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As a filmmaker, sound engineer, editor, and producer, Frederick Wiseman is tireless in his pursuits and relentless in his exploration. He has made approximately one documentary film a year for the past fifty years, some with run times as long as six hours. His works are often meditations on the subject of power within American institutions, in places such as an asylum for the criminally insane, a public high school, a meatpacking plant, a Miami zoo, a juvenile court, and a Neiman Marcus department store in Texas. He’s also made subjects of the ballet in France, boxing, London’s National Gallery, and geographic locations from Aspen, Colorado, to Jackson Heights. Wiseman, who has made forty-three films to date, has received the Honorary Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement from the Venice Film Festival, and a MacArthur Fellowship. 

With a skeleton crew (Wiseman himself prefers to be on sound, carrying a boom microphone), he works to position his viewer as a witness to what is happening, avoiding mediations such as voice-over narration, interviews, sound tracks, or titles. However, Wiseman dislikes the term observational cinema, or cinema verité, which for him bespeaks “one thing being as valuable as another, and that is not true. At least, that is not true for me.” The editing process is for Wiseman a careful craft that occupies a year of intensive work.

Born in Boston on January 1, 1930, Wiseman is the only child of the European Jewish immigrant Jacob Wiseman and Gertrude Kotzen, whose family immigrated from Europe just before she was born. After earning a bachelor of arts from Williams College, he followed his father into law, attending Yale Law School. From 1954 to 1956, he served in the U.S. military and then traveled to Paris with his new wife, Zipporah Batshaw, a fellow Yale Law graduate. He made his first forays into film with an 8mm camera, shooting his wife in short Parisian scenes. After two years, the couple returned to Massachusetts, where Wiseman took a position teaching law at Boston University and they had two sons.

Around this time, Wiseman produced his first movie, an adaptation of Warren Miller’s novel The Cool World (1963). Shortly afterward, Wiseman cowrote the script for The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), starring Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway—his first and last encounter with Hollywood. In 1966, Wiseman and his then cameraman shot a huge amount of footage at the State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Bridgewater, Massachusetts, which he would then edit into his debut documentary, Titicut Follies (1967).

Our first conversation took place while Wiseman was finishing his film about the New York Public Library, Ex Libris (2017). I visited him at his editing studio—a top-floor apartment he rents from a friend—on the rue de Dunkerque in Paris. We carried our plastic lunchboxes from the local café up six flights of stairs because the lift was broken. “It’s good for you!” Wiseman bellowed as we climbed. The space was Spartan: a bed and a desk alongside two computers and editing equipment, with the odd book lying about. We met a second time in Paris this past June at the Récollets, a converted convent in the tenth arrondissement where Wiseman has a rented flat. It was in the middle of a heat wave, and a World Cup match had the neighborhood roaring, but we sat in the garden and continued our conversation, undeterred.

Lola Peploe


INTERVIEWER

What are you working on right now?

WISEMAN

My new film is Monrovia, Indiana. I’ve just finished the color grading and sound mix. The film will open in New York on October 26.

INTERVIEWER

Can you tell me a bit more about your editing process, generally?

WISEMAN

When I come back from a shoot, I look at all the rushes. Sometimes I do it chronologically, and sometimes, if I’m having trouble getting into the material, I’ll start with the sequences that I remember liking. At the start, I might have trouble sitting in the chair because I’m restless. It can take me a couple weeks to get going. I know that once I start, everything else, or practically everything else, is going to be excluded. Inevitably, it reaches the point where I’m sitting in the chair for very long periods of time, getting intravenously fed. The first phase is to review all of the material. This takes four to six weeks. I make notes and have a grading system adapted from the Michelin Guide. Each sequence is given one, two, or three stars—or none. At the end of this first period of editing, I set aside forty to fifty percent of the rushes. I then start to edit the sequences that I might use.

INTERVIEWER

What happens to those sequences?

WISEMAN

It takes me six months to select and edit those sequences. It’s only when I’ve edited those so-called candidate sequences that I begin to work on structure. I have no idea, in advance, of the film’s structure or what its point of view will be. It evolves from studying the material. Then I try to figure out how they might fit together, to determine what meaning might be attached to the way they’re ordered. In doing that, so as to both edit an individual sequence and to create a structure, I have to think I understand—however delusional that may be—what’s going on in each sequence and, subsequently, in their selected and proposed order. Now you’re wondering what I mean by that.

INTERVIEWER

Yes.

WISEMAN

I have to explain to myself what’s going on within a sequence in order to know whether I want to use it, and then I have to edit it down from its original length to a usable version without changing what I consider my understanding of the event. For example, I have to constantly ask myself the question, Why? Why are the participants saying what they’re saying? What is the significance of their choice of words? Why do they look left rather than right? Why does somebody ask for a cigarette at a certain point in the conversation? Is there any significance to the clothes people are wearing? Unless I think I understand what’s going on in each sequence, I can’t make the choices that will allow me to condense it into a usable form. For example, in At Berkeley(2013), some of the meetings of the chancellor’s cabinet went on for an hour and a half, and in the final film, they’re reduced to nine or ten minutes. Those nine or ten minutes are assembled from the original ninety and edited to appear as if the sequence originally took place the way it’s seen in the final film. The edited sequence is a fictional form of the original. Unless I think I understand the original sequence, I cannot make the choice, one, to use it, two, to reduce it to a usable form, and three, to know where to place it in the structure of the film. Unless I can offer myself an explanation, correct or incorrect, as to why I’m making the choices I’m making, I’m lost. Although I may be lost anyway. Before the film is finished, I have to be able to put into words why I have selected each shot and the meaning I attach to the order of the sequences.

That’s equally true when I start working on the structure. Unless I can explain to myself why sequence 2 follows sequence 1, or how sequence 32 is related to sequence 4, or how the first sequence is related to the last, it’s too random. I have to have a theory. It’s not necessary that anyone else reconstructs that theory—although if someone wants to, I think there are always enough clues—but I have to have a theory. Those choices are the way I express my point of view about the material.

INTERVIEWER

What happens if your theory shifts? Are you stuck saying, Oh God, I have to change my point of view completely? That could get frustrating.

WISEMAN

The theory shifts as I discover the structure. I try to avoid imposing a preconceived view on the material. Editing is a process that combines the rational and the nonrational. I have learned to pay as much attention to peripheral thoughts at the edge of my mind as to any formally logical approaches to the material. My associations are often as valuable as my attempts at deductive logic. It’s the old cliché—you find a solution to a problem because you dream it, or you’re walking down the street and it occurs to you, or you think of it in the shower. I’ve resolved editing problems many times that way, by trying to be alert to the way my mind—or what’s left of it—thinks about the material, even when I’m not formally editing. That’s why for me, total absorption is absolutely crucial. I can’t edit in a half-assed way. Editing almost kills every other aspect of my life.

INTERVIEWER

So when you’re editing, you don’t go to the movies or the theater?

WISEMAN

No, I rarely go to the movies. I try to read a lot, but the day is taken with the editing. At the end of the day, I may take a walk, and once every two or three weeks, I may go to the ballet or the theater. But the only way I can get a film done is to be totally immersed. It’s really interesting to see the film emerge, even though it takes a long time. It’s like a sculptor finding the statue under the stone. When I edit, I’m finding the film in the rushes. I want to find the film. There’s always the anxiety that it’s not going to work, a fear of failure. But that anxiety is a motor to get it done.

INTERVIEWER

Do you get feedback from anyone else during the edit?

WISEMAN

At the risk of sounding arrogant, no. I don’t show it to anyone until it’s done. And then I’ll show it to a couple friends, but I don’t solicit opinions because I think I know better than anybody what does or doesn’t work. I know the material inside out. In the very beginning, I did ask a few people what they thought, and then it just got too confusing—each person brings a different experience and a different viewpoint to the material. If I’ve learned anything over the years, it’s to trust my own judgment. Which is not to say that it’s right—it’s just mine.

INTERVIEWER

What about your family? Are they involved along the way?

WISEMAN

No. I show them the film when it’s done.

INTERVIEWER

Does it get lonely?

WISEMAN

Of course it gets lonely. Basically, I’m in the editing room ten or twelve hours a day for long periods of time. But my family’s always been extremely supportive, and my friends, too. It’s the only way I know how to get the work done. I have to be completely obsessed by it, and everything else falls by the wayside. Well, my family doesn’t, but pretty much everything else does.

INTERVIEWER

When you pick a subject, do you just know that it’s a subject you want to tackle, or do you do extensive research before you begin?

WISEMAN

I often don’t know anything about a subject before the filming begins. For Ex Libris, I spent six hours at the New York Public Library before I started. I visited four of the ninety-two branches. For me, the shooting is the research. I don’t like to be at a place, observing, and not be prepared to film. I would have been very upset if I’d been at that little library in Harlem as an observer and not filming the day that group was meeting and discussing small examples of racism in their daily lives. Since none of the events in the films are staged, I always try to be prepared to film.

INTERVIEWER

You mean you want to be ready to shoot at any moment?

WISEMAN

Yes. There’s no point in being there for research and not being prepared to shoot. At least if I’m not there, I don’t know what I’ve missed. But if I’m there and not prepared and something great happens, I’ll tear out what’s left of the hair on my balding head because I missed a good sequence.

INTERVIEWER

If you don’t visit sites for research before shooting, do you prepare by reading?

WISEMAN

What am I going to read? I don’t like to read sociology, and there’s no novel I know of that’s been written about the New York Public Library or most of the subjects of my films. The one time I did read something was before Hospital (1970). I read Jan de Hartog’s account of the time he spent observing at a hospital in Houston, as well as Kenneth Fearing’s novel Hospital.

INTERVIEWER

So your research is the process of filming—that’s your investigation.

WISEMAN

Yes. I like to think that I approach each subject with an open mind, because for me, there’s no reason to make a film if I already have a thesis. I don’t like to make thesis-oriented films. In one sense, the final film is a report on what I’ve learned as a consequence of making the film.

INTERVIEWER

How do you know when you’ve gathered enough material? Is there a moment that comes, and you just say, That’s it, I’m ready?

WISEMAN

Well, yes, sort of. During the shooting, I keep a list of the shot sequences. At a certain point in each film, I think I have enough material, usually between a hundred and a hundred fifty hours. It may be also a function of fatigue or an uncomfortable motel mattress. Six months later, in the editing room, I find out whether I made the right decision in stopping.

INTERVIEWER

Have there been times when you didn’t have enough?

WISEMAN

Twice. For Law and Order (1969), after about three months of editing, I felt I didn’t have enough material in the district station house. So I went back to Kansas City for ten days and really concentrated on the station house, and some of those sequences appear in the final film. And for the series about the Alabama Institute for Deaf and Blind, I originally went down there with the idea of making one film. In my ignorance, I didn’t realize how different the School for the Blind was from the School for the Deaf, and how they were both different from the school for people who had more than one handicap, and how the problems of adults were different from those of children. After a couple days there, I decided I really had to make four movies, so I spent time shooting in all four places and then edited for a while and then came back for another ten days to fill in the holes that I identified as a consequence of editing. Those are the only two times I’ve returned.

INTERVIEWER

Let’s talk more about the shooting itself, the logistics. You work intensively for weeks, seven days a week. Are you holding the boom for all those hours?

WISEMAN

The shortest period of shooting was four weeks, and some films have been twelve weeks. It’s now usually about eight weeks. I direct and do the sound, working with a cameraman and an assistant. I work very closely with the cameraman, John Davey, in deciding what to shoot and how to shoot it. We’ve worked together for a long time, and because of that we’re able to communicate quickly and easily. We’re constantly moving around, looking at each other, signaling, and trying to cover whatever it is we are shooting. There is a third person on the crew who assists both of us.

INTERVIEWER

To what degree does your crew influence you? Is the filming process an exchange of ideas and collaboration among you, or is it more of a one-man show—they’re getting what you want done?

WISEMAN

I decide what events will be shot. I’ve worked with John for forty years, and we work together well and collaboratively. Before John, I worked with Bill Brayne for ten years.

INTERVIEWER

It can be hard to carry a boom with such precision. Do you find it exhausting?

WISEMAN

No, I don’t. When I’m running around with equipment for twelve or fourteen hours, I’m tired at the end of the day. It’s the good kind of tired. I wake up the next morning full of energy. I like working. I also work out very conscientiously to stay fit. One of the things I like about making movies is that the process puts demands on all my capacities—physical, mental, and emotional.

INTERVIEWER

Have you ever released something when you weren’t entirely happy with the material?

WISEMAN

No. I state the obvious, but I always try to make the best film I can with the material I have. I’m also very lucky in that I’ve always been able to maintain complete editorial control of the film.

INTERVIEWER

What’s an example of a difficult decision you’ve had to make in editing?

WISEMAN

In Ex Libris, the interview with Patti Smith at the New York Public Library, which lasted for about an hour, was really interesting, and at the end of it, she sang. I couldn’t use both the singing and the conversation, so I had to make a choice between the them. I made the choice based on the fact that her voice and her records are well known. I thought it would be more interesting to hear her speak—she was so witty and intelligent.