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Where Nobody Looks Into the Camera: A Conversation with Frederick Wiseman

Jackson Heights 01

By John Duncan Talbird.

Frederick Wiseman is one of the most important and influential American documentary filmmakers, living or dead. In a career that spans nearly a half-century, he has directed forty documentaries, exploring all manner of human institutions from the mental institution to the welfare office, from a high school to a boxing gym. He’s taken us into the world of famous places like the Berkeley campus or London’s National Gallery, New York’s Central Park and Paris’ Opera Ballet. His films are quiet, contemplative epic poems of images, no narrator to spoon feed interpretation, no external soundtrack to tell the audience how to feel. They’re masterworks of editing, capturing the rhythm of real life lived. After watching a Wiseman film, you will feel that you’ve experienced his subject rather than simply learned something about it.

Wiseman has won two Emmys (Law and Order (1969) and Hospital (1970)), the FIPRESCI Prize at the Berlin International Film Festival (Near Death (1989)), a Silver Hugo at the Chicago International Film Festival (Domestic Violence (2001)), and a Silver Mouse at the Venice Film Festival (At Berkeley (2013)). He has won multiple lifetime achievement awards including awards from the Emmys, the International Documentary Association, Los Angeles Film Critics Association, New York Film Critics Circle, and the Venice Film Festival.

I was fortunate to speak with Wiseman on a chilly fall morning recently in the offices of the historic West Village cinema Film Forum. His new film, In Jackson Heights, will be the eleventh Wiseman film to debut at this theater, making him the most premiered filmmaker in their forty-five-year history. Currently, he is in the process of collaborating with choreographer James Sewell in adapting his first film, Titicut Follies (1967), into a ballet which will premier in New York City in the spring of 2017.

What made you interested in Jackson Heights for a film?

Jackson Heights 02A friend of mine took me around the neighborhood and visually it’s stunning, all these different colors. The clothes different people wear, the colors used to paint the stores and the street vendors.

Just the colors of the produce in the film is beautiful.

The general theme was that I was interested in a new generation of immigrants living in a neighborhood that had also been a home to earlier generations of immigrants — Irish, Italian, and Jewish. Walking around Jackson Heights made me think of what some aspects of the Lower East Side in Manhattan must have been like near the end of the 19th century. In any case, that was the idea. I didn’t know what I was going to find or where I was going to go. I just followed the usual procedure of basically following my nose, my instincts, and looking for sequences.

I was curious about how you came to put this project together. For instance, in National Gallery (2014), you go in and meet the people who run that institution and they give you access to it or with the Opera Ballet Company (Le Danse, 2009) the same thing. But with this film, you get behind the scenes of multiple bureaucratic neighborhood or political organizations and I was wondering how complicated of a process that was to connect with these various groups.

I had informants in the best sense of the term, people who helped me and lived in the community. I met someone who was one of the leaders of the East Asian community who introduced me to, for example, the imam of the mosque, to some of the people in the stores. There is a man who runs the Jewish community center who I met. The Jewish community center is only partially a synagogue, but mainly they rent out space because the Jewish community isn’t big enough there anymore or religious enough. Through him I met a lot of people who use the Jewish community center like a gay support group or a social group for older women. And I had a friend who lived in Jackson Heights who gave me a list of all of the community organizations, so-called NGOs that operated there. And also the churches. For example, Make the Road New York was on the list. I called up the director and asked if we could come visit. That turned out to be a crucial place for the film because they had all these meetings every Monday through Friday night at seven o’clock and they discussed a different issue each evening. One night it was housing, one night, immigration, one night, job discrimination. That forum allowed me to get access to some of the substantive issues that were of concern to the immigrants in the community. Also, somebody told me about these young organizers and I called them up and asked if I could follow them around and that led to the sequences that had to do with the BID (the Business Improvement District). This kind of exploration is a combination of judgment, luck, and instinct. And good informants.

I’ve been struck that in your films nobody looks into the camera.

It’s very rare. It does happen sometimes. But when it happens and I have an alternative way of dealing with a certain topic, I leave that segment out in the editing process. It’s rare that I’ve had to leave a shot of someone looking in the camera in, but it’s also rare that it even occurs. Why that is the case, I don’t know.

How many cameras do you generally use?

Just one. I work with a cameraman and I do the sound and direct.

You open in a mosque with Muslims celebrating Ramadan. Why did you choose to make that the opening of the film?

For a variety of reasons. It certainly emphasized people from other countries. In this case, they were people from Southeast Asia. I was interested in the content of the service. Not only the fact that it was a holiday, but what it says about the religious concerns of different aspects of human nature.

We then go to the Jewish center where a group of gay activists are discussing an annual parade in honor of Julio Rivera, a young gay man who was killed in Jackson Heights (you come back to this story several times). How did you connect those two places in the editing room?

There are a couple of street sequences to establish the neighborhood in-between, but I used that scene because of what Councilmember Daniel Dromm says. One idea of the mosque scene is that it introduces you to the idea of immigrants who are trying to hang onto their religion here in America. Dromm’s speech at that gay rights meeting tells the viewers about the different kinds of ethnic groups in Jackson Heights and it’s done in a funny and charming way. He mentions that there are 167 languages spoken there so it’s a thematic and general introduction to what you’re going to see in the rest of the film. It’s like a topic sentence.

I think a lot of viewers will be surprised by your film, even people who live in New York City. There are a lot of green places in Jackson Heights, there’s a very strong and active gay community — it sounds like they travel from all over to get there. I was surprised to learn that half of the population was Spanish-speaking. I always assumed that Jackson Heights was mostly Indian because there are so many Indian restaurants there. Did you know much about Jackson Heights before you shot the film?

Jackson Heights 03No, what I learned was what you see in the film. I spent a day in Jackson Heights in 2007 because that was when I had originally had the idea to make a film about the neighborhood. But an opportunity came up to film in the Paris Opera Ballet and I worried that permission to do the Ballet would disappear since it’s such a bureaucracy. And so I found myself in Paris and I did a couple other films there and some plays. And so in the spring of 2014 when I was thinking about doing another movie, I thought about Jackson Heights.

You’re mentioning of bureaucracy makes me think of a certain aspect of your films. Some other directors who might be approaching similar topics to yours might cut out the bureaucratic scenes that you show. But you include those in all of your movies, sometimes with people who go on and on for a long time.

In the new movie, one of the scenes where they go on at length is the meeting in Dromm’s office where they’re talking about a school issue. The woman who is doing most of the talking in that sequence, she’s reading from a legal document so it’s full of “whereases.” I recognize that is a long sequence, but a school issue is one that either unites or divides a community. That was an example of the city councilor trying to do something in response to community concerns about an important school issue and it couldn’t be understood unless I left the section in where she actually reads the document.

I agree, but I guess I’m talking about how our culture is so “fast.” We want to constantly be entertained. Your films are not easy for a lot of people, I think, because they’re lengthy and complicated. Some people would say they’re “slow.”  You’re very successful, though. Your films get great reviews, they compete in important film festivals. How do you think your films fit into contemporary culture? Or do you think about things like that?

I don’t think about it at all. I don’t mean that in a condescending way. I see very few movies because I work all the time and when I’m not working I’d prefer to go skiing or go outside or read a book. I like to work; it passes the time in an interesting way.

I’m surprised I never noticed this before, but you have an incredible facility with tempo.  Your cuts are always on the beat when there is diegetic music playing in the scene. But even ambient sounds like the train running are synced to cuts in scene. Are you a musician or do you have a history with music?

I have no history with music, but I have a good sense of rhythm. I’ve been concerned with that from the beginning; I think all the films are like that. There’s a lot of great sound in Jackson Heights: between the metro, the street vendors, the cars, there’s a lot of music on the street, the police sirens, the ambulance sirens, the ice cream truck. I used all that, often, for transitions so that the sound is carried over into the next scene. The music for the ice cream truck, for instance, is carried under four or five shots, before and after you actually see the ice cream truck. Similarly, you hear the train before you see the train and you hear the train after you see the train. I use ambient sound to unite separate sequences because it links geographic spaces even when they’re not close to each other. It gets you from one cut to another. If the sound changed with each cut, you, the viewer, would be more aware of the cut. For instance, in the mariachi band sequence, sound is a way of uniting the people watching the band. And I can make the picture cuts related to the tempo of the music.

I love the scene where the couple is playing percussion in the Laundromat. It was so crazy and weird. Did you just luck onto that?

I saw an ad announcing “Concert in Laundromat.” How can you resist going to a concert in a Laundromat?

It’s so wonderfully wacky. And there are obviously all these people who just happened to be doing the laundry.

Yeah, some are watching a concert and some are just doing their laundry. But again, apart from the comedy of the scene — which is why it’s in there — I could use the music in the cutaways to unite not only the people watching the concert, but the people doing their laundry. And it mingles with the sounds of the dryers and the washing machines.

This film is over three hours. It must have been incredibly time consuming and complex to edit.

It was. The film took about eleven months to edit. It usually takes me about a year, but the editing process is pretty much always the same. When I come back from a shoot, I look at all the rushes and that usually takes me about six or seven weeks. I make notes about what I like, what I don’t like. After that, I put aside about forty or fifty percent of the material. I edit over the next six or seven months the sequences I think might make it into the final version of the film without thinking very formally about structure. When I’ve got all the so-called “candidate” sequences edited and close to final form, I then do the first assembly. At that point, I can do that in three or four days because I know the material — or at least I think I know the material — inside out. I can’t think about structure in the abstract. I have to think about what the consequences are about starting with that or starting with this, what’s the significance of one scene following another or one sequence preceding another. That first assembly usually comes out to be thirty or forty minutes longer than the final film. Over the next six or seven weeks, I work on the internal rhythm within the sequences and, for lack of a better word, the external rhythm, the transitions between the sequences. I work very carefully on what I consider to be the dramatic structure of the entire film. If the sequence is very dramatic, like the sequence in this film where the woman asks the Southern Baptist women who are cleaning the streets to pray for her father, you don’t follow that immediately with a heavy talk sequence. You go to cutaways, you give the viewers a chance to absorb what they’ve seen and don’t immediately change the subject. Or after a talk sequence I might go directly to music. I try to cut the film, in a sense, at right angles so that the next sequence won’t be predictable. The editing, for me, at the risk of sounding pretentious, is like writing a novel. It’s not like journalism because I’m not so concerned formally with the “who,” “what,” “when,” “where,” and “why.” I am concerned with that, but in a different way. I’m trying to work out a dramatic structure based on unstaged materials. Whatever form one works in, the abstract issues are the same. Whether you’re a filmmaker or a painter or a novelist or a poet or a playwright or whatever, you’re concerned with dramatic structure, the passage of time, you’re concerned with metaphor, you’re concerned with abstractions. The way you resolve those issues is different in every form, but the general issues are the same. I think about those issues a lot, so that when the film is finished I have to be able to explain to myself why each shot is there, what it’s relationship is to the shot it follows, how the first ten minutes is related to the last ten minutes. All the clichés are true. Even though I first might have arrived at the cut because I dreamt it or thought of it in the shower or paid attention to my associations, I have to be able to tell myself in words why I’ve used it, what its significance is to me. And if the film works, it works because it goes on two tracks simultaneously. It goes on the literal track — who says what to whom, what clothes they’re wearing, what actual words they used. And it goes on the abstract or the metaphoric track — what is the significance of the events in the sequence and the way the sequences are related to each other. And I think that’s true of any movie or any movie that is dealing with a complicated subject in any case.

Have you ever come back from a shoot with all that footage and not been able to make it make sense?

Not yet. Some people may not feel I’ve done it successfully, but I always feel that I’ve been able to do what I wanted to do with the material.

Do you read a lot of fiction?

Yes.

Would you say that there are any novelists who have inspired you or influenced you?

Not really. There are a lot of novels that I like. I’ve said this before, but it has the charm of being true: The best book I ever read about film editing is the Flaubert correspondence with George Sand. They’re talking about writing, but the issues that they’re writing to each other about are the same kinds of issues in a general, abstract way that I’m dealing with. I’m not saying that it’s a literal manual on how to edit, but it’s a manual on how to think about composition. So when they’re writing about writing, I think they’re writing about editing. I can’t say that because of that book, I’ve made this or that cut, but it’s helped me understand the process of what I’m doing.

John Duncan Talbird is the author of the limited edition book of stories, A Modicum of Mankind (Norte Maar) with images by artist Leslie Kerby. His fiction and essays have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Ploughshares, Juked, The Literary Review, Amoskeag, REAL and elsewhere. An English professor at Queensborough Community College, he lives with his wife in Brooklyn.

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