Reel Music Fest: Interview with Peter Bogdanovich
By Barry Johnson
The Oregonian — Saturday, January 19, 2008
“I don’t hold anything against the audience because I’m the one that stirred it up in the first place. I should just know better than to get too close.” –Tom Petty, after being pulled off stage by fans at a concert.
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers have logged over 30 years in rock and roll, during which time Petty and company have recorded such seminal hits as “American Girl,” “Refugee,” “I Won’t Back Down,” “Free Fallin'” and “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” the title of a new documentary that examines the band’s origins and impact.
The film, which plays at 2 p.m. Saturday at Northwest Film Center’s Reel Music Festival, is directed by Peter Bogdanovich (“The Last Picture Show,” “Paper Moon,” “Mask”), a director, author and actor no stranger to fame and the whims of popular taste. Filming followed Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers during a 30th anniversary tour in 2006. The narrative of that tour balances archival footage and interviews with collaborators and Petty himself in rendering a portrait at once epic and intimate of a seminal American artist.
The Oregonian recently spoke with Bogdanovich by phone, from his room at The Orlando Hotel in Los Angeles. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Why did you do “Runnin’ Down a Dream: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers”?
I didn’t know much about Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers–I’m not an expert on rock and roll history at all. And that was the main reason I was interested: I didn’t know much about it, which usually makes it more challenging and interesting for me to do.
I didn’t know much about Texas when I started doing “The Last Picture Show.” That’s part of the inspiration.
How involved was Tom Petty with the project?
I asked Tom to be involved with the selection of which performances of which songs were best from the 30 years. I tried at first to do it myself, but realized I couldn’t. He’d have objections to some take–to me it all sounds good. So, we’d need a version of “Refugee” from a certain period, and he’s say–“the music video, that’s the best one, use that one.” Or “American Girl,” and they’d have it in the archive, or we’d get a copy of it. Those were the main things we focused on.
In some ways, “Runnin’ Down a Dream” is the classic story of going West to seek fame and fortune. How did you approach this story?
I had a four-hour meeting with Tom in November ’05. We met in Malibu at a restaurant near his house, and I asked him to tell me the story of the band, in a thumbnail version.
Shortly thereafter I was asked how I would tell the story, and I decided to do it as a narrative, going straightforward. We considered calling it “An American Odyssey,” but thought that was a bit pretentious. But it is an odyssey, a trip, a journey, and chronologically is the best way to do it.
I decided early on how I wanted the story to be told, how I wanted it to look. In the end it looked and was told the way I wanted it, but it was a very circuitous path, and it wasn’t easy. I didn’t want the camera on any face too long, I didn’t want talking heads. I wanted people to become like narrators, almost as a voice-over while seeing something else. But to get to where that would work was a huge editing job.
I did all the interviews myself. It was important that the interviewee be talking to me. What I would bring to the room would work better if they had to address me. I’ve been doing interviews since 1960 — a long time. It’s important to listen.
The pacing of this is really steady, despite the 253-minute running time. Did you have concerns about the length or scope of the project?
I knew in the beginning it would be long. I just didn’t know how long. We burned through four editors in the editing process.
Tom Petty has the reputation for being a private person. What impact did that have on this movie?
I don’t know how many times we interviewed him — you can count the wardrobes — but we did about eight or ten with Petty, and I saved the more delicate stuff until the end when he trusted me as much as he was going to trust me.
With his ex-wife [Jane Benyo, who is not interviewed] there were certain legal constraints, and finally I said, Let’s just make this about the music and how it came to happen, rather than about the personal lives of any of the band.
Were there interviews that got away?
The only one that we wanted and couldn’t get was Stan Lynch [the longtime drummer who split from the band in 1994], but we had a lot of good archival interviews from over the years.
What about Bob Dylan?
We put in a request, but we knew it was going to be tough. He’d just done the Scorsese documentary [No Direction Home]….they were good about allowing us to use the footage that we had with Dylan.
You’ve made some classic films, and some less so. You’ve written books, worked in television, acted — where does this film fit with your body of work?
I’ve done two documentaries. In fiction, you have a script and then you shoot it. With documentary you shoot it and then you have a script. Both forms are questions of rhythm, pacing, how you tell the story, how you get an audience on the wavelength and keep them there. That was really what we were looking for. It was a bumpy ride along the way, but one reason that people like the film is that it grabs your attention and doesn’t let go.
What has the critical response been like?
It’s been overwhelmingly positive…a key line from Variety was “Pic feels half its length.”
I’m working on a movie I hope to shoot shortly–it’s trailer-trash melodrama, a dark comedy-drama called “Killer Joe,” by the playwright Tracy Letts who has a huge hit on Broadway right now with “August: Osage County.”
Do you have a favorite Tom Petty song?
I have a love of the ballads. “The Best of Everything,” “Crawling Back to You” I’m very fond of. Another one, that we didn’t get in, was “Magnolia.”
How did this project change your perspective of Tom Petty?
I didn’t have a perspective. I knew Tom was a hell of a songwriter, but I didn’t know if viscerally. Now I know it viscerally. I believe he’s an important American artist, and if anything, underrated.
Tom Petty’s a great showman. He’s really an artist whose main concern has always been about the music. Therefore it was important for us to focus on the music.