Oct 27, 2008

Interview: Celia Maysles, Wild Blue Yonder

By Evan Louison

Celia Maysles grew up without any meaningful connection with to her father, internationally renowned documentarian David Maysles, the man who helped bring such landmarks of non-narrative cinema as Salesman, Grey Gardens, and Gimme Shelter to the screen. After his death, when she was still in elementary school, he all but disappeared as a figure of her conscious life. Her debut film Wild Blue Yonder, which after bowing at the IDFA in Amsterdam and SXSW recently had its New York premiere at a special Rooftop Films screening at the National Arts Club, is named in honor of her father's unfinished film of the same title. Ironically, David's own search for identity, as dramatized through an investigation of his father's life (the Maysles Brothers also lost their father at a young age), was the subject of that unfinished work. Celia's film is the result of an an untouched and deep desire to know exactly who this man truly was, someone who helped bring her and so many timeless images into the world.

Near the very beginning of Wild Blue Yonder (not to be mistaken with the only nominally similar Werner Herzog science fiction) the audience is confronted with the joy of understanding the sorrows of someone just like us, someone who otherwise might appear far from close to what we know; after all it's not everyone whose father was one half the most formative documentary team in cinema's short history, and not everyone who can tell the tale of losing that father at so young an age as to barely recall him personally as an adult. Yet in the end, these trivialities of Celia's own history prove immaterial, as she reveals herself to be someone who becomes so close to us because of the stark, confessional nature to her self-depiction, and the choice to include every inch of her own physical and personal struggle in each frame throughout this harrowing story.

When the thoughts come to mind of a family's history revised with care only to the protection of a startlingly small portion of that family, one can't help but recall a few years back when Stephen Joyce, great-nephew of one-eyed lecher and scribe King James, publicly announced his incineration of a section of his great-uncle's letters, with the stated intent to be protecting his great family name (when in actuality it was more than likely Uncle Jimmy's incestuous relationship with his daughter, Stephen's aunt Lucia, that proved necessary to protect their name from --- see Ulysses' closing passage for evidence of something). A curmudgeon, it would appear, is a term defined as describing an ill-tempered person filled with past resentments. It is usually applied to one of elder years and wisdom acting not out of that wisdom that those years might imply, and instead out of stubborn streaks sewn deep inside their aged hide.

From first glance at Wild Blue Yonder, an audience member not blessed with the discernment between filmed reality and the heart of a person still untold might be prone to pronounce Albert Maysles as some kind of curmudgeon himself. But that's besides the point, and not what Celia intends. What the film stands as is far more important than that. In even the harshest and most literal of viewings, it is a desperate ransacking of an emotional well, of deep and hidden feelings, secrets, and memories. For the young woman and daughter behind it we can be quite sure, that in spite of every challenge and disappointment that there was, somehow there must be a proud smile for her, not only from her father, but from Albert Maysles himself.

I spoke to Celia over the phone before she took off for Cambodia to begin a new film. We only had so much time because as she put it, "9:00 here is my Vietnam morning."

CEC: First off I want to ask you what your connection was with filmmaking before this film. I know you had mentioned you were involved in social work before this project. Was filmmaking a sensitive subject as so much of your father's history was in your family after his death? Was it encouraged that you be interested in it in your formative years or in school?

CM: Yes, I was running a mobile outreach medical clinic in Portland, OR. One night I sat down and watched Grey Gardens for the 1st time (I was about 23 yrs old). I loved the film and for the first time in my life I felt this instant connection to my father--I felt like what he was doing with the ladies of Grey Gardens was a lot like my work--having compassion and great interest in people who are otherwise ignored. I was working with homeless people, sex workers, latino day laborors--all the people that most would rather ignore, but I loved my clients and was fascinated by them. I felt that in the film--that he was enamored with the Beales and couldn't get enough of them. Their house smelled like cat piss, the food they offered him was inedible etc...I knew at that moment that I had to know more about him. I had always been afraid to know him because it hurt so bad to think about his death--I remember feeling that the world was so unfair to take him away in an instant and I just couldn't face it. But when I saw Grey Gardens I saw that he and I had this thing in common, and it was like I just knew it was time. Filmmaking wasn't sensitive, it was just absent.

CEC: In the same way that your father is spoken of in the film by people who knew him well (including his brother Albert Maysles) as someone who connected with the people in his own life by what he recognized in his documentary subjects, did you ever feel like you were connecting with something in the images your father left behind that was actually yourself, something you needed to create, just as he did in his own work?

CM: Well, it goes along with the whole "every film is about the filmmaker" idea. The whole idea behind Blue Yonder [for David] was trying to figure out who his greatest influences were in his life, and who he was, through making a film. He was closest with his father and his cousin Alan, who was a real risk taker, a fighter pilot. But his father never missed a day of work for thirty years. He worked in a dayjob, postal service, in the dead-letter dept. My dad was obsessed with these two extremes and who he was in relation to them both. In Grey Gardens, in all his films, he was trying to look at who he leaned towards and where the characters had come from in terms of his own life, why he was drawn to them. The drudgery of work for Paul in Salesman [who David connected with his own father], Mrs Beale in Grey Gardens as his mother, having had a very co-dependent, typically difficult relationship with her child, and Mick Jagger [from Gimme Shelter] of course was a risk taker, like his cousin Alan. It wasn't so much I was looking for that type of connection with myself in his films, it was just that I was looking for any information about him, any connection with him, from Edie flirting with him in Grey Gardens, to any of the other parts where he crept into frame, you get a really good idea about who's behind the camera and on the sidelines.

CM: The controversy that some people in the press have really hyped up surrounding Wild Blue Yonder stems Albert Maysles' attitude and position towards the film, and actions that he has taken publicly and otherwise to detract from it [In the film Celia desperately tries time and again to get Albert to share images and footage of her father from his personal archive, and he refuses, with little reasonable explanation]. But what I think people don't really understand is that this is your family you're forced to confront publicly in your first major work, a part of your family that was absent following your father's death, and not just someone you're loosely connected with who happens to be some famous, seminal figure in cinema. Is this something that registers with you when you're answering questions and people feel the need to question your portrayal of Albert's actions? [At the screening I attended, one woman stood up and proclaimed her love for Albert and pleaded with the audience to know how "loving" he is] Do you have a hard time explaining this side of it to people?

CM: I definitely have been caught off guard by these people. First off, only in the press has this been the biggest controversy. At Q and As, people all over the world find him [Albert] to be portrayed as what he is --- a complex man, and this whole thing to be really just like every family's story, with an aunt who sues for the money or a cousin who comes out of the woodwork when someone dies. It's more of a typical family story. The fact that he is a celebrity is an ironic factor. I think the fact that he does go around the world and preaches that he is a great guy who loves people through his films and is full of love and affection is fine, but he didn't have it for his neice. My mom thinks it's that Al was going to hold on as long as he could to David, that he was his whole life and his whole identity was wrapped up in who David was and what he lost when he died. He still hasn't created his own thing and is still living off of these three films that they made together after all this time. Also, the only people who have been really weird are the people who don't know much about filmmaking, they get very defensive about him.

CEC: Right. People who don't understand how personal a film or a person's work can become to the person making it, how they can't let go so easily.

CM: Yeah. Part of me felt like making a film about my relationship with him [Albert] was mostly just him kind of telling me [through his actions] that he wished I had never come around. I was saying "I'm ready now," after my whole life this being my silent thing, and I had to do this, I was on this big mission, once and for all, and Al was just not ready for that. He didn't want to do it. It's too bad that I didn't get even one photograph of my dad from him. It was really interesting how there was no genuine connection with me, just stuff in his head the whole time.

I was really good at my job, really good with the people I worked with in Portland who don't usually open up, don't trust, junkies, sex workers, etc. --- and that's what I pride myself upon, that's what makes a good filmmaker, someone that people can have an intense relationship with, a trusting open relationship with right off the bat, even if they don't know them at all. And Al was the biggest challenge in my life. He would not open up, at all. I just wanted my family back. And I was sure it was finally in reach. I was raised a lot more by my mom, she is so much more warm and generous, she lets people stay in her home and takes care of them, and I was raised that way, that you should help people who need help. It was clear I needed help, and I was begging, saying please, I don't know him, you loved him, I'm his daughter, help me. It was the biggest challenge of my life, after losing my father. Losing Al. Not being able to get through. After a while I had to realize it was not going to turn out the way I wanted it to turn out, it was not going to happen. And that I had to move on from that.

It is difficult because Al is a huge celebrity in this world. What I tell people is that the film is about much more than Al. It's about me and my father, and Al happens to be the guy that gets in the way and becomes an obstacle to me learning more about my dad. I am at peace with it. Letting go was the hardest thing to learn how to do.

CEC: It seems that letting go and moving on is, from what you've said here and before in the press, a really important part of all of this for you. And yet so much of the story of your film is you forcing yourself to go back, retread waters you escaped from, and start holding on a little, whereas when you were younger, you couldn't.

CM: When I was little I just ran from it, not dealing with it. That was what my childhood was about. I didn't want to go there. The second my dad's name was mentioned I would just ask what was for dinner. It was untouchable. One of my old friends told me recently that I never even mentioned my father's name during the whole time I had known them, which was like 11 years. I could not do it before the movie. And like I said, Al probably won't ever be ready to deal with it still.

CEC: Was the title of your father's unfinished film Blue Yonder or Wild Blue Yonder? I saw some of the papers that were filmed in his storage read "sketches for..." and then both titles mentioned separately. Is the title as it is now an extension of your father's work, or is it you attempting to connect on a more spiritual level with something that besides being unfinished at large, is something personal that you have been locked out of? Are you finishing your father's work, or is this film standing now as the finished form, a surrogate of sorts for your family's history, which has been separated more than once by death?

CM: Well, in some of his notes it was Blue Yonder, in others Wild Blue Yonder. I felt that "Wild" had to be included in my title...since it's really my version of his film. I was finishing it for him in a way. It was his last film, and my first. I saw so much beauty in that. We were both searching for our fathers and Charlene Rule and I worked really hard to weave our 2 stories together. At a certain point in the film you don't know who's story is being told--I'm tracing back to his mother and father, but the audio tapes are from his searching. When he tells the story of how his father died for example. I believe that a lot of the audio tapes I found in his things were going to be used in his film.

CEC: Are you working within some construct of your own that is informed by your father's and Albert's methodology? Were there other films that you were brought up with?

CM: I don't even remember films being major in my upbringing. I don't believe that my father truly believed in the dogma that Al now talks about all over the country. I think a part of him did, but I am sure that my father knew that there is no such thing as unfiltered reality. The camera changes every situation. I relate more to the idea that the camera gets at a greater truth. Not the camera really, but the process of making a film itself. In my case the film gave me courage to confront my biggest fears. In terms of manipulating--the editing process is all about manipulation, but the idea is to manipulate in order to get to more truth. A film is how the filmmaker makes it. It's their version. I remember in one screening somebody said, "well I thought this would be more about the history of the Maysles Brothers," and I was like, "why would I make that film? It's my father. You should make that film."

I don't believe in rules and I don't think my father did either. I never thought of it as honoring him or anything, it's just something I inherited from him naturally. I am really interested in people, characters, and the rest of the world. I want to make films that are character driven and bring us closer to who we are. It's not something I strive towards. I'm just my father's child. That's me. If I was interested in silence, or landscapes, that's what I would make. And maybe in fifteen years I'll want to do that. I'm like one of those New York kids who grew up on stoops, people watching. This film, a lot of my motivation was number one to get to know my father but also to get at what that felt like to lose a parent, what that grief that children face was about, I was drawn to that at an early age, other friends, kids that went through that, even if I didn't know at the time. Some of my closest friends that I naturally was close with I would find out later they too had lost someone. Someone I used to work with who lost her husband sent me an incredible email about how she saw the film and she felt like she understood what her daughter would have to go through now. She had invented this way of writing in a book to her husband so her daughter could read in the book and correspond with her father in the same way. Putting that out there into the world is what I always felt people would connect with, they would know what it was like, because it shapes you, it shapes a person, to lose someone like that. I remember when I was little, there was one book to read about losing a parent. Not a lot of resources to draw from, to deal with basically extreme depression. I didn't understand what death was for years, I didn't even realize my father was dead. That was one of my motivations. To understand that.

CEC: Is there a narrative in your future?

CM: I absolutely feel that real life is more interesting than anything I am capable of creating in my mind. I am fascinated by people--always have been. All of my writing has been about real life and I feel that all of my filmmaking will be about real life. I love watching and reading fiction, but I have no interest in creating it.