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 Continue reading GIMME SHELTER (1970): AN INTERVIEW WITH JOHN SEMPER