Feature by: Leo Goldsmith
Posted on: 30 June 2008
Features Frederick Wiseman
To conclude our month of Frederick Wiseman, we spoke to the director via phone from his editing room in Paris, where he is working on a movie about the Paris Opéra Ballet.
Is this a sort of a sequel to your first ballet film?
Well, yeah, it’s certainly another ballet film. It’s a company with a very different kind of repertory and different traditions and all that. I’m a big ballet fan, and they gave me permission and access to everything, and so it was too good an opportunity to resist.
You’ve done a couple of films in France—La Comédie-Française and a couple of theatrical productions there, including The Last Letter, which you later made into a film. Do you have a particular connection to the theater?
I go to the theater a lot and I was very pleased when the company asked me to direct a play there, and then they asked me to do another one. I directed a Beckett play there, Oh les beaux jours [Happy Days], and, believe it or not, acted in it. I had my acting debut at the Comédie-Française.
Do you have any particular connection to France? I think I read that you had a law practice there in the 50s?
When I got out of the American Army in 1956, I studied on the G.I. bill in France, and then I worked for a very short time for an American lawyer here. But it was basically an excuse to hang out in Paris. Which, you know, I still look for any excuse to do, even though I can no longer live here on $135 a month as I did in 1956.
But you’re mainly Cambridge-based—which is obviously quite a bit different from being a Hollywood filmmaker. What’s it like being a Cambridge filmmaker?
First of all, it keeps me outside of the movie scene, which I like. Because in my experience, at least, when filmmakers get together all they do is talk about money, how much they hate everybody else. And being in Cambridge, there are other people to meet and other things to talk about. Also, the fact that it’s isolated from the film scene means that I can stick to my knitting and get my work done.
Most of your films have been on PBS—
Everything’s been on PBS.
—and you do a lot of funding through certain organizations like the Ford Foundation and MacArthur grants and things like that. Do you do any private financing?
No. The only film I ever did that with was Titicut Follies, and I’ve never done that since. Titicut Follies was, as you know, the first one.
I don’t take private investment in movies because they’re not good investments. And I don’t want to put myself in the situation where I’m taking people’s money and—even though I wouldn’t be taking it under false pretenses, there’s really no possibility that investing in a documentary film is a good investment. So, I prefer to get my funding from public sources, like foundations or NEA or NEH.
On the subject of public funding, and more specifically PBS, I think I read about Titicut Follies that you were teaching law school at the time, and so the film functions as a pedagogical tool, teaching people about what it’s actually like in an institution like that. Do you see your films in general as being pedagogical?
Well, not in any didactic sense—I have a great antipathy towards didacticism. I think, when my films work, they work in part because they bring a place to people. But I’m not trying to tell anyone what to think about it, nor am I trying to suggest how they should use it. What I’m trying to do – or at least I think I’m trying to do – is make the best movie about the material in a form that works as a movie.
And I have a real horror of didacticism, whether it’s in movies or in literature. You know the old bromide by the famous philosopher Samuel Goldwyn: “When you have a message, send a telegram.”
I just was watching a little of The Last Letter, and the first line is something like, “I’m sure this letter will reach you.” And I get the sense with your documentaries that it’s the same confidence, that maybe you’re sure that the people onscreen will reach the audience regardless of what you’re doing.
Well, I hope it’s not regardless of what I’m doing. When I say I’m not interested in didacticism, I mean I don’t like to hit people over the head with a message. Because if I could say what the point of view of the film is in 25 words or less, I shouldn’t make the film.
Somebody after a screening of Welfare some years ago raised their hand in a question period and said, “What’s the movie about?” And I said, “About three hours.”
I don’t like the idea – and I avoid doing it – of summarizing the point of view because at least I try to make the point of view of these films a reflection of the complexity of the material. And I don’t like the idea of trying to simplify. I’m playing against at least one aspect of what I think Hollywood movies are about, where you can and the filmmakers are often willing to say, “This movie is about X.” And I’m not willing to do that, because I think it’s condescending to the audience and cheapens the material, minimizes the material. Or, not the material, but it minimizes the experience of the people who are in the film.
But unlike a lot of contemporary documentary films, yours are not about finding or presenting characters. You don’t really do that.
Well, I don’t find a single character or a couple of characters. I think collectively there are a lot of characters in all my films. But the film is not about any one of them. So, to talk in Hollywood terms, the star of my film is always the place.
How do you pick subjects? Is it somewhat accidental? Is it motivated by any particular interest?
Well, I hope it’s not accidental. Within the framework of doing an institutional series – and there have only been a couple of exceptions to that – it’s really any subject that interests me that I think is worth spending a year on, because by the time it’s shot and edited, a year goes by. It’s basically a course in adult education, where I’m the alleged adult and I get to study a new subject every year.
Do you do any research before you start a film?
No. Because usually there’s either not that much written about or films about the particular place that’s the subject of my film. So that the shooting of the film is really the research, and you find the film in the editing. Because I have no idea what the structure or the themes of a film are going to be in advance, because I don’t know what experiences I’m going to find, nor do I know what I’m going to think about those experiences. So the film emerges out of the experience of being at the place for eight to ten weeks shooting the film and then studying the material over an editing period which can go anywhere from six months to a year.
Are there subjects that you’ve avoided or about which you’ve discontinued making a film for any reason?
Well, I started to do the film that became Law & Order in Los Angeles, but after shooting in Los Angeles for about ten days I was told I could do anything I wanted except ride around in a police car, and since there were no foot patrols, that limited the story considerably. And so I stopped and went to Kansas City.
And a lot of that film features dialogue between officers in different patrol cars.
Right. And as unwelcoming as the police were in Los Angeles, the police chief in Kansas City was welcoming and put no obstacles in the way of shooting and liked the final film.
And that seems to be crucial to your way of working. Do you find any resistance along the way, during shooting?
Occasionally there’s a little resistance, but basically if people aren’t cooperative, you can’t make the film. Because if people are going to say they don’t want their picture taken, you can’t insist and I don’t have any right to insist. So, there’s a sort of political job that needs to be done, because even though I may get permission from the head of a place, I still have to win over the people who are actually doing the day-to-day work. And that’s a matter of simply trying to be friendly and straightforward about what I’m doing.
You’ve made a number of films dealing with people in often really extreme situations. Do you think that makes your job a little bit easier or do you think it makes it harder? Or is it a bit of both?
Yeah, but I’ve been in very extreme situations and I’ve been in very mundane situations, and the experience of making the film is no different. I mean, Near Death is as very extreme situation, but shooting The Store at Neiman-Marcus was a very mundane situation in the sense that people go shopping all the time and there’s nothing particularly disconcerting about shopping the way there is about the anxiety and the dread and the fears connected with being seriously ill or dying.
But generally speaking, my experience is that if people consent to be photographed – and in 99.9% of the cases, whether it’s a situation like Near Death or Neiman-Marcus, they do – it’s very rare under any circumstances that anybody objects. Now, why that is, I don’t know. I suppose if there is an explanation, vanity or narcissism is the explanation. Or it may not even be that—it may just be that they are pleased that someone’s sufficiently interested in them to make a movie about them. Which isn’t necessarily vanity, it’s simply appreciation.
Actually, I don’t know what the answer is, why people agree. The fact is it’s never a problem.
Has that changed over time? Are people now more used to being filmed?
No. It hasn’t changed over time. Even with all the so-called media consciousness that exists – or is alleged to exist – now, getting permission and shooting one of these movies is no different than it was in 1966.
Do you ever find that people perform for the camera?
No, I don’t. I know there are different views about that, but I don’t think people have the capacity – or most of us don’t have the capacity – to suddenly alter our behavior because their picture’s being taken. I think if we don’t want our picture taken, we walk away or thumb our nose or say, “no.” But if we agree to have our picture taken, we’re not good enough actors to suddenly become somebody else. If we were, then the level of acting in Hollywood and on Broadway would be much higher than it is, because there would be a much wider pool to choose from.
I think of the final monologue at the end of Welfare and the Beckett reference…
But that’s what that guy did! That was his schtick! He’s like a Philip Roth character. I heard him give, not the same monologue, but another monologue at the welfare center—that’s what he did.
But I think another answer to your question is that when you’re making one of these movies, you’re in no different a position than anybody who meets a lot of people all the time, no different a position than you’re in talking to me now. If you think I’m bullshitting you, you’re gonna either, you know, turn the question away, or not pay any attention to what I say, or say, “he’s bullshitting me.” Well, similarly, when I’m making one of these movies, when I think somebody’s putting it on for the camera, I’ll stop shooting or, if I don’t realize it until I get to the editing room, I won’t use it. And anybody who deals with a lot of people – whether it’s a doctor or a lawyer or a teacher or a filmmaker – in order to survive, you have to have a fairly sensitive bullshit-meter. And so, if I think somebody’s putting it on, I stop shooting. But it happens so rarely that it’s not a problem.
You’ve made two fiction films, in addition to your documentaries. Do you plan to make more?
I’d like to, but I have none in the works now. I have some ideas for some, but I’m so busy at the moment trying to get this ballet movie done that I haven’t really had time to think about what happens next.
What is the difference in approach between a documentary and a fiction film for you?
Making a fiction film is just the reverse of doing one of these documentaries, because you have to have a script. For example, for The Last Letter absolutely everything was planned in advance. I had done the play, but the movie is not simply shooting the stage version of the play. I had to work out what every shot was going to be in advance of the shooting because I had to know how many sequences were going to be in—we had to establish a shooting schedule in order to figure out how much the film was going to cost. So, in that sense, making a fiction film is the reverse of making a documentary because in a documentary you find the script, so-called, in the editing, and you don’t find the script until the last day of editing, when you’ve finally frozen the picture and the sound, or made the final selection as to what’s going to constitute the picture and the sound.
So, the editing process for a fiction film is presumably considerably easier than for a documentary.
Well, it has a different set of problems. The editing of The Last Letter was a little bit like a combination of editing a fiction film with a predetermined script and editing a documentary, because I wasn’t sure when the film was shot just how I was going to use the shadows, or how many shadows I was going to use. And I had a lot of choice about that because I deliberately in the shooting gave myself the choice, so I could make up my mind in the editing. And that’s a bit different than a normal fiction film. Because I had to determine the relationship between the shadow sequences and the non-shadow sequences and the rhythm of the film in the editing. But I haven’t had the experience of editing a so-called “traditional” fiction film yet.
Many of the subjects of your documentaries have now migrated into the province of reality television—I think of the obvious example of comparing your film Law and Order to the show Cops, but there are other examples. Do you see any connection between your work and these shows? Do you think you’ve perhaps influenced them at all?
I never really watch them, but some people who do… I shouldn’t really answer that question—I don’t watch television at all.
The real answer is, “I don’t know.” But I do know that often television networks and particularly Hollywood filmmakers borrow my films and then pieces of my films show up in Hollywood films. For example, Paddy Chayefsky borrowed Hospital and I had a great deal of difficulty getting it back. And then he and Arthur Hiller did a film called The Hospital, which they shot in Metropolitan. And a lot of the transitional sequences in The Hospital are recreations of sequences in Hospital.
And the first half of Full Metal Jacket is almost shot-for-shot of Basic Training, which Kubrick borrowed and, again, it took me about nine months to get the copy back.
But it seems to me that Kubrick’s sense of the subject is almost the opposite of yours—he seems to see basic training as a process of complete dehumanization, whereas it seems that you’re more equivocal.
Yeah, well, what the Army is good at – what any army is good at – is turning civilians into soldiers who are prepared to kill. And it’s a very successful educational process to strip away whatever veneer of civility exists and make it possible for you to feel it’s ok to kill somebody else. And that’s a very successful educational method.
You were in the Army yourself—
A little bit of Canal Zone; a little bit of Sinai Field Mission.
This is probably too leading a question, but would you consider yourself critical of the military?
It’s too general a question. I’m not trying to duck the answer, but it depends on what level. A country needs an army. Given human nature as it is, any country that doesn’t have an army is going to be in deep trouble, unless there’s some kind of transnational force. So, if you assume that a country needs an army, people have to be trained to be in the army.
One feels differently about the military between 1939 and 1945 than one felt during the Vietnam War or the war in Iraq. In the Second World War, you wanted the army to be well trained and successful in its mission; in the war in Iraq, your attitude toward the army is completely different—or at least it is for me, or for some people. And that’s more a reflection of my attitude than it is of the military.
It seems that the way that you approach subjects is, rather than either lauding or bitterly satirizing an institution like the military, to present it as something that may work or may not work on an almost minute-by-minute basis.
That’s part of it, but I don’t like the idea of caricaturing the people. That’s very easy to do. And I think it’s basically unfair. The drill sergeants in Basic Training were doing their jobs. I’ve never met anybody in the military that resembled – and my acquaintance is limited, to be sure – but Dr. Strangelove is a wonderfully funny movie and a biting satire, but by and large… I’ve had to show some of my movies at the Pentagon, and the people always dealt with there were much more level-headed and practical than people whom I’ve met outside the military who are seemingly informed and have strong opinions.
Do you watch many films?
I do when I get a chance, but I work a lot, so I don’t get to go to the movies as much as I would like. When I get involved in editing one of these movies, I’m pretty much at it all the time.
Did you watch a lot of films growing up?
Yeah, a lot. The usual stuff. My favorites are still Buster Keaton and the Marx Brothers. When I was growing up in the 40s, I saw what are now considered the old great Hollywood movies of the 30s and 40s. And when I lived in Paris from ’56 to ’58, I used to go to the movies about five times a week or more. People that are interested in complex, interesting movies—it’s the same movies everybody else likes. In terms of contemporary filmmakers: Bergman, Fellini, Godard, Truffaut. The usual villains, as they say.
And that’s the moment you started to make films. You started in film by producing Shirley Clarke’s The Cool World. How did that start?
I wanted to make movies, and the idea for The Cool World was mine, but I didn’t have any experience so I didn’t think I could direct it. And I had met Shirley and I liked The Connection a lot, so I asked her whether she wanted to direct it. But that was a very formative experience for me because in participating as a producer of that movie I realized there was no reason I couldn’t make my own movies.
One of the things that’s remarkable about your films is that they’re quite consistent over the years. Do you think there’s something that you do now that you didn’t do then, or vice versa?
Well, I like to think that I’ve learned something over the years—that may or may not be the case. But I like to think that in making a whole bunch of these movies I’ve learned something and what I’ve learned I’ve put into subsequent films.
I think I’ve learned most about making movies from editing them. You’re tearing what’s left of your hair out when you’re editing one movie because you don’t have certain kinds of shots. You tend to remember that you need to get those shots the next time you go out.