Frederick Wiseman’s new film, “Monrovia, Indiana,” his forty-fourth feature, opens this Friday at Film Forum. It’s an event in itself—a documentary revelation of frozen lives and dead souls in the American heartland—and it’s also another piece in the grand mosaic of modern life that Wiseman has been composing for more than half a century. Wiseman has the most distinguished career of any documentary filmmaker in the history of cinema. Since 1967, he has been making films at the pace of nearly one a year—many running more than four hours—and it’s all the more remarkable that he didn’t get started in the first flush of film-school youth. Rather, he was working as a law-school professor when he decided to make films, and this ample experience, along with his background in literature and theatre, provided the aesthetic and intellectual energy for an original method that he has pursued, radically and steadfastly, to this day. His sense of cinematic form and his insistent investigation of institutions—whether the neighborhood archipelago of the New York Public Library, the boundaries of a town, or the confines of a hospital—make him one of the most original, and most theoretically minded, of modern directors. When I spoke with him at The New Yorker Festival, on October 6th, we discussed his new film and other highlights of his career, his distinctive practices, his ideas and principles, and the opposition that he has confronted in realizing his vision.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
I’d like to start talking about the new film. Monrovia, Indiana is a county where the 2016 elections went seventy-six per cent for Trump. And when I saw the subject of the film, I knew it wouldn’t be what it might have become in the hands of another filmmaker—namely, a cinematic stereotype of white men in diners wearing trucker hats, talking about why they voted for Trump. How did you find Monrovia?
I was talking to a friend of mine in Boston who teaches law, and I told her I want to do a movie about a small town in the Midwest. The only other film I had made in the Midwest was about a Chicago housing project. And she said she had a friend who taught at the University of Indiana Law School, in Bloomington, whose family had lived in the same small town, namely Monrovia, for six generations.
By chance, I was showing some movies at the University of Indiana, in Bloomington, a couple of weeks later. So, I called this man up and told him what I wanted to do. And he said, come a day early and I’ll take you to Monrovia. And he introduced me to his cousin who was the town undertaker, and we had our first meeting in the cemetery. And, you know, she knew everybody, because everybody was a potential client.
And she agreed to help me. And she called up the head of the school board, the head of the police department, the fire department, talked to the owners of the restaurants and the principal businesses, other businesses in town. And then gave me a list of the people I should contact, and I called them. She paved the way for me. I started shooting the film about six weeks after that.
Was your choice of going to the Midwest related to the election? Had you been thinking in a political way?
Well, you know, I had made movies in seventeen states. I had made a couple other movies about small towns—I had one in Maine and one in Colorado and one in the Canal Zone. And since small towns, as the cliché goes, are the backbone of America, or were, I thought it would be interesting.
While you were in Monrovia, did you feel something like the ugliness of the political mood?
No, I didn’t feel anything about the ugliness of the political mood because nobody talked politics, either when we were filming or when we were just hanging around.
Their principal topics of conversation are some of the things you see in the film. They talked about high school. High school was the most important experience for many people. What happened to their classmates. Who was sick. Who had died. They talked about farms. And they talked about farm equipment and automobiles. And family.
Did you have the impression that they were censoring themselves in your presence?
I don’t think so. You know, politics was just not part of the daily routine. And there is no overt political conversation in the movie as a result. But perhaps the movie has political implications. I made a movie the year before about the New York Public Library, and Trump made that movie a political movie because the library represents everything that he’s against and doesn’t understand: science, education, learning, the role of immigrants in American society, diversity, openness, culture. It’s a political movie, thanks to Trump.
Well, in a way, all of your films are political. One of the things that strikes me about your career, and that I was unaware of when I first started watching your movies, is that you were a lawyer by training.
Well, my little joke about law school is that I was physically present.
But you did teach law, too.
Yes, but I have no idea why they hired me. I didn’t last very long.
But, in a way, one of the distinguishing characteristics of a Frederick Wiseman film is that it’s almost a, sort of, X-ray—it’s as if you were looking at society and seeing, in a way, through the surfaces of social interactions to see the gridwork of laws and rules that underpin and structure it. And, at the same time, there’s a strong element of performance in your films. People have a, sort of, natural theatrical bearing in the presence of your camera.
Right. But I also think there’s just a lot of performance in daily life, unrelated to filmmaking. I mean, if you’re lucky enough, when you’re making one of these movies, you come across absolutely spectacular exchanges between people which are as funny, as sad, as tragic as things in great literature. And I don’t invent them. I don’t write them. But I’m fortunate enough to be there when they occur and to recognize and, I hope, know how to use them in a film.
In fact, what originally motivated me to make films in this style was the recognition, or the beginning of the recognition, of that aspect of ordinary experience.
Well, you were teaching law when you decided first to produce a film, based on Warren Miller’s novel, “The Cool World.”
I had the idea to make a movie out of “The Cool World,” and I had no experience. So, I asked Shirley Clarke to direct it. And working on that film completely demystified the process of filmmaking for me. I basically thought, after what I observed, that I could make a film, too.
Your first film as a director was a documentary, “Titicut Follies,” about Bridgewater Prison for the Criminally Insane, in Massachusetts. What brought you to this facility?
When I was teaching I took the students on field trips to trials and prisons and mental hospitals, probation-board hearings. And one of the places I took them to is Bridgewater, because I wanted them to see where their clients might end up if they didn’t represent them properly.
I still remember my first visit there, because I had never seen a place like that before. And when I decided to try and make a movie of my own, Bridgewater occurred to me as a subject because I was interested in documentary and the new technologies made it possible to make a movie about a place like Bridgewater. I asked the superintendent, whom I knew, whether he would give me permission. And he gave me permission. But then it took a year and a half to get permission from the other state authorities. And while I was making the film that became “Titicut Follies,” I had the idea of doing a series of films on other institutions. And it seemed to me that the appropriate second film after a prison for the criminally insane was a high school.
But you mentioned new technologies. Do you mean the access to synchronized sound, 16-mm. equipment?
Well, the big breakthrough was the person that figured out how to run the camera and the tape recorder at the same speed, twenty-four frames a second, which meant that the camera and the tape recorder no longer had to be linked by a cable. So, it gave you enormous flexibility and you could move around very quickly without tripping over each other.
And it opened up the world as a subject. And because it was relatively fast film negative and you could move quickly, you could make a film on any subject as long as there was available light.
Were you interested in or inspired by the work of other documentary filmmakers who were working in that mode at the time, like Robert Drew or the Maysles brothers?
Yes, a little bit. I saw a film called “Mooney vs. Fowle,” about two high-school football teams getting ready for a championship game in Miami. And I think that was produced by Drew. And that sort of made me aware of the possibilities.
“Titicut Follies” ran into some difficulty with the law. After the film was made, you weren’t able to show it publicly. How come?
Well, the state asserted that I had breached an oral contract giving the commissioner of corrections, the superintendent, and the attorney general right of censorship. Then they said the film was an invasion of privacy of one inmate who was shown naked in a cell being taunted and slapped by the guards. And then they said the third charge was that the receipts of the film should be held in trust for the benefit of the inmates. But since there were no receipts, that wasn’t a serious issue.
There was a trial in the Massachusetts Superior Court, and the judge found against the film and described it as a “nightmare of obscenities.” When the film finally opened, twenty-three years later, I was very tempted to put on the marquee of the theatre, “A Nightmare of Obscenities,” hoping that it would attract another kind of audience. I appealed to the Massachusetts Supreme Court, which said the film had value. But it could only be seen by limited audiences.
Then, five or six years later, there was a new attorney general, who was willing to modify the restraining order, so the film began to be shown a bit in schools and colleges, but not on television or in theatres. And that lasted until about 1986 or 1987, when the judge in the first case died and there was a headline in the Boston Globe, “ ‘Titicut Follies’ Judge Dead.” And I wasn’t displeased to see that obituary.
That’s a brief version of the story.
What’s extraordinary is that the subject of the film is of pressing public concern, given that the general public is, so to speak, at risk of being sent to Bridgewater. In other words, it’s part of the judicial process. So, you would think that an informed electorate should, in fact, be able to see “Titicut Follies” in order to know exactly what’s being done by the government in their name.
Well, the general public is living in Bridgewater now.
Yes. And, fortunately, you are still documenting what’s going on in Bridgewater.
Vocabulary cleansing: you don’t like the word “documentary.”
No, because it’s a bit neutral and, to me, it’s like a prescription. It may be a memory from my childhood, but, you know, you were supposed to see documentaries because they were good for you, and they would improve you. So, I don’t like it, nor do I like “observational cinema” or “fly-on-the-wall” cinema. I like to think I’m somewhat more conscious than a fly. A documentary film is made up of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of choices. It requires an effort at thought.
What does it mean to direct a documentary?
Choose the subject matter. Pick out what gets shot. How it gets shot. And edit it.
Your crew is three people.
Three of us, right. I direct, and I do the sound, and I edit.
So, you’re on location with a microphone in your hand and a tape recorder stuck to your back?
Let’s look at the next clip from the film “Hospital.” This is from the Metropolitan Hospital in New York. And in the emergency room, people are coming in in very bad shape.
Well, there are all kinds of conditions, from very minor to the most serious.
So, you had no journalistic background, per se.
Not at all.
But in the presence of virtually combat-like situations, you keep an extraordinary concentration.
I suppose that’s a reflection of my so-called personality and my interest in making movies. Because I think that I’m there not to make new friends or to intervene but I’m there to make a movie.
Yes. For instance, there’s a film you made right after called “Law and Order,” in Kansas City, Missouri. And there’s one scene that I keep coming back to. It’s one of the most harrowing things I’ve even seen in a film, in which a woman is being arrested. She’s found hiding from the police in a basement.
She was accused of prostitution, but when she was fleeing another officer she had been accused of assaulting him. And when the arresting officer drags her up from the basement, he doesn’t handcuff her. He chokes her. And he is literally choking her on camera.
I watched that sequence and I’m astounded at your ability to film it calmly.
Well, you know, I like to think if the choking had continued another ten seconds, I would have intervened. But, of course, that’s a pious and easy thing to say since I didn’t have to.
I’m glad you mention that, because I use that sequence for the obvious reasons, to illustrate the existence of police brutality. But I also use it as an illustration of why I think the camera doesn’t change behavior.
Because I thought we would be shooting at night, I had an artificial light with me that day, called a sun gun. We went to the basement, I turned the sun gun on, and the police found the woman under some rickety old furniture. They dragged her out, and one of them started to strangle her, and he keeps his arm around her neck for twenty to thirty seconds. And when he lets her go, she turns to the other policeman who was holding her arms behind her back, saying, “He was trying to strangle me.” And the other policeman says, “Oh, no, you were just imagining it.”
And you could argue that if we hadn’t been there, the policeman would’ve killed her. But I don’t think that was the case. One of the policemen says, later in the sequence, “Don’t fuck with one of our boys. If you get picked up for prostitution, stay calm. We’ll take you down to the station house. You pay a fine of fifty dollars. You’ll be fingerprinted, photographed, and you’ll be out on the street again in half an hour. But don’t screw around with us.”
So, the policeman who strangled her was behaving in a way that he thought was appropriate for the situation that he was in. And I think it’s characteristic of most of us that we act in ways that we think are appropriate, but our own evaluation isn’t necessarily that of someone observing our behavior.
Let’s look at the next clip which was from the film, “Welfare,” also made in New York.
What I try to do in all the films is to suggest the complexity. Not to simplify the material in the service of any particular ideology. In “Welfare,” for example, you see situations where the welfare worker is being a bit impatient. But also the client is being very demanding, out of an understandable frustration. But in other sequences, you see clients lying, and you get some sense of welfare as a bureaucracy, where the people who run it are trying very hard to administer a very complex set of rules. And the rules have to be complex because there has to be accountability for the money distributed.
So, the film, rather than simply taking what I view as a simpleminded point of view which would show only the insensitivity toward the welfare client, it also gives a sense of what it’s like to be a welfare worker, administering a complex set of rules which are there, basically, for the protection of the taxpayer.
You never do interviews on camera.
Well, I have nothing against interviews. It’s not a style that I like for me. I think Marcel Ophuls is one of the great documentary filmmakers, “The Sorrow and the Pity” and “Hotel Terminus” being two magnificent examples, and he does nothing but interviews. So, I mean, it’s a personal choice. I don’t think it’s the right choice for me.
And you’re never on camera.
I’m never on camera, no. No. I mean, the technique is more novelistic than it is journalistic for me. That’s the shorthand way of describing it.
You have made forty-four features in the last fifty years—you’ve made your living as a filmmaker. You haven’t made TV commercials, like the Maysleses, or corporate films. Was that part of the actual strategy of retaining rights to your work?
Yes, because I was naïve and I thought it might work. And I was lucky. I make a living, really, on the films because I own the films outright—which means I also own the ancillary rights, the VOD, DVD, whatever rights exist. So, it’s hard to raise the money for them. But the fact that I’m the sole owner of the films makes it possible for me to make a living off the films and continue to work.
When you look back over the choice of subjects that you’ve approached throughout the years, do you have a sense that they were influenced by the circumstances of the times? Were there certain movies that happened during the Reagan Administration that wouldn’t have happened if Reagan wasn’t President?
Sometimes. I mean certainly now, it’s impossible not to have Trump in mind because he so dominates the scene, unfortunately. And it’s so awful. But other times, no. It’s a bit of a lottery choice of subject matter.
For example, in 1978, I was sitting in the dentist office reading People magazine, which is the only place I will admit to reading People magazine. And there was an article about a model agency. So I called up a couple of model agencies, and I got permission from two and I picked one.
One of the things that’s so nice about “Model” is it’s made in New York. It’s very much a film about, you know, the infrastructure of beauty—the number of systems that it takes to take one picture that gets published in a magazine.
A film that, for me, seems now even more political than it did at the moment it was released a few years ago is your film “In Jackson Heights.” I confess, when I first saw the title of your film “In Jackson Heights,” I said to myself, you know, “In Jackson Heights,” I said, what’s in Jackson Heights? And what’s in Jackson Heights is a community of extraordinary diversity of exactly the sort that’s right now horrifically under fire.
“In Jackson Heights”
One of the remarkable things in seeing “In Jackson Heights,” in relation to other films of yours, is how certain themes seem to keep coming up. Not because you’re putting them there but because they come up in American society.
One of the things we see in “In Jackson Heights” is scenes that now strike me with fear when I watch them. There are undocumented immigrants who speak very freely about their experiences of coming over, their experiences of trying to create a life for themselves here. And I can’t watch that film now without dread, worrying about what’s happening to, specifically, the people in the film.
Yes, if ICE is going to go after them—there wasn’t a risk when I made the film, but it’s certainly a risk now.
Yes. What led you to Jackson Heights in the first place?
Well, I wanted to make a film about the new immigrants to America. I mean, new in the sense that my father was an immigrant. He came to America when he was five, in 1890. You know, the accurate cliché is that America is a country of immigrants. I wanted to have a look at the new generation immigrants, and in Jackson Heights, as Danny Dromm, the city councilman from Jackson Heights, says in the film, they speak a hundred and sixty languages.
There are remnants of the earlier generations who are Irish, Jewish, and Italian immigrants. But now there are people from all over South and Central America and from all over East Asia. It seems, to me, equivalent in some ways to the Lower East Side in 1902.
And one of the things you also represent there, or that you find there, is gentrification—essentially, another wave of people coming into the community who are not literal immigrants but who are driving out the actual migrants.
Right, that’s certainly one of the themes of the film, as well. People who are recognizing the value of real estate and trying to buy out small stores and create places for big chains.
There were some community workers who were in a store talking—I think it was a pizza parlor, talking to a man about how to organize various small-business owners. We began to follow them, and that led to a couple of meetings which form a substantial part of the film.
Yes. One of the key things that happens throughout “In Jackson Heights” is that members of the community are organizing. They’re not just chumming. Sometimes people are just chatting the way people chat. But there is an awful lot of, not exactly official, but deliberate, organization for the purpose of bringing people together, sharing experiences and creating particular kinds of change.
Well, there are individuals doing it and there are organizations doing it. There is a great organization called Make the Road New York. And the sequence that you showed was at one of their offices, where they’re devoted to helping recent immigrants.
Generally how much time do you spend time shooting?
It varies. The shortest time has been four weeks and the longest twelve. One of the reasons the shooting takes so long, and that I have to accumulate so much footage—sometimes as little as a hundred hours; in the case of “At Berkeley,” two hundred and fifty, because professors like to talk a lot—is in order to have choice in the editing.
And how do you go through it? How do you get it from the raw material to a finished film?
Basically, you sit in the chair until it’s done. Get fed intravenously and get up ten months later and leave.
But do you have an overall conception of the shape of the film?
Not at all. No, the way it works is this: When I come back from the shoot, a couple of weeks after I come back, I start looking at the rushes. That takes me six to eight weeks. And then, I make notes about what I’m seeing and hearing. At the end of that six to eight weeks, I put aside about fifty per cent of the material. And then, over the next six or eight months, I edit all the sequences that I think I might use in the film. And it’s only when I edited all the so-called candidate sequences in close to final form that I begin to work on the structure. But all the—both the structure and the thematic considerations are something that evolve at the end of the editing, as a consequence of total immersion in the material during the period of the editing.
That’s a peculiar high-risk operation.
Well, you know, I’ve said this before—the model is Las Vegas. You roll the dice and you take a chance. For example, I didn’t know anything about Monrovia. I didn’t know anything about the New York Public Library before I started.
But what I think I’ve learned is what you see in the film. And it’s a consequence of studying the material. And I take the gamble, you’re absolutely right. I take the gamble that I’m going to be able to find the film in the rushes. I mean, it’s the old cliché about the sculptor finding the statue under the stone. But that’s the experience.
When I was in college a long time ago, I was taught what we then called close reading: when you read a poem or a novel and you were discussing it, you had to find evidence for what you were saying in the text. Biographical material or any experiences that you read about the writer were completely irrelevant.
So I learned, at that point, to pay very close attention. And that’s something that’s really helped me. Because without paying close attention, I don’t think I’d be able to find the film under this mound of material.