Created over a career that spans six decades, Frederick Wiseman’s brand of non-fiction filmmaking is notable for both its breadth of subject and its disciplined style; no interviews, no narration, just a strict mandate to capture human interactions and then craft them into dramatic stories in the editing suite. If you were looking for a map of human activity in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, you could do much worse than looking at Wiseman’s portraits of our social institutions. His new film Crazy Horse played at this year’s New York and Toronto Film Festivals. I sat down with Wiseman in Toronto, where we met to discuss the film and his career.
Frederick Wiseman (photo by John Ewing)
BRM: To begin, I’m interested to know how you got involved with The Crazy Horse nightclub. I know you’ve made a lot of films in Paris and have spent some time there; what attracted you about that institution or made you want to address it?
Frederick Wiseman: A couple of things really. I’m interested in dance; if you count Boxing Gym, which is at least in part a dance movie, this is the fourth dance movie I’ve made. Ballet, La Danse, Boxing Gym and now Crazy Horse. It’s also another excuse to stay in Paris and that’s not an incidental reason, but in terms of the films that I’ve done, a lot of my films, in one way or another, have a particular emphasis on aspects of the body. Obviously, any movie is about the body; the monastery movie I made Essene is in part about the denial of the body, Hospital and Near Death are about the wasting of the body through illness, disease and ultimately death, Domestic Violence I &II are about the abuse of the body, Boxing Gym is about controlled violence toward the body, Maneuver, Basic Training and Missile, the three military films, are about the body in the service of the state, used to protect the interest of the state, Model is about the aestheticization of the body to sell commercial products, The Store is about the adornment of the body– so, in an abstract way, the various uses of the body is a theme that cuts across a lot of movies. Crazy Horse is at least in part about the eroticization of the body in order to make money.
BRM: Yes, and that’s a real, political thing. In a lot of the films you mentioned just now, there is a very intense political subtext. Even though the films do not set out to beat you over the head with politics or make specific points–
Wiseman: No, I hope not–
BRM:–no, not at all. But you mentioned that the films have this recognition of violence underneath them. In Crazy Horse, there is a lot of fragmentation of the women and their bodies and the way we look at them.
BRM: So I’m wondering, what do you know going into this situation about how you will articulate this subtext?
Wiseman: Well, I don’t know going in, because I have no idea what I’m going to find. I was at The Crazy Horse twice before the shooting started, so the themes of the movie emerged as a consequence of the period of editing. In this case, it was a year. But, there’s an advantage you have in doing movies about plays or dances that you don’t have in ordinary films; in a performance movie like La Danse or Ballet, there are going to be rehearsals, and then there are going to be performances. So, you can shoot the same thing, pretty much done the same way, a number of times and in a number of ways. Whereas, if you take a movie like Welfare, you see an interesting sequence going on, you have one shot to get it and you have to think about the cut aways and the wide shots, while at the same time shooting it to make the content clear. That’s not true in these performance or dance movies. What I tried to do during the course of the shooting was to accumulate sequences I was interested in, shot in as many different ways as possible, so I would have choices in the editing room. For example, there’s a sequence in the movie called Baby Buns; The Crazy Horse is open seven night a week, two shows a night, except Saturday, which is three shows–fifteen shows a week. So, you can shoot Baby Buns one time as a wide shot, one time from the left hand side of the stage, another night from the right, another night of just close-ups, etc. so that six months later when you’re in the editing room and you want to make a sequence out of Baby Buns, you can do it and you can cut it as if it was staged for a movie that way, even though it wasn’t. Because the event is a repetitive one, you can create choices for yourself.
BRM: And that performative aspect is different in so many ways from what people traditionally think of with a lot of your films.
Wiseman: And correctly, because in most of the film, that opportunity doesn’t exist. The only film that that exists in prior to the dance films was Meat, and I’m not making any comparisons between an abattoir and a ballet company, but with 3000 head of cattle and 1500 sheep killed every day, you had the opportunity to follow that process and shoot it different ways.
BRM: Is there something about France or Paris in particular that draws you to their creative community?
Wiseman: I don’t think it’s about their creative community per se; I was a student in Paris years ago and it was great and the food’s good. It’s a beautiful place to live, I like walking around there, I have a lot of friends there. I’m not the sole person to think this way (laughs). In a cultural sense, its no different than living in New York; in New York you have a great choice of music, theater and dance. The same in Paris. It’s a comfortable place to live and it’s small; it’s only 2,000,000 people. And it’s beautiful, the center of the city is similar to the way it was a long time ago and they have the good sense to keep it that way. So, it’s fun.
BRM: Do you feel you have an outsider’s perspective there that you don’t have in the U.S.?
Wiseman: That’s an interesting question. It’s complicated by what you mean by “outsider.” When I went to a welfare center in New York or a public housing project in Chicago, I was an outsider because the experiences of the clients of those places were not my experience, either as a child or an adult. On the other hand, everyone was speaking the same language and the references–cultural, political, sports, movies, music– you assume, correctly or incorrectly, that in your own society, you understand the cultural cues. In France, and my French is good but far from perfect, there’s always the risk that I’m going to misinterpret a cultural cue– not that there isn’t a risk of misinterpreting something in America too, that’s certainly the case. But it’s a greater risk when you’re working outside of the culture you grew up in because you take it for granted, and maybe it’s pretentious, but you can deceive yourself into thinking you understand your own culture better. I’m more cautious about making judgements, but that caution comes up more in the editing than the shooting, because in the shooting, you have to make up your mind very quickly. Often, if you miss the first 30 seconds, you miss the basic aspect of the encounter from which the rest of the sequence unfolds. I don’t think being an outsider has been a problem, more that you have to be aware of that and deal with it.
BRM: It’s tough to say your films are objective; you’re making choices and omitting information just like anyone else in order to tell a story. But people tend to draw strong conclusions from your films based on what they bring to the experience. Your films have a very steady perspective; I’m wondering how that impacts your access to a place like The Crazy Horse or other institutions you are trying to approach. Once they go back and look at your work, do you run into roadblocks from potential subjects over how they experience your previous films?
Wiseman: I always present the person or institution that I am interested in a list and description of my previous films and tell them that I can make any of these films available to them. In the case of The Crazy Horse, both the dancers and the administration saw La Comédie-Française and La Danse, some of them watched Welfare, there were five or six films circulating among the 50 or 60 people working at The Crazy Horse. It’s very important to me to make that offer and I always hope people will take me up on it. Often, I make the offer and people don’t ask for anything. I want them to, because I want the process and the way I work to be transparent. I don’t want someone to say to me after working on a film for a year “You didn’t tell me there was no narration!” or “I thought I was going to be interviewed!” I also make that clear in a letter that I write before the shooting starts; although I don’t form a legal contract, I always write a letter in advance summarizing my understanding of our situation. The letter says basically that it’s a maximum period of ten weeks, we have to have access to everything that is going on, if there is a sequence someone doesn’t want shot, all they have to do is say no and that’s the end of it, that I have complete editorial control, that the film will be shown on Public television and theatrically, it may be shown in other countries, I own the rights in perpetuity, etc. I try to anticipate anything that might subsequently be an issue, and then I ask them to either acknowledge receipt of it or sign a copy of it and send it back to me. So, in effect its a contract where all of the potential divisive issues have been resolved.
BRM: Once you’ve started, I guess you’re alive to the moments as they are happening; I’m wondering about how surprise works in your filmmaking. With this film, were there surprises that were bigger than most of your films? How do you integrate that sense of surprise into your process?
Wiseman: Well, there’s always surprise because when I start, I basically know nothing about these places. In some ways I feel I know nothing about them in the end, too. In a sense, the shooting of the film is the research. I’m always surprised because I like to think I’m learning something. One of the interesting things for me, coming out of the experience of being at The Crazy Horse, is what constitutes eroticism and sensuality? For some people, the rehearsals may be more erotic than the performances, because in the rehearsals, the women act more naturally; there’s no makeup, they have halters on, they’re not wearing wigs– they’re just a group of attractive women dancing and rehearsing. In the show, it’s more performance oriented, often multiple women have the same makeup and clothing, and so it’s less personal. It may be more aesthetic in the formal sense– there isn’t much lighting in the rehearsals. But much of the film is asking, in an abstract way, what is beauty, what is eroticism, how do women maintain their beauty, etc.
BRM: And interestingly here, the decision makers, on the creative side anyway, are primarily men, which sets up a real question about the dynamics of power here. Also, It was surprising to see how seriously they take this work; you think of cabaret or striptease as being “low culture,” but here, the subjects treat their work as “high culture.”
Wiseman: The choreographer Philippe Decouflé is a very famous choreographer, not in the classical ballet world, but popular dance and he has his own modern dance company. He has a very good sense of humor; he was the choreographer for the French Winter Olympics. He’s a very accomplished man and the choreography in the film reflects that. It’s not Swan Lake, but it’s technically complicated and imaginative.
BRM: And he’s got a rival, in a way, which again, was a surprise to see the institution giving the keys to the super fan and allowing him to subvert Decouflé in a lot of ways. When you see something like that going on, does the hair on your neck stand up?
Wiseman: Well, my big ears do prick up. In the beginning, I wasn’t sure whether it was going to be good for the film or not, but I concluded it would be. Some of the scenes between them, with their different styles of expression, provide some of the important aspects of the structure of the film.
BRM: What about the decision not to go outside of the club? In any of your films–
Wiseman: Right, it doesn’t happen in any of my films. In Welfare we don’t visit people in welfare hotels or in welfare apartments. My films are about the place; it’s usually one building or a very limited geographical area. These limitations serve the same function for me as the lines do on a tennis court. In other, words, what takes place in the geographical space of the building is good. Anything outside? Out of bounds.
BRM: Can you talk a little bit about your appreciation of dance? What draws you to dance as a form?
Wiseman: I’ve been a ballet fan for years. When I was in law school, I used to go in to New York City and go see the New York City Ballet in the 1950’s. I’ve been in New York a lot over the years– I was teaching a class in New York, have friends in New York– so I’ve been to the ballet a lot. In 1995, I made La Comédie-Française and was in Paris for about six months, so I started going to the ballet in France. And for the reasons I stated earlier, I wanted to make another movie in France, so I got in touch with the Paris Opera Ballet, went to see them and again, they said yes right away. That was one of the great experiences of my life making that film. The Crazy Horse idea came up by chance; I was having dinner with a French friend and she said “have you thought about making a movie about a Parisian nightclub?” and I said “Yeah, but I haven’t gotten around to it,” and she said “Decouflé is doing a new show at the Crazy Horse, maybe they’d be interested?” So, the next night we went to The Crazy Horse.
BRM: What was that experience like for you?
Wiseman: Well, I had been to The Crazy Horse once before, in 1957 with my father-in-law and I hadn’t been back. I did see the potential filmic value when I went back to see the show, so I went in the next day and they said okay.
BRM: They use a lot of cinematic techniques in the show itself. It’s a very cinematic show. How much did you draw from that when you were making decisions during the shoot?
Wiseman: Some of the sequences in the film are me filming the movies that are a part of the show. Sometimes you don’t know if its a silhouette shot of the dancers behind the screen or a movie that’s being projected for the audience at the club. I knew when I saw the show that this could have great potential value for the movie I wanted to make, but i didn’t have any idea specifically of how I wanted to use it.
BRM: Can you talk about the decision to break up the performances in the editing? When you’re cutting the film, there’s got to some really tough decisions about how you’re going to assemble these sequences without violating the spirit of the pieces being performed.
Wiseman: Well, it’s very hard. In a sense, it’s harder to do it with that kind of performance than with dialogue–
BRM: Absolutely. You’d think talking would be bracketed by the natural flow of conversation–
Wiseman: Yes, you can edit a talking sequence so that it appears that it took place the way you’re seeing it in the movie. It doesn’t make any difference that the three and a half minutes of dialogue in the film came from 40 minutes of rushes that come from 50 minutes of real time. But here, unlike the ballet where an act may be 45 minutes or an hour, the acts at The Crazy Horse are four or five minutes, a couple of them maybe six minutes tops. So, it’s a question of not only finding a place where you can cut into the music, but also finding a place where you can cut into the movement so that, without suggesting you’re seeing the whole number, it doesn’t violate the spirit of the number. That was not easy, and it was further complicated by the fact, and in a problem that doesn’t exist in a non-performance film, where you have so much music. In a talk film, you can cut from one conversation or one scene to another, as long as they’ve got a visual or thematic connection. But it’s very difficult to cross fade music, because the music at the end of one scene can really screw up the new music in the next scene. One of the issues in the editing is to find little transition shots so that the music of the sequence that is finishing can fade out and you don’t have to cut– it’s terrible when you cut music abruptly. It either has to end naturally or you have to fade it so it appears to end naturally and then you need a pause, not more than a second or two, before you can begin to fade in music for the next sequence. It’s an interesting problem, and because the sequences are shorter, it was more of a problem on Crazy Horse.
BRM: Can you talk a little bit about your work process? I mean filming, editing, film festivals, starting again, shooting editing. I assume you’re making every decision on these films–
BRM: — so, maybe this is not an interesting question, but your work schedule must be outrageous.
Wiseman: Well, it is outrageous. I have a knack for picking places that are open all the time. At The Crazy Horse, we’d shoot a thirteen hour day. So, it’s a long day and after shooting, we’d have to watch rushes. One of the things I like about making movies like this is that it makes demands of every aspect of your being. You’ve got to stay in shape because it’s a sport; if you’re not in shape, you can’t run around with the equipment all day and be reasonably alert to make choices and get the quality you need. It’s often, depending on the subject matter, very emotionally demanding; in a movie like Near Death or Hospital, I mean, making movies is a decent defense but you’re seeing some pretty difficult situations. And, intellectually speaking, working like this is extremely stimulating because you have to think your way through the experience in order to make the choices that make the movie. The movie is made up of hundreds of thousands of choices. During the shooting, there’s no time for analysis; you have to act instinctively and one of the reasons you shoot a lot of film is, it’s better to shoot and be wrong than not shoot and say “Oh shit, I missed it.” I always err on the side of shooting to much, because I’d rather get the sequence. All of these sequences are found sequences. You’d have to be a genius writer to invent some of these sequences, but if you’re lucky enough to be there when they happen and to recognize them for what they are, you can use them in order to construct the film. So much of making these movies is not about filming and film technique per se, it has to do with asking yourself and answering for yourself the question “why?” Why are these words being used? Why is this person moving his head one way or the other? Why is he asking for a cigarette at this point? Why isn’t he looking someone in the ye? Why did she walk away?
BRM: Do you allow yourself emotional involvement in all of this?
Wiseman: I try not to. The work is so demanding, it’s not a serious problem. There’s the joke about not crossing the line when you’re making a movie about a modeling agency or The Crazy Horse, but it’s completely unprofessional. I found myself in some movies, like Hospital, Near Death, Welfare or Public Housing or Titticut Follies, of being extremely moved and emotionally involved, but because you’re there to make a film and the equipment is a kind of defense, it’s not as if you’re there just watching; you’re there to make a movie. So, you can’t indulge personal feelings. You don’t have time, even if you wanted to. And you also know you can’t intervene.
BRM: A final question, completely different topic. You’re kind of a pioneer of self-distribution. One of things that’s fascinating now, with video-on-demand and the internet, is that filmmakers now have a real chance to put out their own movies and create strategies to control their own content. You’ve done an amazing job over the course of your career of setting up a business around your work. How has that impacted your ability to make films and are you passionate about the control you retain over your films?
Wiseman: To answer the last part first, I am passionate. I own the rights to all of my movies. A couple of the French movies, I have a French partner, but otherwise, I own them. I’ve done that from the beginning. I have complete control over my own work. I set up my own distribution company in 1971 really because I had no alternative. I got screwed so badly by Grove Press on the first two movies I did, Titicut Follies and High School; they made money on them and I never saw any money and I had to sue Grove Press. I figured there is 100% margin of error, so if mistakes are made from then on they would be my mistakes and if money came in, I got to keep it. My distribution company has been in existence now for 40 years and one person has run it for me for the last 30. She’s terrific, it’s her and one assistant and the two of them run it. Originally, it was a production company but that’s just a matter of making a budget and getting permission; she does the budgets now and I get the permissions. That aspect is not that demanding. But it was originally 16mm, then video and now DVD. I was late getting my movies out in America on DVD because nobody made me an offer and I thought it was going to be a real hassle and I just avoided doing it. Then we just decided it was time, let’s get them out and it’s been fantastically successful. I got offered peanuts by some of the big DVD distribution companies, I mean, it was such a minuscule, pitiful offer, I couldn’t take it seriously. So, for a minimal investment on our part, it’s been extremely successful and it’s all internet. I was never much of a techie and I didn’t understand the viral nature of it, but my God, it was terrific. We put out a small internet press release, bloggers and people who are interested in movies started to write about it, we had a website and the orders started coming in and they’re still coming in. I’m going to do the same thing on VOD now.
BRM: Has this empowered your filmmaking in any way?
Wiseman: Well, it’s made it possible for me to eat (laughs). I’ve always enjoyed being independent, but its made my independence possible because it’s harder to raise money now than it was twenty years ago. There isn’t as much money around for this stuff and there are more people who want to make movies. A lot of people assume I have a very easy time raising money and it’s murderous.
BRM: Thank you very much for you time.
Wiseman: It was a very good interview. Thank you very much.