The penultimate film of Albert Maysles is a loving and inquisitive look into the life of a now 93-year-old fashion icon.
Iris is an 83-minute celebration of fashion, creativity and the virtue of being interesting. At its core is the “rare bird” herself, Iris Apfel, whose saucer-sized eye glasses, bracelet-lined arms and no-big-deal demeanor make her an unforgettable and inspiring character, even for those who couldn’t care less about what’s in their closets.
Maysles’ portrait of Iris paints her as a sage shopper, sharp businesswoman and a caring wife to her 100-year-old husband and business partner, Carl. With a compassionate and curious lens, the filmmaker, over the course of a few years, intimately captured the couple’s busy life in New York City and Palm Beach while simultaneously highlighting Iris’ incredible outfits and signature style.
And she’s not what one would expect. Iris is no fashionista, or even a trendsetter. She’s beyond that, seemingly focused only on what delights her: exquisite fabrics, Mickey Mouse stuffed animals, huge bracelets, colorful patterns, and the stories that belong to each object she owns. Her wardrobe has been the subject of gallery shows at the Museum of Modern Art, and her interior design business has furnished the digs of many a White House administration.
When the film on her screened as part of the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival, I was able to talk to Rebekah Maysles, the filmmaker’s daughter and a producer on the project, about what filming Iris was like and how her father’s legacy will live on.
Albert Maysles died in March at age 88. He’ll go down in history for making the cinéma vérité masterpieces Gimme Shelter and Grey Gardens alongside his brother, David Maysles.
Iris is playing at the Edina Cinema.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
As a producer, what were you doing on the film?
Everything. Organizing shoots. Co-coordinating with Iris. Co-coordinating with Al. We were a combination, a small team of people, really collaborative, and a really small production company. So, it was basically, just doing everything that made it possible for the film.
How many people are in the company?
Running the company? Three people.
But working on the film, the film crew was very small. There would be like Al (Albert Maysles), sometimes a sound person. The second camera, and one or two producers.
It was pretty small. The film was worked on for the last few years.
So how much time did you spend with Iris?
I don’t remember. It would flow in and out. She had a lot of work. Al had a lot of work. She would travel. The film was done over three-and-a-half years. There’d be times we wouldn’t see her for a few months. There are times when we’d see her a lot.
So, you all were working in New York and you’d just drop by to see her day-to-day life?
Yeah. For us, we really wanted it…She didn’t understand it as much. We were like, Iris, you work like crazy, you have a crazy schedule, you do all these things. We really want to just get you working. I don’t think that was as interesting to her. So she would call up and she’d say, I’m doing this or I’m doing that. So, it was like a combination. A combination of things that were important for her and were important for us…but also things that we thought were interesting, too. You know, sometimes we’d just hang out at the house.
That seems like an interesting experience.
Yeah, it’s big. For New York standards, it’s really big. But it’s not even that. She’s got a lot of rooms, but she’s really private. I’d have loved to film in her bedroom where she takes a lot of phone calls, but she’s very private.
Then we went to Palm Beach, and that was really fun. They really like being there. They like the weather there, they like their life there. So, that was really enjoyable. But basically the shooting was between New York and Palm Beach.
What’s it like when Iris walks into a room?
I think her and Al both have this presence. There was this deli that we’d go to lunch with her sometimes. It didn’t really make it in the film. She’d be there, ordering sandwiches. Well, we’d walk up the street from her house to the deli, and and they wouldn’t be looking at [the film crew], they’d be looking at Iris. When, usually, when I see a film crew, I’m like what’s going on? But they were just focused on her.
You know, so, I think that she has a great presence. And I think people are just really excited…and I think that if you’re older and have such great style, that people can approach you more. She’s not like a celebrity. If I saw a celebrity, I wouldn’t think to say anything to them. But, I think that her and Al, people would come up to them all the time.
What would they say?
In Palm Beach, someone said, This is Iris. You don’t understand, she really is inspirational, and you inspire me. Someone said, you remind me of my mom or my grandmother used to wear those glasses.
What it also makes you realize is that, yes, Iris is really amazing, she has great style and is really hardworking, but there are a lot of people who have great style. It throws me back when people are like, this is so revolutionary. Because I think there’s a lot of people who have good style. Especially older people. I generally think that older people have much better style than younger people, that’s for sure. They know what they like to wear, they’re more flamboyant.
Older people also, they have certain rules about the way that you dress. Like, when my father was really sick, he was like, I’m still wearing my button-down shirt. He wouldn’t go out without his jacket on. That’s what makes it so fun. It feels like a combination of like, you have to do this with this, but also, she told me…a friend of hers told me…she saw these dice and she got them drilled and made into like a bracelet or something like that. So, it’s like a combination, of course you have to do these parts of it, but that opens up these other ways to things you can make happen.
What was Albert like when he was filming Iris? Does he ask her questions or does he just sort of like watch?
He was very patient and calm. No, he won’t [ask questions]. Sometimes we did. But he wouldn’t. He would let things roll. He’d really, really let things roll. He’d always have an eye at what was going on. He really just enjoyed being in the room.
One of my favorite scenes is when they are at the apartment in Palm Beach, and he is just filming Carl. Carl’s just sitting there, and Iris is complaining about his hat. And as she’s complaining about the hat, he’s like, What’s with the hat?
And it’s my dad’s footage! It’s beautiful! It really takes in what’s going on. He just kind of figured out a place that made sense to be and just sat and never complained. He could be there for hours.
What’s the most surprising or fascinating thing you saw in your time with Iris? Was it something she had? A part of her wardrobe? Or project that she had, like taking the priest’s robes and making them into pants?
Her memory. She had a really sharp, amazing memory. Yeah, she had a lot of stuff, like a lot of stuff, but it’s all there for some type of purpose or reason. I admire that. You could pick something up, and she could tell you where it came from.
It doesn’t seem like she collects pieces to cash in.
Oh my God, she loves Mickey Mouse. One of her favorite things is this stuffed Mickey Mouse that she has. She has one in her Florida house. She bought one for someone who was sick in the hospital, and then had to buy one for herself.
I don’t even know if we filmed it, when I was in Palm Beach, we were sitting down on the couch, and she was like, Did you say hi to the professor? I was like, What? Then I turned around, and it was like…I forget…a stuffed animal, a rat with glasses on? Oh! The professor!
Did you take any style tips from her?
We get that question. Laura [Coxson, another producer] and I do the festival circuit, and we were playing in Amsterdam on stage, and I think we had semi-boring outfits on, and they were like, What have you learned in fashion?
We were both like, Oh my God.
One time, we were having a big party at the Paris theater in New York for the premiere. People had been RSVPing, but they all said, What should we wear?
I mean, I think that I love watching what Iris wears, and she has some really great stuff. But I do think that, for me, while I like wearing fun, flamboyant things, I’m definitely not as flamboyant as Iris.
She looks like she’s in really good shape. Did I see her driving in one scene?
No. Although it does look like she’s driving in that scene. In New York, her nephew Billy drives them to Costco a lot. In Florida, it is tougher for them, now that they don’t drive anymore. In New York, you know, she’s very independent. She doesn’t take public transit, but she definitely takes taxis and stuff like that.
Do you think her work ethic keeps her in good shape?
My dad used to work with someone who you weren’t allowed to call them before 11 a.m. I used to be like really cautious about calling people, and I used to think that she was like that, but she wasn’t. We’d be talking about shoots at 7 in the morning and she’d have gone to bed at like 1 a.m.
She works hard. You know, then she gets tired.
Is she a big coffee drinker?
I think she eats throughout the day. She always has a bag of nuts to nosh on. I don’t know her secret.
She’s not a health freak…I don’t know how she does it.
What is she working on next?
I haven’t talked to her in a while, but I think she’s working on a book.
What are her thoughts on the movie?
Sometimes she says she hasn’t seen it. Not trying to call her a liar, at all.
I think she likes it. She’s going to a lot of the screenings and pressers and things like that, so…you know…I think she wishes there were some people or parts in it, but I think we worked hard to make it complete as possible.
Was she concerned about how she’d come off in the movie?
For her, she didn’t want to be a ditsy fashionista. I was like, Iris, that’s the last thing. Everyone sees how hardworking and creative you are. That was her biggest concern.
What’s her husband, Carl, like?
He’s really supportive. They had a business together for 40 years. She basically asked him to go into business together, and he said yes. And he dropped what he was doing and they started a business together.
They have an amazing life together. They travel together and work together, and I think that is very difficult. It’s very difficult. It’s not easy to run a business together.
What other projects are you working on?
My father started working on an autobiography about himself, so slowly I’m working on that. But, taking my time.
Then working on the archive, just figuring out how to get more of the films seen. Raising some money to be able to make better prints, better digital versions of things. Stuff like that.
We were all really surprised when my father passed. We were all kind of shocked by it. So we’re really trying to enjoy what we have, the films, and just make sure they have a long life and really work on preserving that.