Richard Leacock, Pioneer of Cinema Verite, Dies

JFK documentary filmmaker credited with creating today's reality TV.

March 24, 2011 — -- When documentary filmmaker Richard Leacock helped shoot "Primary" in 1960, he knew that he was taking part in something revolutionary.

"We were breaking all the rules of the industry," he said on RichardLeacock.com, a website dedicated to his work. "We were shooting and editing our own footage on location. It was a collaborative work: filmmakers and journalists, not cameramen and soundmen."

Leacock, 89, considered the grandfather of reality TV and a pioneer of cinema verite, died Wednesday in Paris.

His daughter Victoria Leacock Hoffman, one of five children, said he'd been filming since 1937 and even in his late 80s still was breaking ground on how to share meaningful experiences in life.

"He had great humanity, empathy and curiosity," she said. "He was an honest man. That remained till the very end."

Documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles worked with Leacock on "Primary," a documentary that followed John F. Kennedy's presidential campaign in Wisconsin.

Maysles said "Ricky" was a good person and incredibly talented.

"There isn't a single documentary filmmaker that can match his capabilities," Maysles said. "Filmmaker, editor, director. All these roles he completed beautifully."

Maysles said that the four men behind "Primary" -- filmmakers Leacock, Bob Drew, D.A. Pennebaker and himself -- started the movement of cinema verite, or direct cinema. He said cinema verite was a revolution signified by a whole new purification of documentary filmmaking where there was no host or narrator.

Pennebaker, who'd worked with Leacock since the late 1950s, said the foursome had a sense from the start that "Primary" was different.

"What we were doing was kind of new," he said. "You couldn't get Kennedy to film any other way. He didn't have the time."

"What you saw on the screen was exactly what was taking place," Maysles said, "so you could feel that you were actually there. It allowed viewers to really get a feel of what was actually going on."

Richard Leacock: So Many Good Films

Maysles said he didn't think highly of the "grandfather of reality TV" label.

"What he did was far better and beyond reality shows that we have on television, which are scripted and controlled," he said. "What he did was film the truth in that sense that it was all for real."

Hoffman Leacock said her father never saw reality TV but probably would not mind that people tied him to it.

"You knew that anything that he'd be filming would have a very human understanding and touch to it and truly get the truth," Maysles said. "He left so many good films."

Among those films are: "Toby and the Tall Corn," "A Stravinsky Portrait," "Happy Mother's Day" and "Monterey Pop."

Pennebaker said Leacock had real passion.

"That seems to me what you would get from watching Ricky's films," he said. "He was not gonna settle for what people have to settle for."

"His driving force was always to do what was first rate," Pennebaker said. "Making money was not important. We believed that if you did the best that could be done, it would somehow survive."

Leacock was head of the film/video section at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before he retired and moved to Paris in 1989.

A memoir, "Richard Leacock: The Feeling of Being There," will be released this summer as a book and a digital video book.

Leacock said of "Primary" on his website: "We were very aware that we had crossed some sort of boundary. ... We all knew that we were heading in a direction that was fundamental to the achievement of our dreams."

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