Brigitte Berman Talks Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist, and Rebel

Brigitte Berman delves into the secret hidden life of the iconic magazine entrepreneur

Most people know Hugh Hefner as a robe-wearing eternal youth playboy who built his empire of beautiful women and luxurious lifestyle choices from the ground up. In her new film Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel, director Brigitte Berman exposes this iconic figurehead of the prominent men's magazine as a Civil Rights Leader, a law changer, and a harbinger of ethical enlightenment. With her great new documentary, we are given insight into the behind-the-scenes struggles Hugh has had to overcome these past seventy years to become one of the most trusted brand names in entertainment. If you think you know Hugh M. Hefner for all he's worth, Brigitte Berman's upcoming film will have you seeing this interminable bachelor in a whole new light.

We recently caught up with Brigitte to chat with her about the film and Mr. Hefner's involvement in it. Here is what she had to say:

For a documentary, this has quite an epic, cinematic scope feel to it. Was that simply because the subject matter lends itself to that type of storytelling?

Brigitte Berman: Obviously. If you add up all the time I have spend working on my feature documentaries, it would be about ten years. I really take my time. I look into the total complexity of the subject. And I make sure that individual has a certain amount of complexity, and an incredible life. That is very important to me. With Hugh Hefner, of course, I had all that. But, with the other two films I made, I did not have the scope of material needed to include in those documentaries. With this, I had over two thousand scrapbooks for research material. That is just what I began with. This is a life that has been kept in the books since the age of fifteen and on. We had DVDs, and shows, and everything else there, that I could choose from. When Hugh Hefner gave me the okay to do this film, besides from giving me complete creative freedom, which was important to me as a filmmaker, he also opened up his entire archives to me. Everything. All that I could make use of. I had carte blanche. Therefore, it was for a filmmaker, an incredible treasure trove. And, when you think about what kind of man this is, you think of this guy who started a magazine that didn't have a date on it. He started it from his kitchen table. You look at the incredible empire that still exists. Its different than it was in its heyday. But its still there. People really love him and know who he is. He has become a true Icon. There is no other subject matter that could lend itself to that type of scope. As a filmmaker and a researcher, I was incredibly fortunate.

Hugh Hefner gave you carte blanche as a filmmaker. Was there any part of this man's life that wasn't assessable to you?

Brigitte Berman: Nothing. Absolutely nothing. I never once heard, "You can't look at this." Or, "You can't look at that." There was noting at all. Even though I had known him for quite a few years. I met him because he really loved my first big feature Bix: 'Ain't None of Them Play Like Him Yet'. When he heard about that film? Bix Beiderbecke was his favorite musician. He got in touch with me to get a copy of it. Our friendship began over a mutual passion for Bix's music. And our love of film itself. Our friendship grew. I believe he trusted me. Because he knew what I was like as a filmmaker from those earlier films. He knew that the research does end up consuming me. I leave few stones unturned. Because of this, he ended up trusting me. Along with that trust came a responsibility. Then, for me, it became even more important to get everything right. When I began, even though I was a friend of his, I started with a white, blank page. I started with his scrapbooks. I began to go through them, and slowly the pages began to fill themselves with the material I went through. The friendship receded into the background. I was a filmmaker first and foremost. My mission was not to make a Valentine to him. I wanted to tell a story that would set the record straight. That is what I wanted to do with this film. Gong through the archives, it was all there. All the old Playboy magazines. All the old letters. Photographs. Things that happened that were important throughout history. All of this stuff was there.

Have you always been fortunate enough to have all of your subjects open up to you with this much trust? Or is it simply because Hugh had seen your previous works? And your past subjects hadn't been privy to what you were capable of bringing to the table as a filmmaker?

Brigitte Berman: That is a great question. And it lies at the heart of any project. Its what always concerns me. When I did Bix, I'd done a lot of work for BBC Television. These people that I interviewed for Bix had never seen my past work. With that film, there were a lot of people that were very protective of Bix because of his alcoholism. What I did to gain people's trust was, I put a lot of energy and time into visiting each and every person individually. I didn't just interview them over the phone, or send them a letter. I went to each person, and I spent a day or two with them. Whatever it was going to take. At first, I opened myself up to them. I allowed them to see who I was. Only then did I start to ask them questions. I always wanted them to feel comfortable with me. I know what its like. Someone walks into your life, and they ask you to spill stories that are very personal and important to you. Because this was a close relationship. Why would they open up? This is a stranger. Just because they say what they are going to do doesn't mean its true. I spent extra time on this deliberately. Even though they would have agreed to be interviewed either way, I knew the kind of interview I was going to get would be better. And it was. It was so much better. It has always paid off. I think I learned that by doing those interviews for the BBC. It was a great training ground. By the end, I made over a hundred documentaries for the BBC alone. And then I have made a lot since then. Any subject that interests me, I made a film about it. Documentaries are what I am passionate about. I started as an editor. I know what I need to get in order to cut it into a good film. The yays and the nays. I live and breathe film. I am fortunate that I have found a field I love. Just like you.

That said, I have read your biography, and you have led quite the fascinating life yourself. Have you ever thought of turning the camera on your own person? Or is that too much hubris? Would you never feel comfortable stepping over that line?

Brigitte Berman: Well, you know? I am always so outwardly motivated, and I'm always looking for the next thing to do, I never think about it. When I do an interview, like I am doing now for this documentary, it's not something I want to take in front of the camera. The people behind the camera don't necessarily ever want to be in front of the camera. I have so many things that I still want to do. At the same time, I have my husband to look after. Well, maybe not look after. But I need to spend some time with him. And I want to spend some time in the garden. That's hard to do when you devote yourself to sixteen hour days. I am lucky.

In this current age of documentary filmmaking, more times than not, you get the sense that the filmmaker is as intent on focusing the camera on himself as he is his subject matter. Those types of projects almost fall into the realm of reality television. With your film, your presence is completely non-existent in terms of the narrative and the story being told. Which does lend a more cinematic feel to the project. Was that a conscious decision on your part?

Brigitte Berman: That is something I do in every one of my documentaries. You never, ever see me. You see me in this film at the very end. I am always behind the camera, squeezed behind the camera. I went them looking directly at me, so you have that real repartee. I find that all filmmakers have a certain amount of ego. If they didn't, they wouldn't believe that they could put a film together. As far as vanity ego, I find that it gets in the way of true filmmaking. I realize that I am of the older breed. I research longer than other people. I have a long attention span. I don't care how much work is involved, I will take it on. I wont shirk it. That is one thing Hugh Hefner knew about me. I had also done some film workshops, teaching to people of all ages. There is the odd person who is like me. They are a fiend. But there aren't that many. When I see that, I really try to encourage them.

About the entire creative process of building a project like this, it has to be a tremendous amount of research, and it must take years. You said that Hugh gave you complete freedom. Was there a moment when you brought him back into the process to show him something? Or was this an instance where you went away, and then after a few years, showed it to him?

Brigitte Berman: I am a firm believer, as a person who loves research, that its important to get it right. Not just right from my own perspective, but right historically. And right factually. When the film was close to a half hour over...By the way? I started with a seven hour rough cut...That was my very first assembly. No visuals, just people talking. That slowly came down. When it was about a half hour longer than it is now, I brought it down to the mansion and I arranged a time with Mr. Hefner to show him the film. I watched it with him. The reason for that was because I wanted to know if there was anything that was incorrect. Was there a picture that was not representing the right time period? Factually, I wanted to make absolutely sure that things were historically correct. I do jump around in the film. I wanted to know that if I do jump, that I created something that was correct in his life. That is what I did. I must say, Mr. Hefner was quite amazing. He mentioned some extra photographs that would help me. He told me where they were. His recall is extraordinary. This is a very, very smart man. You can't not be smart when you've created what he has created with both his magazine and this entire empire. He was very helpful. But aside from a few photos being out of order, he said, "I know exactly what you are doing. Just keep going." He didn't mess with it. With the naysayers, he wanted to make sure we were identifying them as who they truly were. When a feminist speaks, he wanted us to make sure that we said, "This is a feminist."

The film does deal a lot with feminism and woman's liberation. On that note, and I don't want to make this sound like an antiquated question or in the least bit chauvinistic, but what do you feel you were able to bring to this project, as a woman, that a man might not have accomplished or captured?

Brigitte Berman: It is different than if a man had made it. But let me say, first of all, that when I make a film, I am a filmmaker first and a woman second. Even saying that, I do know that my female side is there. And it comes out. I don't want to insult the female race. But I do believe in the fact that we, as women, do have greater stick-to-it-ness. That is a real generalization. But we may have extra sensitivity. It's something, as a woman, that I know I have. I know I bring that empathy that makes a connection. It's the connection that allows the other person to open up. For me, it's really important to build that bridge of trust. From that bridge of trust comes an interview that is more candid. It is more open. As a woman, I'd like to say that I am able to do that a little bit more. But I am a bit hesitant, as I say, because I have male friends who have incredible sensitivity. You know? I hope this makes sense.

I think it does. And I noticed in your biography that you've directed fictional erotica as well as the documentaries.

Brigitte Berman: Good for you for noticing that! (Laughs)

Do you think that gives you a better understanding of the artistic side of sexuality in entertainment? Aside from someone who may just be looking at what Hugh Hefner does as pornography?

Brigitte Berman: Absolutely. When I did that Playboy movie, it was completely erotica. And not in anyway anything but that. What I really got an amazing feel for was...When the casting took place, the incredible care that everyone at Playboy took with the woman who came to be in that movie. I was really struck by that. I know that, as a woman director, it made the actresses feel much more comfortable just in having me there. Again, it gave them a sense of trust. I don't want to ever get slotted as doing one kind of film. If you look at my biography, you will see a film about a Jesuit priest who got murdered in Jamaica. My subject matter spans from A to Z, literally, in every way. And it's important to me. It gives me more insight in to the world. As Artie Shaw once said to me, "The more knowledge you can put into what you do, the better what you do becomes." It's really true. That wide scope? I was always one of those people. I guess it started with coming to Canada, and having to learn a new language at a young age. I had to deal with a new schooling system. I always had to work harder. I had to try harder. That just became part of my make-up. It became part of my filmmaking. I am very proud of that. There have been traumas. I am grateful for them. They have made me who I am. They have allowed me to really build that empathy. With everyone that I interview and make films about.

B. Alan Orange