An Interview with Frederick Wiseman

     It’s the broken record of the Academy Awards, each year the cry of "foul" when the nominations are announced for Best Documentary. Do the voters in this category (generally envisioned as a bunch of male industry retirees with time on their hands to attend all the screenings) have their heads watching their prostates? Hoop Dreams and Crumb are two of the most egregious recent non-nominations; and Cambridge’s Errol Morris has been virtually blackballed by the Academy, denied nominations for The Thin Blue Line, A Brief History of Time, and, this year, for Fast, Cheap and Out of Control.

     Frederick Wiseman, the dean of American documentaries, thought for a moment that he might try to qualify this year, after his more-than-three-hour opus, Public Housing, played so successfully at last October’s New York Film Festival. Was it worth it to open Public Housing for a week in LA or New York, expensive prerequisites for an Academy Award nomination?

     Smartly, he decided,"No." Wiseman has done brilliantly, including a MacArthur Foundation "genius" award, without ever once being an Oscar candidate.

     He’s made thirty non-fiction features in thirty years, starting with his two incendiary classics, Titicut Follies (1967) and High School (1968). The Cambridge resident and ex-BU law professor has been world-celebrated for decades for his scrutinizing of American institutions in such rich, multi-layered works as Hospital (1970), Juvenile Court (1972), Welfare (1975), and for the corrosive humor (some W.C.Fields? some Bunuel?) of such films as Primate (1974) and Meat (1976).

     It’s folly to mention all the important documentaries. But everyone agrees that Public Housing, which aired on PBS in December, is one of his finest works ever. This is the text of an interview, about Public Housing and other documentary matters, conducted recently at Wiseman’s office at Zipporah Films in Cambridge. We squeezed in next to his non-digital Steenbeck, which Wiseman bought used from WGBH and on which he is editing his 31st film, Belfast, Maine.

Q-Why the subject for Public Housing?
It’s consistent with what I’ve done before, looking at American institutions that affect a lot of people. Public housing has been around in the USA since the mid-30s, and I was interested in what daily life is like in a public housing development. It seemed a subject that lent itself to the technique I use.I try to immerse myself, to the extent I can, in the life of a place of which I have little prior knowledge, and I don’t go in with a thesis I try to prove or disprove. The shooting of the film is the research. My response to that experience is what the final film is about.

Q-So why did you decide on a housing project in Chicago?
I picked Chicago not as a result of a search or a survey but because in my mind Chicago was synonymous with public housing. The Chicago Housing Authority (CHA), the city agency responsible for operating public housing, has always had difficulties; and what happens in Chicago has always been national news. That’s probably what led me to Chicago, knowing that public housing there had a lot of problems, that there wasn’t money for renovation, that many buildings were rat-infested, that a high percentage of people were unemployed and on welfare, that some people used drugs, that other people sold drugs, and that there was often gang warfare.

Q-Once you picked the city, how did you proceed?
A friend of mine introduced me to Vincent Lane, who was CHA head, and Lane made arrangements for me to be taken around to a number of developments. There’s a four-mile area on the South Side of Chicago where there’s just one black housing development after another, separated from lower middle class white suburbs by a ten-lane highway, deliberately placed there by the late Mayor Richard Daley to separate the black and white commmities.
     I knew that I didn’t want to do a movie solely about a high-rise development because it would be difficult to get to the people. I settled on the Ida B. Wells development because it was a combination of low-rise, medium-rise, and high-rise, which constituted the different architectural styles associated with public housing. Wells is spread out over seventy-five acres, and there was good likelihood of meeting people on the street. Some apartments were ground level, and I thought that would be easier for access.

Q-Who was Ida B. Wells?
She was prominent black resident of Chicago who was a social worker.

Q-Many amazing scenes in Public Housing involve interactions between the citizens of Ida B. Wells and the police. How did you arrange to film these episodes?
The CHA has its own police force, who have exactly the same training as regular Chicago city police. The rule is that they get the first call on CHA property. Vincent Lane introduced me to the chief of the CHA police. I told him I was interested in making a film, and that in order to do it, I’d need his cooperation. Through the chain of command, he informed the lieutenant who was in charge of the station at Wells, and the lieutenant notified the police working at Wells that a movie was being made. Any time I wanted to ride in the patrol cars, I would just go in and say, "Can I ride today?" Word was out among the officers who patrolled Wells that it was OK to let me film, so I didn’t have to ask permission every time.

Q-Did the police put you to a test?
I was conscious of the fact that they would be sizing me up, but that’s not just true of the cops. It’s true of everybody. Maybe the cops were more self-conscious but, for reasons I never understand, there’s no difference in the validity of the material betwen the first time and later times I spent with the participants.You see many policemen in Public Housing. I went out with different cops on two-cop patrols, different one night than another night. In my experience, neither the police or anyone else has the capacity to act for the camera.

Q-How do you compare your documentary scenes of police and those on the so-called "reality-based" cop shows which proliferate American TV?
I’ve never seen those shows, so I’m really not able to respond.

Q-How big was your crew for Public Housing?
Me with sound, a cameraman, and an assistant, who helped with the equipment and changed the magazines.

Q-Did you ever feel danger while trying to shoot?
Not with the cardplayers in the scene you see in the movie. But there was another card game that I walked up to, and people said, OUT!"

Q- Did you try to shoot a distance away from the action so that "reality" wouldn’t be interfered with?
It’s odd, but we were really right in the middle of it! The microphone was always just above or below the frame line. Sometimes it even crept into the frame line! The camera was only five, six, seven feet away. It was really rather funny. Sometimes I’m be on the ground right below the people, and everything still went on!

Q-Were some of the people miked?
Occasionally, I’d use a radio mike. If I was with a cop in advance, I’d use the mike, in case he suddenly ran. It’s useful when you’re shooting several people who are going to be separated to mike someone. If you just use a boom, you’re not going to get very good sound. If there was a meeting in Public Housing, I’d try to put a radio mike in advance on the person I’d been told was chairing. I could do the rest with a boom.

Q-What do you do if someone in a film looks obviously into the camera?
First possibility, I don’t use it. Second, I’ll think about a cutaway. I’m always collecting cutaways in order to condense a sequence in the editing. I may use a cutaway, or maybe two or three cutaways, to cover the look. If I can’t cover it, if what is going on is very important, from time to time I’ll keep the look. But it’s rare that anyone looks for more than a brief glance, so the issue rises so infrequently that it’s not really a problem.

Q-Do you ever say ahead of shooting, "Please, everyone, try not to look into the camera"?
That’s the worst thing I could say, because, if anything, it will make everyone self-conscious. If someone starts to look, I might say, "I’d appreciate it if you don’t look into the camera." But again, this happens so infrequently.

Q-Could you say a few words about your cameraman, John Davey? He’s been your cinematographer for twenty years, beginning with the l978 shooting of Manoeuvre (1980).
He was a friend of a friend of mine, who’d been a cameraman on my early movies. I met John, we hit it off, and I’ve worked with him a long, long time. These kinds of shoots are very intimate. You’re working together all day, you’re watching rushes at night. You’re together for six weeks, so you have to really get along.
     You have common interests, you talk, and when issues come up, you deal with them. When we shoot, I need a cameraman comfortable with changing positions frequently. We have to move as if the camera and microphone are parts of our bodies. John’s very steady. He likes working hard, I like working hard. We have to be obsessed and slightly crazed in the same way.

GP: Do you ever use a tripod for your shooting?
FW: Very occasionally, for architecture shots, or sometimes at a meeting I’ll set the tripod up. But the basis of my technique is to be able to respond quickly and unobtrusively. If you have a camera on a tripod, you can’t change positions fast enough. Also, it’s slightly noisy and distracting to the people in your film to unscrew the camera, move the tripod.

Q-Have you changed to color in recent films because you hardly ever need to add artificial light?
It’s true I’ve switched, even though I prefer in many ways to shoot in black and white. Kodak has made great changes in its color stock in the last few years, so you can get a very good quality shot in very low light conditions. I wanted to shoot Ballet in black and white. But the first day’s shoot was unusable, so I went to a fast color negative instead.

Q-Do you remember occasions in which you’ve added light?
The monastery in Essene was too dark, so we put up a few artificial lights, three or four, that’s all. Occasionally, I’ll change the lightbulbs, for example, in the very dark office in La Comedie Francaise, or for a meeting. I always like to go into a room in advance of shooting to see what the light is like.
     For the scene at night in Public Housing with the displaced man on the porch of the police station, I used a "sunlight," a handheld portable light operating off a battery belt.

Q-Who decides what to shoot?
I lead with the mike. Most of the time, I pick out what’s going to be shot, and I try to be very conscious in the shooting about what I’ll need in the editing. When I sit in the editing room tearing out my hair because I don’t have a shot, I tend to remember to get that kind of shot the next time. And I try to change camera positions frequently. Also, when we are not shooting, I’m the one who does all the talking to the people, to find out what’s going on. Otherwise, it’s too confusing.

Q-Do you socialize with the people you are filming?
I deliberately try not do that. I try to be friendly, and I hope I am friendly, but not phony. I try not to convey the impression that we’re going to be friends for a long period of time because it’s not going to happen. I mean, with Public Housing, we live in different cities. It’s a professional situation. I was there in Chicago to make a movie. That didn’t mean I wouldn’t have a sandwich when I was riding around in a cop car. But to make plans, so to speak. I wouldn’t do that because it’s misleading.

Q-A sandwich is OK. How about going to someone’s house that you’re filming for dinner?
My sense is that it’s not a good idea, that you get too familiar and people say on camera, "Fred, is that all right?" I don’t want it, and it’s been like that on all my films.

Q-Are you looking for "drama" while shooting?
The first thought: I’m trying to make a movie. A movie has to have dramatic sequence and structure. I don’t have a very precise definition about what constitutes drama but I’m gambling that I’m going to get dramatic episodes. Otherwise, it becomes Andy Warhol’s movie on the Empire State Building. So, yes, I am looking for drama, though I’m not necessarily looking for people beating each other up, shooting each other. There’s a lot of drama in ordinary experiences. In Public Housing, there was drama in that old man being evicted from his apartment by the police. There was a lot of drama in that old woman at her kitchen table peeling a cabbage.

Q-What did you see in the second scene above?
I saw a woman alone in a very sparsely furnished apartment who once was independent. The way she examined and peeled the cabbage, there was an element of control. The patience and endurance suggested to me the way she led her life. When she talked on the phone, she was clearly disappointed that what I took to be a member of her family was not going to show up. I read into that a whole history of family relationships. She was disappointed but accepted it with the same stoicism she’d examined the cabbage. So I found that dramatic, not in a shoot-’em-up sense but dramatic in a sense of the expression of feeling.

Q-You’ve had sex education scenes in which someone demonstrates the use of condoms in both High School II and Public Housing. In High School II, the demonstration is to an eager audience of concerned liberal teachers. In Public Housing, it’s a lecture, probably too late, to a group of lost-looking young girls, many already teen mothers. Do you include these scenes as a sneaky way to give the audience your own sex education lesson?
No, I was interested in the contexts of the sex education talks. In Public Housing, there was maybe 5% social consciousness on my part in the scene. There was something funny about the nurse giving a lecture on using condoms in the foreground, the babies crying and those young girls reacting to the talk, especially their reaction to a female condom! With a scene like that, which operated on many levels, the trick was to identify the combination of what was really going on with the unintended effect of what was going on.

Q-Could you explain the street-scene montages in Public Housing and in other of your films?
They’re so important in my films because they give a sense of geography, of taking you from one place to another. For the shots from Ida B. Wells, I tried to select those that, even though many were very short, suggested a story. I was very deliberate about using shots with enough visual information--whether it was a little girl walking out of the frame with a bottle, a woman slapping a man, etc.-- to prompt a little imagining on the part of the viewer. The shot doesn’t have to show all that was happening, but simply suggest.
     These shots, too, give you quiet moments. After a dramatic scene, you can’t immediately go to more drama. And sometimes after a long meeting, a long talk, it’s important to absorb some of that talk. You don’t want to hear any more speaking right away, so I give you these suggested stories which take place in your head before you start on something else.

Q-Though many pass through Public Housing, you focus especially on two people with disparate philosophies of government. There’s an old lady who is a veteran of Ida B. Wells, and she’s a world-weary pragmatist about the hard life there. She battles for tiny improvements, but she’s skeptical of government promises about real opportunities for the denizens of the housing project.
     She’s contrasted with a young black man bursting with optimism, who gives speeches to the people of Ida B. Wells telling them they can start their own businesses, that Bill Clinton’s America is filled with economic opportunities for black people, even those with arrest records.
     First, who are they?
Mrs.Finner was head of the Ida B. Wells Tenants Council for twenty years, for which she was paid a very small amount, more a stipend than a salary. The guy is Ron Carter, a former point guard for the Los Angeles Lakers in the National Basketball Association. He started off as a private developer then went to work for the Department of Housing and Development under Clinton as an economics development expert. At the making of Public Housing, he’d just come to Chicago, checking to see what programs he could try out. He was trying to familiarize himself with Wells and some other developments. He had a key federal job, connected with training people and finding them work, and helping start new businesses.

Q-Did you choose them as protagonists before shooting?
I didn’t choose them in advance. I chose them in the editing because of the meetings they were in, and because the things they said were important expressions of themes that I felt were the material.
     Mrs. Finner represented to me old-time politics in the Tammany Hall sense. a Tammany captain who knew her territory, helped her constitituents and expected them to support her, vote for her. "You do this for me, I do this for you." She liked exercising power, and she was very effective in representing the residents. She’s a strong woman.
     Ron Carter represented outside ideas, some kind of government hope. I was interested in the language he used, the educated explanation of economic ideas at the first meeting, the street language at the midnight basketball-court meeting. Were the changes in language made consciously or unconsciously? There’s also the interesting issue of he, a middle-class black, coming out of a similar environment to Wells, who now wanted to do something. What kind of interventions could he make?

Q-They come together only once...
In the scene where Ron Carter talks to the Tenants Council, and Mrs. Finner makes the complaint to him that people from Wells get job training but afterward there are no jobs.

Q-Did you show the completed Public Housing to the residents of Ida B. Wells?
I wanted to, but I got caught in a power struggle at the Tenants Council. There’s no movie theater in the neighborhood, so I needed the cooperation of the Council to arrange a screening. I was going to rent buses, and bring people to a showing. But Mrs.Finner is no longer the head of the Council, and the interim head didn’t want the movie shown to the tenants. This woman was somewhat fearful that screening it would enhance Mrs. Finner’s prestige. So I couldn’t get anybody to help me.

Q-Did anyone at Ida P. Wells inform you that they watched Public Housing when it aired nationally on PBS, public television?
I did hear from a couple of people there who liked it. The response I’ve had from black people in general has been very enthusiastic. The film shows a lot of competent black people, and people really trying. I have great admiratiuon for people like the drug counselor I show, or some of the social workers, who do their best to work the issues, day in and day out. These people never get attention: the patience that’s required to be a drug counselor is just extraordinary.

Q-Maybe the great scene in Public Housing is where that very savvy drug counselor listens to the chronic drugtaker’s tale of woe and decides whether to recommend to a judge that the drugtaker get help instead of a jail sentence.
He was really good! I have an hour-and-three-quarters of that interview edited down to ten minutes in the film, which only begin to suggest the complexity of that man’s life.

Q-Public Housing seems to me to consistent with a softening toward humanity in your more recent films. I detect your desire, without getting sentimental, to show more of your people in a better light. Earlier, there were blocks of films in a row which were deeply cynical.
I don’t agree at all with that. I think what’s shown in any movie is not a reflection of my attitude toward humanity in general, which I’d be hard pressed to express, but my response to a particular place. In Hospital, my fourth movie, the nurses come off quite well. Even in Titicut Follies, the guards in their own way were more tuned to the needs of the inmates than the so-called "helping" professionals. The principal guard, Eddie, was a nice guy who responded to the inmates as human beings.
     Law and Order, which was made in 1968 after the Democratic Convention in Chicago, is not a film that, in my mind, "does in" the police. They do some nice things as well as horrible things. There’s the cop who takes the little girl who is lost to the police station. On the other extreme, there’s the cop who strangles the woman accused of prostitution. And you have lots of police in between.
     To me it’s too complicated to say that one group of films is more cynical than another. I cannot make sociological generalizations about human behavior..

Q-What do you think of the view of documentary as a reformist vehicle?
A lot of people think the purpose of documentary films is to expose injustice to those victimized, or that the films are made to correct the filmmaker’s idea of injustice. I think that’s a strand of documentary but it’s certainly not the only use. My first films, High School and Titicut Follies, were partly an example of that strand, somewhat didactic. The Correctional Institution at Bridgewater was a horrible place in Titicut Follies, but even within that horror, there were people who worked hard and well.And since Law and Order, to the extent that I’m trying to do anything, it’s to show as wide a range of human behavior as possible, its enormous complexity and diversity.
     But even High School is somewhat open-ended. When it was first shown in Boston in 1969, one of the people who saw it was Louise Day Hicks, a very conservative member of the Boston School Committee. I thought she’d hate the movie. But she came up and said, "Mr. Wiseman, that was a wonderful high school!" I thought she was kidding me until I realized she was on the other side from me on all the value questions. Everything I thought I was parodying she thought was great.
     I don’t think her reaction above represents a failure of the film. Instead, we have an illustration that reality is ambiguous, a complex mirror, that the "real" film takes place where the mind of the viewer meets the screen. It’s how the viewer inteprets the events.
     With Public Housing, some people think the film represents hope, others that it’s pessimistic.

Q-What about High School 2. It seems obvious to me watching it that, this time, you chose an exemplary secondary school, where progressive, humane education really works.
I deliberately picked a high school that was different in a variety of ways from that first high school.In the first High School, there were 4,000 white students and only 12 black students. This one was 45% black, 45% Hispanic, only 10% white. I believe that some people seeing the film might ask the question whether the students are getting a good education. I’m not suggesting I think that, but people who see High School 2 could complain, "Where’s the Latin? Where’s the Greek? Where’s the discussion of the contexts of language? Why is everything turned into a sociological text?" I mean, those are legitimate questions about that kind of education.

Q-What criticisms do people you talk to make of your films?
That they’re too long. But I find it hard to get people to say they don’t like my films, or to have an honest discussion. It’s extremely rare that someone will take the time, or have the interest, to sit down and talk. It’s rare that I get any feedback, and that could be interesting.

Q-May I tell you then that, of your more recent films I’ve seen, I find Public Housing and Near Death to be masterpieces, and Zoo to be wonderful, incredibly underrated. I also like High School 2 and Ballet, but I found little drama in The Store, Aspen, and La Comedie Francaise. I couldn’t understand what you found interesting about the goings-on at that rich Dallas, Texas, department store, Neiman-Marcus. The yuppies of Aspen, Colorado, seemed passive and uninteresting. I got very tired of watching play rehearsals by the Comedie Francaise.
Maybe it’s possible they didn’t work. It’s also possible that the particular themes, or the expression of the themes, didn’t appeal to you. It might be interesting some time to go through the actual films, with references to the specifics.

Q-That would be the only proper way. But briefly, for this interview, could you say something about what you were attempting in those three films?
La Comedie Francaise is, in my view, a very abstract movie, and I disagree with you about there not being a lot of drama. It’s drama of a different kind. What I think I’m doing in the movie is playing around with a lot of ideas about what constitutes love, and that informs all the sequences, both the rehearsals and the performance.
     Aspen, I think, was a little mean on my part. One of my favorite scenes in the movie is a discussion of Flaubert’s story "A Simple Heart" by an adult education group that meets once a week. They’re talking about this great story about a poor woman who sacrifices herself for a family and then gets dumped by the family. The discussion by the people is very revealing of their values, this echo between the life of this poor woman in the story and these people’s lives in Aspen, Colorado.
     As for The Store, think of it on a double feature with Welfare or Public Housing. I’m interested in class in American life, and movies like Aspen and The Store give an opportunity to look at people from a different walk of life.
     We’re back to the question again of what’s a legitimate subject for a documentary, and some people thinking the only subject is to show poor people and how they are victims. But I’m interested in showing all classes of American life, how rich people live as well as poor people. Racetrack is another movie about class, from Haitian immigrants who work at the track to some of the richest people in the world who own the horses. I don’t just take the more obvious subject of people who haven’t made it, but I show the people who have made it. What their values are seem just as important. My goal is to make as many films as possible about different aspects of American life.

Q-How much do you listen to television executives who want you to make films at "normal" length instead of the more than three hours running time of Public Housing?
I have an obligation to the people about whom I make a film that it be my report on what I’ve learned. I have a responsibility to myself to make the best film I can make out of the material. I feel less of an obligation to a network that is looking basically for product. I don’t want to ever put myself in a position of making product.
     Some of my films are short. High School is 73 minutes. Near Death is six hours, but even at that length I just suggest some of the complexity surrounding termination of medical treatment. There’s no way, at least for me, to boil down the four medical cases I followed.
     When my technique works, the audience becomes involved because they are placed in the middle of sequences and are asked to think through their own relationship to what they are seeing and hearing. But I don’t know how to think ahead about them, and I believe that it is presumptuous to do so. If I did tailor my films to an audience, I’d get into the Hollywood way of diluting the work to reach the lowest common denominator. That doesn’t interest me. Happily, Near Death ran complete and uncut on American TV, a Sunday afternoon in winter a week before the Super Bowl, and it had a very big audience. And it ran complete until two in the morning on French TV, and it had a very big audience.

Q-As we talk, you are already cutting your next documentary called Belfast, Maine, a portrait of the blue-collar New England town where you go in the summer. I see you’re still working on an ancient Steenbeck, cutting on film instead of going digital. As your own editor, have you thought of getting an Avid?
It’s partly financial. The last time I checked it out, about two-and-a-half years ago, a purchase would cost me about $125,000. But I like editing on a Steenbeck. And I’m not certain, based on conversations with people who work on an Avid, that there’s much saving of time or money. People say, "You edit quickly on an Avid," and I’m sure it’s true. But with the amount of material I have, I’m not sure that editing quickly is necessarily a premium. You need time to think about your material. It may be old-fashioned of me, but the time I take rewinding, or standing up to get another roll, that’s not wasted time. If I’m into the movie, I’m thinking.
     What you see here are all the candidate shots for one scene of Belfast, Maine. There are probably about one hundred of them, and they already represent a selection. The sequence so far is about 130 feet, less than four minutes for a scene that will run nine minutes.I’ve used to this point about 45 shots. When I pick out a shot, I have to study it. In making my selection, I have to pick out and I have to exclude.It becomes further refined when I decide what part of any shot I’ll use, and in what relation to other shots.
     Well, if I were just punching something up on the Avid, I wouldn’t know the material as well as I know it. But I’m talking on the basis of no Avid experience! (He laughs.)I’ve never sat down and tried to use an Avid. I’m being theoretical. I don’t know, maybe I’m just afraid of something new.


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