Frederick Wiseman has been making his brand of long, implicitly narrative documentaries about institutions for almost 50 years, and I’ll be damned if his most recent, National Gallery, isn’t among his very finest. The movie, which opens today at New York’s Film Forum, examines the London art museum after which it is named from inside out—we see scenes of its patrons looking at art, its guides explaining the art, its administration discussing how to properly share the art with the public, its restorers showing how they preserve the museum’s priceless pieces. It is a calmly brilliant, regularly fascinating three-hour look at what constitutes art and how to best share it.
I spoke with Wiseman last year when he was promoting At Berekley, but there was no way I was going to turn down the chance to talk to the master documentarian again. We talked in the Film Forum office yesterday, and I found him as pragmatic and matter-of-fact as his movies. Below is a lightly edited and slightly condensed version of our chat.
Frederick Wiseman: Yeah, the reviews are pretty good. I have no objection. They’re great.
Is that a thrill?
Of course I like it. Why wouldn’t I like it if somebody likes the films? Despite what some people say, that they don’t read reviews, that they don’t care, I think everybody cares. Of course you like good reviews. There’s a difference between a reasoned bad review and an intemperate bad review. If it’s a reasoned bad review, you might learn something. What there seems to be recognition of in National Gallery so far is what I describe as the literal and the abstract. Maybe it’s because it’s nominally a movie about paintings, but I always think, whether it’s my film or somebody else’s film, when it works, it works because there’s that relationship between what’s going on in the sequence, the literal aspects of the sequence, and what’s suggested not only by the individual sequence but by the choice in the order of the sequences, which I think is often more abstract. It requires, as they say, thought. I’m very conscious of that when I’m cutting and I don’t think a film works unless that dual track is present.
Would you right now for me go as far as to make literal the abstract things you’re referring to in National Gallery?
I think there are a lot of ideas that are suggested and, to some extent, explored. The whole issue of comparative forms, for example. How you tell a story in a movie, a painting, a poem, a play, a dance. What’s involved in seeing. How do you read a painting? The way words are used to describe nonverbal forms.
I think art accessibility is a huge theme in this movie. It’s introduced toward the beginning.
The sequence in the film between the director of the gallery and the head of communications [introduces the notion of] what’s the role of the public art gallery to interest the general public. The director takes the view that he’d rather have an interesting failure than a mediocre success. The woman who’s the head of communications is talking about, “Well, you have to find out what the public wants, etc.” In a sense, it’s in part related to the traditional issue of Hollywood movies, because the effort is always to reach the largest number of people, which means the film has to be oriented most of the time toward the lowest common denominator. I find that idea extremely condescending, but you see those different points of view played out in film. By putting that sequence early in the film, from my point of view, it [indirectly] asks the viewer of the film to look at the sequences they subsequently see in relation to those two different points of view.
I couldn’t help but feel a greater sense than usual of the interplay between your process and your subject. The issues in this movie seem pertinent to what you do.
We’re watching people look, and we’re watching them through your lens. During that sequence you just mentioned, the director of communications says, “People don’t quite understand what we do and what we have,” and it seems like part of the movie’s job is to explain that exactly.
Yes, and you see in the following parts of the movie the efforts that the museum is presently making to help the general public understand what the collection is and you can make up your own mind whether they are doing a good job.
Did you agree with the director? Would you rather have an interesting failure than a mediocre success?
Your movies are interested in communicating, but you are not making blockbusters.
I’m not laying it out. I’m avoiding didacticism and I’m avoiding prescriptions.
And you pay the price for that, in a certain way.
Yeah, but it’s a price I willingly pay.
I think that’s always the question when you’re attempting to be heard: to what extent do you negotiate the people’s capacity to hear with what you’re putting out?
It’s particularly interesting when the argument is made in relation to a place like the National Gallery because the paintings exist. The paintings can’t be changed. A Hollywood studio puts electrodes in an audience’s head and if they don’t like the ending because the brainwaves aren’t sufficiently excited, they can change the ending. But the issue isn’t changing Rembrandt. The issue is are there better or more successful ways of educating people about Rembrandt. So it’s not exactly the same issue.
Do you keep up with Hollywood?
Not at all?
No, I don’t go to the movies very much. Any movies. I see about three or four movies a year. It’s not because I don’t like to go to the movies, I do, it’s because I work all the time. I travel a lot and I like to get out and go skiing, and blah blah blah.
Last time we talked, I asked how age has affected your process. Any updates?
I don’t think it’s affected the process. I like to think I’ve learned something, so in that respect age has helped. I have to be very careful to stay in good shape in order to do the movies. It requires a lot of physical effort. So I pay a lot of attention to staying in shape.
What do you do?
I ride an Exercycle everyday for 40 minutes. I lift weights—not very heavy weights, but weights nevertheless. And I do stretches. I exercise for about an hour and a half every morning. It’s good for my physical health, it’s good for my mental health, but I couldn’t do the movies [without it]. You can’t run around all day long and try and make some judgments about what you’re doing if you’re tired.
Had you envisioned working into your 80’s?
I hadn’t thought about it. I always thought I’d work as long as I could, and so far it’s OK. But I occasionally recognize how old I am. I try not to.
What about the notion that artists peak? You haven’t.
Any generalization about anything...artists peak, I mean, some artists peak, some artists never peak.
Do you feel accomplished?
I’m pleased with what I’ve done. I don’t know if I’d use the word “accomplished,” but I’ve had a really interesting career. Interesting for me. I’ve had a very good time doing it. I love what I’m doing, and I still approach it with the same obsessive quality that I always did.
Through your job, you’ve balanced variation with routine so well.
It’s true, if by variation you mean I’ve picked different subjects. It’s one of the nice things about making these movies. I get to travel a lot, I get to see a wide variety of human behavior, and I get to think about it. While the technique is basically the same, the subject matter is very different. I’ve said this before, but I believe it: It’s like a course in adult education where I’m the alleged adult and I get to study something new every year, which is fun. It is interesting.
Do you do a lot of research before a movie?
No. I usually spend a day at the place before, because the shooting is the research. I really believe that. Since I don’t stage anything, I don’t like to be there observing and not be able to shoot it. At least if I’m not there, I don’t know what I missed. All I try to do in advance is get a sense of the geography of a place and the daily routine, which is pretty easy to get. And then, I just start hanging around.
Every movie, then, is a risk.
It’s always a risk.
Because what if you just don’t get material that you find sufficiently interesting?
Yeah. The model is Las Vegas. Each movie is a roll of the dice, and that’s part of the fun. Part of the fun is being surprised. Part of the fun is learning something new. And part of the fun is taking the risk. And it’s also related to the idea that if you knew what you were going to find, why do it? It’s the anticipation or expectation of surprise that’s one of the things that keeps you going. It keeps you wanting to learn. It keeps you coming back, day after day. Each movie is an adventure. I don’t know anything about the place to begin with, and then I start spending time there and I learn something about the routine and I meet people and I’m exposed to experiences that I personally haven’t had.
Well, I don’t think of myself that way, but it’s nice of him to say.
It’s true. Objectively speaking, you could make a Wiseman documentary about Wiseman documentaries.
Do you ever think about the fact that you haven’t ever been nominated for an Oscar?
Well, I’m aware of it, but I mean, I’d be surprised if I ever was.
Look at the movies that have won Oscars.
I read that your breakthrough movie, Titicut Follies, is being made into a ballet. [Film synopsis from Wiseman’s website: “The film is a stark and graphic portrayal of the conditions that existed at the State Prison for the Criminally Insane at Bridgewater, Massachusetts. Titicut Follies documents the various ways the inmates are treated by the guards, social workers and psychiatrists.”]
Yes. There’s a new Center for Ballet and the Arts at NYU, run by Jennifer Homans, who’s a former dancer and dance writer. She wrote a great book about the history of dance called Apollo’s Angels. She gave me a grant—that’s why I’m in New York this fall—to work with a choreographer whose name is James Sewell to adapt Titicut Follies into a ballet. It was my idea, and I was interested in doing it as a result of doing two ballet films, which is an expression of my interest in ballet. I go to the ballet a lot. I very often like the dancers. I don’t very often like the so-called storyline, particularly with modern contemporary ballet. They’re always about relationships. There’s nothing wrong with relationships but there is something else going on in the world. The idea of doing a ballet based on the Follies is to see whether you can use this classical form to deal with people who’ve committed some of the worst crimes imaginable and the way they’re kept in prison. That’s the idea. It remains to be seen whether it will work or not, but it’s interesting. It’s interesting for me to work on. It’s different. I like being around dancers. It’s also an expression of my interest in comparative forms. I figure I’ve got nothing to lose. I mean, I never think I have anything to lose, but I like the idea of seeing what, if anything, can be done with this idea.
It’s a fascinating prospect, adapting a documentary into a ballet.
Well, I don’t want the ballet to be a literal rendering of the movie. The sequences we choose [from the movie] will be starting-off points. They may be, to some extent, recognizable as sequences from the movie. What we’re trying to do is what you can’t do in a movie, for example in any documentary you’re limited by what you find, if you don’t coach or intervene. But in a ballet, you can suggest what might be going on inside the head or the body of the inmate or guard. So you have access to a different part of the story.
I know that you like to use the word “fair” to describe your sensibility, but as fair as you are, your presence is never less than noticeable.
Oh yeah, it’s not fair in the sense of 50/50. It’s fair in the totally subjective idea of what I think of as fair. It’s a very self-serving term that I use.
In general, is making movies self-serving?
It’s not self-serving in the sense that my ego is involved in a way of wanting to draw attention to myself.
No ego at all?
Oh, I don’t say no ego at all, but I would be making a different kind of movie if the idea was to become a star or somebody featured in People magazine.
It still must feel pretty damn good to wake up and be Frederick Wiseman.
You may not believe it, but I don’t think about that. I mean, I just like the idea that I wake up.