“You Can Call Me Al”: What I Learned From Working With Albert Maysles

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The first time I met Albert Maysles was at his home.

For the past few weeks I had been the sole employee of a small production company that was collaborating with Maysles Films on a few projects, and my first assignment had been to rewrite the fundraising proposal for The Gates, the film on Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s 2005 Central Park installation, ten copies of which were in the bag slung over my shoulder. I was 23 years old and knew the city just well enough to find Central Park unassisted, but not well enough to find The Dakota without first printing out directions from MapQuest.

Walking up to The Dakota, I thought of Rosemary’s Baby. Walking through the entranceway, I thought of John Lennon. At the Maysles’ door, I was greeted by Gillian, Albert’s lovely wife, who told me that everyone was already assembled and waiting downstairs. I’m not sure what I expected beforehand, but as soon as I crossed the threshold, I was overwhelmed by a feeling of warmth. This wasn’t just a fancy New York City apartment, this was a home.

As I headed down the staircase, I noticed an old 16-millimeter camera perched on a landing on the other side of the railing, coated in a barely visible layer of dust.

“That’s a cool camera,” I said.

“Oh, yes,” said Gillian. “That’s the camera that shot Salesman.”

For me, “the camera that shot Salesman” was a phrase on par with “the guitar that played Satisfaction” or “the typewriter that wrote Ulysses,” but I wasn’t being afforded any stare-and-drool time. Gillian wrangled me down the stairs with the effortless grace of someone who had spent years shuffling past people who had stopped on that exact step and stared for hours. The team was waiting.

Everyone was seated at a large table made of some kind of gorgeous wood. There was Steve, an executive producer. There was Antonio, co-director of the film. There was Matt, the editor. There was Tanja, master of all things Maysles, from fundraising to organizing shoots to coordinating his busy schedule. There was Gillian, who took a seat across from me. And there, beneath a shock of white hair and behind those thick-rimmed glasses, was Albert Maysles.

Awkward introductions were made while I distributed copies of the proposal. I sat quietly while Albert Maysles read through the ten pages. Eighteen months earlier I had been turning in papers on his camerawork in Primary and the battle between objectivity and subjectivity in Gimme Shelter, and now he was sitting next to me reading my words aloud. He was in his late 70s at this point, and he read slowly. Occasionally he would pause after a sentence, thinking it over, then continue. I was scanning the room for reactions, but everyone’s eyes were pointed down at the proposals in front of them, reading along. After 20 minutes that felt to me like a month, he read the last words on the last page, paused, put the document on the table, and sat. And then he looked up at me, with those eyes that let you know he was really seeing you. He smiled and said, “Eric, you saved the project.”

Then he told me, “Call me Al.”

Now, let me be clear: in no way did I “save the project.” The project was never in jeopardy. The film was getting made, with or without my precious little proposal. But Al knew just what to say, and just what I needed to hear. The rest of the table heard “you saved the project” and understood it to mean, “welcome this kid to the team.” I heard “call me Al” and he had my loyalty for life.

What followed was roughly two years of invaluable tutelage. I learned about scheduling. About equipment. About responsibility, timing, fundraising, networking… all the things you expect to learn on your first real job, sometimes learning them without realizing you were being taught something. But the most important thing I learned from my time with Al was empathy.

Al had a natural warmth about him, and an incredibly heightened sense of empathy. He had an instinct for framing shots developed over a lifetime of shooting, and an unparalleled skill for telling a story with the camera within a shot, but I think the thing that most set him and his work apart was his ability to understand and genuinely care for people, whether it was his subjects or his collaborators.

Don’t take my word for it; it’s right there in the films. Grey Gardens could easily have been an exercise in exploitation if it weren’t for the Maysles brothers’ rapport with — and love for — Big and Little Edie. Theirs was never a particularly dogmatic brand of direct cinema. Unlike some of their contemporaries, Al and David interacted with their subjects — not through interviews, just with a natural acknowledgement that this wasn’t “life as it was happening” so much as “a filmed document as it was being made,” and the filmmakers’ presence was part of the reality being captured. And so their relationship to the subjects of the films was there, on display, built into the films themselves. But the empathy also shows through in the details of his camerawork. The films are filled with little zooms and reframings, tiny focus racks readjusting your attention to new details, letting you know what to look at, but also how he is feeling. Watching the films, particularly Gardens and Running Fence, I always think of Al’s camera work as a running dialogue with the audience about what he is feeling as he’s shooting. And what you see there is love — for his subjects, for cinema, and for life.

‘The Gates,’ 2005

The production offices were always busy. They were in production on The Gates. They were in post-production on the With the Filmmaker series they were shooting for IFC. There were new DVD editions of old classics being released. They were developing projects, some of which had been in development for decades. I loved heading up the elevator to those offices. Even the space itself was amazing: the top floor of a building on 54th St. with high, lofted ceilings. A large open space, a few offices and conference rooms, an edit suite, and a door to the roof for afternoon cigarettes. Sometimes Al was there, and sometimes he wasn’t. He was incredibly busy, but even when he was out the office was always a flurry of activity in service to the man and his work.

The best days were the ones when I drove Al and the crew to the shoots for The Gates. This was in the early days of the transition to digital. Al liked the convenience and freedom of the small cameras, but he couldn’t let go of his beloved 16mm. When he shot 16, he would pre-load the mags at the office, and then carry the camera in his hands to the shoot. All the rest of the equipment and the cases were in the trunk, but Al would always ride shotgun, cradling the camera in his arms and lap the way you would a small child. The man had spent most of his life shooting, and I think he was most comfortable when there was a camera in his hands.

Another thing about Al: he was funny. Like, accidentally-snort-your-whiskey-sour funny. One Saturday we were filming at a Times Talks event for The Gates, and as one often does on a film shoot, we found ourselves sitting around waiting. We were in a crowded cafeteria, and I was desperately trying to keep all of the sound gear and camera cases in order while people kept pushing past our table with trays of food and coffee that I was sure were going to spill into our equipment. There were four of five of us sitting there, and no one was saying anything. Then, out of nowhere, Al starts telling this joke. For the life of me, I can’t remember the details, but it was a long, slow-burn story-joke. It had something to do with a sailor and some kind of rusty appendage. There may have been a prostitute involved. All I know is that it was both the funniest and the filthiest joke I had ever heard. When he got to the punchline, the table erupted. I was laughing so hard I was crying. I have three regrets in life. The first two involve women. The third is not immediately writing down that joke.

It’s been ten years since I saw Al, and if I had bumped into him on the street two weeks ago I doubt he would have remembered me. A lot of young people came through those offices and put in some time before moving on to the rest of their careers. I think about him a lot, though. There’s one memory in particular that makes me happy, and it was the first thing I thought of when I heard the news of his passing Friday morning.

Usually when we drove to a shoot the car was packed with people and equipment. Just once, though, I found myself alone in the car with Al. This was 2004 or so, and the city was still living in a haze of color-coded post-9/11 paranoia. We were headed to a plant in either Queens or Brooklyn, and we were taking the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel. As we approached the entrance, a cop flagged us down. I slowed the car to a stop, and the officer approached the window and sized up the two of us: to him, we might as well have been some punk kid driving his grandfather, who was carrying a comically large piece of camera equipment.

“New regulations. You can’t have that camera out. No photography in the tunnel.”

I tried to explain that we were not dangerous, and that the man beside me was not on a terrorist reconnaissance mission but was in fact a Living Legend and a National Treasure more valuable than the tunnel we were trying to drive through, but the cop was having none of it, and Al simply refused to put the camera away. The standoff lasted much longer than it should have. Neither Al nor the cop would give an inch. He was going to hold that camera. It was like the camera was an extension of his body; it’s not that he wouldn’t put it away, it’s that he couldn’t.

The pressure was building, horns honking behind us. Eventually I was able to diffuse the situation, draping a jacket over the camera and promising the cop we wouldn’t take it off until we emerged on the other side of the river. This inexplicably worked, and, compromise reached, the two of us drove on into the tunnel: a kid too young to appreciate just how lucky he was and one of the greatest storytellers we’ve ever been blessed with leaving Manhattan in a Honda Civic.

We drove in silence for a bit, and then Al pulled the jacket off and said — to no one in particular and as if it made all the sense in the world — “I mean, was that guy fucking nuts? This is my camera.”

Eric Pfriender is an Emmy-winning Producer and Editor for MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show, and co-host of the You Hate Everything podcast. He lives in Jersey City with a dog named Cassavetes. Follow him on Twitter: @epfriender; @youhateevery