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Scene from documentary SALESMAN
Arts and Culture:
Transcript: Daniel Zwerdling Interviews Albert Maysles
More on This Story:


DAN ZWERDLING: Al Maysles. Thank you so much for that film. And thanks for joining us in the studio.

ALBERT MAYSLES: All right. That's a pleasure.

DAN ZWERDLING: It's unbelievable that this is only eight minutes. It's like (IMITATION). I mean this film just gets you right in the gut.

ALBERT MAYSLES: I think it's just that-- it's an idea that I've had a long time-- with myself that I would sit down some day with a tape recorder and record a message for my family. And so then I thought, "Well, why don't I do that with-- a number of ordinary people." And-- because I have to believe that-- ordinary people should be-- more attention should be paid to them. And they've got some things to say to others and-- and to us as viewers.

DAN ZWERDLING: And what do you want your family to remember and what do you want society to-- to remember about what you gave to filmmaking? I know it's hard to--


DAN ZWERDLING: --sum up in a few words. But try.

ALBERT MAYSLES: Well, I've made films that have come from the heart. And-- And I think the best that we could do in making-- in making a-- a film is to-- somehow or other call into action memories, childhood experience, cravings. Something that comes from our heart.

And-- in-- in any case, I-- I'm always filming heart-to-heart. I think that it's important that you establish a kind of a friendly friendship relationship with people. And you can do that right away so that in the presence of the camera, your presence, isn't gonna interfere with what's going on. So it's entirely different sort of thing from what we normally-- experience when we see a Hollywood film.

A Hollywood film, it has to cost $100 million, or $50 million in order to have-- high production value. Well high production value-- professional lighting and-- and the use of a tripod and 35 millimeter-- All these things are artificial devices that in-- in fact steer you away from common experience, from-- from giving you the feeling which I think is so important and-- and-- and w-- which we are so much deprived of, the feeling that you're on common ground with-- with another person. Whether that other person is from a different class or a different-- occupational kind of role or from another country or whatever.

DAN ZWERDLING: Before the era of handheld cameras came in, tell us how a filmmaker would-- would shoot his or her--

ALBERT MAYSLES: Well you'd have to have a crew of-- maybe five or six people. You have to have-- lights because-- for one thing the-- the-- the film-- wasn't sensitive enough to a dark or light-- situation. And-- And the philosophy at that time was different. If we can't get at the-- the thing itself, well then don't worry. The narrator will explain what's going on.

DAN ZWERDLING: And it seems like that situation, I mean just the idea of sitting down with this whole group of people around you and lights and everything. You know, it must've made film so artificial. Documentary films even.

ALBERT MAYSLES: It was almost impossible to really-- do something where-- where the person would see the film and say, "Yeah. It's just like being there. Ah, I'm so glad that I-- that I saw that film. Now I know what it's like to-- to go through that kind of an experience, whatever it is."

DAN ZWERDLING: I'd like to talk more about that in a few minutes. But first I wanna go back to 1960, because I take it that for you the--

ALBERT MAYSLES: That was a turning point in my life.

DAN ZWERDLING: Why? This-- This was the presidential campaign.

ALBERT MAYSLES: Yeah. It was the presidential-- primary campaign between-- Kennedy and Humphrey.

DAN ZWERDLING: Why did it change you?

ALBERT MAYSLES: Well-- if I didn't have this kind of equipment that Time and Life had-- spent almost $1 million to develop, I couldn't have-- gone behind the scenes with these guys to come up with-- with-- with anything. Because I'd have to keep reloading and-- and-- using a tripod and having-- asking 'em to-- to do that, this and that for me. But with the equipment that we had-- I didn't have to ask for anything. I could observe and the same vein get everything that was going on. So that for the first time you really felt you were behind the scenes with these guys. And you felt exactly what they go through when they-- when they're-- when they're campaigning.

DAN ZWERDLING: Give us an example or two of what you saw behind the scenes--

ALBERT MAYSLES: Well-- there was a moment where-- JFK-- walked into this big auditorium. There were some 2,000-- people in Chicago ... Auditorium wait-- waiting for him. And-- And as he walked through the crowd I was walking behind him with a camera held up like this and down behind his head. It-- but with a wide enough angle lens so that you could see all the people looking-- looking at the camera, but really looking at him. So-- So it had that psychological impact of almost being an inside his head. I remember Elia Kazan, the famous-- movie director. When he saw that shot he said, "Oh my God! I can never-- I can-- I can never get a shot w-- like that because the studio would never approve it or it would cost too much money.

Over 2,000 people -- I remember Jackie turning to me and saying, said, "Look at my-- my gloves" "They-- They're t-- They-- They're turning black just from shaking people's hands." In her white gloves. Right? So when she got up to speak I thought, "I gotta get her hands." Right? And it wasn't that they were dirty. But she was so nervous that getting those hands revealed something that you couldn't have seen from the front. So it was a delicate-- moment that-- that really wasn't embarrassing. It was a-- a humanizing moment that she adored when she saw the film. And she said, "You know, I've gotta save this film. I gotta show it to my grandchildren."

DAN ZWERDLING: Let's leap ahead a few years to the late 1960s when you made possibly your most famous documentary about bible salesmen.

ALBERT MAYSLES: We took this very simple notion of-- of-- filming a subject that would tap into what is s-- supremely characteristic of America.

Here we talk about-- rugged individualism. Who is a more rugged individualist than a salesman knocking on a door-- And-- but with a Bible-- and-- and he's gonna sell it as a product.


SALESMAN: The best seller in the world is the Bible, for one reason. It's the greatest piece of literature of all time. It's really tremendous, isn't it? This is three Kings, flight into Egypt, the childhood of Jesus, Mary turns near, Mary finds Jesus in the temple. So you can see how this would be an inspiration in the home. You like that honey? What's your name?

WOMAN: Christine.

SALESMAN: Well she's as bright, she's pretty like her mother. Huh? Christine, you know what my name is?


Paul. You know, Paul?

WOMAN: You have a cousin named Paul. SALESMAN: You can see how complete it is. The Bible runs as little as $49.95. We have three plans on it: cash, COD, and also they have a little Catholic honor plan. Which plan would be the best for you? The A, B, or C?

WOMAN: I'm really not interested unless I speak it over with my husband--

SALESMAN: Yeah, yeah, yeah, you wouldn't want to give him a surprise? Does he have a birthday coming up? It would be a lovely gift. It plays a tremendous-the Bible is still the best seller in the world, so--

WOMAN: I just couldn't afford it now, I'm swamped with medical bills--


ALBERT MAYSLES: There you have it.

DAN ZWERDLING: It still gives you pleasure.

ALBERT MAYSLES: Oh, yeah. It's just everything just worked just so beautifully that-- when that child got up, and-- and-- poked-- her tune on the piano it was-- it-- it was the most beautiful kind of orchestration of what was going on in his mind. So it-- you-- you--rely on coincidences.

DAN ZWERDLING: How do they let you come in with your camera and-- and film them being so exposed?

ALBERT MAYSLES: You know when people who are in the films when they see the film, the first thing they say is, "Yeah, that's the truth." And the--

DAN ZWERDLING: So the people in the film like it.

ALBERT MAYSLES: Oh, yeah. Yeah. People-- People-- wanna be recognized for what they are, not-- not for what they-- necessarily think they'd like to be or-- or-- they-- and they-- and they-- there are moments that are somewhat embarrassing but they-- they say, "Yeah, that's me. That's right. That's what I'm going through. I'm glad you got that."

DAN ZWERDLING: You have said frequently-- that every time you make a documentary it's an act of love.


DAN ZWERDLING: I think I'm paraphrasing you. But-- But--

ALBERT MAYSLES: It had better be. Yeah. Be--

DAN ZWERDLING: Why? Because so many filmmakers these days are bam, bam, bam.


DAN ZWERDLING: In your face. Out to--


DAN ZWERDLING: --get you.

ALBERT MAYSLES: Because-- Because when they do that, when they're out to get people, it bounces back. I mean it's-- it becomes a piece of propaganda. It bounces back. But I must say, I must say that so far maybe because my sort of approach-- isn't practiced enough and it doesn't get on enough. I don't know what it is. But so far the most popular, the most-- profitable for the filmmaker has been this sledgehammer a-- approach of-- of being-- of being brutal. And-- And of-- And of showing-- the nastiness of people.

I just would like to see the opposite get shown so that we can prove once and for all that-- that people maybe are-- are not so not so bad in their tastes. That they really would like to see people who are like themselves and who are like their neighbors.

DAN ZWERDLING: You are now, what, how old?

ALBERT MAYSLES: In-- several days I'll be 76.

DAN ZWERDLING: Well, hey, happy birthday. And-- all your colleagues say that you are still reinventing your work.


DAN ZWERDLING: And that now this whole generation of teeny-weenie cameras has come along and-- how do you want this new technology, first of all, to liberate you even further? And what about young filmmakers? I'm especially interested in what-- what you would tell young filmmakers to do with this technology.

ALBERT MAYSLES: The great-- still photographer Robert Capra was asked once-- what would he-- advise-- people going into photography-- what-- what would his-- be his advice--

ALBERT MAYSLES: He expressed it-- he expressed it in one sentence. He says, "Get close, get very close." And-- and so these little video cameras allow you to get very close.

DAN ZWERDLING: You mean physically like this?

ALBERT MAYSLES: Well, yeah-- well not just necessarily that. But-- but because the camera, for example, is away from your face and you can hold it over here, you can use your eyes to-- to-- supplement whatever other means you're using to maintain a rapport with the person. So that-- so-- and that's very important so that that will allow you to be that much closer to that person. Not-- not physically, but getting into the heart and soul of-- of the matter.

DAN ZWERDLING: I'm dying to know what you think of these so-called reality TV shows. Do you feel heart and soul in 'em?

ALBERT MAYSLES: I saw the Osborne show and at least that show that I saw was just-- continuous flow of profanity, which I didn't particularly appreciate.

You see-- entertainment has gotten to be a bad word for us-- who-- who watch this stuff and are very critical of-- of television. Why? Because entertainment, most of it, is-- of a diversionary nature, it's a diversion. It's just a distraction. And-- and-- as an artist, whether in-- in film or anything else, or as a human being, it's-- it's much more satisfying for you to be engaged with what's-- going on rather than disengaged. And most of it is in-- is a disengagement through-- I mean-- how can you relate to a family that-- that is swearing all the time? You'd like to know what really is going on in their life rather than-- rather than swearing. It doesn't delineate really any of their true feelings.

DAN ZWERDLING: Albert Maysles. Al Maysles, thank you so much for being with us.


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