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Home / News / An interview with Albert Maysles

An interview with Albert Maysles

Posted on Feb 09, 2010 - 09:12 PM
An interview with Albert Maysles
One of the things that's always been interesting for me while working with the Grey Gardens project and being in the studio so much, is thinking about what your approach to making the film was. How would you describe your approach to making documentary films, and your approach towards the Beales.
I regard it as an adventurous process of discovery. Putting aside prejudices and preconceptions. Put all of that aside, and not attempt to develop a point of view, but rather just letting things happen as they do. And film those interesting moments that are so poignant, sometimes even dramatic. That's how you really tell the truth. And how you get the most engaging material so that people find themselves engaged rather than just entertained in some flippant fashion, or even entertained by something that is staged rather than real. So I can claim, truthfully, that I'm getting the real thing.

Some people say, "Yeah, but the camera's there." The way I work with the camera, it is so unobtrusive and with such trust, people just go on with their lives. The camera's not a force that changes things.

It always seems to me that you have such a talent to be in the room without putting your ego, or your spin on it.
Some people like to think that it's "fly on the wall", but that's not what it is because a fly on the wall has no sensibility. You pick up all kinds of information, but nothing that is artistic or revelatory.

What's your take on how your daughters approached the information that you had collected, and made it into a book?
Well first of all, Sara's contribution was enormous with the CD that she did, taking, oh, 150 hours of wild sound, sound that was recorded when the camera wasn't running, sound that we would never otherwise know except that she worked it down to an hour and ten minutes, and it's just totally engaging for anybody that wants to know more about these two women. There's even, even more to be said! Even more, and there's more in that CD.

I think it's great that it almost gives everything a new life almost, in a new way, and the connection between you and your daughters. Do you think it's a reinterpretation of the film?
It's another go at it.

Right. In a different medium.
Through the drawings, which give us further insight, and the soundtrack, and then the whole thing is organized in such a way, in addition to enormous content, you just can't put the book down. And if you do put it down, then there's more not to put down! And, I don't know that anybody could get everything that's in the book. There's so much…

Yeah, you can take a lot of passes through it, which is really great. Is it strange for you to have someone reinterpret the film? Even though it is your daughters. As an artist is it hard to let go?

Looking back, I think if someone asked me, when we finished the film, if someone had said, "Well is there more to tell?" (I would of said) No, I think we got it all. But then there is more to tell, because in fact, of the millions of people that have seen it, each person gets something else out of it. And so, if you do a musical, you get something out of it and you expand upon that. Or a Hollywood feature film, or if you're an artist like Rebekah… there's something in addition that you could put into it. But always the criterion for me, always is: What would the Edie's think? And they would love it. They would love it, recommend it and just devour it. Perhaps more so than anybody.

My next question goes back to your approach to filmmaking. How hard is it for you to remain objective? Do you ever feel like theres times when you want something to happen? Do you ever feel tempted to lead things in a certain way?
I have no script for it in my mind. If the two women are beginning to argue, you know, then I want to get every bit of it. But, just how it turns out is up to them.

Was there ever anything that you wished you had worked with in the past? Someone that you could have documented?
This was very early in my career, when I didn't have the kind of equipment that I have now. I had a camera, but it was only for taking picture without sound. In 1955 I made my first film in mental hospitals in Russia. And within a year I had the film footage, and I noticed in the newspaper that Eleanor Roosevelt was going to go to Russia and look into social services there, and she wanted to visit mental hospitals, and she heard that there weren't any. So I called her up. She was living in New York City. I don't know how I got the phone number. I called her up. I said, "Indeed there are mental hospitals. I just made this film." "Oh! Please, come over. Let me see it. Wow!" So I brought the film, and the projector, and showed it to her, and we talked for quite a while. And she said, "You know we're leaving in 3 weeks. I'd love to have you come along." I didn't have the money, and not having a small camera that took sound as well… so to me it didn't make much sense. I'd be just frustrated all the time not being able to get sound. And so I didn't go.

You brought up the camera. How do you feel about changes in technology that have happened, and how it effects what you can do?
It's all for the better.

All for the better?
Yeah. I made this little film of three kids having breakfast, a wonderful little film. All I needed was a five or six minute film, for my purposes, and so I used a video camera. Cost me three dollars for the tape. If that were film, by the time it was processed and a print was made it would be thousands of dollars, which I never could have afforded for this particular film.

To make a whole film, then it's many thousands of dollars. Much more so. Because it's film and not tape. And now we have high definition, the quality is all you could ask for.
I haven't used a film camera in years.

Wow. Do you think it affords you more access? Do you feel more comfortable when you have just the camera and not this big setup?
Yeah. Well even when it was film, when I would make a film like Salesman or Grey Gardens with my brother, just the two of us, so we could work in a very non-imposing fashion. Now there are many instances where I'll just do it myself. The camera has both picture and sound with it. I've been, I got so excited about this new technology that on my website you can see thirty reasons why I've made the transition.

Yes, I did see that.
Economy, the non-imposing nature of the equipment. You would have to break every ten minutes to reload the camera during which time something very important might be taking place, but you were lost.

It also seems to be more democratic. Anyone can get into filmmaking. Which seems to be something that the Cinema and the Institute are interested in.
Yeah, I'm not locked that locked into that professionalism that so many cinematographers are bound with. Where they need lighting, and a large crew, and they're more tuned into controlling things rather than letting things happen. And in that respect I oftentimes prefer an amateur cinematographer than a professional. And also the amateur is selecting things that are of personal interest rather than of commercial interest.

Working in the time period you did, do you feel like it was easier to get access to certain people?
People have asked that. And if you ask most people, they'll say, "Oh it must be so much more difficult now." Because people are more sophisticated about and concerned about their image and such. For me that hasn't changed any in the sense that the basic thing of human nature is that people would much prefer to open up, to disclose, than to keep a secret. And that is a very special talent of mine. Being able to have access and continued access with people, partly because I feel that I can get the trust, and I do get the trust of people… immediately. It's something that they pick up in my eyes that makes that connection of trust. And I'm confident that I can get that trust.

Is there a specific technique that you have, or do you think it's your natural innate, personality that causes people to respond to what you're doing?
It's something that I've always had.

I was wondering if it's something that you're conscious of and that you can develop.
I've always been more of a listener than a talker. And a good listener… you can still say there's a conversation going on, even though you're not saying anything.

Well that's the other half of a conversation.
Yeah, is the listener.

What do you think the ideal conditions are to make good art?
Ohh. Well I think that whether you realize it or not at the time that you're making the film— you may discover it later on after you've taken another, still another look at the film you've made— you're at your best, frequently, when there's something very personal about the film. Something in your childhood, some experience that you've had that… where the film becomes further identification with that, or exposition of it. And I know, for example with Salesman— you've seen Salesman?

A: You have to have personal involvement. The main character in Salesman is, in kind of in various ways, pretty much like my father. My father's long dead. I can't do it with him, but I'm telling a similar story, and I'm totally fascinated, and wanna get it just right.

But, of course, the artist has to have a poetic way of expressing himself or herself. And, I mean, a lot of what I do at my best is a kind of poetry, audiovisual poetry. In documentary work you need restraint. But be in collusion with your poetic sensibilities. I think it was Hitchcock that said that in a feature, fiction film the director is God. In a documentary, God is the director. So you're in company if you allow reality to control things.

What's the big project that you're interested in right now? What have you been putting your time into?
I came up with a list of a dozen.

(Laughs) Your still busy then?
Yeah. But the biggest, the number one project is of people I meet on trains. I call it In Transition. And, again, when I think about it, I had an experience when I was going into the army, we [when I] had this whole idea, and a good deal of the motivation behind making this film is from that experience. I was seventeen years old. I was going off into the army. I got on the train with a bunch of other kids my age. We were all going off into the army. The war is on. And we're going around joking, and suddenly, I feel the train about to move, and I rush to the window, still smiling, and I see my family— my brother, sister, my grandmother— just looking ahead. They can't see me. And I know from the look on all of their faces that they're thinking: Maybe he won't come back. And that image, and that train moving out with my inability to get, talk to them… So the film itself is kind of a talking back. Through the lives of strangers.

How long have you been working on this?
I've been wanting to do it for forty years. There've been a couple of times I've gone out and done some filming. I filmed a woman who had just gotten on the train in Pittsburgh and she was heading east, as I was. And as I began to film her, with her permission, she told me why she was on the train. When she was three years old, she lost contact with her parents. Her mother, with her mother. And she'd never seen her mother, and she had just gotten a call from a woman in Philadelphia: I'm your mother, get on the next train. I'll wait here at the train station. So, I continue the filming, and film the encounter. And the end of it, the mother turned to me and said, "Isn't she gorgeous?"

Where did your trip start?
I started in New York, went all the way out to the West Coast, and I was coming back.
I went all the way to California, and then when the train hit Pittsburgh, I found this woman. I've also done the Trans-Siberia train, too.

What was that like?
I went all the way, almost to the Chinese border. And we're still in Siberia, so we're coming back, when I noticed through the window of one of the compartments what looked like a family. So, I knocked on the window, and they waved me in, and I started filming. I discovered it wasn't a family. It was an aunt and uncle with their niece and nephew. And why were they on the train? The niece and nephew had just lost their mother. And the aunt and uncle are taking them to their home in the Ukraine to take care of them.

Is the language barrier tough?
Well, I had a translator.

Even so, they are open to speak to you?
Oh yeah. The very first thing that happened is one of the kids gave me, showed me this photograph. It was of the mother in the coffin.

Do you think that to be so open to a stranger is something that is different from Western culture?
Oh, I can't say for sure, but I think it's more people feeling comfortable with me, no matter what the country is. I'll discover… If their is a difference, I'll discover when I make the film in various countries.

What is your vision is in working with everyone here at the institute? What do you see this place being and becoming?
Well, I get involved with it every once in a while by helping to select the films. And, if there's one word to express my own films, it's the humanizing effect that one has when seeing one of my documentaries. I decided to select a week of films. Not war films, but just the opposite: films that provoke peace. So we did that. It was quite successful. Again, I'm hoping to put together a week, at least, of films of Russia, but from a human point of view. Not somebody narrating the story of what's going— supposedly what's going on behind the walls of the Kremlin, but people on the street, in their homes.

It is interesting because we have so many years of the Cold War, and we have this impression of what Russia is like from the media.
We don't have an understanding really of the people, who are there. If we had four or five humanizing films of Iraq, you know, we wouldn't be there today. We need to know that the people there are going to get hurt.

It puts on a face on them.

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