Bogdanovich directed 'Runnin' Down a Dream,' a documentary exploring Petty's career and the Heartbreakers
ASCAP EXPO - April 20-22, 2006
Credit: L. Cohen/WireImage

Director Peter Bogdanovich developed a deep understanding of the late Tom Petty, who died Monday at the age of 66, when he helmed Runnin’ Down a Dream, the 2007 documentary about the iconic rocker. But the revered filmmaker didn’t enter the project with extensive knowledge.

“It’s a funny story,” Bogdanovich tells EW, recalling a long-ago meeting with a mutual friend of his and Petty’s, George Drakoulias, who first suggested the idea of a Petty documentary. “I called up my wife at the time and said, ‘Who’s Tom Petty?'”

Bogdanovich ended up having an hours-long meal with petty at the Malibu, California restaurant Geoffrey’s, where the musician laid out his life story. “‘That’s the story,’ I told him,” Bogdanovich says. “I said, ‘I want to have you tell it like you tell me.’ He reminded me of [actor] Gary Cooper. He’s very American — that appealed to me, being a first-generation American. Typically we’re very interested in Americana, and Tom seemed to be particularly American.”

Being a Petty neophyte was an asset, Bogdanovich says, because it helped him to “ask a lot of questions” — and Petty obliged, rarely censoring himself. The experience gave Bogdanovich a comprehensive appreciation of Petty, as a songwriter, as a person, and as a seminal American artist.

“He’s very much in the American grain,” Bogdanovich explains. “He’s what I would call an American original. His music doesn’t remind me of anybody — it just reminds me of Tom Petty. It doesn’t sound like anybody else.”

The director suggests that Petty’s anthems had a slyly subversive quality that contributed to their success. “He was extremely smart and could be quite outspoken politically,” Bogdanovich says. “Tom was very much against a lot of things in his time — politically as well as emotionally. He had a great understanding of and an enormous sympathy for women. That resonates through all his songs.”

Plus, Bogdanovich recounts, Petty’s integrity blazed trails within the music industry that linger to this day. For instance, when his record label suggested boosting the price of 1981’s Hard Promises, from the standard $8.98 to a “superstar” $9.98, Petty refused — and threatened to title it The $8.98 Album. “He was tremendously important,” Bogdanovich says. “That was a big argument. That song, ‘I Won’t Back Down,’ that’s Tom. When he makes up his mind about something, he won’t back down. He had extraordinary integrity. Money wasn’t the issue.” The filmmaker also cites Petty’s refusal to license his music for commercials: “He turned down a lot of money. He was pure.”

But above his music and career, Bogdanovich most fondly recalls Petty’s humor and humility. “He had a very dry wit,” the director says, “and he was the opposite of pretentious.”