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Five Things We Learned From Participatory Journalist George Plimpton

When we started making our first documentary feature, Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself, we knew the famed journalist and editor of The Paris Review would never actually star in the film. Plimpton died in 2003, but left behind a treasure trove of audio, video and photographs that we used to have him act as a posthumous narrator in our film where the noted storyteller told his greatest story—that of his own life.

And while we never got to meet Plimpton, we certainly got to spend a lot of time with him. Apart from sitting down and talking with his friends and family, there were hundreds of hours of footage and thousands of photographs to go through. So, as we stood in the back of the theater as our movie opened in New York City a month ago, almost five years to the day from when we started working on the project, we could easily look back at some of George’s deeply held beliefs that rubbed off on us.

Here are the five things we learned from Plimpton:

Failure Isn't Failure: As a pioneer in what he called "participatory journalism," George Plimpton joined sports teams (like the Detroit Lions or Boston Bruins), played with the New York Philharmonic, and performed with the Clyde-Beatty Circus (among many other adventures). His goal was to get close to his subjects and illuminate the skill and hard work it took for them to perform at an elite level, but in order to create a coherent narrative arc for his magazine articles and books, Plimpton set himself up to participate in the events he covered, and, therefore, he set himself up to fail (there was obviously no conceivable way he could have succeeded at a professional level in these pursuits). As a humorist, George had the good sense to make himself the butt of the joke, and in failing, he revealed how hard it was to participate and what it takes to succeed. It was a generous art that he practiced, and one that I learned a lot from. For Plimpton, failure wasn't something to be afraid of—failure was the kernel of a great story, and the beginning of something new. –Tom Bean

George Plimpton practicing with the Detroit Lions, 1963 (Photo courtesy of Sports Illustrated and Laemmle Zeller Films)

Don’t Be Afraid to Ask: Plimpton found himself asking for help early and often in his career. From the first issue of The Paris Review, when they approached E.M. Forrester, they were asking for him to do an interview with a magazine that was just an idea at that point. Forrester agreed and thus the magazine’s noted Art of Fiction series was born.

Such was the same with us when we started making the movie. We would contact people and ask for an interview, with nothing to show for an example of what we were going to do with the footage. And almost to a person, everyone said, “Come on over.” Our two notable exceptions were Philip Roth, who was always either finishing a novel or starting a novel when we reached out to him, and Woody Allen, who, sadly for us, was in a similar continuous creative state. – Luke Poling

Say Yes: George's diverse pursuits and multitudinous adventures revealed a level of curiosity that I think is pretty rare. He wanted to know everyone, go everywhere, and try nearly anything (even to his peril). He said yes to each new opportunity, and threw himself into it completely. As we were making the film, George's enthusiasm, optimism, and commitment were infectious, and this got us through a number of tough stretches. I've found myself confronted with a number of situations over the past couple years where I faced opportunities that I might otherwise have passed over (for any number of reasons), but, thinking of what I learned from George, I found myself saying, simply, yes. –Tom Bean

George Plimpton watches the America’s Cup races with President John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy, 1962 (Photo courtesy of Laemmle Zeller Films)

Listen to Everyone: In the film, former intern and now writer David Michaelis remarks how open George was to ideas and suggestions from The Paris Review staff. He remarked that George gave everyone such status and authority, that they were all working as hard as they could to help make the magazine be as good as it could be.

George didn’t rule with an iron fist. He would publish pieces he wasn’t passionate about, because someone on the staff was. He knew it was this passion that would come across to readers. It was this openness to new ideas and approaches that keeps The Paris Review fresh and vital and alive—so many years after its creation. –Luke Poling

Enjoy It: “I have never been convinced there's anything inherently wrong in having fun.” This maxim, which is attributed to Plimpton, is a good lesson for anyone. George reveled in many things, often for no reason other than they were fun. He was named the official fireworks commissioner of New York City because of his love of the art. He was an avid birdwatcher. He threw himself into a variety of careers to learn more about them. He was a sponge, trying to soak up as much of life as he could. And it was this joy and fascination that came through loud-and-clear in his writing style. It was fun and quick and easy. (Not an easy balance to strike, as anyone who has ever put pen to paper can tell you). So many of his friends and family told us they loved spending time with George because when you were with him, you were part of the adventure.

Making our movie was an adventure, and a wonderful one at that. We often said that if you simply had to think about and study one person for years and years, George Plimpton was a pretty good guy to pick. We had the good fortune to spend a lot of time in the company of his friends and family and I’d like to think this outlook has rubbed off on us, if only just a little.

If you’d like to meet Plimpton the way we did, here are the next screening dates for our movie:

Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself is currently playing at the Coolidge Corner Theater in Brookline, MA, the West End Cinema in Washington DC, the Laemmle Theaters in Santa Monica, CA and in Claremont, CA.

Starting Friday, June 28th, it will also be screening at the West Newton Cinema in Newton, MA and at the Railroad Square Cinema in Waterville, ME.

On July 26th, the film will be opening at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco and at the Cable Car Cinema in Providence, RI.

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