An instructor in psychology at Boston University in the early 1950’s, Albert Maysles saw his life changed with the invention in 1960 of handheld sync sound cameras, which reduced the size of a documentary crew to two, enabling unprecedented intimacy. He and his brother David Maysles created classics such as 1968 Salesman, the first feature documentary. 1976’s Grey Gardens, now the basis for a musical at Playwrights Horizons, will be re-released this year on DVD with an hour and a half of previously unseen outtakes. Maysles is currently at work on several projects, including a new Maysles Films Institute in Harlem.
How was your experience as a salesman? The first house that I came to the first day that I was selling the Encyclopedia Americana, I completely forgot my whole pitch. The woman said, “Do you have it with you?” and I said, “Oh yeah.” She said, “Why don’t you read it?” So I read it and she bought it. That’s a model for my relationship with people when I make a documentary. People let you into their lives the way this woman let me into her house and they’re so kind to me.
Do you ever think about taboos? In our culture, we fear getting too close.
I’ve been thinking especially lately of where I go from here? What have I yet to film that I should be getting? I go back to my childhood and think of the 1930s when it was most common for a father to hit the child with a strap if the child misbehaved. One day I must have done something terribly bad; [my father] did hit me with the strap. It didn’t bother me, it didn’t hurt me. Later I happened to walk past his bedroom and there he was with his head against the wall crying, and I stood there in amazement, but really understanding how much my father loved me. That’s the kind of thing I want to get.
The common argument is that good news lacks teeth. The opening of lines of Tolstoy’s book Anna Karenina start with, ”All unhappy families are different from one another. The happy families are all the same.” This is the journalistic prejudice that we have. If all happy families are the same, then when you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. Let’s just forget about it and go for the dysfunctional.
My daughter, when she was four years old, we used to go pick up The New York Times the night before at the newsstand. One day we got to the newsstand and the paper hadn’t arrived yet. I was getting a little fidgety and she said, “Daddy, the paper’s not ready yet because the people haven’t been killed yet.”
What did [Time/Life Pictures Editor] Bob Drew envision in order to justify the expense of developing new camera technology? It would be a kind of journalism where the camera would be behind the scenes and not have to rely on a narrator to tell the story. That precipitated a whole revolution in making documentaries. It still hasn’t filtered down to news reporting, which is still an illustrated lecture. The advance was to get to life in such a direct way that when you saw the film you could judge for yourself.
The first thing we did was to get behind the scenes of the election campaign between Kennedy and Humphrey and when you see that film [Primary], you think, “Oh my gosh, were they making film like that way back in 1960? Whoo!” Television people still haven’t caught up.
What’s going on with the Maysles Institute in Harlem? We’re putting the building together. We are going to have 75 seats. We are going to show movies of interest to people. Films on the civil rights movement for example, all kinds of films. We’re also going to, hopefully with funds from private and foundation sources, have a whole program where we’ll be able to give video cameras to local kids and show their films.
A lot of artists enjoy complete control over what they’re creating. With me the basic thing is not having that control, in a random fashion. The control consists in noticing what other people don’t notice.