adage of ethnography is that the very act of observing something changes it. Do you think you affected Bill in that way?

Gefter: I don’t think so at all. I think that that was part of the navigation as well. Allowing Bill the organic flow of what he does and just to be there as a kind of observer and witness, which is what we do. I mean every once in a while by the very nature of sitting down and having a conversation with him, that might have changed what he does as a matter of course, but it all felt very pure to what he was, even though the camera was there.

Press: The thing is, the movie was made really unconventionally. There was no camera crew, there was no sound person, no boom operator. I had these tiny little cameras, so it looked like we were hanging out. Or I was just invisible. There was no spectacle; it was very discrete. And I was really trying to be invisible the way he is with his subjects.

Gefter: There was a sum total of three of us at any time. Or less. There was Richard, myself and Tony [Cenicola] who is the other cameraman. And Bill knew all of us, so it wasn’t as if we were these strangers. We understood who he is, so it just allowed for more organic flow than I think the camera somehow altering what was going on around him.

But you do sit him down, and there’s that scene (which we won’t spoil for audiences) where you’re very careful to say “You don’t have to answer this if you don’t want to.” How much trust and guts did it take on your part to actually pose those questions?

Press: We knew we were going to ask those questions. Actually Philip is the one who asks those two questions.

Gefter: That session was over the course of an hour and those two questions were towards the end of that session. And we really didn’t know how Bill was going to respond. I mean we were asking questions that seemed relevant to a subject who you’re making a film about. He’s a human being and those seemed like two essential questions that you’d ask any subject.

But you’re very wary about asking them.

Gefter: You very rarely ask Bill personal questions, so to that extent...

Press: It was a way of showing respect. 

Gefter: Yes, approaching him gingerly. That said, we didn’t know that there might be an emotional moment.

Did you ask further?

Press: It really seemed like that moment was complete. And that anything you needed to know was in that moment. People ask us to explain the moment, but I don’t think you need to explain it.

The way you set up the film is that people love Bill, but does anyone actually know anything about him? And this documentary gets to that, but at the end of it as an audience member you kind of go, "Well I love Bill, but I don’t know anything about him."
Press: More questions are actually posed by the end of the film. I mean you know more about him, but there are still more questions. And I think he doesn’t know the answers, in the same way that nobody knows the answers about themselves. We’re all very complex, and that’s why I think those two questions are very interesting because I think it makes Bill a beautifully full and complex human being. It’s not a romantacised portrait; he is ultimately a human being with contradictions, with things that might not ultimately be resolved - as any person is.

And again I wonder if it goes back to that generational divide: he just doesn’t talk about his personal life.

Press, Gefter: Right, right.

Whereas you interview someone from my generation and it’s all “Yeah, my Mum did this and now I’m so messed up.”
[Both laugh] 

But for Bill it was kind of his refrain: “Oh no, we don’t talk about things like that.”

Gefter: That said, Bill is a very honest and very direct person. And you can ask him anything and he’ll respect you more if you’re honest and you’re straightforward with him, than if you tiptoe around him.

Press: He actually even joked [about the personal questions]. The next day [after the emotional moment] he came to The Times and he was joking with some colleges. He said, “Those kids, they asked me some personal questions yesterday, and they wanted to ask me that the first day! But they didn’t.”

He knows! He sees right through you.

Gefter: He’s a very smart cookie. He dropped out of Harvard.

What a life! Where did you get that archive footage of Bill?

Press: That was actually an in house movie The New York Times made in the '80s. But it was a little short, in house movie they made about female fashion editors. Carrie Donovan and some other people, and the only reason Bill agreed to do the interview for that was because it wasn’t about himself.

Gefter: He was talking about fashion, not about himself.

Press: But the footage was amazing. It actually changed the movie. When I found it and put it in, it really gave it kind of an emotional historical weight. Because thirty years ago he looks the same, he’s doing the same thing, he’s wearing the same thing. It gives it that context. It shows a sort of absolute dedication, that he’s dedicated his life to this one thing.

Gefter: It also gives you an insight into what he was like when he was younger. He’s got this kind of Jimmy Stewart quality. And you can see how beguiling he was to people. Even though now he’s a little older, he’s still charm itself. But you see what he used to look like and how he used to navigate the streets.

Press: And he was 60 then! He wasn’t even young!

Gefter: He seemed very young. He was a young 60.

Even when you shoot his 80th birthday, he’s jumping up and down.

Gefter: Isn’t that cute?

Press: Isn’t that amazing?

Gefter: He’s retained that youthful spirit. He’s retained something that’s very pure. And you see that when he jumps up and down after blowing out the candles on his birthday cake.

Press: And at 82 he feels like that about his work! It’s incredible! That there he is, doing what he does, smiling while he works.

Gefter: Bill is still doing what he always does. He’s still on the street. He’s still doing his two columns.

I’ve been looking out for him!

Press: 57th Street and 5th [Avenue].

80 or not, Bill really lives a monkish existence.

Press: He’s taken a vow of fashion. I mean he really has. It’s like a religious calling, and he has set up his life in that way.

Well perhaps this is drawing too long a bow, but Bill came up just as Street Style was burgeoning - you make that point in the film - so it was like he was needed and he was found. Not like a prophet of course, but he was the perfect person in the perfect situation and he’s lived that life.

Gefter: He invented [street style]. He created it. The other thing about his columns that people don’t really understand - and I think it comes through in the movie - is that he conceives all of it. He’s not assigned to do anything. He’s the one who is determining what is kind of bubbling up on the streets, and goes, “Oh that. That’s happening now.” And he puts together the column and writes about it.

Press: And using the multiples, I mean that’s his creation. All the multiple images to create a trend or to show something that’s happening in fashion at that moment. But the thing that is interesting also is that the body of work is not just fashion trends, he’s really documenting the city. He’s documented every Easter parade since the '60s, every gay pride parade since the '60s, every Halloween, every Christmas tree lighting in Rockefeller Centre. So if you want to know what New York was like in the latter half of the 20th century and into the 21st, you look at his archives. As Phil said, it’s cultural anthropology. It’s through the lens of how people are dressing, but it’s beyond fashion. And I don’t think any other city has had a person who has actually documented their lives in such a complete extent. 

Is there any talk of having an exhibition as well as the film?

Press: He refuses everything.

Gefter: About 10 years ago Catherine Horyn the fashion editor at The New York Times and I got a book contract. And it had taken me two years to convince Bill that a book should be done. So I brought him the contract and he said, “Oh no child, I don’t have time for that.” So he’s not interested and the problem is that he’s just working every day and if he were to do a book, which would also yield an exhibition, it would require his time and energy, because he’s the only one who knows how his archive is constructed. He knows where pictures are, based on when they were shot. I could not go into his archive and find things. He would have to be there. So it would require three or four months of his time just going through the archive...

Press: Which he doesn’t want to do. That’s actually another reason why he thinks the work couldn’t go to another institution, because he doesn’t think anyone would know what to make of it.

Because he’s the living dewey decimal system.

Press: Because the individual images are not so important as cumulatively, what they mean and how they add up and how they group together. He knows how to do that and where they are. He needs a curator. He needs someone to go in there and do that.

It’s bigger than him a way, isn’t it?

Gefter: I think secretly he does know that.

Will he cave at some point?

Press: [Laughs]

Gefter: Bill is not a fool in any way, shape or form. And I say that for a reason because it seems like he’s really cavalier about all this, but he’s really not. For example, he’s had many bicycle accidents - this will make sense in a second - so finally in 1997, after his umpteenth bicycle accident, the Times learned that Bill didn’t have health insurance. And so we convinced him to go on staff...

Press: He was freelance up until then.

Gefter: So he agreed to do that. That said, he negotiated a way to be on staff at The New York Times that is singular: he is the only staff photographer who owns his own work. Now that’s major in that institution. 30 staff photographers, 29 of them are on staff but The Times owns their photographs and then there's Bill who owns his own photographs. So he’s not a fool in that regard. It’s the same thing with his archive: even though he doesn’t want to talk about it and he dismisses it, “Oh you know, that’s nothing.” I’m sure he’s thought about it, and I’m sure he’s probably made some plan.

So perhaps there’s some master list somewhere?

Press: Maybe or maybe not, I just don’t know.

Gefter: I really don’t think he would just let that go. He does understand that the world considers him, if nothing else, a fashion historian. He is the most reluctant fashion deity on the planet. That said, I think even he has some respect for his knowledge. He wouldn’t talk about that; he wouldn’t say that.

Bill makes quite a big deal that he won’t even take as much as a glass of water, so he has complete integrity. Do you think the reticence to be on staff came from his experience at Women’s Wear Daily [where his copy was changed]?

Press: Well I think he doesn’t want to be tied down.

Gefter: He doesn’t want to be owned.

Press: Even though he’s on staff, he pays for his trip to Paris. He pays for his own film, because he feels like then he can do whatever he wants. He can do whatever he wants anyway, but it’s that fierce independence [he has].

Speaking of Paris, I noticed in one of the shots you see Scott Schuman, The Sartorialist.

Press: Did you? 

Gefter: Oh I didn’t even notice!

It’s at the collections, just before my favourite line: “Don’t you understand this is the most important man on the planet.”

Press: Scott's in that scene? Oh how great. We didn’t even realise that. We didn’t even really know what Scott Schuman looked like, until very recently when the film was done.

Well seeing him has that great reflexivity of Bill being the vanguard for the next generation. Did you ever think of interviewing him or putting Bill in that contemporary fashion blogging context?

Press: No, it was really about Bill. There was so much in the movie that didn’t make it in even about Bill that I wanted to get in. So to start dealing with the new generation, it was off point for my purposes.

Gefter: Also people talk about them being the next generation. What they do is really somewhat different from what Bill does. It’s true that they’re street fashion photographers, but they don’t connect the dots the way that Bill does. They’re identifying what they think is stylish, which is fine, and I applaud that. But Bill is doing something else. Bill’s grid or his mosaic, or whatever you want to call it, his weekly columns, exist in the continuity of all the images, not in one single image. And what he’s doing is again showing style and trends as it bubbles up from the streets, so I just make that distinction.

Scott will do series and trends on occasion, but I see what you mean.

Gefter: Oh he will? I didn’t realise that.

So if you didn’t go to the new generation, how did you choose whom to interview of Bill’s contemporaries?

Press: I think it was really important to make Bill traverse his every social milieu in the city. Whether it’s a society woman or a downtown hipster, he’s just as comfortable with either and he documents either and he’s just interested in this broad range of who New Yorkers are. And so it was really a question of finding people who represented the spectrum, the strata of every social milieu in New York. It was also really important for them to be fantastic as characters, because Bill really celebrates self-invention and self-creation. 

Gefter: They also represent Bill over the course of time. So [Founder of Details Magazine] Annie Flanders was a period of his life. They all had a role in his life.

Press: Everybody in the movie knows Bill. They also represent New York, and they represent some part of his life, whether they were muses to him, whether they’ve inspired him, or whether they were part of his life. And I wanted them to be characters in the movie as well, not just talking heads, because they’re so fantastic. 

In that way the film is as much a love letter to New York as it is to Bill.

Gefter: Oh absolutely!

Press: That’s why it’s Bill Cunningham New York, no comma, no punctuation. It’s this one thing.

Gefter: The story about Carnegie Hall, while that was really going on in Bill’s life while we were filming, and that’s why it became an important component. It also represents something that’s happening in New York. New York is less and less hospitable to artists, and if you look at Carnegie Hall as a microcosm - it is a microcosm of American culture over the course of the last century or more. Leonard Bernstein, Marlon Brando, The Actor’s Studio, Agnes de Mille and on and on. Each of these people did really contribute to American culture broadly. And that’s been dying out. Those little microcosms are dying out in New York City, so what I’d like to say - and I’m speaking for me and not Richard, although I think Richard would probably agree – is that [the movie is] a kind of an elegy to that idea.

Press: [Nodding] It’s a lost bohemianism. That’s really what it is.

You do really get the sense that while the film is a celebration, it’s also the end of an era, and that you’ve got these stalwarts hanging in there!
Press: [Laughs] Yeah, [Bill’s neighbour Eddita Sherman is] 98 years old.

Gefter: A dying breed.

Press: And when you say ‘a celebration,’ that really was the one emotional quality or word I’d use to describe what I was trying to do with the movie. A celebration of Bill, a celebration of creativity, a celebration of self-expression, a celebration of being in the pure sense of the word. That was really the emotional quality. And it’s really gratifying that people feel really joyful and inspired when they leave the theatre because that was the intent.

Published on TheVine
Australian release date: 3 November 2011
Watch The Movie Club review

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