Johnny Cash

PBS Premiere: Aug. 5, 2008Check the broadcast schedule »

Filmmaker Interview

POV: Johnny Cash: The Man, His World, His Music was made in 1969. What was it like following Johnny Cash at that particular moment in his career?

Bob Elfstrom: I had heard John's music before we met. I remember hearing "I'll Walk the Line," and the song really got to me — I knew that he had to be a soulful person. When I finally saw him in concert, I saw that his stage presence was extraordinary, and he mesmerized the audience. His face just captivated me. That face held my attention for the half a year it took to make the film.

During the time we were filming, he had just gotten together with June Carter Cash, and they were very much in love. John was also very comfortable in the presence of the camera and the tape recorder. At that point he was at his pinnacle: His voice was beautiful, his life was in order and he was hungry for the audience. He had crossed over out of country-western music into other realms of music, and I think he was happy with himself and with life.

POV: At the beginning of the film, there's a scene where John catches a crow. Can you tell us about the significance of this scene?

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Elfstrom: That scene, to me, says a lot about who Johnny Cash is. John is not always warm and fuzzy like a panda bear all the time. He's like that part of the time, but he also has a sharp edge and steeliness to him.

One day, we were hanging out in his house, and he said, "I want to go hunting." He grabbed his shotgun and was walking through the land around his house when he spied a crow and whipped off a shot. John was a dead shot, so he wounded the crow, and the bird hit the ground. When he picked up the crow, you could feel that something was going through John's head; he'd almost killed something that maybe he shouldn't have, and he felt badly about it, but that instinct to hunt and wound was a part of him too. So John carried the crow and sat down in the shade, and I could see he was kind of pissed off at himself. I kept some distance from him, and the next thing I knew, he was writing a song to the crow. I was witnessing his creative process, so I had the opportunity to capture that process on film as it was occurring.

POV: Is there a particular moment in the course of filming that is most memorable to you?

Elfstrom: When I began shooting the film, I was usually in front of the stage with the camera, looking up into his face. That allowed me to see him and move left and right to get audience reaction shots. But one day, when he was performing at Wounded Knee, I decided I wanted to be on stage with him. He looked at me very doubtfully, but he consented.

That was my first evening shooting him from the stage, and I was just a few feet away from him, which really gave me the ability to examine his face and the sound that was coming out of it. The band was behind us, the speakers were set up, and I could feel the vibrations right there on stage. I was no longer a voyeur looking at an artist performing for an audience. I was, in a way, a participant.

That evening at Wounded Knee John sang "Ira Hayes," about the American Indian who was one of the people that raised the flag in Iwo Jima. It was an extraordinary moment because there were so many Native Americans in the audience in beautiful Native clothing and headdresses. I remember that night as the beginning of my fascination with his face -- this chiseled face that was so expressive and usually covered in sweat. From that night on, during his concerts, I was up on stage, shooting his face.

POV: There's a wonderful moment in the film where a young man is waiting to meet with Johnny Cash and play him some of his music. Why was that moment so significant for you?

Elfstrom: This young man, who was a very talented songwriter-performer, came down from Canada, and he wanted to perform for John. John was waiting to go on stage, he was preening in the mirror, getting his collar right and trying to get his voice ready. The young man came to the dressing room, and June was in there too, and there were other people milling around. This kid was in the corner with a guitar and a harmonica, and he asked, "Can I sing you a couple of songs?" John took the time to listen to the young man, and within a line or two he got it, he knew this young man was special. The two of them responded to each other, and it was almost like John was saying, "Gee, I used to be young and innocent like you," and the young man was saying "If only I could be like you some day." But you can really see John's generosity in that moment. He did, in fact, arrange for this young man to get an audition with Columbia Records, and he took the young man on the road as part of the Johnny Cash show for some time. That young man went on to have a prolific and productive career in Canada.

POV: You also captured Johnny Cash singing with a very young Bob Dylan in the film. Can you talk more about that session?

Elfstrom: John and Bob had gotten close at that point. John was saying, "Gee, I wish Bob would move down here to Tennessee. I've got a lot of land, and we could be neighbors!" So that was fascinating. We recorded the two of them very late at night, and they were doing a duet of one of Dylan's songs. In the middle of the song, both John and Bob forgot the lyrics. So the recording session stopped while people scampered around the Columbia Records building trying to find the lyrics to a Bob Dylan song. When the lyrics were finally found, the two of them got together again and did some great recording. It was really an amusing session because John and Bob were teasing each other all the time.

POV: Parts of the film are very much about going back to John's roots in Dyess, Arkansas. What was the significance of that journey for him?

Elfstron: Dyess, Arkansas, was a Roosevelt town that was put up during the end of the Great Depression. It was a town where people who had been clobbered by the Depression and the droughts had a chance to get back on their feet. John's youth was spent there: His family fought with poverty there, and that's where he was introduced to country music. He got out of the area, but he took the culture and values of Dyess, Arkansas, with him. His roots were in Dyess.

In the film, his bus pulled up to this abandoned shack on the side of the road, and John, June and his sisters traipsed through the house he had lived in as a child. All the memories came back. It was haunting to hear footsteps echoing through this very frail wooden building that no one had lived in for years. As he wandered through the house and out in the fields, it was an opportunity for me to capture his face on camera as it expressed all the sensations he was feeling and remembering.

POV: What is it like for you to watch the film now, 40 years later?

Elfstrom: On the one hand, I can divorce myself from being the film's director and enjoy the film at a visceral level -- it's wonderful. On the other hand I can also immerse myself in the filmmaking process of that film and realize that at that point, I was a rather inexperienced filmmaker. All of us were. But I was able to pull it off because of enthusiasm, trust, youthful bravado and unfounded confidence. I also had the extraordinary benefit of having Larry Silk as the editor of the film. Larry is a master editor, and he was able to remove many flaws from the film, but also retain the flaws that gave the film integrity.

POV: There have been other portraits of Johnny Cash in the ensuing years, but the focus of Johnny Cash: The Man, His World, His Music is different. How did you choose what to focus on?

Elfstrom: One of the hardest things about making the film was not copping out to the path of least resistance, and that path -- to emphasize his substance abuse problems -- was demonstrated in the feature film made about John ["Walk the Line," 2005]. None of us involved with this film thought that aspect of John had anything to do with his poetry and his music. Even back then, the powers-that-be wanted me to emphasize the substance abuse stuff, and I had to fight the entire time to stay clear of that.

I didn't want that pollution to confuse the message of what John was doing. I was totally willing to take John at face value, and I think he himself recognized that early on and trusted me. He was a man struggling through life like all of us, doing his best, trying to come out on top. He had a gift to pass on, and so I didn't want the film to be about his substance abuse problems because it would overwhelm the film. I knew I was not interested in going down that path. It would have kept me away from the nurturing message that John was bringing out. I wanted to hone in on who he was onstage, offstage, who he was as a person.