Note: This interview was conducted in June 2000 and originally appeared on Reel.com. Then the interview ran in conjunction with the DVD release of Jazz on a Summer’s Day. Twenty years later, it is running as the 4K restoration of the 1959 documentary opens in virtual cinemas.
In a career that spans nearly 50 years and is still going strong, Bert Stern has racked up quite a resume as a still photographer and director of commercials. He photographed Marilyn Monroe and designed the infamous, heart-shaped sunglasses poster for Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita. In 1958, Stern took a break from photography and shot his only film, Jazz on a Summer’s Day, a breathtaking, tune-filled documentary on that year’s Newport music festival. With the film recently released on an eye-popping DVD by New Yorker Films, Stern took some time from his busy schedule to chat with Reel.com about his acclaimed detour into filmmaking and why he only made the one picture.
Q: The liner notes interview from Jazz on a Summer’s Day states that the film is less of a documentary than a happening. Is that how you perceived the project going in and why?
Bert Stern: I think it is more of a music film and a happening. In fact, it was an event, which was the Newport Jazz Festival. It was just an opportunity to make a movie out of a musical event, which is what intrigued me, plus the fact that jazz took place in Newport, which seemed unusual.
Q: Why did that seem unusual to you?
Bert Stern: Because I always associated jazz with the South — [music] for poor people, you might say, and Newport with the North and rich people. And at that time, it seemed strange to me that the South and North would be together. It doesn’t seem strange anymore, but, at that time, it was strange.
Q: Jazz on a Summer’s Day benefits not just from having the eye of a great photographer, but also that gorgeous film stock. What went into your decision to shoot color rather than the more documentary-standard black-and-white of the era?
Bert Stern: Well, it was 35mm Eastman color negative. I think basically when I had the idea, I kind of envisioned green grass and sunny days and stuff. It was an outdoor festival. I always thought Newport as being a beautiful, rich place. I didn’t think of it in black and white at all. Also, most of my photographs are in color.
Q: You’ve also said that when you think of jazz documentaries, you tend to think of them as being more downbeat than your film. Did that go into your decision to shoot in color as well? Did you want to bring jazz out into the light?
Bert Stern: Well, you might say that. I like to think that most of the movies that are made about jazz or music were black-and-white and downstairs in little rooms, and I thought that was somewhat depressing. Whereas music should be uplifting.
Q: You originally envisioned this as a short. When did you realize that you had a feature film on your hands?
Bert Stern: I think that when we started to plan it, I said maybe I could put a story to it and make a full-length feature.
Q: And then the story ended up?
Bert Stern: On the cutting-room floor.
Q: You were a photographer but you had served in the motion picture unit in the Army. When you decided to make the film, what kind of tests did you do prior to actually shooting the film to re-familiarize yourself with cinematography, or did you just go on the fly?
Bert Stern: Just went on the fly. I did news photography for the Army in Japan and I was familiar with movie cameras from that.
Q: You did adapt telephoto lenses for the cameras that you used.
Bert Stern: I adapted a long lens which I use a lot in my still work and put it on an Arriflex, which gave me a chance to shoot all the close-ups because we weren’t allowed on the stage.
Q: You had five cameras on the shoot, how did you decide who would shoot what?
Bert Stern: We didn’t have five all the time. But basically, long shot, medium shot, close-up and two medium shots, made one on each side.
Q: Did you plan in advance who was doing what?
BS: No, we just had — like I was the close-up camera looking towards the stage on the left which is most of the close-ups in the movie. So that was my camera. But we had a long one in the back and we had two other people roaming around on the right and center below.
Q: Some of the most stunning footage in the film is the aerial footage from the America’s Cup races. Did you always have it in mind to shoot those races or was that something that you came up with after you arrived in Newport?
Bert Stern: I think it came up after I arrived in Newport. When I got a feeling of what was going on in the area, it seemed to add dimension to the idea; instead of just shooting people playing musical instruments, to bring in the things that were happening around the event. The birds, the boats, children, all kinds of things. I guess that came out of shooting the music. The first thing I shot was Jimmy Giuffre, which is the opening of the movie. And first I put the camera on and just listened to him. I just pictured the seagulls flying around, which led me to shoot the next morning out at the dock. But there were no seagulls, so I shot reflections on the water and put that to his music.
Q: I know you shot the party sequence later on Long Island. There are also cutaways to a Dixieland band driving through town and playing at what looks like an amusement park and also on the beach. Was that all staged as well and if so, why did you chose those particular images?
Bert Stern: The band in the car was a group that came to town on their own and we just asked if we could shoot them. So, we just followed them around a bit when we weren’t shooting the festival. The kids on the merry-go-round were kids on a merry-go-round but the footage of the party on the roof was done afterwards because we needed a little bit more cutaways and we set that up in Long Island in a similar-looking area.
Q: [Music supervisor] George Avakian determined who you would shoot on the basis of what music you knew you would be able to clear later on?
Bert Stern: Right.
Q: There were people you didn’t shoot at the festival, like Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, and Ray Charles, I guess because you couldn’t get the permissions to use their music. Do you regret not getting some of them on film?
Bert Stern: Probably. I’ve never been a big Duke Ellington fan so I was very happy with Louis Armstrong. I think basically, I had to choose between the two of them. Didn’t have enough budget to afford both. And Coltrane I wasn’t aware of at the time.
Q: How did you finance the film?
Bert Stern: By shooting photographs during the week.
Q: So, this was totally, totally self-financed?
Bert Stern: Well, not just totally self-financed. There was a little money here and there that was raised and finally to finish the film, we met a man named Milton Gordon, who became the distributor and who put up the final amount that we needed to pay Louis Armstrong and finish the film. The budget was, I think, the total cost of the film was $215,000.
Q: I know your relationship with the Avakian brothers was somewhat contentious. What was it like editing with Aram Avakian? And prior to going into editing, did you have a game plan going in or was editing more or less improvisational?
Bert Stern: Aram is a great editor and is the brother of George, of course. I think Aram is a different kind of filmmaker and he kind of objected that I was so improvisational. He was much more structured in the way he went about making films, and many times I had to tell him I didn’t want to do the kind of cutting he was normally accustomed to and to leave it alone. So, it was my decision finally to decide what to do. But he was a wonderful editor, and it was very hard putting all that footage together. I think it took him at least six months. It was a very difficult task since it was before video tape and everything.
Q: You’ve never made another film after this film. Did you decide you couldn’t be both a still photographer and a filmmaker?
Bert Stern: Pretty much. But I did do some Twiggy specials in 1967 when she came to America. I did three specials for ABC and I did a lot of commercials, of course. But I never decided to give up still photography and just make movies, because that is what it would take.
Q: Have you ever had any regrets that you didn’t make more movies?
Bert Stern: No, I think I would have been a good filmmaker, but that would have been my career instead of still photography.
Q: You are probably most famous for your wonderful portraits of Marilyn Monroe and you’ve also had great successes as a still photographer, a commercial director, and you made the one film. What do you regard as your greatest achievement?
Bert Stern: Surviving. I guess. Photography. I think there is something very Americana about my photography that I like. I am very much an American kind of photographer.
Q: Is that what you would like to be remembered for?
Bert Stern: I don’t know. The Marilyn pictures I like. I like my pictures so I don’t know — I guess I will be remembered for them because you can look at them. There is something nice about a photograph because you can have it around all the time. A movie you have to project and sit down and watch for an hour and a half.
Q: What do you remember at this point? It has been over 40 years since that jazz festival. What do you remember most about it now?
BS: About the jazz festival?
Q: Yes, and about making the film. What stands out in your mind more than anything else?
Bert Stern: That is hard to say. I guess just the idea of being there and being able to capture that kind of material on film and a group of people that weren’t usually together. There are very few times that there were so many musical stars at a festival. That was probably the only time. I just liked the idea and I liked doing it. –Pam Grady