At age 90, Frederick Wiseman is one of those living American masters who would, in a better world, need no introduction. And yet, as a pioneer of documentary filmmaking, he has often worked on the margins, with small crews and on non-sexy projects that dive deep into the nuts and bolts of everyday life of institutions like mental hospitals, police departments, libraries, stores, meatpacking plants, high schools, gyms, dance companies. PKM is honored to shine some light on Wiseman’s body of work. Benito Vila, who specializes in diving deep into subjects, tracked down Mr. Wiseman, who agreed to talk about his life and career.
My films are about institutions, the place is the star. I have no precise definition of “institution” other than a place that has existed for a while and that has fairly circumscribed geographical boundaries and where the staff is thought to be trying to do a good job…The cumulative effect is to try to provide an impressionistic portrait, obviously incomplete, of some aspect of American life as reflected through institutions important for the functioning of American society.
– Frederick Wiseman [From “A Sketch of Life”, the autobiographical notes to Frederick Wiseman, published by The Museum of Modern Art in 2010]
The acclaimed documentarian Frederick Wiseman has shown the world how America works since the mid-1960s, filming people on the job, and on the scene, at various cultural and civic institutions. In all, Wiseman has directed, edited and produced 45 films, providing his audience an insiders’ view of health facilities, high schools, dance companies, law courts, police departments, military training, public housing, fashion shows, a monastery, a racetrack, each setting bringing people together for a specific reason at a specific locale for a specific timeframe. Forty-one of his 45 films have earned industry awards [including Emmy Awards for Law and Order (1969) and Hospital (1970)], and he has won numerous lifetime achievement awards, Guggenheim and MacArthur fellowships. With his work, Wiseman has influenced societal perspectives on what is considered “normal”, for example, bluntly revealing the day-to-day goings-on within meat-processing plants and plainly showing the cruelty that was once considered “care” for mentally ill patients.
His on-screen stories have also captured the lives of caged animals, the complexity of the welfare system and the mindset of people driven to box, gamble, garden and teach. Wiseman’s work has been funded by a mix of public and private sources, his primary backers consisting of the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Independent Television Service, the Ford, MacArthur and Diamond Foundations, The National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Wiseman goes into each “work site”, with little more than a hunch and a three-person crew consisting of himself (as sound man and director), a cameraman and an assistant. He only visits the site for a day or two before his shooting starts and Wiseman calls the shooting of his film “the research.”
Wiseman’s path to his filmmaking awards and his underground acclaim was far from direct. After college, law school, and military service, Wiseman, who claims not to have excelled in any of those institutions, took a position teaching at Boston University School of Law in the late 1950s. To make that course work more interesting for himself and his classes, he started taking his students out of the classroom, into prisons, parole board hearings, medical examiners’ offices, mental hospitals, courtrooms and social welfare agencies. Wiseman saw those as places his students would soon find themselves in and he thought they should learn how to handle themselves in those settings. Oddly, it was Wiseman, the out-of-the-box professor, who would revisit those locales and study them anew. This time, with a camera crew.
Wiseman started his film career in 1961 by optioning the rights to Warren Miller’s 1959 novel The Cool World, which depicted teenage gangs in Harlem and a proud culture confounded by drug use, poverty and racial prejudice. A fan and admirer of The Connection, a 1961 film which follows a young moviemaker’s attempt to film junkies waiting for their heroin dealer to arrive, Wiseman was inspired to ask its director and editor, Shirley Clarke, to sign on to the film version of The Cool World.
As the film’s producer, he found the movie-making process was “both a depressing and liberating experience––depressing because of all the difficulties in financing, making and distributing the movie, and liberating because my experience working on the production completely demystified the process of filmmaking for me.” [A 1963 release, The Cool World was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 1994.]
After The Cool World, Wiseman set off to make movies he would direct, produce and edit himself and soon found himself drawn to making a film about the Massachusetts Correctional Institute at Bridgewater, a maximum security prison with an inmate population divided into four sections: the criminally insane, alcoholics, defective delinquents and sexual offenders. Wiseman had visited the prison five times over a three-year period with his college students, leading him to befriend its superintendent. It was there at the prison, in shooting 80,000 feet of film over a 29-day period in 1966, that Wiseman first implemented his three-man crew, and, afterwards, first honed his build-the-story-in-the-edit approach. The latter proved to be a year-long process, one that yielded the 84-minute film Titicut Follies [the title being taken from the talent show put on by the inmates].
First shown at the 1967 New York Film Festival, Titicut Follies had limited exposure, especially after Massachusetts legislators tried to suppress the film claiming it invaded the privacy of the inmates. In truth Titicut Follies was, as Roger Ebert described it: “more immediate than fiction because these people are real; more savage than satire because it seems to be neutral. We are literally taken into a madhouse. Inmates of varying degrees of mental illness are treated with the same casual inhumanity.” Ebert also described Titicut Follies as “one of the most despairing documentaries I have ever seen…The film is not of high technical quality. It was shot with available sound and light under difficult conditions. But its message penetrates all the same.”
When I got on the phone with Wiseman last month, I found he speaks with the cadence and energy of a curious person. He’s ageless at 90. He’s also as unpretentious about himself as he is about his films and their subject matter. I asked how he wanted to be addressed and he said, “Just call me Fred.”
PKM: What brings you to Paris?
Fred Wiseman: I spend a good part of each year here. I often do my post-production here, the edit, the color grading and the mix. I’m just finishing up a film.
PKM: Why Paris, as opposed to elsewhere?
Fred Wiseman: The food’s good.
Fred Wiseman: I like Paris. It’s a beautiful city and I walk everywhere. I’ve lived in Boston all my life, a little bit in New York. It’s the usual business: Americans like Paris while the French like New York or San Francisco. I’ve made movies here, one about the Paris Opera Ballet and one about The Comédie–Française. As a result, I did something I have rarely done in making my other movies. I made friends with actors and dancers from The Comédie–Française and the Paris Opera Ballet. I also like the theater here and I go to a lot of dance performances. If you count Boxing Gym as a dance movie, which I do, I’ve made four dance movies [the others are Ballet, Crazy Horse, and La Danse].
PKM: What is it about dance that draws you in?
Fred Wiseman: The beauty of the movements and the ephemeral, transitory nature of each performance.
PKM: What were the first films you remember seeing as a kid?
Fred Wiseman: Laurel and Hardy, and The Marx Brothers. My father was a lawyer in Boston and he belonged to something called The City Club [a non-partisan civic organization without economic, political or religious bias]. I would take the subway downtown and meet him for lunch there on Saturdays because he worked Saturday mornings. After lunch, the City Club had kids’ movies we would go see. The Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy and The Three Stooges. Those were the kids’ movies, or thought to be kids’ movies. The Marx Brothers and Laurel and Hardy are very sophisticated actually, depending on how you look at what’s going on. It was those movies, Tarzan movies and The March of Time.
PKM: What was The March of Time?
Fred Wiseman: The March of Time was a weekly half-hour movie, a documentary newsreel done by Time magazine. It covered current events and a new version came out every Saturday. When the Second World War started, it covered that and it covered domestic politics. Television didn’t exist then. It was basically a half-hour visual news program shot on film that came out weekly.
PKM: What influence did all those films have on you?
Fred Wiseman: Who knows? The whole question of influence is one I don’t know how to answer because so many things come into that. I could start with my childhood. I could start with the books I’ve read, the people I know. If I were to name the things that have influenced me, I don’t know how accurate I would be. The things I would select first would be the Marx Brothers and Buster Keaton. Second would be my mother, who was an extremely good mimic. I had living theater at home all the time. She used to mimic all the people she’d meet in the course of the day, and she was very, very funny. She could meet somebody for 20 seconds and get the way they talked, their characteristic gestures, hand, or facial, or body, movements, absolutely cold, and she knew how to caricature them. That probably was the biggest influence of all: the things that made me laugh. I remember laughing a lot at the Marx Brothers, Buster Keaton, Abbott and Costello, The Three Stooges, Laurel and Hardy. About ten years ago, the IFC Cinema in New York asked me to pick my favorite documentary and talk after it. I picked Duck Soup and I talked about it as a documentary with a straight face. In many ways, it’s a very contemporary film. I’ve seen it maybe 15 times, and I laugh each time.
PKM: How is Duck Soup still contemporary?
Fred Wiseman: When you watch it you know.
PKM: OK. You mentioned books. Who were the authors, what were the ideas and themes that you liked to read about as a kid?
Fred Wiseman: I read the usual adventure stories. I listened to a lot of serials on the radio like Jack Armstrong: All American Boy, Fibber McGee and Molly, and The Shadow. I was scared early on by The Shadow because it used to start with the line, “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows.” It would go on for a half hour and scare the bejeezus out of this six or seven-year old. I remember the narrator was named Lamont Cranston. He had a double life as The Shadow who dealt with evil in the world.
As I said before, the whole question of influence is one I never know how to answer. I was probably influenced by the anti-Semitism that existed here in America in the ‘30s and beyond, and by the happenings in Europe that led up to the Second World War. My father came to America from Russia when he was five. He was very involved in following what went on in Europe after the rise of Hitler. The Nazi takeover in Germany and the lead up to the Second World War were important elements of my childhood. Both my parents were very politically aware and involved. Political issues, particularly the imminence of the Second World War, were discussed all the time.
We listened to the radio at dinner every night. There were these great war correspondents. William L. Shirer in Berlin, Edward R. Murrow and Eric Sevareid from London, and Elmer Davis, who was in Washington. As a kid, I followed the war very closely. I still remember listening to Hitler on the radio and I remember the magnetic quality of his voice. I remember a speech he gave in Nuremberg in 1937. I was seven years old. The existence of anti-Semitism in America had a big effect on me. I remember we would to listen to the anti-Semitic speeches of Father [Charles] Coughlin, who was a Catholic priest, who gave an anti-Semitic rant every Sunday on the radio nationwide. Anti-Semitism was much more prevalent then––I don’t think it, or any kind of racism, ever goes away––but it was much more on the surface, right there on your face, when I grew up.
PKM: That must have been tough to listen to as a kid.
Fred Wiseman: It was. My parents made it clear to me that I had to understand, or try to understand, it. They were horrified by it and they wanted me to know what was going on. They did not shelter me from the world. In 1947, I went to Williams [College in Williamstown, Mass.]. Academically it was very good, but, when I went there after the war, Jews weren’t admitted to fraternities. As a somewhat naive 17-year-old leaving home for the first time, the fraternity system was a big shock to me. It was where I first directly experienced anti-Semitism.
PKM: How did you deal with that?
Fred Wiseman: I dealt with it as best I could. I was unhappy. We had to show up at Williams a week before classes started freshman year in order to pledge for the fraternities, but I didn’t know the fraternities didn’t take any Jews. My two roommates, my freshman year, were taken into a fraternity. That was basis of the social system at Williams: you ate at, and in your third and fourth year you lived in, your fraternity. The people who weren’t taken into a fraternity ate at something called The Garfield Club. In retrospect, the most interesting people in the college were at The Garfield Club, but at the time, we considered ourselves a band of rejects because we weren’t taken into the fraternity system. We basically felt left out. It was unpleasant but, on the other hand, it taught me a bit about the way of the world.
PKM: I’m sure you made friends with the other guys who felt like rejects or misfits. What did you misfits end up doing? Who was part of that group?
Fred Wiseman: Yes, I did and they were actually quite an interesting bunch. Some wanted to be writers, novelists or poets. Some wanted to go to medical school. It was worse for the non-Jews who weren’t taken into the fraternities because us Jews felt that we didn’t get in because we were Jews, but the non-Jews felt they didn’t get in because there was something wrong with them. Anti-Semitism was quite rampant in America before the Second World War. Harvard, for example, had a Jewish quota that it didn’t get rid of until after the Second World War. Yale had a Jewish quota until 1960. And a lot of very well known public figures were openly anti-Semitic. Charles Lindbergh. Henry Ford. Just to name two prominent people. [Novelist] Philip Roth perfectly conveyed my childhood in A Plot Against America. His childhood in Newark was exactly like my childhood in Boston, even though he’s a couple of years younger than I.
PKM: Your films celebrate what others might call the mundane. They’re ordinary places, places where people wouldn’t expect the sort of magic you’ve found in them, whether it be a high school or Central Park or a racetrack. How did you know to go there?
Philip Roth perfectly conveyed my childhood in A Plot Against America. His childhood in Newark was exactly like my childhood in Boston, even though he’s a couple of years younger than I.
Fred Wiseman: I don’t know if I can truly answer that question. When I was shooting Titicut Follies , I had the obvious thought that I could do other places, and other institutions, in the same way I was shooting in a prison for the criminally insane. It seemed to me that the logical “follow” for a film on the criminally insane was a high school.
Fred Wiseman: That’s how I got started doing institutions. I had a long list of those and there’s still a long list. I never liked the idea of making a movie about one person, because when you make a movie about a place where there are a lot of people, there’s greater opportunity to come across interesting events, whereas if you make it about one person, you’re restricted to their day-to-day activities. Institutions were fresh film material when I got started making Titicut Follies. It was only in the late ‘50s that the technology was invented that made it possible to shoot sync sound without the camera and the tape recorder being connected by a cable. This technological development opened up the world as a subject for documentary filmmaking. I took advantage of that new filmmaking technology. It was relatively easy to master. I liked doing it, and I still like doing it.
PKM: What insights do you go after or come away with? For example, I read that making Law and Order changed your view on police.
I had the obvious thought that I could do other places, and other institutions, in the same way I was shooting in a prison for the criminally insane. It seemed to me that the logical “follow” for a film on the criminally insane was a high school.
Fred Wiseman: I never start with an idea except that the subject might be a good subject. Beyond that, there are no other facts for me to work with. I knew nothing about the police at that time except what I had read in The New York Times and other newspapers. I had never spent time with any police before I made the movie, but it wasn’t much of a gamble to think that police activity might make an interesting movie. I never start with a theme or a point of view. I always start with the notion that if I hang around a particular place long enough, I’ll find the themes, I’ll find the point of view, and I’ll have enough material to cut a film. I always discover the film in the editing. I have no idea in advance of what I am going to find, or the length or the point of view of the scenes. In making Law and Order I learned a lot. I had a better idea of what people do to each other, the behavior that makes police necessary. This is not to condone police brutality, but to consider it as part of the human brutality that makes police necessary.
It was only in the late ‘50s that the technology was invented that made it possible to shoot sync sound without the camera and the tape recorder being connected by a cable. This technological development opened up the world as a subject for documentary filmmaking.
PKM: What role do you see the camera having? Do you see it as a device to record or is it a catalyst?
Fred Wiseman: I don’t think it’s a catalyst. Different people have different views about that. I don’t think the camera changes behavior. In my experience, the Heisenberg Principle does not apply to documentary filmmaking [That’s an “uncertainty” theorem of quantum physics suggesting the more precise one aspect of an interaction is, the less certain other aspects of that same interaction will likely be]. In making my movies, I see people in situations similar to the ones I’m shooting and their behavior is no different than when the camera is not running. The words can be different because it’s a somewhat different situation, but their behavior is the same. And most people aren’t talented enough to become actors. My bullshit meter registers if I think people are acting and, if that’s happening, I stop shooting. It doesn’t mean I’m always right, but anybody doing documentaries has to develop a good bullshit meter.
It’s the same bullshit meter that operates in my daily life if I meet somebody and I think they are conning or bullshitting me. The experience is the same when I’m making a movie. If I think someone is reacting to the camera, I stop shooting. This happens so rarely, as not to be a problem. Also, I don’t think people have the capacity, unless they’re really good actors, to become somebody else. If they don’t want their picture taken, they say “no”, or walk away or thumb their nose, or in some way make it clear that they don’t want to be photographed or recorded. If people had the capacity to change their behavior or their gestures, or their choice of words because a picture was being taken, and do it in a convincing way, then everybody would be an actor. The level of acting in Hollywood and Broadway would be much greater than it is because the pool would be larger to choose from. Not everybody is Meryl Streep.
My bullshit meter registers if I think people are acting and, if that’s happening, I stop shooting. It doesn’t mean I’m always right, but anybody doing documentaries has to develop a good bullshit meter.
PKM: What do you see as a connecting thread in your work? Is there one?
Fred Wiseman: I’m making films about ordinary experience, as that experience is filtered through institutions that are important in the daily functioning of American life. Every country has a high school, an army, a police department, a hospital, a museum, a dance company. The form those take is different in different places. I’m making movies about common human experiences, which differ from place to place because traditions, customs and habits differ. But the basic experiences are the same. I think my subject is ordinary experience. I attempt to create a dramatic structure drawn from ordinary experience and un-staged, everyday events.
PKM: What subjects do you want to know more about?
Fred Wiseman: I’m always secretive and slightly paranoid about films I am working on. I don’t like to talk about the next film until it’s done. But I’ll tell you I’m just finishing up a film on Boston City Hall. The editing is done, so I don’t mind mentioning it. I don’t know what I’m going to do after that.
PKM: How do you come up with a topic? Using your process, every human gathering place could be made into a movie. Just the waiting for a ticket, the waiting to board a train or a plane brings together characters that interact, who behave a specific way over a specific time. Have you ever done an airport or a transportation hub?
Fred Wiseman: No, I haven’t done an airport or a hub of any sort. And yes, there are lots of good subjects. I, in no way, think I’ve covered everything. I think it’s impossible to cover everything. I’m doing my best. I’m trying to push it up to 50 films before I die, so I may have to make a few five-minute films to reach my goal, but that’s my goal. I make movies about any subject that interests me and that I want to spend a year studying.
I’m making movies about common human experiences, which differ from place to place because traditions, customs and habits differ. But the basic experiences are the same.
PKM: 50 films? Where are you now?
Fred Wiseman: 45. If I reach 50, then I’ll say 55, and then I’ll say 60. That’s probably unrealistic, but I’m hoping to reach 50.
PKM: How did you get along with your filmmaking contemporaries, like D.A. Pennebaker, Richard Leacock and the Maysles brothers? Or someone like Errol Morris, who is younger?
Fred Wiseman: I didn’t really know them. I probably met Richard Leacock and D.A. Pennebaker five or six times each, mainly at film festivals. The Maysles, I met once or twice. Errol Morris is a friend of mine. I admire his work a lot. He’s a very smart and extremely funny man.
PKM: Are there any in-jokes when documentary filmmakers get together?
Fred Wiseman: No. When documentary filmmakers get together, the principal subject is money: who’s getting it, and the jealousy as to why they’re getting it and you’re not. Or, the subject is technical stuff. What microphone do you use? Do you like the MK42XRL43 better than the ZMQRP2?
PKM: Aren’t you guys somewhat like police officers on a stakeout?
Fred Wiseman: Yes, that’s right.
PKM: Do stakeout stories come up?
Fred Wiseman: No. With the exception of Errol, who I see when I’m in Boston, I don’t really know many documentary filmmakers. My friends are mainly writers or actors or dancers.
PKM: If you hadn’t picked film as your medium, what other art form do you think would have suited you?
Fred Wiseman: Writing novels. I don’t know if it would have suited me or not, and I don’t know whether I’d be able to do it, but I like to read. At the risk of sounding pretentious, I think the editing of my movies has something in common with writing. Writing a novel is obviously different in major ways, but it’s similar in some ways because I have to deal with a lot of the same issues: abstractions, passage of time, metaphor, characterization, et cetera. The form in which I do it is different but the abstract issues are similar.
PKM: Let’s assume you’ve been a novelist instead, and you’re looking back at all your work, would there be any recurring themes?
Fred Wiseman: The theme would still be the one I mentioned a moment ago, which is ordinary experience. My job as an editor is to dramatize, that is, find a dramatic structure for the film version of ordinary experience. Without structure there is no movie. Whether anybody agrees with me or not, or finds it, I spend a lot of time working out a dramatic structure. I have to select the sequences I want to use, edit them into a self-explanatory form and imagine their proper order. For example, my shooting ratio is often as much as 40 or 50 to 1 [shooting time to screen time]. I don’t have the same flexibility as a writer. A writer is only limited by his or her imagination. I’m limited by how my imagination works as I try to think my way through the rushes. My imagination has to construct a story based on the rushes. If I don’t create a story, then it doesn’t work as a movie. It’s just a series of isolated events.
PKM: What’s needed to tell a good story?
Fred Wiseman: Ideas. And in my case, my mind has to function in response to the material I have in the rushes. I have to think about ways of organizing, editing the individual sequences. First, I have to think about which individual sequences I want to use. I have to deceive myself into thinking that I understand what’s going on in each sequence. For the sequences where I feel that I understand what’s going on, and that I want to use, I have to figure out how to compress them into a usable form. Then I have to decide out where to place them in relationship to each other and what the significance of that placement is. By the time I finish editing a film, I have to be able to explain to myself why each shot is where it is, why each sequence is where it is and what the relationship of the sequences are to each other and how the beginning of the film is related to the end of the film. I have to be able to provide myself with a verbal rationale as to why I’ve made the choices and explain to myself the reason they are arranged in the order I have selected.
PKM: What’s needed to tell a great story?
Fred Wiseman: First of all, it’s not up to me to characterize whether a story is a great story or not. What I’ve just described to you is the process. I try to derive from that process the best story I can. It would be presumptuous or pretentious of me to characterize any of the films I’ve done as good or great. What I try to do is the best job I can with the materials that I have. Naturally I like it if someone else likes the film or responds to the film, or uses the right admiring adjectives in relation to the film, but that’s not my job. My job is to do the best I can with the material I have and, then, to make another one.
PKM: Fair enough. John Van Hamersveld describes his job as a graphic designer as putting together puzzles. It seems you see your work in much the same way.
Fred Wiseman: It is a puzzle. Editing each one of my films is a puzzle. It’s a mosaic. The editing is discovering the design. I’ve never made a puzzle, but you probably start with a story or a picture, and then cut it out in certain ways. I go another way. I start with the cutting and end up with the design.
PKM: Most people go about making a puzzle by starting with the frame. They set all the flat-sided pieces aside first.
Fred Wiseman: Yes, but I’m talking about creating the puzzle, not just assembling it after you buy it at the store, not just bringing a puzzle home to put together. When I have all the rushes, there’s nothing together. I only have loose pieces and I have to find what I think are going to be the corners.