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Fictions and Other Realities: An Interview with Frederick Wiseman

By John Gianvito

Ever since the controversial and dramatic first appearance of Titicut Follies in 1967, Frederick Wiseman has steadfastly charted a unique course in documentary film. He has produced, directed, and edited 24 films in as many years, most recently the award-winning six-hour Near Death and his paean to New York City's Central Park.

Working from within the cinéma vérité tradition of employing light-weight hand-held equipment to observationally explore situations with no intended interference, Wiseman re-modelled this tradition with a variation he frequently characterizes as "reality fictions" or "reality dreams". Through further splintering and reorganizing his amassed material during editing, Wiseman fashions these "reality fictions" with an accent on the material 's dramatic suggestiveness and on "situation and character," and with an unassertive, yet clear interest in the theoretical and associative meanings of his construction.

The stylistic hallmarks of the 'Wiseman method' are well known, bordering on the formulaic: the selection of a public 'institution' in the broad sense of the word; virtually no research done in advance; once permission is secured, embarking as soon as possible on a lengthy shooting period of usually 6-8 weeks in which Wiseman customarily takes sound, directing intimately alongside a single cameraman and assistant. Never is there a spoken commentary, and Wiseman has refused the device of interviewing his subjects, once stating somewhat cynically, "That 's where you get all the formal, pompous bullshit."Afterwards, Wiseman sets into an extended and considered editing phase before the film's usual first screening on public television. The result, generally speaking, is a film intent on seeking out the myriad shades of grey in a situation. Wiseman does not allow for any response which doesn't take into account the complexities involved in judging anyone or in furthering solutions (in those films in which dilemmas of one kind or another are evinced).

Far from the hit and run documentary for the MTV generation pyrotechnics of Mark Frost's current American Chronicles, Wiseman's for­mat not only allows for but demands audience meditation upon the work. Regarding audience response, he has said, "in a sense they have to fight the film, they have to say, 'What the hell is he trying to say with this?'—if indeed I'm saying anything. "While there is in this great generosity and respect for audience intelligence, it is perhaps too great, too openhanded. The very evidence proffered from Wiseman's institution—films would indicate people's difficulty in looking beyond the trees of everyday incident to the forest of social structure and idea, or of being able to see a means by which they could truly gain control over their lives and dismantle the forces of concentrated power. As I spoke to Wiseman in the following interview it was this issue of efficacy and form which became the focal point of our discussion.


Regarding his later historical films, which some people find very dry and distanced, Roberto Rossellini once remarked that, "All the emotions come either from the screen or from you. What I try to do is be very honest and so inside yourself you develop an emotion—there is nothing wrong with that. But I don't want to convey my emotions and I don't want to capture emotions. It 's a very subtle point, but very important. It would be easy to make people cry... to remain detached is very hard. " How do you feel about the place of your emotions in your work?

[long pause]

That's a good question. I think my films are detached in a sense that they are not promoting a particular ideological explanation and in the sense that they are expressions of my curiosity. And they are detached in the sense, though I'm not sure if detached is the right word, that I am interested in complexity, and sometimes an effort at a complex analysis can be confused with detachment. But they are not detached in the sense that I am passionately involved in the process of making the best film I can from the material and fairly representing the experience I had in all aspects of the making of the film.


Are you consciously aware as you are assembling your film of holding back from emotionally underlining a sequence or from employing cinematic techniques to bring a particular feeling to the surface?

No. No. I think quite the contrary. I mean, I think what works best in this kind of documentary filmmaking is the expression of strong feelings and comedy. And what works least well are situations or events that are based on too complex a factual base. There is a distinction between the emotion of a sequence as it's expressed by the participants in the sequence and my reaction to their expression of feeling. I always feel it's my job to accurately convey the intensity of their response, and my response is conveyed by my decision to include the sequence in the film, the way I cut the sequence—its internal structure and the relationship of the individual sequences to the overall structure of the film. So that my responses are indirectly conveyed by the choices I make. But I don't try to diminish that feeling or to heighten it by film tricks, either editing sound or shooting tricks. It seems to me you really can't do that. I mean you can do it, but it is so transparent that you the filmmaker ultimately make a fool of yourself by trying to do it, either in the sense of being a wise guy or just having it appear as sloppy. However, I say this in the context of recognizing that every aspect of a film is manipulation since it involves choice.


At some point you decided that your responses to the material are to be, as you say, 'indirectly expressed' and that, as a whole, tends to take on a kind of self-effacing quality, rendering the films, particularly some of the more recent films, less clear and analytical to some people, for me less cogent, and for someone like David Thompson, making them sometimes seem "like unattended films, sustained by the listless momentum of the system and the demoralized complicity of all of us who are involved in it."

Well, I try not to make my films simpleminded. I see no point in making a movie that confirms the prejudices that I started with or the bromides that anybody else has. Part of the fun for me is the discovery process. The point of view which I start with is that I don't know much about these subjects, so I try to learn something about them. And what I've learned is what the final film represents. I think that should be a different view than the one started with. Otherwise the film would not reflect what I have learned. But it's not really, from my point of view, self­ effacing—it's more self discovering because what I'm trying to do in the final film is give expression to what I think about the experience I had in making the film. And that is what the final film is. It 's not an effacement of self, it's actually a revealing of my view. A revelation in the sense that I'm finding out for myself what I think. If any­ one else wants to respond to it or see it differently that's their right. My films do not conceal what Ithink, they state what I think. I happen not to like sloganeering analyses of issues that I think are complicated.


It sounds like what you like to do is enter a situation, explore it as fully as you are able to, open up the various complexities that are at stake at any of these institutions, and then bring this knowledge forward so that any interested party that wants to can make or take what they want.

That's one aspect of it. But I wouldn't characterize any single part as the principle one. An element that is important to me is the novelistic aspect. I wouldn't want to read a novel where I know how it's going to come out after I read the first paragraph or, if after reading the first two pages, I Know the author 's politics. I'm interested in the exploration, in film terms, of the relationship between situation and character. And part of what you or someone may be describing as detachment is, unless it sounds too pretentious, using these found sequences in a more novelistic way. The novel is the model for me. I try through indirect statement and obliqueness, which is not the same thing as being obscure, to create a film that has some resonance.


I'm interested in how the form of the film enables the audience to construct the meaning.

The audience is placed in the middle of these events and asked to think through their own relationship to what they are seeing and hearing. They are asked to ask themselves why I have selected and arranged the material in this particular form. While constructing their own movie out of the material they are asked to reconstruct the form I have chosen. The form of the film is to some extent dictated by the subject of the film. To take an obvious example, the form of Near Death is different from the form of Central Park. One of the reasons the form is different is that Central Park is not so dependent on talk ; it is more of a movie where the pictures tell the story and the sequences are short and each shot that I've used is meant to suggest a story. Whether it's the story of some homeless person or a kid playing hopscotch or some lovers on a bench or in the grass or whatever it may be, the experience of being in Central Park is different than the experience of being in an intensive care unit. In the intensive care unit Follow the same people over a period of three or four weeks. As a result I, and consequently the audience for the film, get to know the people in a different way than you get to know the people in Central Park. This isn't necessarily more complete, it's just different. This difference has a major effect on the form of the film.


In each of these farms you've stated that you're exploring the theme of the relationship between people and authority, and—

Well, but that's too simpleminded. I know I've said it, but you know, maybe I shouldn't have said it.


But it's the grand theme, no?

And I said it a long time ago. And I am doing that, in part, and I don't retract it, but I also don't like to say "Well, in the films that I've made the following six themes are represented, and one of them is the relationship of people and authority." I have made many films about people in their relationship with state-supported institutions, but I never start making a film from the point of view of that kind of abstraction. That's only afterwards when you're bullshitting about it.


What led you to Central Park? To Central Park in 1988?

Well, because I've lived in New York on and off at different times and I've walked a lot in the park and it just seemed to me that it was a terrific subject for a movie. There was a lot going on, there was a lot of action. I was responding to this great park in the middle of New York City that is constantly used by hundreds of thousands of people. It was an opportunity to look at all different aspects of human behavior. That's what motivated me.I had no idea how the movie was going to come out. Why make the movie if you can state the themes in 25 words or less.


When you're focusing on ordinary and potentially banal material, I imagine there is concern at times about how fine this line becomes between that which is compelling in the commonplace and that which is just commonplace, and whether you will have material strong enough to support a film?

That's always the risk, but that's the risk in a lot of movies that I've made. I could make the argument that's the subject of all my movies—ordinary experience. If You hang around enough and are lucky enough and patient enough, you come across events that are funnier, sadder and more dramatic than anything except things in the greatest literature, and you're just lucky enough to be there and have the opportunity to record them when they are going on. I think the great subject for me is ordinary experience. I'm willing to take the risk of recording ordinary experience. It's risk I've taken a lot and from my point of view I haven't been disappointed.


In an interview back in '73 you stated, "I no longer have the view that I had in the beginning that there might be some direct relationship between what I was able to show in these films and the achievement of social change. "I am curious if you still harbor this feeling that the film medium is not powerful enough to break into people's hearts and effect change, or do you feel this pertains more to the nature of your films?

There is an extraordinary level of pretension associated with the relationship between film and social change, particularly documentary and social change. I guess I came to find a lot of that funny, because it was just so unrelated to my own experience. The thing I find presumptuous about the view, and it is a view that I held in the beginning, is first, that the film is so strong that it is going to change people. There is a second assumption that the people the film has influenced don't have access to other sources of information or hold other and diversely shaded opinions. Part of the assumption is that they don't read books, they don't see other movies, they don't read the newspaper. A documentary film is only one of many sources of information. It may contribute to a change in a person's view. However, its contribution is not measurable. It is more elliptical. It is subterranean. The process of social change is somewhat more mysterious than the people who self-righteously announce some kind of one-to-one connection between their work and social change believe. All that really does is give them a nice warm glow and make them feel important. I don't think most people in the audience are that stupid. Suppose I could make a rtlm that might influence ten people, and somebody else might make a film that influences a hundred people and some really great filmmaker would make a film that influences a thousand people and then a really genius filmmaker would make a film that would influence 10,000 people. All these people would all be out in the streets running around in different directions influenced by these filmmakers. I just don't think anyone work whether it's film or otherwise is that important or that influential.


You've never had a film that's changed your life or an experience or an encounter with a film, or for that matter any work of art, the contact with which profoundly made a difference in your life?

No, I mean that sounds like some 1950s ladies magazine or the Reader's Digest question. My Most Unforgettable Experience?


Working with your cameraman how do you instill a sense of your aesthetic in terms of composition, in terms of movement?

We talk a lot about it.


From shot to shot?

From shot to shot, and when we're watching rushes. We're talking about it in one way or another all day long and all night long.


Let's talk a little bit about Near Death. To start with, at what point during the process did you realize you might be looking at a six hour film and did that pose any special concern for you?

Soon after I Got into it I realized it was going to be a long film, but I didn't know it was going to be a six-hour film. I realized that there was no way that I could even begin to suggest the complexities of the issues in an hour-and-a­ half or two. I realized this after I spent time with just one family and saw the number of conversations that took place, the repetitive nature of the conversations, and the echoes of these conversations. For example, a doctor might have originally had a conversation about termination of treatment with a family member. The doctor would then tell the nurse about the talk. The family member would tell another family member who would then have a meeting with two other family members and then would call up a third. Then conversation would be reported in a nurses meeting, and then talked about on rounds. What interested me was the process. I realized once I got into it that this was going to be a long movie. I didn't know how long and I never really know how long any of my movies are going to be until I begin to edit them. Not even at the beginning of the editing, but only when I'm well along in the editing.


Why do you use black and white film for so many of your films?

From my point of view there are more gradations and it's more stylized­ looking than color. I've done 16 films in black and white. I like to look at it. I've made nine films in color. I did the films in color because I thought the situation demanded color. For example, I made the four films about the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind in color because color was absent from the lives of some of the students. So color is a character in a sense in those movies. The Store had to be done in color because color was an element in the de­ sign and selling of the clothes. Without color an important part of the story would be lost. Aspen I did in color, although I was tempted to do the film in black and white. I remember how terrific Chamonix looked in Vadim's versions of Les Liaisons Dangereuses. But I thought it was more important to get the natural color of the mountains and the color of the ski clothes. I felt I got more of our black and white in Near Death. For instance, I don't think you had to see red blood to know the blood was red. I don't think that would have added anything to the film.


Is there a direct relationship for you between the concerns you explored in your narrative film Seraphita 's Diary, which I think has been highly underrated, and your documentary work or are these completely separate interests?

One of the reasons I did Seraphita's Diary was to play around with all the issues that I'm dealing with in documentary but in another form. I also try to play with some of the relationships between documentary and fiction.


How would you describe the relationship?

In both documentary and fiction the final film represents an arbitrary ordering of material arranged for dramatic effect. The fiction sequences are written in advance and staged. Documentary sequences occur, are isolated, photographed and recorded but then condensed during the editing to a form that fairly represents, in the filmmaker's view, what actually occurred. The editing of a documentary is like the writing of a fiction film. The final ordering of the sequences into a dramatic sructure is arbitrary and represents the last stage in a process that is rooted in choice. The highest compliment that can be paid to a documentary is the response that it all happened exactly as you see it. If someone tells you that, you can feel that you created an illusion that lasted for at least twenty seconds.

Let's take an image or two from Central Park. A brief image of a man sitting alone on a park bench or an apparently homeless man picking up twigs. From your point of view what we are able to learn about these individuals we learn through observation, in this case slightly removed in terms of focal length, and through imaginative conjecture. Given the brevity and the remove, don't you think that this presents a fundamental limitation, for instance in our having any personal or personalized feeling for the man on the bench, or feeling for the gravity of the situation of the homeless?

Sure, I mean everything has a limitation. Every choice excludes other choices to coin a phrase. If I went and interviewed that guy and asked him questions about his life, it would be a different style of movie. The length of the interview would exclude other sequences for which there would have been no room. This is just one example of the thousands of choices that are involved with making movies of this sort. Some of those choices are made in advance, like not interviewing. Other choices are made instinctively on the spot. What to shoot, what not to shoot, how to try to shoot it, etc.

I'm increasingly finding it harder not to give serious thought to the effect of my work on people, and about how to try, in whatever little way I can, to turn around a situation that's totally out of control and in a crisis.

I understand that and I respect that, but that is only one choice. To the extent that I am interested in political issues I express that interest by being active in political issues.That is not the fundamental interest in my movies. What I'm trying to do in the movies is to present as broad a portrait of contemporary life during the time that I'm alive and making movies, or making movies and alive, that I can. That demands that I choose all kinds of different subjects—poor people, rich people, middle class people, different areas of the country. I've said this before, but what I'm making is one long movie which is now 50 hours long. What I'm trying to do is give an impressionistic account of the different aspects of contemporary life. I'm not restricting myself to one class.

There are some wonderful things that unfold before your cameras. In Central Park, you could have easily been way over on the other side of the park when they happened and heard about them later or caught them at the tail end. In Near Death there are very specific conversations that are absolutely key to, or have the feeling of being key, to the film working as a whole. Do you chalk up finding these 'little miracles' as other filmmakers have called them, to fortuitousness, to just digging your heels in a being there and being open, or have you ever sort of sensed that something led you to things?

I don't think it's an illustration of the divine presence, but it is a combination of instinct, judgement and luck. The one thing I have learned in making these movies is to trust my instinct. Which is not to say that it is always right. I have learned to pay attention to the thoughts at the edge of my head, both during the shoot in terms of what to shoot, and particularly during the editing. There is constant reference back and forth between the external and the internal and that 's really the key in making these films. Partially, it is trusting your judgement, which how­ ever is not always right. However, I tend to remember it when I'm right. Going here rather than there. It 's simply, well, it is instinct, judgement and luck.


You see nothing mysterious about it?

Everything is mysterious, but I don't think there's any unseen hand involved. 


John Gianvito is a filmmaker, curator, and Assistant Professor of Film at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.