“For three days in August 1969, nearly a half-million young people descended upon Max Yasgur’s farm in upstate New York for the Rock ‘n’ Roll event that defined a generation. Mythologized for 50 years, the filmmakers set the record straight with CREATING WOODSTOCK, the most comprehensive examination of how the festival came to be using original interviews with key figures, rare archival footage and unearthed photographs.”
SPAZ: CREATING WOODSTOCK is being released on the 50th Anniversary of the Woodstock Festival. What initially inspired you to put this film together?
MICK: The genesis of the film comes from a simple question, ‘what was Woodstock about?’ In 1992 my son, Ian, came home from high school and asked, ‘Dad, you were at Woodstock, what was it about?’ One of Ian’s teachers, Mike Wood, who appears briefly in the beginning of the film, was at the festival for all four days and spoke about it often in class. He spoke of the bands, sharing his food and the weather. But he knew nothing of the production element of the festival. Nor did I. Like most, I could only speak to my own, quite uneventful experience. So, I decided to do a little research and began with John Roberts and Joel Rosenman’s book YOUNG MEN WITH UNLIMITED CAPITAL, written shortly after the festival. The more I read the more the story intrigued me. But I thought there had to be more. And there was. A whole lot more.
SPAZ: The film is a phenomenal look at everything that went into making Woodstock what it was. Would you say that this film works as a proper prequel to the actual Woodstock film and, in a sense, did you approach it from that angle?
MICK: Michael Wadleigh’s Academy Award Winning documentary stands alone. It has allowed so many who were not at the festival to experience it, sans the sweltering heat, shortage of food and water, and of course, the rain. But it tells the story from the front of the stage, facing the audience. Our film tells the story from backstage, and the nine months leading up to the festival.
I believe for any Woodstock aficionado it would make a nice companion piece and, hopefully, supply some related insight. But as I said, Wadleigh’s film stands alone. Of course, when you have Martin Scorsese, Thelma Schoonmaker and Larry Johnson on your crew, with Dale Bell producing, how can it not be special.
SPAZ: The film uses actual Woodstock footage as well as archival interviews to tell this amazing story. How difficult was it to put together a proper narrative with so much to work with? And how long was the first cut of the movie before the final version was ready for release?
MICK: The original cut was just north of three hours, which is three hours shorter than Wadleigh’s first cut. And you are correct, there was so much to work with. Too much, actually. Some of the stories that didn’t make it into the film are quite interesting, but I was once told you have to stop editing sometime.
I began shooting in 1992 and over the next 25 years I have compiled nearly 50 hours of interviews with the original four partners of Woodstock Ventures, John Roberts, Joel Rosenman, Michael Lang and Artie Kornfeld, as well as many of the production team. John Morris: Head of Production, Mel Lawrence: Director of Operations, Stan Goldstein: Director of Campgrounds, Bill Belmont: Talent Coordinator, ‘Chip’ Monck and many others. But I felt to properly tell this story that I had to speak with people outside of the Woodstock Ventures sphere.
I met with two gentlemen in Wallkill, New York who spearheaded the effort to stop the festival from being held their town. I also spoke with Al Romm, former Editor of the Times Herald Record who chronicled the festival almost on a weekly, if not daily basis. I interviewed the former Deputy Commissioner of the New York State Police who went into detail on the closing of the NY State Thruway and the massive traffic jams. I also interviewed some of the performers to learn more about what was actually happening back stage, how some were suddenly pressed into service totally unprepared for what they were about to experience, and how it affected their careers.
SPAZ: We look back at the Woodstock Festival as a monumental turning point in music and pop culture yet we don’t even think about all the work that went on behind the scenes. While putting the film together, were there any real revelations that surprised you?
MICK: Everything I uncovered surprised me. But surprised me less as I got to know everyone I met and interviewed. The festival was planned and produced by four very determined young men and some of the finest production talent on either coast who surmounted thing after thing after thing because, as John Morris put it, ‘…the will was good.’ There was one commonality between nearly all those people which was particularly interesting to me and that was their absolute concern for those who were coming to the festival. Every aspect of the planning and building of the festival was predicated on the belief that those coming to Woodstock should feel welcome. They designed their security procedures around that belief. They groomed the festival site in a manner that would make people feel at peace, naming trails through the camping areas Gentle Path and Groovy Way. It was an extremely important part of the story that needed to be told and understood.
SPAZ: The Woodstock Festival is a historic moment for Rock music. However, the news anchor that opens the film describes the way that most ‘straight laced’ people viewed the event: the phrase, ”Getting stoned on their drugs and grooving on the music” really stood out for me. Do you feel that attitudes changed for the most part after Woodstock?
MICK: I honestly couldn’t say. I know that attitudes did change, if only for those three days, in White Lake and the surrounding communities. John Laurence, the CBS reporter who opens the film also says at the close, finishing his earlier commentary, that ‘…in an emergency, at least, people of all ages are capable of compassion.’ I do believe Woodstock was a defining moment of my generation and left such a positive impact that many young people today long for that time, wishing they were alive then and had attended the festival.
SPAZ: I get a sense that the gentlemen who put Woodstock together had no idea what kind of impact it would have on that generation and future generations. Would you agree with that?
MICK: I wouldn’t presume to speak for them, but if I had to guess I would probably agree. John and Joel were given a proposal by Michael and Artie to build a recording studio in Woodstock, New York. Because the studio was to be built in such a rural area, Michael and Artie had ‘solved’ the problem of anonymity by proposing that they get some of the local talent to perform at the opening of the studio. And the local talent included Bob Dylan and others. It was from that element of the studio proposal that John and Joel suggested doing a festival and from the profits from the festival a studio could be built.
I don’t believe anyone involved in the festival realized, as they were building it, the generational impact it would have. But I also don’t believe it was accidental. The producers set the framework for that in the planning of the festival. Over the last 25 years I’ve looked at hundreds of hours of crowd footage from Woodstock and have seen nothing but people having a good time. Caring for their neighbors, sharing what they had with each other and feeling they were part of something special. Just listen to John Morris tell the crowd, ‘…It’s a free concert from now on.’ That sound bite is iconic, but then listen to the rest of what he said to the crowd, which came after and what is rarely heard. It’s breathtaking.
SPAZ: The festival itself has been mythologized for five decades. What do you feel is the most overlooked aspect of this three-day festival?
MICK: The fact that Woodstock was planned, designed, produced and built by ‘kids’ in their early to late twenties, and that they have never gotten proper credit for what they accomplished. Their intelligence, tenacity, hard work and professionalism have never been fully explored and recognized. I believe our film does that. These are some truly incredible people who did the nearly impossible.
SPAZ: One of the statements in the film really stood out when discussing the whole concept of ‘Peace and Music’: “Peace was not intended as a code word for, ‘Get out of Vietnam’. It was shorthand for, ‘A weekend away from whatever is bothering you.’” Fifty years on, do you believe that this is still one of the most misunderstood aspects of Woodstock?
MICK: Most of us went to Woodstock to hang out and listen to some music. Indeed, there was a political element to Woodstock, but not from the producers. Take for instance the moment that Abby Hoffman interrupted The Who’s performance in an attempt to speak against the jailing of John Sinclair. There was also the incident of the radical group The Crazies from the East Village who wanted to burn down the concession stands, because ‘food should be free.’ But those were purely external influences and I know had no place in the planning of the festival. Obviously the ‘60s was a turbulent time and I’m sure the producers were aware of their task in keeping the festival apolitical, as evidenced by John Roberts’ statement, which you quote above.
When you look at all the different people and factions who came together to help over that weekend you’ll better understand what Woodstock was truly about. Food and medical assistance was brought in by the New York National Guard. As John Laurence reported, Catholic Nuns handed our sandwiches made by Jewish mothers. The Hog Farm set up a free kitchen and producers spent thousands to feed the hungry crowd. And those in attendance helping each other, sharing their food as well. And again, it all goes back to the basic philosophy of the festival.
I think if there is any misunderstanding of the festival, it is the belief that it was a weekend of sex, drugs and Rock & Roll. Yes, those elements were certainly a part of it but not as much as people may think. There were hundreds of naked boys and girls in Filippini’s pond but they weren’t all having sex. They were having a good time free from their inhibitions. Drugs were everywhere but mostly pot. There was very little hardcore drug use. And as for the Rock & Roll, when you watch our film you see the performance area is full of people enjoying the music. But that was a small part of the numbers of people who were there. The rest were in camping areas or just hanging out in some farmer’s field, playing their guitars and having a good time.
There was an honest brotherhood and sisterhood at that festival that over the years has been overshadowed by everything else that was going on. I feel our film corrects the sex, drug and R&R misconception.
SPAZ: Although it was adequately planned out, the magic of Woodstock was purely accidental and/or unplanned. Which incident (s) or performance (s) stands out for you?
MICK: When most people think of Woodstock, they see it as a single event larger than its individual parts. Our film looks at those individual parts. Yes, it was adequately planned for the numbers expected to attend. But, as John Roberts said to me, ten times as many people showed up than were expected, and as John Morris tells it, ‘We were suddenly in the city management business.’ And this is a part of the story I find so compelling.
The ‘accident’ of the guru showing up and asking if he could speak to the crowd, and John Morris saying, “I haven’t got any acts. Let’s put him on.’ John Sebastian’s impromptu appearance, and Richie Havens inventing the Freedom song because he had nothing more he could play. And all because the performers couldn’t get to the festival site because the roads were completely jammed. Wavy Gravy declaring, ‘Breakfast in bed for 400,000’, and Max Yasgur God Blessing the crowd. It was these little things that made Woodstock so magical.
As I’ve said before those who planned and produced the festival where the finest production talent of their time. Mel Lawrence had already produced successful festivals such as Magic Mountain, Monterey Pop and Miami Pop in December of 1968. John Morris had managed the Fillmore East, Chris Langhart, the festival’s Chief Engineer, was instrumental in building the Fillmore for Bill Graham. Chip Monck was a celebrated lighting designer and Security Chief Wes Pomeroy had a long and successful career in law enforcement and understood the intricacies of working with large crowds. And legendary sound engineer Bill Hanley, the ‘Father of Festival Sound’, was brought in to handle the audio.
When you understand that after being evicted from Wallkill the producers were down to approximately 28 days to find another site, build the infrastructure and alert ticket holders of the venue change, you fully understand what an enormous task it was. Plots and plans had to be redefined and implemented. Roads had to be built. Electricity had to be brought to the site from miles away. Wells had to be drilled for water, and all of that, as Stan Goldstein recounts in the film, ‘Around Max’s harvest schedule and milking schedule.’
So the planning was well thought out, if extremely rushed. But, as you say, it was the little ‘accidents’ that made it so special.
Which incident or performance stands out for me? I do remember hearing Santana perform ‘Soul Sacrifice’ and (Joe) Cocker’s rendition of ‘A Little Help From My Friends’, though my memory may be slightly embellished thanks to Wadleigh’s film. But what I remember most fondly was hearing John Roberts tell his story of looking out over the crowd late Friday evening and comparing it the Henry V and Agincourt. He and Joel had taken their motorbikes to the festival site from their command center and came upon the performance area where they saw hundreds of thousands of people and campfires everywhere. As I listened to John recount that evening I felt the humanity of these two young men and understood their concern and commitment to everyone who had come to that festival. It was a very special moment for me, 24 years after the festival.
SPAZ: Why do you think the Woodstock Festival was so successful and nothing has come close to its impact in the last 50 years?
MICK: Success is a relative term. To many who attended the festival it was a seminal event in their lives. However, to those who put up the money, John and Joel, I’m sure it has a completely different meaning. That’s not to say that John and Joel viewed the festival as ‘unsuccessful’, quite the contrary. Everything they wanted for Woodstock came to fruition. They had planned for it to be peaceful. It was. The wanted those who came to the festival to feel welcome. We did. They wanted everyone to experience 3 Days of Peace & Music, which is exactly what festival goers experienced. While I’m sure the financial element was of concern to John and Joel, I believe it was not their main focus. Joel told me, ‘We were sparing no expense to make it perfect. To make it just as advertised.” So, from Mel Lawrence directing his crew to take down the fences when he saw people getting hurt climbing over them, to John Morris standing on stage in the middle of Sunday’s thunderstorm with a microphone in his hand telling the crowd, “We’re going to get through this,’ to the decision to make it a ‘Free Concert’, every decision made was made with the crowd’s welfare in mind.
It is because of these things I believe Woodstock was a singular event. Most everyone who walked off Max Yasgur’s once pastural alfalfa field did so feeling they had experienced something truly special and historic and in many cases life changing.
SPAZ: Does CREATING WOODSTOCK tell the story you originally set out to tell?
MICK: My initial plans for this film changed the very moment I sat down with John Roberts. John was the first to be interviewed. I had a list of questions gleaned from my research but quickly found myself going off script. John was a very witty and charming man. I was slightly apprehensive speaking with such a highly intelligent, extremely well spoken, and quite polished man, but he made me feel comfortable from the very beginning. His answers eclipsed my rather elemental questions. He took me in directions I had never thought of going. And that unplanned journey continued with every subsequent interview. The more I learned the more I wanted to know. Interviews became conversations. And what came out of those ‘conversations’ was my deep regard for just about everyone who made Woodstock happen.
Initially, I simply wanted to make a film that told the back-story of Woodstock, but it immediately became apparent that putting forth just the facts of the festival’s creation was hardly sufficient. Indeed, I needed to stay true to the facts, but the people became my focus. As you no doubt have seen in the film they are of varied backgrounds with distinct personalities. Bill Belmont’s jocosity, John Morris’ playfulness, Stan Goldstein’s factfulness, these are the things, I believe, that make Woodstock’s story so interesting. Not so much what the facts are, but how they are told.
SPAZ: What do you think about the recent attempts to put together a similar live event celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Woodstock?
MICK: I asked a similar question to those I interviewed back in ’93 because at the time the 25th Anniversary was coming up. They all gave similar answers, and having attended Woodstock ’94 with my son Ian I later understood what they were saying.
Woodstock ’94 was held on the Shaller Farm (now the Winston farm) in Saugerties, NY, the ‘original’ site chosen by John and Joel back in 1969. Joel told me Mr. Shaller refused to lease his land to ‘longhairs’. Not that John and Joel were longhairs but he ‘had already seen Michael’.
Woodstock ’94 was a pleasant event, but it was my son’s Woodstock, not mine. Of course, the music was different – though a few ’69 alum did perform, and they finally got Dylan to show up – the crowd was smaller, there was plentiful food, though at inflated prices, security was tighter and the Pepsi logo accompanied Arnold Skolnick’s iconic bird and guitar Woodstock logo. One similarity, however, was the incessant rain.
Back in ’93, I asked most everyone I interviewed if Woodstock could be recreated. Joel told me, “I don’t think you could plan to have a Woodstock. If by that you mean a spontaneous gathering of tremendous energy and good will at which people have a great time. I think you can offer it, you can set the framework up for it, but having it happen is a miracle.’ And Mel Lawrence said, ‘It won’t be a recreation of Woodstock but a celebration, an appreciation of times when something like that could happen.’
What do I think of the recent attempt to put together a similar live event on the 50th Anniversary of Woodstock? I think Arlo Guthrie said it best calling the ’69 festival, ‘A singular event in history.’
SPAZ: What music are you currently spinning on your CD or record players?
MICK: Dmitri Shostakovich, Captain Beyond, Vanilla Fudge, The Rascals, The Rationals, Blue Cheer and any ‘Girl Group’ from the ‘60s.
MICK: As a postscript, it needs to be said that nothing occurs in a vacuum. Though I have been working on this film for more than 25 years, it would never have been completed without the help of some very good people. Our Producer, Eric Morris, has not only worked tirelessly to see this film completed, he has also been an important creative partner. So too, Paul Barry, our Executive Producer. Executive Producers Kristen Nobles and Ike Diogu have also made the completion of the film possible while providing their own creative input. Stirling Mcilwaine brings his unique talents to the film’s distribution. And Executive Producers Ivan Williams and Matthew Spain are to be thanked for helping put this team together. My most heartfelt appreciation goes out to all of them. And to John Roberts, Joel Rosenman, John Morris, Mel Lawrence, Stan Goldstein and many others, you are my heroes.
Thanks to Mick Richards
(A Documentary Film)