When you set out to film a real life story, particularly your own, the camera sometimes can seem to be your only constant companion, in a world suddenly gone topsy-turvy. There are also, usually, healthy doses of magical events that occur--in the ways in which the right people come into your life at the right time; in the ways in which time expands and contracts to suit your needs; and, in the way in which you fling yourself wholeheartedly into something, knowing that after you come out the other side of whatever it is, your life will never be the same.
Celia Maysles took one of the most profound journeys any person can take, that of going in search of her father. But this is a father who has been dead for 20 years, who died when she was just a child, the trauma of that death basically erasing all her childhood memories of him. To document this search, she decided to film it, mostly because of said father, who was a famous documentary filmmaker named David Maysles, brother to Albert. The Maysles brothers are legendary. People who "don't really watch documentary" have seen their films. Brothers, partners, best friends, the filmmaking duo made some of the most compelling cinema our culture has produced and changed the landscape of telling nonfiction stories profoundly. And, losing David unmoored Albert more than anyone could ever know.
Serendipitously, the executive producer of Celia Maysles' debut film, Wild Blue Yonder (named in honor of her father's unfinished film Blue Yonder, a personal film he was making without Al), is Henry Corra, the owner of Corra Films, a thriving production company in Soho, NYC. Corra learned filmmaking from David Maysles and directed with the brothers for many years. Celia is now employed by Corra and they continue to collaborate on many projects. He says, "I decided to executive produce Celia’s film because of David. He was my mentor; he taught me how to make films. I saw her walking around looking like she didn’t know what she was doing, so I thought I’d give her a hand [laughs]. . . . The film asks a lot of an audience; that’s what I like about it. My favorite comment so far is from Cian Smyth from the Belfast Film Festival who said that the film was beautifully edited, that 'it really melds into some kind of fugue at times--dream-like almost.'" He goes on, "What was also interesting to me was this idea that she wanted to 'collaborate' with her dad on this film. People like me and Charlene [Rule, co-filmmaker and editor] and the other people involved could be a kind of bridge for her and David. Creatively speaking, that was really interesting."
And, last but not least, in what amounts to the beginning of a very charmed year for Maysles, she was invited to debut her film at the IDFA in November. Amsterdam was where I met Celia and Henry and where I attended the second public screening of the film. A few months later, here in New York, I finally got a chance to catch up with her for a long chat about her journey. We sat in their comfortable production offices one gray afternoon to talk about this pivotal life experience and what it was like to film herself for four years. Maysles is not the shy, retiring type, so the conversation's pretty lively, refreshingly honest, particularly when it comes to talking about what's been the major roadblock in this whole endeavor--her Uncle Al:
Celia Maysles (CM): The Maysles brothers are just two of many talented filmmakers in the eyes of most of the rest of the world, but here in the US, they’re idolized, they have this iconic status. A lot of people who have seen the film are huge fans of theirs, and a lot of them don’t want to see one of their idols put in a bad light. They don’t really realize what happens in the film. I was so glad to have audiences [in Amsterdam] that realized that I wasn’t out to slash an idol.
Still in Motion (SIM): Well, here in the States, the independent film community is small and the documentary film community is even smaller, so it doesn’t surprise me to have that reaction, which is a very personal one. And honestly, the “controversy” to me is sort of a tempest in a teapot. It’s a personal story. You’re coming to filmmaking with all these ghosts of the past, and the legacy of your dad is not a light one to carry.
After watching a second time and trying to figure out why you made the film you did, it seemed to me that this was the necessary exercise to move through all that, to face these things head-on. It could not have been an easy film to make at all. Your relationship with your uncle aside, you’re coming face to face with your past in order to move into your future—as a grown woman and now, as a professional filmmaker. Because of your name, every comment will always be accompanied by “daughter of” and there will always be that comparison. There’s no way you can get away from that legacy. So you stepped up and made sure you were the one to tell this story instead of waiting for someone else to do it. It’s a really moving moment in the film when you’re self-shooting with the camera at arm’s length and you say to the camera that you feel like you’re spending a lot of time with your dad—using the camera and the sound equipment the way he did, as an extension of self. I like watching films where you’re not sure what was a conscious choice and what wasn’t.
CM: So much about the making of this film was serendipitous, a bit magical. This was something that was inside of me that I needed to get out. The initial goals were pretty straightforward: to get to know my dad and to get over him. In other words, to transform our relationship from something very sad, heavy, the most dreaded thing to talk about, into something beautiful. Initially, the intention was to record this for my brother. He wasn’t going to take that journey. I knew it wasn’t something he would do. I’m much more extroverted; he’s very shy and incredibly sensitive and remembers a lot more than I do because he's two and a half years older than I. Practically everyone I know is a filmmaker and when I started telling people about it, their natural response was that I should make a film. My mom even told me that. I didn’t know when I started this, though, that it would necessarily turn into a film for exhibition or whether I even had it in me to make a complete film.
SIM: When did you know that you would have a "real" film?
CM: It became pretty clear one weekend shortly after I started shooting. Henry did not want to be interviewed. He was one of the people closest to my dad. He was my age  when he was working for him. When my dad had a heart attack a couple of years before he died, he asked Henry if he was ready to direct—he was the recipient of that legacy back then, in my dad’s eyes. He was passing the torch to Henry. A lot of people don’t know that part of the story. I remember Henry from that time, seeing him in the office; he was this outgoing character. He was one of the first people I wanted to talk to—him and Charlotte Zwerin [1931 – 2004]. Charlotte and my dad dated for four years and worked closely on so many films together.
SIM: She was an amazing filmmaker.
CM: Unfortunately, I never really got to know her. Those great interviews with her in the film are from the Sundance Channel and I found some wonderful audio tapes, too. She was incredible.
I scheduled a couple of visits to New York at the beginning; I was living on the West Coast at the time. It was very preliminary and I didn’t know what I was doing, just asking questions, searching; it was bizarre. I wanted to interview Henry and he declined. He was beyond that whole era of his life. So I told him, “Fine. You’re just going to have to teach me how to do this, then. I want to learn what my dad taught you.” I needed a mentor, a guide. I really didn’t know what I was doing; I needed his help! So he taught me how to take sound and we went from there. We went out to interview Susan Froemke [co-director of LaLee’s Kin: The Legacy of Cotton (2001)]. That was on this crazy weekend I'm speaking about. This is where the serendipity started happening.
I was scheduled to film her and Henry came with me. We had a great day with her, and Muffie Meyer was also there [co-director with the Mayles and Ellen Hovde of Grey Gardens]. We went out with Susan and Muffie to buy tomatoes for lunch, and when we returned, there was a phone message from Lois Wright [who lived with the Edies at Grey Gardens, pictured with Celia]. Susan hadn’t heard from her in three years. I didn’t know who she was or that anyone was even still alive from Grey Gardens. She still lives in Easthampton. So we got in the car after calling and asking if we could come by to see her. That’s when it was clear that something very special was happening—filming with Henry and meeting all these people, I really understood what this was about and so we started working together making this film.
I think the whole experience brought back all the good memories Henry had from working at the Maysles' production company. He says he saw instantly a lot of my dad’s personality traits in me. It’s like when you work with certain people and you have the same sort of drive and energy and passions. It’s not work anymore. That’s how it was. It was an opportunity for him to give something back to my dad.
SIM: Your editor gets a co-filmmaking credit. If you're crediting her with filmmaking, that means, to me, that the film was very much "made" in the editing room.
CM: Well, basically, gathering money for this was kind of crazy. I sold my house; I fundraised like crazy, so the budget came in very piecemeal in terms of what I wanted to do. But one thing I could do without any money was the shooting. It was all done in New York and Henry lent me all the equipment and I could just go. We went into the edit stage relatively early because I was doing fundraising trailers with what I had shot so far. I look back on those cuts and kind of cringe that we showed that to anyone, but it was helpful in terms of helping to shape things and discern what other footage I needed to get.
The whole co-filmmaking thing was something that Charlotte Zwerin started. She actually sued my dad and my uncle for co-directing credit, the philosophy being that, as opposed to a fiction film where everything is pre-written, in documentary, the writing is done in the editing room. I tried to do as many things that would be up to my dad’s qualifications or standards.
SIM: More and more documentary directors I speak with are bestowing a co-director or a writer credit to their editors. They do tend to be given short shrift a bit in terms of that acknowledgment. And while it may be nice to be mentioned in someone's award acceptance speech, it's not the same as being credited on the film itself.
CM: I let Charlene choose which credit she’d rather have—co-filmmaker or "written by." I was very willing to give her the writing credit if she wanted it. It’s annoying that producers and directors are the only ones that are recognized in the community. Her skill is in story construction and I wanted to give her a credit that accurately reflected her contribution, which was huge. People need to start recognizing the editor/writer role more. That’s why I say “a film by” both of us because I could not have made it without her. I could have made a different film without her, but this film is just as much Charlene’s as it is mine. And for me to even attempt to edit on my own—well, I felt like I was already so out of my realm. Doing this was just sheer determination and a passion for this one particular thing to be realized. I’m not a film buff; I don’t come from this world, really. I’m starting to learn more now that I’m working at Corra Films, as I gather more experience. Henry was incredibly helpful in terms of bringing in expertise and a really strong editor to make my film what it is. I couldn’t really imagine editing something so personal. Only twice was I able to sit in there with her and talk about myself totally objectively as a character. It was hard to control that head space. All the subtle, artful layers are her construction.
My dad was very much involved and intrigued by the editing process. A lot of the archival stuff I have of his are his notes from the edit room, referencing different scenes and crazy maps of how the story was going to unfold, as he and Charlotte worked closely together. I think he was really trying to push style a bit more. Somebody told me, shortly before he died, that he was meeting with Grahame Weinbren, one of the editors of Umbrellas, which Henry co-directed. And I found out in the middle of making my film that Grahame had been meeting with my dad about the Blue Yonder project. I thought that was interesting because he was really taking a leap out into a different form. I really wanted my film to be as close to what he was imagining for his film. I was fascinated by the constant overlapping of our journeys and the more I dove into my search, the more I realized we were on the same search. So it was important to me to try and work from what he had and where he was going--from my own point of view, obviously.
SIM: You explain the necessity of making this film and how you went about doing it quite candidly and articulately. And now, this is a new vocation for you—you’re transitioning into another profession [from social work]. You could have done something filmically that was a tribute to your father; you could have gone to an editor and worked with that person to splice together something from existing footage as an homage to him. Why didn't you do that?
CM: First of all, my dad would just hate me if I did something like that [laughs]. But I also really wanted to know him. I wanted to know him whether he turned out to be a total asshole, or this great talented guy. I just wanted answers, the real him. That’s very hard to get. There aren’t even very many interviews in the film. I got great stories and I got people’s impressions, but those stories and impressions are from 20 years ago. Everyone has these amazing stories about him and I learned more and more, but there was a deeper way in which I needed to get to know him. There’s a turning point in the film when I really start filming myself because I knew that in order to know him, I had to get to know me.
SIM: Tell me about that process—how you discovered that that would be necessary? That’s a pretty big risk to put yourself on the other side of the camera in your own film. I’m always amazed when people do it because most of the time, I don’t know what to think; I just know it was necessary for that filmmaker to do that in service to his or her quest. But being the main subject in your own piece in this instance really is the film. I noticed in the credits that you thank filmmaker, Jennifer Fox, who took an extremely intimate journey in front of the lens for her Flying project. That was beautifully successful as far as I’m concerned, even in its most awkward moments. What did you think when you first glimpsed the footage of yourself shot by your own hand?
CM: I was filming myself for a lot of it, but I was still really focused outward, away from myself. I thought the footage I had of myself was sort of boring; it was missing some soul. Jennifer came in and watched an earlier rough cut because Xan [Parker, producer] is good friends with her and has produced for her before. So she came in, watched it and then looked at me and said, “It seems like you’re straddling things here.” And it was true. I very much had a more observational piece. And on the other hand, she noted that there was this very personal story but that it wasn’t being fully explored. She said, “Just make that decision about what you want and do it.” And it was an easy decision; I knew what I wanted. The motive underneath getting to know my dad was to make people understand what it’s like to lose a parent when you’re a child. I have a lot of close friends that have experienced this—there’s something that draws us towards one another because of that shared experience. And so I spent six straight days in my apartment, basically in my pajamas, and filmed myself reading journals, doing work on this, talking out loud, just basically living with the camera rolling. She told me that it’s very weird at first, but just do it and get over that hump. I do a lot of the casting for Corra Films and now I can speak first-hand about being on camera, what it really feels like.
SIM: I think, as a future director, you did yourself such a huge service in doing that, whether you’re filming yourself or someone else is filming you. You know what it feels like to have to perform in front of a camera. A camera rolling anywhere changes the energy in the room; it changes the way people act—it just does. To think otherwise is a bit disingenuous, I think. It’s not just an observational tool; it changes the dynamic of what’s happening, especially if you turn the camera on yourself.
CM: I agree.
SIM: Tell me about the part of the story that involves your uncle, Al Maysles. I didn’t really take what happens in as a “good guy/bad guy” scenario at all. It’s another layer in what you’re trying to discover. At the beginning of the film, it’s all smiles and hugs and familial love—the family dynamic seems pretty healthy. But the main conflict of the film arises around this footage he has of David that you want to use, footage he refuses to give to you. What did you know about the kinds of resolutions you would probably have to make when you discovered this obstacle? You meet with him time and time again, conveying pure emotion and nothing but that. Every time you’re in his presence, you start to cry. And he’s so emotional, too. This is his brother, his partner we’re talking about. If anybody experienced a huge loss, it was him.
It seemed like being confronted by this raw emotionalism from David’s daughter was too much. He steps back and retreats; we see that happening on screen. The technical, or legal, explanation as to why he wasn’t willing to let you have the footage you wanted was valid and yes, legally he does own all of that and had to pay through the nose to get it. But his reaction to you was really interesting. Instead of making him look bad, it just makes him look incredibly vulnerable. When two vulnerable people confront one another, oftentimes, it’s pretty intense and people aren’t necessarily at their best. He was extremely conflicted and I think a bit overwhelmed by your determination to get what you wanted.
CM: He did keep getting hung up on retelling the story of the court case over and over. [David's wife, Celia's mother, had to sue Al for David's Blue Yonder footage. They ended up settling and he paid her for outright ownership of the footage.] And I didn’t give a shit about the court case. That wasn’t my lifetime. That’s fine; you’ve told your testimony, but now let’s focus on the present. I was asking him for something that I thought was quite simple. He’s given it to college students to use and other directors making films, like Ghosts of Grey Gardens that played at Tribeca in ’05. He just gave her [Liliana Greenfield-Sanders] the footage. He doesn’t even know her.
SIM: What was the block for him, do you think?
CM: I’ve tried so hard to understand him through this whole process. I actually returned to therapy during the course of this and I haven’t been in therapy since I was in high school. It was so intense and raw, the emotions that I had towards him. I felt like I just could not get through to him, no matter what I said or did and at a certain point, I just crumbled. I needed help to move past this; I was just stuck. So yes, every time I was in his presence, I would shake. Shooting with the PD-150 was great because of that [laughs]. It was hard to focus; I dropped tapes constantly.
I have several theories about why he’s doing what he’s doing. But what was important to me was learning how to let go and to reconcile that I didn’t have control over his actions; I can’t make him do what I think he should do. That was fundamental to what was happening, this conflict. I felt that what I was asking for was a no-brainer; anyone would do it under the circumstances. That seemed so obvious to me because that’s my nature—to give something to someone because they’re asking for it; they need something I have. I don’t come from a competitive place; that’s not how I see things at all. But, he and I obviously differ in that regard. In the film, he turns out to be an obstacle to me getting to know my dad and that is, indeed, part of this journey; it just is. It was certainly not my intention to not have a relationship with him by the end of this whole thing. I thought we could both work through our shit and by the end, we’d have something to mark this passage for both of us in a collaborative way.
SIM: And that turned out differently from what you'd hoped.
CM: It did—we don’t speak now. I had to let him go.
SIM: Has he seen the film?
CM: I don’t know. I have no idea. I haven’t given him a copy. He was asking for a copy and I said I would give one to him when he gave me what I asked for, footage of my dad.
SIM: And you did find an archive which the artist, Larry Rivers, has kept for decades, which you found out about during the course of filming, yet another serendipitous event. While your intention was not to make Al Maysles look bad, this is where the film gets really interesting, and also where I think people might mis-read what this is really about. It’s very complex; I don’t think it’s easily digestible or that one can conclude that it’s simply an “airing of the family’s dirty laundry,” as I read somewhere. But you’re dealing with someone who is revered as a great national treasure. And a filmmaker. There was an obvious threat, in his eyes, in you making your film. His insistence that you couldn’t use the same footage that he’s planning to use for his project was kind of odd. I’ve seen the same footage used over and over again in many different ways and in many different pieces—it doesn’t necessarily take away from a film’s integrity or originality, in any way. Archival footage exists because it’s useful as a touchstone for all kinds of reasons, for all kinds of purposes.
CM: I’ve thought about this a lot, obviously, and it's something with which I’ve been consumed for a while. Long story short, I still don’t really understand why he reacted the way he did. I have my theories but I don’t think that’s really important. The important thing is that I wouldn’t have been able to make the film I did if he had been nice to me. That’s the way I’m looking on the bright side of this [laughs]. From where I sit now, I’m actually grateful to him, because if he hadn’t gotten in my way, I would have created a pretty little picture of my dad; I would never have discovered the complexity of his relationship with his brother. I would have never understood filmmaking and partnership and collaboration—all of those bigger things that are more important to me. I’m not really a fluffy person. Of what people tell me about my dad, I’m very much like him—self-critical, interested in why people do the things they do; I like to get deep. So that’s what I have to say about what happened with Al. I can say that he is more of an on-the-surface type of person and so I’m glad I didn’t, in turn, fall into that type of behavior in reaction to what he did.
SIM: Through the people you spoke with in your film, I think you also got a fuller picture of that relationship between your dad and your uncle. We understand that David was really the one that tasked himself with taking care of certain things, how they worked that out between the two of them. And we don’t really know what kinds of feelings that left in Al when David died. He’s the one that was left to carry on the legacy of the Maysles brothers—we don’t know what kinds of pressures, what kinds of challenges that left for him to deal with on his own, when it was very much a shared career. According to people you spoke with, David was the one that took the lion’s share of the responsibility of running the company.
CM: People describe him as the creative force, the driving force behind the company. Yes, I think that has a lot to do with the reason Al reacted to me the way he did. He was left to carry this legacy. He hasn’t made his own film since. This autobiography, whether it will be made or not, is his shot at making his film.
SIM: He possesses an incredible archive and he’s dipping back into that to create new work.
CM: You’re dead-on about the rawness of all of this for him. One time he was looking at me and remarked that I looked so much like my father. Losing my dad was the biggest loss of his life—his brother, his best friend, his partner, his identity, really. Charlene really got something important about what was happening. The brothers came from, sort of, a really intense family situation. There is one scene I had that I really regret we had to take out for legal reasons, but what I can say is that there was this belief that the nuclear family was the most important thing—mother, father, siblings. I don’t think he sees me as a part of that nucleus. Al is very much that way, as well, in that his two kids, his wife—that’s his family. The extended family, the children of his brother, don’t carry the same weight.
SIM: But don’t you think that would be a bit different if your dad was still alive? I think you and your brother would very much be part of that nucleus. You are, after all, immediate family; it’s not like you’re a distant cousin, you're his niece.
CM: If my dad were alive, it would probably be different. But I think because he isn’t, he easily reverts back to that kind of insular family unit. What it comes to, is that Al thinks he’s more entitled to my dad and his memory than I am. That's what this all says to me. He feels justified in not giving me any footage. In modern-day society, the wife and children are entitled to the legacy, right? If an estate gets divided up, by law, it goes to the wife and children. In Albert’s world, it should be the brother. I want to make clear that this is my personal opinion on all this stemming from the research I did and the experience I had making this film. It’s hardly objective. But I tried really hard to understand him. I wanted to know “why.” I wasn’t going to stop until I could get the answer to that.
SIM: It was clear he didn’t really welcome that kind of prodding, though. It probably speaks to a generational thing, too. Someone of his generation is going to handle all this emotion and pain in a very different way than you or I do. We don't really hold much in!
CM: Yes, and I know that this is incredibly painful for him.
SIM: At the beginning of the film, you say that at age 17 you were ready to know “everything.” What did that mean?
CM: This was something we struggled so much with in the film. Every cut took us back to the basic question of what I was trying to explain to the viewer about why I was going on this journey in this particular way.
When my dad died, I basically lost all my childhood memories which, according to people who study this, is quite normal since it’s such a traumatic event; it erases early memory. So I had no knowledge of him. I never spoke about him to my mom or to my brother and we were cut off from Al. My mom would just burst into tears every time she mentioned my dad’s name so it became a habit that when she would start to cry, I’d bolt, just leave the room as quickly as I could. It was just constant avoidance, and we all participated in that.
When I was 16, my mom was diagnosed with cancer. At that time, I was also suffering from a severe eating disorder; I was, basically, a wreck from holding everything in. So I had this huge breakdown which is referenced in the film. The hospital personnel found it quite amusing that I was insisting that all of this had nothing to do with my dad. My shrink says I sat there with arms crossed, legs crossed, closed completely. When she’d ask me something about him, I just wouldn’t respond. It took a couple of months after I was out of there to admit that maybe some of that stuff was coming from that event. I felt like it was time to dig into all that. So I did work on that with my therapist for about a year, just coming to some sort of consciousness about it all, that his death was a very important event in my life. I didn’t want to admit that, didn’t want to go there. So at 17, right before college, I decided I was going to face all that and work through it.
I interned at Maysles Films; I worked there the summer before college and was looking to have relationships with those from my dad’s world. But, in essence, I was just a production assistant. I wasn’t really ready for anything substantial. My wanting to know everything was still a bit of a front; I really wasn’t ready. But there was a, sort of, shift in consciousness and I knew that at some point I was going to have to deal. When I was a social worker in Oregon, I was dealing with everyone else’s problems, which is something I’m good at. It’s easier. I have a knack for helping people and I think that that might contribute to me being a decent filmmaker—I’m good at connecting with people, gaining trust, love hearing people’s stories, people seem to trust me. And I, of course, knew that I was really good at that for anyone else, but I was failing horribly with myself. Those problems were still there waiting to be dealt with and after a while, I just felt like I was talking out of my ass about what a good problem-solver I was. I was not a healed person.
SIM: You could have reacted any number of ways to the obstacle that your uncle presented. You didn't know what his process had been because he doesn’t want to share that with anyone. That’s his business. Your own searching, prodding, trusting that you’re doing the right thing for yourself was one-sided. He was not interested in helping you do that. And I’m sure that took a while to penetrate when you’re expecting something else.
There were moving scenes with your mom, as well, someone who went (and is still going) through her own process of grief and resolution so she can enjoy her life, too. That exchange you have with her in the car when you’re both realizing that you have two completely different memories of what happened the day your father died was incredible. She was visibly stunned by that. That last shot of her in close-up, completely silent, watching the road, packed a wallop.
CM: I learned that from Al, actually. I kept trying to get close to him by using the camera. You mentioned something earlier about the camera changing everything. I agree with that 100%. I think the camera gave me the strength to do this. Filming was a commitment, my excuse to keep going with this. I kept telling myself that all of this was “for the film.” That’s what kept me going. It was my way of forcing myself to go that deep.
In that scene where I give the camera to Al to film me, I did that because, earlier, he had said to me that one way of getting close to another person is to film them. And I thought that maybe he could love me if he filmed me, maybe he could understand me a little better if he was behind the camera. I wanted to test that out. He told me that he likes to zoom in when he feels someone’s emotion coming to the surface. His instinct is to go in close and feel it with them. That’s what I did in that scene with my mom. I was getting ready to ask her a tricky question, ask one more question, and to zoom in like Al does [laughs]. But then the light passing through the window of the car, that orange light which is my favorite light in which to photograph, swept across her face and I knew nothing more should be said—her face said it all.
SIM: You do look really beautiful through his camera lens. It’s the difference between unconsciously using the video camera as a recording device, and, very consciously using it as an aesthetic device, to evoke a reaction, an emotion in the viewer. He has a particular genius for that, an instinctual knowledge of how to do that. That passing of the camera back and forth was quite symbolic, but again, didn’t really yield the results you were looking for.
CM: It was a way of bonding, getting close to him.
SIM: That audience in the Q&A in Amsterdam seemed to really understand that and feel the pathos of that moment. They showed you a lot of love. I was actually kind of tensed for some kind of negative reaction for you because, I suppose, there could have been the complete opposite of that—I saw a couple of filmmakers get blasted by audiences there in their Q&As and in panel discussions. There were people there who definitely wanted to instigate some kind of confrontation. But their reaction to your film wasn’t anything other than appreciation for the film you had brought. South by Southwest in March will be the US premiere; it will be interesting to see the reaction here. US audiences, I think, tend to be quite friendly and supportive of filmmakers. They find it exciting to engage with the filmmaker right after seeing a film.
CM: I, too, saw some brutal Q&As there and I was also kind of prepared for some backlash or harsh criticism. I found a way to work with what happened—the film is the result of that. My confrontations with him were not something I could just work around to avoid any controversy. It would have been completely contrived, not an accurate portrayal of what occurred between the two of us. I actually had people ask me to try and do that—make him, somehow, look good. Programmers have said to me that I should go to him and do whatever I have to to make up with him and then re-edit the end of the film with that reconciliation. The film was four years in the making; he never gave me the footage. I’m not going to make him do anything he’s not willing to do.
SIM: That’s really interesting that someone would ask you to do that. Not to mention a bit presumptuous!
CM: It’s funny because I actually called Al at one point when we were nearing the end of our final edit. It was my last-ditch effort to make peace and to not have huge legal bills. He’s threatened to sue me. I had come to terms with knowing that we weren’t going to have this great relationship; that was obviously clear. But I was worried about the film being able to be shown in public. So I called him and said, look, we’re almost done editing. I have to be honest with you, you don’t look that good.
SIM: You didn’t look good, either, in many scenes and you kept those in. It’s not an imbalanced portrayal.
CM: Right, but I wanted to give him a chance to reconcile and do the right thing. He had a chance to come across as the good guy. He never took me up on the offer. It’s not like I wasn’t honest with him; I was totally straight with him. He signed a release and agreed to be filmed.
SIM: Why did you decide to keep that in there—the scene where he’s signing the release form for you? Why was that important to you? What were you trying to say by including that in the final cut?
CM: I wanted people to know that I wasn’t taking advantage of this old man. People have this idea of him. He’s a very public guy who’s basically a celebrity now. He’s appearing in a new Kate Spade ad campaign!
SIM: Yeah, when I saw that, I was kind of taken aback, I must say. At first, I just thought it was an Al Maysles look-alike.
CM: I have had some reactions to the film that are definitely not favorable. I just ask them to watch the film again. In the whole process, I was so conscious of the fact that I didn’t want him to look like an asshole. I wanted the complexity of the situation to come across. I wanted people to know I was just trying to understand where he was coming from. I believe that I achieved that.
SIM: I think you did, because I didn’t walk away from watching it, twice now, thinking he was an asshole. He looks and acts like a human being that’s struggling with all this, too, and making certain choices. It’s a document of what transpired between you at that time. It’s unfortunate but that can change in the future.
CM: It’s a broken family. Everyone was broken after my dad’s death. It’s an honest depiction of what happens in families. Almost every family has a story like this. I did my best to be as sensitive to him as possible. It turned out to be an exercise in letting go with him. That’s part of this journey. At the end, I say my piece to him, crying of course, and that’s it. I think the film is about so much more than just what transpired between him and me. It’s one element of the story.
SIM: After your festival premiere here, what’s the plan? Do you have a festival strategy in place?
CM: I’m going to try and do as many festivals as I can. I think it’s a real festival film. I want it to get to my dad’s audience and they’re the people who frequent festivals. We’ve been invited to screen at various places and people can go to the Corra Films website to get updates on where the film will exhibit. We’ll definitely be at Boston, also Tel Aviv. We’ve applied to a ton of festivals. We’re in negotiations for Canadian TV broadcasts. I’m really seeking out international sales first.
SIM: You must have been to IDFA! Did you have success with that there? That must have been a great learning ground for you and to be able to meet, in person, all those commissioning editors. Most of the broadcasters and international buyers that go to the IDFA usually aren’t at Sundance or other domestic fests here, according to Debra Zimmerman of Women Make Movies. The broadcast opportunities here are very limited. Abroad, documentary is bought and exhibited, for the most part, for television with really substantial audiences.
CM: All of it was so inspiring on so many different levels. And because I was a first-time director, I got to attend the Academy. It was amazing. There were all these roundtables with an incredible array of industry people. I made that Canadian TV sale at the Academy. The commissioning editor was talking about what they look for and I knew this film was very much in line with what she was describing. IDFA was amazing in that way. I met so many people so easily. Networking is hard to do. But, in Amsterdam, there was this very relaxed, open vibe where you could just go up to anyone and talk to them. Docs for Sale was fantastic [the film market for buyers that runs concurrently with the festival]—you can track who’s screening your film and make contact, ask them if they’re interested and if not, would they recommend someone who would be interested in a sale. People are open to helping the filmmaker. It was such a gift to open there. Ally [Derks, founder of the IDFA] really got behind the film and the indieWIRE piece really set a precedent in validating the film as more than a tale of “family scandal.” Brian [Brooks] was incredibly sensitive in his reactions to the film. I’ll be really interested to see how US audiences react. There is an idolization of the Maysles brothers.
SIM: Yes, but the film will hopefully be reviewed and talked about as a piece unto itself. The press can put a spin on anything; they don’t need much to make a “story” around something when they find an easy in like the “controversy” of your confrontation with your uncle. It’s the purity of a filmmaker’s vision and how that got to be realized that interests me. The other I classify as falling into the “tempest in a teapot” category. But these are things for which no film school could prepare you. You just need to take it out there and show it and take what comes.
CM: Making this was a total crash course in filmmaking. For my next film, I’m interested to see what it’s like to do a piece on someone else. I left the crafting of my story in this film very much up to Charlene. We had an initial discussion about what was important for me to get across to an audience and I did work closely with her on that on certain levels. But I gave her a lot of leeway because she’s a talented editor and storyteller. And I’ll keep working with very strong editors going forward.
SIM: Is your next project also a documentary?
CM: I’m only interested in making nonfiction.
SIM: What is it about making nonfiction that’s so appealing? Obviously, your background as a social worker, not to mention the familial legacy, suits you exceptionally well for that. But what is its appeal for you in terms of storytelling?
CM: I’m just totally fascinated by people’s lives. It seems like a lot of documentary filmmakers aspire to make fiction; it seems like sometimes they use documentary as a stepping-stone to that. For me, it just couldn’t be a more different head space. I love reading memoirs. And, I do love reading fiction and love watching it, too. It’s not like I don’t have the imagination but that’s not how my brain works. I don’t create fantasy in my head; I’m interested and engaged in real life, people’s struggles, community, all of that. Real life is just way more interesting, I think, than anything I could dream up.
SIM: What kinds of stories do you have to tell?
CM: I’m working on a film with Henry. It’s a really interesting film that takes place in Cambodia; we're going for our second shoot there in March. And I’m producing a couple of other films with him. As a director, I’m working on something right now, as well. I speak fluent Spanish; I majored in Hispanic Studies and have lived in different places in Latin America. I’m really interested in immigrant life in the United States. I have a subject that I’m going to start to film. He’s going back to see his family in Mexico for the first time in 13 years and I want to take that journey with him. Family will be a recurring theme, probably. Another project I want to do is about a good friend of mine whose mother is mentally unstable and living homeless in San Francisco. My friend grew up in foster care but somehow she’s managed to have this really beautiful relationship with her mom that, to me, is the definition of acceptance. She doesn’t expect anything from her. So many people want so much from their parents and this young woman has so much respect and a no-strings-attached relationship with this parent that’s been deeply troubled all her life.
SIM: Sounds like a beautiful story. It makes me think of a film I just saw about the photographer Tierney Gearon and her mom called The Mother Project, which is a very interesting portrayal of a family, really fascinating and wild. I still don’t know how I feel about what I saw in that film.
In future projects, do you think you’ll appear in front of the camera again as a subject in your own story? Or was that your trial by fire and you feel like you never have to do that again?
CM: I like the acknowledgement of the filmmaker in documentary. I think that’s important. I like the off-camera voice. My dad did that a lot and I love that about his films because you really feel the filmmaker. But who knows? If something else really compels me to do that, if something happens in my life that I feel is worth documenting, I wouldn’t automatically say no. I don’t really have a huge desire to do that again. Let’s just put it this way: it feels like a huge relief to not have to be in front of the camera after living in front of it, pretty much constantly, for four years. I’m ready to put my focus back on other people. And I didn’t even consider the exhibition part of it. Only in the time leading up to Amsterdam did it really dawn on me that people were going to watch this! Richard Robbins, the director of Operation Homecoming, has become a good friend. Corra Films is repping him as a commercial director right now. We went out to dinner and I was telling him how much I love food, how much I like to eat and that it’s hard for me to believe that I once lived with a severe eating disorder. And he said, “I know; I saw your film.” That was another moment when I realized that all that is going to be common knowledge now. It’s all out there—it’s weird.
What made it possible for me to do the film the way I did it, honestly, is that I really don’t care what anyone thinks about me. That might sound obnoxious, but I really don’t. I’m very happy; I have great friends, etc. It’s not in my nature to be one way in private and another way in public. I made the film for me; it was a totally selfish act. I did do it for my dad, too, but mostly, it was for me. But now that it’s done, I do very much want to share my discoveries about loss and grieving.
SIM: Well, everybody’s a mess, basically. But not all of us are as comfortable as you in sharing our messes in a public way. More times than not, we go out of our way to hide the messiness and only put forth the fabulous things. I think what you did was pretty brave.
CM: I like people’s flaws; that’s what draws me in.
SIM: Has your mom seen it? What does she think?
CM: She loves it. She only saw it three days before Amsterdam. She wasn’t involved at all in the crafting of it; she hadn’t seen any footage or anything pieced together until it was done.
SIM: So what is happening with your dad’s Blue Yonder footage?
CM: Al has it. He’s got everything. I never got to see any of it. I’m assuming he’s going to try and use some of it for a project of his. I’ll be surprised if he makes it at all. We’ll see.