Frederick Wiseman

Frederick Wiseman was born in Boston 87 years ago, and after embarking on a career in law, he moved into documentary filmmaking in the mid-’60s with the formerly banned-in-Boston—and everywhere else until 1991—Titicut Follies (1967). Wiseman famously shot that directorial debut in the infamous Bridgewater State Hospital for the criminally insane (the state of Massachusetts claimed that Wiseman had violated patients’ rights, but the scenes of forced feedings and the open taunting of patients were the more likely causes of their displeasure). Fifty years and more than 40 titles later, he is just wrapping up a new film about New York City’s Public Library system, Ex Libris-New York Public Library. We haven’t discussed the matter, but it’s a safe bet that he has another project all lined up.

It’s always good to have an excuse to talk to Fred, because we see each other all too infrequently. He refuses the classification of expatriate (although that might have changed after Inauguration Day), but what else would you call someone who has spent the better part of the last decade and a half occupying various sublets and retreats in Paris? He only just vacated the premises of his most recent artistic residency, a spacious loft in the Centre les récollets, a converted Franciscan convent built in 1603 near what is now the Gare de l’Est.

A couple of days after we talked this past November, as I thought through the topics we had covered, it occurred to me that we had failed to mention his recent well-deserved recognition by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with a Governors Award. I left him a mildly concerned message and received a typically matter-of-fact answer: “Hi, Kent. It’s Fred. If you want something about the award, you can simply say … or I can say that I was very pleased to get it, and it’s a nice validation of what I’ve been doing. On the other hand, you don’t have to put in anything about it. But if you want to put something in, that’s it.” In other words: Thank you, but I have to get back to work now.

What exactly is the definition of “work” for the man who brought us such remarkable documentaries as Law & Order (1969), High School (1968), Welfare (1975), Belfast, Maine (1999), and In Jackson Heights (2015)? It is most definitely not spending months or years getting to know his subjects before shooting, or fretting about whether the presence of the camera will alter the ongoing reality before it, or wondering if his films might have an unspoken bias: Such matters have been raised on a regular basis throughout years of public discussions, and Fred has developed a series of what he calls “stock answers,” delivered in a charmingly world-weary manner. Call it Wiseman’s Greatest Hits. The actual work is something else again, and it’s the central topic of the discussion that you’re about to read.

KENT JONES: How are you doing, Fred?

FREDERICK WISEMAN: I’ve been running back and forth between the mix and the color grading [on Wiseman’s new film].  It’s late at night, and I don’t know if I’m going to be coherent or not.

JONES: Yeah, but this is Interview magazine, so it’s in the spirit of Andy Warhol’s diaries. Like, I could ask you what you’re wearing or something.

WISEMAN: All right, then you write my answers, and I can go to bed.

JONES: Great.

WISEMAN: So there’s a park behind my convent. I can buy all the crack and heroin that I want …

JONES: You’re still in that place where I visited you this past May?


JONES: How much longer are you there?

WISEMAN: Well, I’m going skiing on the 15th of December, and then I’m coming to New York for a couple weeks: the ballet company is going to be in New York, and we’re going to rehearse for two weeks [on the upcoming ballet inspired by Wiseman’s Titicut Follies, performed by James Sewell Ballet].

JONES: Far out.

WISEMAN: And then after that, I don’t know where I’m going to go. It depends.

JONES: I want to see your new movie.

WISEMAN: I’ll have a DVD at the end of the mix, by the seventh or eighth of December. I’ll send it to you.


JONES: Fantastic. It’s called Ex Libris. It’s great that there’s a movie about reading right now, since we have a president-elect who doesn’t appear to know how to spell, let alone …

WISEMAN: Well, listen, I don’t know if this is for the interview or not, but I’m worried. Did you read the Masha Gessen article on The New York Review of Books‘ website? It’s a great article. That autocrats do what they say they’re going to do is the theme. [David] Remnick had a very good editorial on The New Yorker site the morning after. And Timothy Snyder did a terrific podcast. It’s on a very good podcast that Jacob Weisberg of Slate does. He interviewed Snyder the other day about the parallels with the rise of National Socialism. And I don’t think it’s too far-fetched myself. But anyway … let’s do the interview.

JONES: Well, this is the interview. We’re doing it. [laughs] What’s the length of the new movie?

WISEMAN: A mere three hours and 26 minutes.

JONES: It’s the whole New York Public Library system, right?

WISEMAN: Yeah. It’s as much a movie about New York as it is about the library.

JONES: When you choose a subject, I would imagine that it’s partly a matter of personal interest, partly a matter of the kind of access that you need, and partly a matter of the logistics working out—getting a sufficient amount of time.

WISEMAN: No, it’s really … I don’t really know what I want, other than good sequences, whatever that means. What I find is always a matter of chance, judgment, and luck.

JONES: But I’m talking about how you settle on the subject matter. The actual making of the movie is something else.

WISEMAN: Other than my thinking that the subject I’ve chosen is a good one for a movie, I honestly have no idea. I’ve said this before, and it’s my routine, but it has the charm of being true: I have no idea what the point of view or the themes or the duration are going to be because I have no idea what sequences I’m going to find. Even if I know I’m going to go to a church, I don’t know what the minister’s going to say. The model is Las Vegas. I roll the dice. I collect sequences, and I figure it out in the editing.

JONES: But you do find yourself drawn to certain subject matter and certain institutions for some reason, whether you can put a finger on it or not, right?

WISEMAN: I’m drawn to making movies about contemporary life. The reason I choose institutions is because they provide a limit, a boundary.

JONES: Yes. And a limited range of activity.

WISEMAN: Yes, but in In Jackson Heights, there are an infinite number of activities. In Belfast, Maine, there are pretty close to an infinite number of activities.

JONES: Within a finite area.

WISEMAN: It’s the unity of place that helps me decide, “Okay, I don’t go beyond the four walls of this building,” or “I don’t go beyond the geographic limits of this neighborhood or the city limits of Belfast.”

JONES: Or in the case of this movie, the city limits of New York. Which is a lot. [laughs]

WISEMAN: Yeah, even though the library is just in three boroughs. Queens and Brooklyn each have their own independent systems.

JONES: Did you ever get a subject where you thought you were going to be operating within one framework, and then when you got into the cutting room, you focused on a smaller area within that framework?

WISEMAN: In one sense, that’s always the case. Because the net is cast so wide during the shooting that it’s a necessity to restrict it in the editing, because of the need to find a form. Even if the film takes place in one building, as for example, State Legislature [2006] or Welfare did, it’s necessary to leave things out—leave things out during the shooting and leave things out during the editing.

JONES: Once I asked you a question about your reading in relation to filmmaking, and you told me that something you’d read by Helen Vendler about the structure of Emily Dickinson’s poems gave you a way of thinking about film editing.

WISEMAN: At the risk of sounding pretentious, I think I’ve learned a lot about how to make movies, and particularly about how to edit movies by thinking about how similar problems are resolved in other forms. The issues in all forms are the same in an abstract sense, aren’t they? Characterization, abstraction, metaphor, passage of time … Whether it’s a movie, a novel, a play, or a poem, those issues exist. And each person resolves them differently. Of course, the way you resolve them is in part dependent on the form that you’re working in. My job as a film editor is to construct a dramatic narrative because otherwise it’s just a chaotic arrangement of sequences. When I read, I think about how the writer is resolving problems that I recognize as similar to the problems I have in editing. It really goes back to the way that I was taught to read when I was in college. When I was in high school, the teaching of English was awful. But in college, I took a freshman seminar where we used Brooks and Warren’s Understanding Poetry. And I find that over the years, I’ve gone back to that book and to their short story anthology as a constant source of learning. I just started to read the short story anthology again. It’s a great collection of stories, and the four or five pages of comments and questions after each story are extraordinarily stimulating, even to an old codger like me. I learn from it. It’s not a formal application, but I think it increases my consciousness of the issues that I’m faced with in reducing 150 or 200 hours of rushes into a dramatic, narrative film. 

JONES: I’m actually reading Dickinson now. It’s incredible to read the poetry and the letters together.

WISEMAN: The letters are—

JONES: Unbelievable.

WISEMAN: The letters are as good as the poems!

JONES: Yeah, it’s somebody writing their way to an understanding of their own condition and their own experience.

WISEMAN: By looking out the window and sitting at home and reading, she knew everything. And she gave it a form.

JONES: It’s amazing, the way the poems work—the concision of the language, which is completely homespun.

WISEMAN: Well, concision is the right word because it’s so compact and, at the same time, so resonant. Again, I think it’s related to film editing in a sense. Despite the fact that I make long films, my effort is to achieve the same sort of concision. I mean, I’m in no way suggesting that I succeed, but it’s inspiring to read somebody who does succeed and from whom, in a general way, you can draw examples and nourishment and sustenance. Etcetera, etcetera …

JONES: How much does the question of rhythm come up for you?

WISEMAN: It comes up all the time, in two ways: There’s the internal rhythm within a sequence, and then there’s the rhythm between the sequences, and that’s extremely important in constructing the narrative. For example, you don’t put two big dramatic scenes right next to each other. But you can use the rhythm of the transition shots; they can often serve a double purpose. For example, in Model [1980], I needed to collect a lot of shots of different buildings and people on the street in order to show that the models worked all over the city. And that’s the literal explanation of those shots. But in the editing, I realized that those shots of people on the street had provided me with not only the information about different parts of the city, and not only helped with the rhythm of the film, but they had also helped with the ideas that I was trying to deal with. Because they raised the question: When you see people in ordinary clothes, as opposed to fashion designer clothes, then what is the model? So that’s an example of going from the literal to the abstract. It’s compare and contrast: You see people walking around in schlumpy clothes and shoes, and then you see the photographers’ studios where the models are wearing Oscar de la Renta or something.

JONES: So it’s concrete and abstract at the same time.

WISEMAN: Exactly. I think it’s true of any movie, any movie that works, that is. There’s a literal track: who says what to whom, what are people wearing, etcetera. And there’s the abstract track: what ideas are suggested by the literal. And the real movie takes place in the relationship between the literal and the abstract.

JONES: That’s true of documentary and fiction.

WISEMAN: The issues are exactly the same.

JONES: Over the years, whenever you and I have talked about movies, I’ve rarely if ever heard you talk about documentaries. When you talk about the filmmakers that you know and admire, they’re almost always fiction filmmakers. Arnaud Desplechin, for instance.

WISEMAN: That’s true. Marcel Ophuls is, as you know, someone I have great admiration for. But I don’t see many movies.

JONES: I think, for you, there is no separation between fiction and nonfiction.

WISEMAN: There isn’t. This whole business of documentary being a second-class citizen is bullshit. A documentary can be as interesting, as dramatic, as sad, as funny, blah, blah, blah, as a fiction movie. Or it can be as awful as a fiction movie!

JONES: When you’re dealing with the filming of a repetitive action, like the scene in the canning factory in Belfast, Maine … It’s a canning factory, isn’t it?

WISEMAN: It’s a sardine-canning factory. That’s a good example. I had about five hours of rushes. The sardines arrive every day, and the process is the same: Every sardine goes in the pool, gets measured, put on the assembly line, cut up, and put in the cans. The sequence is 12 minutes, and in that 12 minutes, there are 275 shots. Now, I could have started with the exterior of the sardine factory building, then a wide shot of the floor, then a couple of close-ups of people cutting the heads and tails off the sardines, then an exterior … And I would have demonstrated that there is a sardine factory in Belfast, Maine.

JONES: And you’re in and out in what? Two minutes?

WISEMAN: 30 seconds. But the idea of the scene, in the five hours of rushes for that sequence, we shot in a variety of ways. It’s rare in a documentary film that you have a repetitive act. So when you do, you can shoot it in different ways so that you have more choices when you’re sitting down to edit that sequence six months later.

JONES: Same issue with Boxing Gym [2010], right?

WISEMAN: Boxing Gym was not quite the same. It was always the same sort of event but not always the same participants. The boxing thing wouldn’t be in the same category as the sardine factory or the killing floor in Meat [1976]. So in the editing of the sardine factory sequence, I had many choices. And I chose to, in a sense, follow the sardine in a series of tight shots. But the goal was not only to provide the literal information about how a sardine is canned, but to suggest, on a more abstract level, what it felt like to be a worker on that assembly line, and ask: How would you feel if you did that for ten or twelve years for eight hours a day? I knew I wanted to get a lot of close-ups and a lot of wide shots. I ended up using the close-ups. And again, the idea was an illustration of the literal and the abstract in one sequence. It’s always in one sequence. So you’re able to reach the emotional aspect, as well as the literal, as well as the abstract—the implications of working in a sardine factory and how a sardine gets canned.

JONES: Would you say that it was with Public Housing [1997] that you really found the form of moving in and out, going from wide to close and back? I became aware of it in Belfast, Maine, this way of surveying a greater area, then zeroing in on something, going gradually inside, staying, then back outside, and so on—wide to close and back again, a rhythm of focus.

WISEMAN: You have to find the rhythm for each film. A film like In Jackson Heights or Belfast, Maine, where there are a lot of different locations, presents a different set of problems than a film like Welfare, where you’re in one building, moving around from office to office or floor to floor—which, in a sense, is the equivalent of going from location to location. A lot of the issues of rhythm are found in the editing because it’s very rare that any sequence is the sequence that is shot. The most extreme example is in the chancellor’s cabinet meetings in At Berkeley [2013]. I mean, they went on for an hour and a half, and the longest meeting scene in the movie is maybe nine or ten minutes. But that isn’t a consecutive nine or ten minutes; it’s 20 seconds here, 30 seconds there, edited together to appear as if it took place the way you’re looking at it.

JONES: What about something like National Gallery [2014], where you’re confronted with the problems of how to film a painting and people looking at paintings, or La Danse [2009], where you’re confronted with the problem of how to film dance?

WISEMAN: In each of those cases, I made a similar decision. For La Danse, I’d seen too many bad movies where the dance was at the service of the shooting, the filmmaker imposing his interpretation on the choreographer. I wanted to see as much as possible of the dances, I wanted to use wide shots so that you see the dancers, the partnering, the steps, the whole body. And similarly, I made the decision for National Gallery that, when it was possible, I would shoot inside the frame of the painting. Because that way, the painting became much more alive. It became less of an object. If you’re inside the frame, then—particularly with the Renaissance paintings, with paintings before the 20th century—you can use the technique of movies to tell the story of the painting. You can break the painting down into sequences. For me, one of the subtexts or themes of National Gallery was: How do you tell a story? How do you tell a story in a movie? In a painting? In a poem? In a ballet? All that’s in the film.

JONES: It’s also about the wonder and curiosity and attention that people bring to looking at the paintings as they find the stories within them.

WISEMAN: Right. But in an abstract sense, it’s a movie about how you tell a story in different forms.

JONES: As you were talking about La Danse, I thought about the fact that you’ve spent so much of your time for the last I don’t know how many years in Paris. You’re there for most of the year at this point, right?

WISEMAN: I’ve been here since about 2000, at least six, seven months a year.

JONES: It almost qualifies you for ex-patriot status. Does it give you a different perspective when you come back to make films in the U.S.?

WISEMAN: It’s hard for me to say. I doubt it. I have the same gimlet-eyed view whether I’m here or there.

JONES: [laughs] I know it seems like an obvious question, but what is it about Paris that you love?

WISEMAN: It’s a beautiful city to walk around in. And, you know, all the obvious things: I like the museums, I like the theater, I like the dance. And it’s manageable. The food’s good. I know a lot of interesting people here. I lived in Boston for 50 years or more. Wherever I am, I’m usually holed up most of the time in the editing room, and so, when I leave the editing room, even if I just take a walk, it’s gorgeous. And I walk everywhere. I’m a victim of the seduction of Paris.

JONES: Editing rooms aren’t what they used to be, right? Now you can rig up an editing room anywhere.

WISEMAN: Yeah. It used to take four people to bring the flatbed up the stairs. Now you just need a computer and a hard drive and a screen.

JONES: You could do it in your apartment.

WISEMAN: Right. But I don’t do it in my apartment, because if I worked in my apartment, I’d never leave my apartment. Now, at least I need to walk 20 minutes to my editing room.

JONES: I remember a few years back you told me that you had a big summer reading project: all of Chekhov’s short stories.

WISEMAN: It’s a great thing to do. It’s such a pleasure to do that! It’s almost like having a conversation with somebody much smarter than I am.

JONES: As is the case right now, of course. [laughs]

WISEMAN: Well, that’s why I brought it up.

JONES: Before, you mentioned the same problems are solved in different forms, but you didn’t mention music.

WISEMAN: Music I’m not very knowledgeable about, so it’s hard for me to say. Unfortunately, I never played an instrument. I can’t blame my parents, but I wish I had had music lessons. It’s odd because I think I have a good sense of rhythm, as they say in some fields. But I don’t know anything about music.

JONES: Your films often feel very musical to me. If your parents didn’t pay for lessons, there’s nothing I can do about it. [laughs]

WISEMAN: I can tell you who had the top ten songs in the hit parade in 1943. And I can sing and/or hum “Chattanooga Choo Choo.” And I still think Glenn Miller is being held prisoner somewhere.

JONES: [laughs] On the island with Amelia Earhart.

WISEMAN: And Leslie Howard.

JONES: Okay. That covers a lot of ground, right?

WISEMAN: Yeah, we covered a lot of ground. I’m about to go to bed. It’s 11:30.

JONES: Take care of yourself!