At the Hot Docs closing night gala, Albert Maysles was described as ‘an anchor for the whole festival,’ a reference to the impact of his work in documentary filmmaking. Together with his brother David (who passed away in 1987), this soft-spoken man has become a pioneer of cinema verite or ‘direct cinema.’
Simplifying the production process, they built a camera with synchronous sound, and proceeded to record the world with a crew of only two. This innovation created an intimacy and spontaneity without a need for narration or script, allowing things to be as they may.
One of the Maysles’ defining characteristics has always been their fearlessness in calling anyone for the purposes of a film. Edward Steichen, Isaac Bashevis Singer, George Plimpton, Orson Welles, the Beatles, Muhammad Ali and Marlon Brando are all on the list of personalities they managed to reach. Their films speak to a synchronicity of being in the right place at the right moment, an ability to find opportunities and make the most of them.
This is the paradox that has made the Maysles brothers’ careers. Albert says docs are his way of ‘making a better world,’ and he prefers to follow the lives of ordinary people rather than celebrities. So while the brothers made Gimme Shelter (1970) with the Rolling Stones, they also made Salesman (1968) and Grey Gardens (1976). He admits, however, that Grey Gardens was the last film he made ‘entirely out of his heart.’
Through his New York-based prodco, Maysles Films, Albert works on projects that are ’90% there.’ For example, a broadcaster approaches with an idea – like abortion, hospice-care or a black family in the Mississippi – and he makes a film. ‘If you make a film directly from your heart, it becomes an acquisition and the broadcaster pays you nothing. If you do a pre-sale, the content is sales-driven.’
Albert says he and his brother never wanted to be financed on their films, as ‘the very nature of a documentary is such that you can’t fully prove what it’s going to be, and we didn’t want to take the responsibility on someone else’s money.’ But at the same time, the Maysles never initiated a project they didn’t finish.
‘Like any great work of art, a great film has no specific purpose,’ Albert says. In the past, the ability to work on such a project was limited by the high cost of filmmaking, but the advent of new, low-cost digital technology has opened the way. This summer, Albert himself is off to Italy and Spain with a mini-DV camera. His current work, Train Stories, continues his journey into ‘the geography of human experience’ and demonstrates his philosophy that if you really want to make a film, do it yourself. ‘Nothing good comes easily, you have to stick out your neck and pay for it.’