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Interview: Albert Maysles (Part 2)


Watching Gimme Shelter with director Albert Maysles was one Images-1 of my crazier long-shot ideas. But Albert immediately saw the value and agreed to do it. As we settled in several weeks ago and the film began to roll, I couldn't help but feel this electric surge. As with Sonny Rollins agreeing to take a drive uptown with me to his old neighborhood in Harlem, or Jerry Lee Lewis showing me how he runs his hands up and down the piano keys, or Fats Domino tapping out rock's earliest beat on my hand, Albert chatting about his classic movie as it flickered away on the screen was another one of those pinch-me moments.

If you missed my Wall Street Journal conversation with Albert yesterday, you'll find it here. Of course, not everything I asked Albert, 83, could fit in the 1,000-word article. So here's the balance of my interview questions, from my reporter's notebook:

Images-2Images-3JazzWax: When you make a documentary, do you consciously think about where to place what you're filming to appear along the story arc or does the story come later?
Albert Maysles: I'm less focused on the parts and more interested in providing the film's editor with enough material to assemble the story we have in mind. I usually start filming as soon as I meet the film's subject, and I always keep my camera ready to roll to capture one more moment. Many filmmakers turn off their camera or put it away when they stop. I'm always expecting there will be one more moment and I don't want to miss it.

JW: I notice in Gimme Shelter that you have a knack for making sure your camera lens is always in the right place at the right time—the lens arriving just before something interesting happens.
AM: [Laughs] This is the primary task of a documentary cameraman—anticipating what's going to happen and being there just as what you expected would happen does. Which is hard to do since your eye virtually lives in the viewfinder.

JW: This happens pretty often in Gimme Shelter. For instance, when Mick Jagger climbs into a car in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, his red scarf is hanging outside the open door. You already sensed it wasn't going to make it inside before the car door closed. Just as you zoomed in on the scarf, the door started to close and the scarf got tugged in, little by little.
AM: [Laughs] Exactly. I'm constantly thinking about what's likely to occur and try to get my camera there before. And then it does happen.

Images-7JW: How did the Beatles documentary come about?
AM: My brother David and I got a call from Britain's Granada Television three hours before the Beatles arrived at Kennedy Airport. The producer was on the plane with them. The Beatles' team had already seen our 1963 film Showman, about movie producer Joe Levine. They needed a film team to document their arrival and their first visit to the States. Our goal with the Beatles was to make sense of the hysteria and enormous celebrity, moment by moment. It was all new to us, too.

JW: Are you in the limo with the Beatles as they rode in from Kennedy Airport to the Plaza Hotel?
AM: Yes, I was filming from the front seat.

Images-8JW: What did you make of all the wild things going on outside as fans were screaming and rushing the car?
AM: I knew I was filming an event, something special. I just didn't realize at the time how long it would last. You could see the childlike excitement on the faces of the Beatles after they arrived. They could barely contain it. They couldn't believe what they were experiencing in America. Britain and Europe was one thing. Here, they seemed to grow more confident in themselves with each screaming fan. As would be the case with anyone who experienced that.

JW: Looking back at Altamont, what do you think of the Hell's Angels and the role they played as enforcers?
AM: They were misunderstood. I know this sounds counter to what you see in the film. But they were the only ones standing between the Rolling Stones and mobs of really crazy, stoned people.

JW: Were you and your brother consciously trying to remain neutral observers in Gimme Shelter?
Images-10AM: Absolutely. But we didn't view ourselves as flies on the wall—to fade back and just take it all in. There's no poetry in tranparency. We wanted the Stones and others to know we were there, and for them to wrestle with that mild tension. We were there to document their actions and interactions, and how they responded to me and David was part of the drama. When the writer Leo Tolstoy first saw a film of himself in 1908 celebrating his birthday, he said, "Now it's no longer necessary to invent stories." Orson Welles said the eye behind the camera should be an eye of a poet.

Images-13JW: Did the Stones have any input or veto power over Gimme Shelter?
AM: They never asked for any control. However, Mick Jagger didn't grant us a release for about six months after the film was completed. I think he finally granted a release because he knew that in the end, the film we made was honest and that audiences could make up their own minds about what had happened at Altamont. Mick knew it was the most honest, unfiltered document of the event.

JW: Did Jagger make any requests after seeing it?
AM: Mick just asked that none of the violence be used separately from the film—for promotional purposes, for example. David [Maysles], Charlotte [Zwerin] and I understood and respected that.

Images-11JW: Did filming Gimme Shelter pose specific challenges?
AM: I was constantly struggling to bring the lens in as close as possible to the faces. Operating a telephoto lens can be tricky when things are happening so quickly. You have to make sure your shot is in focus fast as you move in. Ultimately, a subject's facial expressions and reactions are essential to any documentary. Expressions have no sound, yet we can completely understand people's feelings at any given moment through their faces.

Images-9JW: Do you think the crowd near the stage at Altamont would have been as crazed if the Hell's Angels weren't there?
AM: That's a good question. I don't know that the crowd would have been as out of control without them. But I also don't know what would have happened to the musicians playing if the crowds could freely surge forward and climb all over the stage.

JW: Would you cut the film differently if you were working on it today?
AM: No, I think our editor Charlotte Zwerin made appropriate choices. Like David and me, she didn't believe in using film to make judgments about the subject. So she didn't edit with a hidden agenda. We all believed that having no point of view was the point. That requires enormous self-restraint.

JW: Did you see the movie Woodstock?
AM: Yes. I was at the concert. But my brother and I walked out of the film.

JW: Why?
AM: Too many interviews. It felt staged and the interviews disrupted the natural course of events happening in the film.

Images-14JW: The Rolling Stones may tour again next year.
AM: Yes, I heard. Marty Scorsese, when he was filming Shine a Light, his Stones documentary, said Mick and the others were asking about me. I also heard they might want me to film their next tour. Wouldn’t that be great?

JazzWax note: For more on Albert Maysles and his brother David, visit his site here.

JazzWax clips: To see the short film clip Leo Tolstoy saw in 1908, go here.

Here's the Gimme Shelter scene I wrote about in the Wall Street Journal featuring Rolling Stones' drummer Charlie Watts. Watch as Albert tries to capture Watts looking directly into the lens, zooming in even closer as Watts looks away momentarily, fully anticipating he'll look back. And he does...

Written by Marc Myers, copyright © by JazzWax (Marc Myers LLC

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