Filmmaker Robert Drew, a pioneer of the modern documentary who in “Primary” and other movies mastered the intimate, spontaneous style known as cinema verite and schooled a generation of influential directors that included D.A. Pennebaker and Albert Maysles, has died at age 90.
His son Thatcher Drew confirmed he died Wednesday at his home in Sharon, Connecticut.
Starting in 1960 with “Primary,” Mr. Drew produced and sometimes directed a series of TV documentaries that took advantage of such innovations as light hand-held cameras that recorded sound and pictures. With filmmakers newly unburdened, nonfiction movies no longer had to be carefully staged and awkwardly narrated. Directors could work more like journalists, following their subjects for hours and days at a time.
Mr. Drew’s dozens of films included “The Chair,” a 1963 documentary about a death penalty case in Illinois, and “784 Days That Changed America: From Watergate to Resignation,” winner in 1982 of a Peabody award. Many of his movies were edited and co-produced by his wife, Anne Drew, who died in 2012.
While a photographer and editor with Life, Mr. Drew formed Drew Associates in 1960 with the goal of applying his magazine experience to films. Among those joining him were such future directors as Pennebaker (“Don’t Look Back,” ‘‘The War Room”), Maysles (who with brother David made “Gimme Shelter” and “Grey Gardens”) and Richard Leacock (“Happy Mother’s Day”).
Their approach, called cinema verite, or direct cinema, also was used in feature films, by directors John Cassavetes, Louis Malle and Agnes Varda among others.
Mr. Drew’s “Primary” is widely ranked among the most important political documentaries. It follows presidential candidates and fellow Democrats Sen. Hubert Humphrey and Sen. John F. Kennedy as they campaigned in Wisconsin for their party’s nomination, won by Kennedy.
“Kennedy asked questions about how this would work,” Drew later explained. “I told him we were partial to neither side and would edit fairly, and for this to work at all, he would have to trust me. He gave me a long look and said, ‘If I don’t call you by tomorrow, we’re on.’ And he didn’t call, and we were on.”
Mr. Drew was born in Toledo, Ohio, and at age 19 joined the Army Air Forces, flying 31 missions in Italy and surviving being shot down there. While overseas, he would be deeply impressed by the war correspondent Ernie Pyle, whose detailed reporting shaped Drew’s filmmaking.