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Charles Guggenheim on Candidate Biography Films

July 3, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT


NEWSHOUR: Your memorial film for Robert Kennedy was almost instantly considered a masterpiece. Tell me how you really conceived of the film, and the circumstances that led up to it?

CHARLES GUGGENHEIM: Well, probably, the film is different than other biographical films in that it was made after his death. It was a memorial film, really, though it was based on a biography film, which I’d done earlier of him. But it was made after his assassination, to be played at the Democratic National Convention. It wasn’t clear whether the Democratic National Committee, nor the nominee would accept it being played there. It was questionable.

NEWSHOUR: Why did they question it so?

CHARLES GUGGENHEIM: The country was divided and the convention was divided, and the insertion of this film into that event could have caused some political problems which the, the nominee had to be very sensitive about, a film about Robert Kennedy, who was against the war. Humphrey, who was part of the Johnson administration was considered to be, in a sense, a person who supported the ongoing conflict, which may or may not have been fair.

So to insert Robert Kennedy into this convention, in an emotional way, in a divided convention, could have caused a lot of problems, and they were very hesitant to play this film.

NEWSHOUR: It had an enormous impact, as it was shown.


NEWSHOUR: There was almost a “near riot” on the floor.


NEWSHOUR: Tell me about that and tell me about how those circumstances came about, largely, at the convention. What, what was it about the film that engendered that type of reaction among people?

CHARLES GUGGENHEIM: Well, there was unhappiness. There wasn’t a unanimity about [Hubert] Humphrey because he was [Lyndon] Johnson’s Vice President, and Johnson, for the anti-war people, was the other side, was the enemy, so to speak, if–that’s a harsh word, but–so when Robert Kennedy’s image went up there, the remembrance of him went up on the screen, it took the people who were anti-war and pro-Kennedy, and felt they had been denied a leader who might have stopped the war, at least taken them where they wanted to go. It regenerated their fallen leader, and they began this uprising, so to speak.

NEWSHOUR: Did you think in those terms when you were putting the film together, about how you would portray him?

CHARLES GUGGENHEIM: I didn’t understand what would happen at the convention. When the film was finished, it was done only in nine weeks. I was tired. But–so was everybody else, and I was instructed by Steve Smith, who was the brother-in-law of the President, and brother-in-law of Robert Kennedy and Ted Kennedy, to take the film to Chicago, to see if I could get it played.

Well, in many ways, I was a strange person to be chosen to do that, but I felt very much like, as a person who’s in the infantry, which I was, that you have a point man. You send the point man out in a squad and he draws the first fire, and then if he goes down, then you know what to do with the rest of the squad, and I think I was the point man in Chicago.

So I had to go there with this film, to see if I could get it played. And I sat there for two or three days, with no decision made.

NEWSHOUR: Who was making those decisions?

CHARLES GUGGENHEIM: The Democratic National Committee was making the decisions up until the nomination of Humphrey, and then he was the leader of the party. But until he was nominated, in a sense, Johnson was leader of the party.

NEWSHOUR: What was it about the film that, that really worked? Watching it, it’s just a striking film. What was–what were the images and the, and the process, that really made it work?

CHARLES GUGGENHEIM: Well, I’ve been in film making long enough to know you, you need a lot of luck. But I had Robert Kennedy, and I had worked with him–or worked for him since 1964. I mean, I worked in his campaign for the Senate, and I had filmed him, and gone through thousands and thousands of feet of film about him. And I was drawn to him, like a lot of other people were.

And I felt very moved by, and upset by his death, like thousands of other people were, and I just–you just went in to see if you could capture everything you felt about him, and, and as a film maker, you drew upon all your resources to make that happen, and you didn’t know, till the end, whether it was gonna happen. We had a lot of luck, in a certain extent. The networks gave us all the footage we wanted, immediately. That’s how traumatized people were.

When the Kennedys called and asked the presidents of the networks, can you give us film on him? Usually, you wait months for it. We got it in three days–everything we wanted.

So that was luck, and then a piece of luck which I almost destroyed. I thought there should be an American narrator, because Bobby Kennedy was quintessential, an American, and the Kennedys wanted Richard Burton.

Well, I didn’t think that probably a Welshman should narrate this film on Robert Kennedy, and you can’t very well argue with the widow of the deceased. So I said okay. And it was the greatest piece of narration I ever had since I’ve been in my business. One take.

NEWSHOUR: Recently, the networks have stopped carrying these films during the conventions — or they’ll cover them as they would a speaker from the back of the hall, calling them infotainment and that type of thing. Do you think that news organizations should be compelled to carry these films?


NEWSHOUR: Why not?

CHARLES GUGGENHEIM: Well, they’re campaign films. They’re commercials.

NEWSHOUR: Aren’t the conventions themselves almost giant infotainment exercises? What makes the films different from the rest of the convention schedule?

CHARLES GUGGENHEIM: Well, that’s a very good question. I think they’re a statement made by the producer. There’s someone there who is manipulating, or controlling the image of the of the candidate.

I think they have an obligation to let the people see those who represent the candidate in person, or the candidate in person. They don’t have a necessity, or an obligation to show what a producer has done to shape an image. I don’t think they have an obligation; no. Our film was shown by all three networks, simultaneously, and that would have never happened, except for the circumstances that brought that film about.

NEWSHOUR: Would you have made a film, had Bobby Kennedy been alive, and had he been, odds are, the nominee at the convention?

CHARLES GUGGENHEIM: I would have, yes.

NEWSHOUR: You would have?

CHARLES GUGGENHEIM: Yes, and they did play these films. There have been films of other candidates, have been played on television, but in recent years, no. In past years, the networks have carried gavel to gavel coverage, and they don’t now. But Humphrey had a film, a biography film, which also played at that convention. I think it played after ours.

NEWSHOUR: Have there been any films that you’ve seen, in recent years, that, that particularly strike you, like “The Man From Hope” in ’92, or Reagan’s films in, in the ’80s?

CHARLES GUGGENHEIM: Yeah; yeah. I think I could look at them and say they were terribly well-crafted pictures, you know, and from the political sense, effective. Yes. But the bottom line is we haven’t had a Robert Kennedy. That’s the truth.

NEWSHOUR: Do you think–how would you have fashioned a film, had he been alive? I mean, it’s just–it’s probably an impossible hypothetical but–


NEWSHOUR: And was that shaped for the ’68 convention?

CHARLES GUGGENHEIM: It was shaped not for the convention, but it was shaped for his political campaign for the Senate, and for the presidency.

NEWSHOUR: How was that similar or different from “Robert Kennedy Remembered”?

CHARLES GUGGENHEIM: Let me answer your question in a less direct way. Someone said that 60 percent of a film’s success if what people bring into the theater with them. People at that convention brought a lot with them. That wasn’t just anybody on the screen up there, and those weren’t just any events up there. They were events they had seen and, and lived through, and felt very deeply about. The fact that we may have done a tasteful job, and maybe insightful in some ways, was somewhat incidental to the fact that Robert Kennedy was on the screen, and his brother, too. And Robert Kennedy said you should be blessed that you live in interesting times. Well, these were tragic, but these were interesting times. They aren’t now, in that respect.

NEWSHOUR: A lot of these films, these days, are heavy on what some might derisively call “fluff.” They’re sort of showing the softer side of the candidate. They don’t delve into the issues that people deal with.


NEWSHOUR: Your film dealt with Robert Kennedy’s fight for civil rights, his opposition to the war in Vietnam, many other issues.


NEWSHOUR: Should the American citizenry demand more from these films? If they’re being shown, these candidates, in their best possible light, should they demand more from these?

CHARLES GUGGENHEIM: They should demand in every respect, not only just the films.

NEWSHOUR: I just saw that picture over there of you with Albert Gore, Sr.


NEWSHOUR: How would you work with his son — Vice President Gore — these days?

CHARLES GUGGENHEIM: Well… at one time, I probably made as many political films as anybody. I was as busy making films as anybody. I don’t make them now, and I haven’t made them in 15 years.


CHARLES GUGGENHEIM: And I don’t want to make them. But that’s just what I want to do, and I made films, in most cases, for, for men who I liked, and I believed in, and it wasn’t hard for me to make films for them. But I became very outdated because no one wants to see films that a producer feels strongly about. They want to make films that fit certain categories of the obligations of the polls. It’s very scientific now, and very cruel, but, nonetheless, very effective, and I don’t know how to operate in that game. I don’t mean that I’m better than they are. I’m just no good at it.

NEWSHOUR: Is there something that drove you from making them?


NEWSHOUR: What was it?

CHARLES GUGGENHEIM: Briefly. If you play a piano in a house of ill repute, it doesn’t make any difference how well you play the piano. It doesn’t make any difference. It’s a lousy procedure, for me.

The process now calls for using tactics and for using methods that are demeaning. You’re in the process of creating half-truths, and trying to trick people on behalf of a candidate who may be very good. But if you don’t do that, you won’t win for him.

The warfare has changed. The warfare has changed. Before the Second World War, civilians were not a factor in war. You didn’t go around bombing civilians. But we learned in World War II that it’s very effective to bomb civilians. So things change in warfare, and in political campaigns, things have changed. We’re bombing civilians now, and I don’t want to bomb civilians!

NEWSHOUR: Are the words in these films still important? We live in an age where the images seem to almost overpower people, but the words in your film, Burton’s narration — those are the “glue” that hold together the pictures.


NEWSHOUR: Do you think the words still mean anything in present-day filmmaking?

CHARLES GUGGENHEIM: Oh, yeah. Words are very important; if that’s your question.

NEWSHOUR: But have they been over-powered by the imagery?

CHARLES GUGGENHEIM: Well, that gets back into what film is all about, and you can put images on the screen with no sound, and they can be very strong. You can use a still picture and put wonderful words over it. You can be very strong. I hate to make a generalization.

NEWSHOUR: You were talking, briefly, before, about how everything, these days, was filled with “fluff.” Is it all veneer? Is it all half-truths now? Are there any films, or any ads, or any presentations of candidates, that you’ve seen, that have struck you particularly true?

CHARLES GUGGENHEIM: Well, maybe, maybe my expectations are too high; maybe my expectations are too high. And I don’t want to sound critical of those who make these films. They’re doing what they feel will be most effective. I personally don’t think that’s as effective as doing another kind of film, which is not being made now.

NEWSHOUR: Which is from the heart instead of the head?

CHARLES GUGGENHEIM: Well, that’s what Jefferson said–heart and the head. But I think–you see, the problem–this maybe sound like a person who is too old. I don’t know. I would find it very difficult to make the kind of film I made for Robert Kennedy with any candidate today, or perhaps that I have seen run for the presidency, with few exceptions, for the last 40 years, and that’s a matter of circumstance; it’s a matter of history.

I have been asked to make movies on Presidents, contemporary Presidents, and I said I can’t do it. It’s not that they haven’t been good Presidents and good men, and I didn’t admire them.

Making film demands a lot of you. A good film does. It takes a year sometimes. It takes a lot out of you. You know, you only have so many in you, and to do a story about someone you don’t feel is just tremendously significant, when there are so many significant people you can make movies about, it doesn’t seem–for me–the way to spend your time.

NEWSHOUR: So do you think it’s more of a profession, now, than it is a craft? I mean, are these people more “hired guns” and image-makers than they are artists?

CHARLES GUGGENHEIM: Well, those are terms; you know. Are they “hired guns”? I was a “hired gun.” I worked in 75 campaigns. So I’m not saying I wasn’t a “hired gun.” Yes, they are hired to help a person win, and I don’t mean they don’t have a point where they say that’s wrong. I won’t go that far.

But I know a lot of people who have been in this business, who I respect a lot, who go far more distance than I think they would like to go, but they feel if they’re gonna win, they better go that distance.