(Adapted from a New York Times article on
Making Sense of the Sixties)
David Hoffman was raised in Levittown, Long Island. His father, H. Lawrence Hoffman, was a well-respected (but always struggling) commercial artist who years later became an art professor at Cooper Union and Pratt Institute. Among other things, Larry Hoffman created the covers of the first 125 paperback books published by Pocket Books, including their well-known printing of The Canterbury Tales. Recently, Hoffman was surprised to discover that his father's work was collectible. Unfortunately, Larry Hoffman gave most of it away long before he died.
Hoffman's mother worked as a local public speaker on Long Island, but her heart and soul was acting as her husband's "business agent" and promoter. She thought it best to price his pictures by size. The larger they were, the more she charged. A four foot painting cost the buyer about $400. Trouble was, Larry loved to do miniatures.
Everything was discussed openly and freely in the Hoffman household. In practical terms, that meant Hoffman and his parents disagreed constantly. It got so bad during Hoffman's high school years that, at his father's request, he ate meals with the family with his chair facing away from them and the table.
Hoffman graduated from Hofstra University in 1963 with a double major in communications and music. He was an extraordinary oboe player. At age 21, he auditioned for the position of second oboeist at the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra. He won the job, but declined the position. He loved music, but he couldn't imagine himself sitting in a chair, playing the same numbers over and over again for the rest of his working life.
Instead of following a career in music, Hoffman decided to become a filmmaker. He wanted to see the world and ask people bold, provocative questions and he thought filmmaking would give him the chance to do both. When Hoffman graduated from college he pooled his life savings ($225) and set out to make his first film. It was ten minutes long and it was called How to Avoid the Draft. It was shot during a fife-and-drum festival in Deep River, Connecticut, in a single day. After nine months of work, Hoffman sent it in to the USIA's Young Filmmaker's Competition. It won first prize.
In the mid and late Sixties, Hoffman was involved in radical politics, but mainly as a filmmaker, working on civil rights films and anti-war films. In 1964, Hoffman made a film for the Congress of Racial Equality, CORE, which was just coming into its own as an organization. This was a "big budget" production - $400. It was commissioned by Lincoln Lynch, who later became one of CORE'S national leaders. The film was called Got To Move and it revealed the plight of the migrant laborers who worked the duck farms of Long Island. CORE used it to great effect as a fundraiser.
In 1965, at the age of 23, Hoffman got his first NET (National Educational Television) grant: $9,000, to make a one-hour program about North Carolina mountain music, which Hoffman had long admired, although he'd never set foot south of the Mason-Dixon line. Called Music Makers of the Blue Ridge, it found critical acclaim and TV Guide gave it a full page review. Oddly enough, nearly 25 years after it was made, it was rebroadcast on PBS as part of the American Experience series.
In 1966-67, Hoffman worked on a number of politically radical films. Hoffman was also the cameraman for a large part of the film Abbie Hoffman (no relation) made for the 1968 Yippie convention. He shot the legendary scene in which Abbie ran into a telephone booth and came out as someone else altogether.
Before he was 30, Hoffman went on to make more than two dozen films for PBS, including shows for the Creative Person series, for the Great American Dream Machine, The Public Broadcast Lab, and several other PBS series. Climbing quickly up the ladder of success, Hoffman then made A Day with Timmy Page for the USIA. It told the story of a a 12-year-old filmmaker who was making his own Super 8 features with a repertory company of neighborhood kids. A Day With Timmy Page was a fabulous success, running on TV and as a theatrical short subject. It won 30 first prizes at 30 different film festivals and it was shown to practically every school kid in America. All thoughts of returning to the oboe vanished forever.
Hoffman's next film was The Unanswered Question, a compilation of outtakes from a series of commercials he was doing for the National Conference of Christians and Jews. The film asked folks on the streets of America the question, "What is brotherhood?" Many people tried to answer it, with mixed success. The film festivals unleashed another torrent of awards and the theatrical circuits took it on as a short subject.
Many a young filmmaker (after establishing himself in short films and commercials), will, sooner or later, think about making the leap to feature films. In 1969, David Hoffman decided to take a chance when he found the right character, a Long Island insurance salesman named Murray King. The film, King, Murray, was a semi-documentary story about King's junket to Las Vegas. Still a relatively new filmmaker, Hoffman didn't realize what an adventure this film would turn out to be. When he arrived in the casinos of Las Vegas, eager to shoot his first feature, Hoffman discovered that the men behind the scenes in the hotels and casinos didn't take kindly to bushy-haired, east coast, young men with film cameras. They let him film and then they "politely" asked him to turn over every reel he'd exposed. It was the kind of request he couldn't refuse. Hoffman complied and thought that it was the end of the beginning of his first feature film.
A couple of weeks later, Hoffman received a package in the mail. Inside was all the film he'd shot, professionally developed and unedited. Evidently the casino owners had found nothing to object to. King, Murray opened at the Little Carnegie in Manhattan on April 28, 1969. It was bold and raw, it was experimental, it was cinema verite at its best. It questioned the limits of the documentary: What's truth, what's fiction, what's recreated, what's staged? Its premise: all documentaries are fictitious at their core.
King, Murray was also one of the most controversial films of the year. Some reviewers praised it lavishly, others hated it. It made some reviewers' "top ten" lists and other reviewers' "bottom ten" lists.
"Reactions to King, Murray can't help but be strong, one way or the other, but the experience of it is unforgettable." John J. O'Conner, The Wall Street Journal.Commercially, King, Murray was a flop. Artistically, however, it succeeded. It won the Semaine de la Critique section of the Cannes Film Festival (the critics award). Among the losers in that category that year: Easy Rider. King, Murray was well-received by the entire filmmaking community. Director Milos Forman saw it five times, right before beginning his film, Taking Off, which many thought was a "take off" of King, Murray.
Where would Hoffman go from here? Hollywood beckoned. Edgar Sherrick, a major Hollywood producer, saw King, Murray and offered Hoffman a three-picture contract in Hollywood. Flattered by the offer, Hoffman went to Hollywood for the first time. Feeling like a fish out of water and missing his New York documentary roots, Hoffman soon returned to the east coast - and was never tempted by Hollywood again.
Tony Schwartz, Marshall McLuhan's friend and one of the great geniuses of recorded sound, saw one of Hoffman's films and was an instant convert. Thus began a friendship that continues to this day. The year was 1973. The Arabs had turned off the spigot. There were long lines at the service stations. The oil companies were sweating bullets. How could they win back the confidence of the people of America? Mobil Corporation's PR pioneer, Herb Schmertz, called in Tony Schwartz. Schwartz recommended Hoffman. Schmertz offered Hoffman $3,000 to make a TV commercial that featured real people talking about their attitudes regarding the gas crunch. As a mentor, Schmertz taught Hoffman how to navigate the complex highways of corporate America, and how to get funding from corporations and foundations to craft and communicate their key messages (through films and commericals).
Hoffman made a series of twelve unique commercials for Mobil in the mid-Seventies. These three minute "celebrations" of American values ran in place of commercials on the group of syndicated stations Herb Schmertz called the Mobil Television Network. They were a sensation, inspiring a flood of letters to Mobil that reached 500 a week.
Mobil also bought a 10-part television series in Britain called, Ten Who Dared. This series brought to life the exploits of some of the greatest explorers of all time. Schmertz asked Hoffman to edit, re-write, film new introductions and record new narration for the US version of the series. He also hired Anthony Quinn as the host, an actor who had been directed by some of the greatest names in Hollywood history. When Hoffman first met the esteemed film star in midtown Manhattan, the two hit it off like old friends.
After the shooting was over, Quinn offered Hoffman the job of directing his next film, a remake of Viva Zapata. Hoffman, grateful for the opportunity, recounted his first memory of the Hollywood scene and ultimately turned down the invitation. With a wife and young daughter, Hoffman also decided to leave New York and he and his family moved to midcoast Maine. "It's a saner environment," he said.
In a very real way, King, Murray helped motivate Hoffman's move to Maine. The complex reviews gave him a certain notoriety and at the same time, made him feel like a little frog in a big pond. Rural Maine was beyond the range of the big guns of the New York critics. It also offered the opportunity to be a somewhat larger frog in a considerably smaller pond.
Everyone told Hoffman he was crazy. "How can you be a filmmaker in Maine? How can you hold onto major national corporate clients? How can you make network PBS programs if you are hours away from everything? You'll lose your company. You'll go broke." Hoffman asked, "Why? How can you be sure?" "Because that's the way it works," he was told. Lucky for him, it actually worked quite well.
Varied Directions in 1975
In 1988, Hoffman was approached by WETA producer Ricki Green to co-produce and direct a landmark series on the 1960s. Neither Hoffman nor Green wanted to make a simple historical piece, or take a fond trip down memory lane. They wanted to say something meaningful about an era that had affected both of them deeply. They wanted to make sense out of their experiences. And so in their very first meeting, a title and a concept was born: Making Sense of the Sixties. Being offered this series was a gift for Hoffman - and a challenge.
Hoffman asked a number of corporate executives to provide funding for Making Sense of the Sixties. They all loved the idea, but none was willing to give any money for the series. The Sixties may have been over for twenty years, but the wounds were still fresh and the issues were still controversial. Making Sense of the Sixties was ultimately funded with a challenge grant from the Public Broadcasting System, one of the largest it has ever given.
Over the years, filmmaking has given Hoffman the opportunity to record the stories of thousands of people. He's carved a niche by getting people to reveal themselves on film in a personal and emotional way. Most of those he's talked to have been unknowns, "extraordinary unknowns," he has called them. Some have been very famous indeed, including Ronald Reagan, Hubert Humphrey, Henry Kissinger, Walter Cronkite, Ralph Lauren, Leonard Bernstein, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, B.B. King, and Jimmy Doolittle.
Without offending anyone in particular, or making a bold statement, Hoffman sees himself as fortunate to be able to make successful films, his own way and in his own style.
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