From the Louds to Bad Boys, Alan and Susan Raymond Shoot First and Rarely Ask Questions
No, Mike Wallace and a CBS crew were not jockeying nearby for a better angle, and NBC's Tom Snyder was not covering this nonevent live by satellite. But the Raymonds have encountered enough newsier, hairier moments shooting TV documentaries like An American Family (the Louds, of course), Police Tapes (about an embattled precinct in the South Bronx) and Bad Boys (detailing juvenile crime in New York). So for their 15th collaboration they decided to take an assignment that seemed more like a vacation: a public TV essay on Texas. "No more depressing films," sighs Susan. "No more danger. I wanted to go someplace where they would be glad to see me."
Alan, who hates to fly, once had to hang 800 feet off the ground from a helicopter with a strap around his waist to get the shot he wanted. Then, during a ride with "maniac police drivers" chasing crooks down New York streets (and over a few sidewalks) for Police Tapes, Susan had turned to Alan and said, "This is where we die—let's at least shoot it." Before that they backed off a project on call girls during the preliminary legwork after they received threatening phone calls.
Alan, 36, and Susan, 34, have taken cinema verity to its limits. They use no script, ask few on-the-air questions and wait around for something to happen. For Police Tapes, they stood by for five hours just to talk to a homicide detective. On Bad Boys, they edited 80 hours of footage down to two.
Patience, they have found, pays off. For An American Family in 1971, they lived for eight months with the Loud family of Santa Barbara, Calif., filming their daily activities—including Pat Loud's demand for a divorce. ("We knew there were problems," says Susan, "but, God—I never thought she'd do it on-camera.") "That show," says Alan, "was a landmark series that may never be attempted again." Adds Susan, "Maybe no one should. It was disorienting. I got to the point where whatever Pat was doing, I was doing. We began to lose track of who we were."
The Raymonds' partnership began, off-camera, in 1965 in Susan's hometown, Chicago. For hardened journalists, they're remarkably coy about how they met, but it had to do with Alan subletting Susan's sister's apartment and Susan dropping in to borrow a typewriter. "It was very Neil Simonesque," says Alan. Susan calls it a case of "hate at first sight."
Alan, raised in Manhattan, was the son of an economics professor and a former opera singer. He had graduated from New York University's film school, with classmates like Martin Scorsese and Brian DePalma, and was at work on a promotion film for Playboy. Susan was an anthropology major at DePaul University. (Her father worked for the power company; her mother was a housewife and amateur artist.) Alan's job didn't help their relationship. "With him spending time at Hefner's mansion," grimaces Susan, "you can imagine what that did to our relationship." Playmates or no, they married the following September.
They moved to New York but Alan was still traveling a lot. "I decided that if I was ever going to see him again, I had to go on location," figured Susan. "I started off as a grip—a beast of burden." Now a team for 11 years, the Raymonds initially filmed other people's ideas; An American Family was produced by Craig Gilbert. Their breakthrough was Police Tapes in 1977, for which they won Peabody, DuPont and Emmy awards. Originally commissioned for PBS, it later aired on ABC, marking a rare network purchase of an "outside" documentary.
Bad Boys, PBS' chilling, relentless report on JDs, built to a somber climax. "Many documentaries end in upbeat sequences," notes Alan. "The viewer says, 'OK, I can go to bed tonight because someone is doing something about the problem.' But where no solution exists, it's inaccurate to suggest one." Bad Boys left several of the depicted institutions furious. One Queens principal said his high school had been "raped" because positive footage was edited out. The New York City Board of Education produced a counter film, We're Not Bad Boys, for a city-run station. "We would have failed if there was no reaction," says Alan.
The Raymonds claim that Bad Boys netted them about $200 a week apiece after expenses. The Texas documentary will bring in $100,000—from which they hope to glean some $30,000 profit. They work part-time out of a studio apartment in Manhattan, but the crucial editing is done in their 1875 farmhouse in upstate New York. They rarely begin work before 9 p.m. and usually end after sunrise.
During the day Susan tends her plants while Alan plays one of his 400 videotapes. His tastes run to disco shows and old movies (Duck Soup, Flying Down to Rio) while Susan prefers tearjerkers, mostly TV movies ("I'm Middle America"). In Manhattan they disco at Studio 54 and the Mudd Club. Both are compulsive shoppers, and Alan recently added Sylvester and Daffy Duck glasses to his overflowing collection of knickknacks. He's also been urging Susan to steal her Walt Disney comic book collection from her parents' home—her mother wants to keep them for sentiment's sake.
They're currently editing the Texas film—tentatively scheduled for a fall showing on PBS—and planning their next project, Scoop, an investigation of how TV covers the news. (They're very mindful of critics' complaints that their own style distorts the truth. "The camera has an effect on people," Alan concedes. "But we spend sufficient time with them so they get used to us and we can tell what is real.") Negotiations are also under way for TV dramas based on Bad Boys and Police Tapes. "I hoped we could have input," Alan says. "Of course, it may turn out to be like Barney Miller, in which case I'll just cash my royalty checks."
Susan and Alan insist that they have no serious professional disagreements and that their round-the-clock togetherness is no problem. "We love being excited about the same things," says Alan. "Sometimes we don't even have to talk, we instinctively know what's going on." They don't dwell on personal disputes either. "We maintain," smiles Susan, "that we will be married longer than any couple you know."
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