Phil on Film Index

Friday, January 09, 2015

"For a film to work I think it has to work on both a literal and an abstract level." - An Interview with Frederick Wiseman

In a career spanning six decades, Frederick Wiseman has established one of the most eclectic and vital bodies of work in cinema. Wiseman's interest in how institutions operate has led him to document an incredible array of subjects – from schools and hospitals to dance companies and meat-processing plants – and each of his documentaries is distinguished by his clear, unadorned filmmaking and his keen eye for revealing details and human drama. National Gallery is his latest film, and it's one of his very best, offering an illuminating, engrossing and stimulating tour of the iconic gallery's public and private spaces. Frederick Wiseman was in London this week for National Gallery's UK release, and I was I was delighted to have the opportunity to meet him to discuss it.

Before talking about National Gallery, I want to go back to the start of your career. I've recently discovered the films of Shirley Clarke, and you produced The Cool World with her.

Yeah, but that's really Shirley's movie, not mine.

But I believe that was the first thing you did in film. Did you already know you wanted to be a director at that point, or were you considering producing?

I had the idea for the movie but I didn't have any experience. I liked The Connection a lot, so I asked Shirley if she wanted to direct it. Working on that sort of demystified the process of filmmaking for me, and after that I never worked on a movie that I didn't direct and produce myself.

And when you did make your first movie Titicut Follies, it ended up getting banned. Did you ever have any second thoughts about what you were getting into when that happened to your debut film?

Oh no. I just thought the banning of Titicut Follies was a sick joke. It bothered me but if anything it was an incentive to continue. I thought the politicians of Massachusetts who opposed Titicut Follies were essentially crooked hacks who were only interested in protecting their own career. The legal problem about Titicut Follies was primarily a consequence of the betrayal of me by the people who had given me permission to make the movie, because the people who sought to ban the movie were the Commissioner of Correction, who had been my ally in getting permission, and the then-Lieutenant Governor and Attorney General. The Lieutenant Governor had made the decision to let the movie be made, and he turned against it because he thought his political career was going to be damaged when word got out that he had gotten me permission. So the banning of the film was from my point of view an act of political cowardice, and not that I didn't take it seriously – I had to take it seriously – but I thought the people who did it were essentially weak, fearful people who didn't have the courage of their convictions.

A lot of your films have been funded by PBS.

Well, they're partially funded by them.

Public television in the US has strict guidelines. Has that ever impacted on your work?

I have never encountered any censorship problems – well, maybe once. In the movie I did Basic Training, that came out in 1971, there was one scene early on in the film where a recruit describes a visit to a whorehouse, and PBS was upset about that. Then in Law & Order, the film I did about the Kansas City Missouri police, there was one scene where somebody had been arrested and he told the police to "fuck off" and he used the word "fuck" about 19 times. They cut that on the day of the broadcast without my permission, but I made them go on air and apologise for doing it. But those are the only two incidents I've had. PBS has been very generous to me; they give me about 15-20% of the budget for each movie and they run the film at whatever length I give them, and the films have varied in length from 73 minutes to six hours.

Well even at three hours I was almost disappointed when National Gallery ended. I felt it could have been longer.

Good, that's the right reaction.

But when you start these projects, I guess you have no idea how long the finished film is going to be.

I have no idea what I'm going to get. The only assumption I started with in the case of the National Gallery was that it's a good subject for a movie, and if I hung around long enough I could collect enough sequences to cut a good movie, but that's the assumption I make on all the movies. I deliberately feel the shooting of the film is the research. I don't like to be around watching and not prepared to shoot, because there may something spectacular going on that you're watching, and you've missed it. At least if you're not there you don't know what you've missed.

And real drama can often be found in moments that might initially appear to be banal.

Sometimes it's great drama and sometimes it's drama that looks banal. The scene in Law & Order where a cop strangles a woman accused of prostitution is high drama. When a doctor is talking to a man and woman and telling them there's no hope and they have to withdraw life support, there's obvious drama in that, even though the conversation is very direct and straightforward. The implications are life and death.

On that subject, while shooting in the National Gallery must be a pleasure, you've also shot in very difficult circumstances, with people who are in great pain or distress and facing tragedy. Do you have to divorce yourself from the emotions of a situation like that as you film it?

You do, but the fact that you're working is the principle way you divorce yourself. You're not just sitting around watching. For instance, I did a movie about people dying in an Intensive Care unit of a hospital in Boston, and we were in a room with a woman who was dying and we saw very sick people every day. But the fact that you're working is a defence. I'm not suggesting that filmmakers are doctors, but in the same way doctors and nurses get used to it, it's amazing how quickly you get used to it because you have something to do, you want to get it on film.

You've said that your goal with these films is to reflect your own experience of being in each place.

The final film in each case is a report on what I've learned as a consequence of being in a place for a couple of months and spending a year studying the material. For example, at the National Gallery I was there for three months, I shot 170 hours of rushes, the film is a mere three hours, so I used approximately 1/60th of the material. In order to make the choices involved in reducing 170 hours to three hours, you have to try – whether successfully or not, it's not for me to judge – you have to try and think through the material and what it means, or what I think it means. For a film to work I think it has to work on both a literal and an abstract level. By literal I mean it's about who says what to whom, but on an abstract level it's about what's suggested by who says what to whom, and what is further suggested by the placement of the sequence in relation to other sequences. Very often there are more general ideas suggested by the choice and placement of specific sequences, and the real film is in this parallel track of the abstract and the literal, and where they cross.

You made a number of films in row that seemed to be defined by movement – La danse, Crazy Horse, Boxing Gym – but At Berkeley and National Gallery have a different rhythm. They feel more contemplative.

Well, that's just chance. It depends on what I want to do and what I get permission to do. Some people feel that because I've made films about cultural institutions I've abandoned my true calling, which is to show poor people. But people that feel that way don't really understand what I'm doing, because what I think I'm doing is trying to make films about as many different aspects of contemporary life as I can. The fact that I've made several films about cultural institutions doesn't mean I've lost interest in so-called social institutions, it just means I wanted to do cultural institutions. I may or may not go back, it depends on what I want to spend a year on when I decide to make a new film.

Do you feel your films have a long-standing educational value as well?

I hope so. Not educational in the sense that they're good for people, but educational in the sense that they show these institutions, many of which are important for a functioning society, or any society. All societies have armies, police, hospitals, museums, dance companies, etc. As I mentioned earlier on, what I think I'm trying to do is make movies about as many different aspects of human experience as I can.

One of the things I enjoy about visiting galleries is people-watching as well as looking at the art.

Yeah, it's great people-watching. You see that in the film. There are different levels of watching. You've got people in the national gallery looking at the paintings, the paintings are looking at the people, and people are looking at the movie.

What was your approach to shooting the paintings in National Gallery?

I work with a very good cameraman, John Davey, and I decided early on that I would shoot the paintings as much as possible without showing the frames. I felt the paintings would be much more alive and vibrant if you didn't see it as an object hanging on the wall, you didn't see a little plaque identifying the artist, or you didn't see it in relation to other paintings. You could also make a sequence out of the paintings by shooting parts of it and cutting them together into a mini-movie. Most paintings up to the end of the 19th century had stories, it was before abstraction, so one of the things that interested me in the movie was the different ways you can tell a story. You can tell a story differently in a painting, in a movie, in a poem, in a ballet, in a novel, etc. The issue of comparative forms became one of the themes of the film.

You mentioned John Davey there, and he's someone you've been working with for a long time.

Yeah, we started working together in'78.

You must have developed a real shorthand with him. How do you work together on location?

We have a very good collaboration. We're constantly looking at each other and we have little signals and looks that we give each other. I decide what we're going to shoot, and we look at rushes together every night and discuss different ways to shoot them or get different things. It's a very close collaboration.

There are a number of beautiful shots in the film. When you saw the dance performance, did you instantly know that you had your ending?

Yeah, I did in that case. I knew it would be close to the ending because from my point of view it summed up so much of what I thought the movie was about. I didn't think that at the time because at that point I didn't really know what the movie was about, but I knew it was a beautiful sequence linking two art forms.

When you're in the editing suite and you're about to start piecing the film together, do you have a mental inventory of standout sequences like that to begin with? What's your entry point into this huge amount of material?

The entry point is that I look at all the rushes. In the case of National Gallery it probably took me a couple of months to look at all the rushes and make notes. Then I put aside roughly 50% of the material and it takes me 6-8 months to edit the sequences that I think I might be using close to final form. It's only when I have those so-called candidate sequences close to final form that I begin to work on the structure. Some people can work on structure in the abstract, but I can't. I have to make some assessment of the consequences of starting a film this way, having a second scene that way, ending it this way, trying to figure out what the relationship is between the end and the beginning. Ultimately, no matter how I've arrived at a cut – whether I've dreamed it, thought of it in the shower or walking down the street – I have to be able to rationalise in words to myself why each cut is there and what its relationship is to what precedes it and what follows it. If I can't do that, I'm in trouble. I mean, I may be in trouble anyway, but I need to convince myself. Editing is talking to yourself, and I find it very interesting to talk to myself.

And you always do it alone. Don't you ever find yourself going a bit stir crazy?

If I do, I go for a walk. I like it.

You never feel that you need a fresh pair of eyes on the material?

No, I don't. When I started editing digitally I had an assistant, but when I was editing on film I was always alone. I find it difficult enough to make up my own mind, and I don't like to talk about it. It's the usual cliché of if you talk about it you dissipate it, and it just doesn't help me. I'm not saying that's the correct way to do it, but it's my way.

I've always been interested in your rejection of captions, music, voiceover and other tools that many documentaries use for contextualising their films.

It's not that I don't contextualise, I just contextualise in different ways than through narration or voiceover. I like to think that I provide enough information in the exchanges that I include in the sequence that it provides the context, so in that sense my approach is more novelistic than journalistic. My personal models were fiction rather than journalism.

And are books more of an inspiration to you than cinema?

Well, I don't go to the movies much. I used to but I don't have time anymore. I liked to read a lot, and at the risk of sounding pretentious the two best books I ever read about film editing are Flaubert's letters to George Sand and Ionesco's essays on playwriting, because while they are not specifically dealing with film, the issues they are writing about are applicable to film. There is no 1:1 relationship, but because they are dealing with abstract issues, they roll around in my head and are useful not so much for solving a specific problem but in thinking generally about things.

When you're trying to raise money for a film, how do you pitch it to potential backers? Do you have a process to secure funding?

Well, I have a favourite department store in Paris and every Saturday afternoon I sing and sell pencils.

Ah, the old-fashioned way.

I mean, while I like to think I've earned the right to make the money easily, the moment I really think that I should stop. I have to act as if it's my first film. The moment I think I should take it for granted, I'm done. It's hard to make money, and people think it's easy to make money because I make a lot of movies, but it isn't.

I suppose people think it's easier to make a film because of new cheaper technologies.

It's bullshit. There are just more people going after the same pot of money.

What are you working on now?

I'm doing an 80-minute radio programme for French radio on Emily Dickinson. I did a play based on the life of Emily Dickinson and now I'm doing this radio programme based on her letters and poems.

And I understand you're working on a ballet based on Titicut Follies. Is that in progress now?

We just started this fall and it's not going to be on until the fall of 2016. I'm working with a very good choreographer, James Sewell, who has his own dance company in Minneapolis. We're cooking along with it.

Well, I'm certainly intrigued by that.

Me too.

National Gallery is in UK cinemas now.