Documentary Giant Albert Maysles' Last Film, 'In Transit,' Is Still In Limbo

Jun 27, 2017
Originally published on June 28, 2017 10:26 am

The last film by documentary giant Albert Maysles gets a rare screening this week in New York. It's called In Transit, and it takes place entirely on the Empire Builder, a train that runs between Chicago and the Pacific Northwest over three days. Some passengers are heading toward new opportunities, while others are just trying to get away.

One scene features a young man travelling from Mississippi to Seattle. He says, "Nobody at work knew I was fixing to just pack up all my stuff and leave. ... They actually thought I was going to be at work last night. ... Sometimes you just gotta do it. You know, what do you have really to lose?"

In Transit caps a long and distinguished career for Albert Maysles. The documentary was finished more than two years ago, just before the award-winning director died at the age of 88. Since then, Maysles' last movie has been difficult to see because of questions about who owns the rights. (Audiences in New York can see it on two screens this week, including the Maysles Documentary Center in Harlem.)

Rebekah Maysles, the filmmaker's daughter, says, "He had always thought that it would be wonderful to make a film about people who were on these trains — meet them, and then follow them off the train. It was a place where you could have access to all different people with all different stories."

But raising the money for such an ambitious project proved challenging — even for a man who helped invent the documentary film.

Albert and his brother David Maysles were pioneers of what they called "direct cinema": stories without narrators that turned ordinary people into larger-than-life figures. Several of their films are considered classics of the genre, including 1969's Salesman, about a door-to-door Bible salesmen, and 1975's Grey Gardens, about two eccentric socialites living in a crumbling mansion.

Maylses had been thinking about making In Transit since the 1960s. He called it "my dream film" during an interview at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco in 2009, when he was 82 years old. He said, "As any of you would know who have travelled on a train — even on a bus, and sometimes on a plane — meeting strangers, and strangers become friends. That is my goal always in what I do."

Finally, four years ago, Maysles found a willing partner for his train movie. The cable channel Al-Jazeera America put up $600,000 for Maysles and his team to produce an hour-long TV special. The filmmaker and his crew settled on the Empire Builder, and producer Erika Dilday says they shot more than 400 hours of material as the trains rolled across Indian reservations, oil fields and "this barren winter country." She says, "That beauty that he wanted to catch of people in just this moment in time, who lay themselves out there for you — I think it's magic."

Maysles doesn't ask lot of questions in the film. Lynn True, In Transit's co-director and editor, says, "For him, it was about observing and listening, and allowing things to unfold as they will. You know, he was probably the least nervous of all of us that we would get a film out of this."

In the end, Maysles and his crew collected enough material to make a longer, feature-length documentary. The filmmaker approved the final cut just a few days before he died, in the spring of 2015. Producer Erika Dilday says she was working with Al-Jazeera America to release the film in theaters. "They were starting to put together a big PR campaign," she says. "And that's when everything folded."

Al-Jazeera America abruptly shut down in early 2016. In Transit played some film festivals, but it was never broadcast on TV and never got a wider release. Dilday says she approached the network about buying the rights to the film through the Maysles Documentary Center, which she runs, but Al-Jazeera has never responded.

"I think the film should be here," she says. "This film belongs with the Maysles family and the Maysles Center."

Al-Jazeera did not respond to requests for comment. The final cut of In Transit remains at the Maysles Documentary Center in Harlem, which hopes to screen it again when this week's run is over — but nothing is scheduled.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The last film by documentary giant Albert Maysles is getting a rare screening this week in New York. It's called "In Transit." It was finished more than two years ago just before the award-winning director of "Grey Gardens" and "Gimme Shelter" died at age 88. But Maysles' last movie has been difficult to see because of questions about who owns the rights. NPR's Joel Rose explains.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: "In Transit" takes place entirely on the Empire Builder, a three-day train route between Chicago and the Pacific Northwest. Some riders are heading toward new opportunities. Others are trying to get away.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "IN TRANSIT")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Nobody at work knew I was fixing to just pack up all my stuff and leave.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Laughter).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I'm serious. I just grabbed all my stuff, got my check, went, and got the ticket and got on the train.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: They actually thought I was going to be at work last night.

ROSE: Filmmaker Albert Maysles had been thinking about this movie since the 1960s.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALBERT MAYSLES: My dream film is my train film.

ROSE: That's Maysles speaking at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco in 2009 when he was 82 years old.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

A. MAYSLES: As any of you would know who have traveled on a train, even on a bus and sometimes on a plane, meeting strangers - and strangers become friends. That is my goal always in what I do.

ROSE: Albert and his brother, David Maysles, were pioneers of what they called direct cinema - stories without narrators that turned ordinary people into larger-than-life figures, like door-to-door Bible salesmen in the documentary "Salesman" and two eccentric socialites living in a crumbling mansion in "Grey Gardens." Both of those films have become classics, and Albert Maysles' daughter Rebecca says he had big plans for "In Transit" as well.

REBEKAH MAYSLES: He had always thought that it would be wonderful to make a film about people who are on these trains, meet them and then follow them off the train. It was a place where you could have access to all different people with all different stories.

ROSE: But raising money for such an ambitious project proved challenging. Then four years ago, the cable TV channel Al-Jazeera America put up $600,000 for Maysles and his team to produce an hour-long TV special. The filmmaker and his crew settled on the Empire Builder, and his producer Erika Dilday says they shot more than 400 hours of material.

ERIKA DILDAY: And between this line that goes across these Indian reservations and the oil fields and, you know, this barren winter country and that beauty that he wanted to catch of people in just this moment in time who lay themselves out there for you - I think it's magic.

ROSE: On the train, an unexpected friendship forms between a very pregnant young woman who's heading home to Minneapolis and an older Marine Corps veteran.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "IN TRANSIT")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: I just don't see how people can live out here. Like, what is there to do, count cows and sheep?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Well, like we just saw, there's the lumber store, the coffee shop and the topless bar. You would definitely have employment in 1 of the 3. I don't know which one.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Laughter) You got jokes.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I'm only kidding. I'm only kidding.

ROSE: Filmmaker Albert Maysles didn't interrupt these conversations with a lot of questions, says "In Transit's" editor, Lynn True.

LYNN TRUE: For him, it was about observing and listening and allowing things to unfold as they will. You know, he was probably the least nervous of all of us that we would get a film out of this, whereas the rest of us were a bit more nervous.

ROSE: In the end, Albert Maysles and his crew collected enough material to make a longer feature-length documentary. Maysles approved the final cut just a few days before he died in spring of 2015. Producer Erika Dilday says she was working with Al-Jazeera America to release the film in theaters.

DILDAY: They were starting to put together a big PR campaign, and that's when everything folded. And it was just disappointing that it couldn't happen the way we'd wanted it to.

ROSE: Al-Jazeera America abruptly shut down in early 2016 "In Transit" played some film festivals, but it was never broadcast on TV and never got a wider release. Dilday says she approached the network about buying the rights to the film through the Maysles Documentary Center, which she runs. But Dilday says Al-Jazeera has never responded.

DILDAY: I think the film should be here. This film belongs with the Maysles family and the Maysles Center. Whether or not it gets here, I don't know.

ROSE: Al-Jazeera did not respond to requests for comment. The final cut of "In Transit" remains at the Maysles Documentary Center in Harlem, which hopes to screen it again after this week, but nothing is scheduled. Joel Rose, NPR News, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALLEN TOUSSAINT'S "WININ' BOY BLUES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.