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Fresh Air Remembers Pioneering Documentary Filmmaker Albert Maysles


This is FRESH AIR. The pioneering documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles died last week at the age of 88. Albert and his late brother, David, made the 1976 film "Grey Gardens," a study of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis's relatives, Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter Edie, who lived in squalor in their decaying mansion. "Grey Gardens" was adapted into a Broadway musical and an HBO movie. The Maysles' film "Gimme Shelter" recorded the Rolling Stones performance at the 1969 Altamont Festival where a fan was stabbed to death, a dark counterpoint to the Woodstock festival that was staged earlier that year. The brothers' 1964 film "What's Happening! The Beatles in the U.S.A." followed The Beatles on the first five days of their first American tour. The Maysles shot other documentaries about Bible salesmen, Marlon Brando, the artist Christo, Vladimir Horowitz, abortion, hospice and Muhammad Ali. The Maysles describe their documentary style as direct cinema. They didn't use sets, scripts or narration and were led by the philosophy that a documentarian should show up without predetermined ideas and let the story naturally unfold. I spoke with Albert Maysles in 1987, less than a year after his brother David's death. He described what it was like when he started making documentaries in the early 1960s.


ALBERT MAYSLES: I was one of the photographers, and I had - and along with me was a soundman. And that was the whole crew. And in two or three of our major films, my brother and I, who later began our own company - that was the crew for "Grey Gardens," for "Salesman." And it's - it was the ideal way for us to operate, and it meant that we could tell stories as they were happening rather than have to rely on narration, music, artificial devices that came in afterwards as a way of rescuing something that you just didn't get on its own.

GROSS: And you wanted your presence as filmmakers to disrupt the action around you as little as possible.

MAYSLES: Right, right because we believed in getting the story itself the way - I mean, that was the revolution in journalism that LIFE magazine had started, that nobody was going to tell anybody what to do when a photograph was being taken. And we weren't about to tell anybody what to say or to do in filming them. Actually, it's an idea that actually was long overdue. It couldn't come about until the technology existed for it as it was developed in 1960.

GROSS: But nevertheless, you were the one who had to lug around the camera (laughter).

MAYSLES: Right, 25 pounds of it.

GROSS: Yeah, did you do anything to customize your camera to make it more portable back in the early days when you were starting?

MAYSLES: Yes, well, I redesigned the whole thing so that it didn't need a tripod. It could rest on my shoulders in full balance without even having to support it with either hands. I had it low enough down so that both eyes could look over the camera and see not only what through the camera, but also outside of the camera so that it was suddenly a human being rather than just a technical device recording something. And I put an exposure meter at the end of the lens of the camera and so that I didn't have to put the camera down in order to change the aperture if the light conditions were changing. It put everything at the surface of the film.

GROSS: Let's talk about your 1969 movie, "Gimme Shelter," of the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. This is the concert that ended in the murder of one of the fans. I think it was Hells Angels who were responsible for the murder. Now, were you filming that as it happened?

MAYSLES: Yes. Well, we had four or five camera people there. Most of them got drugged up by being given wine that they didn't know was loaded. And so it was really another cameraman and myself who did most of the work at the Altamont concert. And so for that particular scene, my brother happened to be with the other cameramen, so he's the one that actually filmed it.

GROSS: What were some of the ethical questions you had to ask yourselves when you got the footage and had to decide how much of it to include in the movie?

MAYSLES: Well, actually, we didn't ask any ethical questions...


GROSS: Really?

MAYSLES: ...Because we felt - we didn't feel a need to. We just, you know, behaved as one normally does in a crisis. And if one is ethical, as I think we were, then we did, I think, what was ethical. But there were ethical questions that were raised once we made the film. And one of them was whether to use the material of a killing in a film. And The New York Times review, I remember, was headlined "Making Murder Pay," as if to say that we were very happy that we had the material and that we were using it because we wanted to exploit that fact. But on the other hand, had we not included it in the film, I'm sure it would've been an - equally unethical since, or immoral since it was an important part of what took place.

I think the alternative probably would have been to make a film like "Woodstock," which attempted to make the Woodstock generation a very happy, unfettered event. And it turns out that it wasn't quite entirely that. Nor were the events of Altamont entirely of a disaster nature. So I think that we were fair in representing what had to be shown. And fortunately, we were there at the right time to get the killing, as well as a lot of other significant things that happened. I mean, significant enough so that I think that the film probably is, in filmic terms, the clearest representation of that generation for that decade.

GROSS: Did you ever talk to your brother about what was going through his mind when he realized that there was a murder taking place as he filmed?

MAYSLES: Well, in truth, he didn't know. Nor did I know. I was...

GROSS: He just thought it was a commotion?

MAYSLES: ...Only about 20 feet away, myself, filming Mick Jagger. And neither one of us knew what was going on except that there was a scuffle, so it wasn't - there wasn't that ethical question either, although it's an interesting one and always comes up in one's mind - will there be a sometime in my career as a cameraman where I have to make the choice between stopping a, say, killing or filming it. And I think one is so strongly compelled to tell what's going on as a moviemaker, when things that somehow rather - if that crisis occurs, that you'll be able, somehow, rather, to do both.

GROSS: You funded most of your movies not through grants, which is the typical way that documentaries get funded, but rather through making documentary-style commercials and industrials. How come you never went the grant-writing route?

MAYSLES: Well, I think that - for one thing, by the time you get a grant, having put all that energy into it, that you - it's such a frustrating effort that you might even lose interest in making the movie, or the key elements of what were to take place, you know, had already taken place and it's no longer a good film. And then you find yourself committed to an organization or organizations that have a hard time because of the ruckus of, you know, getting you out of it and slipping you back into another film which would be more interesting at that time.

You know, it's been said so many, many times that an artist, whether he's a writer or moviemaker, you know, relishes and needs the opportunity to express something that he can't even put into words except that it's a heartfelt part of his soul that he needs to find expression for. And that sort of stuff that's deep inside you, you can't express unless you are a writer, which I am not. I can only express it by making a movie because that's what I am - a moviemaker.

GROSS: Albert Maysles recorded in 1987. He died last week at the age of 88.


GROSS: Tomorrow on our show, book editor George Hodgman talks about leaving his home in Manhattan to visit his 91-year-old mother in his small hometown in Missouri and deciding to stay and take care of her. He had to figure out how to deal with issues they've never discussed with candor, like that he's gay. He's written a new memoir called "Bettyville." And remember, if your schedule makes it hard to listen to our broadcast, check out our podcast. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.