The first feature for director Richard Press is a labour of love that was ten years in the making. When I speak with Press he's just found out that his documentary has become the longest running film in the history of the IFC Centre in New York City. The honour is the latest in a string of accolades, including audience awards in Australia – at the Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra film festivals. Press credits the Australian praise with marking “a real turning point” in the way he and his producing partner, Philip Gefter, thought about the movie. “We knew Bill was special but we had no idea how it would translate. It was touching and incredible for us.”
Born in 1929, Bill Cunningham is a beloved and influential fashion photographer for The New York Times. A deeply disciplined and methodical man, he works from 7am to midnight, seven days a week, documenting the worlds of contemporary philanthropic, social and political New York as well as the city's street life, for his two columns, 'Evening Hours' and 'On The Street'. Cunningham has been covering fashion for more than 50 years, and his knowledge of fashion and ability to identify repetitive trends across the decades is second to none. Key members of the international fashion elite, including editor-in-chief of U.S Vogue, Anna Wintour, sing his praises. And state it for the record in Press's film.
The Cunningham revealed by Press and Gefter is deeply sensitive and cannot be bought, borrowed or sold, irrespective of the cost. As he says in the documentary, “I don't decide anything. I let the street speak to me. You have to stay out there. There are no short cuts.”
Cunningham has lived above Carnegie Hall for 50 years, in the studios once inhabited by Marlon Brando and Andy Warhol. While his work is compulsory viewing for anyone interested in fashion, Cunningham himself remains largely unknown. His admirers, as well as his subjects, know very little about his personal life. As Press tells it, “He is totally upfront but Bill is an enigma and that's the truth. You wouldn't want to know everything about him.”
Hailing from a narrative feature background, Press says he had felt no compulsion to make a documentary until he hit upon the idea for this film a decade ago. “I thought of this film as a narrative and Bill as a fascinating character,” says Press, “and I compared him to other great fictional characters in film.”
However, when it came to production, Cunningham was a reluctant subject. “[It was] two years actually making the film and eight years of Phil and I trying to get Bill to agree to be filmed, “says Press. “We both knew him personally. We wore him down. The thing is, even when he finally agreed to it, he didn't really know what he was getting himself into.”
Five days into the shoot (at New York Fashion Week), “Bill kept asking, 'aren't you done yet?' It was a constant negotiation of getting access. We had no idea whether he was going to drop out. There were times when he was really sick of us being around and we had to coax him back in. It was a dance to get the movie made. At the same time, it made total sense – it's who Bill is.”
Cunningham also refused to allow anyone he didn't know, to be involved as part of a film crew. “It was myself shooting with another cinematographer, [Tony Cenicola], who was a stills photographer at The Times,” says Press. “We were doing our own sound. It was funky circumstances that were challenging, technically, and nerve wracking. What was interesting is that it turned out to be the best thing that could have happened. The feeling of intimacy works in the film.”
Press and Gefter began production as an independent venture, though they eventually secured financial investment and an office space from The Times (though the newspaper's executives didn't see the film until it was complete). Cunningham himself hasn't seen the film at all, telling Press, “You kids go have fun!”
“He knows what's in it and has given us his blessing,” says Press, “I think his friends have told him that we were respectful. He doesn't like the extra attention that he gets on the street, that's for sure!”
Bill Cunnhingan New York arrives in cinemas November 3. For more information visit the official website.