One of the most visionary “cyclists” in the world has been brought to the spotlight by a terrific new documentary film just released titled, Bill Cunningham New York. Cunningham has been photographing street fashion in New York since the 1960’s, from an authentic non-commercial manner. The film depicts his singular personality, and it is one of the most sensitive, optimistic, and entertaining films I have seen. Cunningham sets a world record as an urban biker; in his over fifty-year career of riding around Manhattan and taking countless photos of style on the streets, he’s had over 28 bikes stolen.
I was introduced to the director of the documentary, Richard Press, earlier this year. He was kind enough to do an interview with us. The interview sheds lights on the unprecedented experience of working so closely with the genuine Bill Cunningham. You can see where the movie is playing around the country.
ROB FORBES: What was the initial inspiration for the film? Was it Bill himself, his connection to the NYC fashion world, or something else?
RICHARD PRESS: My fascination with Bill has always gone beyond the work he actually does. While I think he has created a significant body of work – who he is as a person, how he’s chosen to live his life and his almost religious dedication to his work, was the initial inspiration for the film.
ROB: Did you learn anything critical along the way that altered the creative direction?
RICHARD: The most critical challenge was: how do you make a film about a man who is so private that even the people who have known him for years don’t know anything about him personally? Bill’s reticence to be filmed set the practical terms for how the documentary could be made. The spectacle of a camera crew, sound recorder, and boom operator would be impossible. I had to capture him the way he claims to capture his own subjects: “discreetly, quietly, and invisibly.”
As a result, the movie was made with no crew, relying only on small, handheld consumer cameras so Bill wouldn’t feel intruded upon. It had to be a kind of family affair with people he trusted—myself; Philip Gefter, the producer; and Tony Cenicola, a New York Times staff photographer whom Bill knew and liked and who was the other cinematographer.
ROB: How long did it take to complete it?
RICHARD: I joke that the movie took ten years to make, eight years to persuade Bill to be filmed and two to shoot and edit – but it’s true – and had it been any different, Bill wouldn’t have been true to who he is or nearly as interesting a subject to film.
ROB: What was the most enjoyable part of the process in making the film?
RICHARD: Aside from being invited into Bill’s life, which is so singular – making the movie in such a guerrilla a way was really enjoyable. It was very freeing.
ROB: And the least enjoyable?
RICHARD: Making the movie in such a guerrilla a way was also really scary. I had never been a cinematographer for my own films or ever done my own sound. So I was concerned that technically and aesthetically the movie would be right.
ROB: What don’t we see about the process from watching the documentary?
RICHARD: Actually you see most of the process. During filming it began to dawn on me that the process of making the movie paralleled the slow revealing of the man himself and that his relationship with us, the filmmakers, should be a part of telling the story. In looking for a way to do this, I thought of the early Andy Warhol/Edie Sedgwick movies with Chuck Wein as an off-screen presence — a voice never seen but prodding and provoking — just as we were doing with Bill. So I turned the filmmakers into a single palpable character.
ROB: Are there any other documentaries that were influential to you in preparation for this?
RICHARD: I thought of the movie less like a documentary and more like a narrative with a strong protagonist, surrounded by a menagerie of characters (kind of early “Altmanesque” and seemingly loosely structured), but with narrative threads that slowly build, so that when taken together—a portrait emerges and comes into focus. Like one of Bill’s pages — a collage, adding up to something larger than its parts.
The facts of Bill’s life were important to me only to the extent that they reveal the contours of his life. But it’s not what he’s about, even to himself. I wasn’t interested in making a documentary bio-pic. Rather, I wanted to capture something more intangible —though no less powerful, which is the essence of him – that joy – his way of being. Bill has dedicated his life to documenting what is unique and individual and I wanted the movie not only to be a portrait of him and by extension New York, the city he loves, but a celebration of self expression and self invention.
Photo Credits: Left, Alison Maclean, Right, Scott Schuman