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40th Anniversary of Woodstock the Movie

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Over 40 years ago, an unexpected weekend of film history was made, and no one on earth could have predicted it. Unbelievably, it almost didn’t even happen. On Aug. 15, 1969, 400,000 people descended on Max Yasgur‘s farm in upstate New York for three days of peace, love and music. In its time, the Woodstock festival would become legend, but not before the public was able to share the experience by viewing the film, released on March 25, 1970.

Associate producer Dale Bell now looks back on the film, which has its 40th anniversary this month and is now on DVD in a special collection from Warner Home Video.

Below the Line: How long did you have to organize the production of the Woodstock film?

Dale Bell: In addition to assembling the personnel, I arranged to rent, borrow or steal the 15 cameras, dozens of magazines, lenses, and accessories on a budget of $23,000 – $16,000 of which was raw stock – and did so in five days.  Sunday we organized it, and Monday, I put it together, working three phones.  Sometime on the Friday when the festival began, we heard that Warner Bros. would finance the [completion of] the film; they had already secured the rights months earlier.  For better or worse, we knew that we were married to Warner Bros. even though by the Monday after [the festival], we were being besieged by a batch of other studios, all of which had turned it down.

BTL: How big was your film crew for such a huge production?

Bell: Roughly 60-70 people worked in the trenches over the three-day affair. The editing consumed another 100 people on and off in the course of August 1969 to the end of March 1970.  In September 1969, we were editing three eight-hour shifts in New York. Thus, we were doing three normal days in each 24-hour period.  That went on until the end of October when the synching of dailies occurred. On Dec. 7, 1969, we got to California, and we again began to work almost around the clock to get the opticals and the soundtrack together. The optical houses that we engaged were working seven days a week, 24-hours a day to make this huge four-hour optical. No one had ever done anything like that before – taking all of our 16mm footage and blowing it up to 35mm anamorphic.

BTL: What was it like to make a film amidst a sea of humanity?

Bell: It made the film shoot extremely difficult. There was no food, very little water, no accommodations.  I rented a hotel that nobody ever got to. You couldn’t move. You were absolutely exhausted. We would get B-12 shots to boost our energy. People were sleeping on plywood over mud underneath the stage. People were working in mud to their ankles loading magazines. Finally, on Saturday, we began to get food from the promoters who began to appreciate that the pathway to economic salvation lay with the camera crew.

BTL: How did Martin Scorsese get involved in Woodstock?

Bell: Since Michael Wadleigh [Woodstock‘s director], Thelma Schoonmaker [Scorsese’s longtime editor] and Marty were all out of NYU, there was a real group camaraderie, so when the film came together, we felt that Marty could be very advantageous. He would say, “the way to become a director is call yourself a director.” When we went to California in December of 1969 [to finish editing the film], Marty was not among the 17 people we took. But Marty went on from there to get a recommendation to do another film, which led to his connection to Hollywood. Then he made Mean Streets, and I was his assistant director on that film.

BTL: How do you see the film’s place in history?

Bell: In the first place, untold millions of people have seen the movie. Had we not made it, there would not be a representative symbol of the festival for people to discuss. There might have been some news coverage, essays and newspaper articles, and perhaps a record. Eventually there would have been books. The film we did was as representative of the entire experience as was possible to do under the circumstances. It represented the culmination of what had been going on in the sixties. It became a cultural icon.

BTL: That said, do you think the film has an impact even today?

Bell: Woodstock preserved an emotion that had been so diffuse up to that point in the sixties. It was a collective sensibility for people who might have felt they were outcast. It gave them a presence, brought them together. The original festival, as we captured it on film, gave our generation a reason for being. For young people today looking for their own Woodstock, they’ll have to find their own reason for being. As to its impact today, it continues to be a communications tool between generations, some who were at Woodstock, others who were in Vietnam at the same time. College kids can now talk with their parents about Woodstock the movie.

BTL: How do you personally account for the experience at this point?

Bell: It was very simply an enormous high point in my life.  I put Woodstock together in five days.   If I can do that, I can do almost anything else. The thing that I really love is the people. Woodstock gave me a chance to meet an extraordinary group of ingenious, funny, weird, competent, impassioned group of people that I count as my closest friends today. To have put all of these people together gives me a great sense of achievement.

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