Hugh Hefner with directors Luke Poling and Tom Bean.
“I have never been convinced there's anything inherently wrong in having fun.” —George Plimpton
“George’s life story became his greatest story.” —Luke Poling
Filmmakers Tom Bean and Luke Poling spent more than four years researching the life and times of writer, actor, photographer, and quintessential New Yorker George Plimpton. The result is their fascinating documentary Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself, which the New York Times calls “a skilled portrait of a literary light.” We sat down with Bean and Poling to discuss the film and the icon that is George Plimpton.
FilmLinc Daily: Tell me a little bit about the history behind the documentary.
Luke Poling: I always really enjoyed reading George’s books. Tom and I had written together for a couple years and when we were kicking around this idea of making our own documentary, I noticed my copy of George’s Open Net on the bookshelf and said: “What about George Plimpton?” We thought about it for a second and both agreed. We were surprised no one had done it before.
We contacted Sarah Plimpton (George’s wife) and said we’d like to make a movie about George. From the get-go she gave us the go-ahead. Tom and I were up in Boston at the time and came down to New York and met with her. It took off from there. She gave us access early on. She said, “If you can transfer George’s archives to DVDs and CDs for me, you can use it for the film.” We responded, “Sure, no problem. When can we start?”
Then she hemmed and hawed, “Well I have these shelves downstairs that are not assembled so once that gets organized you can start going through things.” Tom and I looked at each other and Tom said, “You want help putting together the shelves?” The next morning we were down in the basement using George’s hammer to put together shelves. We went out to lunch and called our one big investor that got us started and said we’d do anything to make this movie.
FD: That’s a funny story. How did you transfer all the archived material? What formats and stock was the audio and video on?
Tom Bean: We had VHS tapes, beta tapes, ¾-inch tapes, reel-to-reel, 8mm, 16mm and even a little 35mm. Initially we bought a tape-to-DVD recorder and just sat in the living room transferring everything. I moved in with Luke and his fiancé in LA [laughing] and I remember just living in this extra room and our whole apartment and our whole world just became this project. We would sit there in a pile of videocassette tapes, pop it in and convert it to DVD, then upload that DVD into Final Cut. There was one that must have had a hair in the case, it was really bad. [Laughing] We only had about $30 to do all this, but as we got a better handle on it we actually started to re-digitize, reached out to the original license holders to get masters, but it took us months at the beginning.
TB: The whole thing was a fun process of discovery. George died in 2003 and Sarah gave us a good head start on what we could expect in the archives, but we often found more. We went through the archives of The Paris Review and rooted around in these boxes and would find a handwritten note from Ernest Hemingway to George. Things that no one knew were in the archives and are only being discovered now. They had reel-to-reel audiotapes that they had not digitized yet, and we were on hand for the first listening of those tapes. They were interviews with big writers.
There’s one moment that was really cool, which we put in the film. We knew George was present when Robert Kennedy was killed so we called the California State Archives and asked what they had. There’s one photograph where you can see George yelling. We knew the credit that had the California State Archive logo, so we called them up and they said, “Oh, we have this audio recording that seems to be George’s testimony to the police. Do you want it?” “Uhh, yes” [Laughing] And it is literally George’s interview with the LAPD at two in the morning after his friend had been assassinated. That was one of those moments where we looked at each other and said: “Whoa!” George would do something, write about it, talk about it, and create an elaborate legend around each event. But that event was the one that was maybe too legendary and he never talked about it. To hear his candid voice with the police, talking about what happened is pretty intense and cool that we could find that.
From the get-go we wanted George to be the posthumous narrator. We felt like that would make the film unique. A lot of documentaries get celebrity narrators, but we wanted to make something that would be completely imbued with the presence of our subject. We were always on the lookout for audio of George that could become a part of the narration.
FD: Did either of you ever meet George?
LP & TB: No.
In that vein, how much do you think you got into George’s persona? You probably knew him better than even some of the people you interviewed because you spent so much time with him through the archives. You appear to capture who he was, but is there a divide between his true self and his persona?
LP: Like Tom said, we wanted George to act as his own narrator. So much of his journalism was him talking. For years one of the things he did to keep The Paris Review afloat was to be an after-dinner speaker and appear on talk shows and give lectures—we had that material. George’s life story became his greatest story. Because we had access to George’s archives we were able to have two, three, maybe four versions of the same stories that might span two or three decades, and we were able to see how George developed, evolved and changed those stories. He reworked things to make them play better with his audience and what they were reacting to in a certain moment. We tried to cobble together, probably not a definitive version, but a good comprehensive version of George’s life through the years. The nice thing is that George wrote like he spoke and vice versa. There is far more written material than audio and video, but we still had a good sense of his voice. We wanted to give a visual adaptation of his writing style. So we imbued the film with that pomp and whimsy.
TB: George wasn’t a political figure or someone well-known. This is a guy who has now become slightly obscure. He was a wonderful performer, in his public and private life. Our goal wasn’t to have a lot of people say things about him or deconstruct him, although we do a bit of that; our goal was to present George. That’s how we were able to get around not having known him. A lot of people we interviewed said very speculative things about him like, “He was happy with this” or “I think he was happy with that,” but we didn’t want to presume anything about him and so he remains slightly elusive. We wanted to let the viewer live with him for a little while and then walk away thinking whatever they think. Some think he was the happiest person in the world and others felt like he sacrificed things he shouldn’t have.
George Plimpton (second from the left) talking with Jackie Kennedy.
FD: A couple of the people you interviewed called George a dilettante. I suppose he is, technically, in that he’s an amateur at all the things he attempted, but he’s not really because he’s a writer, which he even points out in the film.
TB: Exactly. The premise of the dilettante would be if that was the end in itself, but that is the means to an end. If he just did that stuff then yes he would be a dilettante, but he deliberately chose those things to write about while putting himself at risk of breaking a leg. He also knew he would embarrass himself. He knew he would fail. He wanted to eliminate these closed worlds of performance and talent. He wanted to meet the members of the New York Philharmonic and then bring us in through magazines or books and eventually a TV show. His TV format was actually a proto version of docudrama reality TV. That format is now ubiquitous. We needed to have people we interviewed criticize George because those were criticisms that were out there about him. Particularly for that generation of writers there is a sense that you’re supposed to sit in a quiet room and bleed over your page. (Laughing) George had so much fun doing what he did, so people were critical of it. He’s having too much fun writing. And he wrote really well.
FD: [Laughing] He did. He did so much that we take for granted. Even New New Journalists like Ted Conover are participatory journalists, but without being performers. I wonder how Plimpton would have participated in the age of social media and reality TV.
LP: George’s voice as a writer makes him stand out. You can read his stuff today and it’s still witty and funny. The same goes for Hunter S. Thompson, Tom Wolfe or Joan Didion. You only need to read a paragraph to know who the writer is. George is like that as well. Today, so many pieces in any magazine are written in that first person, such as “I had dinner with…” and that’s an acceptable way to write a profile piece. George and these other writers were the first ones to do that. Gay Talese’s piece on Sinatra is another example. George definitely deserves to be in that list.
TB: George is an interesting character. He was so much a part of his time and his era that the DNA of the “American Century” and the DNA of George Plimpton are intertwined. He was gallivanting around with the Kennedys and part of the literary community and the film community. One of his mantras was: “It’s our time, we’ve got to be a part of it.” How would we take George and put him here now? Well, he would have found a way to be a part of this time. Maybe he’d have the most followers on Twitter. [Laughing] I don’t know. But what we know about George is that he was able to become a part of people’s lives, befriend people, and to put himself out there in the world, whatever world it was. He would have found a way to be himself and a part of the times, but just in a different time.
Plimpton (bottom left) at a cocktail party. (Imagine Henry Mancini music playing.)
FD: How did you decide on the music in the film? It’s a nice mix of classical with original music that creates suspense.
LP: We had two creative editors, Maya Hawke was one, and the ukulele stuff was something she put in because it sounded playful. That was something we always talked about with Maya and our second editor Casey Brooks, trying to make the film lively and fun. And you can see that in the film. The four of us kicked around ideas and we had a great composer, Mark De Gli Antoni, who did the same thing. “This is a cocktail party in the 60s so it’s got a Henry Mancini vibe.”
TB: He added, like, a “ch-ch-ch-ch-ch.” He nailed it.
TB: George himself composed and recorded a couple pieces on piano. We incorporated those into the film too. You hear it when George and Freddy get married and then the scene at the end when his son, Taylor, is reading his wish list. That song repeats, but it was George narrating. There are only a couple classical “needle drops,” or pieces that are not original to our score. We had a couple scenes where we put in music. A lot of documentarians use songs from that era, so we thought Dylan or some other pop song, but it felt like George was really a classic person. As we played with that we kept coming back to classical music.
FD: It works well. The music flows with the documentary and adds to the story.
TB: Thank you. Casey, our second editor, is a musician, too, so he thought about it musically.
Tell me a little more about yourselves and your history in film and documentary film.
TB: I’m devilishly handsome. [Laughing]
TB: No, really, I went to school at Boston University and Luke went to NYU. Luke and I wrote together. I worked on a documentary project about the Iran hostage crisis and it fell apart, but would have been a cool project. We had all the hostages on board, and the man who wrote the Iranian constitution, and Jimmy Carter, and Walter Conkrite to be our narrator. This was my first big project when I got out of school and worked on it for a couple years. When it fell apart it took me awhile to recover from that. [Laughing] Then I ended up in Los Angeles and got my first big writing project, but that fell apart because the main actor died while I was writing and then the writer strike started. [Laughing] Then Luke called me and said, “We’re going to do this documentary.” Yes. After two near misses I finally got a project under my belt. But Luke and I are both in the Writer’s Guild and we do advertising and other things you don’t get Googled for. We make media for Trip Advisor. We also do smaller doc projects and are doing a series now for The Paris Review, interviewing prominent novelists about their first book. And we’ll start our next project as this one comes to a close.
LP: Yeah, I went back to Boston after graduating from NYU and was working in film production on a variety of jobs. I was tired of watching people make different choices than the ones I made and it felt like if there is a time to strike out on your own, now is as good as any. Tom and I have written together for a few years and this was the logical next step—to make our own film.
Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself opens May 22 at Film Society of Lincoln Center!