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Frederick Wiseman Goes Fictional for the First Time

After nearly 60 years of non-fiction filmmaking, Wiseman tells IndieWire why he picked "A Couple" as his first fiction film.

“A Couple”

Frederick Wiseman has been directing acclaimed documentaries for almost 60 years. His camera has tracked vast institutional forces as far-reaching as the mental hospital in 1967’s seminal “Titicut Follies” to more recent and equally intricate portraits of Jackson Heights, small-town Indiana, and the New York Public Library. With that record, it’s no surprise that when the Venice International Film Festival announced its 2022 lineup with Wiseman’s new film “A Couple” in competition, many assumed that it was another non-fiction project.

“That’s good,” Wiseman said in a recent phone interview with IndieWire from his home in Paris. He was eager to catch people off-guard. “You know that old bromide of Emerson, ‘Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds’? I don’t see why I need to be only categorized as a documentary filmmaker.”

Now he’s setting the record straight: “A Couple” is one of the few Wiseman projects that was entirely staged. At the age of 92, Wiseman has directed what he considers to be his first fictional film, a feature-length series of monologues based on letters and diaries by Sophia Tolstoy, the beleaguered wife of famed Russian novelist Leo. There’s no narrative in the traditional sense, but the hour-long movie unfolds as a taut series of scripted laments and profound soul-searching by its central figure.

It’s also a striking personal response to the pandemic, which prevented one of film history’s most treasured non-fiction directors from cobbling together another documentary by shooting in crowded public places, as he usually does. “There were large chunks of the pandemic when I was bored out of my mind,” Wiseman said.

He had no qualms about how the new movie might be perceived in relation to his other work. “I’ve always felt that I do what I want to do,” Wiseman said. “The moment seemed right to do this, so I did it. I’m under no obligation to be consistent.”

Documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman sits in his office in Cambridge, Mass., Jan. 31, 2000. Wiseman's film "Belfast, Maine," about life in a small coastal New England village, premieres on PBS Feb. 4 at 9 p.m., EST. (AP Photo/Jared Leeds)

Frederick Wiseman

Associated Press

Nevertheless, aspects of “A Couple” build on the filmmaker’s prior accomplishments. Wiseman foregrounds a gripping performance by French actress Nathalie Boutefeu as she roams a lush garden and the seaside backdrop of the French island Belle-Île off the coast of Brittany, France. The approach bears some resemblance to two previous Wiseman efforts: The filmmaker’s 1982 “Seraphita’s Diary,” which features the internal monologues of a fashion model, and the 2002 effort “The Last Letter,” which finds actress Catherine Samie delivering her own feature-length monologue about a Ukrainian ghetto during WWII. For Wiseman, however, those movies were akin to filmed plays against a stark backdrop resembling a stage. “A Couple” follows its single character through changing terrain, and it’s a constant visual feast.

As usual, Wiseman oversaw the camerawork and the editing process; the meticulous way that the movie oscillates between Sophia’s deep contemplations and stunning closeups of natural wonder will look familiar to anyone versed in Wiseman’s ability to blend people with their environment. There are staggering shots of dark cliffs dipping into the ocean and wondrous snippets of plant and animal life. Wiseman was thrilled to have shot the movie last spring while the garden was in full bloom.

“The life of the garden is the Darwinian struggle for existence,” said Wiseman, who spent four days after initial shoot was finished gathering hundreds of shots from the garden and its surrounding terrain. “You see both the beauty of the ocean and the power of the waves. Similarly, the life of the garden is at one level visually beautiful — but underneath that, at night, it’s a ferocious, vicious, cruel world, because the animals are all eating each other.”

Despite these lofty conceits, Wiseman said the starting point for “A Couple” was fairly straightforward. He previously worked with Boutefeu on a French-language theatrical production of the Emily Dickinson play “The Belle of Amherst,” which also took place as a series of monologues. As an outgrowth of that experience, Boutefeu shared excerpts from Sophia’s diaries and the pair began to develop a script together that adapted several passages into a cogent drama.

As Sophia sits by the ocean, tussles with a bush, and wanders through forest greenery, she recalls terrible arguments with Leo over the state of their relationship, even as she acknowledges the paradoxical feeling that she remains in love with him. As the mother to 13 children, the woman also grapples with a family life at odds with her husband’s aloof, careerist mentality. “The issues between them seem very contemporary now,” Wiseman said. “Who was going to take care of the kids? What was their education going to be? How much time did each parent spend with them? The personal issues for them are the kind of questions that come up in the lives of many couples.”

a couple wiseman

“A Couple”

As he guided Boutefeu through an emotionally intense performance that crescendoes several times over, Wiseman said he worked to ensure that she could convey the instability of the marriage in physical terms. “Their relationship oscillated between indifference and passion,” he said. “It was a completely different filmmaking challenge for me. In my documentaries, I never ask people to do anything for me.”

When Wiseman is shooting one of his non-fiction projects, he’s usually accompanied by a camera operator and a sound person. That team expanded to seven people for “A Couple,” including a script supervisor and a second assistant camera operator who helped with lighting in certain scenes. But Wiseman didn’t pretend that the additional help turned “A Couple” into a more unwieldy endeavor. “It wasn’t like a big Hollywood movie,” he said. “We had a couple of lights and moved them around. Seven people to shoot a fiction film isn’t very many.”

However, Wiseman expressed excitement over the circumstances that allowed him to finally shoot a movie during the pandemic: After the initial development of the script with Boutefeu, he reached out to a friend who owned the garden on Belle-Île and rented a few houses for his actress and crew to stay in for the shoot. “We all lived and ate together and didn’t really see anyone else aside from the owner of the garden,” Wiseman said. “We were completely immersed in the material.”

Though he was reticent to discuss it, the production commenced at a challenging moment in Wiseman’s own life, as it took place two months after the death of his wife, Zipporah Batshaw Wiseman, following 66 years of marriage. The filmmaker named his production company, Zipporah Films, after the woman who was by his side from the earliest stages of his career. Watching “A Couple,” it’s impossible not to ponder how this sensitive and powerful rumination on married life might have held meaning for Wiseman in the moment, but he declined to elaborate. “I’m not saying there is or is not a relationship there, but it’s not something I care to go into,” he said. “I’m not sure my assessment of that would be correct.”

In more general terms, the solitary setting and discussions of loneliness throughout “A Couple” function as a unique response to the pandemic, including a moment in which Sophia sits in the grass and concludes that “even the most sincere and honest of us still wear a mask.” Considering that line, Wiseman said, “It’s impossible not to have the pandemic in mind when you’re living through it. I wouldn’t say that the film is about that, but it has resonance with that.”

Wiseman hoped to make it to Venice for the film’s premiere next month (“That’s a big deal for me”) and though he had no plans for his next project, expected to change that soon. “I want to work to the extent that I have the capacity that I can work, full-stop,” he said. “Otherwise…” He stopped himself. “I’m old. The fact that I can still work is great. It keeps my mind off the Grim Reaper. I have no desire to stop working. On the contrary: I hope to work even more.”

Even when the pandemic slowed his output, Wiseman said, he kept thinking about new projects. “You can’t turn it off,” he said. “At least, I can’t. My films are basically looking at people’s behavior and trying to figure out why they’re doing what they’re doing. The fact that I’m not shooting doesn’t mean I turn off the look.”

“A Couple” premieres in September at the Venice International Film Festival and opens at New York’s Film Forum in November.

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