In Praise of Bill Greaves

With Bill Greaves, during filming of "Symbiopsychotaxiplasm."

Years ago I took a job as assistant film editor for William Greaves, a New York documentary filmmaker.

Bill was quite a figure–a big, athletic man, an ex-actor, a member of the Actor’s Studio; he could be by turns flamboyant and comic, coolly analytical, warm and generous, effusive, ironic, manipulative, silly, dead serious, you name it. He was charismatic and principled, a good combination. There seemed to be no end to his energy. And he was fun.

Nicky Kaplan, Phil Parker, Bill Henderson, Bob Rosen

For me, it was a marvelous year. Bill had no office at that time. Like a gypsy, he worked out of whatever cutting room he happened to be renting, so the two of us shared that space throughout the work day.

This meant I witnessed all his phone calls–an education in itself. He played the phone like a violin, hustling, charming, cajoling to get his way. I met all his visitors––a wide range of humanity. I served as his casual sounding board for everything from new ideas, old rants, or the day’s news to offhand (and often scathingly funny) send-ups of people he’d just spoken to.

Most significant for me, I watched Bill do daily business in his own idiosyncratic but effective way. I had grown up without a father, and my mother, a playwright, was mostly a tourist in the practical world. Much of what I know about how to operate in that world I picked up from watching Bill.

Poster for SymbiopsychotaxiplasmI learned a lot of craft from Bill because he was constantly talking about what he did and why. He was a good teacher. Most of it was knowledge of the getting-it-done variety. When constructing a sequence he wasn’t afraid to first put it together in a prosaic, corny fashion. Then he’d make some changes. Then try a new concept. And so on.

Toward the end of the process, he became meticulous, sometimes spending hours getting a series of cuts exactly as he wanted them. But in the beginning, he’d just slap something, anything, up there FAST. Because he knew it was only the first step––yet without that first step, nothing else would happen.

Bill Greaves behind cameraSome of his techniques were eccentric. He had learned to edit under the tutelage of the great Wolf Koenig at the National Film Board of Canada. In those pre-digital-video days we constructed sequences from actual pieces of 16mm film. Possible shots hung from small pegs in an editing bin. If a piece became damaged or lost, the only way you could get it back was to order a new workprint from the lab––which was impossibly expensive.

When Koenig couldn’t decide which one of several ways to use a piece of film, he concluded it just wasn’t strong enough to justify using it AT ALL. He would announce, “When in doubt throw it out,” and back it would go, into the bottom of the bin forever.

Bill picked this principle up from Koenig but added one bizarre variation. After “when it doubt throw it out,” he would stride over to the 16th story window and physically chuck the piece of film into oblivion.

By temperament, Bill was generous, gregarious, and inclusive. He’d often take me with him when he had some place to go–lunch with a musician or an actor, the exclusive Businessmen’s Y for a workout, or the Actor’s Studio, where there were lunchtime scene study performances, members only. I remember watching the legendary Lee Strasberg analyze and re-direct one of those scenes.

Bill tried to include some hang-out time in the average day. There was a soda shop in Rockefeller Plaza where black actors congregated to exchange gossip and Bill occasionally took me with him when he dropped in there. One actor (who later became a fairly well-known playwright) harrangued him with complaints about how few parts were available to black actors. Bill had little sympathy for him, he told me later. Sure it was true, but he saw complaining as a waste of time. As perhaps the only active black documentary filmmaker in all of New York, he faced odds every day worse than those he’d faced as an actor (he had actually been a budding film star before giving it up to make movies).

Bill’s solution for operating in a largely white world was practical: stay true to your subject––for him that was mostly the black experience–but be color blind in pursuing it. After all, he had hired me without hesitation. He had white friends throughout the documentary filmmaking community as well as the worlds of theater and film. He had trained at the mostly white National NFB. He was a realist: is it largely a white world? Okay, then find ways to leverage the resources of that world to achieve your ends. And have a good time doing it.

The film we worked on together was “Still a Brother: Inside the Black Middle Class,” made for PBS. Bill went on to make a number of other important documentaries including my favorite, “Ali the Fighter,” the most interesting of all the documentaries about Mohammed Ali. He later coproduced and hosted the PBS show, “Black Journal.”

Steve Buscemi, Bill Greaves shooting Symbiopsychotaxiplasm, Take 2 1/2 (30 years later).

I’ve written of Bill in the past tense, when in fact he’s still alive, because he is gravely ill with suprarnuclear palsy, a rare degenerative brain disorder that over time renders you essentially inert. I’ve been to visit him, and though there were flashes and moments of the old Bill, the man he once was seems mostly gone or imprisoned inside a body that has become immobile and unresponsive.

To see him as he was in full prime, rent and watch his amazing meta-fictional documentary about acting and filmmaking, Symbiopsychotaxiplasm, from which the photo at the head of this post is taken. There are many photos I could have used, but I chose this one because it says visually what this post has tried to say in words: very simply, I adored the man, still do, always will.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 Alice Sato March 2, 2014 at 12:12 am

Lovely tribute. Miss spending time with the Greaves. (My other half is Chris Osborn – lived through Take 2 1/2!)

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