Father of Direct Cinema
Lauded as the father of direct cinema, an American parallel to the French verite style, Albert Maysles is a landmark figure in nonfiction films. With the revolution of sync-sound and portable film cameras, Albert and his brother, David, shot films handheld, with very little, if any, interview interaction, simply allowing life to unfold before the camera, capturing more truth than would be possible if they attempted to "direct" subjects and situations. Their style and their films are legendary: What's Happening! The Beatles in the USA (1964), a look at a Beatles visit to the States; Salesman (1968) chronicles four door-to-door Bible salesmen and is often heralded as the classic American documentary, reflecting one of the richest portraits of the heart of America; the cult classic Gimme Shelter (1969), a portrait of Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones on their American tour that ended with a killing at the Altamont concert; and Grey Gardens (1976), a portrait of a very unique, eccentric mother-daughter dynamic in their secluded, decaying East Hampton mansion.
Albert and his films have garnered awards not just for their merits but also for their contributions to their times. Salesman was honored by the Library of Congress in 1992 for its historic, cultural, and aesthetic significance. And Albert has been honored for lifetime and career achievement by such entities as the International Documentary Association, the American Society of Cinematographers, the Guggenheim, and, in 1999, Kodak recognized him as one of the world's one hundred finest cinematographers.
Albert heads up Maysles Films today and continues to be a prolific filmmaker—most recently with LaLee's Kin (2000) and a series of filmmaker portraits for the Independent Film Channel (2001).
How did you get your start in film and documentaries?
I'd been a psychologist, teaching at Boston University. I worked in a mental hospital as a research assistant, and I also headed up a research project in Massachusetts General Hospital. I mention all that stuff because in 1955—as I was still teaching and one has a summer vacation—I decided that it being only two years after Stalin's death, it would be very interesting to go to Russia. Maybe I could get some sort of impression, record my experiences in some way to fill an enormous gap that existed at that time. People had no imagery, no way of even comprehending in the slightest, because the media was so deficient in this regard—you know, what it was to be a Russian, just an ordinary person—we had no basis of common ground for understanding because everything was speculation about activities behind the wall of the Kremlin.
So with that in mind I thought I would go there and do something that I knew something about—namely, mental health. And I decided I would try to get into mental hospitals, which was a tall order, but I've always been an adventurer. And the more wild the adventure, the more interesting it would be. Every documentary is sort of an adventure into the heart and soul of certain people. At least, that's what it should be.
And so, it's a long story, but I managed to borrow a movie camera, a 16mm camera from CBS. I just walked in there, just a total stranger, told them I was a psychologist and I was hoping to get into mental hospitals, and they took me at my word. And they gave me a roll of film—at that time, it was just a hundred-foot roll, three minutes of 16mm film—and said, "Just shoot something and allow us three hours to process it and we'll give you a critique." That was my training. So up I went and two days after I arrived in Moscow I crashed a Romanian embassy party, met all the top Soviet leaders. One of them got interested in me. He came back to me fifteen minutes later with a telephone number for me to call. It was the head of psychiatry for Russia. Of course, he was notified I would be calling and that paved the way. So I made my first film that way; that's how I got into it. So my interest has always been in, I suppose, finding and recording how people tick.
How did your style evolve?
I have an interest completely different from Hollywood's way of doing things. I'm not at all interested in what's called high production value. It's the bane of our existence. To me, of course, the high value is not what makes it expensive, but the high value comes in capturing another person's experience as directly and as interestingly as possible. Now some people, perhaps even most documentary filmmakers, don't think you can do that with any kind of full authenticity. They'll say it's all a point of view, and it's a manipulation, and you're always selecting. I don't agree with the downgrading of the truthfulness of what one can do in a documentary. It's been
thirty-odd years now since we made Gimme Shelter and it's a very truthful account of what took place—should be good for another five hundred years, I'd say.
Do you find the presence of a camera or camera crew changes people's reactions?
It can. But it depends on how it's used. In my own work I think that it's not a serious factor. That is, it's not a serious factor in making what I do any less valid, nor do I think that the fly-on-the-wall approach is at all useful, because the fly on the wall is an instrument without a mind or a heart to control it. But then, of course, people say, "Well sure, the mind and the heart already are getting into something very subjective and you're getting away from reporting reality." But the way I use the instrument, the way I use my emotions, let's say, is, I think, to get closer, to get closer to the truth rather than distant from it. And I think, perhaps, the determining factor is I empathize with the people I film.
Now, there are, in our culture, influences that would belie what I'm talking about. People say, "Well, love is blind." Okay, so in a way that's true and in a way it isn't. I mean, the more you love somebody, the more—if it's genuine love—the more you are open to discovering good, bad, whatever, without making any negative judgment. And if it's somebody that you can't find an affection for, you can still make a film of that person, and be fair to that person if at least you try your best to understand them. Okay. So if you're trying your best to understand them, that's another way of saying you like them. So much of it hinges on your ability to empathize. It's an essential ingredient, and if you don't empathize somehow or other, I can't explain it, but you can see it in your results. The photography lacks a heart, and too many people who are skillful technically in their camera work—too many of them—just don't give it the empathy that draws the emotions of the scene, draws it out, evokes it, and gets it on film. Without that process, you end up with a lifeless series of images. Too often, an Academy Award winner will make exactly that kind of film. Technically superior but without a heart and soul.
You have these two things. There's subjectivity and objectivity, and for me the thing that makes both possible is the affection, the empathy that you put into it. In true love, you're not trying to do somebody in. In true love, you're not trying to make the person look any different—better or worse— right? In true love, you fully accept the person exactly as they are. So I think it comes back to this empathy factor.
Another thing that goes along with that—we're talking about gaining access, as well, because if you haven't got the access then people will be put off by the presence of the camera. I find that I can gain access, more often than not, immediately upon meeting somebody. Another factor that goes into it is how you look at the person. It's called the gaze. So with the empathy and the gaze and good luck you can get access to just about anybody.
You have another thing working for you, and that is, with that kind of access, with that kind of application of empathy and the gaze, you're able to do something for that person that would never otherwise happen. That is, you're paying attention to that person, you're giving access to that person, you're fulfilling for that person a very basic need that we all have, the need to be recorded exactly for what we are. So in a way you're doing a service of giving that person not a biography, but an autobiography, and again, there's so much misconception about that sort of thing, even among filmmakers. They give themselves director's credit? Come on, give me a break—you start directing a person or the situation, and it's no longer a documentary. The very essence of the filming is not controlling, but uncon trolled, a lack of control on the part of the filmmaker. It's not just the fly on the wall. You are using various skills that allow you to do all this stuff, but you don't try to change anything.
Is anything verboten? I never hear your voice in your films. Would you ever do anything to create drama if you felt it was lacking? To what extent are you hands-off?
Just about 100 percent. But, it's funny—it's not quite 100 percent because, how should I say, you use your presence to allow that person to be an uncontrolled subject.
How do you choose your subjects? Do they come to you or do you do your own ideas for films?
It varies from one film to another. Like somebody might call me up and tell me of something that should be filmed that may not ever have occurred to me and I think, "Oh yeah, that's great, let's do it." That's how my brother and I made the first film of the Beatles. We got into that because we got a call from Granada television asking us if we wanted to make the film, and they had the money, and the Beatles were arriving in New York in two hours. We rushed out to the airport and four days later we had it shot. So that's how that happened. Each film happens in one way or another, usually in different ways. Salesman—we just got that idea on our own and went out and, at our own expense, at our own risk, made the film.
Let's take Salesman, as an example. Can you know before you start shooting what your story might be?
Well, two things. One is, you have some sort of an idea, but you're ready at the same time to abandon that if it doesn't happen or if something better, something else, comes along. When we made Gimme Shelter, we knew that the concert stuff would be interesting. What we didn't know was whether there would be more than a concert film. We didn't know, but we wouldn't have made the film just as a concert film. We thought some other stuff was going to happen. Just what that would be we didn't know. If you asked us to guess, we probably would have thought it would be more positive than it ended up being.
But we were determined as always, as John Lennon put it, let it be, which is in contrast with the way Woodstock, for example, was made. When they made that film there were a lot of interviews. We don't do interviews.
When you do an interview, the answer is your question, so it's a setup every time, and you're getting away from what documentary, I think, should do and what is its divine right or responsibility, which is to film people's experiences rather than set up an artificial situation where you're pumping them for information, information that is probably better recorded in literature rather than in cinema.
And so, when Woodstock was made, the filmmakers thought, "Oh boy, everything's coming up roses. Isn't it wonderful, the flower generation . . . " and you ended up with a film that wasn't really the way it was. There were all the seeds of Altamont at Woodstock—not all, but so many of those seeds were there. How many people were at Woodstock? Several hundred thousand? Okay, wouldn't you think that even now probably there are fifty thousand, at least, people from Altamont—the same number probably from Woodstock—who, even today, are still suffering from the effects of bad drugs? And that film, Woodstock, gave you no indication that anything bad was happening and it was only six months between the two, only six months after Woodstock that Altamont took place.
At some point in your filming do you discover your story, or is that something you discover in the editing process?
It can work either way. In Grey Gardens we were with them six weeks and we still were waiting for some culminating moment perhaps, but if it didn't happen, okay, well, it didn't happen. But it did happen one day when the mother and daughter were not in their bedroom, but they were in an adjoining room, which we called the pink room because the walls were pink, and it's when everything exploded. And there are little explosions and little manifestations of love as well as recriminations, but it culminated in that scene, and so, we had it.
In Salesman, it was a storm that was gathering all the time with Paul's evident decline, and it's interesting—the way the film was put together, you could read it in his face the first moments in the film. This guy had various human qualities that were very nice, but he was going to have a hard time making the sale.
Do you edit or do you hand over your footage to editors?
I don't edit myself. I've tried it and it's not the way I make decisions. With the camera I can make decisions, and I think the right ones instantaneously, but if I sit down and edit I can't make up my mind—and I'm not forced to do so.
So are you involved in the editing process at all—do you look at works in progress?
Yeah, but I'm really not on top of it that way. If it's something that I see should be done or shouldn't be done then I bring it up, but I'm very lucky that I've worked with the best. While my brother was alive he was in control of the editing. He supervised the editing, and we just about always saw eye to eye on everything.
How does the changing technology affect how you make films?
Oh, enormously important.
Do you still shoot film or have you moved to DV?
I was just with Paul McCartney about a month ago. You know, Paul was heading up that event at Madison Square Garden—a bunch of rock stars got together to celebrate New York in consequence to events of the 11th of September. So it was a big event where they raised some $25 mil-
lion at Madison Square Garden. And a week before it took place I got a call from Paul McCartney, whom I had filmed thirty-seven years before, and he said, "Look, remember what we did before? Let's do something now, and let's do it as we did before in black-and-white film." And I thought, "Oh, okay, sentimental reasons if nothing else." Already, I was trying to wean myself away from film.
I had made with Susan [Froemke] a film called LaLee's Kin, and, in fact, I got the cinematography award for it at Sundance this past year. But even then I was beginning to think, "Well, what about this new video stuff?" And since then, I've made a series of four half-hour film portraits of filmmakers, all with a little video camera. The Independent Film Channel is showing these four film portraits. Scorsese was the first one, Wes Anderson is the second, Robert Duvall is the third, and Jane Campion is the fourth. And I did them all with the little video camera.
With a digital video camera?
Yeah. Mini-digital. Some of them were with the PD100, and later on I began to use the PD150 when it appeared on the market. I couldn't be hap pier with it. In fact, even when I was shooting the [September 11 concert for] Paul McCartney I was thinking to myself, every time I picked up the camera, "Well, now, if I had the video camera . . ." So during the course of that week I sat down and I made note of what I thought were the advantages of the PD150 over the 16mm camera. I came up with twenty-seven points. And all these points are very, very important.
Do you prefer to shoot with digital video?
No question about it. I can serve all the purposes that I've always had much, much better. Like we spoke of eye contact. Okay, well, when I'm filming with the PD150 I can look at them and they can look at me and that's very important. And that gaze and being able to continue that gaze at any time, it's very important. You might be filming a moment where . . . it's kind of touchy, like maybe a moment of embarrassment or whatever, and so it's quite natural for the subject, perhaps, to look at you for reassurance and there it is—they can look right at you. Your eyes tell it all without saying a word. Twenty-seven points is quite a big advantage.
Digital video is much more inexpensive than shooting with film. Do you shoot more because of that? Is your ratio higher?
You do shoot more. But then, of course, we've all heard, editors especially complain about that. And then there is the notion that since you're shooting a lot more, you're not being as selective, right? And so, my answer to that is Henri Cartier Bresson. Would he have been any better off had he shot with a Rolleiflex, which has twelve pictures, rather than the Leica, which has thirty-five? Because the Rolleiflex gives you a higher production value—it's a bigger image, 2/4 X 2/4, right? But you can't hold it up to your eye. You gotta hold it below so the camera is always looking up, and Henri Cartier Bresson wanted to make every picture count. And if you looked over his contact sheets, you'd see that each one was maybe not the best but it was important that he got that one. Each one was right for him at the time and so he had three times more chance of not running out of film. And in the case of the digital camera—sixty minutes versus . . . well, you can shoot it with sixty minutes or forty minutes with the same tape. But even with the forty minutes, you've got four times less likelihood that you're going to run out of film or tape at an important moment, and that's crucial.
What keeps you coming back to making films? You mentioned being an adventurer, so that's an appeal. What is it for you that keeps you enmeshed in film?
I remember addressing a group of filmmakers, and as I was thinking of what I should say I suddenly thought my first words were going to be, "Oh, what a terrible thing, what a terrible thing, what a terrible thing." I repeated it three or four or five times and I said, "The terrible thing is that there are so many people who never found in their work what they really want to do." And it's not likely to be that way if you're making documentary films. It certainly hasn't been that way for me. I have felt always that I was doing some good.
And also, the thing that drives you on is that there's no end to it. Each week many films are being made—and still, it's infinite. The well is not gonna dry up; there's always another one to do. And I don't think any of us feel that we've made the perfect film yet. There's a film that I've wanted to do for some time, which I think will be my best and I'm still hoping to do it. I've begun to do it, you know; I hope to get it done one of these days.
And what is that?
I get on long-distance trains in different countries. The reason I want to make it different countries is I want it to have a kind of epic quality, not just one country or culture—it'll be cross-cultural. People of different walks of life will be in this film. It'll be four or five or six major stories that will be spontaneous. So what I'll do is I'll get on half a dozen trains in different parts of the world and I'll roam the train until I find somebody where there's a story evolving, usually by virtue of why they're on the train. So I get off the train with them to film their story.
I took a trip across the country going from Los Angeles to New York several years back, and as the train pulled out of the Pittsburgh station with a new group of passengers, I was in the cafeteria coach when I noticed a young woman sitting alone at a table and looking kind of nervous, her two kids across the aisle. I could read her face; something was going on, so I asked if I could join her. At that time I had the 16mm camera on my shoulder, my soundman next to me. And I said, "I'm making a film of people I'm meeting on trains. If it's okay with you, maybe I could film from time to time." She said, "Oh, sure, that's okay." I started filming right away and she began to tell me her story. When she was three years old, her parents broke up in an ugly divorce and her father got custodianship over her, which is unusual, but, anyway, that's what happened, and he vowed that her mother would never see her again. And she's never seen her mother since then.
The night before she got on the train she got a call from a woman in Philadelphia. And this woman said, "Look, there's no time for me to send you a photograph or for you to send me a photograph of yourself, but get on the next train and I'll be waiting for you at the train station in Philadelphia." I got all this stuff on film. We got off the train and I continued to film and she looked around and there was no one at the platform. And then, as she walked up the stairs, there was a woman at the top of the stairs, a woman who threw her arms around her, and they talked. And then, finally, the woman, who was her mother, put her head over her daughter's shoulder and turned to me and said, "Isn't she gorgeous?" Well, that's why I make movies, and that's why I make them this way. It's the truth, so you have to believe it. Anyone seeing that stuff is not gonna have a shadow of a doubt that this was the real thing and I'd gotten very, very close to the experience of these two people. So that's just one story.
I have no idea what else I'm going to encounter. I took a train across Russia all the way to, almost to the Chinese frontier and returning from Novosibersk, which is very far, the east end of Russia. Again, I walked through the train and noticed through the compartment window what appeared to be a family. And I was with somebody who was translating for me. We knocked on the door and they allowed us in. It turns out that it wasn't a family. It was an aunt and uncle and two children, niece and nephew. And as I discovered, the reason they were on the train was that the two kids had just lost their mother, who had been killed by their father. And the aunt and uncle were taking them to their home way the hell out in the western end, in the Ukraine. That's why they were on the train. So that's another kind of story.
So I haven't decided just where; I'm very likely to go to India. The fanciest train in the world is the Blue Train, which is in South Africa. But most of it is just ordinary people chosen only because there's a story that's taking place that's interesting.
When we made Salesman, we'd broken through into new territory. I think it's safe to say that Salesman was the first real feature documentary film. And so, if you take literature as a parallel arc, there's the nonfiction novel that Truman Capote made and then around that time, maybe a year or two later, we made Salesman, which we could call a nonfiction feature film. Now, what other parallels are there to literature that would inspire us to do something in another form, but still a documentary? There's a collection of short stories, okay? And usually a collection of short stories is by one author, okay? Okay, so that's the case here, there's one author and what makes it so, well, what appeals to me so much is that it's not just a haphazard throwing together of stories. They're all unified by the metaphor of the train itself. Which is a metaphor for life as the train goes from station to station. And also, it overcomes the problem we have in documentary in that it's very difficult to film anything but what's contemporary and so you don't go back. It's hard to go back into a person's life in filming actuality—get photographs and maybe home movies or whatever, but that's not the same as the material you can get that's contemporary. So this is an epic film, the train film, which doesn't go back in time or forward in time, but extends itself laterally by being in different countries, different cultures.
Do you have favorite films that you've done?
Yes, yes. Well, there are the three that I've made into DVDs, Gimme Shelter, Grey Gardens, and Salesman. My brother and I, because I wanted to do the train film, my brother wanted to do one of the family. Actually, really of my father and a cousin of mine. Both of these people, my father was a postal clerk and my cousin was a fighter pilot in the Second World War, so they were both heroes, although of different character. Both of us, my brother and myself, we went as far as to make a fifteen-minute piece sort of as a trailer . . . so people could see what the film was going to be about. But then my brother died, and I don't know, someday I may go back to that, as well. I have several other projects, too, that are very much from my heart.
Unfortunately, the way things go in documentary, if you're going to get money for something it usually is from somebody that wants a particular idea for a film. It's an issue or something of topical interest or whatever. Who the hell would ever put up money for Salesman? Nobody. And, in fact, even after we made the film nobody wanted to show it. It took over thirty years to finally get the film on television. PBS—I remember we used to go to PBS. One day I remember they had a new guy in programming. So I called him up and I said, "I'd like to show you a film," and he said, "Yeah, I've heard of you. I'd be glad to come over." So he comes over, we put Salesman on, and I go into the room to change the reel and I can see he's been crying and he says, "No, I've seen enough." And I thought, "Well, this guy's so moved by what he's seen that it's a sale without even seeing it all." And he says, "No, no, it's too depressing. My father was a salesman." So there is an association somehow between a film that is a meaningful, profound engagement with the viewer that is depressing, or there's some kind of resistance, especially on the part of programmers, to show that kind of thing. You think we had an easy time with Grey Gardens? No one showed it. It took us twenty-three years before it finally got shown on the Sundance Channel. No one would show Gimme Shelter. But with commercial television it has to be theirs or it's not gonna show. And not like with the Independent Film Channel, when they said, "It's all yours." As I say, that's not the way it usually works.
Is funding easier to come by since you've become established?
I don't think it's any easier for me than anybody else. I haven't gotten a cent yet for the train film. You see, part of it also is the criteria for news or entertainment—it's almost necessary that someone get killed. What I mean to say is, look at television. What is it, something like twenty thousand or forty thousand people get killed every year on television? How many times have you seen a story like the one I described to you of that woman finding her mother? And if I took that stuff and went to television they'd say, "Well you know, Al, it's not exactly entertainment and it's not news. You know, we don't do that stuff."
What about the Independent Film Channel, Sundance Channel, Bravo?
My understanding is that so many of the cable networks, they have their own format. I wouldn't want to submit Salesman to Bravo's format, or even Lifetime. The heart of the matter is that the best way for an artist, documentary filmmaker, or whoever to work is to come up with a film that comes from the heart. Some early images, or cravings, maybe of another person, but it really turns out to be a story of your father or a relationship that you've got to get off your chest somehow or another that lead you to put it into some artistic form.
Can you imagine Shakespeare as a documentary filmmaker? He'd go to CBS and he'd say, "Look, I've got this great idea. The guy's name is Hamlet." And they'd say, "Well, Hamlet. What kind of a name is that?" "Well, it's Danish." "Well, we don't do foreign stuff. You know, you have to have subtitles, we don't do anything from another country." "Yeah, but this guy's so interesting he can't make up his mind." "He's interesting and he can't make up his mind and you expect people to watch some kid not making up his mind for an hour and a half? How long is it going to be?" "Well, maybe an hour and a half, two hours, you know, it's a great story." "Yeah but, no, no, no, it's not for us."
There's another thing, too. We spoke of the nonfiction novel and the nonfiction documentary, then we spoke of the short stories that are documentaries. What about poetry? I'll give you an example: I'm sitting on a bus. The same bus I take to work every day. It's a ten-minute journey. I have seen things on that bus that are the most beautiful, potentially video pieces of poetry. For example, I saw a very, very heavy black woman. She must have been a good three hundred pounds with a big hulk of a head on her shoulders. And I got to looking at her, but in a way that was somehow kindly and understanding enough that she wasn't put off by it. She had no reason to feel that she was some kind of an object of my staring. But I got so taken in by this woman and maybe some kind of anticipation that something was going to happen, I don't know. Anyway, I nudged the woman next to me who was white, middle-aged, and now the two of us were looking at this woman.
And suddenly the kid sitting next to this woman, this kid had to be her daughter, she gets up, slips around in front of her mother and nestles her head in between her mother's enormous breasts and falls asleep. Well, it transformed everything, as a poem can do, without any purpose . . . it's a poem, that's all. It doesn't have to justify itself. And if I'd had my little video camera in my hand I would have gotten it. But as it stands right now, there'd be nothing I could do with it.
But, you see, I'm getting into another problem that we have and it's very crucial, and that is, too much of what the media wants is not what's in our heart. They want stuff that has, if it's anything like what I'm talking about when I say poetry, they say, "Come on, but that's not what we do. It's gotta have a purpose. Is it on abortion? Is it news? Does it have anything to do with September 11? I mean, how can we justify showing it?" And some of the most important subject matter—just nice people doing nice things, but not just doing nice things, basically acts of good will and acts of kind-ness—that's all off-limits somehow.
Do you think that's changing since September 11?
It changed at least for the time being on two pages of the New York Times. Even in the Sunday paper nowadays I believe there are one or two pages that have ten or twenty portraits of families that suffered from
September 11. So it's a portrait of the guy and his family, or the woman and her family. Suddenly, in the New York Times, suddenly these human portraits burst forth. Except that this happened with September 11, you'd never hear anything about those families. But now, suddenly, you're hearing all the human stuff that went on and was disrupted by this event. That's probably just a temporary thing. But it does show you that that kind of information can make good material for a newspaper, but it's quite an exceptional case.
When my daughter was four years old—she's now twenty-five—I used to take her to pick up the New York Times. And so, one day we walked down the street, got to the newsstand and the paper hadn't arrived yet. I don't know, maybe the truck had broken down, or there was a strike, I don't know. But my daughter turned to me, age four, and said, "Daddy, the people haven't been killed yet." That tells it all.
I sat in the audience where there was a panel discussion amongst important filmmakers. Actually, they were all fiction filmmakers. The topic of discussion was violence and sex in the media. And so, when the panel was over, I was the first one to raise his hand and I told that little anecdote of haven't been killed yet and a ripple of "Oh my God" went through the audience. I then elaborated on it and pointed out how there was a gap in content and surely people can complain about violence and sex, but nobody is getting to the goodwill and kindness that exist in people. And so, a panelist said, "Well you know that stuff is not dramatic. You have to have a conflict, and if you don't have conflict then you don't have drama." And do you think anybody else on the panel differed? No. They all accepted that. I was the only one that disagreed.
Have you ever done or thought about doing fiction films?
No. I have been approached. In fact, my brother and I met up with Orson Welles. We met him at Cannes and then he invited us to spend a week with him in Madrid. And we made a little film of him talking about a film that we would make together. It would be somewhere between a documentary . . . as he said in the film we were making, "I know exactly what the film should be. I have a script and everything, but I'm throwing away the script." And so, I mean, I'd be able to make a very good contribution to it, there's no question of that.
And then, on another occasion, I filmed a twenty-minute sequence with Jean-Luc Godard called Paris Vu Par—Paris as seen by several French film directors. So he set the scene and I didn't even know what was coming up, and I just filmed it the way I do a documentary and it worked just beautifully. So I can see applications. And, in fact, as I was making these half-hour film portraits of filmmakers and one of them is Jane Campion. I filmed her as she was preparing to make her next film, and she asked me if I would like to do the cinematography for her next film. Some of what I've done has been seen by fiction filmmakers and some of them have taken that and gone somewhat in that direction. I know that, for example, remember that television show the Monkees? Well, Bob Rafelson was the producer of that and he's an old friend of mine. And he said, "You know, I got the whole idea of doing that from having seen your Beatles film." So the whole style of that filmmaking came from the Beatles film.
What would you do if you didn't make films?
If I didn't make films, well, I've never had that decision to make since I started. I'd do something where I'd be able to care for people. I think that when you make a documentary, people are putting themselves in your hands and you have a responsibility to take care that that responsibility is met. And not everyone feels that way, you know, but I feel it very strongly. And it's interesting, I've noticed. I have three children and I've never told them what to do professionally, but this is a very strong factor in what they do—take care of people. One of my kids, she's twenty, she spent four months recently in Nepal taking care of Tibetan refugee children. There's all kinds of ways that we can take care of one another and so I'd find another way of doing it, I guess. Maybe, I don't know, maybe as a therapist.
Well, your background is in psychology...
I guess I must have cared for people to begin with. And also, I was very lucky that I came from a family where my parents gave my brother and myself a great deal. They were immigrant children. And around the turn of the century, as a child, my mother somehow found an organization in Boston. It was called the Saturday Evening Girls. And the woman, a philanthropist, the woman who headed it up and paid for the whole thing wanted to make poets and writers, artists out of Italian and Jewish immigrant children around the turn of the century. And so, my mother got a lot of inspiration and training in those areas and became a schoolteacher and a very ardent social- and civil-rights person. It's funny, one of the people she always wanted to meet was Eleanor Roosevelt, and I don't know how she did it, but just like me, she managed somehow or other to get to her and she spent a whole day with her.
And then, many years later, after I came back from Russia and made my psychiatry film, I read in the paper that Eleanor Roosevelt was going to go to Russia to look into social services there and she was hoping to visit mental hospitals. But she had heard that they didn't exist. So I called her up. I don't know how the hell I got her phone number, and I said, "Well, I made this film," and she said, "Oh, I'd love to see it." So I brought my projector and film and showed it to her. That was 1956, I think, and I hadn't yet got my hands on a sync-sound camera and I was completely out of any money so that by the end of the day she said, "You know, I'm leaving in three weeks. You're most welcome to come along." But I couldn't because I didn't have the equipment or the money. But she was taken that much by what I had to offer.
Did you or do you still have any anxieties about the process of filmmaking?
Well, what happens with me is once I get going on it, as soon as something happens, then it's just out of this world—a scene that is so telling that it propels me through the rest of it. I think it was a year ago; we had a screening of the Beatles film at the Film Forum here in New York. Because I had to introduce it and give a talk afterward, I sat through the film. I hadn't seen it in a long time and I noticed that I was moving around in my chair as though I was operating the camera all over again and I was zooming and switching shots. But I can tell you that if my way of doing it were any different, you know, then I would have felt, "Oh my God, I didn't do it right that time." But all the way through I felt, "Oh yeah, that's right. I got it right. I got it right. I got it right." So the satisfaction never ends.
You make a film from a script, a fiction film, and in a way that's the end of it because those lines never existed in reality anyway. But the lives of people in documentary, they still go on, and if you've done a decent job of it, they're still with you. And I get letters and telephone calls, which I return, from Little Edie Beale1 all the time.
And with Salesman, as you can imagine, Paul became a lifelong friend. One of the reasons we did Salesman and did it so well was that in many ways the whole thing stemmed from our heart. We were Jewish kids brought up in an anti-Semitic environment. We were in fights with Irish kids every
'Little Edie Beale died in her Florida apartment in January 2002 from coronary-related issues. Her mother passed away soon after Grey Gardens's theatrical release in 1976.
single day, so the time had come to make a reconciliation. It wasn't just by accident we chose these guys who were from Boston, all of them Irish. And so it was a turnaround that sort of had to take place at some time, some way, and that's the way it was with that film. With someone else doing it, it could so easily have been a diatribe, piece of propaganda, pro-Communist, pro-capitalist, goodness knows, anti this, pro that. In fact, I like to tell this story: When we finished the film, we made it primarily to get it in movie theaters, but no exhibitor was interested. So we knew that the only way to get it into the theater was to rent a theater. So we needed money for that, so we had screenings where we hoped to get people to contribute to our fund where we could rent a theater. It ended up actually that we had to rent it from our own money, but in the meantime, we had all these screenings. Maybe a hundred people would come. At one of those screenings I noticed that as people filed out and congratulated us, there was one woman who was still seated, the last person to leave the theater. And as she got up and turned in our direction, I noticed that she'd been crying. And I also noticed that she was really quite attractive. And I elbowed my brother and I said, "She's for me." And that's my wife—that's how I met her.
And also, there's another thing that my parents gave me—this very romantic and positive view of life. My mother told me the story of how when she and my father were engaged they would meet for lunch at a certain street corner in downtown Boston. And my mother would arrive at noon, and my father would arrive five or ten minutes earlier and place himself across the street behind a window and just look at her. And then he'd slip around back and come down the street. So he could do this every day. And when you have images like that, really indirectly somehow or other—I mean with images like that who knows? Maybe that's why I looked at that black woman anticipating that something beautiful might happen. That's the instinct that you have to follow. The market, the money be damned. You've got to do that to do your best.
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