Washington — For more than 50 years, Albert Maysles has been producing some of the nation’s most searing, memorable documentaries. With his brother David, who died in 1987, Maysles shot cinema verite classics such as “Salesman,” “Gimme Shelter” and “Grey Gardens.”
For a body of work that includes cinematography credits on more than 60 films, the 82-year-old was honored this week at the Silverdocs documentary film festival in Silver Spring, Md. We caught up on the phone between shoots in New York.
Q: Your subjects have been so varied: The Beatles, American poverty, boxing greats. How do you decide what’s worth making a movie about?
A: “I believe that the more personal the project the better. That is, whether you know it or not, you have a personal interest in telling the story. At the same time, you keep your prejudices, hopefully, out of it, so that you end up with something that is really quite authentic.”
Q: What’s your most underrated film?
A: “A film that I made for HBO called ‘LaLee’s Kin’ about an African-American family in the South. Because it’s such a direct representation of their life, you really become intimately acquainted with what it is to be poor and black. There’s a moment when Grandma turns to her great-grandson in the film and says, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ And with a big smile on his face, he says, ‘I want to be in prison.’ That’s where the men are, and that’s his view of being a man and grown up. You don’t get that kind of impact from somebody at CBS narrating a pretty picture.”
Q: What’s the difference? That you live in their world long enough to really capture it?
A: “Long enough or more importantly that you’re keen enough to catch what’s happening. Orson Welles put it very well when he said, ‘The eye of the camera person behind the lens should be the eye of the poet.’ Also there’s another quote from Alfred Hitchcock. He says, ‘In a fiction film the director is God. In a nonfiction film God is the director.’ ”
Q: You never thought about moving into fiction?
A: “Not seriously, no. I’m so devoted to the wonderful possibilities of simply catching what’s going on in reality. Above all we need to know what’s really going on — and it’s the documentary that tells us that.”
Q: You’re still at it, of course. What are you working on now?
A: “I’m making a film where I film little children ages 4 to 6 — just two at time. Two precocious kids who are friends or siblings. And I just sit in on their conversations. I don’t tell them what to do, and they come up with the most wonderful ways of expressing themselves. I was filming the other day and one of them said, ‘I solved my dream.’ Ha — ‘I solved my dream’!”