Fred­er­ick Wiseman

Doc­u­men­tary film­maker, 87

Esquire (Singapore) - - Contents -

Doc­u­men­tary film­maker.

I’ve made 43 doc­u­men­taries so far. Maybe I should make three-minute movies so I can reach 50. That means peo­ple would watch them on mo­bile phones? Oh God, no. I think it’s hor­ri­ble to watch a movie on a phone. It com­pletely de­stroys the qual­ity, the im­age, the sound.

Paris is a beau­ti­ful city. I’ve lived here the last 12 years but I go home to Maine, to my house there, ev­ery July and Au­gust. For a ma­jor city, Paris is very small and you can walk ev­ery­where. I like the ar­chi­tec­ture and I like the dif­fer­ent neigh­bour­hoods. I go to the theatre a lot and the bal­let a lot. There’s an in­ter­est­ing in­tel­lec­tual life here in which I par­tic­i­pate to some small ex­tent. And the food’s re­ally good.

I have no idea why peo­ple are say­ing that now is a “golden age” for doc­u­men­taries. A lot of the new movies I see, doc­u­men­tary and fic­tion, are ter­ri­ble.

In Maine, I live in an old barn on top of a lit­tle hill, with a big blue­berry field below. I go into the field with my chil­dren and grand­chil­dren and pick blue­ber­ries. There’s noth­ing to do but ride my bike, pick blue­ber­ries with my chil­dren and grand­chil­dren, and eat lob­ster.

I was very pleased The New York Times picked my movie In Jack­son Heights [2015] as one of the 25 best films of the 21st cen­tury. Of­ten doc­u­men­taries are con­sid­ered not in the same class as fic­tion films, but the crit­ics of the Times recog­nise that doc­u­men­taries are also movies, and that’s nice.

I like my films to be seen by a wide au­di­ence, but in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t mat­ter. I don’t want to di­lute ma­te­rial to reach a wide au­di­ence. If you do that, it’s ex­tremely con­de­scend­ing to the po­ten­tial viewer be­cause it’s based on the as­sump­tion that the viewer is not in­telligent, sen­si­tive or so­phis­ti­cated. And that is a lot of bull­shit.

My first thought when be­ing shot at was to get out of the way of the bul­lets—I’m not stupid. Mak­ing Law and Or­der [1969], we were rid­ing around in a po­lice car in Kansas City and an­swered a do­mes­tic vi­o­lence call. A fa­ther and a son were shoot­ing at each other. Our ar­rival im­me­di­ately solved their dis­pute be­cause they started to shoot at us. Not very ac­cu­rately, for­tu­nately.

Any mar­riage that en­dures re­quires work. Each has to be at­ten­tive to the other’s needs and in­ter­ests. My wife is very sup­port­ive of my work, and I try to be sup­port­ive of hers.

I was 36 when I made my first film. A late bloomer. I did it be­cause I didn’t like what I was do­ing. I’d gone to law school and was teach­ing law. I was bored out of my mind.

Mak­ing one of these movies is like parachut­ing into a new coun­try. I got to spend six weeks in a wel­fare cen­tre in New York [ Wel­fare, 1975], a cou­ple of months in a ju­ve­nile court in Ten­nessee [ Ju­ve­nile Court, 1973], and ride around the coun­try­side in West Ger­many near the Czech bor­der in a tank [ Ma­noeu­vre, 1979]. It may sound ado­les­cent of me, but it’s fun to ride around in tanks, and the back of po­lice cars [ Law and Or­der] or hang out with mod­els in New York while I’m mak­ing a movie about a model agency [ Model, 1980]. I get a chance to ob­serve and, to a cer­tain ex­tent, par­tic­i­pate in other worlds and think about the ex­pe­ri­ence in the fol­low­ing year when I’m try­ing to make a movie out of the ma­te­rial. It beats work­ing for a liv­ing.

My mother would get home from work or shopping and im­i­tate peo­ple. It was like hav­ing my own theatre at home. She only needed 20 sec­onds to get some­one’s ex­pres­sions and ges­tures down cold. She was very, very funny. That may have had some influence in me be­com­ing a doc­u­men­tary film­maker, hav­ing a mas­ter come­di­enne in the house show­ing me hu­man be­hav­iours.

Iam­some­one who nei­ther likes to re­ceive or give ad­vice. I’m very wary of giving ad­vice. My an­swer to young film­mak­ers ask­ing for my ad­vice is: marry rich.

If I have any re­grets, I am cer­tainly not go­ing to tell you what they are. They’re pri­vate. Of course I have re­grets. I’ve never met any­one who talks se­ri­ously or di­rectly about their life who didn’t say they have re­grets. As the cliché goes, I’m a pri­vate per­son, and you may find that strange in some­one who shows as­pects of other peo­ple’s pri­vate lives. It’s not strange, it’s para­dox­i­cal.

Stop work­ing? Oh God, that would be hor­ri­ble. I’ve seen too many peo­ple I know when they stop work­ing get sick or they died. And I like to work. I don’t find it a strain. Apart from rais­ing the money, the rest of it gives me a great deal of plea­sure. As long as I’m phys­i­cally and men­tally up to it, I don’t see any rea­son to stop. In fact, work­ing will keep me men­tally and phys­i­cally alert longer than if I stopped work­ing.

My younger self would be sur­prised at the life I’ve made for my­self. My older self is cer­tainly sur­prised. It’s hard, but ex­tremely in­ter­est­ing work. I’ve lucked out.

I’m a great fan of the Marx Broth­ers. Duck Soup [1933] and A Day at the Races [1937] I could watch end­lessly and still laugh. I also like Wes An­der­son’s movies and Paul Thomas An­der­son, who made Boo­gie Nights [1997]—that is a great movie.

Would I let some­one film me while I made a movie? Ab­so­lutely of course not. You knew the an­swer to that ques­tion be­fore it was asked.

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