In a previous interview I talked with Susan Lacy, producer at PBS, about her episode on Bob Dylan for the prestigious American Masters series. And now she’s done it again. She’s produced another episode about another rich, reclusive genius—David Geffen. This episode, “Inventing David Geffen” will air on PBS stations on November 20 (check your local listings for time and channel). So I was eager to talk to her again.
Still, Geffen isn’t exactly a household word like Dylan. (It may help you to identify him if I say that he’s the “G” in DreamWorks SKG, and was the agent for Crosby, Stills and Nash, the Eagles, Jackson Browne, and some other major musical talents in the '70s and '80s.) Speaking of Dylan, it’s fair to say that Geffen is to the world of big-time agents and producers as Dylan is the world of singer-songwriters. It’s also worth mentioning that David Geffen is both openly gay and a billionaire.
Susan, I want to begin with the same question that I began with when I interviewed you in connection with the Dylan episode of American Masters: How did you do it? How did you get somebody as rich, powerful, and reclusive as David Geffen to agree to participate? I’m sure there’s a story there.
Not as big a story as you would think. I had met him a couple of times; I interviewed him in connection with the Joni Mitchell episode. We interviewed him for our Atlantic Records Ahmet Ertegun film, which I did not direct. So I knew a little about him. All that music was the music I grew up with.
And then one day I had heard from people that when they went to David’s house, he would show them my Leonard Bernstein film. He thought it was the greatest documentary he’d ever seen. So I thought he would be receptive to a phone call, and he was indeed receptive. So I called and he said, "Let’s meet when you’re in LA.” That was five years ago or something like that. So we met, and we had a couple more conversations, and he said, “Yes, I’d be honored.” He was an admirer of the series. He trusted us not to make hard copy, not to look for material for tabloids. He knew what kind of films of we make. He said that he was surprised and flattered. He’s very self-deprecating.
And then—I have to tell you-- it didn’t happen overnight. Then I had to find the money for it. One day I said, “We have to do a film on John Lennon in connection with his 70th birthday.” So I stopped the David Geffen film for a year. We had a lot of stops and starts. Not once did he ever call me to ask what’s going on with the film? He’s very easy like that—probably because he’s used to working with artists who take their time.
Unlike many of our films, it’s a film that’s filled with people who are a big deal. It was difficult to schedule the interviews with people like Neil Young. These people are hard to schedule. I could have finished the film earlier but I wouldn’t have had Cher.
Although David is very, very rich and very, very important, he doesn’t have the name recognition of other subjects of the American Masters series such as Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. Did you think that you were taking a chance to feature him in this way?
Yes. I did think that. But I figured that there were so many pop culture people that people would put it together. At one time he was mentioned all the time. He’s actually a lot better known than you might think. At one time he was mentioned all the time. That’s one reason why I put the School of Rock episode in there. He is part of the lexicon of American popular culture. When he got involved in the Hillary-Obama thing, if he hadn’t been a big enough deal, his name wouldn’t have been all over the place.
I was entranced to listen to David talking about himself so much, but in none of the shots did I see you. Were you with him asking questions?
Yes, of course I was. It’s not our format to show the interviewer. We’re not like a talk show.
And here’s another question about producing the program. One of the many wonderful things about the episode is the wonderful use of clips from live performances by great groups like Crosby, Stills and Nash. Can you tell us a little about what’s involved in getting all those permissions?
There are 77 music clips that we got clearances for. There were 117 separate music licenses. It’s not like one-stop shopping, where you can go to a publisher and get it done. It doesn’t always work, especially since there were major artists and major performances, especially when the time span goes from the '70s to today.
While you were working on the episode, did you learn anything about David that surprised you?
Everything about him surprised me—I didn’t know that much about him. The thing that surprised me the most is how direct he is. How funny he is. How unassuming he is. He has none of the trappings of a billionaire. To be sure, he has a beautiful house. But when he goes places, he doesn’t have an entourage behind him—you know, people trailing him with clipboards, for example. He answers his own phone. He is very accessible. He didn’t become somebody else when all this happened to him. I saw this up close over a long period of time. It’s not an act—it’s who he is. All that surprised me--that a guy who’s done all that is very real. What you see is what you get.
One of the things that I took away from the episode is that David really, really loves music and musicians. That reminded me of another major executive who also really, really loved music, and couldn’t have done what he did if he hadn’t—Steve Jobs. Do you have any thoughts about the similarities between David Geffen and Steve Jobs?
Tremendous similarities. I’d give my eye teeth to make a film about him. I wonder if they knew each other. Like Steve Jobs, David is dressed down for everything. They were both people who trusted their instincts. They were similar in their unflinching belief in themselves.
At the beginning of the episode David makes a very telling comment. He says, “We are each a figment of our own imagination.” That strikes me as a very American attitude—no one from Italy, for example, would ever believe that. I think that David is something like the ultimate example of a self-made man in the 21st century. What are your thoughts about that?
I totally agree with that. That’s why we called the program “Inventing David Geffen.”