A Discussion with Frederick Wiseman, Part I
by Jim McKay
Frederick Wiseman was in New York recently to talk about the PBS debut of
his latest film, “Public Housing” (and to participate in Film Forum’s 60’s
Verite Series). Possibly more than any other living filmmaker, he has, over
the course of his career, assembled a body of work that could represent the
USA in a time capsule. Future citizens curious about what everyday life was
like in the U.S. in the late 20th century could look to Wiseman’s world,
rather than the worlds of Eisner, Murdoch, Turner and Spielberg — in order to
get a true reading of our people, places, and times.
Wiseman’s observational style of filmmaking has taken viewers over the
years into the institutions that define life in our country — schools,
hospitals, police forces, welfare offices, racetracks, the military, the
ballet, and finally, public housing. “Public Housing” is one of the most
compelling films to come out this year, in either the documentary of the
fiction feature category. In it, Wiseman enters the world of the Ida B.
Wells Housing Development on the South Side of Chicago.
Though I work in mostly fiction filmmaking, the work most inspiring to me
has always been in documentary. And in this realm, Wiseman rules. So when
indieWIRE asked me if I wanted to sit down and talk with him, I jumped at
the chance; we met at Provence on MacDougal Street. The following are
excerpts from the discussion.
McKay: It seems like “Titticut Follies” is in a way your most known or
written about work maybe because the films that followed it are thought of
more as a body of work and “Follies” just had so much controversy surrounding
Wiseman: I think that “Follies” got well known because it was banned, the
State of Massachusetts made the classic mistake.
Wiseman: I would have preferred that they hadn’t banned the film, but they
did. I mean, it was stupid of them.
McKay: How would you describe your relationship to the film today? Since it
has been so written about and recalled and you’ve gone on to make 29 other
Wiseman: Well, I mean I don’t know what my relationship is — I mean it was
a first film, so when I look at it I see mistakes.
McKay: Do you feel that your style and technique developed out of that
film? How much did you have going into it?
Wiseman: Well I don’t know, since it was a first film. I had seen a couple
of other films using that technique and it was one that I wanted to work
with; so when I was doing the “Follies” the idea occurred to me that what I
was doing in a prison for criminally insane could be done in a lot of other
institutions. The idea of this so called “institutional series” had its
origin there and then. I like to think I’ve learned something over the
years, but the basic technique is still the same — handheld camera,
handheld tape recorder, shoot a lot of film and figure it out in the
McKay: Which is fun?
Wiseman: Oh it’s great. It’s a sport. It’s demanding… it’s physically
demanding, it’s intellectually demanding, you know it combines a lot of
different elements. It’s fascinating, it’s an adventure.
McKay: Do you remember what the films where that you had seen that had
utilized this observational technique?
Wiseman: Well, the one in particular, “Mooney Vs. Fowle“, it is sometimes
called “Football“. It’s a film that I always liked. I started later than some
of the others…a few years later than some of the other filmmakers who
are in the Film Forum series. But I was interested in the possibilities of
the technical developments, handheld camera, sync sound and it became
apparent to me, as for a lot of other people, that you could now make a
movie about any subject. You know, in a very simple fashion. 30 years
later, America is still relatively unexplored from a film point of view.
There are so many great subjects.
McKay: You say technical developments in terms of…?
Wiseman: Well, sync sound, and hand held cameras. I mean you had the hand
held cameras before but since approximately 1958 you could shoot sync sound
with hand held cameras and hand held tape recorders and that was an
extraordinary development because it meant that you could film anything
with available light.
McKay: Talk about this idea of shooting as sport…
Wiseman: It is sport in the sense that you have to be in good shape, its
running around with heavy equipment. It’s not sport in the sense of
stalking, but its sport in the sense of your having to use your physical
resources. You can’t make these kind of movies if you’re out of shape, I
mean you can but it’s hard, because you’re on your feet 12-14 hours a day,
you don’t get much sleep if you’re looking at rushes at night…and if
you’re too tired you’re not using good judgment…
McKay: I thought that was one of the most interesting things in the talk at
the New York Film Festival this year — when you talked about “knowing
when not to shoot”– to me it was very clear and a real good lesson, can you
talk about that?
Wiseman: Well I mean…but that’s instinct too. And you’re not always
right. The worst thing you can do is stop and start because then almost
inevitably you will be off at the magic moment. So when I decide to shoot I
stick with it, and then get out.
McKay: It occurred to me, I don’t remember if it was “Showman” the other
day.. but I also went to see “Ali the Fighter”, and it occurred to me how
constructed the scenes were, how cuts in time were made and then I realized
that in lots of your work, a scene really is a shot that’s broken
basically by cutaways.
Wiseman: Well then it’s more than one shot.
McKay: Yeah, but what I mean is… it’s very real time.
Wiseman: It is meant to appear as if its real time. I mean, sometimes it is
real time, but more often than not its cut to appear as real time, even
though it may be a compression from an hour and a half to five minutes…
McKay: I want to go back to “Titticut Follies” and ask if the film in the end
affected a change in the system and was it the affect that you maybe
Wiseman: Well, you’re raising the whole issue of film and social change. I
think over time the film may have had some impact in changing the system,
but it’s very very hard to isolate any one film or any one event or
document of any sort, whether its “Titticut Follies” or anything else, and
say, that’s what caused the change. I think the film contributed to a
climate which led to the change, the MASS Bar Association got interested in
Bridgewater, the MASS Medical Association and some of the newspapers. I
think it would be presumptuous of me to say that was as a result of the
film… I think the film may have played a part in it, but I think it’s
extraordinary difficult, whether it’s with the “Follies” or anything else to
measure the effect of any one thing. I mean you hope it has an effect but
in a sense it’s probably better over a long period that the effect is not
measurable and that you recognize that its circumstances are oblique and
McKay: When you set out to make it, was that part of your motivation?
Wiseman: Yes, it was but in retrospect I think it was naive because I don’t
think that any one work is that important. The fact is that people are not
that stupid, one film is not the only source of their information, they
read newspapers, books, they have their own experiences etc.
McKay: If one wants to find your point of view, one can, if they watch
Wiseman: That’s right. My point of view is expressed indirectly in the
structure. In the same way, in that sense — that aspect of the editing is
like writing. If you read the first paragraph of a novel, you don’t know
what the writer’s attitude is toward the characters. You’ve got to see how
it unfolds and the whole novel is the expression of the writer’s ideas
about the people he creates. Similarly, in one of these movies… If I
could summarize it in twenty five words or less, I shouldn’t make the
McKay: What comes to my mind is the final scene in “Public Housing” where the
HUD official is speaking to the students. I think many viewers want to know
is this a positive ending, is this an ending with hope, and you have many
choices in terms of showing student’s reactions, in how you shot it…
Wiseman: Yeah, that’s a perfect example of the technique. It’s a very
complex scene and it’s up to the viewer to make up their mind.
McKay: Which many people I think, are very scared of.
Wiseman: Yes. That’s one of the things in documentary film that I am
reacting against — the need or the supposed need for didacticism, the
supposed need for explanation. I don’t like to read novels where the
novelist tells me what to think about the situation and the characters. I
prefer to discover for myself.
McKay: How about fictional film making. I read that you were hoping to make
a film in France? A feature?
Wiseman: I directed a play seven or eight years ago by Vasily Grossman.
He’s a contemporary Russian novelist who died in the sixties. One of his
novels is called “Life and Fate“, and there’s one chapter in the novel called
“The Last Letter” — a letter a Russian Jewish woman doctor writes to her son
a couple of nights before she knows he will be taken out and shot by the
Germans. I did it in the theater as a monologue and I want to do it as a
A couple of years ago there was a possibility of doing it in France, but
that didn’t work out, so I am hoping to do it here sometime.
McKay: And would that be just completely…
Wiseman: It would be a staged movie, but it would only be one actress, one
person — which is a hard thing to do, which is one of the things that I
want to try.
McKay: Would there be footage illustrating what she said?
Wiseman: No. It would all be recreated by imagination. Not by her
imagination, by your imagination based on her performance.
McKay: I’ve always felt that fiction feature filmmakers can learn a lot
from documentary in terms of character. I was thinking that…I imagine
you’d be a really great director of actors given all the experience you
have with character as opposed to exposition of story, which is where I
think a lot of people get…
Wiseman: Well, if you would write Michael Eisner a letter on my behalf…
McKay: I don’t really think its gonna do much good…OK , so you’ve
directed some theater. What is it like making the leap?
Wiseman: Well, I enjoy the directing. It’s totally different because in my
kind of documentary movie you make the movie in the editing. You can have
good material and ruin it in the editing and you can improve mediocre
material by editing. In theater, that’s one of the things I liked about it,
you have to work on the script, you work on everything in advance. Both
theater and fiction filmmaking are the reverse of what I do. In fiction
film you have a script and you shoot the script. That doesn’t mean you
can’t change it or improvise it, but basically you shoot the script. You
deal with the character, themes, and the structural problems in the
writing. It’s the reverse of documentaries. I had a couple chances and I
wrote a script based on one of the Anne Tyler novels, “Celestial Navigation“,
which I thought would make a great movie but I couldn’t ever get the money
McKay: I’ll call someone about that as well.
[Part two of Jim McKay’s discussion with Frederick Wiseman concludes
tomorrow in indieWIRE.
Jim McKay is a filmmaker whose movie, “Girls Town”, was an award winner at the
1996 Sundance Film Festival. McKay also directed R.E.M.’s concert
documentary, TOUR FILM, and numerous music videos.]