Jonas Mekas Talks to the Maysles Brothers


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March 3, 1966, Vol. XI, No. 20

Movie Journal

By Jonas Mekas

David and Al Maysles, together with Ricky Leacock, are working in that style of film-making which has become known as the Direct Cinema (in France it’s called Cinema-Verite). Until now, whenever one wanted to explain what the Direct Cinema is alll about, one had a hard time in doing so. But with Truman Capote’s book, “In Cold Blood,” answers became somewhat easier. Direct Cinema has now a parallel in Capote’s non-fictional novel. That’s what Maysles’ “Showman” is: a non-fictional film novel. It isn’t a perfect answer, but it makes the process involved easier to understand.

Hearing that Maysles Brothers had just completed another film, “With Love, from Truman,” I went to see them, and we had the following conversation:

MEKAS: You have been working together on films. Is there any “labor” division between you two?

DAVID MAYSLES: Al is responsible for the development of the equipment. He has been working, for instance, for over three years now, building a new camera which will facilitate the film work that we do. He is also responsible for all the shooting. I am responsible for all the sound, the production, and the supervising of the editing. That is more or less the general line of things.

AL MAYSLES: When you say “division of labor,” in our kind of work, it is a little misleading. Our work overlaps. We don’t direct in the conventional sense. We both, for example, we select and we arrive at an idea between both of us. While we are shooting, we have words back and forth — what we should film and what we shouldn’t film. So it’s direction by selecting.

MEKAS: How many films have you made till now? Which ones would you like the public to know about?

AL MAYSLES: There are four major works: “Showman…”

MEKAS: You don’t think you’ve done anything of importance before “Showman”?

AL MAYSLES: There were contributions to the work of other people. I am talking about the films which are completely our own. The list, then, is: “Showman,” “What’s Happening: The Beatles in the USA,” “Meet Marlon Brando,” and now, “With Love, from Truman.”

MEKAS: Looking back at those four works, it seems to me that it was natural for you to bump into Truman Capote: your cold-blooded Direct-Cinema style is so close to what Capote is doing in his book. Do you see any connection between Truman Capote’s non-fictional novel and your own work in the non-fictional cinema?

DAVID MAYSLES: Yes, we are interested in poetry that comes out of non-fiction. Truman Capote’s book is the closest thing to our own work we have ever come across. What we are doing is in direct parallel in motion picture form to what Capote is doing in the literary form. The only difference is that in this particular book, he had to go back before the events were taking place. In other words, the murder took place, then he had to find out what happened, how did it happen. He had to go back and to reconstruct — which we didn’t do. But it could very well happen that the next non-fiction novel he writes will not be of murder but something that starts the moment he gets into it, and everything will happen as he sees it. He has said himself that our work is the closest thing to him. There is a common bond, in our styles and approaches.

There was one bit of conversation that we had that was particularly fascinating and exciting for us. When he was talking about the subject matter, and when we were discussing which story he would like to take next, what story he would like to do next, how does one choose the subject — he said that he subject matter of crime has never been of particular interest to him. It wasn’t even when he engaged it. What was interesting to me was that you pick a subject matter, and at first you may not see much reason in choosing it — but as you begin to follow it, and as soon as you find something of yourself in it — you are in. What Capote found in his subject was Perry. Perry was just like Capote, he was very sensitive. In other words, you find something in the story, in the subject matter, that, unconsciously, begins to fascinate you.

MEKAS: Capote looked for his subject matter in the newspapers. How do you choose your subjects?

AL MAYSLES: In the case of the Capote film, NET was doing a series on novelists, and we chose Capote because he particularly appealed to us. And it was a labor of love, because NET doesn’t give any profit incentives, as you probably know.

MEKAS: By now, you have completed four films. Do you see any development in your style? With which of your films are you most content?

DAVID MAYSLES: We are most happy with the “Showman,” really.

MEKAS: For what reason?

DAVID MAYSLES: I think for the reason, I say it now, because I am quite sure of this — that we went into that film like a writer goes into writing a short story. Its growth is more organic, multi-sided, and complex — many different feelings, moods, situations are reflected, the character of the man is presented in a more complex manner. The Capote portrait is much simpler, but we like it also. There is much feeling in it. We like all four, really. Each one is doing something else. But “Showman” still sticks out as the Accomplishment.

Talking about Capote’s and our own techniques, there are other parallels. He, for instance, is very conscious of intruding upon his subject, of making any kind of intrusion. That’s why he doesn’t take notes. The same way that we try to build our equipment. We try to gain a certain kind of rapport, some relationship with the subject, as Capote does. To establish this relationship, we have perfected a camera that doesn’t make any noise. It helps us to get that type of spontaneity, of rapport, without someone being self-conscious because of the equipment. Also, we work to establish a balanced human relationship before we can start shooting — you have to get the complete trust of the person you are filming.

MEKAS: Is anyone else, beside yourselves and Leacock, doing anything worthwhile in Direct Cinema, here or abroad?

AL MAYSLES: Capote has inspired us more than anyone else. Or “8 1/2”; or “Hustler.”

MEKAS: Why “Hustler?”

AL MAYSLES: It’s simplicity, perhaps. The story, really. The structure of the story was so simple. Something that we could do in a real life situation.

We don’t see much of TV or cinema. We are all by ourselves. Really. It takes time to make films. It took us three years to get out of “Showman,” financially. We did it the way we wanted it, but we had to take the losses. It may be shown, eventually, but at the moment it doesn’t fit the networks’ appetite.

MEKAS: What happens to your movies after they are shown on television?

AL MAYSLES: We own them all, but we have no official permission to show them in theatres. They are all in various states of restriction.

MEKAS: You shot your Capote film around New York. But there was one cemetery shot in it, from Kansas. Was it stock footage?

AL MAYSLES: Oh, no! We went to Kansas just for that one shot. We felt we had to do it. As a matter of fact, while shooting it, to help ourselves, we had a small taperecorder on us, with Capote’s voice on it, reading that part. For authenticity of feeling.

MEKAS: Are you planning another film?

DAVID MAYSLES: We are still looking for a good story that would sustain itself for an hour and a half. We are going to make it as soon as we find it. It is funny — we are working the same way, Capote and us. We buy newspapers, magazines, we look through all the items. One thing is certain: this story will have something the other films we did till now didn’t have: it will be because it is a good story, but not because it’s about a “famous person.” It will be a person and a story that nobody knows anything about.

[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]