Dean of Docs: Veteran director Albert Maysles brings documentary screenings and hands-on training to Harlem Institute

Movies Features

Legendary documentarian Albert Maysles passed away today of natural causes at the age of 88. Here, we republish an interview conducted with the Grey Gardens director from our November 2012 issue.

A cinema treasure, 85-year-old Albert Maysles today remains more active and idealistic than men a fraction of his age. In 2005, the veteran documentarian (Salesman, Grey Gardens, Gimme Shelter) founded the Maysles Institute, which independently screens docs for the public with a pay-what-you-can admission policy and also trains young filmmakers at a wonderful, first-rate facility in Harlem. It was the highest privilege for Film Journal International to meet with Maysles, an inspiring combination of the feisty and near-saintly, to discuss the dizzying range of his past and present, ever-percolating life.

Film Journal International: How long have you been here in Harlem?
Albert Maysles: Seven years. Before that we had a studio on 54th Street and were living at the Dakota, so I tell people we moved up in the world. We sold that and now we have a building here on Lenox Avenue. The purpose of moving up here was that my four kids are all in their 30s and we wanted them to have their own apartments, so we also have two brownstones down the street.

There was a need for documentary films to have a showplace and this is a real commitment here. You walk down the street and people talk to each other, and loud enough so that you hear their conversation. We wanted to be a part of it and we wanted to have a theatre where we could show documentaries exclusively and also teach local kids how to make their own movies. These movies have been good enough that three of twelve of our kids got their films on TV.

I give them a master class for a whole day, showing them clips and teaching them. And that’s been quite effective, putting them on the right course. Just below street level here, we have a space as big as this whole floor, with cameras, editing equipment, the whole works.

FJI: What has the neighborhood reaction been?
AM: Excellent, because we not only contact the older people through our docs, but also the youngsters through the classes. We choose subjects that are of special interest to the neighborhood, and have done a couple full weeks on the Black Panthers. We showed Justice on Trial: The Case of Mumia Abu-Jamala, a film about the Black Panther who’s been in jail for 27 years and will be there for the rest of his life. The film clearly shows he is innocent, and he got on the phone from prison and talked to the audience afterwards.
We recently showed the film Nothing but a Man, an unbelievable film I saw for the first time myself. I just flipped and afterwards I stood up and said, “This film is before its time and after its time.” All of a sudden, now we’re paying more attention to filming in close-up. Those close-ups of the faces, one after another, were so powerful. Yes, now and then we show feature films, and this had a doc feel to it.

FJI: What are you working on now?
AM: Four or five projects. One is about Elie Wiesel. It’s an especially good time now because he spends his time now not so much on his Holocaust experience, but trying to make peace through lectures and teaching at Boston University. Another project is about Thomas Lauderdale, a pianist who heads up an orchestra called Pink Martini, very good. He’s going to be performing this December at Carnegie Hall and he told me that there’s a woman who, when she was 18, her dream was to be a concert pianist and perform there. She’s having her dream fulfilled at 70, and she is the widow of Medgar Evers. So I’m going with her back to Jackson, Mississippi, and spending a few days there, filming the two of them practicing and then the concert itself.

FJI: How do you find your incredible subjects? Do they just somehow fall into your lap?
AM: I’ll tell you a funny story. In February 1964, my brother David and I are downtown and the phone rings. It’s English TV, saying The Beatles are arriving in New York in two hours and would we like to make a film about them. I turn to my brother and ask, “Who are The Beatles? Are they any good?” He said, “Yeah,” so both of us get on the phone and make the deal. We went to the airport and spent a whole week with them and made the best, first film ever about The Beatles.

They were kids in their 20s, but I’ve been with them ever since, especially John Lennon, because he moved into the Dakota. I had already done a little film of Yoko Ono called Cut Piece. A crazy idea: She went to Madison Square Garden, the small room with about 100 seats, and sat on a chair onstage, wearing a plain black dress with pair of scissors in her lap. She announced that anyone who would like to could come up and cut a piece off her dress. What a psychological situation! Some guy gets up and I think, “I hope this guy’s okay.” Every five years or so I’ve been filming her birthday party, the last was her 75th.

FJI: What are your personal favorites of your own films?
AM: One is Salesman, and also Grey Gardens. But I made half a dozen classical music films which I got to do because the agent for people like Leonard Bernstein, Horowitz and Seiji Ozawa set it up. I also met the artist Christo in 1963 and made half a dozen films about him.

FJI: The rediscovery and ongoing appeal of Grey Gardens must have surprised you.
AM: Yes. Remember Jerry, the “Marble Faun”? Right where you’re sitting, he was sitting yesterday, looking at some footage I shot of him driving a cab. He took me out to Grey Gardens and we did some shooting in its present state that he wanted for his own film he’s making. Bill Bradlee and Sally Quinn live there now. They go there just for summer months and sublet the rest. It’s been redone and is beautiful, but to me it’s the same place, only it doesn’t smell bad from cat pee anymore. I’m sure if I took a strong breath it would, but I don’t have the nerve to do that.

The Broadway musical and HBO film really brought Grey Gardens back and there’s this young woman, Lily, the daughter of the photographer Timothy Greenfield Saunders, who made a lovely little film called The Ghosts of Grey Gardens, and there are probably even more I don’t know about.

FJI: The new TV series “The New Normal” has the character of a very little girl who loves to impersonate Little Edie Beale.
AM: Ohmigosh! Really? Wow! She’s got the dresses and the voice? I liked both the play and the HBO film. They were kind enough to show me the scripts ahead of time and I added a few comments. In both cases, they were a little bit too much on the edge of being crazy, so that had to be adjusted. I met both Christine Ebersole and Drew Barrymore, who were full of questions.

You know, I’m so pleased that I chose this profession. It’s given me everything. We made films of Marlon Brando, who when he saw it merely said, “Word Salad,” and Orson Welles, with whom we spent a week in Madrid, hanging out in restaurants and at bullfights.

When we made Salesman, we were aware that we were on new territory. No distributors in 1965 would show a doc, so we had some screenings to raise money for a theatrical release at maybe that same room at Madison Square Garden where Yoko was. After, as people filed out, I noticed through a crack in the door, one person left in the theatre. I see that she’s been crying and as she gets closer I see how attractive she is. I elbowed my brother and said, “She’s for me.” That was my wife, so through filmmaking I met my wife of 36 years.

Hearing about that little girl in “The New Normal” also brings me to another film I’m making, about six-year-old kids who I place in a comfortable place in one of their homes and sit in on their conversation. I fell in love with two girls talking about their crushes. “Have you been kissed?” one asks. “I thought I was being kissed but then he spit in my ear,” she answers. And then the other one says, “I’m waiting until I’m 14.”

FJI: You can’t make this stuff up, the beauty of documentary.
AM: It’s so chancy. You should be scared, but you know somehow things are going to fall in place. That happens more often than getting a total dud. I always tell filmmakers to keep the film running. In the opening scene of Salesman, he’s pitching something and having a tough time, and the little girl goes to the piano and knocks out a tune that is as appropriate as Beethoven would have made it. I had no idea it was going to happen and then it happened.

FJI: Gimme Shelter, in which an audience member got killed by a Hell’s Angel during a Rolling Stones concert at Altamount, was such a cultural benchmark. Pauline Kael wrote that long review of it. Did you fear for your life while shooting it, or were you just too into the moment?
AM: I was only concerned with getting it right. I was on the stage behind the Stones, at the side, so I could get them and the audience. I couldn’t see the killing, but again, by chance, my brother was on a truck alongside the stage and he got it all.

That Kael piece made six errors, each one trying to support her totally incorrect notion that we had staged everything. She also went so far as to say in Salesman that Paul Brennan was not a Bible salesman, but a roof and siding salesman, and we got him to play the part. She got all that just from her own brain, trying to be brilliant and she did this with a number of other people, but no one has said anything about it.

I immediately went to William Shawn, the New Yorker editor, with the piece and my corrections. He said if what you’re saying is correct, we should have Pauline come in and defend it. But she wouldn’t come into the room, and at that time they didn’t have letters to the editor, so there was no way of answering that kind of claim, which strikes at the very heart of what a documentary should be. Some book just came out about her.

FJI: Yes, a biography of her. Did the author talk to you at all?
AM: No. But people just adore her. She was “brilliant”: No one else knew that about Al Maysles.

FJI: Did you ever encounter her in person?
AM: I think there was a dinner and I think I went up to her, but I have definitely had daydreams of going up to her and swearing like hell at her.

FJI: Losing your brother [and creative partner] David so young must have been a terrible tragedy. What was his strength as a filmmaker?
AM: He was a very sweet guy who loved people and got along with them beautifully. It helped enormously in immediately making friends with people so I could start filming right away. He also had this function of supervising the editing, very important. And, as I was filming with this big camera I made myself, I hid a lot of myself, so people were looking at the sound guy more than me, and that was my brother. We were a perfect team, and luckily we had a fabulous editor, Charlotte Zwerin.

Our parents were very supportive of these two movie-crazy sons. They expected that we would make useful lives. My mother was a humanist, a civil libertarian in the early days and her dream was to meet Eleanor Roosevelt.

FJI: Besides the Stones, you once told me about filming The Grateful Dead, a story I’ve got to hear again.
AM: I was shooting that for another filmmaker. It was in San Francisco, and anybody at a Grateful Dead concert should know that if you’re drinking Coke, it ain’t Coke, it’s gonna be laden with LSD. I drank, without knowing, and afterwards people told me what happened. I got on the stage during the performance on my belly and just wiggled across, with the camera in my hand. I had to get that footage. One of the other cameramen must have gotten me, and I’ve got to get that footage!