The Art of Documentary: Albert Maysles
‘Closeness with humanity is lacking in so much of the media. Love—true love—is almost not there at all.’
Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of documentary films will have heard the name “Maysles” at some point. Albert Maysles and his brother David are responsible for several of the best—and most widely seen—documentaries ever created. Their working relationship was rather ideal: Albert was the cinematographer and David recorded the sound. After his brother’s passing in 1987, Albert Maysles has continued with his own extraordinary projects (often in association with a rotating cast of collaborators) as well as shooting for numerous other filmmakers.
Thanks to some miraculous scheduling by Maysles Films’ Distribution Manager Sylvia Savadjian, Fandor co-founder Jonathan Marlow ventured up to Harlem during a recent visit to New York to speak with Albert Maysles at the Maysles Documentary Center office (in the building adjacent to the Maysles Cinema). If this all suggests a deep association with the creation and presentation of great documentaries, it should.
Jonathan Marlow: Originally, the notion was to talk with you when you ventured my direction after a cross-country train trip. That seems to have been postponed.
Albert Maysles: It has been three months now and we’re still asking for permission [from Amtrak]. We figured and submitted that we needed twenty days but all they want to give us is seven. We cannot make the film in seven days. They think in terms of Hollywood films. Perhaps they don’t know what a documentary is.
Marlow: Evidently not.
Maysles: They don’t understand the need for spontaneity. We don’t use any lights. It is a small crew. What is also weird is that thirty years ago I started to make a film on trains. We got permission the same day! The guy that gave me permission is not working there anymore, unfortunately.
Marlow: This is a project that you and your brother David worked on together?
Maysles: Yes, briefly. All trains in half-a-dozen countries. Just walking through the train filming people until I find someone. I already have a section of the film [In Transit] which you can see on the [Maysles Films] website. It is about a woman who right away told me why she was on the train as I’m filming. When she was three years old, she lost contact with her mother. She has never seen her mother since. She is now twenty-six with two kids, on the train to see her mother for the first time. Why? Because she had just got a call from a woman in Philadelphia [who said], ‘I’m your mother. Get on the next train.’ Luckily, I just happened by. I filmed the whole get-together. They’re hugging each other and finally the mother turns to me and says, ‘Isn’t she gorgeous?’
Marlow: This was all by chance?
Maysles: Yes. It is also the kind of closeness with humanity that is lacking in so much of the media. It is celebrities. It is war rather than peace. Conflict rather than solving problems. Love—true love—is almost not there at all. That is the element that I put into all of my filming: love and understanding. It generates a feeling in the viewer of what is actually going on in the lives of people. Their experience becomes the experience of the viewer. Given the right kinds of situations, it can be of great benefit and revelation. How can we know what it is to be poor without actually being with people who are poor? Being in their home. Seeing what goes on without prejudicing things. Your subjects can see it in your eyes right from the first moment. The presence of the camera is not really a problem because people would rather be filmed anyway. You are hoping that they are always sharing that experience. Giving that person the kind of attention that everyone should get (but few of us do get).
Marlow: To what extent does that relate to your pre‑filmmaking experience? You did not initially intend to be a documentary filmmaker.
Maysles: Right. I always had this background at home where my mother used to say, ‘Don’t squint at everybody.’ That is very helpful advice. I have never had any complaints from anyone I have filmed after they’ve seen the film. And I’ve done a lot of filming! To answer your question, I became a psychologist. That, I am sure, is helpful in being capable of understanding what is going on and letting things happen. Having an open mind. I do not use narration. I do not have to fall back on narration because it is already in the material. The film tells its own story. The viewer can make up their mind from feeling that they are actually there. In fact, it is even better than being there because if the cameraperson has a poetic sensibility, he or she is much more in tune with what is going on than the average person. The viewer benefits from that sensibility.
Marlow: For instance, in Meet Marlon Brando, which is unlike any other portrait of a celebrity I have ever seen, you feel like you are present at the moment. Brando is creating a fiction for his immediate audience—the assortment of interviewers—but the camera penetrates into an aspect of his personality that is usually lost. That is rather remarkable.
Maysles: He gave us a wonderful gift of disregarding the questions and only speaking for himself. Which is funny but, at the same time, delivers an extra punch of his personality so clearly. He is funny and yet he takes himself seriously to the benefit of the viewer. You know the circumstances under which we made the film?
Marlow: Vaguely, yes.
Maysles: He had just finished a film. The production company thought it would be a great idea to invite television personalities from all over the country to a hotel in New York where they would interview Brando. Then I got a call from this production company a day or two before this took place. Would we come and film and then edit each one down to a couple minutes? Once we got seated and started filming, we looked at one another with open eyes. We didn’t have to say, ‘We have a film here.’
Marlow: It seems that on several occasions you have returned back to the same subjects, whether by design or by circumstance.
Maysles: Circumstance, yes.
Maysles: My brother is gone. I would normally turn to my brother and say, ‘How did we meet these guys?’
Marlow: They must have felt a certain comfort in working with you. You repeatedly documented their work and their pieces are occasionally perceived, whether right or wrong, as somewhat controversial.
Maysles: Very controversial. One of the things that is great about their work is that often times ordinary people without any background in the arts come to realize what makes this sort of thing ‘art’ whereas many critics cannot quite get it. There is a democratizing element there that is quite beautiful.
Marlow: As far as an historical document, seeing the process and the debate when the work is being created is unprecedented. You can get a sense of it in the still images but there is considerably more rewarding to see the process as it is happening.
Maysles: It is the steelworkers. What would they know about this project that they’re putting up? But in the process of putting it all together, they realize, ‘Yes, this is something special. I am proud to have worked on it.’
Marlow: Did it become clear while shooting Psychiatry in Russia that this was a direction in which you were going to continue? That you were going to keep making films?
Maysles: Originally, I thought it would be great to just film or photograph ordinary people in Russia. It seemed like [with such a documentary] that we would be much less likely to go to war. It is a family and they happen to be Russian. That gave me inspiration for making another film as well. But the biggest turning point in my career took place in 1959 when I joined forces with Bob Drew, [Ricky] Leacock and [D.A.] Pennebaker and we made Primary, which initiated America to cinéma vérité or what we preferred to call ‘Direct Cinema.’ No narration. No script. [All that was necessary was] an open mind and, somehow, knowing where to be at the right place and at the right time. Primary was the one that proved it was possible to do it. And it gave all four of us the inspiration to go on with that style of documentary filmmaking.
Marlow: You all continued independently in the years after that.
Maysles: We worked together for a year or two…
Marlow: …as part of Drew Associates.
Maysles: Then I believe my brother and I were the first to split. My brother didn’t work on any of the films. But I think that he stayed on a little longer and came up with a couple of ideas. Then we made a film called Showman (which hasn’t really been shown much at all). We just had two 35mm prints made of it and we’re going to get it shown again. The Brando film hasn’t been shown much.
Marlow: I was fortunate enough to see it at a film festival about a decade ago.
Maysles: Nice little film, right?
Marlow: I was really amazed by it for all of the reasons that I mentioned earlier and many more. That approach, with Showman and then later Salesman, where you are following…
Maysles: Yes. Salesman took it a step further. We had just made a film of Truman Capote [With Love from Truman a.k.a. A Visit with Truman Capote] and his book, In Cold Blood, which he claimed to be the first non-fiction novel. Nice idea. If he made the first non-fiction novel, could we make the first non-fiction feature film? Not just feature-length but following the form of a narrative feature. My brother had lunch one day with Capote’s editor, Joe [Joseph M.] Fox at Random House. He proposed that question, ‘How do we do that?’ He came up with the idea. ‘Well, how about a door-to-door salesman?’ My brother responded right away to that because both he and I had done some selling door-to-door.
Marlow: You had?
Maysles: In high school.
Marlow: Selling what, exactly?
Maysles: I started selling Fuller brushes.
Marlow: You were a Fuller brush salesman!
Maysles: Right, right. Then I came to sell the ‘Encyclopedia Americana.’ My brother sold women’s cosmetics.
Marlow: How did you settle on Bibles?
Maysles: What happened was that our casting person—the person who looked for people selling something—discovered a company in Chicago called Mid‑American Bible. When she told us of that, we thought, ‘My goodness, the Bible and the women who have to decide whether to buy it or not buy it and the salesman. What a combination! Every time you knock on the door there is going to be some drama.’ It is the Bible. It’s not Fuller brushes.
Marlow: Or a vacuum cleaner or anything else where you could consider an unnecessary extravagance. This is an object that immediately suggests a complicated relationship.
Maysles: Yes. But then, on the other hand, selling is selling and marketing is marketing. The way to really sell a Bible door-to-door is to add something to it. A binding that is very attractive. Color photographs as a way of commercializing it. Again, it is not just buying and selling but something fundamentally about America. In a very important way, it led Norman Mailer to say that it probably says more about America than any other film he had ever seen.
Marlow: You are very close to the salesmen. You share their tough luck. The system encourages this sort predatory behavior. They do not have anything to rely on except their intelligence and their ability to persuade. There are layers of middle-class despair in there.
Maysles: When I think of the film, there is an important thing that is illustrated. It is what is special about the [Direct Cinema] style of Drew, Pennebaker, Leacock and myself. In the opening scene you see the salesman having a tough time. The guy who we are going to get to know the best of all through the whole film is talking to a woman who is being patient but resisting. You get a full amount of that in just a few moments. Then, suddenly, the little girl sitting on her mother’s lap gets up and goes over to the piano. Thank God I keep filming. I moved in and turned the camera in her direction. You see her playing the piano. She knocks out a piece of music in a very short moment and this sort of descends down into the depression of the salesman. Who would come up with that in a script? It would not be believable. How could you believe something like that when it is scripted?
Marlow: It also shows your awareness to keep the camera rolling where others would probably cut away.
Maysles: When you see that, there is not a moment of any doubt on the part of the viewer that this did not happen on its own and you are in on it. You’re in on this music that comes up from the situation itself and the nature of the personality of this kid.
Marlow: It says a great deal about America from that period. Diegetic sound is rarely as effective.
Maysles: I should look up that kid now. What is it? Fifty years later? 1968. Almost fifty years later.
Marlow: There is a natural drama that can come out of any situation. When you were first asked to shoot the Rolling Stones at Altamont [for Gimme Shelter], there was no way to know in advance that something horrible would happen. I guess there was the possibility that something could go wrong.
Maysles: The Hell’s Angels had been [in charge of security] at other rock-and-roll events and nothing dreadful took place. But I learned that the basic reason everything went wrong was the Hell’s Angel who normally would control things was out-of-town. One of the youngsters who had no experience in doing security took over and things fell apart.
Maysles: Where Meredith Hunter is buried? No. I’d love to see that. There is still a mystery attached to that. We don’t know. The Hell’s Angel came at him with a knife. He may have been protecting other people because he and the viewer could see that the guy running into the group had a gun. In fact, he fired. You can hear him fire a couple shots into the ground. I always deplore the way the media often calls it a murder. It’s not that. We don’t know.
Marlow: In that moment, it is difficult to say what exactly is going on. Before I disappear for the airport in a few moments, I would be remiss not to ask you about how you met the Beales: Edith and Little Edie.
Maysles: Sure. I will tell you exactly how.
Marlow: I know you have told the story many times. You are probably tired of talking about it.
Maysles: Not at all. I got a call one day from Jackie’s sister. What is her name? Lee Radziwill, right. I got a call from Lee Radziwill and she said that she would like to make a film of her childhood in the Hamptons. She knew of the work of my brother and myself from her boyfriend, Peter Beard, the famous photographer, who happened to be a friend of ours. We went with her and starting filming. One day, as we were filming, she got a telephone call from Little Edie who said, ‘Can you please come over? We’re being charged with the house not being in order by the Department of Health. They want to evict us.’ So Lee said that she would come. She said to us, ‘Do you want to come along?’ We said, ‘Sure.’ ‘Do you think you should bring the camera?’ So we went along with her and we started filming right away.
Marlow: From the moment that you arrived?
Maysles: Yes. [Little] Edie was just as calm and accepting of the camera as she was months later. Maybe two or three months later we thought, ‘We should go back there. There is a film there. What a mystery! What are these people like?’ I don’t think we had gone into the house yet.
Marlow: You had only filmed outside of the house at that point?
Maysles: I think so. That is how we got started on it. Then we could not put it down. There were days when they and we knew that we had filmed good stuff. They or we would say (or we would shout out), ‘It’s been a banner day!’ So they took part in the excitement. Of course, they were the essential part of the film. It was all them.
Marlow: Little Edie took a bit of a shine to your brother.
Marlow: That creates a very interesting dynamic. She is performing for the camera. Seducing the camera.
Maysles: It would have happened anyway.
Marlow: She was quite the performer.
Maysles: I think there would have been some of that, regardless. There was that sort of thing between her and Jerry [Torre] as well.
Maysles: Which Mrs. Beale resented.
Marlow: There is definitely a very unique mother/daughter dynamic.
Maysles: Yes. Then, of course, when my brother died, she shifted her affection to me.
Marlow: Was that awkward for you?
Maysles: Not really.
Marlow: Theirs is a story worth telling and re-telling. Obviously, there is a Broadway musical version of their story. There is a bio‑pic, too.
Maysles: The film is little different than the documentary, you think?
Marlow: A lot different, I think!
Maysles: Yes, a lot. In both cases, the Broadway and the HBO film, they showed me the scripts ahead of time. I made some important corrections, especially to one of the projects. They had Edie as being a mental case. I toned them down on that. The HBO one went on and on about her not having any hair. They still got into it but not to the extent that was in the script originally. I did not have any problems with either of them. In fact, they are just advertisements for the documentary.
Marlow: They have a reciprocal relationship. At this point, it might be one of the best-known documentaries ever released.
Maysles: You know Jerry has made his own film on Grey Gardens [The Marble Faun of Grey Gardens]. He used some of my footage. It is a nice film. Then there is another person, Liliana [Greenfield-Sanders]. Her father [Timothy Greenfield-Sanders] is a famous photographer. She made a film [Ghosts of Grey Gardens] when she was a student at Brown. She showed it to me and she wanted to know what I thought of it. There were one or two things that had to be corrected. Otherwise, it was exactly right. That is a good film, too.
Marlow: There is a thread of right-place-right-time throughout your work. Grey Gardens is an obvious example. Gimme Shelter, too.
Maysles: It is something of a coincidence to live by. Before things got started, the audience was still accumulating. I happened to be with my camera. It was a big twenty-six pound camera on my shoulder, one that I had built. I was standing just off from the stage. Just below me was a guy with his young son sitting on the ground. He gets up and he says, ‘If you don’t leave this spot right now, I’ll kill you.’ So I moved. It is exactly there where the killing took place. If I had been there and stayed there—which I could well have done—then I would have been right there.
Marlow: Where everything went wrong.
Maysles: On the other hand, my brother, just by luck, positioned himself with another cameraman just off of the stage. I am on the stage filming good stuff. I was standing there. [Mick] Jagger was here. David was over there, standing on a truck. And the killing was taking place right there. He was in the perfect position to capture it.
Marlow: Like the work of Les Blank, there is an evident affinity for musicians. You’ve done a number of films with Paul McCartney, for instance. One in 1964 [What’s Happening! The Beatles in the U.S.A. and, later from footage shot at that time, The Beatles: The First U.S. Visit]. Another a few years ago [The Love We Make].
Maysles: In my own case (and maybe in Les Blank’s, too) it is just luck. How did we get to do the Beatles film? I got a call from Granada Television. ‘The Beatles are arriving in two hours. Would you like to make a film of it?’ I put my hand over the telephone and turned to my brother and said, ‘Who are the Beatles? Are they any good?’ He said, ‘Yes, they’re good!’
Marlow: David was already aware of the Beatles.
Maysles: He was! I was interested in classical music and he was interested in the popular stuff.
A few members of the Maysles staff have picked a handful of favorite films from the Fandor library.
Executive Director, Maysles Documentary Center
Europa, Europa (1990) dir. Agnieszka Holland
Korczak (1990) dir. Andrzej Wajda (and written by Agnieszka Holland
Associate Producer, Maysles Documentary Center
Race For Life (1954)
dir. Terrence Fisher
Filmmaker, Maysles Film
Waste Land (2010)
dir. Lucy Walker
Distribution Manager, Maysles Film
Everyone Else (2009)
dir. Maren Ade
Marlow: You have filmed a number of classically-trained musicians over the years. That passion in apparent.
Maysles: We made half-a-dozen classical music films because we happened to know this guy [Peter Gelb, presently General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera] at an agency that represented these musicians. He came to us. Two films of Vladimir Horowitz [Horowitz Plays Mozart and Vladimir Horowitz: The Last Romantic]. A film of [Mstislav] Rostropovich [Soldiers of Music]. The film that we made of Leonard Bernstein, someone else came to us for that. We did not have to go looking for money or getting permissions. It was all set up by this guy [Gelb].
Marlow: It is putting a visual element to something that is primarily perceived as a listening experience. You are filling a void. Does the locale of New York make a significant difference?
Maysles: It helps a lot. In case of The Beatles, we were right here. Just in time to see the plane coming down. They had put someone on the airplane to help introduce the Beatles to us. He got us into the limousine. From then on, it was just the Beatles, my brother and myself. Interesting that in that film, Salesman and Grey Gardens, it’s just the two of us. That’s it.
Marlow: You’re shooting and David is running a Nagra.
Maysles: That’s it. We didn’t get in the way of anyone.
Marlow: It was a marriage of audio recording improvements and cinematographic portability along with an intuitive process of observational storytelling. Direct Cinema really wouldn’t be possible without that portability.
Maysles: Exactly. With this new equipment, it is even better. With the equipment that we had [at the time], we were so happy to have something that no one else had. But still, if you ran out of film after ten minutes… Whatever the equipment, we’ll do our best. We’ll get the best [material].
Marlow: Does your working style change at all when shooting on video instead of film?
Maysles: It is less likely that I am missing something!