Leon Gast, Woodstock Film Fest honoree, tells how it all began

Leon Gast (photo by Dion Ogust)

Leon Gast (photo by Dion Ogust)

The Woodstock Film Festival’s eagerly awaited 17th annual Maverick Awards for remarkable achievement in cinema will be on presented at 7 p.m. Saturday, October 15, at Backstage Studio Productions in uptown Kingston.

Alejandro Inarritu, who with back-to-back triumphs The Revenant and Birdman adding to his astounding portfolio, easily qualifies as one of our most important living directors, will himself present WFF’s Trailblazer Award to David Linde, who produced or otherwise nurtured such film classics as Pulp Fiction, Brokeback Mountain, The Constant Gardener, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, The Pianist, and Inarritu’s own Biutiful.

Triple threat screenwriter, director, and producer Oren Moverman, whose 2009 directorial debut (and serial-Oscar nominated), The Messenger opened WFF’s festival that year, will receive this year’s Fiercely Independent Award, presented by actor/producer Ben Forster, co-star of The Messenger, as well as producer and co-star in Moverman’s Rampart. Oren’s screenwriter credits also include the astounding Brian Wilson biopic, Love and Mercy, as well as the radically original approach to Bob Dylan’s “multi-life” story, I’m Not There.


Then, representing the home town team, decades long Woodstock resident Leon Gast will receive WFF’s 2016 Lifetime Achievement Award from his long-time friend and collaborator Barbara Kopple, whose Harlan County USA won the Academy Award for best Documentary in 1976, and who Gast describes as “my favorite living documentary film-maker.”

Recently, while the world mourned the passing of our one and only, larger-than-history itself Muhammad Ali…as we were glued to the national broadcast of Gast’s Oscar winning documentary, When We Were Kings, anyone watching, sports fan or not, could’ve told you that there isn’t a director more deserving of a lifetime achievement award anywhere on Earth than Leon Gast. Nor is anyone better equipped to tell his own story. This being the tale of one stubborn, luck-struck fella’ and his undying quest to make a movie that would live forever.

Now aside from being one of Woodstock’s most likable creative souls, Leon Gast is indeed an extraordinary if tireless story-teller. So it’s while visiting him and his cinematographer/editor Justin Martinez at Gast’s studio/office (where a love-story-of-a doc about Woodstock, itself, is nearing completion) that we ask a question which so happens to prompt The Life of Leon, Chapter One. In other words, here are the beginnings of a career destined to revolutionize the documentary as we know it today, all pouring from this spry 80 year-old’s perpetual-motion-machine of a mouth.

“My father wanted me to be lawyer…” Leon recalls, semi-sarcastically. “I was that high school jock who went out for football but was too skinny, so played basketball and chased girls instead…Didn’t have the grades for St. John’s so I went to Seton Hall. Then my cousin, Peter Baumann — he’s local — maybe you know him? Peter invited me to Columbia one afternoon and join him in a class he knew I’d enjoy…The History of Film. And what did we see the day I attended, but Nanook of the North. Now Nanook happens to be the Iliad and the Odyssey of documentary film rolled into one. And it blew my fucking mind. Yes! I had that…this is what I want to do! moment.

“I remember walking out of the class and down Broadway in a daze. The School of Dramatic Arts to my right, Manhattan rolling out below me. Okay, I say to myself, so now you know what you want to do, Leon. But how do you do it?

“First off I enroll at Columbia for non-matriculating courses in documentary film and a course on making of TV commercials. It’s a totally blind bet of course, ‘cause I’d never see a degree. Sure, I was betting on the come — renting, buying, swapping VHS films and consuming them morning, noon, and night. As a kid I always loved old grainy newsreels — that raw feel of The Battle For Britain, and Potemkin. And sure — that’s what ole Nanook had in spades. But the guy who put it all together was Kubrick. Of course, he wasn’t making documentaries but his films felt like docs…The hand-held camera shooting B&W, the rogue’s gallery of intense faces, the grit and grime of totally authentic detail. Paths of Glory, indeed. Yes! I wanted to make a film like that. Little did I know that 40 years later the world would know it as When We Were Kings.

“What I needed first was a job in or around movie-making. Any job. Didn’t matter. Then somebody I met at a party gave me their card at Odyssey films. First question in the interview was ‘Do you have valid driver’s license?’ Of course! I said, but first I got cab fare to deliver unprocessed footage to Movie Lab on West 46th Street and then the same fare to pick it up the next day as a working print. So? I befriended a cabbie who gave me a book of receipts. Of course, as a champion jay-walker, I’d hoof it faster than any taxi could drive, turn in my receipts of $1.75 times 15 or 20 phantom cab rides a week— add that to my colossal salary of a hundred bucks and the next thing you know, I’ve bought myself a Ford Falcon.

“Now I’m picking up and dropping off VIPS at the airport. Which is how I come to the attention of Lowell Thomas Jr., who’s a cross between Walter Cronkite and Indiana Jones. So Thomas makes me a sound engineer’s assistant on ‘High Adventure,’ which his a runaway hit for CBS on Sunday nights, and I’m in like Flynn. Sure, I’m working with a Nagra — a state of the art sound recorder — which I take apart and reassemble moments before the cameras roll, while a pro is talking me through it on the telephone. My wife Geri will tell you that in daily life I can’t so much as screw in a lightbulb, but…when you’re young ‘n hustling for a career in film? You do things you don’t know to do. What’s more you do ‘em fast…

“Finally, I get that break. An advertising firm hires me to do verbatims in Tuckahoe, New York — Tuckahoe being that All-American town which happens to employ a perfect blend of blue and white collar workers whose wives congregate in shopping centers and politely answer candid questions in spots the industry calls, that’s right…verbatims. ‘Excuse me Miss, do you use wax paper?’ ‘No, never.’ ‘Are you sure? I see you’ve bought Corn Flakes. What do you think keeps the box fresh?’ ‘Well, will look at that…Wax Paper!’

“Soon I work my way up to what we called table-tops. Two women are having coffee. One says: ‘Jane, you look a little uncomfortable, could it be hemorrhoids?’ ‘Why, however did you know?’ ‘Because I suffered myself until discovering Preparation H.’ Floats in the Voice-Over: ‘Preparation H…in ointment or suppository form…brings instant relief to the afflicted area.’”

Another cocktail party conversation. “Hi. Leon Gast.” “Hi, Larry Harlowe. Where you live, Leon?” “On East 86th street, Larry.” “Really! That’s where I live! Whaddaya do?” “I shoot commercials, Larry, and you?” “Howdaya like that! I shoot the garment district. You interested in a side job ever, Leon?” “Of course, Larry. Whadaya got?”

“Next thing you know I’m shooting hats for $7.50 a piece. Then corsets, bras and bra-sa-lets, until eventually I’m shooting wedding dresses. They’re tougher and everybody knows it. So if you shoot a wedding dress right, you get lots more biz. So I fall into fashion and still photography work for Vogue, Esquire and Harper’s Bizarre. Best of all is Female Mimic Magazine where I shoot female impersonators ‘arriving at work’ conventionally dressed before transforming themselves into drag queens. Man! do I want to shoot a documentary of them and that! But it takes Andy Warhol and the Factory to swing that one…

“Another cocktail party and I exchange cards with a guy from Fania Records who gives me my first album cover: The Fania All-Stars Live at The Red Garter, fast followed by The Fania All-Stars Live at the Cheetah. Then they want me to shoot Salsa Live at Yankee Stadium. But I say, ‘Hey! You’ve these amazing performers and this guaranteed audience. Why not make a movie?’ ‘Cuz by now I know the music inside out…where the solos come and who plays ‘em. And the players know I know — which makes all the difference. So it’s the likes of Ray Barretto, Johnny Pacheco, and Hector Lavoe who are encouraging the higher ups at Fania Records to take a chance on me. So? Finally I get to make my own movie! It’s 1971 and I shoot Nuestra Cosa which released in ‘72, the same year it breaks out in English-speaking theaters as Our Latin Thing. Suddenly I’ve got real street cred…And who do you think is the assistant sound engineer on it, but Barbara Kopple! Bright as a whip, a looker, a worker, in fact, an unstoppable worker, and most importantly a die-hard talent who won’t take no for an answer. I knew she’d be an extraordinary film-maker, as the rest of the world would instantaneously learn the moment she released Harlan County a few years later…So lemme’ tell you the story which illustrates Barbara’s backbone — back when a local DA said ‘no’ to a live interview and Barbara’s instant response was “Whaddaya mean…’No’?”

Now a non-existant watch is pointed to on a wrist, and a forefinger gets dragged across an Adam’s Apple.

What? You got enough?…”an aghast Leon Gast laughs. “…I’ve barely gotten started here!”

We couldn’t agree more, Leon. Congratulations, and many thanks to the Woodstock Film Festival which will pass out another dozen awards at the event which kicks off at 7 p.m. on Saturday, October 15 — natch, with a cocktail party.