In Depth

HBO: 'The Gates'

HBO’s “The Gates” began life in 1979 when artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude approached New York City officials with their idea of installing orange fabric gates along 23 miles of Central Park paths. Filmmaker brothers Al and David Maysles were there with their cameras when they were turned down.

The 30 hours of raw footage got locked away until 24 years later, when the art installation finally came to life for 16 winter days in 2005. The film about the project and New Yorkers’ diverse reactions to it—directed by the brothers with Antonio Ferrera and Matthew Prinzing—made its film festival debut in 2007.

The Maysles, cinema verite pioneers, met Christo and Jeanne-Claude in France in 1963, Al Maysles recalled. (David Maysles died in 1987.) “They saw a film we made (“Showman,” about Hollywood film distributor Joseph Levine) and they thought and we thought, ‘We’re perfect mates.’ It’s not about an artist at a canvas, it’s an artist in the real world, and that’s what documentary is all about,” said Mr. Maysles, who went on to make a number of films about the couple’s artworks (and has talked to them about filming a hoped-for future project in Dubai).

Mr. Ferrara joked that in joining the project in 2003 and spending five years on it, he became like “Kafka’s gorilla,” adding, “I kind of feel like I was shanghaied.” The making of the film, which he called “an incredible opportunity and challenge to realize the impossible,” reflected “very much the same gauntlet that they went through and somehow they fed off each other.”

In filming New Yorkers’ experiences with The Gates once they were up, his vision was to approximate a symphony, the same term the artists used for the installation, he noted. In shooting and editing down 500 hours of footage, he said, “I wanted to engage as many different types of sensibility with the camera as possible,” capturing the spectrum of colors and light across the space of a day. In the end, he said, “It was just a smidgen of the experience.”

Still, he said, the film, which played worldwide, achieved his dream that it be “a great ambassador for New York.”

Sheila Nevins, HBO’s president of documentary, saw it in similar terms. The film, she said, ended up being “about the love of New York. It made me very patriotic about New York.”