Jane Weiner started to film Richard Leacock in the summer of 1972, which was a bit of a triumph in and of itself. Told by some at film school that as a woman, she’d be limited in the film industry to jobs in the editing room or as a continuity expert on set since the often-heavy equipment would be too much of a burden, the photographer looking to transition into film trained her focus in another direction after reading about the famed documentarian’s workshop with the MIT Super 8 Synch-Sound System on the East Coast.
“At that point, I only knew who Ricky was because his name was in all the film history books,” said Weiner, who is currently raising funds on Kickstarter to complete a different history of the filmmaker.
With “Ricky: On Leacock,” Weiner is making a film that promises both the honesty and vitality Leacock prized in his own films while celebrating his place in cinema history. Which at least in America might require further burnishing since Leacock’s retirement to Paris during the late ‘80s meant a less prominent position for the filmmaker than his contemporaries D.A. Pennebaker and the Maysles brothers in the present day. Yet he undoubtedly was one of nonfiction cinema’s most influential figures after a career that included serving as a cameraman and an associate producer to the pioneering Robert Flaherty on “Louisiana Story” during the 1940s to becoming a part of the legendary Drew Associates during the 1960s when he became one of the chief innovators of the direct cinema approach in the urgent political docs “Primary” and “Crisis” that’s commonplace in documentaries today.
Sadly, it wasn’t until his death this past March that Weiner was able to get partial funding for the project, though she’s spent nearly the past four decades collecting footage and various ephemera to add to what was intended to be her graduate film thesis at San Francisco State in 1972. Since then, Weiner filmed Leacock throughout the years, traveling with him to Europe where he met up with Jean-Luc Godard, Henri Langlois and Chris Marker during the ‘70s and again in ‘90s during a trip to the Rotterdam Film Festival in 1994 and while he was editing what would be his final film, “A Musical Adventure in Siberia” in Normandy in 1998. While the film will offer rare footage of Leacock at work under any standards, it’s even more so considering how tightly he controlled access.
“Ricky made two important rules — the film had to be shot in Super 8 and he would not do any interviews,” said Weiner. “But there came a moment in 1974, when I realized I needed words from him about his past, so I took the camera over to his apartment and, in the middle of preparing dinner, I asked him to just sit down and just tell me the story of his life. I didn't ask any questions, direct, or prompt him in any way so there's a kind of dynamism in his storytelling that simply isn't present elsewhere in the standard interviews done by others.”
Leacock wasn’t only generous with his time for Weiner, who began filming him once more in 2007 when he began to work on his soon-to-be-released interactive autobiography “The Feeling of Being There,” but also with his personal archives. “Ricky: On Leacock” will feature clips from his experiments during the mid ‘80s with video that were the basis for documentaries shown on European television that were never aired here and Godard’s 1963 short “Le Grand Escroc” that was a send-up of the cinema verite style that was cut from the film “The World’s Greatest Swindles.” Weiner was particularly excited with the discovery of a mini-DV cassette found by Leacock’s wife Valérie Lalonde that turned out to be what she describes as “a remarkably intimate exchange with Jean Rouch about filmmaking that happened while they're playing around with a new digital video camera that they thought it was on standby.”
Yet unfortunately that happens to be a feeling that Weiner knows well after going through such fits and starts during the production process, one so long that one of her initial collaborators on the project, Jeff Kreines, a 17-year-old aspiring filmmaker who aided her in shooting Leacock at MIT, would go onto invent the Kinetta Archive Transfer that allowed her to transfer what Super 8 footage she had to 4k high-definition 35 years later. Kreines is just one of many in the filmmaking community whose support of the project has been unwavering, though the expense of clearance rights for the archival clips and other such incidentals as sound editing, mixing and color-correction that can’t be called in as favors are the reasons why Weiner is making an appeal on Kickstarter.
If she reaches her goal, Weiner believes the film could be hitting the festival circuit early next year, already garnering requests through the Kickstarter page after it showed as a work-in-progress at Telluride in 2010, where Leacock made his final public appearance, and recently at this year’s DOC NYC as part of a retrospective of his work.
"I really hesitated to show it at DOC NYC because the rights had not all been cleared and I was nervous about that because some of the rights-owners would be in the audience," said Weiner. “But because I made this film as an 'invitation' for people to watch Leacock's films and I knew that this retrospective would probably be the only one for some time to come in NYC, I agreed to show it so that the audiences would be able to hear what Ricky had to say about the films they'd be seeing.”
Now, it’s up to potential contributors to carry his voice even further.