Brigitte Berman, whose last full-length documentary was nearly twenty-five years ago, took home the Oscar for her look at the prolific Artie Shaw. Since then she has culled drama from her fingertips by creating fiction. Now, almost three decades later, the Canadian filmmaker releases a feature-length documentary that took three-years to make. A kaleidoscope of fluffy-ears, the vacuous eyes of a porcelain white rabbit, and the magnetic attitude of an independent thinking entrepreneur led Berman to make one of the most enigmatic cultural figures tangible. Sheathing the airy smile and impregnable confidence, Hefner is seen as both simple and yet mythic, recognizable and entirely abstract.
Robert Patrick: The music that was composed for this film was elemental to mood. What did you talk to James Mark Stewart about before he crafted the score?
Brigitte Berman: We began with the opening music which was very hard to pin down. I wanted to have an interesting – not overblown – but out there score. At various places he would play for me what he had done, and I would describe Hef’s character at that particular time. My favorite music is at the end of the film where Hef is walking by himself, all alone, just before the freeze-frame. We really wanted to get into the loneliness, the sadness elements. A lot of people felt sad in the theater; that’s because we were working on that, that’s what we wanted. Ultimately, I have to tell you, a lot of the material that Mark brought me for the film was really quite wonderful. I’ve never worked with such a talented composer in my life. I mean, he just kept composing, composing, composing. We would try this piece, then that piece, and say, “Yay, this fits!”
There is obviously so many people that Hugh Hefner has had relationships with in his life. How did you narrow down the field and cherry-pick specific people to interview?
I knew I wanted people from different walks of life. I wanted the black influence – you know Dick Gregory broke the color-line for black comedians in front of a white audience. Jesse Jackson was important and so was Jim Brown. [Brown] and Hefner had been friends – close friends – for close to forty-years. Tim Hauser I chose because he was a musician and a fiery talker – he’s right out there. Mike Wallace is important because when he first met Hefner he did not like Hefner at all; that was an important thing for me to bring out. Mike Wallace went through an ark as far as Hugh Hefner is concerned; near the end he very much admires Mr. Hefner. We had to include Hefner’s daughter, obviously. Hugh Hefner was very anti-Vietnam and so was Joan Baez, and she was a woman, so I really wanted a woman’s point of view. She was my favorite interview, in fact. We had Art Paul because of the art direction and Natalie Lehrman because she was the editor and associate publisher and really worked very closely with Mr. Hefner and knew him for many, many years; and she was also very objective when it came to Hefner. Mary O’Connor was much the same, which was good, because I didn’t want the critical voices to come from anybody else. Critics really don’t know what he’s like to work with. She really says it as it is. It was tough at times for Mary, she even quit, but she learned to love him as a person. You can see that he is a difficult man, that he is a perfectionist; but at the same time he inspires tremendous loyalty by people around him. Jenny McCarthy was important, obviously, since she was a Playmate. Susan Brownmiller was important because she was a feminist. I also tried to get Gloria Steinem but she did not want to be interviewed. I tried her about three times. We had Pat Boone because he always felt – and still does – that Hugh broke the moral compass of America. We chose Bill Mahr for a freedom of speech stance that he and Hefner both share. Each person really intersects at one point or another with Hefner’s life.
Did it feel serendipitous that no one had made a movie about Hefner all of these years; that you knew him so well and had such an open door to create this film?
There had been quite a few documentaries made about him, but never this one. Never one that really looked at him as a complete individual and his influence on America and beyond America; it was always a little footnote. Many of them were so over-the-top mushy it was saccharine, so to speak, and I didn’t want that. I wanted the naysayers to speak up, to be passionate and strong. I wanted to give them room to speak.
Hefner had said, when addressing one of his opponents, that he did not have “the language” to properly express how he felt at the time. Clearly he does now. Did you feel it therapeutic for him to go back and talk about some of his more controversial history?
Oh, interesting. Yeah, it was Susan Brownmiller that he said that about. When I see him say that I think he would love to go back to that time. But on the other hand, his Sports Illustrated line was pretty good, I thought. He’s also very hard on himself. He’s a very quick witted, smart man. I don’t find it sentimental in any way or having it have some sort of therapeutic importance, but I do find that if you ask him the right questions – and by the right questions I mean not always the most obvious questions – you get good responses. I remember I brought to him quite a few incidences in [the] scrapbook that, you know, he hadn’t thought about for some time. I brought up a few things to him and he was amazed. He never said, “No, I cant talk about this” or “I cant talk about that”. He spoke very openly about love and relationships and his relationships with young women. One of my favorite statements of the film, said by Malcolm Boyd, is that “love is his rosebud.” When Hef saw the film for the very first time he pointed to the screen and said, “Yes, absolutely.”
Out of so much archival footage, so much history, how did you go about making a conclusive strategy on where to begin and what to feature in the film?
I did it the hard way; I did it with seven and a half hours. I put in whatever was important about life, his politics, the yes and no people. I very, very slowly cut here and there. I would have to lose stuff I truly love. The sodomy case, where he got the guy out of prison, there was another very, very interesting case where he got a woman out of prison for having an abortion. She was given fifteen-years. Well, I couldn’t have two like that. I decided to go for the sodomy case partly because of the paper that he wrote when he was at university about all of those sex laws that were so strict. It was extraordinary. He researched every state and every law. He helped with the abortion case and other cases of abortion. He helped contribute to Roe vs. Wade in the United States. It’s quite astonishing. You have to get down to how much you can say about one thing. When do you begin to say too much? How much of the yeasayers how much of the naysayers? You need a balance. It wasn’t easy. Eventually – and it wasn’t easy – I said, “This has to go and this has to go.” You know, it’s like Ernest Hemingway said, “You have to murder your darlings.”
People joke about reading the articles in Playboy, but in actuality the publication was avant-garde in progressive journalism. Was this something you really wanted to highlight when making the film?
What I really wanted to highlight – the articles and centerfolds were big – but what I really wanted to spend time on was the interviews; they were so eclectic. The one in particular I really wanted to do was Rockwell the American Nazi. It was an extraordinary choice for freedom of speech. You better have the courage to show and interview people like that. People need to know what is going on in their own country. That was really important to me. Another thing was the Playboy forum. People write in letters from all four-corners of the world. Sometimes hate letters – real hate letters. And sometimes Hugh would publish them. I really liked that: it was the good and the bad.
You had made a couple of documentaries about music in the past – and music is featured as one of the focal points in this film. Knowing the prolific strides that Hefner had made early on in his career by showcasing interracial bands and so fourth, did it make you all the more interested in the topic, since the subject matter dealt in part with music history?
Yes, I think. I think I would’ve made a film about him if it hadn’t been the case. What was a stroke of luck was that my film about Bix Beiderbecke brought me to Hugh. Without that movie I would have never had met Hefner or made this film. But the music was very important at the same time. It wasn’t just about showing how he influenced America it was also illustrating and dealing with issues that were influencing everyone, all over. There is still a long way to go, but these issues are important to me and I wanted to explore them and bring them out. It was more than just showing Hefner’s part, it was about showing how far we have to go, and how much we haven’t done yet.
The last documentary you made was in 1985; that’s 25-years ago. Why did you wait so long to get back into that genre?
Actually, that’s not true. I made a documentary about the murder of a priest. I made several shorts. I didn’t do a feature documentary because they take a lot of my time. It has to be a subject that really fascinates me. I have to find an individual that I find fascinating so I will spend that amount of time on a subject. “Bix” took me four-years, “Artie Shaw” took me three-years, this film took me three-and-a-half years. Add all of that up and it’s over ten-years. You dont want to do that too often, because I want to do drama. I want to vary it and return it to documentary. Documentary is my passion but it has to be the right subject.
You have been friends with Hefner for years. What did you learn about him during the filming that you had never known before?
I think it was one thing when he said to me that I would have freedom of speech. It was another thing when I sat and interviewed him; he never said no to anything I asked him. He engaged me in every question. I was surprised – he can be an impatient man – but he was incredibly patient with me. You know, he sat and answered every one of my questions in an extraordinary way. You can understand that yourself, when you interview someone sometimes you can get pat answers. See, the questions you’re asking are making me think a little bit, which is great so you don’t get a pat answer, I have to go a little bit deeper. The same thing with Hefner, in spite of his impatience I found out he had tremendous patience when it came down to it. Another thing is that I found is how true and how much his friends mean to him. His circle of friends that come to the mansion, if there is a weekend for movie nights, he notices when someone is missing and he worries.
Hefner is such a public figure that everyone has a preconceived notion or idea about him – –
what do you think is a quality most overlooked by people that he has?
Wow, um, integrity. He has true and extraordinary integrity. He will stick his neck out and dare to be different no matter what. He dares to live life openly; he says his life is an open book. People are curious and they want to know, then they find out and they get upset. But he lives his life the way he always has and he dares to be who he is.
Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel is now playing at Landmark’s Ken.