Documenting Life with Albert Maysles
New York City, New York
Albert Maysles is one of the founders of direct cinema and remains active filming documentaries to this day. His shining legacy includes the following nonfiction films; Gimme Shelter, Grey Gardens, LaLee's Kin: The Legacy of Cotton, and Salesman. Albert was gracious to speak with The Career Cookbook on two separate occasions due to initial technical difficulties. This gesture speaks eloquently about his character which is nicely reflected in his work and his efforts to spread the truth of documentaries to a new generation. Come learn about his current projects, how he feels about today’s documentaries, and his keys to succeeding in the art-form.
CCB: Did you make the leap from Psychology to filmmaker by filming patients in Psychiatry in Russia (1955)?
AM: I was already teaching Psychology at Boston University.
CCB: When you went to Russia you realized you wanted to work in documentaries as a career?
AM: Well, that was a big incentive and then many years later I met up with several other filmmakers and we had new equipment that allowed us to really film behind the scenes with sync sound, a mobile camera, and so forth. Then I knew for sure that’s what my life would be.
(Psychiatry in Russia made a profit and from this point on he was able to be a documentary filmmaker.)
CCB: What appeals to you about documentaries?
AM: They perform a very important service of getting to know one another. People that you would never otherwise know become familiar to you. By entering into their lives the camera can transpose us from our own little way of thinking to what’s going on in the rest of the world.
CCB: How did working with your brother come about?
AM: In 1962 we made a film together called Showman and that was our first film together.
CCB: How did you approach him about working in documentaries?
AM: He knew very well what I was doing and that’s what he wanted to do with me. He had been working in fiction on a couple of Marilyn Monroe films, but his heart was really with documentary.
CCB: How do you know when you have a good idea suitable for a documentary?
AM: You are always taking a chance because you never know exactly what’s going to happen. It’s all a hunch, hopefully one that is going to pay off. If suddenly you start filming The Beatles on arrival in America for the first time, your hunches are pretty solid. Filming four door-to-door bible salesmen you just hope that one of them at least will be very interesting.
CCB: How did you learn about documentaries since there weren’t any film schools at the time?
AM: With Psychiatry in Russia first of all I got a tourist visa for a month in Russia. Then I approached CBS and with my credentials as a psychologist they though that I might do something interesting. So they took a chance on me and put a 16 millimeter wind-up camera in my hands and enough film stock and off I went.
CCB: So, it was just trial and error?
AM: I didn’t have any training whatsoever except they gave me a three minute roll of film to start with. They said just shoot anything and we’ll process and critique it. That was my training.
CCB: What qualities do you need to succeed as a documentary filmmaker?
AM: I think an open mind and empathy for people. It’s the trust that you need to get access to people. Then I guess it’s kind of like a poet’s sensitivity behind the lens of the camera, so that you notice things that are going on that other people just pass them by.
CCB: Have any advice for people interested in becoming a documentary filmmaker?
AM: Have an idea that you are fascinated with. What often times turns out to be the best idea is something that at some point your realize is very personal. The person that you’ve chosen to film is like somebody in your family who you’d like to know better. Or some kind of craving images of your childhood. When that turns up consciously or unconsciously chances are you are that much more on the right track. Which is another way of saying it’s better for you to choose your subject than be handed one. It’s nice to grab hold of a subject and see what you are best at.
You should especially be adept at one or more jobs. Either behind the camera or with sound, editing, or producing.
CCB: How does the fundraising process work once you have your idea?
AM: The thing to do is probably do a little bit of shooting, enough to get a trailer. That becomes helpful in pitching your project. Come up with maybe a page or two description of what it is and how you are going to make it. One thing to do might be to go to several film festivals where there are commissioning editors. These are the people from various channels around the world who listen to your pitch and decide whether or not to put your film on their TV channels. It’s best to make your sale as a pre-sale to them. That is early on before the film gets into production, to make your sale, because you get a much better deal that way. It’s strange because then they’re taking a bigger risk but they’d rather be in on it from the beginning than take a finished film.
CCB: What has been the most rewarding thing about the job? Is it capturing moments?
(He tells the story of a 50 year old man learning about his father for the first time.)
AM: He called me up and said he’d been looking for is father his whole life and never found him. Here he is in his fifties and he still doesn’t know anything about his father. He was hoping to meet this woman the next day, who might have all the answers, would I go along with him and film the get-together? I did and it was the most important day in his life. It really turned out beautifully.
CCB: People would be surprised to learn what about your job?
(How long the road can be to getting things done, for example with the Christo Gates project that has been in motion since the 1970’s. When the installation finally hit New York and had over 4 million visitors it showed that there was an interest for the documentary that is in the works.)
AM: That one was unusual, 26 years in the making, which makes it all the more interesting because that’s kind of rare in the documentary that you escape the time thing. You are at your best in making a documentary when you are filming something that is actually going on. If it’s actually going on over a 26 year period you have all that background stuff which is shot in a contemporary fashion but nevertheless gives you the historical view point.
CCB: What stage is that Gates documentary in?
AM: Well, we have 600 hours so it’s taking a long time. Probably won’t have it finished until September, but it’s going to go on HBO and in movie theaters.
CCB: Are there certain types of stories you are trying to tell with your films? What inspires you?
AM: I attended a lecture once and at the end Margaret Mead said, “The greatest need in the world is to develop a sense of commonality of interest.” If I’m making a film and somebody in that film somehow connects us through that person’s life and experience, with another race, another class in society, another occupation, it brings us closer to people around us and even outside of our country. Then I think there’s that much greater value.
CCB: What are the biggest misconceptions about documentaries?
AM: First of all the word itself conveys a static kind of thing, that’s in an archive. Then there are people making films that are more propaganda than works of art or of reliable information. It seems like the films of Michael Moore, they get the most attention, but we need fuller information that is not closed off by some point of view.
CCB: How do you feel about the state of documentaries today and the recent widespread popularity of some? (For example, March of the Penguins, Spellbound, Supersize Me)
AM: I’m more optimistic than ever. There are 25,000 students of film in America, many of them going into documentary. That means that many more possibilities for good films. There are much more avenues of distribution. We have DVD’s and the Internet, both of which can be profitable to the filmmaker. Equipment is such that for a couple of thousand dollars you have as good a camera as you need and for three or four dollars you have an hour worth of tape. I just made a little seven minute film in 45 minutes. It cost me less than four dollars and it’s a beautiful little film.
CCB: Why do you think that documentaries seem to be more accepted today?
AM: Well, the word reality has come into popularity for example, although the reality shows are not real. The word itself has come into being fashionable. I think people are looking for real life. And as the better documentaries get shown I think there will even be a preference for them. It’s taken a long time. It took over thirty years for Salesman to get on television. It took Grey Gardens twenty-five years. If those films were made today you wouldn’t have to wait that long.
CCB: How do you get such great access to the people that you film such as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones?
AM: Well, the first one Granada TV in England happened to know of my work and they called me up a couple of hours before The Beatles arrived and put me on to them. With The Rolling Stones they were in California before the big tour. It just so happened that a good friend of mine Haskell Wexler, who is a very well known cinematographer, met up with them and thought they’d be of interest to my brother and myself. He told us they’d be at the Plaza Hotel the next day so we went there and knocked on the door and got to know them.
CCB: What was the original documentary idea for Gimme Shelter before Altamont unfolded?
AM: First of all it would be their music and it would be great. But then we weren’t just interested in their music so something else would happen if we went along with them. It turned out to be the tragedy at Altamont, the drugs and so forth. Had it been something else so be it. We'd be able to form a story from what took place.
CCB: How does editing work into the idea of direct cinema? You mentioned previously that if you have a good editor it all ends up chronologically.
AM: That’s what the editors tell me. They work it in various ways, it falls out of chronology, but by the time the film is finished the editing seems to connect with the time.
CCB: Grey Gardens seems to carry with it a very devoted fan base. Why do you think this particular film out of all of your many, had the ability to affect its audience this way?
AM: I think so many of us, maybe most of us, are outsiders. Attention is normally not paid to outsiders. Here are the people who are the most outside of all. I think that’s a special appeal to people, for example, who are homosexuals, people out of the common.
(He’s working on new DVD version to release with a scrapbook. There was also a musical that opened this year in New York City.)
CCB: Is the Maysles Institute your way of continuing to further the documentary field?
AM: We are hoping to spread the word and train youngsters in the medium, put video cameras in their hands.
(He recently moved to Harlem with his family and set up a new studio. The facilities will include a 75 seat theater to bring movies to that community of films they’ve never had access to. This should be open around next September.)
CCB: What can be found in documentaries that you enjoy?
AM: Entertainment is usually a diversion, an escape from reality. But, it can be an engagement with reality and I think that’s documentary at its best.
CCB: Is there an event, a person, a historical or political climate that has come and gone that you now regret not capturing on film?
(He describes a story about a dead body being brought back in 1961.)
AM: That was somebody who was an advisor in Vietnam. He was killed in an ambush. His body came back to America and I went to the railway station in New Orleans and filmed the journey of the body to its home and the funeral. What I was getting was all the townspeople thought it’s just like North Korea. We are already getting bodies back. My hope was at that time to be able to get some money and distribution to go back to where he came from in Vietnam and start filming his replacement. But, I was not able to get the money. Then it was too bad because it could have been a film that alerted us to the folly of our involvement there.
CCB: What do you having come up, such as Going On a Lark your filmic autobiography, Trains, and The Gates project?
AM: (Going On a Lark) It’s going to cover my career and be made in such a way that people who are interested in documentaries will get much more of an insight in to how it works.
CCB: What stage is that in?
AM: Very early. Close to a year before it’s finished.
CCB: Are you still working on your Trains project?
AM: I’ve got a nice little trailer for it and a very good description and I’m about to seriously get into raising money for it. It will be half a dozen locations worldwide. I’m mostly interested in meeting them on the train and the train serving as an opportunity to connect with people where there is a story about to take place when they get off the train. It’s the off the train stories that will be the film.
* Interview conducted by Paul Maniaci and Anna Martemucci
*Check out Albert Maysle's official site: mayslesfilms.com