Frederick Wiseman (director of National Gallery, Titicut Follies) “The recognition of ambiguity, whether it’s in film or in your own experience, does complicate things. But it makes them more interesting.”

With a career spanning 50 years and more than 40 films, Frederick Wiseman has covered all sorts of institutions in his documentaries, ranging from the controversial depiction of a psychiatric hospital in his debut film Titicut Follies (1963), to high schools, welfare centers, the military, and public parks; his most recent film, 2014’s National Gallery (which made it to #13 on our year-end list), deals with the famous London-based museum. Having maintained a very similar technique and style across almost all of his films — no use of interviews, voice-over narration, intertitles — his cinema is often described as direct cinema, cinema vérité, or observational — labels he has rejected.

Tiny Mix Tapes talked to Wiseman over Skype about his latest film, funding, ambiguity in cinematic discourse, and a ballet adaptation of Titicut Follies.


You often mention you don’t like to talk too much about your films, preferring instead to focus on your own personal trajectory. In that sense, what is your own personal relationship to the artistic institution, more broadly, and the museum, more specifically and, even more precisely, your relationship with the National Gallery? To put it in one sentence: Why make a documentary about a museum and why the National Gallery?

The subject interests me; National Gallery is a great museum. I thought a movie about a museum would fit into the institutional series I was doing.

Is there anything specific about the museum itself?

Well, I mean I’ve made movies about several artistic institutions, but I certainly didn’t do an analysis of the National Gallery in comparison with other museums with comparable collections. I got permission to do the National Gallery; I made the assumption that if I hang out there long enough, I could find a film. And I did. This kind of answer may be extremely unsatisfactory to you. But it has the charm of being true. I’m not good at bullshitting about my films. I don’t like to talk the specifics of my films.

National Gallery is a film made by an American, in London, backed by a French production company (idéale Audience). How has your funding changed throughout these years, from your PBS and WNET financing days to now?

National Gallery was also supported by PBS, ITVS, two of the places in public television that I… PBS has been involved in almost every film that I’ve done. And ITVS has been involved in many of them. Some of the money came from France, but certainly not all of it. The American money was PBS, ITVS, the LEF Foundation, and the Pershing Square Foundation. Getting the money is always hard… I don’t take getting the money for granted. I have to write proposals, talk to people, and so far I’ve always been able to get the money, but it’s not easy. Some people assume that because I’ve made a lot films and they’ve been well received that it`s easy for me to get the money. That is not the case.

Crazy Horse (2011) was your first film filmed in digital, is that correct? And I read in an interview that it was due to budget issues.

Not quite. Partially due to budget issues, but partially because the labs were beginning to disappear. But it was partially due to budget issues because the opportunity to make the film came up quickly and there was no time to really look for money, just money to get started. And the film was financed as it went on. But now I mean, the films since then have all been digital, and National Gallery etc. So, the lab that I used for years doesn’t develop film anymore; it’s all digital now. Most of the labs are closed. It’s a very complicated question because to some extent it’s cheaper to shoot digitally, but if you want to have something that endures and lasts, now the safest thing to do to preserve the film is to make 35mm negative. And that’s very expensive. So if you do that, it eats up a lot of the money you save by shooting digital.

I have no idea what the real themes are going to be until I’m well advanced into the editing.

For a long time your only interest outside U.S. boundaries were in films relating to American military actions outside U.S. soil (Manoeuvre, 1979, being one example). More recently, you’ve become increasingly interested in filming outside the U.S. Why did this change occur and how did your interest in institutions outside the U.S. come to be?

It’s chance. It depends on what I was interested in at the moment that I wanted to make a movie. I was living in Paris because I directed a couple of plays in Paris, and I started to go to the ballet there a lot. And I like ballet, so I thought it would be interesting to make a movie about another ballet company that had a different dance tradition to the American Ballet Theater, which had been the other ballet company that I [did] a film about in 1992. Because I liked living in Paris, I liked ballet, I got in touch with the head of the Paris Opera Ballet, Brigitte Lefèvre, she said ‘OK.’ I mean it wasn’t a conclusion based on any far-reaching analysis of the difference between working in America or France or cultural differences. I liked ballet and I liked living in France. And you know, there’s no major switch in subject matter. If the first two movies that I had made had been about an acting company and a ballet company, then you’d ask me the question if I made a film about a Welfare Center, why did I leave the arts to do a social subject? The true explanation is that I’m trying to do as many subjects as possible, and of course each subject has to be one that interests me. And I’m not trying to do them in any particular order or I’m not trying to do just art films or just so-called social films. I’m trying to do a wide variety of subjects that deal with what I consider to be important aspects of contemporary life.

You’ve covered several topics, as you mentioned and I see that your films have moved from more controversial topics in your early career days (Titicut Follies, Law and Order, Hospital, Basic Training, Welfare) to increasingly less controversial institutions (Central Park, La Danse, National Gallery).

Where do you put Domestic Violence? Where do you Boxing Gym? Where do you put Missile? Where do you put State Legislature? I mean I disagree with the analysis, your analysis. I mean, in one sense National Gallery is one of the most controversial films I’ve made if you think about the subject matter of the paintings.

How would you describe the controversial aspect of National Gallery?

I’m using your word. I’ll backtrack a little bit, I don’t think even… movies like Titicut Follies and High School, are the two most didactic movies I’ve done. I don’t think any of my movies is solely an exposé movie. I’ve taken this so-called controversial subject and exposed it. I hope all of my movies are complex analyses of complicated subjects. And I like to think, I may be incorrect, that my capacity to make that kind of analysis in film terms has improved over the years as the result of working and making a lot of movies.

When you arrive at a new institution, you must arrive with certain prior views on that place (some views on the army, on the zoo, and now on art, and museums). How often has the living and filming process completely changed your views on that institution? Or even more so, how often does the longer editing process change your reflections and views of that institution?

Well, the longer editing process doesn’t change my view at all. I have a longer editing process when I have a lot of material, and when it’s taking me time to figure out what I’m trying to say with the material. I really don’t start off most of the time with any assumption about the place other than the conclusion that if I hang around that particular place that is the subject of the film that I’m presently working on, if I work hard enough on the material, on the rushes, then I’ll find a film. I don’t really start with any conclusion that I’m going to find a film that says this, that, or the other thing. I have no idea what the real themes are going to be until I’m well advanced into the editing. Maybe, in the case of National Gallery, maybe eight or nine months into the editing. Only after I have edited all the sequences that I thought I might use and had begun to find a way of putting the together, to find the structure for the film, [do] I begin to think more specifically about what the themes are and I can only do that… I mean some people can think about that sort of film in the abstract. I can’t. I have to figure out the consequences of placing the sequences in a particular order and the meaning that flows originally from the selection of the sequences and then it is placement, and then the relationship between its placement, what went before it, and what comes after it.

So it’s a very fluid process you would say?

Well, it’s a completely open process. It’s certainly both open and fluid. Because the film is always, the final film is always not what I thought when I started, but what I concluded when I finished. And in that limited sense the final film is a report on what I’ve learned as a consequence of being at a place and studying the rushes for a year. Being at the National Gallery for three months, then spending 11 or 12 months finding the film by studying the rushes…

It’s a very complicated question because to some extent it’s cheaper to shoot digitally, but if you want to have something that endures and lasts, now the safest thing to do to preserve the film is to make 35mm negative. And that’s very expensive.

A discourse created through editing more than filming?

Well you have to have good pictures and you have to have good sound in order to have a film. But you make or break the film. You make or break the material in the editing. It’s in the editing that I find the ideas and I find a form through, which I can express the ideas. Otherwise it’s a great glob of formless material.

You’ve made close to 40 films during the course of your career. It’s quite peculiar how you’ve maintained the same style and techniques in pretty much all of them, save a couple or so. The same observational or say some techniques such as no interviews, no narration, no use of intertitles (save rare exceptions such as the final moments in Near Death), and no use of external music. Why have you maintained the same style? And have you never felt the need or desire to explore further experimentalism in your films?

I don’t know why it’s peculiar, I use this style because I like it. I think in the course of making a lot of movies using this style, I think I’ve refined it and I hope I’ve gotten better at it. But it’s a technique that I find a useful one in order to approach the subjects that I want to make movies out of. Within the fact the movies are all without narration, or without added music, with maybe one exception, they’re all found sequences and I don’t ask anybody to do anything. Nevertheless, the way I think I’ve learned something about the application of that technique, which is meant that the movies work better as movies as time goes on. I may be wrong about that, but that’s my view of it.

Could you further develop that last expression you used: movies work better as movies as time goes on?

Well, I mean I think I’ve learned more about all the different aspects of filming as a result of making a lot of movies. And something that was mistaken in one film you tend to remember the next time you’re making a film not to repeat that mistake. So I like to think I’ve eliminated a lot of mistakes that I made earlier on. I may be making new ones now, I mean I’d be aware of them, but at least to the extent that I’m aware of them I like to think I have been in a position to correct them.

So could you say you found a technique that works and just stuck with because it works so well?

It’s not just because it works, that sounds like I’m being dictated to by the technique. I like the results that I get with the technique.

There are several sequences in National Gallery dedicated to the restoration process of artworks. At one point the character restoring a piece says it’s not an exact science, it’s not just chemistry, as it depends on how you interpret the painting and if the artpiece itself should be an archeological document versus a piece of art to be interpreted within any historical context. How would you reflect on this idea and the tension between documentary cinema’s interpretational facet and its more archeological aspect?

If by archeological registration you mean simply the act of showing how we live, but I think in my films those two things aren’t separated. Because every aspect of my films is in essence, an interpretation of what you’re seeing and hearing, because it’s a selection made from a wide variety of choice. And in my mind, maybe in nobody else’s mind, there’s a reason why everything is there and why everything is in the order in which it is placed. I personally thinking about it don’t make the connection that you have just made, or I’d use a different language: I’d talk about in addition to having dramatic structure, my films are an aspect of national history. That may be what you mean by archeology.

Some people assume that because I’ve made a lot films and they’ve been well received that it`s easy for me to get the money. That is not the case.

They are, interestingly so, very ambiguous. And they are much more ambiguous now than they were during the early course of your career, as in Titicut Follies or High School.

I don’t think Titicut Follies is as ambiguous as the later films. But I do think that ambiguity is there. For example, you think of the role of the guards. You compare the guards to the so-called helping middle-class professionals. The psychiatrists and social workers ultimately are probably more cruel to the inmates because of the language they use than the guards are, because the guards in their own rough-and-ready ways are dealing with the inmates on a daily basis. And the guards are poorly paid, poorly educated, poorly trained. And the psychiatrists and social workers are presumably — and I would have an underline in the word presumably — professionals and have had professional training even though many of them in Bridgewater didn’t have much training. And I think, for example, the scene toward the end of the film where[in] Vladimir is in the case conference and the psychiatrist whose head is shaped like an egg says to him, thinks he’s saying something important when he picks up the microphone and starts dictating the case history and he says: “paranoid-schizophrenic.” I mean, that’s in my view much crueler because it’s meaningless in that context than what the guards do to Jim when they shave him. Because it has much more consequences.

So when you say Titicut Follies, for example, is more didactic…

I mean, I don’t think anybody could have made a film at that prison, which is called Bridgewater, in 1966 without it being critical of the place. But within that context I think the film is not a one-sided exposé film.

I agree with that and I believe that’s one of the reasons it’s held on for so long. So would you agree with the idea that ambiguity was a craft you perfected throughout the years?

I would agree that my analysis of what was going on in the place became more complex and that I’m not the first person to discover that reality is often ambiguous and that people are frequently ambivalent. I may be the second person to discover that (laughs).

If you have a film wherein the discourse is extremely ambiguous it gives the viewer a sensation of a more realistic presentation of a situation, since film is always about something, whereas reality is not. That does not mean it lacks interpretation, but this ambiguity does provide a different experience.

Well, the recognition of ambiguity, whether it’s in film or in your own experience, does complicate things. But it makes them more interesting.

How does it complicate?

Well, because it means you have to think about a variety of arguments and conflicting and opposing arguments about how to understand and interpret what you’re seeing and hearing. For example, in Titicut Follies, if you think of the guards solely as sadists, or you think of the psychiatrists as merely a helping professional, you’re missing, in my view you’re not interpreting the reality correctly. Because the guard can be sometimes a sadist, or sometimes [they can be] like the head guard in Bridgewater, who is in fact quite kind to the inmates, and is more tuned in to them than the psychiatrists and social workers. Because he treats them decently, he treats them not as if they were foreign objects, but as if they were people whom we can talk to.

Basic Training does that very well I believe.

I think all of my films do, but I agree with you on Basic Training.

In Basic Training many of us can go into it with a typical idea of the sergeant and the captain as very stern people, and they do indeed show that side on the film too. So we get that image, but they also display different sides.

That’s right. That’s a good example. It’s right.

Do you have a favorite film in your filmography?

No. Strangely enough I like them all. There’s no need for me to have a favorite one. It’s like asking which of your children you like the best. It varies from day to day, and what’s going on, and the mood you’re in, etc.

What are your future plans and do you have a new film in the works?

I’m not abandoning documentaries, but I got very interested in classical ballet when I did the two ballet films, and I have a grant at the New Center Ballet in the Arts at New York University to work with a choreographer to see if we can create a ballet based on one of my movies, namely Titicut Follies. The world premiere will be in two years.

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