`American Masters’ and WNET, New York

Jan 15, 2007  •  Post A Comment

By Debra Kaufman

Special to TelevisionWeek

The Columbia-DuPont Awards primarily honor journalism, and few cultural programs have been recognized over the years. “[The DuPont] is an affirmation of the influence of Bob Dylan in being so pervasive and important in the culture,” said executive producer Susan Lacy, creator of the “American Masters” series, who noted that the documentary “Bob Dylan: No Direction Home” has also won a Grammy and a Peabody Award.

“No Direction Home” was more than 10 years in the making. “The challenges of making any program like this about someone as important as Bob Dylan is to get their approval,” Ms. Lacy said. “If an artist owns his or her work and you want to make something about that work, you can’t make it without them wanting you to do it.”

Fifteen years ago, Mr. Dylan’s archivist/business manager, Jeff Rosen, began quietly collecting interviews, knowing that by the time the singer/songwriter was ready to do a program, some of the people-such as the now-deceased Allen Ginsburg-wouldn’t be there. The key was getting Mr. Dylan to agree.

“I’ve been calling Jeff once a month for 10 years saying let’s do this program, knowing he is sitting on a great archive,” Ms. Lacy said. “He said, `If it ever happens, you’re the first phone call I’m going to make.”‘ Finally, Mr. Dylan agreed to do an interview for Mr. Rosen, who shot 10 hours. (There are an additional 40 hours on audiotape.) “Jeff called and said, `Come over, I’ve got something to show you,”‘ she said. “I started to cry, I was so excited by what I saw, how smart and eloquent Bob was.”

“I knew we were going to make history, and that if Jeff and I hadn’t been persistent, this might never have happened,” Ms. Lacy said. “That’s the point of `American Masters’-to capture these great artists while they’re around, to let us inside so we’re not left speculating about what they were up to. It’s a gift when a great artist sits down and talks about their work and its impact.”

From the beginning, Ms. Lacy knew that Mr. Scorsese was the perfect choice to direct the program. “We knew it needed a great, great director, and Marty was our only choice,” she said. “He [Bob] and Marty are friends. He did `The Last Waltz,’ which ends with `I Shall Be Released.’ We felt he would bring the right touch to this, to shape the archive into a story.”

The documentary is focused on the first five years of Bob Dylan’s career, until his motorcycle accident in 1966, after which he dropped out of the music scene for several years. “When he started touring again [in 1974], he was much less comfortable with cameras being around and there was much less material,” said Ms. Lacy. “When he comes back, he writes amazing music. But the story of the cultural/social impact of Bob Dylan is really told in those first five years.”

“That’s not to say there isn’t a sequel to be had,” she said. “But it would have a very different shape to it. If it happens, it would be a very different kind of film.”

When the subject is a cultural icon, storytelling is a complex challenge. “It’s very difficult to separate the life from the work, and our films are biographies,” said Ms. Lacy. “But the focus is always on the work and the degree to which the life illuminates the work. One of the beauties of the film is it isn’t making grand statements. It’s taking you inside, moment by moment. It’s trying to get at the truth of that artist’s soul, and what drives it.”