Advice from Al Maysles

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be sharing some of the filmmakers’ advice from Tell Me Something, along with portraits from the book.  First up, legendary doc maker Al Maysles (Salesman, Gimme Shelter, Grey Gardens, Running FenceThe Beales of Grey Gardens, The Gates).

Albert Maysles

Albert Maysles – Photo by Jon Pack

A documentary filmmaker needs to be patient and believe in the process of discovery. Orson Wells described the observational methods of things to happen on their own as divine accidents. We have so much freedom in shooting now; cameras can run eight hours before you have to change cards. It’s good to let shots run a little longer, especially if you feel that there maybe more things to come.

In Salesman, the opening scene, it seems to be all over, you can see that he isn’t going to make the sale. Suddenly, on her own, the little girl gets up off of her mother’s lap and goes to the piano and plays a number that is so appropriate the salesman’s down and out emotional state. We would have lost that if we had cut earlier.

Authenticity is at the core of a good documentary. You are giving a picture of really what’s going on. So there is a proximity to reality. You are filming people experiencing something so the viewers, when they watch the film, are having that experience for themselves. This allows the viewer to find a common ground as fellow human beings. In the process of filming, you are best off not intruding. And it’s very important right from the start to form a relationship with your subject where you are trusted. This way they are allowed to do what comes naturally, to disclose rather then to keep secret. This authenticity and ability to empathize comes from the cameraperson and the director.

These are the words that keep coming up for documentary; empathy, experience, open-mindedness. I would have the same advice for life. Establish an empathizing relationship. Mostly, with your eyes, so upon meeting someone they will, from the start catch something in your eyes that indicates there is empathy. And then the rest of your relationship, the empathizing guarantees the subject to continue being himself or herself.

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