Though shooting and editing “Bill Cunningham New York” only required two years, it took filmmaker Richard Press eight years before that to convince his subject to green-light the project.
Cunningham, traversing and capturing every social milieu of New York with an excited and democratic eye, has become recognized over the decades as one of NYC’s greatest living visual historians. But his private nature and determination to remain an invisible documentarian himself has made it nearly impossible for anyone to turn the camera his way. Even after agreeing to let Press and his two colleagues make their film, there was an inherent “catch me if you can” feeling throughout the process. But, as Press noted, Cunningham’s reluctant and eventually trusting nature with his filmmakers became a part of the story itself—just as much as Cunningham’s relationship the strangers he photographs creates a vivid and telling portrait of New York City.
Here, Press talks to us about his first documentary effort and the admirable, if difficult, tenacity of his subject.
What was your first introduction to Bill Cunningham?
I was freelancing at the Times as an art director and I first met Bill that way. I actually did his page for him. And my partner and husband Philip Gefter was a photo editor and wrote about photography, so he had known Bill for years.
Why did you decide to do this film?
In a certain way, the biographical facts of his life were not as interesting to me as trying to capture his spirit and that joy, and something more abstract.
So I talked to Philip and told him that we should do this together, and we dragged Bill into a conference room at the New York TImes and told him we wanted to make a movie about him, and he just laughed. He couldn’t entertain the idea. It was so ridiculous to him. He didn’t think what he did was valuable—to anybody but himself.
How did you convince him to let you do this project and follow him so closely?
We just kept talking to him about it over the years. One day I said, “Bill I’m going to be out on the street and have a camera on me.'” I got him shooting on the street and he ignored me. That was eight years ago, and it was just a day’s worth of footage in the drawer. And then about two years ago he was being given an award and he didn’t want to accept it, so I offered to cut together this footage I had and showed it, and he saw it and really liked it. I think that was the turning point. He sort of got that I got him and I understood who he was. It was a combination of that, his relationship with me and with Philip that we were able to make the movie. The short version is that we wore him down.
When did you start shooting?
We started shooting September 2008, around Fashion Week. It was a year of shooting and then a year of editing.
Your other films are narratives. Had it occurred to you to do a documentary before?
I never thought to make a documentary. It’s just that he was such a strong character: how he lived his life, his ethics, his spirit, his obsessive dedication to his work. So in a way he is like a narrative character. I approached the movie less like a documentary and more like a narrative, with the way I structured it and the way it was edited. It felt more like early Robert Altman, sort of “Nashville”-like. There were all these eccentric characters, and at the center of the collage, there was Bill. I would say Altman was the biggest influence in how I was thinking about this movie. And I was also trying to mirror Bill’s column, which is a collage of all these different elements.
What were some of the challenges posed when trying to film, especially on the streets of New York?
Once Bill agreed to be filmed, it wasn’t like he just gave us access. It was always a negotiation. There was no crew. It was just me, Philip and
Tony Cenicola a staff photographer at the New York Times, who had never actually shot a movie, but who Bill knew and trusted, joining me as cinematographer. The three of us would try to be as invisible as possible. I was living at the New York Times for years, waiting to have his cooperation and hanging around where he was working—we had a desk nearby—and there were months of negotiations to be able to follow him at night. And then slowly over time, he realized we weren’t going away. When he let us into his apartment, it was a miracle. No one had ever really been in his apartment, especially with a camera. And then he introduced us to his neighbors. Over time, I think he respected our doggedness and he kind of recognized himself in that. That’s how he works. He’s just constantly working and never giving up.
Would you say your filming process was a reflection of his own method?
For him being invisible is the most important thing for doing his work—that he can just stand on the street and be quick and invisible to get the shot that he wants. I tried to mimic that in the way I shot it.
How did you choose to handle the political issue of Bill and several other artists being forced out of the Carnegie Hall apartments, which occurred while you were shooting?
I didn’t want to take a side. I just wanted to point it out there in the kind of most non-judgmental way. I wanted the whole movie to be a reflection of Bill, and while he obviously has his own opinions, he presents what he sees. And so the movie wasn’t an ethics thing. I have my own opinions about it, but I tried to present it as straightforwardly as possible. The Carnegie people had an opportunity to comment, but they didn’t.
How conscious was your decision to avoid any commentary on other street-style photographers?
To be honest, I didn’t give it much thought. I was really just focused on capturing what Bill does. My interest was in capturing this person, the spirit of this being and what it all means. And trying to show it as a portrait of New York City through the lens of this person.
Did he ever have any comments or thoughts about this new genre?
It never came up. But the thing about Bill, actually, is that he knows about everything. He’s so aware of everything, even beyond style and design and fashion. He’s very politically aware. He really knows what’s going on. He definitely knows that there are other people doing it, but he’s just so focused on his own work that it doesn’t concern him.
What influenced your choices for the film’s soundtrack?
It was interesting trying to figure out what the sound would be musically. I was listening to a lot of music, and one day heard a song by the Lounge Lizards and thought it was perfect for the opening I already had in mind. It had the perfect combination of urban, rhythm, quirkiness and heart, and originality and eccentricity. And then what was really interesting, when I was scoring the rest of the film, I went back to all this John Lurie music—John Lurie and the Lounge Lizards—and for whatever magical reason, it just captured New York and Bill.
As you developed this intimacy with Bill as your subject, were there any questions you found difficult to ask?
When you ask Bill a personal question, you never quite get a straight answer. We basically know all the facts of his life, where he’s from and how many siblings he had, but those kinds of biographical facts—it’s just not what he’s about for me or why I wanted to make a movie. I wasn’t interested in making a biopic but I completely appreciate there are people who say they want to know more about his family and his childhood and that’s completely valid, but that would have been a different movie.
Looking at Bill as such a straight shooter—his level of integrity is so hard to come by these days—and in a way, he’s such a genuine documentarian himself. Did you take any lessons from him as you were making this film about him?
Absolutely. It really was something that was so important for me to capture that. In terms of taking away something from knowing Bill and making the movie with him—this may sound very sentimental, but I think we all wake up everyday deciding how we’re going to live our lives, and being around Bill and seeing his ethics and the joy that he gets from his work, it was actually very instructional and inspirational to me. Spending two years with Bill making this movie really did that. You find yourself asking that question: how do you live an ethical, honest life?
Has Bill seen the film?
No. He’s never seen it. We tried to get him to see it, but he just has no interest. He’s never even listened to his online narratives, his weekly slideshows, for the Times. It just doesn’t concern him.