Leo Seltzer interview
by Russell Campbell
Cut, no. 14, 1977, pp. 25-27
After learning his craft at the Film and Photo League, Leo Seltzer worked as a filmmaker for the WPA, the National Film Board of Canada, and the Signal Corps. Following the war he became a New York-based documentary producer-director-writer, where he helped establish the city’s Film and TV Unit. His films have won awards at the Edinburgh, Cannes, and Venice Film Festivals. In 1948 his FIRST STEPS, produced for the U.N. Division of Social Affairs, was awarded an Oscar as Best Documentary. Leo Seltzer was cinematographer to the White House during the Kennedy Administration. He has taught film at Columbia University, City College of New York, the New School, New York University and the Philadelphia Museum College of Art. He is currently instructor in Film Production Workshop at the School of the Visual Arts and Director of the Film and Television Therapy Workshop, Children’s Ward, New York University Medical Center. I interviewed him on October 28, 1976 in New York City.
RC: Could you say something about how you first got involved in filmmaking?
LS: I first got involved in filmmaking in 1930 or 1931. My background was an interest in art: I'd gone to art school, and I also went to college. I was going to be an engineer. But during the Depression it seemed rather hopeless to continued through college, and I came back to New York and returned to art school. With my technical know-how, I was able to do some wiring in the art studio: we needed some lights for a model. The building was sort of a combine of clubs—there was a photography club and an art school and so on, and after I'd wired the lights in the art school, the photography group needed some wiring done in the darkroom. I went over there, and in the short time I stayed there doing that wiring, I became interested in what they were doing. It seemed intriguing, and I gave up my art studies and moved over to there. That was the early Film and Photo League.
RC: You became a still photographer?
LS: For a few months. I had a camera and was doing still photography. We used to cover all sorts of demonstrations and whatever was happening, strikes, picket lines and so on. Then there was a hunger march in 1931. A movie camera was put in my hands and I was told to go out and shoot, probably because there was no one else available, or perhaps because I used to bring in rather unusual still photographs.
RC: Who were your associates at this time?
LS: The early FPL members besides myself were Robert Del Duca and Lester Balog. And then there was another who was very much a part of it but more verbal than functional. You might say that he was functional in an intellectual sense—and that was Sam Brody. He was somewhat of a writer and a talker and a screamer. Those who did most of the filming, editing and screening were Del Duca, Balog and I.
There was no committee. A number of people who made only casual contact with the League claim to being the League, and they really weren't.
The FPL attracted quite a number of people with different motivations. Some stayed with it. Others who had different goals moved through the League on to other things—like Ralph Steiner, Leo Hurwitz and Irving Lerner. It’s not a question of discrediting one or the other except to straighten the record. Steiner, Hurwitz and Lerner were not involved in the day-to-day production activities of the League. They were more involved in the theoretical and dramatic aspects of film, and they moved on to do outstanding things in other areas.
Balog was mainly an inside man—he worked on art work and editing. On the shooting it was Del Duca and I, though most of it was done by me because Del worked, he had a steady job with Otis Elevator. The image I have: very often, there was this little round table and there'd be a group of four or five guys sitting there, the theoreticians, sitting talking, philosophizing:
How do you... ?” “Why do you... ?” “When do you... ?” “What’s the political reasons for it?” And then someone would say. “Hey, something’s happening. Call Seltzer!” And I'd take the Eyemo under my arm and go out and shoot.
Hurwitz, Lerner and possibly a few other “casual” members had ambitions that leaned towards Hollywood, of doing the Hollywood thing, perhaps differently. Lerner finally made it to Hollywood. I think it was much more of an ego drive with those guys—to be somebody rather than to do something. Del and I and Lester, we didn't have that desire. We worked on the day-to-day realistic documentary productions. The filmmaking and distribution activities of the League had nothing to do with what Hollywood producers or commercial distributors were doing. Ours was a total involvement in what was happening in the world on a very practical and realistic level. We filmed the everyday social scene, the economic struggle. And we put it together to represent a realistic, not dramatized point of view. Then we carried those heavyweight “portable” projectors and the films back to the union halls and the picket lines and showed them to an audience that was the living subject of the films.
It was a total and realistic experience and not a dramatic or philosophical exercise. For me the Film and Photo League activity was a way of life, often working all day and most of the night, sleeping on a desk or editing table wrapped in the projection screen, eating food that might have been contributed for relief purposes and wearing clothes that were donated.
I was quite naive politically and really wasn't involved for any cause. My filmmaking activity—there was just no alternative as far as I was concerned. It was relevant, it was important, it was exciting. It was something that I was almost intuitively involved in, the kind of people I was filming were the same kind of people I was. It was a challenging and real experience.
RC: Was there a guiding philosophy for the League?
LS: Oh, yes. The parent organization of the Film and Photo League was the Workers International Relief. Its main purpose was to supply food, clothing and housing to strikers, in order to enable them to stay out and hopefully eventually get what they were striking for. They were quite active in the South, and in Pennsylvania in the mine fields. And under the W.I.R. there were also cultural groups. It was felt that the theatre and the film and other media could both entertain and inform. That’s what really gave birth to the Film and Photo League and to other groups: a dance group, the Workers Laboratory Theatre—from which a number of outstanding performers developed—and other cultural activities. These were grouped in one place, and that’s where I was studying art.
The film group also became the center for receiving the early Russian films. There was no official (commercial, nontheatrical) distributor setup, and Thomas Brandon was running nontheatrical distribution at that time. Our job in addition to shooting was to keep these films repaired. Sometimes we'd take those Russian films out and show them on our portable projectors, if there was time and a chance to entertain workers and pickets. We used to look at those films quite often. Sometimes late at night we'd run them off for ourselves, Lester, Del, and I. That really was a transition period in the development of film as an art. That was really where film editing began, and no Russian films have matched those early silent ones in that respect. We used to look at them over and over and over, and study them. Our job was to inspect them when they came back from screening, and we could study them frame by frame. This was all 35mm nitrate film.
Another activity of the Film and Photo League was with stills. We had no way of getting any money from our film work. We had no money at all. Food came in for the miners and we'd help ourselves to a couple of cans of beans once in a while. Among the clothes that came in we'd find something to fit us. We lived off that and felt that we gave back as much as we took out. And if you had a quarter in your pocket—fantastic. I remember a friend of mine, we took a cab once, and it cost a quarter. This person was paying a quarter, and I thought—Jesus, I could live a couple of days on that. Money was non-existent for us. So one of the ways of getting a little money for FPL members was by selling photographs. Motion picture film couldn't be sold. No one would want to buy it, the newsreels had their own crews going out. But we could sell photographs, because very often we could get things the commercial news photographers couldn't get. So I took quite a lot of photographs as well as movies, and these could be sold to the newspapers to get a few bucks. A lot of times we'd know about a picket line or something that was going to happen. We could scoop the press, and that’s what made our photos valuable.
RC: Would the cameraman act as his own director on the League films?
LS: There was no formal directing because you couldn't control your subject matter. Documentary coverage depended on where you were, how long your shot was and how you moved your camera. I directed this way for years before I realized I was directing. It never was a separate activity from filming. If the cops are breaking up a picket line, you can't tell them where to go or what to do. It’s your position and how long and what the angle is and where the light is, and usual things of that sort. And of course the editing was an integral part of your filmmaking. I could not separate directing from camerawork or editing. We did everything on our films, including writing the titles and shooting them. Lester Balog, who was the artist, used to do the titles by hand and we'd photograph them. Lester also did some editing. Sometimes rearrangement had to be done of some of these old Russian films, they were damaged or something. Sometimes we'd get newsreel footage from other states. There were Film and Photo League branches in different states, and Lester would edit that footage. But the film that I shot I couldn't possibly give to anyone else to edit. It was an integral part of a complete activity from beginning to end, from shooting to showing the finished film. Now it’s a new idea—the auteur—but in those days it was the natural way of filmmaking for me.
We didn't feel it necessary to put our names on our films. It seems that we got enough satisfaction from the activity itself, so at present there is some misunderstanding about who made the Film and Photo League films. In NATIVE LAND, which was done by another group of filmmakers, they used FPL material without proper credit. That was some rough action I filmed when the first Nazi emissary came to the United States. He arrived by a boat which docked in a remote area in Brooklyn, and a picket line was set up there. The police really beat up and arrested many of the demonstrators. It was one of the sequences in the AMERICA TODAY newsreel which we made at the FPL.
There was also some interesting editing that I did in one of the AMERICA TODAY reels which has often been mentioned but not properly credited. This was just after Prohibition was repealed, and I edited a sequence of Roosevelt signing the proclamation doing away with Prohibition. As his fist came down on the blotter over his signature, cut to battleship cannons firing, then back to Roosevelt looking up with his charming, self-satisfied smile. It was an interesting bit of editing and very effective at the time.
RC: Was it your intention in this sequence to portray Roosevelt as a militarist?
LS: The idea there, I think, when I look back at those days, was that I was more emotionally motivated. We did not accept any government official as being on our side. If he was any kind of an official he was against us and we were against him. Roosevelt did a lot of good things—the whole program of unemployment relief and social security, demanded by the hunger marchers, he finally put into effect. So when we look back at it, Roosevelt was a great president. In those days my feelings were more emotionally motivated. You were involved with a group of people and what they said was right you believed was right, and what they disliked you disliked.
RC: What were the films you worked on? You mentioned AMERICA TODAY.
LS: There were a few issues of AMERICA TODAY. We turned it out regularly, and we once rented a theater, and ran a showing of those AMERICA TODAY films, a little theater on 23rd Street and Broadway. The first shooting I did was the hunger marches to Washington, and the Bonus March, plus scores of local activities—evictions, picket lines, demonstrations, whatever else was happening—of which there’s probably no record any more. There used to be a lot of this film in the vaults, at Fort Lee, NJ. Years ago I catalogued it all, then the studio burned down, and the film was destroyed. It was all nitrate film, and probably would have disintegrated by now.
RC: Tell me about the BONUS MARCH film (1932).
LS: I was totally responsible for that: I was the one that went out and shot it. I went to Washington twice. The first time was when the ex-servicemen were just arriving and encamping, and I got all the marching through Washington. I don't remember how long they were there, but there was a lot of marching, a lot of demonstrating. So I got there, and the thing seemed to have settled down to some extent. Nothing else was happening, so I came back to New York. Then the eviction took place. I got there just as the bonus marchers were being run out of Washington by MacArthur and the regular army, the cavalry, and the tanks. I filmed the whole area smoldering and burning, as I walked through it. The bonus marchers were already on their way, they were going to Johnstown, Pennsylvania. I walked through this place. It looked like a premature Hiroshima. Everything smoldering, bedsteads, personal belongings. There'd been families there, ex-servicemen had brought their wives and children—it was a Hooverville, right in the middle of Washington. And there was an old building that had been partly ripped out, four stories, where the bonus marchers were settled in—there were no walls, just concrete floors and cots. And then there was this order, signed by MacArthur, telling everyone to evacuate, by order of the President. I took the order itself off the wall and sent it back to Brandon. Then I followed the bonus marchers to Johnstown, where they set up another camp. We got some commercial newsreel material of the actual eviction, and I edited that in.
RC: How did you get hold of the newsreel footage?
LS: We probably had a sympathetic theater projectionist who got it for us, or someone who worked in the newsreel companies. We didn't have any formal dealings with the newsreel industry.
I also went to Washington for the Scottsboro demonstration. What happened was they were finally going to take the case to the Supreme Court, the final appeal to save the lives of those nine young men. The Supreme Court at that time occupied the right hand side of the Capitol building, it didn't have a building of its own. Groups of people were coming from different states to picket in front of the Supreme Court to show their support. It was an international issue at that time. The usual thing was to get a big truck, and everybody piled in, and that’s how we got to Washington. It was the only way I could go. I'd heard that they weren't going to allow any news coverage of this demonstration because the Washington cops were going to teach these “Communists” a lesson. Washington already had the taste of the hunger march before that.
There was a fairly small group of pickets, and in those days Washington was a real Southern town. I'd heard that you'd never see a picture of a black person in Washington newspapers: if inadvertently there was a black face in a crowd photo it was airbrushed white. Washington was an area of total discrimination then. So they were going to beat the hell out of these pickets to teach them a lesson. I figured the only way of getting close enough to take pictures was to get into the line of marchers. After we marched into the area in front of the Capitol Building, I got out of the line and started shooting film. Then things started to happen. There were a lot of plainclothes men and police around. The cops jumped at this group and started ripping placards off, and beating people up.
I was filming this one policeman. It was a rainy day, and he had on a heavy, rubberized raincoat. I was about ten or fifteen feet behind him. Two or three feet beyond him was the line of pickets, with the Capitol dome beyond that. That was the shot. And as I was shooting, the cop ran in and grabbed the placard from a black marcher and ripped the cardboard. And there was this marcher with the stick still in his hand. The marcher looked at the bare stick. The cop was tearing up the placard which said, “Free the Scottsboro Boys.” Suddenly the marcher turned and whacked the cop left and right with his stick. And the cop was so stunned, he just stood there.
And then suddenly my camera went straight up into the air. I turned around and there was this man, who seemed seven feet tall and seven feet wide, with my camera, which was 9 lbs. of solid weight, tucked under his arm as if it was nothing, pushing everybody around. So I went after him, tapping him on the back. I said, “My camera, there’s a job I have to do.” And then they started shooting teargas. Before I knew it this guy turned around and grabbed me by the neck, lifted me with one hand and threw me into the police wagon. He threw my camera in after me. That gave me some elevation, so I took my camera and started shooting out of the paddy wagon door. I got another shot or two before he took the camera away from me.
About twenty-five people were arrested. Before we came to trial—the charge was parading without a permit—we were in jail for two days. Finally the trial took place. Each person who was arrested was identified by the arresting officer, who got up on the witness stand and told why he arrested that person. Finally they got to me, and this fat creep, who I later found out was head of the Red Squad in Washington, D.C., got up and said,
The lawyer said,
The judge banged his gavel on the bench and said, “Case dismissed”
After that I went back to the police station to get my camera, and there it was lying on the desk. I had a still camera with me too, and a newspaper article said something about “photographer armed with two cameras.” So I went back to get my camera, and there was this young cop there, and he was sneering as he said,
Fortunately he had not opened the camera, and the film was intact.
The sequence of the black picket beating up the cop was included in an AMERICA TODAY program we showed in the theater we rented during the 1930s. When that sequence was shown the audience jumped up and said, “Give it to him! Give it to him.” About three years ago, when Brandon was screening this at the Museum of Modern Art, the response of the young college kids who saw it, who actually had no real identification with the situation which happened over forty years ago, was exactly the same. When this scene came on they all got up and yelled, “Give it to him!” Give it to him”
I think the idea is not necessarily that I considered myself one of the pickets, or had the same motivation. It was just that in my own approach I felt I had to get right into things to shoot. I had to experience what I was filming, and that was the uniqueness of both my stills and my films. Few people had seen that point of view in films before. If I had been more politically motivated I think that would have determined where I stood almost all the time I did my shooting. But because I wasn't, I had no apprehension about going up on the cops’ side as well as the pickets’ side, and getting a total point of view. The commercial newsreels had those big vans for their equipment, and they set the camera up on top. They'd park about a block away with a telephoto lens. Their films never really gave you a sense of being involved. My film had that quality because I was physically involved in what I was filming, and that’s what I think gave it a unique and exciting point of view.
RC: This was all in 35mm?
LS: Yes. The camera I used was the Eyemo, which was spring driven, like the Filmo, but whereas the Filmo, a l6mm camera, ran two and a half minutes of film, the Eyemo ran only about a minute. You learned to reload pretty fast.
RC: When did 16mm come in?
LS: There was one film I did in 16mm in 1934. Somebody gave us a 16mm camera, and I went out and did a film on the life of longshoremen, called MARINE. It probably could lay claim to being one of the first social documentary films made in this country—if you remember that Flaherty always dealt with man against nature, and this file was about man against man. MARINE has never been located, but it had some fantastic shots of what was called the “shape-up.” In those days—and still today, I think—the way you got a job as a longshoreman on the docks was to show up in the morning, and the boss would stand up on a box, and he'd have these little brass discs with numbers on them. He'd stand there looking over these three or four hundred men, holding out their hands, begging, and he'd flip one out to one guy, flip one out to another guy. He flipped them out to guys who he knew would kick back some of their pay to him—it was all pre-arranged. But the shots of these guys during the Depression, begging for one of these little brass things which meant food .... I got up, again in my naiveté, up there right on the box next to him, and got a shot of these longshoremen begging for their bread. The film dealt quite completely with the life of longshoremen, from early morning to night. Many of them were homeless, sleeping on the docks.
RC: Some sources credit Edward Kern as the director of MARINE.
LS: Ed Kern was the one who probably initiated the film, and I think he paid for the raw stock. He came along for moral support, but not directing. There was no such thing as a separate director on our documentary filming, and Ed had no background in directing.
RC: Were you working with sound at all in that period?
LS: No. We didn't work with sound. Sound was just coming in. Equipment was very bulky and expensive. At the theater we rented to show our newsreels, I put together two turntables and got a bunch of classical records. I would shift from record to record, and pick pieces for each particular sequence. Sync sound was impossible for us.
Color was still experimental, and besides there was a feeling that this kind of subject matter looked better in black-and-white—in those days color wasn't at all realistic. Also, the fact of not using sound or color required more visual awareness in filming. Consider what happened to the Russian films. As soon as they started making sound films, most of that wonderful visual quality which they had developed disappeared from their films.
In editing documentary footage you can't rely on narrative, or on —light, contra. You became aware of all those things, you practiced them, you tried them out, you had to really exercise your ingenuity. You had to improvise new ways of shooting and cutting. It was a tremendous training ground in visual awareness and mobility for me.
RC: Did you have a well-established network for exchanging footage between the various League branches?
LS: Every once in a while someone would come in from San Francisco, or another city, or send some film in of something that happened. With the hunger march we tried to organize local coverage so we'd have background film to edit in. But mostly it was spontaneous. We used to do most of the editing here in New York. They'd send us their film, because they didn't have the facilities or the equipment. It was not easy to get editing equipment in those days, it was expensive. We never had any moviolas. And there were probably no labs except in California and New York. We did our editing by feel, by intuition, and then we'd run it off and see if it looked right. We had no viewers, just rewinds and an old Griswold splicer, and a so-called portable projector, which weighed about a ton.
RC: Nancy Naumburg made two quite long films, SHERIFFED and TAXI, which sound interesting for their dramatized documentary method. Did she work directly with the League on those?
LS: She did them on her own. She used the League as a kind of sounding board to get technical guidance and distribution. Nancy used to do her own shooting, She had her own equipment, her own ideas, her own motivations. She was shooting 16mm. She was a nice, gentle person, remember, and very serious. But those films were done outside of the League’s day-to-day activities.
RC: Where did you exhibit League films?
LS: We showed them in union halls, at fraternal group meetings, national clubs, workers clubs. Once in a while to a church group. But mainly as morale builders to pickets. Whenever there was a picket line we covered it and came back and showed the pickets themselves on the picket line. It was a tremendous morale booster. Plus maybe a Russian film, or maybe the TAXI film, or the waterfront film, to give them an idea other people were also struggling for better conditions. We had some footage of the Kentucky strike, and the Pittsburgh strike. I don't know who shot the Pittsburgh film, but I went back with a projector to show it to the miners who were still blacklisted. They were still living in tents for the second winter. And I remember I went into the town and we stretched this sheet between two houses—the sheriff’s and the deputy’s house on either side. We expected to be shot at any minute while projecting the film.
RC: Is any of the original FPL footage still in existence, still available for screening?
LS: Yes, during the last few years Tom Brandon located a number of the original films, the Hunger Marches of 1931 and 1932, the Bonus March, AMERICA TODAY including the Scottsboro and Nazi emissary demonstrations, and a few others. I am presently reconstructing these films and adding missing titles so that they can be seen again. I think as I am working on them now that they are just as relevant today as they were over forty years ago when they were made. They are a record of a significant period of America’s social and economic history as well as important historical films.