TIFF ’13 Exclusive: The long search for “Vivian Maier”

Finding Vivian Maier director John Maloof (pictured, left) and co-director Charlie Siskel (right) tell realscreen how they pieced together the story of a complex woman behind a treasure trove of street photography, and share an exclusive clip from the doc.
September 9, 2013

First-time filmmaker John Maloof (pictured, left) and co-director Charlie Siskel (producer of Religulous, right) tell realscreen how they pieced together the story of a complex woman behind a treasure trove of street photography, in Finding Vivian Maier.

In 2007, Maloof won an auction for a box of negatives. The photos didn’t fit the bill for the project he was doing, but two years later he returned to those negatives and realized just what he’d been sitting on.

He tells realscreen he decided to make the film when he began to learn “how mysterious, interesting and complex this person,” adding that “it was something I basically had full control of because I had all of her stuff.

“I thought this would be a great opportunity for me to explore this while making a film.”

Beginning in 2009, Maloof began to collect Maier’s possessions and negatives and – wanting to know more about the woman behind them – tracked down people who may have known Maier.

She was a nanny who lived in Chicago and, using phone numbers she’d written down, Maloof took to the phone books and enlisted a genealogist to find people who had worked with, lived with, and interacted with the unusual and talented woman.

Finding Vivian Maier

“It was very difficult,” recalls Maloof. “She kept herself hidden.” In the end, the filmmakers found 90 people that had been associated with the secretive Maier, who had produced thousands of beautiful images of candid photography.

Because of the lengths Maier went to protect her identity, such as refusing to give her name to store clerks and going by variations of her name, Maloof admits on camera that he felt misgivings about exposing the life of a very private woman – a feeling he maintains today.

“I still feel the same – a little uncomfortable – but at the same time, her photos are out there and they’re being seen around the world, so it’s something that’s bigger than her,” he says. “Her photos are bigger than her. When you have something like that, there’s no lid you can put on that… it belongs to the world.”

The process of making a film was a huge learning experience for Maloof, who had picked up a camera to document his journey before teaming up with Siskel and learning about post-production.

“I got involved with the film several years ago, and John had already started shooting,” says Siskel. “I knew about the story – I’m from Chicago originally, and Vivian was actually a nanny in the town where I grew up. Fast forward two and a half years later and it’s probably the most rewarding professional experience of my life.”

The duo used Kickstarter early on to fund the film and eventually began funding it themselves. Submarine Entertainment came on as a sales agent at the Berlin Film Festival, and recently announced that it would be partnering with HanWay Select for world sales.

“Our hopes are for Toronto and beyond are to share the film with the public and the press, and show the fruits of all of the labor,” says Siskel. “It’s sort of the definitive version of this story. We feel the more people hear about the story, they more they want to know and we certainly know that feeling, having spent as much time as we have falling down the Vivian Maier wormhole as it were. The more you know, the more you want to know.”

  • Finding Vivian Maier screens at the Toronto International Film Festival today (September 9) at 4.45 p.m EST and on September 10 at 7:15 p.m. Check out a clip from the doc, exclusive to realscreen, below.

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.