The documentary filmmaker who was called the “father of American cinema verite” died today at his home in Sharon, Conn. Robert Drew was 90. He was a Life magazine correspondent and editor when he formed Drew Associates in 1960 and hired a team of filmmakers that included then-unknowns D.A. Pennebaker, Albert Maysles and Ricky Leacock. Their first project was Primary, which followed handsome young senator John F. Kennedy as he campaigned in Wisconsin for the 1960 Democratic presidential nomination.
Starting with Primary, Drew’s films pioneered a new journalistically minded code of documentary creation, including not directing subjects or using set-up shots or an on-camera narrator. The candid footage was edited into a dramatic narrative that gave the feeling of what it was like to be there as events occurred. His technique became known as cinema verite or direct cinema, though he liked to call it reality filmmaking.
Drew and his team re-engineered a motion picture camera and sound recorder so they could move freely and in sync with a subject, allowing them the mobility to capture real life as it unfolded before the lens. Primary and the 1963 docu Crisis: Behind A Presidential Commitment, which chronicled the president’s effort to integrate the University of Alabama, are part of the Library of Congress’ National Registry of historic films.
Born on Feb. 15, 1924, in Toledo, Ohio, Drew was a World War II fighter pilot before coming home and turning to filmmaking. He received the International Documentary Association‘s Career Achievement Award in 1993. His list of awards include Best TV Documentary at the 1966 Venice Film Festival for Storm Signal, a four-month look at the lives of a young married couple addicted to heroin; a Special Jury Prize at Cannes in 1962 for The Chair, about an Illinois death penalty case; and a Peabody Award for 784 Days That Changed America: From Watergate to Resignation in 1982.
Drew also scored a 1968 Emmy nom for his work on The Bell Telephone Hour. Four of the Drew team’s films screened as part of the 2010 Paley Center DocFest in a program called “Cinema Verite at 50: Robert Drew and Associates Transforms the Documentary.” His long list of credits also includes On the Pole With Eddie Sachs (1960), Mooney vs. Fowle (1961), Man Who Dances (1969), The Sun Ship Game (1971), On the Road with Duke Ellington (1974) and For Auction: An American Hero (1986).