The work of legendary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman draws its major inspiration from literature. By Philippa Hawker.

Filmmaker Frederick Wiseman

Filmmaker Frederick Wiseman.
Filmmaker Frederick Wiseman.
Credit: Adrian Toubiana

Frederick Wiseman’s new film begins with a succession of crises. We have to imagine them: we don’t see them or even hear about them directly. Instead we watch telephone operators calmly fielding calls to the City of Boston’s helpline. From their responses we get a sense of what’s at stake: a shooting, a stray dog, a landlord who has turned off the electricity. Stories of need, fear, bewilderment, annoyance, and demands for a remedy.

The importance of storytelling and the relationship between citizens and their government are at the heart of City Hall, an expansive, engrossing documentary that takes us, over the course of four-and-a-half hours, into a city administration and the way it intersects with the lives of its citizens, whether it’s about parking fines, drug-rehabilitation initiatives, an Armistice Day memorial event or an application to open a medical marijuana business.

City Hall is part of the program at the upcoming Melbourne and Sydney film festivals. The rest of Wiseman’s extensive, remarkable body of work – now 91, he has made more than 40 films over the course of almost 60 years – can be found on Kanopy, the free streaming service available to anyone in Australia with a participating library card.

The administration of Boston’s mayor, Marty Walsh, highlights the importance of listening to people’s stories and concerns and responding to them. Walsh himself – now secretary of Labor in the Biden administration – is a storyteller, quick to share his life experiences, good and bad, with the people he serves. Wiseman’s film is a portrait of a complicated, diverse city, a place of history and possibility, hope and absurdity, of streetscapes, skylines, shopfronts and the drama of the everyday.

“I am interested in showing as many aspects of human behaviour as possible in my films,” Wiseman says. “I think it is just as important to show people successfully doing useful and helpful work as it is to show incompetence and cruelty.”

His approach to filmmaking hasn’t changed since the 1960s. His way of working, he says, “probably has something to do with the fact that when I was a lot younger, I wanted to be a writer, but I didn’t write much. Nevertheless, I had a severe case of Hemingwayandfitzgeralditis. I read a lot and know more about novels and poems than I do about the history of movies.”

Wiseman says that when he went to college, he was taught what was then called close reading. “The point was you had to find evidence in the words of the work for whatever you thought about the poem or play,” he says. “I had an interest in form before I started making movies, in the sense that when I read a book or a poem, I always tried to explain to myself why the writer made the choices that they did and how the particular form was created. I brought the experience of close reading to the making of movies rather than a great knowledge of the history of filmmaking.”

He prefers to use the term “film” rather than “documentary”, to think of his works as “structured stories … with some elements in common with feature films and other forms of fiction”. He sets clear boundaries, however. His films do not contain any interviews. There are no voiceovers. He does not use archival footage, dramatic re-creations, explanatory interventions, identifying captions or lines of text of any kind onscreen. There is no additional lighting or music.

Yet to focus on what is absent from a Wiseman film does not do justice to its rich complexity, variety, distinctive rhythms and moments of humour. In a way, close reading is what he asks from his viewers: pay careful attention, make the connections, dig deep, but don’t forget to enjoy the ride. The more of his films you see, the more connections between them you recognise; they are works that speak to each other in unexpected ways.

Wiseman made his first documentary, Titicut Follies, when he was in his late 30s. He had been working as a lecturer at Boston University School of Law and would take his students on field trips into places where their clients might end up if lawyers didn’t do their jobs. One place he visited several times was a correctional institution for the criminally insane in Bridgewater, Massachusetts. He decided he wanted to make a film there and lobbied for 18 months until the superintendent agreed.

Titicut Follies, shot in 1966, is a confronting, mesmerising depiction of the way inmates were treated. The state government, unsettled by the practices it revealed, succeeded in having the film suppressed on the grounds the inmates’ right to privacy was violated. It wasn’t until 1991 that a judge ruled that it could finally be shown to audiences.

In the meantime, Wiseman, undeterred, pressed on with making films. There is a kind of designated space in every work, a setting of some sort: it could be a police department, a high school, a domestic violence shelter, a small town, a cultural institution, a large store, a research centre for primates. Some are relatively short, many extend past two or three hours. His longest, Near Death, a study of dying patients in an intensive care unit at a Boston hospital, is almost six. He has also travelled outside America, filming in locations in Paris, London, the Sinai Peninsula and the Panama Canal.

Wiseman negotiates conditions of access and insists on editorial control, although people can opt out before, during or immediately after filming. He spends very little time in advance in his chosen setting: as far as he is concerned, the shooting is the research. In a film such as City Hall, spread over many potential locations, he has to make daily decisions about where he will go, what he will cover and what activity he will attend. “I have tried to be, for lack of a better word, open to the experiences I have in shooting the film,” he says. “I’ve learnt to trust my instinct about where to go, and sometimes it’s right and sometimes it’s wrong. But I’ve learnt to trust it and to let it take me where it directs me.”

He has always travelled light when he shoots. “There are just three of us in the crew. I direct and do the sound. I have worked principally with two excellent photographers: John Davey for 40 years, and before that Bill Brayne,” he says. “The third person on the crew is an assistant who provides general help. With just the three of us, there’s a lot of work, but it’s a fun way to make a movie.”

He recalls years ago visiting the set of Tootsie, the 1982 comedy starring Dustin Hoffman, where a friend was working as a stills photographer. “And there were 220 people shooting the scene! The difference in quality between what you get with 220 people for that particular scene and what you get with three people is not very much.”

Wiseman edits his films himself, spending between 10 months and a year on the task. He begins by pulling together and distilling sequences and scenes from hours upon hours of rushes. Shooting digitally, which he has done since 2010, hasn’t really affected the amount of footage he draws on or how he edits. “The search for the form is what’s involved. That’s what interests me in the editing. It’s the old bromide about finding the statue under the stone. I’m finding the film among the rushes,” he says.

“I hope I edit in such a way that the events are self-explanatory. I have to feel that I understand why I choose each shot, the placement of each sequence and the relationship each sequence has to the scene that precedes and follows it – how the first 10 minutes of the film is related to the last 10 minutes of the film. I only know the film is finished when I can give myself a complete verbal explanation as to why each shot is in the film and why I’ve selected the particular order of the shots.”

Talking in Interview Magazine about his work, he discussed the inspiration of the poems of Emily Dickinson. He talked about the concision of her language and what it told him about film editing. “Concision is the right word because it’s so compact and, at the same time, so resonant,” he said. “Despite the fact that I make long films, my effort is to achieve the same sort of concision. I mean, I’m in no way suggesting that I succeed, but it’s inspiring to read somebody who does succeed and from whom, in a general way, you can draw examples and nourishment and sustenance.”

Frustrated with the distribution of his early work, he set up his own distribution company, Zipporah Films, in 1971. Producer Karen Konicek is another longstanding collaborator. “Karen is a wonderful, capable and talented person who has run the business side of Zipporah Films since 1981,” Wiseman says. “With her help, I can wander the world and live in Paris and know that everything’s being taken care of.”

He is often thought of as a chronicler of America, but France has played an important part in his life and work. “For the past 15 years, I’ve edited the movies in Paris,” he says. “I like living there. The food’s very good and the city’s beautiful. I first lived there in 1957 to 1958 as a student, going to the theatre and movies almost every day. I was looking for the Abominable Snowman, my fantasy of Paris in the 1920s.”

Alongside his films, he has pursued an interest in making theatre, first in the United States and then in France. He has been a director, writer, and occasionally a performer, beginning in 1986 when he appeared on stage, camera in hand, in a production of Pirandello’s Tonight We Improvise. Among his theatre pieces is an adaptation of a chapter of Vasily Grossman’s World War II novel, Life and Fate, into a monologue, The Last Letter, that has been performed in America and in France at the Comédie-Française.

He also made what he calls a “fiction film”, a cinematic version of The Last Letter with French actor Catherine Samie, who appeared in the stage version and became a friend. Wiseman directed her in a production of Beckett’s Happy Days for the Comédie-Française; in the revival of this production, he took the role of Willy when the original actor was no longer available.

Despite his fascination with theatre and dance, Ballet – his 1995 film about the American Ballet Theater – is technically his first film about performance. Yet, as is always the case with Wiseman, his work eludes neat categories. There have been important performance elements in many films, beginning with Titicut Follies, which takes its name from a yearly variety skit show staged by staff and inmates.

After City Hall, the indefatigable Wiseman has two more films on their way. One is The Couple, a fictional film like The Last Letter, made during Covid-19. “It is a monologue loosely based on the correspondence and diaries of Leo and Sophia Tolstoy,” he says. “I wrote the script with Nathalie Boutefeu, the French actress who performs it. I had previously worked with her on a play based on the letters and poems of Emily Dickinson.”

The other work has a history reminiscent of what happened with the release of Titicut Follies, although the circumstances are very different. The long-awaited The Garden was shot in 1996 in New York’s legendary entertainment venue, Madison Square Garden, but has been caught in legal limbo since its 2004 Sundance premiere. Finally there is an end in sight. “There were some complications with the management of Madison Square Garden which have been resolved. And now it’s a question of the music rights. I’m in the process of getting permission,” Wiseman says. “So I would expect the film to be released some time in the next year.” 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 31, 2021 as "Among the rushes".

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