You asked and Fred answered. Friends of Inside Indies and Independent Lens sent questions to legendary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman. Read the Q&A below.
How do you establish your role with your subjects? What do you say when you introduce yourself?
FW: I always make a full disclosure. I explain that the film is being made for public television and that it might be shown theatrically and in other forms, that I will not know the themes or point of view of the film until I am six to eight months into the editing, that I end up using only three percent of the material and that all the sequences I use are much shorter than their original length. I ask the prospective participant if they have any questions and try to answer the questions directly and honestly.
When you were filming Titicut Follies, did you question the ethicality of what you doing—specifically the filming of the inmates stark naked? Did they give informed consent to your filming them?
FW: Most inmates in Titicut Follies gave their consent. For those inmates not capable of giving consent, the superintendent of Bridgewater, as their legal guardian, approved the filming. This was one of the disputed points during the trial. My position was that Bridgewater was a public institution, i.e., supported by taxpayer's money. Public institutions in a democracy are meant to be transparent, open to public inspection. One aspect of public inspection is documentary filmmaking. In the year the film was made, there were also 10,000 visitors to Bridgewater who as part of their tour saw some of the same men naked in their cells. In a democracy the government is not supposed to hide information from the citizens except in cases involving national security. How can citizens do anything about the State abusing its power if the citizens are not allowed to know what is going on and make an effort, if they so wish, to change the conditions? The various scandals at Abu Gharib are a current example of the public’s need to know and receive information from photographs. If the State is responsible for keeping men in the conditions shown at Bridgewater, the citizenry have to have the right to hold the State accountable. This can only happen if the public is informed.
I have been an enormous fan of yours for years. I especially appreciated your film Domestic Violence. What do you feel the impact of "re-enactment" is on documentary filmmaking? What tenets for documentary filmmaking do you hold dear?
FW: I have never done re-enactments. I like to be able to honestly represent that the events in my films took place without intervention on my behalf. I do not know how to assess the "impact of re-enactment on documentary filmmaking." When an event is staged, I think it is important that the filmmaker make clear that the scene is a re-enactment.
How do you see the relationship between your filmmaking and Michael Moore’s?
FW: I do not see any relationship between Michael Moore's filmmaking and mine.
What is the minimum crew and equipment you would shoot with? And have you had any tricky lighting situations you've had to overcome?
FW: There are three of us in the crew for a documentary. The equipment is a 16mm Aaton camera, a Nagra IS tape recorder or a Fostex and Sennheiser microphones. The sequences are rarely lit since that would interfere with the spontaneity of the event. Occasionally a light bulb is changed, probably fewer than ten times in 39 years. The films are always shot with available light and sometimes the development of the negative has to pushed in the lab.
I wonder if you could talk just a bit about fundraising for documentaries—always difficult even during good economic times. You have done important work for decades now. How has the funding environment changed? What advice would you give to emerging documentarians about fundraising?
FW: It is more difficult to raise money now than it was in the 1960's and 1970's. The costs of filmmaking have increased, there are fewer funding sources and there are more filmmakers. The only advice I have for emerging documentarians is not to go to far into debt. Most documentaries do not return their production costs.
Why do you always shoot and edit on film instead of using video or digital technology?
FW: I think that film looks better than video or digital images. I also like editing film. There is something about handling film that pleases me.
How has your technique evolved throughout your career?
FW: I like to think I have learned something over the years and whatever I think I have learned I apply to the next film. I have found editing my own films most useful in this regard, since when I have struggled to find a solution to an editing problem in one film, I tend to remember on the next shoot to get the material which would have avoided the problem on the previous shoot.
Do you work with direct sound and music in your documentaries? How much do you actually edit and manipulate sound?
FW: The sound is edited at the same time as the picture. The sequences in the film are all synchronous sound. The times when this is not true are when in the course of editing a sequence I cut away from the speaker, and the viewer sees a photograph of someone else in the room reacting to the words of the speaker. Also, if a scene ends with music that music may be carried over the beginning of the next scene as a way of making the cut not too abrupt. Similarly, if the next scene begins with traffic noise, the traffic may begin under the music of the first scene for the same purpose, i.e., not to make the arrival of the traffic too abrupt and to help create the illusion, however momentary, that one scene leads naturally to the next.
How much shooting do you do in a day? How much is devoted to research, watching people, or just "hanging out"?
FW: I think over the years the average would be two to three hours of shooting a day; some days much less and occasionally much more. There have been a few days when not more than a half hour was shot and also a few days when as much as six hours was shot. I usually do not do much research. With one exception, it has not been more than a day or two. I consider the shooting of the film the research and discover the themes in the editing. I do not work on the structure until I am seven or eight months into the editing and I have all the possible sequences in some kind of useable form. I then make the first assembly in a few days. The first version of the film is usually 30 to 40 minutes longer than the final film. I work four to six weeks in trimming the assembly and finding the rhythm of the final film.
(An Inside Indies exclusive posted April 28, 2005.)
Poster for Titicut Follies (1967)
"Don't turn your back on this film...
if you value your mind or your life."
Still from Domestic Violence (2002)
Wiseman with actress Catherine Samie
The Last Letter (2002)