The Maysles Maze: Documentarian's Daughter Searches for Dad

At the time, tensions erupted between Albert and Judy. About a week after David’s death, Judy told me, she met with Albert and asked him for a sum of money over a five-year period, so that she could find her footing. According to Judy, she was soon contacted by Albert’s lawyers and told she owed him money. (Albert Maysles declined to be interviewed for this article.) In Celia’s film, Albert says to her, “Your mother wasn’t willing to settle out of court, so this became a whole court case that cost us $350,000 in the settlement plus the same amount of money in legal expenses. When it was all over we owned all the films.” (Judy says the $350,000 figure is not accurate. )

Celia contends that her mother never tried to turn her against her uncle. In fact, the only thing she recalls from the legal wrangling was having a hysterical fit because she thought her mother was being “mean” to her uncle.

Over time, the family developed a code of silence regarding David. “Whenever my mom would start to talk about my dad or tell stories, she would get tears in her eyes,” Celia said. “And I was really protective of her. Kids don’t like to see their moms cry.”

Despite the raw nerves, Judy would still take Celia to the annual Maysles holiday party, hosted by Albert. Judy would stay to one corner and avoid interacting with her brother-in-law. For Celia, it could be “excruciating,” but she went partly to be closer to her uncle. “The Christmas parties were sacred,” she said. “It was one of the few things left over from my dad.”

The Maysles holiday party had been a movable feast, hosted in the 1960’s at David and Judy’s apartment in the Apthorp, later held at Albert’s duplex in the Dakota or on the roof of Maysles Films’ offices on 54th street. The cast of revelers was an ebb and flow of documentarians, with the occasional interloper (when the Maysles shot the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, Christie Brinkley dropped by; Diane Keaton came once—and is said to have fled quickly).

And there in a corner was always Judy, who insisted on attending “just to let everyone know that I was still around,” she said. Celia said that being at those parties, listening to stories from her dad’s colleagues, was one of her inspirations for making her first film.

The seeds of Wild Blue Yonder were sown in Celia’s sadness over losing her father, which became evident when Celia was a junior in high school. That year, her
mother was again diagnosed with cancer; the doctors believed it had reached her lungs. While Judy was in the hospital, Celia maintained her poise. But when doctors gave Judy a clean bill of health and sent her home, Celia took a turn for the worse. “She just crashed,” Judy said. “She had been afraid I was going to die.”

Celia checked herself into a clinic for depression. “When I got really sick, it became clear that a lot of my issues were from my not having my dad,” she said. Celia and her therapist decided she would reach out to her uncle by interning at Maysles Films the following summer, before college. “The internship was anticlimactic,” she said. “Al would give me a kiss and that would be it. I’d be answering phones.”

At Lewis & Clark University, Celia took a course on documentary film, and on the first day, when the professor took role call, he asked her, “Any relation?” It was one of the first times Celia realized her father’s lauded position in the documentary film world.

After graduating and working for two years as a social worker with the mentally ill and commercial sex workers in Portland, Ore., Celia sold her Portland house to fund the film about her father.

At first, Albert was accommodating. As seen in the film, niece and uncle start out with an embrace. “I’ve got to hug this woman a lot, you know? Make up for lost time,” the elder Maysles says. But his assistance could be comical. When Celia asked her uncle if she could borrow a microphone, he gave her a B&H electronics store catalog instead.

Albert initially sat for several interviews with Celia. But when she made clear she desperately wanted to look at, and potentially use, footage of her father, Albert, as he explains on camera, was reluctant to let her use any footage, partly because of the legal settlement with Judy and partly because he was making his own autobiographical film.

Their onscreen interactions become increasingly tense, until Celia is shown hounding Albert into an elevator. Their final interaction is over the phone, when Celia sobs into the receiver: “What better context is there than a daughter’s search for her father?”

Although the unraveling relationship with her uncle—that “beautiful obstruction,” as Wild Blue Yonder executive producer Henry Corra calls him—gives the film a dose of dramatic tension, Celia comes into contact with many of her father’s associates and friends, who gradually give her a more complete picture of him.

She begins the film by literally going into a basement to rifle through boxes of her father’s stuff. She interviews D. A. Pennebaker, longtime Maysles filmmaker Susan Froemke, Jeanne-Claude and Christo, and even her father’s psychotherapist.