Albert Maysles, who died on March 6 at the age of 88, was an American treasure, a documentary filmmaker for whom anything was a potential subject, simply because it happened, and who discovered poetry in the everyday. In partnership with his brother and fellow cinematographer David, who died of a stroke in 1987, he made 15 memorable documentaries in the roughly-hewn style that became known as “cinema verite” or, as he preferred it, “direct cinema”.
Among them are three feature length classics – Salesman (1969), about four New England Bible salesmen; Gimme Shelter (1970), covering the Rolling Stones’ gruelling 1969 tour of the US; and Grey Gardens (1975), an intimate study of two reclusive Long Island women, whom Maysles revisited in The Beales of Grey Gardens (2006), which features previously unused footage.
He also made six attention-grabbing films about the environmental husband-and-wife artists Christo and Jean-Claude. One of these was Christo’s Valley Curtain (1973), a 28-minute account of the hanging of the famed artists’ nine-ton, orange nylon fabric in Rifle Gap, Colorado, which earned the brothers an Oscar nomination in 1974. Running Fence (1978) and Islands (1986) followed before David’s death, and then came Christo in Paris (1990), Umbrellas (1995) and, shot over almost 30 years, The Gates (2007).
As well as working extensively as a cameraman on films made by others for the company founded by the brothers and based at 250 West 54th St. in New York City, Maysles also called the shots on numerous other documentaries. One of the best is the riveting Concert of Wills: Making the Getty Center (1997), which traces the history of the remarkable assembly of buildings from conception through to construction, and on which he shares the director credit with producer Susan Froemke and editor Bob Eisenhardt. Also noteworthy (and also co-directed with Froemke and editor Deborah Dickson) is the Oscar-nominated Lalee’s Kin: The Legacy of Cotton (2001), a moving account of the life of a Mississippi Delta great-grandmother and of how the oppressive past continues to cast its shadow across the present. The angry Scapegoat on Trial (2007) looks back on the Mendel Beilis case in the early 1900s.
And then there’s the made-for-TV series of “portrait films”, including With the Filmmaker: Portraits by Albert Maysles (2001) for the Independent Film Channel (featuring Martin Scorsese, Jane Campion, Robert Duvall and Wes Anderson) and Close-Up: Photographers at Work (2009) for Ovation Television (with Bruce Davison, Brigitte Lacombe, Susan Meiselas, Steve McCurry, Jay Maisel and Miru Kim).
Right to the end, Maysles was at work behind the camera, his credits including The Love We Make (2011), about Paul McCartney and the post-9/11 concert in New York, and In Transit, his beloved project about long-distance Armtrak passengers, which is scheduled for release later this year. In 2014 he was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Obama and he has left his mark on the future of documentary not only in the company he founded and the films he made, but also through the mentorship he provided to the many filmmakers who came under his nurturing wing. Their number includes Joe Berlinger and the late Bruce Sinofsky who met as interns at Maysles Films and who both together – on films such as My Brother’s Keeper (1992), dedicated to David Maysles, and the Paradise Lost trilogy (1996 – 2011) – and apart established themselves as key figures in American documentary.
Sinofsky, who died at the age of 58 after a long battle with diabetes only a couple of weeks before Maysles’ passing, had this to say about the brothers in 2002, when I spoke to him about his then-latest work, Good Rockin’ Tonight: The Legacy of Sun Records: “I have a nice pedigree because I worked with Albert and David for 14 years and learned my editing craft from Charlotte Zwerin… I don’t think you’ll see much better in the documentary field than Salesman and Gimme Shelter. And that includes Pennebaker and Leacock and Drew, those people that were in the forefront of the cinema in the documentary world in the ’60s. Charlotte Zwerin who edited Gimme Shelter and Salesman and who made Thelonius Monk and Straight, No Chaser is an amazing instinctual editor who taught me how to look at film and how to structure it in your head.”
I conducted the following interview with Albert Maysles more than a decade ago to coincide with a retrospective of his work. It’s published here for the first time by way of a memorial to a major American filmmaker and a generous human being who loved to laugh.
Did you and your brother form any guiding principles for how you wanted your company to work?
It’s kind of an odd company from a business point of view. I remember that there were a couple of graduate students from Harvard University Business School who, as a project, analysed the company, and they could never quite figure out how it worked. But they concluded that, nevertheless, it was successful. These days it’s been more difficult because of the war and the recession.
When you say “difficult”, you mean to get projects up?
Well, to get financing. But I think it’s all the more important these days to make good films because the level of television has dropped so far down. It’s got worse and worse.
Do you have the money and the distribution in place before you begin a production or is that something that happens after you’re under way?
We do it both ways. For example, this month I’m going to be shooting a film of the Dalai Lama’s visit to New York. I don’t have any distribution set up, but I happened to meet Richard Gere, who is very close to him, and through him we’re getting the financing. But we haven’t made any arrangements for distribution yet [author’s note: I can find no evidence of this film ever being completed].
On the other hand, I’ve made several films where we had the financing ahead of time. And with the distribution set up as well, making films for Home Box Office. I made four half-hour film portraits of filmmakers for the Independent Film Channel. They paid for them and they showed them and they gave me complete creative control.
I notice your credits have changed over the years, that they’ve gone from being “directed by Albert Maysles” to a recurrent “with Albert Maysles” (as on Concert of Wills and Lalee’s Kin). What does this mean?
It doesn’t mean that anything’s different from my role before, except that I wanted to give others more light in the credits. So that more attention is paid to them. Because if my name appeared earlier, I think it would take away too much from their work.
Over the years, have there been any guidelines dictating your choice of subjects?
I believe that the strongest kind of film is the one where, somehow or other, it’s related to something very personal on the part of the filmmaker. Early images, early experiences, something basic to your own interests and personality. That’s why so many films don’t quite make it, because they’re assignments rather than coming from the filmmaker’s heart. So, for example, when my brother and I made Salesman, we didn’t think of it quite at the time, we weren’t quite conscious of it, but later on we realised that part of our motivation was related to the fact that Paul Brennan, in a strangely obverse way, was very much like our father. And when you discover something like that, which may be a conscious or an unconscious motivation, then you’re probably on the track of something very strong.
I wonder how that actually affects your perception of the character as you’re filming what happens?
I think that it makes you even keener to discover more of what’s going on and to capture it in all of its significance. I think this is true of art in general. I think that an assignment is not as strong as a work that comes from conviction.
In your short about Truman Capote (With Love from Truman, 1966), Capote describes style as “something to be arrived at, bit by bit”. How did yours develop?
I think, in some part, it came from my personality. As a child, and even now, I’m a product of Attention Deficit Disorder. I didn’t know that until relatively recently. But people with this disorder tend to be much better listeners and observers and that’s been a wonderful advantage for me. I observe, I listen, I watch. When I’m paying attention, I have a very, very acute sense of what’s going on and, in a strange way, I have this faculty for anticipating something interesting that’s supposed to take place and I’m ready for it.
I was on a bus not so long ago in New York and I saw this woman sitting across from me. She was a black woman, very much overweight, and I found that, somehow or another, I was able to look at her without offending her. She was just sort of looking up. And I nudged the woman next to me so that she also was looking at her. Now I still don’t know what made me think that something was gonna happen. But, anyway, at that very moment, a little girl next to the woman I was watching – who was also black and had to be the woman’s daughter, maybe eight or nine years old – gets up, walks around in front of her mother and nestles her head between her mother’s enormous breasts and falls asleep. It changed everything. The woman next to me said, ‘Oh, my God. I’m so glad that you called my attention to what was going on.’
A really good photographer is somebody who notices something where somebody else might just see that something without noticing it. And that sort of thing has happened to me over and over.
Because of the retrospective, I’ve been able to watch a lot of the films on DVD at home with my teenage daughter. She turned to me at the end of Salesman, in fact, and was horrified by some of the people but said what was remarkable is that the film didn’t judge them. And I think she’s right.
That’s right. It’s very important.
This is a constant for you?
It’s very important. I’m at the complete opposite end of the scale from, let’s say, somebody like Michael Moore, who is intent on doing people in.
Yes. Sometimes with good reason. (laughter)
Nowadays, there’s too much attention paid to making films that are on social issues rather than on something more basic. I’ve done some filming already for a project where I get on long-distance trains and I’ll find somebody during the course of the trip where I only discover the story that is gonna take place when they get off the train. It could turn out to be very, very interesting. I’m planning to film in maybe four or five countries and find a wonderful story in each country. But all of it has to do with the train, which is kind of a metaphor for life itself as it goes from station to station.
In connection with that, so many of us have said, and truthfully so, ‘I just saw this film based on a book, but the book is better.’ The book is almost always better than the film! But I can see where, in making documentary films, we can – what shall I say? – do something that is sort of a translation of a literary form. The documentary feature could be like a non-fiction novel. And we should also look for poetry. That scene I described, with the woman suddenly becoming a mother, could have been a piece of poetry.
But I don’t think kids who go to film school are taught to recognise that kind of potential. And I think that they would do well to keep their eye open for a poem rather than think, ‘Oh, I’ve gotta spend $100,000 of money I don’t have to make a full-length film.’ That little thing, those three minutes, would have cost me 50 cents.
If you’d had the camera with you…
Did actually witnessing that scene bring on the train idea?
No. I’ve had it for many years. One thing that I’ve already shot was when I was travelling across the country with a camera some years back. As we were pulling out of Pittsburgh station, I was walking through the train and I saw in the cafeteria coach a young woman in her 20s. Across the aisle were her two children. She was sitting at an empty table and I could see there was something nervous about her. I asked if I could join her and told her that I’d like to do some filming if it was OK with her. She said, ‘Oh, yeah.’ And then right away she told me why she was on the train.
When she was three years old, her parents had broken up in an ugly divorce and her father got custodianship over her. And he vowed that the mother would never see her again. Here she was, 26 years old, 23 years had gone by, and she had never seen her mother. The night before she’d got a call from a woman in Philadelphia saying that it was her mother, that she should get on the train as soon as possible. There was no time to exchange photographs; they didn’t know what each other looked like. But she’d be waiting for her at the train station.
So I’m filming all of this, we get off the train and she looks around. There’s nobody there. She walks up the stairs and there’s this woman who suddenly flings open her arms, embraces her, and the mother puts her head over her daughter’s shoulder and says to me, ‘Isn’t she gorgeous?’ When you can get that kind of stuff…!
Yes. And it should be captured.
How do you get people to agree to let you use them in a film? Say with somebody like Joe Levine (in Showman)?
I think it’s been very easy for me to gain access to them because I just have a genuine liking for people. Even if it’s somebody I may differ from greatly, I feel that I really want to know them and that the potential’s there to like them. So, from the very start, as soon as I see somebody, the way I look at that person conveys a kind of empathy. And so it’s been very easy for me to gain the trust that you need. And I get it right away, no matter who it is.
When I first met Fidel Castro, for example, from the next day I was with him day and night. But the very first thing I shot of him is one of the best things I’ve ever filmed.[This was for Yanki, No! (1960), directed by Robert Drew for the ABC Close-Up TV series and shot by Maysles.]
How did you come across the Beales, Edith and Edie?
I got a call one day from Lee Radziwill. The Beales are her aunt and cousin and she wanted to make a film about her childhood in the Hamptons, on Long Island. And so she came to me with a list of some 40 or so things that she thought were going on that might be interesting for the film. Item number 34 was her aunt and cousin.
We began to film and within a few days she introduced us to the two women. A few days later she asked to see what we’d shot and I think that, when she saw them on film, there was no way for her to compete with these two characters. So she kind of lost interest, and then several months later my brother and I devoted six weeks to filming the two women.
And they had no objection to you being there?
No objection. They loved every bit of it.
One of them says at one stage, ‘Where have you been all my life?’
(laughter) Well, the daughter told us later on, after her mother had died, that, at one point, she’d asked her if there was something else she wanted to say. And her mother said, ‘There’s nothing more to say. It’s all in the film.’ So the film had to be something that they believed to be quite a truthful account of who they were. And something that was very important to them.
So they were pleased with it?
Oh, yeah. They were delighted. I remember the first word that came out of the daughter when we showed them the film: she said, in a very loud voice, ‘You know, the Maysles have created a classic.’
And you were quite happy to go along with that?
(laughter) Oh, yeah! Oh, yeah!
I find that fascinating because, in so many ways, they’re such a sad couple. And the film strikes me as very poignant. Those images of the cats furtively looking out through the grass: it’s as if they’re like the women.
But you know, when you come to think of it, how many people, courageous enough to share their actual lives with a camera, would be as interesting to the larger population as these two women? Just the way their lives occurred made a feature film. I met a woman who’d seen it 120 times. That was a year ago. I saw her more recently and it’s up to 126 now. But it’s not uncommon for people to see it five or ten times.
Are there any specific rules governing the way you work?
Oh, yeah. I avoid interviews and narration. I avoid a host, somebody telling us all along what’s going on. I think what a documentary is very special at doing very well is depicting somebody experiencing something, so that the viewer experiences that as well. The most powerful moments are when, through the process of identification, you’re that person on the street. That’s quite a gift to be able to do that and it helps to establish a common ground by which we can understand, connect with, engage ourselves with, the emotions of people whom we might never otherwise come in contact with.
That’s interesting because the idea of being engaged with someone’s experience does seem on the face of it to contradict that idea of remaining detached from your subject. It must be a difficult line to walk?
Well, it was very difficult to be detached from these two women in the film. But I’m sure that there are some people who watch the film and, because they’re afraid to connect with these two people who might appear to them to be crazy, they resist this kind of engagement. You know what I mean? People come up with all kinds of excuses: ‘Oh, no, this is exploitation. Some people shouldn’t be filmed.’ Maybe they’re just afraid of this process of revelation, that they themselves might get caught up in it. I think. Weird things happen to some people when they see this film.
I know that when it was reviewed by The New York Times, Walter Goodman just hated the film. He didn’t say so because he didn’t want to offend the two women. But what he was saying was extremely offensive to them. ‘Why are they showing all of this flabby flesh?’ Obviously he had problems with age. And he thought that this was a terrible thing, that we should be disgusted with ourselves for having made this film. He couldn’t say they were crazy because he’s supposed to be defending them against these awful filmmakers. But between the lines that’s what he was saying.
You, above almost all other documentary filmmakers, seem to have foregrounded the importance of the editor in shaping the material?
Oh, they’re very important. I handle the camera. I’m the one who does all the shooting. So I’ll say it’s all in the camerawork. (laughter) And the editors will say, ‘No, it’s all in the editing.’ Which is fine, although it’s not true. It’s all in both of these things. But if you’re taking on all the responsibility, of both shooting and editing, so much the better for the film.
Capote also talks about how all material has “an organic shape, like an apple”. Does the material you shoot always have an inherent shape, do you think? Say with Gimme Shelter?
That’d be best answered by Charlotte Zwerin. (laughter)
And she’d probably always say, ‘No’?
(laughter) It’s her job to give it shape. Right? But I think also, just as it is in shooting, the editorial process is one of discovering something that’s already there. And she’s the best editor I’ve ever met. She’s fabulous. She edited both Salesman and Gimme Shelter.
The decision to structure Gimme Shelter around the Rolling Stones looking at the monitors gives it a shape that it otherwise mightn’t have had.
Oh, yeah. When we finished shooting at Altamont and the film was being put together, we remembered that the Stones had said they’d like to see some of this stuff. And so we took them up on that and showed it to them, and that became our opportunity to get their reaction to the event in a very spontaneous fashion.
Can you remember who actually came up with that brainwave?
I think it was Mick.
Do you have guidelines for how many cameras you will use?
For Grey Gardens and Salesman, it was just my camera. That’s all. In a way that’s better because more than that is an imposition. Now, when you’re filming something like Altamont, you want a number of cameras all over the place.
Apparently George Lucas and Walter Murch both shot some footage for Gimme Shelter?
That’s right. The odd thing is that, unfortunately, George Lucas’s camera, which we rented at the last moment, was defective. I don’t remember that we could use any of his material, but we credited him in the film.
What do you think about digital video?
Love it. It’s a turning point for the better in documentary filmmaking. I can now do all kinds of things that I can’t do with a film camera. For one thing, it doesn’t run out for 40 minutes or an hour, whereas with a film camera, every ten minutes you’ve gotta reload. You lose a lotta good stuff that way. And it’s also much more sensitive to light and you don’t have to change film stocks when you’re indoors or outdoors. With the flip of a switch, you can go from one to the other. Actually, I came up with 30 reasons why I switched to digital, and almost any one of them is enough to make a change.
That’s interesting because others, including Frederick Wiseman, have refused to use it.
Well, he’s not a cameraman.
Does ‘direct cinema’ mean the same thing now as it meant 40 years ago?
Pretty much. Although, you know, Robert Capa was once asked what advice he’d give a young photographer and he said, ‘Get close. Get very close.’ And so, especially with this new video equipment, you can get that much closer to what’s going on without interfering. And that advice is still about as good as you can get.
I love the way that meanings in your films emerge gradually, that – as with a painting – you have to look at everything in order to make sense of the parts. Because at the end of your films I feel that I’ve come to understand the bits in a way that I never could have if I’d seen them in isolation.
That’s great. Also I think that with a good documentary, whether it’s mine or somebody else’s, you can’t get it all in one screening. You want to see it again. Very few people have seen Gimme Shelter only once. The only film I’ve ever seen more than twice is La Strada (1954). And I think that’s because I had a personal connection with it. I had an uncle who was just like the main character, and I think that in a way I was watching another version of my uncle every time I watched it.
Do you try to keep up with the work of other documentary filmmakers?
I saw a five and a half hour film by Jonas Mekas [presumably As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty (2000)] that was extraordinary. And yet, from a purely technical point of view, it was a disaster. He couldn’t keep the camera steady, things were out of focus and so forth. But he had a poetic eye. And that was most important.
Are there other documentary filmmakers whom you admire?
Ricky Leacock. We both shot Primary (1960) and we pretty much see eye-to-eye on how to make a film. People like Wiseman, especially his earlier films, I take a dislike to because he applies a point of view: a good-guy, bad-guy sort o’ thing. I think that obscures what’s really going on. The first one that he made, I think, was Titticut Follies (1967), and, if you ask him, he would say, ‘I did this or that to protect the patients.’ But in the process of making the administration look so bad and just using the patients as kind of mannequins to make his point, he somehow or other degraded, dehumanised, the patients.
I’ve worked in mental hospitals myself and I know that most of the time patients are not in a catatonic state or a schizophrenic episode. And when they’re not, in those moments you feel that they’re so much more like themselves. But he only showed them in their non-communicative episodes. All so that he could make his point. In fact, he was dishonest insofar as I read just recently that the hospital was making very radical improvements at that time, none of which he paid any attention to.
What about the younger generation of documentary filmmakers? People like Errol Morris?
Well, in an essay in 1926, Virginia Woolf asked a question: what would the cinema do if left to its own devices? [Woolf’s essay can be found in The Essays of Virginia Woolf, Vol. 4, 1925 – 1928] And left to its own devices, the documentary, I think, films other people’s experiences. And I find that Errol Morris distracts himself from just getting those experiences, the essential material about human behaviour, by trying to be ‘a good filmmaker’. This view of mine may be explained by the fact that I had a bad experience with him. When he made his first film, he edited it in my studio and he still hasn’t paid me for the rental. (laughter)
Albert Maysles died on March 6, 2015, aged 88.
David Maysles died on January 3, 1987, aged 53.