By Debra Kaufman
Special to TelevisionWeek
Getting the notoriously media-shy Bob Dylan to allow the program to be made was a significant hurdle for PBS’s “American Masters” production “No Direction Home: Bob Dylan.”
“It took 10 years of phone calls from me to Dylan’s management to get them to say yes to the program,” said “American Masters” executive producer Susan Lacy, who was also one of the program’s three producers, along with Nigel Sinclair of Spitfire Pictures and Anthony Wall of the BBC’s Arena arts series.
The second key to success was bringing Martin Scorsese on board to direct. “Marty became attached as the director after the go-ahead was given,” Ms. Lacy said, “but he was everyone’s first choice from the beginning. No one else was even considered.” Mr. Scorsese had already directed numerous films about the history of American popular music, including serving as an assistant director and an editor on the documentary “Woodstock” in 1970 and chronicling the legendary farewell concert of the Band in the 1978 film “The Last Waltz.” More recently Mr. Scorsese executive produced the seven-part PBS series “Martin Scorsese Presents: The Blues.”
With a focus on Mr. Dylan’s life and music from 1961 to 1966, this two-part film includes an extensive, revealing interview with the singer-songwriter as well as interviews with a host of other prominent artists and musicians of that time, including Joan Baez, Maria Muldaur, Pete Seeger and Allen Ginsberg.
The genesis of the film was several interviews that Mr. Dylan’s longtime manager, Jeff Rosen, had conducted with him over the previous 15 years for archival purposes. “When Dylan finally agreed to sit down for a long interview of approximately 10 hours, Jeff then knew that the makings were there for a program,” Ms. Lacy said. In the documentary, Mr. Dylan speaks extensively and quite frankly about his journey from Hibbing, Minn., to Greenwich Village, N.Y., from obscurity to becoming a cultural icon.
The Bob Dylan Archives opened its doors for the first time for the making of “No Direction Home,” and filmmakers availed themselves of an overwhelming number of films, tapes and photographs. That included footage from Murray Lerner’s “Festival,” which documented Dylan’s 1963, 1964 and 1965 performances at the Newport Folk Festivals, and previously unreleased outtakes from D.A. Pennebaker’s 1967 documentary “Don’t Look Back.” After hearing about the making of the program, Mr. Dylan’s fans from around the world also contributed rare footage and stills.
The research team-consisting of people from “American Masters,” Mr. Scorsese’s Sikelia Productions and Mr. Rosen’s Greywater Park-and the producing team╛consisting of Mr. Scorsese, Ms. Lacy, Mr. Rosen, Spitfire Pictures’ Mr. Sinclair the BBC/Arena’s Mr. Wall and Mr. Scorsese’s Sikelia Productionsworked very closely together in creating the film.
“The editing took place at Marty’s office,” Ms. Lacy said. “There were weekly meetings/ phone calls among the partners to discuss budgetary issues like clearance costs, distribution issues and promotion plans. The partners regularly screened cuts and made comments. The Dylan project was a big part of my day, every day, for the duration of the project.”
Once Mr. Dylan gave the green light, the actual making of the two-part program took two years. Before it received the Peabody Award, the critically acclaimed program was honored with a Grammy Award and a Silver Hugo.
“Working on this film was a highlight for me in the 20 years I have been producing ‘American Masters,'” Ms. Lacy said. “Working with Marty was a revelation, and I truly believe this film will be as important 100 years from now as it is today. It is one of the best portraits ever made of an artist in the state of becoming, set against the social, political and cultural backdrop of his times.”