With the passing of seminal documentarian Albert Maysles on March 5, it would only be appropriate to speak to Susan Froemke, his long time friend and
frequent co-director. Albert Maysles –along with his brother David – made some of the most iconic American documentaries of all time, all the while
revolutionizing the art form, largely through the utilization of cinema verite or direct cinema. This documentary motif, which grew popular by the Maysles and their contemporaries like D.A. Pennebaker and Richard Leacock, actually had been invented by Jean Rouch and originally inspired by Dziga Vertov’s theory about Kino Pravda nearly a century ago.
Cinema verite is sometimes called observational cinema, but that does not entirely explain its phenomenon; the style is largely concerned with the
recording of events in which the subject and audience become unaware of the camera’s presence. One can feel the visceral and –at times- spontaneous
reactions by its performers. (Take for instance Mick Jagger’s despair upon seeing footage of one of his fans killed at the Altamont Free Concert by a member of the Hells
Angels in “Gimme Shelter“).
The Maysles’ brothers were co-directors of acclaimed films such as the aforementioned “Gimme Shelter,” “Grey Gardens” and “Salesman.”
They continued to make cinema verite documentaries together for thirty years until David’s death in 1987. They chronicled Hollywood luminaries like Orson
Welles and Marlon Brando, and also chronicled the Beatles’ first visit to the U.S. Their range was vast and eclectic. They were nominated for a Best
Documentary, Short Subjects Academy Award in 1974 for “Christo’s Valley Curtain.” Afterward, Albert Maysles would co-direct with Deborah Dickson and
Susan Froemke, and would go on to win an Emmy in 1992 for “Abortion: Desperate Choices.” Up until his death, Albert continued making films on his
own and in collaboration with other filmmakers for HBO and others. The collaboration between Albert Maysles and Susan Froemke had been just as impressive.
Such films as “Vladimir Horowitz: The Last Romantic” and “Ozawa” are part of their canon. Perhaps their most prominent collaboration (along
with Deborah Dickson) was the 2001 Oscar nominated “LaLee’s Kin: The Legacy of Cotton,” which followed a Mississippi Delta school district and a
struggling Delta family. The film reflected the damaging effects of poverty in the Deep South.
In this EXCLUSIVE interview, Susan Froemke discusses Albert Maysles’ brilliance as co-director, collaborator, his integral place within
cinematic history as well as generous artistic spirit.
Jared Feldschreiber: What were the circumstances in which you met Albert Maysles as film artists? Since you both collaborated on close to twenty films,
how would you characterize your relationship both artistically and on a personal basis?
I arrived at Maysles Films in the early 70’s, 21 years old, and worked with Al and David until 2003. The Maysles shied away from hiring people right
out of film schools because they wanted you to be open to their approach. They didn’t want to “un-teach you”—their word. I was an English Lit major
which pleased them. I was privileged to be one of the few allowed to be on shoots with them (Bob Richman was too) so I saw their filming approach first
hand. I worked very closely with David, Charlotte Zwerin and Ellen Hovde in the edit room. I eventually produced for them.
JF: How would you describe your collaborative process?
When David died in 1987, Al and I partnered as a filming team–Al on camera while I took sound. A two person filming crew—no larger– was essential to
capturing the intimate footage we loved. Maysles Films was very much a family and it lasted for over 40 years. Everyone who worked there, and many
talented filmmakers came through the company, felt the spirit of the place and we were all committed to the Maysles’ approach and very close
We’d find a subject we thought was worthy of filming, follow the direction that subject took us on and then edit the footage all as a team. Our end
credits were “a film by” and that was the true working relationship. Everyone had an equal voice. We are all so sad today.
In a TV interview, Albert disclosed a telling adage by Orson Welles, which seemed to fit his approach to documentaries: ‘In a fiction film, the
director is God, in a non-fiction film, God is the director,’ Albert cited Welles. Would you say that this was Albert’s modus operandi, and if so,
would you say as a documentarian he remained resolute to never ‘prejudge’ his subjects and let the events on camera determine the film’s focus?
Oh yes, I heard that quote often from Al. Al and David (and I have to always include David as well because they developed their approach—their
philosophy—together) took their direction from their subject. The only thing we asked from a subject was access. Al and David never told a subject what
to do, never asked them to repeat an action or sentence. They never talked to the subject while filming. Never. They wanted to minimize the fact that
filming was going on. They wanted to keep the true-life situation as real as possible. But this was NOT fly on the wall filming. They hated being
called that because there was always a deep bond between filmmaker and subject. A deep trust. Wherever the subject took us always produced the
strongest footage. And reality never disappointed us.
JF: Do you know who were Albert’s main film inspirations?
I don’t think Al ever saw any films except his own. He didn’t really go to the movies. Certainly not fiction films! He was inspired by the people he
met on a train; or walking down the street, if he saw someone sad, he’d ask them why; faces in the crowd, this is what interested him. I do know that
he did admire Henri Cartier–Bresson’s photographs.
In layman’s terms, what’s the value of cinema verite? How can one define it? Do you feel as though the modern sensibility is patient enough to deal
with its approach? Was this ever a concern for you and Albert over time that you may lose your audience?
Al was never interested in any approach to filmmaking but “direct cinema” which we defined as the truth that unfolded before our camera. This is a
timeless approach, one that allowed us to examine the human spirit. I think it will last through the ages, like great literature. It never occurred to
us to worry about losing an audience. If you have a complex narrative with charismatic characters, your film will always find viewership.
JF: How many films did you work on with Albert, and which ones were your favorites in terms of content, their form and other personal collaborative
I made over 20 films with Al. Favorites include “Grey Gardens”, “Vladimir Horowitz: The Last Romantic,” “Lalee’s Kin: The Legacy of Cotton,” “Soldiers Of
Music: Rostropovich Returns to Russia.” There are so many. The trip to Russia in the early 90’s with Al to film Rostropovich’s return to Russia after 16
years of exile was a magnificent trip. Al had a tremendously nostalgic feeling towards Russia because he and David had taken a motorcycle trip there in
the 50’s and began filming then. We traveled with Rostropovich and his family for a week and each encounter they had—whether musical or political– was
profound so we came back with rich, beautiful footage that told a story of courage and bravery. Al’s intuitive, lyrical camera was stunning whether
filming Rostropovich playing the cello or just faces of strangers in a crowd.
JF: In which scenes in the films you worked on together would you say you achieved a kind of ‘cinema truth?’
There is a scene in “Lalee’s Kin” which was filmed in the Mississippi Delta’s poorest county where Lalee, a 60 year old Great Grandmother, realizes her
12 year old granddaughter hasn’t made it to school on the first day of classes because she didn’t have any pencils or paper to take with her. The
granddaughter is softly crying as Lalee searches through her house trying to find some pencils. This is a child who wants to be educated but painfully
knows the odds aren’t in her favor. It’s a heartbreaking scene that illuminates the scale of the problems of poverty—how difficult it is to educate the
child from an illiterate family. It is ‘cinema truth’ at it’s best.
Albert Maysles’ documentary film career began in 1955 when he traveled abroad to shoot “Psychiatry in Russia.” He made films until his death, as exemplified by his latest “In Transit,” which is due to premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in April. The film centers on the Empire Builder – America’s busiest long-distance train route that runs from Chicago to Seattle. “Iris,” another documentary of the fashion icon Iris Apfel, will also be released next month.