The Maysles Maze: Documentarian's Daughter Searches for Dad

A sizable portion of New York’s documentary filmmaking community was packed in at the Maysles Alumni Holiday Party at the Half King Bar and Restaurant on 23rd street. That it was happening in January didn’t seem to faze anyone. “We couldn’t get our act together,” said a fast-talking Xan Parker, a nine-year veteran of Maysles Films.

Working her way through the crowd, holding a pint of Brooklyn Lager, Celia Maysles, a fresh-faced 28-year-old former social worker, approached director Bruce Sinofsky (Brother’s Keeper), and threaded her fingers through his shoulder-length hair as he talked with producer Henry Corra. Mr. Sinofsky greeted the brightly smiling Ms. Maysles with a quick question, “When am I going to see your film?”

It was a common refrain that evening, and no wonder; her directorial debut, Wild Blue Yonder, which premiered at the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam in November, was made without the help—and, in fact, according to Celia, faced the concerted resistance—of her uncle Albert Maysles, the man widely considered to be the D. W. Griffith of the nonfiction form, and for whom almost everyone at the party had at one time worked.

“These are some of the busiest people in New York,” Celia said, scanning the crowd that gathered between tables piled high with coats. “And they dropped everything to help me.”

Wild Blue Yonder, which is getting its U.S. premiere this week at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas, is Celia’s journey to come to terms with her late father, legendary documentarian David Maysles, who, along with his brother, Albert, made such seminal 1960’s and 1970’s films as Salesman, Gimme Shelter and Grey Gardens. Celia’s father passed away in 1987 as a result of complications caused by the mixing of a cold medication and a MAO-inhibiting antidepressant. She was 7 years old.

“I think people are nervous,” said Ms. Parker, a producer on Wild Blue Yonder, who was also a recipient of Celia’s affectionate finger comb that evening. “Maysles is like a dysfunctional family, so you kind of know each other’s secrets, but you never know the whole story.”

Celia’s story could have gone unnoticed: a life of privilege and loss lived in the shadows of a legendary name. Over the past decade, as documentaries have secured a place on the art-house circuit as a reasonable thing to pay $11.50 for on a Saturday night, the Maysles name has grown in stature. The younger set of documentary filmmakers need their icons to emulate or tear down, and the Maysles brothers, along with old-school filmmakers such as Frederick Wiseman, D. A. Pennebaker and Barbara Kopple, have fit the bill.

Interviews with the 81-year-old Albert Maysles are usually of the fawning variety; he tends to receive the living icon treatment reserved for the likes of Martin Scorsese. And although Albert continues to produce films—such as The Gates (which he co-directed with Antonio Ferrera, now airing on HBO), about Christo’s saffron-colored art installation that blanketed Central Park—he is best known for the films he made with his brother more than 30 years ago.

In the Maysles iconography, one black-and-white photograph stands out: It shows Albert, the older brother, holding a camera and David with headphones covering his ears, both with tussled gray hair and beaming, benevolent smiles. They stand close to each other, brother-mavericks joined at the hip.

But now, out of the blue, along comes David’s daughter, Celia, to tell her own story, and to put a new spin on that sepia-toned image. Not that that was her intention.

“It’s not good to talk shit about people,” Celia told me in the Chinatown editing suite of Corra Films, which produced Wild Blue Yonder, and where she now works. “I have sworn to myself that no one was allowed to say anything bad about Al. The viewer would have to watch him and come up with his or her own conclusion.

“The point of this story is me finding my dad. I wanted people to know how hard it was to lose a parent. To have such a complete void,” she said. “If I could do what my dad did, it would be like getting to know him through the process. From the fund-raising and the frustrations and the filming, I’d get to walk in his shoes.”

Growing up on the Upper West Side, living in the opulent Apthorp building on West 79th street, attending private schools such as Calhoun and Chapin, it would seem Celia lived a life of leisure. But according to her mother, Judy, “The kid had a pretty shitty early childhood, as much as it was wonderful one.” Sitting in the Apthorp apartment beside a table filled with family photographs, Judy Maysles teared up as she recalled her early years with David and their two young children (Celia has an older brother, John). Judy was diagnosed with breast cancer when Celia was an infant, and received a year of chemotherapy. When Celia was 4, David had a heart attack. He died three years later.

The Maysles Maze: Documentarian's Daughter Searches for Dad