Earlier this year, the documentary film world lost one of its pioneers: 88-year-old Albert Maysles, who directed such iconic films as Gimme Shelter and Grey Gardens.
His final project, that credits him as sole director, is Iris, a charming portrait of 93-year-old New York fashion icon Iris Apfel, which Magnolia Pictures is slowly rolling out in theaters. (Another project, In Transit, about life along a single train route, bills Maysles as one of five directors. Commissioned by Al Jazeera America, it premiered at last month’s Tribeca Film Festival and may be released theatrically in the future.)
Iris represents different messages to different people. In contrast to today’s Internet-propelled wannabes screaming to be noticed, Apfel became an accidental brand simply by being herself. She was a pioneering businesswoman at a time when women settled down to raise children, with a fashion sense so extreme and singular—a kaleidoscope of prints, colors, and textures—as to invite her own clothing exhibitions at museums and window displays. Yet her globetrotting flamboyance gives way to a grounded, conscientious professional with a wry sense of humor and 67-year love story with husband, Carl.
“I never did this to send a message,” says Apfel. “I think there are a lot of messages. From talking to people, each one seems to fixate on another part of the film, so I guess whatever grabs you is fine with me. I’m happy people have reacted so favorably.
“Albert was a gentle, sweet man. A great talent,” she adds. “At first I said, ‘No.’ I didn’t want to do it, but I’m glad now I did.”
The film’s producers—Rebekah Maysles (Albert’s daughter), Laura Coxson, and Jennifer Ash Rudick—delighted in subject and director discovering each other’s worlds.
The project began with a cold pitch in 2011. Rudick, a former Women’s Wear Daily editor whose mother knew Apfel, thought she would make a compelling documentary subject. Despite having never heard of her, Coxson says, “I had this feeling when I read the email that it was a project we should look into.”
“Iris was reluctant, but she never says ‘no,’” adds Rudick. “So I was investigating. I just felt the best way to tell her story was a documentary and Albert would be the perfect pairing. When we found out his schedule was clear, she asked around. Most of her friends are in the art and fashion world. They said, ‘You’d be crazy not to do it and you can trust Al.’”
And so began a four-year journey that took the team to fashion parties and photo shoots, shopping excursions of intense haggling, plus storage warehouses and her apartments filled with eclectic oddities.
“My father didn’t know about Iris, her fashion, her world,” says Maysles. “He would be excited for just about anything. There were things that Iris would be excited about that I wouldn’t, and he’d just be game for it.”
The production used two hand-held cameras, no lights or tripods, to remain less obtrusive. “Iris would be expecting an interview, but the movements we’d use would be her answering the door, her walking to the kitchen, talking about something totally unprepared at the end of the shoot,” says Coxson. “The goal was to get beyond what she was used to doing in interviews, and getting closer to her. To do that, we had to really get to know her and trust her. And she really trusted Albert.”
“He was so likeable. He’s like a magnet,” says Coxson. “He’s a shockingly good listener for someone who is well known. I’d think people would be nervous to talk to him, but they’d instantly let their guard down and want to tell him things. He has a natural rapport with almost anyone. It made traveling with him a bit of a problem, because crazy people would glom onto him. I’d be like, ‘They’re totally nuts,’ and he’d be sitting in a corner with them for 10 minutes. He just loved hearing people’s stories.”
So much so that once, while shooting Iris, Maysles’ jacket caught fire from some decorative candles. “He never noticed,” laughs Coxson.
Although Albert Maysles gets the directing credit for Iris, he regarded this—as all his films—a collaboration of a very small crew.
“He didn’t believe in a director credit as much as other people,” says Coxson. “His films are a real collaboration in setting up the shoots and producing, making it happen, and editing. I found the funding to enable us to finish the film, for post-production and editing, which took a year. The editor, Paul Lovelace, came to some of the shoots to get a feel for what we were doing, because he was editing while we were still shooting. Rebekah was within him that year in the studio. Albert never really involved himself in the editing room. He edits by the way he shoots, because he’s used to working with film. He didn’t shoot everything, but all of his footage was good, as opposed to someone used to video, who shoots everything. So Rebekah, Paul, and I were working closely together, then organizing rough-cut screenings for people in the fashion industry to help hone the film, because there was no obvious story line. It was really important to all of us not to create an artificial storyline.”
“I’m excited and sad about the last year of my father’s life having both Iris, a portrait film, which is something he always thinks is important, and In Transit, a train film that he’s wanted to do since before I was born,” says Maysles. “Both films are really just about life. Not some crazy thing that happens. Just people living it.”
The producers noticed a symmetry to both Maysles and Apfel, who found their styles and adhered to them.
“They’re about authenticity and passion,” says Rudick. “Both have a lot of faith in process. Now people have a goal in mind and do anything to achieve it. I think that’s why life exceeded their expectations. Because they took it as it came.”