Serendipitous Journeys

An Interview with Albert Maysles

Albert Maysles, along with Robert Drew, Richard Leacock, and D.A. Pennebaker, changed the face of documentary filmmaking with Primary, their portrayal of the 1960 John F. Kennedy presidential campaign. The film gave birth to a new style, “direct cinema” or “cinema verité,” which aims to capture life as it really happens. Maysles later joined forces with his brother David, now deceased, and formed Maysles Films. The two of them went on to make films that continued to stretch the traditional boundaries of documentary filmmaking, including Salesman (1968), which followed the lives of door-to-door bible peddlers, and Gimme Shelter (1970), which captured the Rolling Stones’ ill-fated Altamont concert, where an audience member died at the hands of the band’s hired security, the Hells Angels. This year, Lalee’s Kin: the Legacy of Cotton (2001), made with Susan Froemke and Deborah Dickson, received a nomination for an Academy Award for best documentary.

In March, Austin’s South by Southwest film festival showcased a retrospective of the 75-year-old Maysles’ work. Silver-haired and playfully irascible, Maysles preached the gospel of cinema verité to eager crowds at the festival, mining the most from his role as a documentary film elder statesman who is still in top form. After the festival, the Observer caught up with Maysles at his home base in New York City for a free-ranging conversation that touched on what distinguishes cinema verité from other cinematic forms, the responsibility of documentarians toward their subjects, and his future plans.

Texas Observer: What initially drove you to make documentaries?

Albert Maysles: I was born in Boston in Dorchester, a Jewish neighborhood bordered by an Irish neighborhood. I grew up fighting with the Irish. And I became a pretty good fighter. It was my own way of making contact with the outside world. But I yearned to change that relationship to one of friendship, and that happened many years later when my brother and I made Salesman, about four door-to-door bible salesmen who were Irish from Boston.

I think every great work of art is in some way autobiographical. It turned out that Paul [the central figure] was just like my father. My father grew up in a neighborhood where everyone went on to be a civil servant, so my father ended up as a postal worker. It wasn’t the right job for him, and sales wasn’t the right job for Paul.

One’s best work most often comes from one’s own personal expression. That is why it is difficult, and perhaps wrong, for someone to say, “Hey, here is a film that needs to be made, why don’t you make this one?” And, in the world of television and distribution, it is likely that someone will choose a subject for you. [But] it won’t be the heartfelt subject you would choose for yourself. This one, Salesman, was chosen by us.

TO: How do your documentaries, made in the direct cinema style, differ from others?

AM: Most documentaries are point-of-view documentaries. They are still stuck on being narrated and using music to jazz up the drama. I like to see a documentary that is made as an open minded process of discovery, a serendipitous journey where you don’t know what is coming next as you are filming it. This gives a documentary a kind of authenticity and honesty. Purity.

This just didn’t exist in documentary filmmaking before the Drew Associates [Robert Drew, Richard Leacock, D.A. Pennebaker] and myself. When you are watching our films, you feel that you’re there–that you are in the presence of another person whom if you hadn’t seen the movie, you would never have known so well. You are witness to that person’s experience so close that you feel like you are in the other person’s shoes.

TO: What responsibility do you have to the subjects of your documentaries?

AM: I feel an enormous responsibility. I don’t have any fear of exploiting them. But there are plenty of documentary films that do exploit people, and I have had unfounded charges of exploitation leveled at some of my films, like “Grey Gardens.” Some people felt these two women, who were recluses living alone in a haunted house, were too unconventional, that they weren’t the type of people you should film. Now my own feeling, supported by most people who see the film, is that we have done the best thing imaginable for those two women. The older woman, who was in her eighties when we filmed her, died a couple of years after the film was released. At her deathbed, her daughter asked if there is anything else she wanted to say, and she said, very close to her dying words, “There is nothing more to say. It’s all in the film.”

So I feel you have a responsibility to tell the truth. And I also believe, unlike other documentary filmmakers, that you can tell the truth. There are several of my films that are twenty or thirty years old, and there is not a moment anywhere in those films that people can say is not correct. They have held up to the test of time and will continue to do so.

TO: When you are making a film, are there scenes you won’t film out of respect for the subject?

AM: When we are filming, there are certain times where I think maybe we shouldn’t, but I might get it on film anyway. And, very rarely, there are things I put on film that don’t pass the test of decency, and they won’t get in the final cut. At the same time, there are a lot of people who will cut short right when they are getting to the heart and soul of the person. They fear that by exposing the person’s vulnerabilities they are doing harm to that person. But then they are missing out by not getting close. There are things that might be somewhat embarrassing, but which deserve to be told. So you have to be discreet in knowing exactly where to draw the line.

For example, my brother and I made a film called Showman, about a man, Joe Levine, who distributes films. We could see that there was tension building between him and one of his subordinates. So one day there was a meeting between the two, and we asked if we could go in, and the secretary wouldn’t let us. We were somewhat disappointed, and went into another office to wait. And as soon as the man walked in from the meeting, a co-worker said, “I heard they dropped a bombshell on you.” He had been fired. We got that on film, and he sat down. I put the camera down and said, “We would like to keep filming, but it’s up to you.” He said “Okay” and got on the phone to tell the whole story to his brother. Thank God we got that scene, instead of the other one. Because the other scene would have been so embarrassing for Mr. Levine and for [the subordinate] that we couldn’t have used it anyway.

TO: In Gimme Shelter and Grey Gardens, we see you and your brother making the film. Why did you decide to include yourself in the films, when it could be distracting?

AM: My brother and I were there. We are a part of it. The only way not to be involved would be with a hidden camera behind a wall, and films have been made that way. . . But the camera that is heartless is not making contact with the person, so it is necessary that you establish a rapport. They look into your eyes, and you into their eyes, and they know that you really like them. It is important that the person behind the camera have compassion. People say, “How can you be so subjective, and still be objective?” I think the love helps you pay attention, helps you find the emotional moments, and allows you to be fair and honest, truthful and authentic.

TO: In the 50 or so years you have been shooting, have you noticed a change in the way people respond to the camera?

AM: When we first started making films, people said, “Oh you can’t film celebrities. They are too savvy; they won’t be natural.” We proved them wrong. Then they said, “You can’t film an ordinary person, because they have never seen a camera before, and they will be sort of ‘on camera’ all the time.” Well, that didn’t happen either. Now people say its so much more difficult these days, with the reality shows and so forth. But if you know how to handle yourself behind a camera, then you tap into a very primitive instinct. People like to be filmed, if they know that it is really themselves being portrayed. And you must pay attention, because people want to be attended to. The truth is most people would like to do an autobiography, or have someone do it for them.

TO: Some of the most striking scenes in your films are very still, quiet moments. What drew you to film these scenes?

AM: My father was a very quiet person, and I used to watch him listening to good music, and as the music played, there might be a tear in his eye or another intimate facial gesture. Watching my father listen gave me a near-perfect music appreciation course. And when my brother and I made the first film about Vladimir Horowitz playing the piano, when he listened to the playback, I knew exactly how to tune in to his hands, his face…

There is a scene in Salesman. Paul, one of the salesmen, has had a tough day, and he is sitting at a coffee shop looking off into the distance. At the time, I was worried that the camera would run out of film, and I was convinced that something was going to happen eventually. In the scene, Paul continues to silently look into the distance for a few minutes, during which the viewer, like my brother and myself, are totally inside the heart and soul of this poor guy and his suffering. Finally, he picks up his set of cards, which are his leads [for potential bible customers], and he raps them against the table, and then stands up and goes back to work.

You couldn’t have imagined a more fitting end to that scene, and we got it because we waited patiently for something we didn’t know was going to happen. But we got one of the best moments I have ever captured. When we had a screening, I was looking through a crack in the door of the theater, and there was a woman inside after the film finished. I saw that she was crying, because of that scene, and as she got closer I saw that she was really attractive. I said to my brother, “She’s for me.” That’s how I met my wife.

TO: Why is it important to make documentary films?

AM: It is important that we know more about other people, people that are not quite like ourselves, but with whom we share the commonality of being human. We don’t normally feel that commonality, except when seeing a film of people experiencing things in an intimate way. Then we develop a sense of tolerance and love that is so necessary in our world. I am obviously a true believer. I am more convinced with each passing year that I have chosen the right job, and have been able to spread the good word of who our neighbors are.

TO: Have your interests changed in the past 50 years?

AM: I want to keep doing what I am doing, only more so. . . I am finally working on a film that I have wanted to do for years. I get on long distance trains, and I find someone on that train who has something evolving in their life, usually having to do with the trip. Then I get off the train with that person and get the real story. I am going to do that in a number of countries around the world. You have the train as a metaphor for life itself, as it goes from station to station.

I proposed that film to a number of people who could have supported it, but they haven’t come up with the distribution or the money. So I am going to do it myself. And I think it will be the best film I have ever made.

Michael May is a writer in Austin.

Michael May is a former Observer managing editor. He’s now a freelance journalist based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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Published at 12:00 am CST