In 2016, Metrograph held a series called Three Wiseman, which was the basis for this conversation taking place.
It can be hard to fathom a time before Frederick Wiseman made movies. Yet 50 years and 43 movies ago, Wiseman was just a 36-year-old Boston-based law professor with minimal experience in film—documentary or otherwise. So how in the world did he proceed to make, during the first four years at his second career, the towering, still vital, still shattering Titicut Follies (1967), High School (1968), and Hospital (1970)? After all, these films loom large not only within Wiseman’s consistently great and ever expanding oeuvre but also within the long history of documentary filmmaking. It’s not a question with a simple answer, but I enjoyed posing it to the master himself during the following interview. Reached via Skype in his part-time Paris home—during a break from editing his next feature—Wiseman talked about being movie mad during his first trip to the French capital in the 1950s, the law school field trips that led to his making Titicut Follies, and the literature-steeped approach to narrative that informed those early films and most everything he’s made since.
What had been your experience with filmmaking prior to Titicut Follies? I read that you’d at least dabbled in it several years prior.
Well, when I lived in Paris from 1956 to 1958, I shot a lot of films in 8mm. But I was just fooling around—filming my wife shopping, or market streets, the ordinary thing that everybody does when they’re fooling around with their first movie camera.
It was more like home footage?
Yeah that’s all. Nothing ever saw the light of day. I haven’t looked at it for years—I don’t even know where it is. It was never edited or anything. We looked at it for amusement’s sake and that was it.
Do you think something might have been stoked in terms of wanting to do it again?
When I was in Paris I was very interested in movies. Paris, then—even more than now—if you were there for any length of time, you could see any great movie ever made. Because there were so many great retrospective houses. There still are.
That was a particularly ripe moment for cinema in Paris.
Yes, but I had no contact with anything that was going on. I didn’t have any friends in the French movie world at that point. I was just going to the movies four or five times a week, and sometimes a couple times a day. I did what everybody does when they’re hanging out in Paris with no work to do, having vague fantasies of writing the great American novel and of course not writing a word. Basically hanging out.
What had you been doing prior?
I went to law school during the Korean War and got out just after the war was over. The draft existed back then, so I went to the Army for 21 months after that. I got out in the fall of ’56, and went immediately to Paris.
Then, after Paris you came back to the States and taught?
Yes, I taught for three or four years. I detested teaching as much as I detested law school.
“I was always more interested in documentary than in fiction.”
Why is that?
I don’t know. I didn’t like law school because the stuff I had to read was so badly written. I couldn’t get interested enough in the subject matter to plow through the lousy writing. I got through law school all right because I realized that the way to get through a law school exam was to write everything in the alternative—that demonstrated a wide understanding, simply picking apart the facts. After the first semester of law school I never went to class. The main library of the university was right across the street from the law school, and they had a room where every novel or poem you’d ever want to read from the last 500 years was on open shelves, and they had comfortable chairs. So that’s where I spent my time in law school.
Did you know then that you wouldn’t become practicing attorney?
I hadn’t really thought it through that much. I just knew that I didn’t like it. I kept putting off the day of reckoning because after law school I’d have to go to the Army, and after the Army I knew I wanted to go to Paris. I stalled as long as I could until I ran out of money. I was able to stay in Paris because of the GI Bill, and you could live in Paris for $135 month then. Now, it’s barely possible to live there for a day for that much.
Too bad you didn’t buy a cheap apartment and hold on to it for all these years.
I was too stupid to do that.
It was through your teaching that you wound up coming upon the subject and idea for making Titicut Follies?
I taught a course in legal medicine, and I tried to make it more interesting for the students by taking them on field trips to places where their clients might end up if they didn’t represent them properly. One of the places I took them to was the Bridgewater State Prison for the criminally insane. Over the years I must have gone down there three or four times. I also took them to parole board hearings and trials and probation hearings, and tried to expose them to the reality of the full process of what they call the criminal justice system. I just had the idea that there was no reality to reading appellate court decisions. What led me to want to introduce a little bit of reality into the study of law I have no idea, except that I thought it might be more interesting for me, and that it might make it possible for me to teach the subjects in a more interesting way. Then when I got sick and tired of teaching, and thought I should try to do something that I liked, I had the idea of making a movie about this prison. And I was always more interested in documentary than in fiction.
“When I did the Follies I had the idea of doing this so-called institutional series. And as you know, there’s no precise view of what constitutes an institution.”
Maybe it’s because it was unavailable for so long, but it still feels very meaningful to be able to watch Titicut Follies, and to witness the un-guardedness of people on camera. There’s never a sense of anybody being caught in what they’re doing.
That’s true in all movies. In my view, people basically go about their business. And the presence of the camera doesn’t have much, if any effect on their behavior.
But in this film, because so much of what transpires before the camera is so extreme, and because the footage became a source of shame for some of the people you recorded, it can be quite startling to watch.
It only became a source of shame for some of them—for the guards and psychiatrists—because other people, upon seeing the film, wrote things about their behavior that embarrassed them. That’s true of other films too. Such as in Law and Order, where the cops strangle a woman who’s accused of prostitution—like the guards at Bridgewater, they thought their behavior was perfectly okay given the circumstances. These are only extreme examples of what goes on all the time. Not just with the people in the movies, but all of us. We all act in ways that we think are appropriate for the situation we’re in. We don’t necessarily see them the way that somebody else sees them. I think that’s one of the reasons I can make these kinds of movies. Generally speaking, people are often unaware of the implications of their behavior, or choice of words.
Did you realize when you were making Hospital that it was going to be, in some ways, a contrast to Titicut?
I don’t know that I necessarily realized that before I started—I guess I didn’t know one way or the other. But it is a contrast, and one of the major ways in which it’s a contrast is that the staff cares. The doctors and nurses are busting their respective asses to offer treatment to people constantly coming through the door with very serious physical or emotional damage. Their competence was in contrast to the incompetence of the professional staff at Bridgewater.
You mentioned a few minutes ago that you were always more interested in documentaries than other films. Where did that come from?
Who knows? There was no eureka moment. Either just before or after I got started on the Follies, I saw an early sync sound documentary called Mooney vs. Fowle, which was about two high school football teams getting ready for a championship game in Miami. I was already interested, but that movie really opened up my eyes to the possibilities of it.
Those were incredibly important years for documentary. Obviously sync sound was a game changer in terms of the things you might be able to do.
In terms of what anybody might be able to do. To get the camera and the tape recorder to run at the same speed—it was the technical breakthrough that really made it possible to make these kinds of films. Or at least to make them with more ease than had previously been possible.
It seems like a rare moment when a technical development synced up, if you’ll pardon the metaphor, with a desire to approach reality in a certain way. Perhaps one triggered the other, but both aspects had been building for a while.
Yes, but people had been trying to deal with reality—with words, or in theater or painting—for years. The technological breakthrough made it possible to do in film what people had already been doing in other forms.
But wasn’t there also a cultural shift in the mid-1960s, with lots of other people having the impulse to document things?
That’s right. There were lots of other people doing it.
Yet you weren’t based in New York, where much of that filmmaking was happening.
I had nothing really to do with what was going on in New York. I think I met some of the people, briefly, but I was never part of that group.
Do you think it was important for you to not be?
I don’t know. I had no interest in being part of that group. I’ve always been pretty much of a loner. And I was already a loner at that point.
I guess that’s why I was wondering if it was important to you to be alone. Considering where you’re coming from and how distinctive your films are, and how clearly yours they are, I wonder if your work would have been diluted in some ways by a group association. It seems fortunate that it wasn’t.
I agree with that completely.
It also seems to extend to your larger project. Going from institution to institution, and context to context, you’ve been able recede in relation to your subjects.
When I did the Follies I had the idea of doing this so-called institutional series. And as you know, there’s no precise view of what constitutes an institution. But it just seemed that there were lots of good subjects—as there still are. Hundreds and thousands of them that haven’t been touched on film. So I decided to do some of them.
And you’ve consistently remained within that.
Yes, I have. With the exception of The Last Letter, I have consistently remained within that.
And was that a moment where you might have gone in another direction? Or were you wanting a break from your usual?
Nothing lofty like that. I had done a play based on the same material in Paris, and I thought the actress was a great actress. And I thought it would be interesting to try and make a movie. It’s a completely staged film. We worked very hard on the lighting, it was rehearsed, the script was fixed, etc. It’s the complete reverse of a documentary. I had some interest in making fiction movies. I wrote a screenplay based on a novel by Anne Tyler, but I couldn’t get the money. My bullshit meter explodes when I land in Los Angeles. I just don’t have the patience or the tolerance or the sufficient interest to have pursued that. It’s hard enough getting money for documentaries.
It seems that the first several films you made still loom very large for you. You’ve revisited some of those themes a few times, and you’re actually revisiting Titicut directly now through a ballet.
I don’t really think much about the older films. I’ve always got my hands full with the film that I’m working on. But it’s true I made a second film about a high school and I’ve made a couple of other dance films. I like dance, and I like seeing how it’s created and performed.
Is that why you’re revisiting Titicut now, because you wanted to work more in that form?
I got very interested in ballet, and I also got a little bored constantly seeing ballets about relationships. Or about beautiful girls that have been put to sleep for 25 years, and wake up when some Prince Charming rescues them. It just seemed that contemporary ballet was not dealing with the contemporary world. So it amused me to think about how a movie like Titicut Follies, where many of the inmates have extreme bodily movements and gestures, could be transformed into ballet. Because a lot of the illnesses that the inmates at Bridgewater had found somatic representation. So that’s the idea. I’m not doing the choreography—I’ve got a very good choreographer named James Sewell who has his own company in Minneapolis. The technical term for me in the project is dramaturge. Which is a fancy was of saying that I kibitz. I talk to the dancers about some of the emotional issues that I think are being presented in the sequences of the film, and we talk about ways to transform them into dance.
And does that involve you getting back into your experiences in making that film?
Certainly it pushes me to think about why I used the sequences that are being turned into a ballet. And what is being shown about the relationships between people in the sequences, and how physical gestures and emotional issues can be transformed into ballet terms.
There’s something very exciting about documented movement like that being translated into dance.
If it works it will be very exciting. Certainly working on it is very interesting.
I was reading this interview with you from the early 1970s, published in Alan Rosenthal’s book The New Documentary in Action. And even though you’d only made three or four films at that time, you sound much like you do now. Like you knew what you were doing from the start, and how to talk about it.
I hope so.
But it’s almost strange, isn’t it?
Are you telling me in a nice way that I’m repeating myself?
I’m saying you seemed to have arrived as a filmmaker fully formed.
I think my basic ideas, and the form in which I gave them expression then, probably aren’t very different from what I’m doing now.
That strikes me as tremendously rare. Usually there’s a period of time when a filmmaker’s spending some time figuring out what he or she is doing, tooling around, getting to a point of sophistication and accomplishment. It just seems from the very beginning you knew what you were doing.
I hope so, but on the other hand I’d like to think that my capacity to think in film terms has improved. The basic technique is the same, but the way I exercise or use the technique has, at least in my mind, improved.
Can you point to anything in particular?
The editing in, say, National Gallery or In Jackson Heights is much better than the editing in Titicut Follies or High School. I’ve learned an enormous amount about editing.
Is there anything about the first few films you would have done differently?
Some of the decisions in those early films I view as mistakes. But at the time I saw them as good decisions, and I have no interest in changing them.
In Titicut, there’s an intercutting sequence, between a man being force-fed and the same man being treated in death. It’s quite unlike other sequences in your films.
That’s the prime example. My view now is that’s too heavy-handed. At the time I thought it was a great idea. For many years what I’ve thought I should have done was first show the guy being force-fed, and then five or six minutes later show him being made up for his funeral. The way it’s intercut, it forces the viewer to think about the fact that the man is being treated better in death than in life, whereas if I’d separated the sequences, the viewers would have come to their own conclusions.
That said, it’s not like I’m watching those early films and thinking about ways in which they’re nakedly inferior, or ways in which they’re ragged or young.
I was 36; I was a bit older than most people when they get started. I know I’ve said this before, but it has the charm of being true—I learn more about making films from the reading that I’ve done than from watching other movies. I’m very interested in comparative forms. Whether it’s a movie or a play, a novel or a poem or a painting, everybody has to deal with the same issues. They get resolved differently depending on what the form is. People are dealing with abstraction, with characterization, with passage of time, with narration. I already had a pretty good idea of how those issues are dealt with in novels, poems, and plays. Because the other thing I did when I was in Paris was go to the theater a lot. I’ve always gone to the theater and read a lot. So I think that background, rather than a film background, helped me.
When it comes to structure and form, you can really see evidence of your knowledge of literature. Titicut doesn’t progress in the normal cinematic narrative way, in terms of character and story, but instead utilizes a wrap device—the talent show opener and closer—to bring us into and out of a thematically organized narrative. More literary than familiarly cinematic.
I think that’s right, but I would put it somewhat differently—it’s a structure that’s derived from literary interest, but applied to the solution of a film problem.
You’re not dealing with a standard progression or build.
From my point of view it has a dramatic narrative—it has a beginning, middle, and ending. But not in traditional story terms. Forgive me for repeating myself, but all these movies, mine or anybody else’s, if they work it’s because they proceed in a literal way and in an abstract way. The structure of my films is abstract. But the real movie exists in the relationship between the literal and the abstract. It sounds like phony baloney, but that’s the way I think about it. In the editing I’m always concerned about those two paths and their relationship to each other.
And you remember having that concern straight off.
I remember having it straight off because I brought my interest in reading to my developing passion for making movies.
Dealing with material based in reality never dissuaded you from thinking in those terms?
No, it didn’t, because that was the intent in making the decision in the first place. To make Titicut Follies and to make the other movies, I wanted to see whether I could make dramatic narrative movies based on sequences that were accumulated with no particular thesis or point of view in mind. That the thesis and the point of view would emerge from the editing. In my view the editing is a lot like writing. It’s the old cliché about finding the statue under the stone. I’m finding the movie in the rushes. I don’t have the same wide choice that a writer does, because a writer is only limited by his imagination. I’m limited by my imagination as it plays against 130 or 140 hours of rushes. Which limits my choice—and I’ve never done the math, but I’m certain there are still hundreds of thousands of choices.
But you’ve also never shied away from having a point of view. From the fact that you’re creating your version of what you’ve observed.
Otherwise the material doesn’t cohere. There’s no structure. I could go through any of the movies and tell you why each shot is there, what its relationship is to the next shot, how the first 10 minutes of the film connect to the last 10 minutes of the film. Sometimes I might arrive at a cut in all the cliché ways—of walking down the street or taking a shower, or whatever—but unless I can rationalize, unless I can put into words why each shot is there, or why I’ve cut a sequence the particular way I’ve cut it, I worry that it doesn’t work. So it’s a funny combination of the editing being both very rational and very irrational, or certainly non-rational. And I have learned to pay attention to the thoughts at the periphery of my daydreams, because you can solve an editing problem that way. But nevertheless I have to be able to explain it to myself. So much of film editing has absolutely nothing to do with the technical aspects of film editing. It’s a question of the analysis of what it is you’re looking at and hearing. Of what is going on in the sequence. Why do people use the particular words they use? Is there any significance to the fact that somebody looks up? Or the sequence in Welfare when the ex-welfare worker who’s there with his wall-eyed girlfriend asks the welfare worker for a cigarette. Is there any significance to the clothes people are wearing, to the gestures they make?
The whole analysis of human behavior, which we all do to some extent all of the time, has to be done in a very concentrated way with each sequence. I’m not saying I always understand, but I have to delude myself into thinking that I understand what’s going on in a given sequence. First, in order to make the decision whether I want to use it; second, how I want to use it, i.e. where I’m going to make the cuts to reduce it from half an hour to five minutes; and thirdly, where I’m going to use it in the film—and what its relationship is to the sequences that precede and follow it. It has to do with an internal reaction to the material, and trying to think about the material. •
Eric Hynes is a New York–based film critic and reporter, as well as Associate Curator of Film at Museum of the Moving Image. He has written for The New York Times, Film Comment, Rolling Stone, Reverse Shot, IndieWire, Slate, The Village Voice, and Time Out New York.