"Make visible what, without you, might perhaps never have been seen."
Dear Uncle Albert
I always tell people you are my mentor (to significant oohs and ahhhs) because it was you who first told me I could do it, all by myself. Thank you Albert for being who you are, to so many of us, we are so grateful. (July 6, 2010)
The great, mentor to us all, Albert Maysles, passed away March 5. His daughter posted on Facebook, a magnificent, life affirming, photo of him from earlier in the day, surrounded by the loving hands of his family, with these words,
"Love your subjects. Get close"
There will be volumes, written about Albert's contribution to the paradigm shift, which took place in American cinema, when he freed the camera from its tripod. When he and his brother David, courageously, told the extraordinary stories of ordinary people.
His progeny have gone on to win Oscars, of course, but it was his gift to me, in my 60th year, for which I am profoundly grateful.
I met Albert and David, when we hired them to do, 'man on the street' interviews, for an Excedrin commercial, when I was a baby producer at Young & Rubicam, in the early 70's or, (the final season of Mad Men).
I'd never seen anybody work like that. Albert, his hand held, 16mm camera, with a light meter and light taped to the top, and David, huge headphones and NAGRA sound recorder, slung diagonally across his shoulder, holding a shotgun mic. In the mid 60s, new technology, allowed battery operated cameras and recording equipment to become more portable, making possible, a new spontaneity in filmmaking, the ability to go to your subject, capturing the immediacy of the unrehearsed moment, in the environment.
Mine was the world of big budgets. At the time, the most expensive medium of film there was, huge crews and cameras, sound stages, elaborate sets, cast, grips, gaffers, props, sound...40 people, weeks worth of production, we were making 30 second feature films, in the infancy of the television commercial, and we were spending lots of money to do it. The Maysles liked doing commercials, which helped finance their films. It was mutually beneficial, we in advertising, got to work with our heroes.
I was instantly, and inexplicably drawn to the visceral, 'run and gun' improvisation of their shooting style, just going up to total strangers in the street, a technique, I would later adopt, because of this, indelible day.
We were shooting across from the Plaza Hotel. It was sporadically raining, so we ducked inside between takes. Lo and behold, the Rolling Stones were staying there. Charlie Watts was sitting by himself in the Oak Room eating yogurt, and when the rain subsided, Mick and Keith came out to the front steps and waved at us...it was as if they were waving, to me. Albert loved that memory when I recounted it years later.
"Get A Real Camera"
I didn't know him well. But, when you were with him, it's like you'd always known each other. He was just the best listener, in a world where most of us, are just waiting to talk. He taught me how to listen, a constant, and often losing battle, with my ego.
About 10 years ago, we reconnected. It was Albert who first suggested, I get a 'real' camera, that I didn't need a crew, I could do it myself. We always talked about cameras and the 24P digital technology was getting really good at mimicking film, and told me what camera he was using on The Gates, so I ran out and I bought one.
I was still pretty much of a film snob. I grew up in Hollywood, my dad was a film editor at Disney in the Golden Years, and in the early days of television, my first toy was a yellow, 35mm film core, you might say, celluloid ran in my blood. But doing it all myself, was a terrifying proposition.
I picked up a camera for the first time, and in earnest, when I was 60 years old, under the 'virtual' tutelage of, arguably, the greatest 'direct' cinema artist, of our time. Hell, Grandma Moses didn't star painting until she was 78, and did so well into her 90s.
So, "I happily place my fate and faith in reality" and hit the streets. My first attempts at being an auteur, required Dramamine before watching, and seemed I would never be able to do it. I always hear Albert's voice..."hold it steady"
The greatest lesson I gleaned from our talks was that, everybody has a story to tell, and they want somebody to listen.
Some things I learned from conversations and The Documentary by Albert Maysles.
• 'Love your subjects. Get close'
• Shooting hand held, 'hold it steady,' with a wide angle lens, it's more, 'forgiving'
• Never use the automatic focus or zoom, only manual, never use a tripod
• 'Use no lights. The available light is more authentic'
• 'Hold the beginning and end of each shot. The editor will need that.'
I would venture to say, there is not a documentary filmmaker who, at one time or another, has not sought his counsel. He was the most enthusiastic, interested, guileless, kind, and accessible audience. His generosity flowed from his heart, into our art.
Albert rooted for you, he was your biggest fan. And, after a chance meeting with Steven Spielberg, I think he was more excited than me (as if that was possible). He was generous with his praise and encouragement, no matter who you were.
"Dear Sandi, I thought I knew it all. But now I've seen so much more. Heart to heart."
"I wrote Scorsese that his George Harrison film "sets the standard for documentary bio films." That's how much I loved it."
He just loved to talk about cameras and making films, how we were all going to get money to make our films. I'm certain, in Al's perfect world, we would all get our films funded. "Yes, funding, of course, and...the story."
Ah yes, always, the story.
Thank you Albert
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