[Note: The following interview contains spoilers for the “How To with John Wilson” Season 1 finale, “How to Cook the Perfect Risotto.”]
It’s hard to pick the perfect “How To with John Wilson” joke, but a strong contender comes at the start of the Season 1 finale. While constructing a lightning-fast history of risotto, John Wilson stumbled on a particular piece of footage filmed at a New York City street corner. When he matched it to the intro to the episode he’d already written, he knew he had gold.
“I like to have a new shot for each line. Adam Locke-Norton edited that episode. We just sat down and we each had our sequences of our favorite shots. We went through all of them, just hours and hours of footage,” Wilson said. “We found that shot with the garbage bag just floating above the trash can and it looked like a chef’s hat. We both started laughing hysterically. That’s when you know that it’s a good pairing.”
It’s the kind of moment that “How To with John Wilson” seems to have in endless supply, culled from an ever-expanding trove of footage that Wilson filmed in locations within the five boroughs and beyond. That sense of patience and careful attention to detail traces back to Wilson’s earlier online work, which follows the same broad format approach as his new HBO series. Wilson’s voiceover takes the viewer through a step-by-step approach to a topic that, by its end, comes to encompass far more than what’s promised in the episode title.
The season’s opening episode uses “small talk” as an entry point to look at how we let people into our lives and when we try to keep them there. Personal safety, the slipperiness of memory, and hygienic choices all swirl around a show that also manages to celebrate the ins and outs of city life.
Wilson anticipated that the season finale “How to Cook the Perfect Risotto” would dovetail with the frustrations of kicking a cigarette habit. Once production on the episode lingered into March, the ending of the episode became about a rapidly shifting world. New connections started to emerge.
“I was making the episode about risotto because I wanted to pay back my landlord. I was actually quitting nicotine, and it was really hard for me. I thought that it was going to become this hybrid ‘cooking and withdrawal’ kind of film. And then obviously, the pandemic happened, and all three kind of wrapped up into one another,” Wilson said. “Each part just coincidentally ends up speaking to each other in a strange way. The kid with the exhaust pipe, we were watching that in the edit after the shutdown started. He’s talking about pollution, but he’s also talking about individual versus collective responsibility. The audience may not realize it in the moment, but it does foreshadow this kind of struggle that I have with individual versus collective responsibility with the pandemic and whether or not my individual actions affect more people.”
As the health crisis changed production demands, the show changed with it. The latter part of the episode features Wilson navigating his way through the early days of the New York City shutdown, but for the rest of the season he had to find a way to articulate his filmmaking sensibilities to the other camera crews.
“Scaling up was interesting. I had to teach a lot of people how to write in my voice, or edit in my style, or shoot the way that I shoot. I had a whole style bible filled with GIFs that I made for all the camera people: loose rules about composition, how to tell visual gags, to pan from one thing to another and how that could be turned into a joke,” Wilson said. “But it really wasn’t that hard. I just picked people to work on the show who were either very close to my style, or even better than what I do. I needed to think about what was unique about my process before anyone else was involved, what the ingredients were for that special sauce.”
Of course, the show doesn’t simply observing from afar. The Risotto episode features one of the show’s other strengths: It gives a space to strangers who feel comfortable appearing on camera in what is essentially an experimental documentary comedy. “How To with John Wilson” consistently finds the balance between conversational tangents that may surprise some people, but come from a place of getting to know the real person.
“I try to let the material breathe for as long as I can in the edit,” Wilson said. “I feel like so much of what passes as documentary or reality TV is just so over-edited, and you don’t get a real sense of who this person is. The documentary in reality very much operates with these stereotypes in mind. You’re either good or evil, you’re either righteous or a criminal. The nuance of everything is so much more interesting.
“When I watch ‘Property Brothers’ or some shit like that, I just really want to know what these people are actually like. I crave that extra dimension in these people” he said.. “The carpenter that’s working on a house in one of those shows, the people that don’t usually get the microphone, I want to know how they feel about these very niche topics.”
Wilson knew when something incredible was unfolding in a scene from the season premiere. At the tail-end of an otherwise straightforward observation about how people end conversations, there’s a prolonged, unbroken shot of a beloved character actor trying to get onto public transit.
“I was following Kyle MacLachlan for a few blocks until I eventually went down to the subway,” Wilson said. “If you can believe it, he was actually swiping a subway card for 10 seconds or so before I even hit the record button. It’s just one of those things where I’m trying not to tremble while I’m shooting it, because I realize that I’m shooting this once-in-a-lifetime kind of moment. That’s the high that I’m chasing all the time. Thankfully, we were able to write it in, but you’re seeing just the very, very tip of the iceberg, even though it’s six very dense episodes. That’s why I like to do what I do because the idea of this footage disappearing, and never being incorporated into something is tragic to me.”
The season finale shows Wilson packing up his computer rig so that he can continue work on the season from home. Though HBO hasn’t yet ordered a second season, Wilson wanted to keep documenting the shifting city around him.
“I’ve been shooting a few episodes just by myself. This is my resting state,” he said. “I can’t stop filming. The last thing I wanted was there to be any gap in coverage between the first season and a hypothetical second season. The thought of missing out on this extremely unique and fast-moving point in New York City history, I would hate to miss out on the opportunity to film as much as I could before it disappears. The way that restaurants looked six months ago is a lot different than the way they look now, and I’m not sure it’ll ever look the same way again.
“That’s what I feel like video and film can do best is create an archive, a document of a very specific time and place,” Wilson said. “And I’m always worried about losing things. I like to include as much of it and preserve as much of it as I can.”
“How To with John Wilson” Season 1 is now available to stream on HBO Max.