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Albert Maysles & Joan Churchill On ‘Gimme Shelter,’ The Rolling Stones, Bad Acid Trips & More

Albert Maysles & Joan Churchill On 'Gimme Shelter,' The Rolling Stones, Bad Acid Trips & More

Another great conversation at the recently wrapped TCM Classic Film Festival found famed cinematographer Haskell Wexler discussing the landmark Rolling Stones doc “Gimme Shelter” with filmmaker Albert Maysles (“Salesman,” “Grey Gardens”) and camera operator Joan Churchill. Wexler acted as host and introduced the film with Maysles. After the film, Wexler, Maysles and Churchill sat down for a discussion that turned into a brief impromptu Q&A with the three discussing everything from the Hell’s Angels to being on acid to a few near-death experiences, with some additional comments by ‘Gimme Shelter’ producer Ron Schneider. Below is a selection of highlights from the conversation.

Meeting The Rolling Stones
“Haskell’s the one who made it all possible for us to meet the Rolling Stones. We got a call one day from him in California and we’re in New York. He says, ‘The Stones arriving in New York tomorrow, they’re going to be at the Plaza Hotel.’ I didn’t know nor did my brother know who they are, but we trusted Haskell, his good taste,” Maysles said. “We went to the Plaza Hotel and knocked on the door. Within a day or so, we were filming them at Madison Square Garden, the Altamont, and so forth. But it never would have happened without him [Wexler]. So thanks.”

Albert Maysles on working with David
“We had in common a mother who said there’s good in everybody and we took her seriously. We were capable of filming anybody, likable or not,” Albert shared about his relationship with his late sibling and collaborator. “We always find that good thing in everybody because we love just about anybody and… the most important thing behind the lens is the eye and soul of somebody not out to get people but out to love them, and represented such that the friendship between the camera person, and the people on the screen, is developed to the point that anybody seeing that becomes friends as you did, I’m sure, with the Rolling Stones.”

Joan Churchill talks about her bad acid trip
“I had been given acid early in the morning. I had been dropped in by helicopter the night before and was told that when I was finished shooting, I could get in and security would let me in. They didn’t, so I was led in with everybody else and I was sent over to the other side to shoot the people arriving. I hadn’t eaten, I hadn’t slept and people were handing me drink and food and by the time I got over to do the shot, I pulled my light meter out and there were rainbows coming out,” she explained. “So I was well and truly out of commission for eight hours and I was hiding under the stage, which is every time I opened my eyes, that’s where all of the violence was. It was just a really, really, really, bad trip. Finally at four o’clock, I was sort of back. They gave me my own Hell’s Angel as my guardian angel and put me at the back of the stage. I just became completely transfixed by this guy who was going through exactly what I’d been through. I was much more interested in shooting him than Mick Jagger.”

Albert Maysles on his near-death experience
“Early on, before things really got going, I had myself near the stage and a gentleman with his son, underneath me, got up and said ‘If you don’t leave this spot immediately, I’ll kill you!’ Where was I? Exactly where the killing took place later on,” the director revealed. “Fortunately, my brother was with a very good cameraman and the two of them were standing on a truck and in the exactly the right place to get a perfect view of the killing and so forth. The whole thing is being at the right place at the right time.”

Ron Schneider on how the filmmakers avoid being charged in famed Altamont murder
“When I kept seeing the footage, it was lucky it was a Hell’s Angel there as opposed to you or I because when the guy had the gun out there, I don’t think I’d be running towards the gun to push it down and then have a knife to kill a guy,” Schneider told Maysles. “Obviously, he had done that before or was not frightened from what was happening… I was glad that the Angel was there at that time because my feeling was that he had the gun aimed at the stage.”

“If that girl wasn’t wearing a white crocheted sweater and it was a black dress, half the people in here would be saying, ‘Oh, no no, he never had a gun.’ So if wasn’t for the matter of timing and all those little things that went in and the angle to get that shot of the gun, nobody would have believed it,” he continued. “We had to go back to San Francisco to bring the footage that showed him doing it to the D.A. because they were actually going to indict us on conspiracy to commit murder if we didn’t bring the footage.”

Albert Maysles on Michael Moore
“I had a very wonderful experience the other day. I was in the theater and I looked at this person in front of me. All I saw was his back and I though, ‘Gee, this looks like Michael Moore.’ I’ve always taken to be critical of his films. I walked around and I talked to him. By the way, he told me, ‘I’m getting into a whole new phase.”… What is his new, new area? Happiness. Mike, go to it.”

As for future plans, all three have films in the works, but Maysles revealed that he is working on an ongoing project called “The Peacemaker,” in which he will be following people around making peace and thereby, “as a viewer you feel that you’re making peace.”

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