Witness to a killing: the Maysles brothers on Gimme Shelter

In this interview from our Autumn 1971 issue, re-published to mark the film’s 50th anniversary, David and Albert Maysles discuss Gimme Shelter, their document of the Rolling Stones’s 1969 US tour that culminated with the violence and murder of Altamont.

11 December 2020

By Robert Phillip Kolker

Mick Jagger and Keith Richards onstage at Altamont in Gimme Shelter (1970)
Sight and Sound

“Interviews are superfluous… The film is our statement.”

I suppose David Maysles’s comment would be fair coming from any artist. The Maysles brothers (Albert Maysles, cameraman, David Maysles, reporter-soundman, who with Charlotte Zwerin, editor, ‘direct’ their films) have made or contributed to well over a dozen films since 1955, most of them television documentaries, including the first major film about the Beatles, made in 1964, and Showman, a portrait of Joseph E. Levine.

This interview was originally published in our Autumn 1971 issue

But it has been their two features which have caused the most controversy. Salesman (1969) is a quiet presentation of four men who try to sell the Bible door-to-door. It reveals much of the pathos and desperation of ‘Middle America’, and in its chief protagonist, Paul Brennan, presents the predicament of a sad way of life perhaps more accurately than does Arthur Miller’s play.

Gimme Shelter (1971), on the other hand, is a loud virtuoso piece recording the Rolling Stones’ 1969 American tour, which ended at Altamont in the most horrifying public concert ever. People were beaten, a man was stabbed to death, and the Maysles got it on film.

Though highly acclaimed, both films have been attacked by some critics on the premise that they are false and manipulative; that, posing as truth, they are lies. The various problems raised by these works remain fundamental to the entire cinema-verité concept. What emerged from this interview, along with a solid, if necessarily defensive, attempt to put the critics away, was a definite contradiction between the Maysles’ notion of spontaneity and the very formal structure of their work.

I don’t know that the interview will put anyone’s mind to rest about the problems raised by cinema-verite or ‘direct cinema’, as they call it. It may in fact open up more questions than it answers. If nothing else, it reveals the attitudes and ideas of two very independent filmmakers.

The Maysles brothers with Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts during the filming of Gimme Shelter

Robert Phillip Kolker: You both came out of University with degrees in psychology. Has your background influenced your ideas of filmmaking?

Albert Maysles: John Lennon saw Gimme Shelter in Cannes and was quoted as saying: ‘My God, this was a real film… not any of that intellectual shit… ‘ So when people ask me about my psychology background I have to say I don’t think it has anything to do with our films.

I think, in fact, that reasoning, intellectuality, is probably more than anything the enemy of art, and it would be the enemy of our way of making movies. People like Godard are good in spite of their intellectuality. He has been destroying himself as an artist by trying to lecture.

Does that mean you don’t have any rational structure or ideas for a film beforehand?

AM: Whatever structure there is in the films comes in the editing process, but almost in a secondary fashion. People have looked at our films and said-in Salesman, for example-that the cutting was fantastic between Paul Brennan on the train and the sales meeting in Chicago. Another sequence, when he talks about each of the salesmen while driving, is used as the structure for cutting in vignettes of the various salesmen.

Those techniques are so unlike us. I took it as a kind of insult more than a compliment. Because the person who was observing those techniques didn’t see that the real strength of the film was in its not having to depend on those kinds of editing techniques. They are artificial devices.

If we had ended up with a film that had been edited in an Eisenstein style, those people would have said, now you’re really getting into good movie-making. Whereas we would have been disappointed to have had to resort to those techniques. It would mean that we didn’t have in the material juxtapositions of events and people within, say, continuous shots.

But you choose juxtapositions, and if you have a juxtaposition of two sequences available, you’ll use them.

AM: Yes, but what I think Eisenstein took as the essence of film in the editing process would have destroyed the benefit of spontaneous juxtapositions that occur in filming-in life itself. I think the camera picking up material in an individual shot has great power. It has an ability to convey a truth that will allow the viewer more freedom to make a judgment for himself, therefore to be given something that has a right to be more believable.

The Maysles with Mick Jagger at a Steenbeck editing machine

So then you withdraw yourself and allow the audience to make of it what they will?

AM: No. At both ends we have a greater trust than someone like Eisenstein would have, a trust that the juxtapositions are there outside of ourselves. We have a trust that we are sensitive to pick them up. We have a trust that the audience somehow will find them there. We don’t have to arrange it for them in such a way that they are funnelled into a more limited horizon.

But your films are very tightly organised.

AM: These films are very tightly structured and composed. Now it’s something I don’t understand so well, because I am responsible for the photography. If I were very structured in my photography then the film would be a disaster, and I think that if in the editing the structuring took a traditional kind of importance, as it does in other films, then the films would be destroyed. Somehow or other between us, we preserve a kind of spontaneous quality of the diary and then make a novel out of the film-without committing it to fiction or an artificial kind of structure.

But a writer making a diary is quietly there in the background taking down notes. You are there with camera and microphone, and your presence must affect people’s reactions. What we see on the screen is not what we see directly in life.

AM: But it is what you would have seen if you had been there and seen it through our eyes. If you follow the arguments about how the camera affects those present, you would come out with the ridiculous notion that the way to make something the furthest from what actually happens is to go near it and film it, and the way to get closest to ‘reality’ is to use actors and scripts. To film what actually happens, why not just go to it and have faith in recording events as they occur?

David Maysles: I think audiences and film critics, in this country at least, are conditioned in such a way that it’s very difficult for them to accept non-fiction. Nonfiction has usually meant a boring documentary, not a work of art. I feel certain that if Salesman, for example, was a hardcover book or presented as theatre there would be a totally different reaction.

We are at the mercy of what really happens, which in a way is a limitation and in a way isn’t at all. Our work is close to fiction because it’s very subjective; it’s a long way from newspaper reporting of an event.

Gimme Shelter (1970)

AM: How could anyone we filmed in Salesman or Gimme Shelter be anything but what they really are? No one has told them to be different; we don’t want them to be different. But we will be damned, and yet we won’t let ourselves be damned, by critics who say that our truths are not truths. We won’t let ourselves be forced into the position of saying that what we do is entirely objective and so deny ourselves the opportunity to express ourselves subjectively.

The critics have this very simplistic thing: if you film a real thing, then it isn’t real any more because you are a human being applying some subjectivity to it. Therefore, we won’t allow ourselves to take the position of not being human beings. We are. But by the same token we are not going to let this subjective operation imply that we are telling lies. We are not. We express ourselves in an indirect fashion by expressing ourselves through what we find to be interesting around ourselves…

But isn’t there a world of difference between the kind of subjectivity we employ and that of a fiction filmmaker? Or of a documentary filmmaker who believes that his idea, his subjectivity, consists in getting on to film something different from what he sees? His priority would be to show Paul Brennan for what he thinks Paul Brennan is. When he sees that Paul Brennan is different from what he thinks he is, then he either refuses to show that or he refuses to film it in any other way than how he wants to see it. We don’t do that.

What is the difference between cinema verité and your term ‘direct cinema’?

DM: I think the danger again lies whenever you talk about ‘truth’. When you are dealing with reality it seems to make everyone question it, where they wouldn’t question a fiction film.

AM: Our films are spontaneous eruptions that we find ourselves catching with our cameras. To classify these things is some kind of sin. Nevertheless, people force us into giving it a name. So the name ‘direct’ came into being-if only because people are set off on a rampage by the use of the word ‘verite’. I think the word ‘direct’ is more dispassionate. We go directly to things as they take place, and almost in spite of ourselves we are bound to come up with something that’s more truthful.

Are you operating on some kind of ‘contract’ with the audience? Something that implies you are present at an event, but that what is happening happens whether you are there or not?

AM: I don’t think it’s necessary for the audience to be aware all the time of that dimension of our presence for them to accept the honesty or purity of what we are doing… I regard our films as the purest form of cinema I know of. As great as Bergman’s films are, they seem more to me like theatrical pieces. And essentially what I see as cinematic – because only films can do it – is catching hold of reality in a spontaneous way.

Do you think a fiction film is a contradiction?

AM: We would be short-changing ourselves if we called fiction films cinematic and ours not. It seems to me that the other films are departures from cinema, where we are right in the middle of what cinema really can do.

Salesman (1969)

Let’s talk about some specific things in your two features. It did seem to me that some of the scenes in Salesman were so smooth as to have been, if not scripted, at least laid out.

AM: No one was ever told what to do. What I don’t understand is why anyone would think we would want the people to be any different from what they are. Whatever refinements we make are in terms of cutting things down to smaller lengths. Not in the nature of changing names and places and events. We just don’t think those kinds of improvements are improvements.

One of the critics said that the greatest moment in Salesman was lost because during the silences, when Paul was in the restaurant for example, we didn’t put words into his mouth, the words which we would have wanted him to say. But why would we want him to say anything, and what would we want him to say? It would have put a lie to the whole thing.

One of the strongest moments in the film was provided there because you knew enough of Paul so that in his silence your own feelings and thoughts merged with his. Had he spoken, it probably would have broken the spell. Had we made him speak, it would have destroyed the whole effect of the film.

But when Paul goes about singing If I Were a Rich Man and the various bits of business he does in the car, aren’t those prompted by your being there?

AM: I don’t know. But I know it’s the kind of thing he’s doing all the time. I don’t for a moment think that he was a different person because he was with us. We won’t accept the dubious honour of being labelled ‘directors’ capable of making actors out of people merely by the presence of our camera.

DM: We don’t impose anything on the people we film. We are the servants of our subjects rather than the other way around.

Jagger onstage in 1969 in Gimme Shelter

Tell me about Gimme Shelter, its origins, how you got involved in it, your intentions…

AM: We didn’t know what the film was going to be. We just had a childish faith that having seen the Stones and getting along with them, there might be a feature film there. So at our own expense and speculation we stayed with them.

The structure of Gimme Shelter is very tight and controlled. What were your editing principles, and at what point did you decide to use the device of intercutting the Stones’ responses to what they were seeing on the editing machine?

DM: We wanted something to go beyond just the concert and the tour, and we were developing different themes. One of them had to do with filming the detectives and the Angels and some of the aftermath of the killing itself. That material was rather inconclusive because the trial was still going on, for one thing.

Gimme Shelter (1970)

But as the film began to develop in the editing, we thought the most important thing was to keep it directly on the Stones’ experience. We would try somehow to involve them in how they felt about it. Charlotte Zwerin suggested the Steenbeck editing console as a device. The Stones hadn’t seen the material and when they asked to see it, it seemed like a good idea to film them reacting to the film rather than interviewing them, for example.

A lot of the material of Mick Jagger viewing the film did work out well, so we used it. After doing all that shooting we thought the film needed a much more simple line. Within that line the Stones had in some way to express their feelings about what happened. They don’t react with anything more than their expressions in a very simple fashion because they can’t explain it any more than we can.

Of course, their song ‘Gimme Shelter’ at the end of the film is a very eloquent expression of their feelings.

In many ways Gimme Shelter is a film about a film. For example, near the end, when the killing is shown full screen, we hear Jagger’s voice over saying, ‘Can you roll back on that, David?’ and you show him, and us, the segment in slow motion and reverse two or three times.

DM: No. Everyone seems to misinterpret that, to think it’s two or three times. It’s once at regular speed and then in slow motion; it stops a couple of times and then the scene continues at regular speed. So the killing is really only in the film twice.

But the point is that you made the film so that it builds step by step to the killing.

DM: It does because that was the most important event of the tour. We weren’t sure where to put the killing until the final editing. In fact, at one time we were thinking seriously of putting some of the footage at the very beginning.

Gimme Shelter (1970)

Did you know a killing had occurred while you were filming?

DM: No. That should be pointed out. The cameraman never saw the killing and I was right with him. I didn’t see it, and the Stones didn’t either, when it happened. The whole stabbing happens in less than three seconds.

AM: That’s why it was necessary to show it in slow motion. If the cameraman himself didn’t see it, how can the audience?

Gimme Shelter (1970)

What was your relationship with the Hell’s Angels?

AM: They were helping us out. They were carrying some of our magazines.

DM: Oh? I didn’t know about that. I knew they were guarding the truck I was on.

AM: Well, they would lift us up on the stage, for example. But we didn’t have the choice whether to like them or dislike them, or accept help or reject help. They were there. If they hit you over the head, as I heard may have happened with one of the cameramen.

Does it concern you that, despite the fact that the film has much more to offer than the sight of someone getting killed, many people are going for the sensation of seeing a freaked-out audience and a killing?

AM: Do they go and see it for that reason? I think more than anything that turns people away. Neither of us is an expert in that kind of thing. We wouldn’t want to emphasise that part of it in the advertising because it seems as though people are afraid to see the truth, especially a tragic one. It might put them off seeing it.

Are you concerned that you may have been sensationalising a terrible event?

AM: If we had been, I don’t know how we’d feel about it. We didn’t sensationalise it… I don’t think Daniel Ellsberg feels guilty about having revealed the Pentagon Papers. Is he sensationalising something? There were some initial reactions to the New York Times publishing those papers, that it was sensationalism on their part.

Most everybody was highly suspicious of the newspaper’s motives for doing it because it was a scoop. And people were highly suspicious of us because we got a scoop on a killing. We did the right thing including the killing in the film.

The Stones rehearsing backstage in Gimme Shelter

Someone reported that you cut out Charlie Watts’s comment about Altamont: ‘Maybe we shouldn’t have done it.’

DM: That’s one of the problems of discussing that kind of material, because it’s referred to as ‘cut out’. It could also be referred to as ‘not cut in’. It doesn’t sound so ominous. I could tell you a lot of things that are very interesting but not in the film. It’s the same way with a writer. There’s a lot of information in his notes that he thinks about putting in the final work. Obviously we’re biased about what we do put in. Again, that’s why I object to the word ‘truth’.

AM: One could complain that the best-photographed song, Little Queenie, is not in the film.

Why did you choose not to use it?

DM: I wouldn’t put it that way. Why did we choose to use the other songs? We had so many songs and each is there for so many reasons. For example, ‘Satisfaction’ just seems to fit in that particular place, it works there editorially. Jumping Jack Flash works at the beginning of the film.

Editing is just what works and what doesn’t work for you, and Queenie didn’t work in the overall structure of the film. What about the slow motion sequence to Love in Vain? That’s a case of creating something that was not ‘actually’ seen that way.

AM: That too wasn’t planned. Almost all of the slow motion stuff is not Love in Vain, but we wanted to use the song and we had some nice footage to go with it. Also we wanted it to lead into the sequence of the Stones actually listening to the same song in their London recording studio, and so we put it together. If we had had really good stuff of ‘Love in Vain’ the way it was played, shot at normal speed, we might not have used the slow motion footage.

It’s one of those things you find out about because you don’t have the material. Although at one time we did think about slow motion, Charlotte and I thought about a lot of optical effects, but then we dropped all that. We had a hundred different formulas for the structure of the film at different stages. It just finally evolved into what it is. We could give you all the reasons why it is that way now, but we couldn’t possibly give you those reasons before.

Gimme Shelter (1970)

Tell me about the use of the footage by the California police to locate and try the Hell’s Angel who stabbed Meredith Hunter.

DM: We had the footage and were subpoenaed to show it. We also felt it was our duty to show it because they didn’t have any other evidence. We thought at the same time we would film them working with it. Right after the concert, people were sceptical about whether this guy would be apprehended or if anybody would bear witness against him for fear of reprisals from the Angels.

AM: In regard to the killing that the film caught, I’d like to see some of the people who complain about the presence of the camera and our own presence affecting reality argue that in court, as the trial was taking place. They’d be laughed out of court. With all the people who were at Altamont, with all that had been written about it, with all that had been known about it, it was that footage which was closest to the truth of what took place. And the court accepted it as such.

But the killer was acquitted.

DM: The court determined from the footage that the killing was done in self-defence. It showed the gun [held by Meredith Hunter, the man killed]. There is no other evidence of the gun that we know about.

AM: So that footage, which the critics – as with all of our other footage – are so sceptical about, saved a man’s life. It shows the end of one man’s life and it saved the next man’s life by showing what actually took place. Nobody in court could invalidate the footage.

The self-defence plea was a complicated business, the footage was circumstantial evidence – it was as complicated as what is seen in the film. Compare what was revealed in that scene and told in all its complexity to what was told in Blow-Up. Compare two versions of fiction and truth.

DM: I again object to using the word ‘truth’. There’s so much behind it, the way Altamont was organised, who was responsible… But it was truthful to what went on before our eyes. We didn’t tell any lies that we know about.

Again the presence of the camera is the objection raised. But in the case of Altamont there were 300,000 people there. There were no set camera positions. It was such a chaotic thing. I can’t imagine that anyone was conscious of being filmed, except maybe the Stones. But from what I can gather from talking to them, they say they are in a whole different world when they are performing and they are not at all conscious of a camera.

Mick Jagger onstage

How is the film doing at the box-office?

DM: It’s not the overwhelming success a lot of people predicted. It did break records in New York. We’ll have to wait for results from the rest of the country and from Europe… But the fact remains that we made it independently… just the way we wanted to. There is a great deal of satisfaction there.

AM: One of the subtle things that may be operating in terms of the success of the film concerns just how much the public, at any given time, is desirous of seeing the truth of their lives. I think that was true of Salesman. I think that people just couldn’t take it.

Right now, the rock scene being what it is, people may just think that Gimme Shelter is the voice of doom. Six months ago it might have been different.

DM: As we said earlier, our interest has been in making films as one would write a novel or do a painting or even compose a song. Evidently, from what we can gather, people don’t go to the movies to experience anything but a very light kind of amusement. I don’t think it’s going to change us any.

Gimme Shelter and Salesman are unique. There was absolutely no one to tell us how to do them. Every single inch of those films is exactly the way we wanted to make it. You have to pay for that, I guess.

Further reading

In memoriam Albert Maysles, 1926-2015

Robert Greene pays tribute to the documentary legend whose heart, like his camera, was always in the right place.

By Robert Greene

In memoriam Albert Maysles, 1926-2015

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