Frederick Wiseman
"I think it’s presumptuous to say that a single documentary changed anything."

6 November 2016

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Frederick Wiseman

Frederick Wiseman was at the forefront of the renaissance of American documentary film, working during the 1960s at a time when Albert and David Maysles, D.A. Pennebaker, and Richard Leacock were astounding the world with the immediacy of Direct Cinema.  The decade reinvented the documentary, with its seemingly unmediated observation of lives and places that never seemed to merit consideration before.  Wiseman took his camera and showed us things that shocked us, and, in some cases, changed official policy.  His first film, Titicut Follies, went inside the Bridgewater State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, and looked without hesitation, without comment, at the brutal and humiliating treatment of the patients,  culminating in the inmate talent show that gave the film its name.  The movie was banned.

Wiseman has a long history with the  London Film Festival, and he was here again this year as part of the Treasures strand with his newly restored 1970 film, Hospital, capturing the workings of the New York Metropolitan Hospital.  This year he will be receiving an Honorary Oscar for his extraordinary contribution to the both cinema and the culture at large. He talks to Dr. Garth Twa.

You’ve mentioned before that documentary filmmaking takes place in the editing room.  You start with a vast array of disparate material that doesn’t necessarily make sense or hang together, and, with time and hard work, islands start to form, and then archipelagos…

Frederick Wiseman:  Yeah, it’s a mosaic.

How does that work?  With your last film, In Jackson Heights, the running time was three hours.  How do you make sense of that, for instance, how many hours did you shoot?

Wiseman: Jackson Heights was 170 hours.  The film was just a bit more than three hours, I think.  Shooting ratio roughly of 60/1.  During the shooting, I just collect sequences.  I don’t have any theme or point of view toward the material; the only assumption that I make is that if I hang around long enough, I’ll collect enough material out of which I can cut a film.  I discover the themes in the editing process, when I come back from the shoot.  I look at all the rushes and that takes me six or eight weeks and at the end of looking at all the rushes, I put aside maybe forty or fifty percent of the material and I edit sequences from the material that’s left.  That work can take anywhere from six to eight months.  Once I have all the so-called candidate sequences edited, in close to final form, I then begin work on the structure.  At that point, I can make the first assembly pretty quickly, in a week or two—sometimes less than that—and then after I make the first assembly, it takes another six, seven weeks to arrive at the final film.  I work on the internal rhythm within the sequence and the external rhythm, i.e. the transitions between the sequences and I work very hard trying to achieve a dramatic structure.  Ultimately, it’s a dramatic narrative film—it has to have a dramatic structure—even though it doesn’t follow one person, even though none of the events are staged.  But the themes really emerge from the studying of the material, selecting and reducing the sequences into a useable form, and especially when I’m ordering them, because I have to be able to explain to myself why each sequence is chosen, why it’s placed in this particular position in the film, how the first ten minutes relates to the last ten minutes, etc.  In other words, even if I’ve arrived at the cut walking on the street or I’ve dreamt it or I’m in the shower, unless I can rationalize it to myself…  In many ways, film editing is like talking to yourself and in that conversation, unless I can provide myself with good reasons, explain to myself why each shot is there and what it’s relationship is to what precedes and follows, then I know I have a problem I haven’t resolved.

Editing can be nightmare—you can fall in love with things at the expense of other things, but it’s hard trying to keep it all in your head.

Wiseman:  Yeah, that’s right.  In the editing you have to be totally immersed in the material.

How do you counter the tendency that sometimes a sequence you’ve been editing, from very early on and that you’ve spent a lot of time honing, seems suddenly lacklustre compared to the novelty of new sequences you may have just started?  You’re energised in the beginning, but then you get used to it and your judgement might become jaded.

Wiseman:  No, I think I’ve learned over time, I’m pretty cold-blooded about what I think works and doesn’t work.  It doesn’t mean I’m right.  Sure, there are some sequences that I like better than other sequences.  And sometimes during the shooting I think this is going to be a great scene and sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t.  Sometimes the enthusiasm of the moment recedes in the editing room, so it goes both ways. 


I don’t know what social media even is.  It certainly has no effect on the way I make the movies.

You say you never go in with preconceived notions, no agenda beforehand, but what draws you to, say, a movie like In Jackson Heights or National Gallery or Titicut Follies?

Wiseman: Well, I have a general idea.  With Jackson Heights I just assumed, I hope correctly, that the experience of some new immigrants to America might make an interesting movie.  My father was an immigrant to America, and I’ve read a lot about immigration in general.  I think with Jackson Heights I was interested in the Jewish immigration in the late nineteenth century.  It’s a cliché to say but it’s nevertheless true, America is a country of immigrants.  But at that point, I didn’t know what I was going to find and, therefore, I didn’t know what the themes were going to be.  I spent two afternoons in Jackson Heights before I started shooting because, again, I think the shooting is the research.

Only two afternoons?

Wiseman:  Yeah, you’re walking along the streets there and you see all these colourful fruit and vegetable stands and you see the kinds of stores there and the subway goes down the street and people of all  races, genders, colours and nationalities walking around, you know, with some wearing traditional American clothes, some are wearing Indian and Bangladeshi clothes, sombreros, or whatever, and it’s visually interesting.  But, for instance, I had no idea in advance that gentrification  was going to be one of the themes.

Do you go in with notions of a particular style or movement, like Direct Cinema, or Cinema Verité?

Wiseman:  No, I really don’t know what all that means.  I’m not interested in those kind of classifications.  I mean, Cinema Verité strikes me as just a pompous French term and Direct Cinema… you know, I make movies.  That suits me better.

You started making films in the era of Pennebaker and the Maysles Brothers who were prominent in the 1960s and specifically in Direct Cinema, was that the only way you knew how to make movies?

Wiseman: Well, it was the only way I was interested in making movies.  I mean, I think my movies were different than theirs, I mean everybody’s movie is different from everyone else’s movie.

What was your method, without being part of a school or whatever or brotherhood,  what were your decisions when making Titicut Follies, for instance?

Wiseman:  Titicut Follies takes place in the Bridgewater State prison for the Criminally Insane.  I knew about that place because before I started making movies, I taught law.  I taught a course in Legal Medicine and for a couple of years and I took students there on field trips so they could see what would happen to their clients if they didn’t represent them properly.  So I knew a little bit about it and when I decided I wanted to make a movie, a documentary, I thought Bridgewater would be a good subject.  And I had seen some of the early synch-sound documentaries and so the style of just hanging around and shooting what was going on struck me as the appropriate style for a place like Bridgewater.  Other people were working in a somewhat similar technique—there are similarities and differences in the way I work and the way the Maysles’ work or the way Pennebaker works—but I think my films are less obviously thesis related than some of the others.

With the Maysles Brothers and Pennebaker and yourself it seems like you’re capturing reality, capturing— quote, unquote—‘truth.’

Wiseman:  Anybody who says it’s ‘truth,’ your bullshit meter’s gonna ring.  It’s your version of what’s going on.  ‘Truth’ is not a word  that I would use in relation to mine or anybody else’s film.  It’s my understanding of what’s going on during the period of time I had access to the material which constitutes the film, but whether that’s true…I don’t see why the word ‘truth’ has to have anything to do with it because, in many ways, mine or the Maysles’ or Pennebaker’s, they’re all fiction films; the structure is completely fictional.  The sequences used are all much shorter than they were as they occurred, and the way they’re ordered in the film…I mean, I can begin a film starting with the last day of shooting and end up with the first day of shooting.  So, it’s not fictional in the sense that I ever ask anyone to do anything or I ever stage anything, but the structure is completely fictional.  For instance, in At Berkeley, some of the academic meetings in the Chancellor’s office went on for an hour and a half.  Well, in the film, they’re six or seven minutes, but that six or seven minutes is not a consecutive minutes from the meeting—it’s 30 seconds here, 50 seconds, a minute over there—edited together as if it took place the way you’re watching it, but it’s nevertheless a compression or a condensation or a reduction, or whatever word you want to use, from the original event.  The original event had no form.  One of the things I’m doing is imposing a form on the sequences and imposing a form on the whole by the way I order those sequences.

Certainly, and what you excise, what you leave in, the juxtaposition of certain things … what exactly are you capturing?

Wiseman:  I’m making a movie about an experience that I had.

You see that, certainly, with the Maysles Brothers.  They released Grey Gardens in 1975 and then, in 2006, they released The Beales Of Grey Gardens, and the films, and the way we react to the characters, is very different indeed when you see more footage.  It changes the meaning of the film.

Wiseman:  The meaning, to some extent, is in the eye of the beholder.  Not all sequences, certainly, but take the meeting of the Chancellor’s cabinet at Berkeley, out of all the many subjects discussed,  I chose—I edited—seven or eight minutes out of that.  That’s an arbitrary choice.  Someone else looking at that same material, someone making notes of that meeting for the Chancellor’s record, may select very different things as important.

So, it’s a story, personal….

Wiseman:  It’s the story I’ve selected based on the material that was shot during the period I was making the film.  That being said, I’m pleased when people know more about the subject than I do look at the final movie and say, ‘Hey, you got it.’  Of course that pleases me, but in the making of the movie, I’m following my own judgement and instinct.

How have your movies, your ability to make movies, changed since you’ve earned renown?  Has maybe your celebrity changed what you can capture, because your camera is more present to people?

Wiseman:  First of all, it’s nice to think that everybody has heard of me, but they haven’t.  I think I’ve learned something about making movies over the fifty years or so that I’ve been making them but I don’t think the fact that the movies are well-known in some small circles had any effect on shooting them.

With the new documentary movement that has flourished in the last 16 years, as well as the accessibility and ubiquity of social media, how has the landscape changed?

Wiseman:  I don’t know what social media even is.  It certainly has no effect on the way I make the movies.

But I wonder if it has an effect on the people you make the movies about who might be more aware of a camera now than they were before, and how they’re presenting themselves.

Wiseman:  My literal experience is there is no difference shooting the movie, and the reaction of the people who are being filmed, now than there was in 1966 when I started.  Most people, 99.9 percent of the people, agree to be filmed.  They did from the beginning.  It’s rare that anybody acts for the camera; it’s rare that anyone even looks in the camera.  It happens so rarely as to be insignificant.

But aren’t people put off by the presence of the camera?

Wiseman:  No, they’re not.  No, not at all.  They never have been.  They like being filmed.

What about access?  With the constant presence of cameras and media around us, certainly some of the innocence of 1966 is gone, and institutions, like hospitals, are more reluctant.

Wiseman:  Well, the real answer to your question is that we’re making movies which means that we’re getting permission and permission has, in fact, never been very difficult to get.  In fact, it probably took me longer to get the permission to do The Follies, which was the first film, than any other film -  it took me about a year, year and a half to get permission.  But for example, with Neiman-Marcus (The Store), I simply called up the office of President of Neiman-Marcus, got him on the phone, told him what I wanted to do, he said come down and talk to me and before I left the office, he said okay, we exchanged some letters and that was it.

Is that your law background?  You seem very good at persuading people!

Wiseman:  Actually, I don’t think it has anything to do with my law background.  First of all, I don’t like the law, I don’t know  much about it.  I think it has to do with the way I present myself, maybe people were seeing the other films, but of course when I was just getting started, there were no other films to see.

Recently you gained full access to the National Gallery in London.  Not everyone can do that.  I couldn’t do that, for example.  How did you do it?

Wiseman: It was very easy to get access.  Well, I had always wanted to make a movie about a museum.  I was skiing in Switzerland and I met a woman, somebody who worked at the National Gallery, and she knew some of my family, so she asked if I ever thought about doing a museum, and I said, yes, and she said that maybe the National Gallery was interested.  So a couple of weeks later she arranged an appointment for me and they said yes right away.  They consulted with the curators and I had a screening of excerpts from some of my films, the curators said fine.  I think I had permission within a couple of weeks of the initial request.

I think that’s where the celebrity helps out.

Wiseman:  Well, I don’t know.  The fact is that it’s no easier or no more difficult to get permission now than it was in the beginning.  The Follies was the hardest one to get permission for.  And then it was easy to get permission for High School, in fact it’s been easy to get permission for all of them, both the early ones and the current ones.  I mean with Jackson Heights I really didn’t need permission from anybody.  Boxing Gym, you know, I just needed permission from the guy who ran the gym; I went to the gym, talked to him, and he said okay.


“Cinema Verité strikes me as just a pompous French term…I make movies. That suits me better.”

What team do you work with?

Wiseman:  The crew consists of me and two other people.  I direct and do the sound work with a very good camera man and the assistant changes the mags.  That’s it.

Nobody getting releases?

Wiseman:  Well, it depends.  For instance, with Jackson Heights, I didn’t need releases because everything was basically on the street.  In America, protection is the first amendment.  For National Gallery, there were signs posted at all the entrances saying a documentary film was going to be made and if you didn’t want to be photographed, just tell the crew and we’ll respect your wish.  So, no releases.  In fact, it’s extremely difficult logistically to get them.  It’s not that people refuse,  because they don’t—99% of people always said okay—but logistically, it’s very hard to run around and get written releases.  Because if you ask before the shooting, it’s liable to interfere with the event, and after the sequence sometimes people will walk out or disappear immediately.  So, for example, in Berkeley, whenever it’s a public institution—i.e. an institution supported by taxpayer money—in America, I don’t need releases.  In France, I never got written releases because with the Comedie Francaise and the Opera, I had permission from the company, from the actors, and there’s a few shots of the audience but I didn’t get permission for that.  Near Death, for example, which is a film that takes place in an intensive care unit at the Beth Israel Hospital in Boston, I got written releases and I had hired a Harvard medical student and his job was to do nothing but get releases because that was obviously a situation of great privacy, and in that movie, where you’d think people might object to being filmed, there were maybe three or four people who said no.  That’s a situation where I was very meticulous about getting releases.

Where does ethics come in?

Wiseman:  Ethics, it’s difficult to have it both ways.  Even though I don’t get written releases often, I always explain to the participants, if there’s time before the sequence, most often after the sequence is shot, what I’m doing, how the film is going to be used, and I often tape record that explanation and their response so I have a contemporaneous record.  So, if you’re going to be exquisitely tuned in to the privacy issue, then you can’t make the movies.   Someone could legitimately argue that the release obtained either before or after the sequence is shot really doesn’t tell you how the sequence is going to be used, how it’s going to be cut, and where it’s going to be placed, and what significance may be attached to it because of the way it’s edited or it’s position in the film.  So you can make quite a decent argument that the only way you could really give an ethically valid release is to see the final film.  And you can’t take that risk because the funder won’t allow it, the funder won’t give you the money if somebody else has the right of veto.  I rely on the fact that when I explain something to somebody, l assume they understand it and if they say yes, it means yes.

Have you ever had second thoughts, looking back at some of your work, that you maybe misrepresented somebody or you could have done a better job?

Wiseman:  I don’t think so.  Nobody’s ever come to me and said they were misrepresented.

No one was unhappy with how they were represented?

Wiseman:  No participant in a film has ever been unhappy.  The state of Massachusetts was unhappy with Titicut Follies, but that was a political issue but no participant in any film has ever complained.

Your documentaries have changed conditions in the prisons, the mental hospitals….

Wiseman:  That’s unclear.  Your question raises whether the documentary changes anything and I’m very skeptical.  First of all, I think it’s presumptuous to assume that any one work, particularly in a country that’s as vast, 300 million people, as America, that you can say that a single documentary changed anything.  In a democratic society, you have access to all kinds of information now, even more information than before, and I think it’s totally pretentious to say that a film or a book did this or that.  There may be exceptions.  One of the most famous examples, Rachel Carson’s book, The Silent Spring.  As far as I know, there have been no great movements controlling climate change even though that book was published sixty years ago.  Bridgewater did change—eight or ten years after I made the movie, a lot of inmates were released, maybe two thirds, and a new prison was built, but just in the last couple of years, several of the inmates have been killed at Bridgewater and their deaths have been attributed to guards’ negligence.  For a long time the psychiatric and medical services were provided by a consortium of teaching hospitals in Boston—Harvard, BU, and Tufts—but then they lost the contract to a group of doctors and when they took over the medical and psychiatric staff, work began to decline again.  There were other people interested in Bridgewater—the Mass Medical Association was interested, the Mass Bar Association was interested—so I don’t think I have any right to claim that whatever changes occurred at Bridgewater were solely or partially a  result of the film.  I think didactic, socially conscious films usually only preach to the converted, and I don’t like didactic films because I think they’re boring.  The same way I don’t like didactic novels.  I think my films—the editing, particularly—are, at least in my mind, more related to writing, and I wouldn’t read a novel if, on the first page, the author told me everything there was to know and why he was writing the book and what the themes of the book were going to be.  The way I work is more indirectly.