Frederick Wiseman on Shooting Nudity and Why Technique is Only 40% of Filmmaking

From the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival, Christopher Campbell chats with Wiseman about 'Crazy Horse.'

Crazy Horse Frederick Wiseman
Zipporah Films

This interview with Frederick Wiseman about his documentary Crazy Horse was originally published on the Doc Channel Blog in 2012.

Frederick Wiseman was once known as the guy who documents institutions. Now he is an institution, a living legend of American documentary who has made nothing but significant observational nonfiction works for 45 years. His films are distinctly subjective while passing on an illusion of complete objectivity. Somehow both first-person and fly on the wall at the same time.

His latest doc is titled Crazy Horse, and it’s about the Paris cabaret of the same name. A club with classy nude shows, many of which can be viewed in the film. So yes, it might just be his most commercial work ever, even if for the wrong reasons. But it’s no sell-out piece and if nudity gets people to see the brilliance of a Wiseman, so be it. Just as it’s fine if it’s the nudity that gets people to look at a Manet or Gauguin or any other nude artwork.

I talked with Wiseman back in September, when Crazy Horse had its world premiere at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival. Topics included the new film, old films, influences, and his personal documentary techniques. Here is our conversation:

Can this film be shown on PBS?

No. Think of the reaction of America a few years ago when Janet Jackson allegedly inadvertently revealed her breast at the Super Bowl.

I assume that was a comical question.

It was. But I thought it worth noting because your films are typically funded and air on PBS.

They are. PBS has in fact supported every single film except this one.

So how did that come about?

Well, I didn’t go to PBS, because I just knew they wouldn’t be able to do it. I mean, it would be out of the question. Given the political climate in the United States, for PBS to support a film that has beautiful naked women… Not just PBS. None of the commercial networks. The only chance for this to be on television would be cable. And my guess is it will be on cable. I haven’t tried to make any arrangements yet. But PBS is not unique in not running a film like this. CBS, NBC, ABC, they wouldn’t run it either.

Maybe HBO? But I’m not certain even they could or would run this in prime time.

I don’t know because I don’t watch, but I know 20 years ago HBO did a show on the Crazy Horse. 20-25 years ago. So I would suspect that one of the cable channels in America would want it.

So what brought you to the Crazy Horse as your latest subject?

A variety of reasons. I like living and working in Paris. That’s one reason. And I’m interested in dance. If you count Boxing Gym as at least in part a dance film, this is [my] fourth dance film. The body and movement is a good subject for movies for all the obvious reasons. And also the uses of the body is a subject that cuts across a lot of my movies. Not just because obviously movies are about bodies, but specifically Essene, the monastery movie, is in part about the denial of the body; Titicut Follies is about the confinement of the body; Basic Training, Manoeuvre, and Missile are about the use of the body in the service of the state; the Domestic Violence movies are about the violent abuse of the body; Hospital and Near Death are about the destruction of the body by disease; Model is about the sensation of the body by selling products; Store is about the adornment of the body to sell products.

I was thinking that with these past few ‘dance’ movies that you were moving more into subjects related to the body. Is this the case?

No, that’s coincidence. It’s not any kind of overall grand strategy. The whole thing is a crapshoot. One thing leads to another. You know, I did La Comédie-Française in 1995, so I was in Paris a lot and was going to the ballet in Paris a lot. In 2007, I ask the director of the ballet company if I could do a movie there [La Danse]. So then I’m in Paris a lot and go to plays in Paris and I go to the Crazy Horse and find out they have a new show…

imageHere’s another comical question, sort of. Because of Wim Wenders’ new film, PINA, would you have any interest in shooting a film like this in 3D?

No. I haven’t seen it.

I just thought this could be fun to watch in 3D.

Yeah, it would be interesting.

For some people, probably for the same reason 3D pornography is popular.

Has anybody done 3D pornography?

Yeah, I’m sure they have.

Your style is to come off as though the camera was invisible within the scene…

As it should be.

But even with these dancers walking around nude all the time, was there any added vulnerability for them with you there filming them?

I don’t know if you remember the shot in the green room, the lounge of the dancers, naked dancers are talking to the woman who’s the administrator, and the [delivery] man comes in bringing the sushi. It happens all the time. And they’re naked on the stage all the time. It’s not a big deal. You don’t see any more nudity in the dressing room, at least in those shots that you see in the film, than you do on the stage. You just see it in a more informal setting. It’s not in a performance setting. It’s a getting ready for the show setting. But you don’t see any more of their bodies.

But I could imagine someone maybe being shyer off the stage, the same way many actors are.

That’s right, but in fact I didn’t start shooting in the backstage until after I’d been there for about five or six weeks. Because I thought it’d be best to let them get a sense of the movie and to me. And not try to push myself out of my way. But once I started I was allowed to go backstage whenever I wanted. I always notified them ahead of time. There was always one woman who was in charge each night, and I’d say to her, “How about going backstage tonight?” And she said, “It’s okay with me. I’ll just check with the girls.” She’d go backstage and check with the girls if it was okay, and they never said no. But just as a courtesy I let them know. I didn’t think it was right to ask to go in the shower with them. But it’s a professional aspect of getting ready for the show.

Many of your films, while shot over long periods of time, have this feeling of taking place only during the course of one day. But this film shows us the outside a number of time, day and night, raining and not raining, and so it seems…

Yeah, well the whole issue of passage of time is a very complicated one in a documentary, particularly if you’ve got to do it in a way that’s consistent with the style of the rest of the film. Rather than say, “Six months later,” or, “The next morning.” Also, I could use those exteriors as a way of locating where the Crazy Horse was in Paris. And also for a structural point of view you need quiet times, a bit of a break from the rehearsals and meetings.

It’s a bit tricky. I mean it’s always complicated because – and what I’m about to say is I think, or at least hope, is characteristic of all the films – when a film works it has to work, let’s say from a structural point, on two levels. It has to work on a factual level, so there’s enough information on an actual, factual and literal level, so there’s enough information so the viewer who hasn’t spent ten weeks in the place can understand what’s going on. But at the same time it has to work on an abstract or metaphorical level, because otherwise it’s not particularly interesting, it’s just unrelated sequences. You have to find interrelating sequences. One of the ways you can thematically connect the sequences is by these transition shots. They serve a double purpose.

For example in Model, it’s about a modeling agency and the models work all over New York, so I needed shots of the buildings where they were working. But I also felt I had to show that the buildings were in different parts of New York. So I started to collect shots of people walking down the street, in different neighborhoods where the studios were. Then I realized that in taking shots of the people on the street I was collecting shots of people wearing clothes, obviously, sometimes the same clothes that were being advertised in the commercials that were being created. So the shots of the people on the street, which were originally taken for transitional purposes, to get from one part of New York to another, served that purpose, but then they also served the purpose of raising the question, “What is the model?” Is the model an ordinary person in ordinary clothes, not designer clothes, or is it the person wearing an Oscar de la Renta dress or etc.? So it served the literal purpose of the transition and then the more abstract purpose of raising the question.

Similarly, some of the transitions in Crazy Horse give you a sense outside the Crazy. It serves not just the day/night transitions, which were important to show that the film was shot over a period of time, not all rehearsals taking place in the same day, but also there’s a life outside. You see a newsstand and you see a café and you see the Seine, you see the sort of current of life in a very selective and highlighted way. But there is no life outside the Crazy Horse.

But then also in some of your films you clearly play with chronology, which you can’t really do as much in this film. You can’t have a lip-synced performance of a song and then see them record it. That wouldn’t make sense.

Well, you couldn’t use the recording afterward. You have to use the recording of the song before you use the performance of the song. But I could have just used to performance and not shown the recording. Yeah, in Welfare you can play around with chronology more than in Crazy Horse or La Danse or La Comédie-Française. And Boxing Gym you could play around with chronology. In Meat, and I’m not comparing meat to the Crazy Horse – Meat is the one in the abattoir – but it’s the same thing, you can play around with it but structurally it’s much better if you show the cow alive, killed, skinned and quartered. You don’t start off the movie with the hamburger and end with the cow. You start off with the cow and end up with the hamburger.

Well, Dziga Vertov already did that with Man With a Movie Camera anyway.

Yeah, well that’s all staged. I mean it’s a documentary but it’s all staged.

Your films are not easily critiqued because they’re all just “Frederick Wiseman films,” but occasionally someone will call, say Boxing Gym, “minor Wiseman,” as if that’s possible.

I mean that’s just a put-down.

But I don’t think it’s meant as such. It’s not criticism of you so much as the subject you’ve chosen. People just think because Titicut Follies and Welfare deal with heavier subjects that they’re more important, and they’re not.

No, they’re not. They’re not. I disagree with that completely. Some people think that unless I’m making a film about poor people with, in their opinion, a point of view in the film that poor people are being exploited, that it’s not a Wiseman film. A Wiseman film, for them, not for me certainly, represents that. And I think that shows a complete misunderstanding of what I’m doing. I think what I’m doing is trying to make a movie with a dramatic structure of an interesting subject. And which reflects the complexity and ambiguity of the material and doesn’t proceed from any simple-minded point of view.

It’s whatever interests you at the time.

It’s whatever interests me, and you know it takes a year to do one of these things, and as I said to you a moment ago, what I think about it is what the film is. I don’t know much about the subject before I start. And I hope I’ve learned something, and what I’ve learned is what you see in the film. The principle function of the editing is to impose a form on the experience. I mean, the rushes collectively have no form except in so far as what I impose on them by editing. That form is the dramatic structure of the film and my point of view is expressed indirectly through structure rather than directly through narration.

There are a lot of films now that are being compared to yours. You’ve become a sort of model for the verite documentary of place, and I wonder what you think about this influence you have. And also if there are any documentaries that have influenced you.

Well, the question of influence is a hard one to answer. I don’t think it’s up to me to pinpoint what influences are – to the extent I’m aware of influences. I’m not in any way suggesting I’m aware of them or totally aware of them. I think I’m more influenced by books or by novels and poems that I’ve read than other movies. Editing one of these movies is a lot like writing a novel. Except the ratio of fact and imagination is different. I’m involved in the same kind of structural problems. Structure problems, characterization problems, passage of time, metaphor/abstraction, pacing, emotional content, etc. The abstract issues are the same, they resolve differently in picture and sound than in print.

A couple of years after I finished Welfare I read a novel by a Hungarian writer named George Konrád about a welfare center in Budapest. And the only difference in the two works was one was told in words and the people had European names, and the other was told in pictures and sound and had the usual mixed bag of American names. The human situations were exactly the same. Structurally I’m very influenced because I don’t like didacticism. I don’t like to read novels where the novelist tells me in an aside what he thinks about the characters, although that can be a useful fictional form as long as its recognized as a fictional form. It’s an interesting device.

But it’s different in journalism. A journalist is obliged to who, what, when, where, how – boom, in the beginning, and is obliged to summarize. If a journalist goes to a meeting he’s obliged to tell you the principal points that went on at that meeting. I’m not. I may shoot a sequence that’s an hour and a half. I may cut a five-minute sequence out of it. That five-minute sequence might be three seconds here, ten seconds here, twenty seconds there, edited together to appear like it was the way you’re watching it. And at least momentarily trying to create the illusion that that was the case. But I’m no way obliged to tell you what the hour and twenty-seven minutes that I didn’t use was about. That would be irresponsible for a journalist not to do that, at least get the highlights of it.

But that’s not my job. My job is to make a dramatic structure out of these events that I come across and at the same time not distort them in the sense of changing the meaning. The journalist, unless it’s the so-called new journalism, is not interested in creating a dramatic structure. I need to create a dramatic structure because I’m making a movie.

And what about your influence on other filmmakers?

I don’t know how to…First of all, the only time I meet people in connection to movies is when a couple times a year I might go to a university to do a talk to make some money, or the film festival. Most of the time I work in complete isolation. So I don’t know the extent to which I have or have not any influence because I don’t go to the movies very much, not because I don’t like to go to the movies but because I don’t have time.

I try to identify what’s influenced me to the extent that I’m conscious of it, and it’s the books I’ve read. The two best writers about film editing I’ve ever read are Flaubert and Ionesco. Flaubert’s letters, when he writes about writing are absolutely brilliant analyses of what goes on in film editing. And when Ionesco writes essays about constructing plays, they’re brilliant discussions of film editing. The issues are so similar. Whether that’s influenced me or not, I don’t know. It allows me to say I’ve read Ionesco and Flaubert. There’s no down-the-ladder connection from Flaubert to a cut in Welfare.

Well, everything in life influences you. It’s like with Crazy Horse, everything you see while making the film ends up influencing the film even if it’s not necessarily visible on screen.

Just as you said, it’s everything in life. Because it’s related to the point that these movies, particularly editing one of these movies, doesn’t just have to do with film technique. At least sixty percent of it has absolutely nothing to do with film technique. It has to do with identifying what it is you’re seeing and hearing. In the same way as you do in your own experience. When you meet somebody you make judgments why they’re saying this, why are they doing that, why are they smoking, why are they not smoking, why are they wearing a t-shirt rather than a shirt, why do they look left rather than right, why are they looking you in the eye or why are they not looking you in the eye, why are they gesturing. And what’s the relationship of all those things to each other in the context of the sequence.

That has nothing to do with filmmaking. That has to do with trying to analyze behavior. And then trying to use that analysis to construct a film out of the material that you have. That’s where the film technique aspect comes in. You can’t even apply the film technique unless you have some idea in your head, unless you have the capacity or can teach yourself the capacity to analyze the behavior. That’s one of the things that’s interesting about documentary film is it draws on your complete self, assuming the word self means anything, because you have to be physically fit, you have to be alert, you have to train yourself to be sensitive to what’s happening and you have to be able to articulate it. I have to be able to say in the editing, I have to explain to myself what I’m doing. Otherwise I don’t know why I’m making the choices. There may be unconscious reasons I made the choices, too, but even if I arrived at a cut in a cliché way and dreamt it, or it occurred to me walking down the street or in the shower, I still have to say to myself, this works because…

The last thing I do before a movie is finished, I have to go through the whole movie and explain the movie to myself. In words. If I can’t, I have to feel whether it’s an illusion or not is really not important, but I have to convince myself that I understand what it is that I’ve done, even though the original connection or the original cut may have been arrived at associationally or whatever. I have to understand why I think it works or not.

And are you still editing with actual film?

No, this was the first film I shot digitally and I edited on an Avid. La Danse was shot in Super 16 but edited on an Avid because I couldn’t get the money to develop the negative so I had to make DVCAM copies and edit on an Avid. So this was the first hundred-percent digital film.

Is that weird for you?

Well, there’s no choice anymore. Just a simple comparison of an hour of HD, you can buy for forty bucks. And it’s instant development. So you can have an hour of rushes for forty dollars. An hour of film rushes would be about one hundred.

So are you shooting more footage now?

Yes. Slightly more. I mean, it’s so cheap. That’s what happens, but it doesn’t particularly add to my cost. You have the equipment there. The only extra cost is the tape, which is the cheapest part of the whole procedure.

And it doesn’t change anything about the way you shoot?

No. You still have to make the choices. The lighting at the Crazy Horse is fantastic, so we took advantage of that. HD is still not as good or normal in low light conditions as film. But my Steenbeck is in mourning and I’m in mourning for my Steenbeck.

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.