For John Maloof, flea markets and estate auctions were a part of the culture he was raised with. It was still a surprise, though, when he opened up luggage from the estate of a Ms. Vivian Maier to find rolls and rolls of undeveloped film. It was even more of a surprise when he looked at the rolls of film and found that this was the work of someone with an attuned photographic eye.
Maloof quickly bought up all the other film, photographic and 8mm and 16mm moving image, and began shopping it around. He also began doing some research into who this Vivian Maier woman was. The biggest surprise of all came when Maloof discovered that Vivian Maier was a nanny. With that story, Maloof worked as the principal owner and curator of her work, eventually hosting gallery shows across America and housing the collection at the Howard Greenberg gallery. Maier’s work was also collected in a book, “Vivian Maier: Street Photographer,” and has been written about in major newspapers and magazines.
“Finding Vivian Maier,” the documentary that premiered this week at the Toronto International Film Festival, documents Maloof’s journey to find out more about Maier and also serves as an introduction to her fantastic work. The film, co-directed by Charlie Siskel uncovers an amazing story behind the reclusive and eccentric woman behind these amazing photos. “Finding Vivian Maier” will be released by IFC Films in early 2014.
Indiewire spoke to Siskel and Maloof about the making of the film in Toronto.
Vivian’s story has been presented in a number of ways. Journalists have been interested in her story, and people have been really interested in her story. Why was it important to document finding out about her in a film?
Maloof: Early on, when I figured out that this amazing photographer was a nanny, that was when I decided this should be a documentary.
So you decided to shoot then?
Maloof: I didn’t really shoot in the beginning. It was mainly finding people to interview. The first interview I did was a standard definition news camera from the nineties. It didn’t get used. But I reshot that and it’s in the film. We were in pre-production for a long time, and when I realized this was adding up to be huge, we started.
Siskel: John had started working on the film initially. When I came on board, some of the interviews had been shot, and we had conversations about how to tell the story, the arc of the story, and what the themes should be. We saw eye to eye, but there was much more to be learned. After teasing out those different themes, any documentary filmmaker will realize the story starts to dictate how the film goes. There were many times over the course of making the film that we made many discoveries ourselves. John shot the interviews, except for his own. He set up the camera and I did the interview. As the themes started to emerge, we started to ask specific questions. Things like: why didn’t Vivian want to share her work? In terms of the editing, there was a lot of sharing, long cuts, rough assemblies, interviews, there wasn’t any clear division of labor in that sense. It was a true collaboration where we would bounce things off of one another, working with an editor. The end results is a shared vision of what the story should be.
Maloof: Most of the film was edited in Chicago [where Maloof is based], some of it was edited in Los Angeles [where Siskel is based]. We would pass back the work. It’s a great thing to have technology where it’s at to do that.
When you were constructing the film, knowing that part of your job is to introduce an artist to a viewer. Even if someone had been to one of the gallery shows, they wouldn’t have seen all these photos. How did you feel responsible to her artwork or her as an artist, what you put in the film and the balance between the artwork and the biography?
Siskel: We came up with a visual language to use with photographs that were more art, and ones that were more snapshots that could function as b-roll to help us tell the story. There’s a distinction between those two things. There’s that, but I think in terms of curating the work in the film…Curating’s a loaded term, I guess. But John has a responsibility, with the Howard Greenberg Gallery. There are probably more images in the film than have been released publicly. As the film was being shot, there were still rolls of film that were being developed at that time. There were new discoveries — but I think we realized early on for the end (the last roll to be developed) to finish. Same with the process of finding out who Vivian was. That work isn’t done, and we recognize that. Some people think that a lot of journalism needs to be done, and that the biography needs to be just right. I think we have a slightly different take on it. Vivian is different than someone like, say, Theodore Roosevelt. I don’t know that her biography needs to be told quite the same way. I think what’s most interesting about Vivian is her work. And there’s certainly an interesting story. But in terms of telling the definitive biography of Vivian Maier, that’s not what we wanted to do.
Another layer of the detective work was involved in the film. A lot of the photos and film that you use in the film, was demonstrative of what people were saying in interviews. A lot of times people would tell a story about a picture Vivian took, and then we see it. How was it to dig through the images and find these photos that people remembered?
Maloof: There was more content that couldn’t fit into this film. There is people telling stories that we have footage of, and we have other examples of that. If something someone says is very specific, than we show actually what they’re talking about. If they’re talking about the house, we’ll go to a photograph of the house. If it’s more general like “Vivian was a nanny for children,” then we might use a vague representation of that.
Siskel: Without naming the scenes, one of the great things for us was that moment of having an interview and having someone tell a story and calling each other up and saying “you won’t believe it, but I just found this photo referring to that. Or…take a look at the link I just sent you, Super 8 footage of the actual event that our subjects had described. It was a great Eureka moment, and hopefully the audience gets that excitement of hearing someone’s story and then being able to cut to the actual footage of that.
What are your plans for the 8mm and 16mm film footage, especially as people continue to develop an interest in Vivian’s work?
Maloof: There’s no plans to use any of it.
But they’re being preserved?
Maloof: Yeah, they’re in the same facility under the same storage conditions as the photographs. The ones that are used in the film were digitized in the best quality so that we can have that digital record as well. We were so busy with the film that we couldn’t really plan anything else.
What excites you the most about taking this film to audiences?
Siskel: Art has to be seen. And Vivian’s art wasn’t seen in her lifetime. Her photographs were seen by a wide public. That’s part of what it means to share your work publicly. She didn’t do that, so we’re thrilled to see audiences embracing her photography and her story. As filmmakers, we’re excited for people to see the work that we’ve done. People come out asking a lot of questions, thinking about the nature of art and filmmaking. And those are conversations we love to have.
Maloof: The story has been talked about in a lot of different ways. But some things that we never gave to press are things that we have in the film. There are things that debunk some assumptions. Did she really want her work to be seen? I’m really most excited to show what we uncover in that regard.
As you’ve been watching people’s response to her work and story at gallery shows and in journalism, what have you been most surprised by?
Maloof: I’ll be honest. When this thing first went viral, it’s amazing how easy it is for people to fall in love with her work. I’m not terribly surprised to see when people see this unfold in a larger way, that people are enjoying it. It’s been a lot of positive response for a long time.
Siskel: That’s the experience that John had in finding the work and being drawn in. It’s certainly been my experience, too. The more you learn, the more it leaves you thinking about it. Her story and her photographs as well. If it was all story and the work itself wasn’t that great, I don’t think it would have the impact it’s having. That’s the most important thing. Whether you’ve got a trained idea or you don’t, whether you’re a photographer or not, the response to her work seems to be universal.
Maloof: Vivian is one of those people that becomes mythical. Nobody has moving footage with dialogue out there. Nobody knows her that well. There’s a lot of room for the imagination to create who she was. She was independent. She didn’t care about what people thought. Everybody wishes they could do that, but no one’s going to do it. No one has the drive to go that far. But she did.