Albert Maysles – 50 Years of Reality Cinema

An interview with Albert Maysles by Roberto Rippa

Albert Maysles’ pictures by Donato Di Blasi

Albert Maysles01

You, along with your brother David, are considered the developers of the so-called “reality cinema”. You studied psychology in Boston and then filmed your first documentary Psychiatry in Russia in 1955. What made you decide to work on this form of cinema in the first place?

I think I’m an adventurer and at that time, in 1955, I think it was an adventure to go behind the Iron Curtain, in the Soviet Union, and so when I developed plans to do that at home, because I’m a psychologist, I thought I should investigate mental health and then I thought: “If I’m gonna do that then I should record this to pass it on to other people.” So I thought I would take photographs but then I thought it would be better to make a motion picture and so I borrowed a 16 mm movie camera, got to Russia and made my first film.

How did you succeed in going behind the Iron Curtain at that time, considering that you are an American citizen?

Well, it was easy, although most people didn’t notice, to get a thirty-day tourist visa. That was easy. But once I was in Russia I crashed a party, a Romanian embassy party, where I was told I could possibly meet top Soviet leaders, so one of them, at the very very top, became very friendly and he gave me permission.

It is known that you invented highly portable cameras to work with minimal intrusion. How have people’s reactions to the camera changed since your first works and how does this affect your way of working?

I think that we mustn’t rely on people changing their behaviour, I think that we rely on the fact that people would rather disclose than to keep a secret. This is something in human nature.
People need to be recognized for what they are and so if you approach them in a kindly fashion without imposing yourself then they’ll feel this kind of recognition, which is so fundamental, and they cooperate fully. This is how I gained access to people.

So you never have difficulties in obtaining the real answer, the sincere answers . . .

I might have difficulties, for example, with the government. Just before the Iraq war, when the soldiers were gathered in Kuwait and South Arabia I asked the American government if I could go there and be with two or three soldiers one or two days but I couldn’t get permission. That sort of thing is what might stop me, otherwise I’ve had a very easy time getting access.

You filmed documentaries about many different subjects: musicians (the Rolling Stones, The Beatles), workers (Salesman), social issues (Abortion: Difficult Choices), writers (Truman Capote), directors (Martin Scorsese, Wes Anderson, Jane Campion . . .) and so on. What guides you when choosing to work on a project?

I think, if I look back, that most of the time it’s been luck. When I made Gimme Shelter about the Rolling Stones, it was a friend of mine who had met the Rolling Stones who told me that the Rolling Stones were coming to New York the next day to begin their tour. So I knocked on their door and met them. We attended the concert and I, along with my brother, decided “We should make this film!”
As for the Beatles it was a little bit strange: I had a call one day from Grenada Television in England. They said that the Beatles were arriving in NY in 2 hours “Would you like to make a film with them?” So I turned to my brother, because I didn’t know who they were, he knew but I didn’t. We both got on the phone and made the deal and rushed out to the airport exactly when their plane was coming down and we spent the next week with them.

What’s Happening! The Beatles in the USA

What’s Happening! The Beatles in the USA

We made Grey Gardens about those two reclusive women. It came about through a film we were making about on Jackie Onassis’ assistant and when she introduced us to these two women we saw that the real film was with them and so we decided to make a long film on these two women. Just chance encounters . . .
We made a number of films on classical music and those films were made possible by somebody who was an agent for Arrowed and Ozawa and Jessye Norman, for example. And this is how it happened.

What’s the difference between filming a documentary or a concert? How is it different for you as a director?

Oh, it’s the same. We try to get as close as you can to the people that you are filming. I’m always looking behind the scenes to establish a greater contact, to understand the personality, the human relationships as well as the music. It’s not a secret that television commercials are mostly unsuccessful because they aren’t accessible at the top of communication, one person to another. In television commercials for automobiles, for example, they race around and there’s no human contact for the viewer, so you see it and then it disappears from your memory. If I were making a television commercial on an automobile I’d get behind the wheel with the driver and film what the experience of driving is really like, what it’s like to feel in control. That’s because they don’t understand the importance of the human factor and also they think that incorporating the human factor is getting away from the product. But the human factor is what makes us come in contact with the product.

Why do they choose to use the same approach to the products?

I think that the advertising companies are most concerned in making commercials that are very expensive, so if you film in a documentary fashion, you could justify $50,000 or $100,000 but not $300,000. They spend it in very, very expensive cinematography but this cinematography has no art, no poetry, no communication behind it.

You also worked as a cinematographer for other directors . . .

Yes. For Jean-Luc Godard, Orson Welles. We made a film about him talking about the film we were making. We never actually made the film.
Also there’s a film called Searching for Bobby Fisher and that director called me to film some scenes and we became good friends and in fact both he and the cinematographer for the film agreed that, having seen my footage, they would modify their way of shooting the rest of the film.

About your experience with Godard, how was it?

Oh, it was wonderful because he, more than anybody, understood how to make use of documentary cinematography. So what he did was to arrange so that the actors knew their lines, everything was properly lit, there was nothing for me to do about the scene, in fact I didn’t even know what was about to take place and so I walked into the scene and just filmed it. And so it was one long take after another and always when you edit a film, even with the best editing, there’s an artificiality involved in cutting from one cut to another. I think that when the camera films as such, the scene continues without a cut, the viewer feels more in control of the viewing than when editing is controlled by an editor.
The Eisenstein approach to montage introduced the kind of artificiality that I think is negated by the documentarians’ camera work when the shot is continuous. So, for example, normally in Hollywood filming you film a close-up, you film a wider shot, you film an establishing shot and also the editing is easier but this is not how normally people see things and so it is less credible.

You filmed some documentaries about directors.


What directors do you like the most?

I’ve known Scorsese for many years and he’s somebody that appreciates documentaries; he just made some himself. I remember when he made one of his documentaries he asked us to take a look at it, and making a film about him was quite special.
Also Wes Anderson and Jane Campion.
Actually my favorite films are still the old Italian neo-realist films like
La Strada. Those films are my favorite even now, maybe because they look like documentaries.

In the last 50 years you told a lot about the USA with your documentaries, sometimes less directly, sometimes more. What has changed mainly in creating a documentary for you?

Basically it hasn’t changed. The big change took place 5 years after I made my documentary in Russia when I had in my hands much more sophisticated equipment where I could shoot scenes. Big camera but a camera I could hold on my shoulder without needing a tripod. The film was more sensitive so I didn’t have to use lights and all that was required was these two people: a sound person, in that case my brother, and myself with the camera.
I could film almost anything. Now it’s even easier to do this and you can do even more because with a little camera that costs two or three thousand dollars you don’t have to hold the camera on your shoulder, your eyes are free to see not only what you’re shooting but what you might want to shoot a moment later, to include in the shot.
Instead of very expensive film now a tape costs only three dollars, it runs for an hour so you don’t have to stop filming to reload. Actually I thought a great deal about it when I made the transition from film to tape and I came up with thirty reasons to move from 16 mm to tape and I think almost anyone of those was enough to make that transition. And the quality is not 35 mm or 70 mm but what’s more important to the documentary is not the high production value but the high, whatever you call it, poetic value: the value of filming real life without interfering with the people.



About Salesman: I think it tells a lot about the USA, and I’m not talking just about the workers you filmed. If you filmed it today, what do you think you would find different in that peculiar situation?

In those days, in 1968, there were 4’000 men—all men—selling the bible around the country. Those people don’t exist anymore. I don’t think the Bible is being sold door-to-door.
It’s strange but door-to-door selling somehow has moved to Japan, where door-to-door salesmen are selling automobiles door-to-door. When I was in high school, the salesman was typified by the brush salesman and I was one of them and I also sold encyclopedias door-to-door to be able to go to college. I think that people have become more skeptical, more afraid of somebody coming into their house so that it is more difficult for a salesman to get into peoples’ homes. That has changed. However, the society is still a consumer’s society in America and it’s still a capitalistic one and people have the notion that they could do almost anything and exercise their own will power. So the idea of the rugged individualist of those days, in 1968, was represented by the door-to-door salesman. It still prevails. In the lower class we still think that we’re middle-class people and that we can easily get to that class if we only use our energies . So there’s still that faith in the capitalist system. What might be a good question is “to represent this kind of capitalist personality what would one show today?” It’s not the Bible salesman. I have to think about that. Certainly, for that time,
Salesman caught probably better than any other film what America is all about and it would be interesting to think about what would be the subject matter for today. I’d have to give it some more thought. In the meantime I’m still making films about Christo’s work. In a sense Christo and Jeanne-Claude represent something very American.
I don’t know if they could do their work elsewhere. One would have to ask: “How could two people achieve so much when the traditional forces of society are against them rather than for them?” For every project they have to fight the government, the politics and the system, so in a way they typify the salesman who is out on his own and they certainly are on their own. When my brother and I make a film we are on our own. It’s important for us to maintain our independence in making the films, to make them exactly the way we want them and we don’t have to trade it to the formula that the television network write for their viewers. In America it certainly is very difficult to maintain that kind of independence and to get the support of a television network. They understand their own kind of character on each film so you loose your independence, which is the most valuable power that you have.
We’ve been able to maintain our independence by working with one particular channel called Home Box Office (HBO). We made three films for them and we’re making the fourth,
The Gates for them. And the commercial networks, the biggest ones (ABC, CBS, NBC and CNN), are not even interested in working with independence so there’s nothing that I could make, even cooperating with them, that they would agree on.

About documentary today: I think your documentaries are very political even choosing not to use the explicit way. But nowadays they are getting more and more explicit about political issues. . .

It’s not so good. I think that the most powerful work of art is one which doesn’t deal with an issue. You look at a portrait of Rembrandt . . . what’s the issue? Shakespeare . . . what’s the issue?
These are writers and artists who don’t submit their work to a point of view. Unfortunately documentary filmmakers more and more submit themselves to a point of view. So documentary offers them an opportunity for propaganda more than a work of discovery, and in the process of becoming propaganda, they lose the ability to tell truthful stories.
When you see a film like
Salesman, the filming and the editing is totally open-minded, not trying to make anyone look any better, any worse, any worse any different from who they are.That’s the kind of work that makes the film of much longer lasting values. Now it’s been forty years. This film is as strongly truthful today as it was when we made it. And that could be said about Gimme Shelter, Grey Gardens. So that’s my preference: to film non-issue. But I can see the usefulness of making some films that persuade people, about the environment.
I would have welcomed the idea of making a film that would have supported the Democratic party against this Bush and even now if something came up that would help to throw light on the administration, a documentary, I would do it. I am making a film, exactly an issue film, about anti-Semitism. For eight hundred years now there has been the false notion that the Jews killed Christian children to take their blood to celebrate Passover. There was a trial in 1913 in Kiev that I’m making a documentary about and about all this era that even goes up to this very moment of anti-Semitism brought about by this blood-libel accusation.
The Hezbollah, for example, has come out with a film that would make anybody think that Jews actually did that and there’s no basis for that claim whatsoever so I feel it may answer these charges by telling the truth about them. So that’s a film I’m very devoted to. There’s a church in Poland, a Catholic church and there’s a large Renaissance painting. Anybody walking into the church would immediately see this enormous painting. It depicts a half dozen or so Jews, very tough guys with white beards and long noses. They are surrounding a barrel with males and an infant being tortured and losing all their blood, being collected by one of these guys.
There are many implications connected not only to the church, but also to the Vatican under Mr. Ratzinger and nothing has been done about it and at this very moment that picture is still there. And I went to St. Mary’s to film it and to film the priest who was there. He told me all about the picture not mentioning that the Jews actually didn’t do that and there’s no way from seeing the painting to know that it’s a false image. That guy is now the Pope.
That’s one example of bad doing; the other one is homosexuality. There’s this film that I’ve been making and that is now finished about a Catholic nun who’s been working with homosexuals and she’s a very devoted Catholic but the church, that is Ratzinger, put a silence on her. When she went to the Vatican, and I went with her, she knocked at the door, but he wouldn’t see her, wouldn’t talk to her.

This is interesting: you work in the USA mostly but your films have a meaning everywhere. Does that mean that situations are not as different as we usually think?

Yes, that’s right. And even though Salesman is so much about America, anyone can identify because of this special documentary approach. The wonderful thing that happens is that no matter who you are at the time you’re watching Salesman and you’re watching those people on the screen you are those people at that time, you’re in their souls, you feel what it is to be a housewife besieged by a salesperson. You feel how it is to be a salesman who is, day after day, meeting failure. And you feel sad for that person, you are moved. It’s not the kind of entertainment where you are just entertained for that moment and then you forget about the thing, but you’re entertained in such a fashion you’re engaged forever with that film. You’ll never forget them. When we finished making the film we had a special screening for a hundred people and at the end of the screening people in the theatre congratulated my brother and myself. I noticed that there was one person left, a girl, who got up to leave and crossing in our direction I saw she’d been crying and as she got closer I saw how attractive she was. I turned to my brother and said: “She’s for me.” She’s my wife.
There’s an added benefit, you see, in making documentaries . . .

It was a very lucky work for you!

In so many ways.

About your documentaries on Christo’s and Jeanne-Claude’s works that you are showing in Locarno these days, what sparked your interest in them in the first place?

In a way we are a natural fit for each other because the drawings may end up in people’s homes or in museums but the project itself is not just the drawings but events that take place in the real world and as in any documentary, we don’t know what is going to take place later which is the primary quality of reality. So filming Christo’s works always offers the opportunity to film art in the real world. So we are a natural companion for these two people and we’ve been able to make very good films because their art works are connected with the politics, social issues. One of the things that happens is that sometimes after many years four or five million people come to the project, engage themselves with the project and that engagement is the perfect matter for the film. The Gates project involved four or five million people from all over who came to Central Park, at a time of the year when nobody goes to the park because it’s February, it’s cold and what’s the point?

And then it’s just the moment, an image free for all to enjoy.

It’s long enough so that many people can see it, right? And long enough so that we can make our films. And than the film becomes the permanent representation of it so that the people who saw it and want to see the film, and people who could never have the opportunity to go to the park at that time, can get a really full experience of what it was like.

This is also the one art that you can’t own . . .

That’s right.

What do you think are the reasons for the success that documentaries receive at the box office in these times?

Oh, the most recent ones? There are lots of reasons. Good and bad. It’s interesting to speculate maybe on whether the so-called reality television programs are good or bad for the future of documentary. In my own case I find that the word reality actually is misused when it comes to television programs. In fact the media have not been very honest about telling us these stories. At first, when it was first reported about these programs, the word was used with quotation marks around it but now the quotation marks have been dropped. As if to give a special kind of respect that is not really due to that kind of moviemaking. But on the other hand I think it was inevitable just like in literature: people’s reading habits have moved from fiction to non-fiction in a very significant way. I think it’s inevitable that documentary will take up a larger portion of people’s viewing and there will be some very good films and for my taste too much of documentary filming is devoted to particular issues rather than going beyond that and that, I think, is a problem. In too many of them there’s a documentary filmmaker who starts out with a particular point of view or prejudice and is blinded by that narrow point of view. So the truth telling, which I feel to be essential to calling a film a documentary, is non-fiction and it’s got to be non-fiction and I think that is violated to such a point where some of the best documentary filmmakers don’t even believe they can tell the truth. That’s a dangerous tendency. I respect a documentary filmmaker who says “I’m only interested in telling the truth and I believe I can” . . . not that . . . it’s difficult to describe just exactly how. I can claim that I want to tell the truth because three or four filmmakers witnessing the same scene are going to come up with different films but that doesn’t mean that each one is not telling the truth. Nobody is telling the whole truth but one can tell quite truthfully and factually correct a story if they’re capable of doing it.

Are people affected by television language all over the world, which is basically the same everywhere, still able to recognize the truth when they see it on the screen?

Well, I think so. Recently I got a telephone call from a man in his fifties who said that he was brought up as an orphan and his life has been dedicated to trying to find his father. He wasn’t successful in any way at all except that just at that time when he was calling me he had landed somebody who might tell a great deal about his father and he was about to visit this person and would I came along? So I went with him and even when he was knocking at his door I began filming and then I continued to film two or three hours because that person, who was ninety-one years old, knew everything about his father and showed him photographs and when he looked at the photographs he was just amazed how much he looked like his father.
He found out that his father lived to the age of ninety-five and had only died three years before so he still was unable to meet him but that conversation, that meeting, was the most important moment in his life. Totally fulfilling.
You have to be non-human in watching that footage and not to connect with it: a very strong engagement between the two of them, and between them and anybody viewing that scene. It would be that way twenty years ago and would be that way twenty years from now or a hundred years backwards or a hundred years forward.
This kind of event is just a matter of being in the right place in the right time. I can tell you it was quite moving when that nun got turned down by Mr. Ratzinger and just as she left the building she turned to us and she said: “Well, the church wants everybody to go by its rules; I go by my conscience”.

About your brother: you worked together since your second documentary (Youth in Poland, 1957) up until 1987, when he passed away. How did you work together?

Well, in our case we had the advantage of being brothers. For many brothers it’s not that way, they can’t work together. But we came from a family where there was a great deal of love. My parents had a very good relationship with each other and with all the children. So, we were good at working together. I also think that what helped further is that we took on different roles: I was with the camera and my brother was with the sound. It wasn’t just that technical thing that we did together, we both connected with the people that we were filming, we were both involved in raising the money and selecting the subjects. Then my brother took on the task of supervising the editing which was very positive; so, we were very good together.
Now I work with an Italian boy by the name of Ferrera and it’s like working with my brother. Even though I’ve been told that his father died when he was 3 years old so he’s always been in search of a father and then, because of the loss of my brother, I’m always in search of a brother so for me he’s my brother and for him I’m his father.

Do your documentaries find their way to the public or is it difficult?

There are several films that we made that ended up no place but we are now committed to showing them on DVD. There’s a half-hour film, a wonderful film, that we made of Marlon Brando in the mid-sixties, when he was in his prime There’s a film that we made for television on Truman Capote that hasn’t been shown since then and we’re going to show that on DVD. And a film that has never been shown, a half hour film on Muhammad Ali when he was training for his last fight.
You know, it’s interesting, here in Locarno there are more Orson Welles’ films than I could ever imagine that are being shown. Well, my brother and I made an Orson Welles’ film. And unfortunately we didn’t know they were going to be shown, we would have given ours. It’s a ten-minute film that we made as a result of having met Orson Welles by chance in Cannes in 1963 and almost immediately meeting him he had heard of us and he invited us to Madrid and so we spent a week in Madrid going to bullfights and so on. But as we were there with him he began to talk about how we should make a film together and this little film is that conversation. And so you see clearly in the film how people work with a documentary filmmaker.

About DVDs: you own the rights for your documentaries. Are you planning to publish your films independently, through your production company, or are you planning to work with Criterion, who has published Salesman, Grey Gardens and Gimme Shelter?

Some of these films will be on DVD through Criterion. About The Gates we haven’t decided yet how we’re going to distribute it. But also I think that The Gates will be in cinemas as well.

Locarno, August 12, 2005

This interview is also available in Italian. Click here to read it.

Questa intervista è disponibile anche in italiano. Clicca qui per leggerla.

Gimme Shelter01

Gimme Shlelter

Note: this is the rough transcription of the interview that has then been translated in Italian.

Images: © Maysles Film

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