Most of Frederick Wiseman’s films look at the inner workings of institutions, from zoos and opera houses to high schools and welfare offices. In his latest film, Wiseman turns his signature observational gaze to London’s National Gallery, where he looks at the museum’s board meetings, exhibition-planning, painting restoration, the act of looking, and, of course, the paintings themselves. Over two dinners, I had the pleasure not only of discussing Fred’s latest film with him, but also his life and work. We talked about the process of making the film, including color correction and editing, as well as various other subjects including literature, the idea of participatory film, and the possibility of democratic filmmaking.
Sophie Hamacher (Rail): You have so many references to cinema, to literature, to ballet in the film, but the main thing that I noticed is that National Gallery is a film about looking. A kind of triple looking. You are looking at the screen of people looking at the paintings and the paintings are looking back. At the end of an interview I read with you, you refer to two levels of understanding a film—one being the actual things you see in front of you and one being the more abstract things.
Frederick Wiseman: I never begin with an abstract idea. The only idea that I begin with, if indeed it can be called an idea, is that there is a film in the place I have chosen as the subject for the film. I have no idea of what the themes or point of view will be because I don’t know what specific sequences I will accumulate. Also, for me, it is not just my visual associations. I have to think, whether correctly or not, that I understand what is going on in the sequence. At least half of editing a documentary has nothing to do with film technique. It is an analysis of the words and behavior of the people in the sequences. If you do not have a theory about what is going on you cannot make the choices involved in deciding to use the sequence, how to edit it, and where to place it. Also, for associations to work in a film, other people have to make the same or similar associations, otherwise the film will not work. It is a similar process for a novelist. There are always two tracks: the story of the novel and the implications of the story. There has to be enough evidence in the story so that it is reasonable to go to the abstraction.
Rail: How important is this second abstract level of meaning for you? From what I’ve read, you basically make your films by going to institutions, because you are interested in learning how they work.
Wiseman: I don’t know enough about a place to start off with an abstract idea. It’s more that if I hang around a place long enough, I might get a film out of it.
Rail: Can you tell me about the process of color-correcting National Gallery?
Wiseman: We got catalogues from the National Gallery to check the color. I thought the curatorial staff knew more about the correct color of the paintings than we did. The reproductions in the catalogues must have been approved by them. I had no wish to distort the color of the paintings, because you can completely change everything, as you know, in the color correction. I didn’t want to be open to the criticism that I had changed the paintings. But the true color is a metaphysical question, because it depends on the time of day, whether the light is electricity or daylight, and the vision of the viewer. It’s hard to say if you can get the true color, but perhaps you can come close.
Rail: How is the color correction for this specific film different from other films you have worked on?
Wiseman: In the other films it was less likely that there would be any comment from the institution about color. With the possible exception of the ballet films or The Store, no one ever really cared about the color. The color in this film is an integral part of the subject matter.
Rail: I know you do the sound for your films, but what about the camera? Do you tell your cameraman what to shoot?
Wiseman: All the paintings were shot in a variety of ways so I would have a choice in the editing room. I thought it best, when it was possible, to shoot inside the frame of the painting so that the painting fills the film frame. I thought the painting became more present and less an object hanging on the wall. It was not always possible to do this. Most of the paintings that are talked about in the film are also shot in a series of close-ups so that the story of the painting is also told serially, the way a story would be told in a film or other forms. Every painting was also shot wide so you see the wall and the plaque identifying the painting. Eighty percent of the shots I used were inside the frame of the painting. The paintings were shot in every way we could think of so that I could have a choice when back in the editing room. John Davey, the cameraman, and I have worked together for more than 30 years and we have our own unique but comic way of communicating during the shooting. We also watch rushes and talk about them
Rail: You’ve said you approach editing through literature and poetry and have referred to Flaubert’s letter to George Sand. Which other books or pieces of writing could you reference that inform your way of editing?
Wiseman: There is a collection of Ionesco’s essays about playwriting which, if you read them, you think you are reading about film editing. The writing I refer to does not resolve a specific editorial problem for me. They are brilliant discussions of the issues that I think I’m involved in when editing and they help me in general to clarify my own thinking. Any time I read a novel I try to think about how the writer constructed it and the way the various connections between the literal and the abstract are resolved. The general issues are the same in any form: characterization, passage of time, abstraction, metaphor, etc. They are resolved differently in each form and within the choice of form.
Rail: Last week you said something about making a painting into a linear story. Can you expand upon that?
Wiseman: When you are watching a painting your eye takes in all the painting, but when you are filming a painting you can convert the painting into a linear story by shooting parts of it and showing it consecutively and serially. So you convert the painting into a sequence like a sequence in a movie.
Rail: Can you tell me a bit about your editing process?
Wiseman: I have a hard time editing in the abstract. I have to see what the consequences are of putting a sequence here rather than there, following this rather than that, what the implication of starting the film this way and ending it that way are. I can’t do it in my head. I have to look at it. I have to make a judgment in relation to the other shots or the other sequences that I choose. It is only in that process of making that first assembly that I begin to think about the abstract ideas. It’s out of a process of trial and error that the film emerges. Whether I arrive at the cut very deductively, dream it, while walking or in the shower, I nevertheless have to be able to rationalize it to myself. I have to be able to explain to myself in words: Why? If I can’t explain it to myself in words, there is a problem. But I’m not suggesting it is the right way to do it. It’s a question of what works for each editor.
Rail: What about your organization in editing? Like the people looking—you could substitute people looking at one painting, or people you filmed on a given day with the people looking at specific paintings in the Leonardo exhibition.
Wiseman: But I did. I just had shots of people looking. That was the simplest thing to do. I didn’t care what day it was. I didn’t care what paintings they were looking at. The people in the movie are not necessarily looking at the paintings you see them looking at. This is one of the many fictional aspects of documentary filmmaking.
Rail: Let’s go back to the beginning. When did you get interested in film?
Wiseman: I’ve been interested since I was a kid, really. I went to the movies a lot. I think the interest began to develop more seriously when I lived in Paris in the late ’50s. I was just out of the American army and I had the G.I. Bill and could live in Paris for $130 a month. You can barely live on that for a day now. I even had a car and an apartment with a shower and a kitchen and I went to the movies and theater a lot. I had an 8mm camera and I shot a lot of little movies. Do you know Paris very well? There is a great shopping street called the Rue des Martyrs. I shot the people selling fruit, fish, vegetables at the market. It was and still is very colorful. I came back to America and I had to get a job. I didn’t have any money, so I got a job teaching law and I didn’t like that. I still had an interest in movies and I read a novel called The Cool World about black kids in Harlem. I got an option on the novel and I thought I didn’t have enough experience to direct it. I had no experience other than those 8mm movies. So I contacted someone [Shirley Clarke] who had made a movie that I liked and asked her if she was interested and I produced it. The result is, I think, a very uneven movie. There are parts of it that are very good, and there are parts of it that are propagandistic and didactic. It is not my movie. My association with that film completely demystified filmmaking for me, because I thought, if the people that worked on that film could make a movie, so could I. This may sound arrogant, but it was what I thought. I vowed, after that experience, I would never work on a movie that wasn’t mine. Some years later after I had been teaching law and had taken students on field trips to a prison for the criminally insane I thought the prison might make a good subject for a documentary. I was more interested in documentary than fiction.
Rail: Which documentary filmmakers did you like then?
Wiseman: Well, it was just the beginning of sync sound shooting. In the later ’50s there were technological advances that made it possible for the camera and tape recorder to run at the same speed without being linked by a cable. This discovery opened up the world of documentary filmmaking. A movie could be made about any subject as long as the light was good.
Rail: What do you think about participatory documentary?
Wiseman: That never appealed to me. I think there is a really ideological premise behind it, an idea of egalitarianism. Ultimately in a film, somebody has to make decisions, somebody has to be responsible for a final film. Making a film is not a democratic process.
Rail: [Laughs.] Well, that leads me to my next question—it actually was my question. Can filmmaking ever be democratic?
Wiseman: I don’t see how it can be democratic. Unless you start with some political premise that you want democracy to be the guiding principle in all aspects of your life and everything should be preceded by a discussion and a vote. Well, I can think of lots of things where that is not a good method.
Rail: When Occupy Wall Street was happening, some of the people who were involved with organizing media tried out a kind of democratic filmmaking. Everyone could load their footage from their cameras onto one hard drive or one server and they put together a communal and temporary archive. I thought that was very interesting, but I also agree with what you just said: someone has to make the decision in the end if the footage were to become a finished film. What do you think about the political potential of film in general? Do you think it can change the way people see?
Wiseman: Not directly. People in a democratic society get information from so many different sources that it is highly unlikely that any one document is going to be that powerful or that important. This is a filmmaker’s fantasy. In a totalitarian society, where everything is controlled, people’s opinions are more likely to be shaped by government propaganda. When information is controlled, people have less opportunity to consider alternative analyses. This issue about the relation of film to social change comes up all the time, particularly on university campuses. Sometimes to be provocative I say I don’t think any one film has much, if any, effect. I ask for an example of a work in any form that has caused measurable social change. When I have asked the question, the best answer I had was that the Marriage of Figaro caused the French Revolution. That answer makes my case. [Laughs.]
Rail: Do you think that the idealistic young filmmakers are just lying to themselves by having such a hope?
Wiseman: Oh, that’s too harsh. I shared that view when I began. I don’t mean to sound like an elderly veteran, although that’s probably the way I sound. I think that view—it’s a view that I once held—is both naïve and pretentious. Naïve because I don’t think the facts bear it out and pretentious because it assumes that your film is going to be that important that it’s going to move thousands of people. Thousands of people aren’t that easily moved in a democratic society. I am not suggesting that a filmmaker should not try that if that is what interests them. Let them make their own evaluation.
Rail: I want to ask you again about the Sensory Ethnography Lab at Harvard that we were talking about last time. You seemed so skeptical about it.
Wiseman: Not skeptical, I really don’t know anything about it. In college, and since, I read novels and poems and so I don’t know much about other subjects. I am more interested in dramatic narrative and I deliberately manipulate the material to achieve a dramatic narrative.
Rail: I think they do, too. At least from the two films that I have seen. The three-act structure is still there. They are, of course, both completely constructed by the filmmakers.
Wiseman: I haven’t seen a lot of anthropological films. I’ve seen some. I don’t like to watch films that are deliberately teaching me something. You can learn something from any film, but I don’t like to be told.
Rail: Did you ever have to do other jobs to finance your films?
Wiseman: The first five years I made films I worked in a consulting company. It was in the mid to late ’60s. In fact, I started working in the consulting company during the same time Titicut Follies (1967) was shot. There was a lot of federal government money available for education and housing programs, helping blacks and other minorities, and, you know, it was a time when people had the idea that social change was easy to implement and there were billions of dollars available to try out various social programs. With a friend I set up a consulting company to do some of this work. The consulting company was my day job and I worked editing the films nights and weekends.
Rail: And did you have a family then already?
Wiseman: Yes. I had two young children. And it was very hard. I used to work in the consulting company, come home, have dinner with my family, put my sons to bed, read them bedtime stories, and at 8:30 or 9 go back to the editing room until 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning. And get up at 6:00 and give them breakfast and drive them to school.
Rail: What happened after those five years?
Wiseman: After five years I had made five films. There was somebody at the Ford Foundation by the name of Fred Friendly, who had been the head of CBS News. He set up a unit at the Ford Foundation to finance public television. He quit CBS News in 1966 when the Senate had the Gulf of Tonkin hearings about the Vietnam War. They were hearings about Vietnamese patrol boats that had allegedly attacked U.S. naval vessels. Johnson used it as a way of escalating the war in Vietnam. The Senate Foreign Affairs Committee was holding these hearings and the head of CBS told Friendly not to carry them but to show a rerun of I Love Lucy. Fred Friendly resigned from CBS News and was hired by the Ford Foundation to set up a special section to develop what became public television, PBS. Friendly liked my films. He arranged for the Ford Foundation to give a five-year grant to Channel 13 for me to make one film a year for five years. That was from 1971 to 1976 and it was renewed again from 1976 to 1981. For those 10 years I didn’t have to raise money. At the end of those 10 years I had made 15 films. And then I started to do what everybody else does.
Rail: Then you had to start applying for money?
Wiseman: Yes. But then I had a group of films so people could make a judgment about my work. But the first five films I made the good old American way: credit cards, lab deferment deals, another job, etc.
Rail: And after those 10 years, wasn’t it an incredible shock that you suddenly had to raise money?
Wiseman: Oh, it was difficult.
Rail: You were a completely spoiled filmmaker.
Wiseman: I was a completely spoiled filmmaker. All I had to do to get the money was to call up Channel 13 and say I want to do a specific film and they said okay. I would get half of the money and the other half when I finished the film.
Rail: So cool.
Wiseman: It was nirvana or filmmaker heaven.
Rail: Were there any other documentary filmmakers who were in a similar financial situation?
Wiseman: I think I was the only one. I was very lucky and I was given the grant because Fred Friendly liked my movies and he was in a position to make the decision. Foundations are much more administrative now. I am not sure it would be possible now.
Rail: In the New York Times Magazine there was a short interview with you where you were asked what advice you would give to young filmmakers and you just answered “marry rich.” I want some more advice, please.
Wiseman: [Bursts out laughing.]
Rail: I don’t like that piece of advice. [Laughs.]
Wiseman: Love the rich person you marry.
Rail: Come on. You can give me some practical advice and some abstract advice.
Wiseman: Oh, you are taunting me with my words. I’m very bad in the advice department.
National Gallery is now playing in select theaters.
SOPHIE HAMACHER, an artist and filmmaker from Berlin, works primarily with collage, reconfiguring documents, and reclaiming them from their mere informative quality. She has directed and written projects ranging in genres, from full-length documentary to art videos and experimental films. She holds a B.A. in Visual and Critical Studies from the School of the Art Institute in Chicago, a Meisterschuler Degree from the University of the Arts in Berlin and a Masters Degree in Education. She completed the Whitney Museum's Independent Study Program in Critical Studies (2005).