ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The documentary filmmakers D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus have trained their cameras on a wide variety of subjects - presidents, Bob Dylan, French pastry chefs. Their latest film is called "Unlocking The Cage." It's about one man's quest to achieve legal rights for animals. NPR's Joel Rose reports.
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: The film is told from the point of view of Steven Wise, a leading animal rights lawyer. The camera follows Wise for several years as he tries to persuade a skeptical New York court system to recognize a chimpanzee named Tommy as a person with limited legal rights.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "UNLOCKING THE CAGE")
KAREN PETERS: Counsel, you want us to grant him immediate release from illegal detention. Is that correct?
STEVEN WISE: Yes, your honor. Tommy in this circumstance is indeed a person who is entitled...
PETERS: You assert he's a person. We haven't decided that.
ROSE: But Wise doesn't give up.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "UNLOCKING THE CAGE")
WISE: These decisions so far - we think that both of them are legally wrong and are kind of obviously legally wrong. They truly don't yet grasp what we're trying to do.
CHRIS HEGEDUS: We really look for people who are passionate about something and are taking a risk. And Steve was exactly that person.
ROSE: Chris Hegedus co-directed the film along with her husband, Donn Alan Pennebaker, better known by his initials. They've been making documentaries together since the 1970s. Pennebaker says they're not trying to be purely objective. They just pick a subject that seems interesting, then sit back and watch through the camera.
D A PENNEBAKER: You're not really trying to make a complete story. You're simply watching what happens when you're with them. And it's as simple as that.
ROSE: So you don't really know the story when you go out?
PENNEBAKER: The research is the movie.
ROSE: The stories are told almost entirely by the participants themselves. Today this technique is called cinema verite or direct cinema. But there was no name for it in the early 1960s. D.A. Pennebaker and a handful of other filmmakers developed a camera that could take moviemaking off a massive tripod and onto a shoulder.
Pennebaker who is now 91 years old, demonstrates with one of those early portable cameras he still keeps in his office.
PENNEBAKER: If you hold the camera here against this part of your cheek, that's the steadiest part of your body because your eyes need to be steady. And you look through here, and it's not too heavy. It's 12, 15 pounds. You can spend all day with it, which often you have to do in this kind of film.
ROSE: That's how Pennebaker made "Primary" about the 1960 Democratic primary and his Bob Dylan film "Don't Look Back," which set the ground rules for the music documentaries that followed. Later, Hegedus and Pennebaker used the same technique in "The War Room," a film about Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign. It introduced audiences to George Stephanopoulos and James Carville.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE WAR ROOM")
JAMES CARVILLE: We changed the way campaigns are run. And I think we're going to win tomorrow, and I think that the government's going to fulfill this promise and change America.
DAVID SCHWARTZ: They're interested in people who have crazy ambitions and big ideas.
ROSE: David Schwartz is chief curator at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York.
SCHWARTZ: Like a running a presidential campaign or being the best pastry chef or being the great musical performer. But they're kind of like that themselves as filmmakers. They are sort of crazy entrepreneurs on their own in their filmmaking process.
ROSE: Hegedus and Pennebaker have always been independent, raising money for their films as they go. There's nothing luxurious about their offices in the bottom two floors of the townhouse on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
HEGEDUS: So this is our editing room. I'd say half of our work is really made in the editing of these films, so it's an important place to be.
ROSE: Hegedus and Pennebaker met in 1976. She asked him for a job. They got married six years later, and have been making films together for almost 40 years.
HEGEDUS: We always laugh that we usually get divorced during every film because the editing is very much the creative process.
ROSE: Maybe some interesting conversations, disagreements, disputes would've happened in this room?
PENNEBAKER: Well, not often, maybe 10 times a day (laughter).
ROSE: But Pennebaker says what happens in the editing room is crucial.
PENNEBAKER: You're trying to make theater because that's what you'll sell. But you didn't set out making theater as you filmed it. The theater is the way you edit it and put it together.
ROSE: They've made more than two dozen films together. Hegedus admits some of them have been better received than others.
HEGEDUS: A lot of it is luck. You know, if you can find a story that's taking place at a time when there's some kind of cultural shift happening then, you know, there's a chance that you'll have a film that will last.
ROSE: Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker hope that's the case with their new film "Unlocking The Cage." But they also know that once it's out in the world, its fate is out of their hands. Joel Rose, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.