A Discussion with Frederick Wiseman, Part II
by Jim McKay
[Documentarian Frederick Wiseman recently sat down with filmmaker Jim McKay to discuss his career spanning 30 films, as well as his new film, “Public Housing“. The following is part two of excerpts from their conversation.]
McKay: I want to go back to this idea that we talked about a little bit already. I guess this is kind of personal for me — I think that because of how we’ve been
trained to watch…the absolute best things about the films can also be frustrating. I think we’re so trained, we want to know what you think because we want to be
able to say “Oh I agree with him, or I disagree with him.” For me, the scene in “Public Housing” where the two police officers detain the two guys who are
walking through the courtyard, now I am watching that and I am completely drawn into the length of this interaction — and when it finally ends, how these men
did nothing wrong, were innocent and then they walk away saying thank you to the officers. To me the scene read very much about a psychological thing that’s
been set up here about power. Now it doesn’t matter if that’s what…
Wiseman: That’s certainly a reading of it. That is one of the principle points of this kind of filmmaking. I could state fifteen other things that are going on in that
scene from my point of view. My list may or may not correspond with yours. The technique, when it works, is such that it puts you in the middle of these events
and it asks you to think through your own relationship to what you’re seeing and hearing. I can tell you what I see in that scene, you may see and hear the same or
different things. I could go through every scene of every one of my movies and tell you why each shot is there, what its relationship is to the shot that goes before
and after, how something that happens 15 minutes into the film has a connection with something 55 minutes into the film…
McKay: Because they’re not just thrown together. They mean something?
Wiseman: …because I think they mean something.
McKay: You can’t control…
Wiseman: I can’t control how you respond to that. I can only hope that if you’re sufficiently interested in it, you’ll think about why I did it that way, and if you’re
not you’re not, you’re not. But I don’t think that someone has to reconstruct what was in my mind. People can think about it or not think about it as they wish, or
as they want, or they can make whatever use or non-use they want. My job is to make the film as best I can.
McKay: That’s a wonderful thing.
Wiseman: I don’t feel I have an obligation to explain myself any more than I do. Certainly my point of view is there, but it is oblique.
McKay: Have you ever been misinterpreted in a big way that’s bothered you?
Wiseman: Well, I’ve been misinterpreted…there was a very funny experience with the first “High School” movie. It was shown at a theater in Boston, and
there was a very conservative member of the Boston school committee named Louise Day Hicks in the audience. She saw the movie, and somebody introduced
me to her afterward, and she said, “Mr. Wiseman that was a wonderful high school, how can we get good schools like that in Boston?” She wasn’t kidding. She
was on the other side of all the value issues — I didn’t see how anyone could misinterpret that movie, but she did. I don’t find that to be a fault of the movie —
someone else might but I don’t — its just that her interpretation and her experience and her values were different than mine. But some people would say, “What’s
the point of doing a movie if she didn’t even know what you were trying to do?”
McKay: Well you certainly can’t control everyone’s understanding of something.
McKay: And the more subtle you are, the more chances you do take with that.
Wiseman: Yeah, but there’s no reason why a documentary film can’t attempt subtlety. Part of the heavy burden documentary carries from its origin, and certainly
from the 30’s is the common idea that it has to be didactic and propagandistic.
Wiseman: An activist message. According to some it always has to be about poor people and the poor as victims. And it always has to be about trying to produce
social justice. Of course sometimes, but not all the time, its just as important to make movies about rich people as it is about poor people, and its just as important
to make movies about people doing good things as doing bad things. Or a combination. Documentary film got in the straight jacket from which it has escaped but
McKay: Do you continue to be…I continue to be amazed at people’s comfortableness with the camera.
Wiseman: Me, too. I’m pleased. But I don’t know why they are comfortable.
McKay: Maybe its you?
Wiseman: It might be my big ears?
McKay: Jonathan Kozol said in an interview after his book “Amazing Grace” came out, something kind of sobering I think, which is that when he first started
writing, he was writing in order to affect change. And over the years he learned that on a grand scale, his writing was having very little effect and now he writes
to document things for history. Do you see yourself doing one, the other, or both?
Wiseman: Well, we talked about the change issue — not measurable. I am not presumptuous enough to say that I make documentaries to be used for history. I
hope the films will last, but it remains to be seen if they will. I think it would be great, say, if we had film of different aspects of life in 19th century America, or
really any other time prior to the discoveries or the invention of film and cameras. I hope that not only my documentaries, but everybody’s documentaries, last. It
will really confuse historians in the next century, because they’ll have, in addition to all the print material, they’ll have all these pictures to look at.
But on the other hand, to the extent the films last, people in the next centuries will have a much better sense of the way we lived than we have, of say, the 19th or
any other century.
Everybody who does anything hopes its going to endure.
McKay: Has your experience in your career led you to be more or less
Wiseman: That’s the kind of generality I can’t deal with. I’m not
trying to dodge the question…I just can’t answer it.
McKay: You’re basically still having fun making your films?
Wiseman: I’m having a great deal of fun.
McKay: And that’s what…
Wiseman: …yeah. And that’s what matters most.
[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.]