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Frederick Wiseman on How to Stay in the Business of Making Movies for 50 Years

Frederick Wiseman on How to Stay in the Business of Making Movies for 50 Years

At this year’s Hot Docs Film Festival, North America’s biggest annual documentary survey and industry powwow, something remarkable and strange transpired. Frederick Wiseman, arguably the world’s greatest living documentary filmmaker, made a public appeal for financing for his next film, “In Jackson Heights.” It was something he’d never done before in his near-50-year career. As 19 other filmmaking teams—most of whom were half to 75% of his age— would do at the Hot Docs Forum (read Anthony Kaufman’s coverage here), the 85 year-old legend faced a 25-strong table of international broadcasters, funders and programmers, and delivered an elevator pitch. Why, you might ask, would Wiseman put himself out there in that way?

“I’m playing the game to do what’s necessary to attract the people who have money,” Wiseman simply and pragmatically told moderator Piya Chattopadhyay the night prior, seated alongside longtime collaborator Karen Konicek, who heads up Wiseman’s production-distribution company Zipporah Films, and serves as executive producer on all his projects. During an hour-long discussion at the TIFF Bell Lightbox theater complex, the director and his producer revealed how they’ve been able to complete over 40 films since 1967 (Konicek came on board in 1982), and how they’ve been able to reliably disseminate them without compromising his vision for what, how (and especially how long) the films need to be. Here are seven invaluable pointers—encompassing both process and philosophy—from the indefatigable master of American documentary film.

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Know and embrace your strengths, and get help in areas of weakness.

Konicek: What I think is true in any kind of working relationship is that you come to it with different strengths. Fred makes the films, and I love the business side of it—the organizing and distribution side. Fred doesn’t have to bother with that, and can keep on going with his projects. Or he’ll step into it [when he wants]. The key [for filmmakers] is to find someone who can do things that you don’t want to do or aren’t really good at.

Wiseman: It makes it extremely easy for me that Karen is so well organized and does all that.

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Ask for access, and be honest about your intentions.

Wiseman: Permission [from subjects and institutions] is relatively easy to get. My great secret is that I ask. There are very few things that I wanted to do that I haven’t been able to get permission for. I try to find somebody that knows me and who knows the person from whom I’m requesting permission. So the person I find then calls up, say, the head of the board of education in Philadelphia and says, “Wiseman wants to make a film.” The fact that I’m vouched for by somebody that the superintendant of schools in Philadelphia knew made it easier for me to get access. That hasn’t always been the case, but I would say that half the time what I just described is what occurs.

I wasn’t kidding when I say that what I do is ask. It’s just that there are different ways of asking. I always try to be extremely straightforward. No bullshit. I explain what I’m going to do, how I’m going to do it, where the film’s going to be shown. That it’s a small crew—no lights, no interviews, no additional music. That we’ll take four to 12 weeks to shoot, and a year to edit. I make all that very clear. I make it clear that I have editorial control. And if someone says “yes” in a meeting, I then write them a letter summarizing the meeting and ask them to send me back a signed copy of that letter. Which in fact is a contract, even though it’s not written in legal language.

I try to anticipate every problem in advance. For example, the editorial control problem. Nobody can say to me when I’ve finished editing the film and show it to the people who gave me permission, “oh, we don’t like that scene.” If they don’t accept the idea from the beginning that I have complete control over it, then I don’t do [the film]. It’s extremely important to be direct, honest and straightforward from the beginning. Because other people’s bullshit meters are just as good as you think yours is. If they think they’re being conned, then they won’t let you make the movie.

Be prepared, and address all contingencies beforehand.

Konicek: Once Fred says I want to shoot, and these are my dates, we put together what we call the Production Bible, in which everything is laid out for wherever Fred’s going. I love this because it’s a whole brainstorming challenge: where is the closest Whole Foods? Where’s Fedex? How late is Fedex open? We put all this together so that when Fred goes on the shoot, hopefully he will want for nothing. And if he does, it’s a phone call and the account is set up and we are good to go. It’s setting up all of your insurance, making sure all of that is clear, and your car rental and your parking spot, so that when Fred is there, night or day, he should be able to go to this or that tab and find what he wants.

Know your budget, and pursue numerous avenues of financing no matter how much you hate to ask for money.

Konicek: We do all the outreach we can, work on the proposals together, and come up with a budget. We often go back to our previous budget and work from that as a starting point. A lot of it depends on where the shoot is. If the shoot is in Austin, Texas, the living situation is very different and the budget reflects that.

Wiseman: When I first started out, the average budget was about $75,000 and now it’s about half a million—for the same work. Since 1966 there’s been a bit of inflation. If the films have changed at all I like to think it’s a consequence of the fact that I’ve learned something over the years. Mainly by trying not to repeat the mistakes I’ve previously made. But that has nothing to do with the market.

Konicek: We’ve been very fortunate to be supported by PBS and a handful of other foundations over the years—Ford, ITVS, the LEFF Foundation, Pershing Square. But we have troubles getting funds—that’s why we’re here. It’s not easy. I don’t know that there’s any magic to success with that.

Wiseman: You just have to keep at it. The moment you think you’re entitled to the money and that you shouldn’t have to slog to get it, is the moment when you should quit. It’s gotten harder because there’s less money available. The budget for the National Endowment for the Arts in America hasn’t changed in about 25 years. Meanwhile the population has gone up and the new equipment means that there are more people asking for money. The PBS programming fund budget has been around $250 million forever, and that’s not much considering all the people that want to make movies. So it is harder. People who might have given you $150,000 will now offer $35,000 because their budget is slashed or they want to spread it out more. [Asking for money] is the worst and most demeaning part of it. But obviously it’s absolutely necessary. You do it because you want to make the movies. It’s part of the biz, but it’s the least attractive part of the biz. The fact that I’ve succeeded in getting the money doesn’t mean that I like doing it.

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Be creative and resourceful on the business side of things.

Konicek: We’ve been talking about a Kickstarter campaign, and wondering if that’s something we might want to do. But that takes a lot of time and we’re a very small group of people. We have two support staff at the office—a full time office manager and a part time project assistant. And then it’s us. So there’s a time factor. What I really love is when, for example, I just worked with Film Podium in Zurich, who put on a retrospective of 9 or 10 of Fred’s films, and then he spoke and did a Master Class there. That helps us because it brings in some rental revenue and then Fred speaks, and all of that generates interest in his films, and in people coming to our website and buying the DVDs, which we sell out of our office. We just do it by hand, every step.

Wiseman: I can make more money talking about movies than making them. But unfortunately I have to make them in order to get invited to talk about them.

Take charge of your own distribution.

Wiseman: I gave my first two films, “Titicut Follies” and “High School,” to a distributor who made a lot of money on them both but I didn’t see anything. I figured I’m not going to lose 100% margin of error, so I started my own company, Zipporah Films, to distribute my films. And it’s worked out, particularly since Karen arrived.

Konicek: Our usual distribution model is that before Fred actually finishes a film, when he gets to the fine cut stage, we start speaking to film festivals to let them know about the film. With that we also start talking to theaters. We work with a very wonderful theater rep in New York, Michael Tuckman, who helps us launch the film theatrically. We set up our PBS broadcast and we work on our DVD release. That’s our usual path for distribution. And now we’re talking now about streaming Fred’s films from our website. We have a very good DVD business, but again, we’re a small business with only so much time in our day. We came a little late to the DVD business—we released Fred’s films on DVD in 2007. That’s been really great for us, but truly we package them from our office, we invoice people, we do it all by hand. We like that model, so we’re stepping into streaming with the idea that it would be a similar thing. Fred and I both like the engagement with the people that use his films. It keeps us involved.

Stay passionate.

Wiseman: I’m in the phase now where I’m a couple of months away from finishing “In Jackson Heights.” In order to avoid severe postpartum depression, I have to start thinking about another project. It’s really whatever interests me at the time. I have to be really interested in order to spend a year of very intensive work on it. I can’t have a half-assed interest—I have to feel passionately about it. Whether I’m deceiving myself or not is another matter. But as long as I’m successful at deceiving myself it’ll work.

Konicek: Fred has the ideas, and then I have the adventure of learning. I’ve worked with Fred on 27 or so films over 34 years, and what’s been so great for me is that it’s always a different challenge, a different topic, and it’s an adventure from the production all the way through distribution.

Wiseman: I enjoy the filmmaking part of it. It’s completely absorbing. You roll the dice that you think if you hang around a place long enough that you’ll get enough material out of which you can cut a film. And if you’re lucky enough, sometimes you stumble across absolutely spectacular situations that you’re not responsible for creating or imagining, but you are responsible for recognizing and figuring out how to use it. Then in the last stages of editing I’ll work seven days a week for three or four months, and I don’t really get tired. It’s fascinating to see the film emerge from the chaos of the rushes. That’s really why I do it. Because it’s fun.

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