Gimme Shelter (1970) is a documentary film about the last ten days of the 1969 Rolling Stones tour. The film was directed by brother documentarians Albert and David Maysles. It is best known today for having captured footage of the murder of a black man by a Hells Angels security guard at the Altamont Speedway near San Francisco. Gimme Shelter recently received the Criterion treatment on DVD. This is an interview with John Semper, Jr., who worked for Albert and David Maysles while they were editing that film.
John Semper Jr’s experience with Gimme Shelter, the Maysles brothers, documentary filmmaking, the film industry, and film as art and commerce.
“What happened was in high school I knew this guy named Gregor Shapiro. In fact, we’re still friends even though he lives in Sweden these days. Somehow Gregor had a connection to the Maysles: Albert and David. I already knew who they were because I was a budding young filmmaker back in the days when nobody under twenty saw any future in being a budding young filmmaker. It was a completely different time. We were not as drenched in media as we are today. For most of my peers being in the media was not a viable career option. That’s how long ago that was, but for me it was, and I was paying a lot of attention to the documentary filmmaking that was going on.
The Maysles were unique because they had created a custom-built,16mm hand-held camera. This was cutting edge technology. They had designed this camera. I think David had designed it. It was balanced so they could have it on their shoulder for a long period of time and it would not cause them a great deal of fatigue. The idea of something hand-held that would not cause you a great deal of physical discomfort was a huge breakthrough.
The other thing about their equipment was that the camera ran silently. 16 mm cameras in those days were extraordinarily noisy and blimps that you would put on them to make them quiet were huge. You couldn’t really do documentary filmmaking without being very visible and very loud. Not only could the Maysles carry their equipment unobtrusively, without causing them physical pain, but it was silent so after a while people forgot that they were there.
They did this one documentary that got a lot of attention called Salesman [also a Criterion release] where they followed around a bible salesman in New England, following him from door to door. The fact that they could get this candid footage was unheard of. Also, the fact that you could record sound on the fly. Remember sound had to be recorded separately from pictures. There were no cameras really that recorded sound while you were recording picture. That was all very new and exciting. The footage that they got, which today we would call “reality” footage, in those days it was very much “documentary” footage. The Maysles ability to capture people in their regular lives was unrivaled and amazing
This was the late 1960s. I knew the Maysles’ work because I had seen Salesman and I was heavily into watching and studying documentaries. Gregor went and worked for the Maysles during one Christmas vacation. Gregor came back to school afterwards, and he had somehow got hold of a duplicate of the footage from Gimme Shelter where the guy gets killed: the one guy that the Hells Angel is knifing, a poor black guy who is wearing a lime green suit. Gregor had this footage and he showed it to us. We were all just mesmerized that this had happened and that Gregor had the footage.
As I recall, Gregor was not as interested in film as much as I was. He had just kind of stumbled onto this job. Gregor was more interested in still photography. He turned to me and said: “I know you are really interested in film. Why don’t you come to New York with me next summer, I will introduce you to the Maysles. Let’s see if we can work there again.”
That summer Gregor and I went to New York and stayed at the Chelsea Hotel. The first night we walked in who was in the lobby, drunk out of her mind, but Janis Joplin! We were checking in and Janis Joplin comes walking toward us, completely drunk. We exchanged a few words with her. I recently talked with Gregor about that trip, and the first words out of his mouth were: “Hey, remember that night we met Janis Joplin?”
Gregor took me over to the Maysles. Albert Maysles is one of the sweetest guys on the planet. He was very warm and friendly. David seemed very reserved, but when it came time to ask if I could come back and work there, David very quickly agreed. So there I was working. I wasn’t really at that time in the profession. What Gregor and I were doing in the office was office assistance and help. There was a period of time when Gregor left and it was just me working in there. They were editing Gimme Shelter at the time.
If you want to make films, what do you do?
I had previously taken a course in 16mm filmmaking with a guy named Al Fiering. He was a Boston documentarian. I was very young when I took this course. It’s hard to understand now because there is so much technology; every cell phone has a camera, everybody’s got a computer and you can edit your video on the computer. There is such a proliferation of equipment, but imagine there being a time when there isn’t any equipment at all. Equipment was firmly in the hands of professionals and cost tens of thousands of dollars, well beyond the reach of a teenager. If you want to make films, what do you do? So I took courses. Eventually, when I went to college, I studied film and I got to handle some of that equipment, but even then it was very hard to arrange.
Super 8mm had arrived on the scene when I was about sixteen. I made a lot of Super 8 silent films and animations. My mother, may she rest in peace, was very good about buying me a Super 8 camera so I could start fiddling around with all of this stuff, getting the editing equipment. So, fairly quickly, I had a pretty good understanding of editing. Being with the Maysles was my first time working for a film company that was actually making films people were going to see. The process of being around professional filmmakers and being able to hover in the background was a great first experience. Albert and David were very hot documentarians. They had a lovely lady named Charlotte Zwerin. I believe she edited several of their films, and she went onto become a documentarian herself. She was in the back room editing Gimme Shelter. I would watch her work and talk to her, although she was very reserved and very busy. I remember her being a heavy smoker. I pretty much had free reign in the place. It was a very relaxed atmosphere.
…documentaries were very cool at that time…
Another big thing that was going on there in New York was that Woodstock: The Movie (1970) had just opened. Woodstock: The Movie was the Star Wars of the moment. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why documentaries were very cool at that time, because Woodstock was the hottest thing going.
There was a guy in the office named Porter Bibb who was trying to put together a Woodstock-like documentary that the Maysles were going to be involved in. He was going to get a whole bunch of rock and roll acts to get on a train and travel across America. The hippie era has been reduced to something of a joke in this age, but for those of us who actually lived through it, a lot of the freedoms that we take for granted today were actually hard fought by the hippie movement and the hippies of that era. One of the things they were going to do is get a bunch of rock acts and travel the country where, quite frankly, rock and roll music was considered to be music of the devil. You really kind of took your life in your own hands taking rock and roll music across America. Porter was going to do that with this movie. He was on the phone all day, trying to line things up for this film. I only found out recently that film did get made. Obviously it wasn’t near as big a Woodstock.
Those guys really were the first…
The first documentary film was Nanook of the North (1922) done by Robert Flaherty. After that, two of the first big documentarians were Merian C. Cooper and Earnest B. Shoedsack, the men who eventually did King Kong (1933). They started off as documentarians. They would go to exotic lands, shoot people in all kinds of strange cultures and make feature-length films of them. King Kong is based off their experience as documentary filmmakers. They were Carl Denham! Kong was just an exaggeration of everything they had been through as documentarians: going into the jungle with film equipment, negotiating with the natives, putting their lives at stake and making movies. Those guys really were the first, and then there was Edward S. Curtis who was shooting the Indians (1914’s In the Land of the Headhunters).
What happened in the 1960s that revived documentary filmmaking was the introduction and invention of 16mm film and the hand-held equipment. Back in the silent era, Cooper, Shoedsack, Flaherty; they were using wooden hand crank box cameras and shooting 35 mm films. With the advent of sound, shooting became more cumbersome; getting a camera back there was a huge chore.
In the 60s you had the advent of 16mm, lighter equipment, and the invention of the Nagra Tape Recorder, which enabled you now to record synchronized sound. The cool thing of the 60s was a cameraman with hand-held camera and the guy next to him, hooked up by cable (because that was the only way you could have synced sound).
Wow, are you kidding me? That’s like space-age technology.
The next big technological innovation, which happened around the time of the Maysles, was Crystal Sync, where you could have a motor that was being controlled by a crystal unit that was sending out pulses. It would tell the motor how fast to move. The same kind of Crystal Unit was inside of a tape recorder and it would tell the Nagra how fast to spin. It would keep the two things in synch without having to be connected. That was like: “Wow, are you kidding me? That’s like space-age technology.” It was cutting-edge. It was also ridiculously expensive-just under half a million dollars worth of equipment right there. What happened with guys like Ricky Leacock is that they could suddenly go out and film things like Monterey Pop (1968), things that were happening in the moment and of the moment. They could record an event, like a live music concert. And this was all happening right around the same time that music was changing. So there was Monterey Pop where Jimi Hendrix showed up, played his guitar, and burned it. All this stuff was happening simultaneously. It was a tremendously exciting period in which to be alive. It was all brand new and nobody knew where it was going to lead.
Then Woodstock happened. Woodstock was Mike Wadleigh and his team of cameramen, all shooting 16mm, all with synchronized sound, recording this event, which was going to be this gigantic rock and roll festival. He ended up with a ton of incredible footage. There was no MTV back then, and the powers-that-be were not allowing a lot of these musicians to perform on regular TV because regular TV was not going to do anything to promote “the drug culture.”
Certainly nobody was interested what kids wanted in 1970s. Nobody in the mainstream media gave a damn about what anybody under the age of thirty wanted. It is totally opposite today: it is all driven by kids under twenty. But back then, mainstream media was in the hands of people who were fifty and sixty, and they were programming for their peers only.
When Woodstock came along we could see all these acts, all these hippies, ourselves being represented on screen, so we turned out in droves. It was that big of a pop-cultural “atomic bomb” that got dropped on our youth culture. It all came together at once, and that was what fueled the interest in documentaries: all the really cool stuff that was happening in the world that was not being covered by mainstream media, starting with Monterey Pop, Woodstock and Gimme Shelter, which was another big one.
The Maysles started off making documentaries about people Marlon Brando, Carole Burnett, and Salesman, which was their big award winner. Then somebody said: “Hey, there is this British group called the Beatles and they’re coming to America. Why don’t you go document that?” They were the first camera crew that was allowed to document the Beatles in their first trip to America. It’s a great documentary. They were on the train with the Beatles. The Beatles took the train from New York to Miami. There were no private planes. It was like A Hard Day’s Night, except it’s real. That was a film done by Albert and David.
Gimme Shelter was their contribution to this excitement that was going on.
Albert and David should have been involved in something like Woodstock, but they weren’t. Mike Wadleigh got there before they did. They were there beforehand with the Beatles and they were there afterwards when the whole hippie thing was beginning to die with Gimme Shelter. Gimme Shelter was their contribution to this excitement that was going on.
Albert was recently here in L.A for a book signing. He did a book called “The Maysles Scrapbook.” I went down to the Hammer Museum in Westwood and they were also showing some of his films. I went up to him afterwards and said: “I’m not sure you will remember me, but I got my start in my career by hanging out in your offices.” He squinted at me, trying to place the face, and finally he smiled and said: “Yes, I remember you.” We talked briefly about David and Charlotte. He said: “Wonderful people. I really miss them.” They both have passed away. Albert is still out there but he is mostly collecting the accolades of a very long and wonderful career. His name is still on projects that are being made. He directed the magnificent Grey Gardens (1975) and his most recent is a documentary short called The Secret of Trees (2013).
When that razor blade sliced that eyeball we all screamed.
I went to Harvard in my college years and made a Super 8 documentary film with anthropologist Peter Metcalf. It’s called “Nulang.” But by the time I made that film, I was starting to get more interested in narrative film. I was moving out of my documentary phase and moving into working with actors and shooting something scripted. That was pretty much the end of my interest in documentary films.
When I was a kid I took a summer school class taught by a fellow named David Porter. It was a film appreciation class. Porter had gone to Rhode Island School of Design, and he was very forward thinking. He had a lot of imaginative, creative ideas. He exposed all of us dumb teenagers to these really cool films. It was the first time I saw Trip to the Moon (1902) and the first film he showed us was Un Chien Andalou (1929). When that razor blade sliced that eyeball we all screamed. He showed us a bunch of other stuff, too. That really was the beginning of my awareness that film was art. I had collected silent films as a kid, but that to me was just fun. It was just entertainment. It was like watching TV. I did not regard film as art. It was when I took that class at thirteen that I realized this is an art form. Then I started looking at the silent films as something different.
There was a great film historian named William K. Everson who wrote wonderful books. He came to Harvard one year as a guest lecturer. He and I hit it off really well. He was the coolest film instructor I ever really had because he wasn’t full of pompous garbage. Everson showed us films that you couldn’t see in a million years. He showed the original version of Waterloo Bridge (1931) by James Whale. The acting was very naturalistic. Whale allowed the actors to talk on top of each other, overlapping dialogue. At that time you could not see that film because MGM had gone out of its way to destroy every print of the first version of Waterloo Bridge because they had come out with the second, Technicolor version. But Everson had a rare copy. Then he showed us a rare Mickey Mouse cartoon that had been banned because it was considered too frightening. He showed us amazing stuff like that. I got taught by a lot of phonies in my day, but Bill Everson was by far the most informative, educated film instructor I ever had. He was the real deal.
I don’t know that this is a career anymore.
It’s weird that there has never been more opportunity in the film industry than these is now. But I don’t know that this is a career anymore. Because now you have everyone and their cousin making something that they call a “film,” yet nobody seems to collectively understand the language of film anymore. It’s all kind of willy-nilly. I don’t know how you can contemplate a career anymore. It is definitely an art and if you look at it as an art form and you don’t get too hung up on it as a career, maybe that’s a little bit better. In terms of art there has never been a more exciting time for film. In terms of commerce you are probably screwed.
When I got out here to Hollywood, there were so many established companies that you could plug yourself into. I started off on staff at Hanna-Barbera. I was an editor at Universal. These were companies that maintained staff and, once you got in, you made good money. None of that exists anymore. All those kinds of companies are having a hard time sustaining an ongoing business model and providing regular work for people. You have kids coming out of college in droves only to face an industry that can barely employ them. All this is based on technology. The same technology that made all those documentaries of the 60s and 70s possible suddenly mushroomed and it’s almost killing the industry.
…what they were documenting was the very end of the hippie era.
Back to Gimme Shelter: the Maysles were going to shoot a documentary. The documentary was basically going to be a concert film like Woodstock. Everyone wanted another Woodstock. The Maysles were going to go to Altamont, CA and shoot all these acts and have another Woodstock. I am sure that is how they got the funding to do it.
However, it turned out that what they were documenting was the very end of the hippie era. “Flower power” was dead, and everything was about to be completely taken over by the corporations, the corporate heads, and the money people, which is what happened in the 80s to the point that you have music the way it is now: completely owned and operated by big money interest. The whole hippie thing died at Altamont, symbolically. Specifically what happened is that someone made the stupid mistake of deciding that the Hells Angels could be used as security. This was about the dumbest idea imaginable. What they were documenting was the death of an era.
Here is where the art comes in. It would have been much more commercially viable for the Maysles to have simply made another concert film. You had the Rolling Stones, Jefferson Airplane, and all these people who had shown up and performed. But somewhere down the line the Maysles, because they were social documentarians, knew they had really captured a social moment. They decided that’s what this movie had to be about. So, instead of being another dumb, forgettable concert film (like Porter Bibb’s forgotten rock train movie) it wound up being a document of everything that had gone wrong at that particular time with the hippie movement, that moment in history that was changing from one thing to the incredibly materialistic time that was just about to come afterwards. So, they made a real work of art, which you could always rely on Albert and David to do.
Understand that film is commerce and you might be able to make a buck off of it, but understand also that film is art and you will make a better film.
This speaks to the very issue we previously talked about. Understand that film is commerce and you might be able to make a buck off of it, but understand also that film is art and you will make a better film.
Learn about the art of film, which people seem to be forgetting. No young person wants to watch a black and white film anymore because it’s old and it’s black and white. That’s stupid. Everybody should watch black and white films because the guys who created the language of the cinema all worked in black and white. Understand what makes a good film. It isn’t quick cutting and having a camera that constantly moves. I am so sick of that. That’s not great art. There’s other stuff going on that makes for great art. Even if you put it into something commercial, it’s still going to get recognized.
So the only advice I would give is be like the Maysles and stay true to your art, and that art should take precedence over commerce, even when you are working in the realm of commerce. You’ll end up with something genuinely worth watching.