'Bill Cunningham' Director: Bill Got Personal, But Hasn't Seen Movie

On Wednesday, the Film Forum will premiere Richard Press’ new documentary Bill Cunningham New York, about the indefatigable New York Times fashion photographer. Access to the press-shy shutterbug was perhaps the most challenging aspect of the film, though Mr. Press told The Observer that he had the inside track: “Actually, I knew Bill, because when I first started making movies, I was freelancing as an art director at The Times… He never would have agreed to it had he not known us the way he knew us.” Times connections abounded: “There was a moment where The Times came on as a coproducer–Arthur Sulzberger came on and called him, and there were all these factors where he thought, this’ll be safe. I want to do it.”

That access distinguishes Bill Cunningham New York, which shifts gradually from a professional appreciation of Mr. Cunningham’s work to a very personal account of a solitary, constantly-working man. About the film’s climactic revelations about Mr. Cunningham’s romantic past and his religion, which reduce the photographer to tears, Mr. Press said, “I think those two questions–you would ask anybody if you were interviewing them… That was the last interview we did, and it was at the tail end of a long interview.”

 Mr. Cunningham had, in the first year of filming, been more resistant to the filmmakers’ efforts-he instructs them, at the film’s midpoint, that they are not to follow him to Paris, though they do. By filming’s end, he is startlingly honest, particularly given that he has never thus far made himself the story in his work. Mr. Press said of Mr. Cunningham’s emotional moment: “We had no idea it would be such a powerful moment. That wasn’t the end of the interview; it was just not a problem. That’s the thing about Bill–he’s very honest.”

Mr. Cunningham has been honest, too, about his lack of desire to see the film-no Anna Wintour-at-September Issue screenings moments for him. “He’s never seen the film. He knows what’s in it. He just wasn’t interested. He’s given us his blessing–he’s very happy, like, Oh, you kids made a movie!” said Mr. Press. It may have been easy to forget he was being filmed–Mr. Press indicated he worked without a large documentary crew, not even a sound person or boom mic operator. “I really tried to shoot the movie in the way he shoots his subjects. He tries to be invisible and I wanted to be invisible as well. He stands on the street for hours waiting for the right person, for his subject, trying to get a great shot, and I think he realized we were doing the same thing.”

ddaddario@observer.com :: @DPD_

'Bill Cunningham' Director: Bill Got Personal, But Hasn't Seen Movie