The great documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles, best known for Grey Gardens and Gimme Shelter, died last week aged 88. In 2005 Documentary Producer and Director Vanessa Gildea interviewed him for Film Ireland.
‘As a documentarian I happily place my fate and faith in reality. It is my caretaker, the provider of subjects, themes, experiences – all endowed with the power of truth and the romance of discovery. And the closer I adhere to reality the more honest and authentic my tales. After all, knowledge of the real world is exactly what we need to better understand and therefore possibly to love one another. It’s my way of making the world a better place.’ Al Maysles.
Albert & David Maysles (1932-1987) are credited with being the creators of ‘direct cinema,’ the distinctly American version of the French ‘cinema verité’. Al Maysles and Maysles Films count over three dozen films to their credit, including Gimme Shelter, Grey Gardens and the landmark Salesman, a portrait of four Irish American door-to-door Bible salesmen from Boston regarded by many as the classic American documentary.
The last time Film Ireland spoke to Albert Maysles he told me about a dream he had to sell his family home in the famous Dakota building in New York, buy a whole building in a cheaper part of town, divide it up and install his children and close friends each in an apartment there. I ask him how his dream is coming along, he tells me that they have indeed purchased a building in Harlem, and that two of his children are already living there. With an enormous childlike smile he also tells me that in a couple of days he will know whether the sale has gone through on his Dakota building home. So, dreams do come true! You would be forgiven for thinking that as one of the most famous and celebrated documentarians of all time that Albert has made his fortune through films, but not so. Albert is still a struggling filmmaker; he has many projects in pre and post production that he is trying to get money to make or to finish. Albert was honoured with a retrospective of his work at the Belfast Film Festival in April; I had the opportunity to ask him about filmmaking and his current projects in between Masterclasses and screenings.
Vanessa: The first questions I want to ask you Albert is about the Direct Cinema movement that you and your brother David pioneered in America, is it still a relevant style of documentary filmmaking? And do you still make documentaries in that style?
Albert: I think it’s very important that make a documentary, in terms of filming people’s experiences as they’re happening. Still in America we rely too much on narration and music to dramatise and give what I would call a ‘non cinematic’ style.
And you are still making films in this way?
That’s right and now even more so because we have better equipment with which to do so…
I wanted to ask you a quite personal question about your brother David, who you were very close to and was your collaborator in film. He died prematurely in 1987 which I know had a profound effect on you, was there a point after his death where you thought I don’t want to make films without him?
I never doubted my instinct to go on making films despite the loss. Susan Froemke who was working with us at that time became a replacement for David and more recently Antonio Ferrera. I haven’t been at a loss for good filmmakers to collaborate with.
Despite the current obsession with so called reality style documentaries on TV, do you think there is a current resurgence for the creative documentary, what with quite a number of documentary features getting extensive theatrical releases?
I think people aren’t exposed enough to the purer form of documentary that I would advocate. I think any attempt to get at the real thing will help to move people more in that direction. I remember when the reality shows first began; it was reported on TV with the word reality having quotation marks around it, which meant something about how it had a special attitude towards documentary filming. With the word reality in quotation marks people think that they’re getting the real thing and they’re not, that’s a dangerous thing. Just as in literature there is a move from pulp fiction to non fiction and I think it’s going to happen in film as well, it’ll become more and more an important factor in our lives.
From the early days when you made Salesman, Gimme Shelter and say Grey Gardens you funded the films yourself and exercised complete creative control, so when you were commissioned by HBO to make a series of ‘Filmmakers in Profile’ films featuring Martin Scorsese and Jane Campion to name just two, are you still afforded that level of creative and editorial control?
Well there are few places in America where you make your film the way you want and they accept that, but one of those places is HBO, and so we’ve made three films with them and I’m making a fourth one, the Gates / Christo project and I’m glad we’re doing it with HBO. It’s always been impossible for me to get films shown on the nationwide networks ABC, CBS, NBC & CNN. So you use your judgement to exercise freedom and anyway the films shown there are so stylized. Some of the theatre owners expect you to sacrifice your own expression, so you have to fight that a lot, but then there’s DVD too as a way of exhibiting but still maintaining the freedom that you want.
At festivals and documentary forums you hear a lot about the MTV generation audience and how certain demands are made on filmmakers by funders / TV channels for a cut every seven seconds or that the subject of the film is repeated every few minutes so that people can join in viewing at any time, have you come across those restrictions at all?
I’ve never had funding from any of those places or had any of my films screened on those channels you’re talking about. So I haven’t had that problem.
Now that you have received certain awards and recognition, like Lalee’s Kin getting an Oscar nomination in 2001, and your cinematography awards etc is it easier for you to get funding to make your films?
It’s hard for me to assess that, I know that maybe 20 years ago PBS wanted to make an American Masters film about me, but when I said well I will make it, they turned that down. But now I’ve put together and am selling the idea of an autobiographical film, I’m getting very good support for that so I’m going ahead with it.
You are publicly a great advocate of the Sony PD150 and subsequently the PD170, how has the DV camera changed the way that you make films from when you shot everything on 16mm cameras with separate sound?
Well firstly if someone wants to make a documentary on film, it’s going to cost you a lot of money compared with video. To buy a proper film camera set up it would cost you $100,000 compared to the PD170 which I think you can buy for $3,000. And you have the picture and sound all in one little package and all on the one tape. Other than that you throw a tape into the camera you can film for a whole hour before you change tape again compared to film where you re-load every ten minutes. People argue with ten minutes you have to be more careful but I don’t know I think tape is better; it seems to be you have more ability in a normal situation when you turn the camera on…
I recall you telling a story about a particular time in Cuba in the sixties with Fidel Castro when you wished you’d had a DV camera to record something that happened, can you tell that story?
In 1960 when I was in Cuba, I spent whole 24 hour periods with Fidel, I remember during one of those days Fidel said this evening ‘I’m going to a reception in the Cuban embassy’ and asked would I like to come along and so indeed I took him up on that. During the course of the reception, I was standing shoulder to shoulder with him when a telegram came to him, he tore it open read it and said ‘Would you like me to translate it for you?’ And I said please? ‘Your state department has just broken off relations with Cuba.’ Well it was a situation where I couldn’t have brought my big camera, but if I’d had a small video camera that precious moment would have been caught…
Have you ever transferred any of your films to 35mm from DV, if so what kind of results did you get?
To tell you the truth I’ve only made tests and they looked fine, but that’s expensive to transfer to 35mm
I read somewhere that you believe that the human urge to reveal itself is stronger than the urge to conceal or keep secrets is. With specific relation to your ongoing Train project In Transit where people have been know to tell you and allow you to film their life stories or intimate secrets between train stops, what is it about you or your approach that makes people want to do that?
I think that unlike some, and I hope they’re in the minority, documentary filmmakers who are out to get people to prove their point. My approach is quite different, I like people and they sense that right away, the way I approach them and look at them produces a kind of trust. And also I want to do a good job at representing their lives fairly and truthfully. I would say that when documentary filmmakers don’t have that faith that what they do then isn’t very true representation of what’s going on. It’s just the fact that everybody has a point of view and that they can control that for themselves. Editing itself no matter how careful you are is a kind of manipulation, I chose editors who are very faithful to the material and I shoot it in such a way so as to render a very truthful account of what’s going on. The whole relationship is based on the kindness of strangers…
A film like Salesman which says so much about America of a certain time, but is still a film that when it screens today 40 years later still resonates so powerfully with audiences, why is it still so relevant?
Well I think that certainly in America and it’s a growing trend all over the world, even in China, buying and selling, the capitalist dream to attempt to be rich. People lose their foundations with one another because everybody is buying and selling. So that theme which was so important in Salesman is still important today and even more so maybe…
There is such heart and such melancholy in the character of Paul Brennan to which I think people will always relate to…
He was a man who like my father was in the wrong job. Paul should have been a writer and my Father instead of being a postal clerk should have been a musician.
He played the trumpet?
Yes he played the trumpet but never as an occupation.
I know that you are currently working on quite a few projects, can you tell me a bit about them?
Well I’m still trying to raise money for my Train project, the Gates/Christo and my autobiography. I’m also making one about the Dalai Lama and his visit to New York in 2003 which I need to get money to finish the editing of. Other projects have diverted my attention away from the train film but as soon as I can I will return to it because I think it has potential to be one of my best.
You started shooting the Train film as early as the sixties when you were in Russia, is that right?
Yes when I was visiting mental hospitals (Albert is a qualified psychologist and went to Russia to make a film about the state of Mental Health care there) making a film and also when travelling on motorcycles with David…
That time reminds me of a wonderful moment we captured when we went to film my mother as she was about to become the president of a local chapter of a club she belonged to. When we came to Boston and knocked on her door with the camera running. My mother pulled her hand up over the camera and on to the top of my head and turned to me and said Albie you need a haircut (laughs). At this time I think that that may be the opening of the film…
What about your Jew on Trial Film, where are you with that?
Again I’ve been working on these other projects so it’s been put on hold somewhat. There is some urgency with that film because Anti-Semitism is on the rise. There is one significant piece in that film, where it was told that Jews killed Christian children to take their blood and mix it with matzos for the Passover celebration, totally ridiculous charges that no one would begin to believe except the Hezbollah’s who come out with such stuff on satellite television.
When you say Anti-Semitism is on the rise, do you mean in America primarily?
I think in other parts of the world primarily, in the Middle East and Muslim countries, but even certainly in France and Germany and probably this Country too.
What you’re talking about there is the demonisation of one race so as to justify abusive or prejudiced behaviour…
Yes exactly, so just as some use this propaganda to propagate Anti-Semitism, a good documentary can re tell the facts of this charge that was made against the subject of my documentary. We need information that we can rely on about the real world.
I want to ask you a bit more about Going on a Lark your autobiographical film, did that idea come out of being approached about the American Masters series?
Yes, that gave me the idea and with my 50th anniversary coming up of making movies, I thought this would be a good time to look back on my life and look forward too, and an opportunity to tell people what I’m engaged with now. One of the things I do all the time which I will show in the film is that I teach people how to make documentaries; people call me and say they have an idea for a documentary but they want some clarification on how to go at it. I say come on over we’ll talk about it, some of those sessions I will be filming, sometimes the idea is so good and they need that help from a professional I’ll just go ahead and help them.
I want to ask you about an old friend of yours and someone you collaborated with on a recent project and that’s Shivaun O’Casey, who made a film about her father Sean O’Casey and I know you shot quite a lot of that for her. We spoke before about possible difficulties of making a film in the Direct Cinema style about someone who is dead, can you tell me about working on that film?
It went very well, especially the scenes where she had conversations with her Mother. It was a work of love all the way through. I had never met him, we were about to film Sean O’Casey when he died but we had gotten all this other great material with Shivaun and her Mother so it just didn’t happen. The love that the daughter had for her Mother and Father is carried all the way that film and it makes for a film that represents him so beautifully. The archival footage is so strong even though we weren’t able to actually film him we had that material which was a direct representation of his thoughts and his philosophy.
With regard to all the projects you are currently involved with, you seem to be still struggling to get money to finish them?
That’s right but you know we had a harder time in the old days. We had to go ahead and make Salesman and Grey Gardens on our own, without any support from anybody.
So is it easier now to make films like Salesman?
I think it’s somewhat easier now. But subjects like the relationship between a Mother and daughter in Grey Gardens, who’s going to put up money to make that? It’s not about politics or violence or the usual kind of topics. So far nobody has sworn, there’s been no profanity in our films and so much of the trash on television is full of that kind of stuff which I find so unattractive and unnecessary.
So you had no money in place when making Grey Gardens?
No, in fact we had a hard time distributing the film; it took twenty years before any television station would show it, it got very well shown in England. Salesman took over thirty years to be shown and these are films that are not one political persuasion or the other which could be used as a reason not to show them.
A filmmaker once remarked that to make documentaries is to take a vow of poverty (Albert laughs), that even if you have received critical acclaim or success or indeed at your level Al it doesn’t seem to make it any easier?
That’s totally true. Doesn’t make it easier in terms of sales, but it is an extremely satisfying profession. I’m so pleased with the films that we’ve made and the good things we’ve done for the people represented, who would otherwise be totally unknown. And for the public who learn so much about life around them through experiencing the things that go on in the films.
You don’t seem to ever get disillusioned Albert?
Not about that, I feel that there’s plenty out there to be represented in documentary and there’s a lot of good to be done that way. I just the got a call the other day from Yoko Ono asking me to do an essay on John as she’s been asking other people who knew him for a book. Then I thought well what about a film and so we’re going to do that too…
You made a film before with Yoko Ono when she was starting out as an artist?
That’s right one of her Happenings that I filmed. More recently just last year, she invited me to her birthday party and so I said maybe I’ll bring my video camera and that could be my gift, so she agreed to that, ended up with a 3 1/2 minute piece which was lovely.
Are you making a film about John Lennon solely?
A film of the people who knew him and who are contributing essays to the book…
The film will co-exist with the book almost?
That’s right; it should go with the book and exist as a film on its own.
Are you and Yoko Ono still good neighbours then?
Oh yes, oh yes but not for much longer… (Albert smiles).
Albert Maysles, documentary filmmaker, born 26th November 1926; died 5th March 2015
This interview originally appeared in Film Ireland Magazine, Issue 104, 2005